Will O' the Wisp
by Robert Haseltine
I'm beginning to have my suspicions there is more to Old Bill than meets the eye. Once again as I tried to walk from Two Rivers to Buttermilk Falls in the Arrowhead Country of Minnesota I found myself facing that old log cabin with the two chimneys. I never knew how I got off the beaten trail, but somehow I would wind up looking at that cabin no matter what the season. This time the season was Spring. It was lovely, no denying that. The spring wildflowers were blooming, the birds had come back from their winter hiatus and were singing up a storm, the ice had melted from the lakes, and the swampy areas were becoming lush and green. I shrugged and headed for the cabin. A cursory knock and I entered.
"'Mornin' younker. Glad to see ya' agin. Coffee's in the usual spot and hunter stew in the pot. Grab yourself what you want and grab a seat." I did as directed and was wrapping myself around a bowl of that terrific stew only Old Bill can make, when he asked, "See anythin' interestin' on your way?"
I thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I did. When I was passing the swampy area north of here I saw what looked like a candle shining in one of the darker shadows. I thought I heard someone calling me, but it looked a bit dangerous in there, so I didn't follow it. I sure was curious though."
Old Bill nodded wisely. "Aye. Old Willy is at it again. He usually lays off during the winter, but come Spring he's up to his old tricks. Good thing you didn't follow him. It is dangerous in there."
"Old Willy?" I asked, knowing I had a puzzled look on my face. "Who's Old Willy?"
Old Bill took a little time to light his old corncob, probably to gather his thoughts. He blew a cloud of fragrant smoke, settled back in his chair, and commenced. I settled back in mine to listen. I'd heard too many of his stories to interrupt. "Aye." He nodded and smiled gently, "Old Willy. Now to tell you this story I have to take you back to Old Ireland. There was a canny fellow named William Moriarty. He ran a smithy. He was a blacksmith, you see. Didn't make a lot of money at it, and didn't keep the money he did make. He enjoyed the poteen a bit too much, you see."
"Poteen?" I asked. "What's poteen?"
"Not much Irish in you, is there younker? Well, some call it white lightning, others call it moonshine, others call it the good old mountain dew. It's usually brewed out in the woods someplace, and it has the sense of being able to take the lining right off your tongue, unless you drink it fast enough so it doesn't touch anything but the bottom of your stomach. Then the fumes will burn the lining in your nose on the way back. Anyway, Will enjoyed the poteen made in the area. As he always said, 'The tay they make in the hollow is some of the foinest in the County Cork.' I suspect he would know as he'd tried samples from most of the other counties at one time or another. You go to have your horse shod and he'd offer you some of his 'tay', and like enough it'd take your breath away, and make you think you had fire comin' out your nostrils.
"Anyway, Will caught himself a leprechaun one day and, being a good Irishman, knew enough to hang on and not look away. That little fairy tried every trick he knew to get Will to take his eyes off him, and none of them succeeded. Finally the wee man conceded defeat. ''Tis a hard man ye are, Moriarty.' He said, 'I give up. Sure ye bested me at me own game. I'll grant three wishes to you.'"
"Will nodded, He said, 'Thank ye, yer honor. I'm much obleeged.' I think for me first wish I wish that enyone puttin' his hand to me hammer could never let go until I took it out o' their hand.' The little man nodded. 'Granted.' Sez he. 'What's yer next wish?'
"I wish that anyone but me who sits in me old rockin' chair wouldn't be able to rise until I helped them out o' the chair."
"The little man lifted an eyebrow at that, but granted that as well and asked what next."
"I wish that no one could take money from me purse except me."
"Granted as well." Said the little man, "But William Moriarty, 'tis too bad ye didn't wish for Heaven, for the wishin' o' that would have been much to your benefit." And with that the wee one disappeared. Time went by and Will was wishin' he'd done a bit better with those desires of his. His eyes had been on the things of earth, not of things elsewhere. Still his money went to feed his desire for poteen, and his poor wife had that hard a time puttin' food on the table. One night when he was coming home after havin' a wee drop too much he stumbled in the bog. He felt strong hands lift him up and he found himself on the back of a pooka."
I interrupted. "You've got me there, Bill. What's a pooka?"
"A pooka is sort of a divil tool. He takes on the shape of a horse with horns, or a goat. They can only torment those who are, what shall I say, un-Irish. And Will sure qualified there since he was the most greedy man around, willin' only to share his poteen, but not willin' to share anything else."
"That made him un-Irish?"
Old Bill nodded. "Aye, lad. The Irish have a long tradition of hospitality. No one can be turned away from a bed or meal if they need, or even desire it. Willy sure didn't qualify in those aspects. As I said, he was the most greedy man around.
"Anyway, this pooka began to ride all over the countryside with him and Will was scared witless. Finally he cried, 'Where are ye takin' me?'
"To Satan. He wants you." The pooka answered as he galloped across the moors.
"And where is he?"
"You'll find out soon enough." The pooka answered as he jumped over another hedgerow. Old Bill thought he'd fall off every time the pooka turned, but it was like he was glued to the critter's back. Finally the pooka wound up right at Will's shop where Satan was waitin' for him. It stopped so short Will was dumped over the head of the pooka, right between the horns, and found himself on his knees lookin' up at Satan hisself. Now I tell you Willy was as sober as if he hadn't had a drink but water in the last twenty years. Satan had all the appearance of a handsome gentleman, but Will could see through the disguise. Now Will was even more scared. 'What do you want of me?' he asked.
"Will, me boy, ye've sartinly been a good servant for me all these years and I want to reward you. Now I'm coming to take you seven years from now. But 'til then I'm going to reward ye for all ye've done. Whatever ye want ye'll have for the next seven years, so live it up me boy, and I'll see you then." And with that Satan disappeared in a poof of sulfuric smoke." Old Bill chuckled. "I tell ye, Dan, Old Will was as sober as a judge by that time.
"The next seven years were very good. Will lived it up, but had seen the error of his ways. He became the Irishman to end all Irishmen. Oh, he still loved his poteen, but now his purse never ran out so he built homes he gave to needy people, built a church for them to worship in, brought in storekeepers to sell goods cheaply, and actually founded a town and named it Ballymoney. I believe it is still there."
"The seven years passed and Satan came to collect Will. 'Time's up.' He said. Will nodded and sighed. "It's been a good seven years." He said. "Could ye let me collect a couple things and say goodbye to a friend or so before we leave?" Satan nodded. "Oh, and as a favor, would ye take up me hammer and hammer out a set of horseshoes for me? I promised Bridey Murphy I'd make sure her horse had new shoes by tomorrow."
Satan nodded. "Certainly, my boy. You've been such a good servant I can grant you this last request." He said and picked up the hammer. Will left, went to the local pub and had a couple pints of the black. Then he went away to the next town for a month. Satan gave up on Will and, not being able to get rid of the hammer, went out looking for him. Finally he came back to Will's shop just as Will also came back.
"And where have ye been?" Satan demanded. 'You tricked me into takin' up this blasted hammer, and then ran away. Sure I've tried every which way to get this thing out o' me hand, and none worked. Me hand feels like it's permanent bent into this shape. I need your help. Ye ran out on me ye ken."
"No, sor. I deny that with all me heart. Why I came back twice, and couldn't find ye here either time, so I went out lookin' for ye. I even went over to Ballyjamesduff to see if ye were there. Besides, now, the seven years was up a month ago. I ask ye now, what are we to do about this state of things?"
"Ye're a hard man, Moriarty. Sure I think it's a curse ye have on this stupid hammer. But I can't do a anything with this maul in my hands. Ye've got another seven years."
"Do you swear to God ye'll stand by your word?"
Satan's eyes went wide. "Well now, that is something I cannot do. I'll tell you what. I'll swear by me pride not to go back on me word." So Will, figgerin' that was the best he could do, took the hammer and Satan disappeared with another puff of that evil smellin' smoke. So Will had another seven years on his hands, and treated it much as he had before. He enjoyed his poteen, but was very generous to all those in Ballymoney. Every once in a while, like he had before, he had to make it appear he got his money through legitimate means, so went to blacksmithin' for a while."
"Then Satan showed up again. 'Time's up.' He said in his most terrible voice."
"Will nodded. 'Aye, sor. Sure an' Oi'm ready to go wi' ye. I've a couple little errands to run before we leave it you don'' mind, your honor."
"All right, Moriarty, but none of this 'Will ye make some horseshoes for me?' I remember the last time. Once burned twice shy."
"Oh, no, your honor. I wouldn't think o' doin' sich a thing. I ask ye now, why not sit in my rocker until I get back."
"Bedad now," Sez Satan, "I don't mind if I do." So he sat in the rocker while Will went on about his business. Will was gone for a month again, and during that time, no matter what he did, Satan couldn't stand up. In fact, he couldn't move in any direction but had to sit in the same position for the month. During that entire time he remained invisible to everyone, so it seemed the chair was empty the whole time. In fact, Will's wife sat in the chair to sew and didn't even realize she was sittin' in the lap o' the devil at the time. Finally Will showed up. "And what kept ye here this entire time?" he asked in his most serious tone. "I waited for ye at the pub, figgerin' ye'd know where to find me, and ye never showed up. I hunted for ye in other places too. But divil I, oops, pardon me sor, but I just couldn't find ye anywhere. Now I see ye've been enoyin' me best rocker all this time. Seems to me this pact o' ours is broken."
"Moriarty, if I could get out of this chair ye'd see how badly broken it is, but for the life o' me I can't. I think it has a curse on it, but I can't seem to figger out why I can't lift it. Could ye find it in that Irish heart o' yours to help an old friend?" He paused for a minute waiting for Willy to answer. When he didn't get an answer he added. "In return I'll give ye another seven years."
"Will stood thinking for a moment, then nodded. "Sure an' if ye insist, sor, I'll be happy to take another seven years."
"Done." Satan said in a disgusted voice. "Now help me out of this blasted chair."
"I'll see what I can do, though I make no promises." Will said. He walked over and lifted Satan out of the chair as easy as you please. Once at liberty Satan gave Moriarty a hard look, shook his head, and said, "Ye're a hard man Moriarty. I'll see ye in seven years." Then he disappeared and Will went on about his business of riotous living. He knew that purse would never fail.
Unfortunately, Will forgot a simple thing. He had a kobold that worked making shoes for him and the rest of the family. Now this kobold wore old tattered clothing not fit for a rag bin. After all these years Willy finally saw him, felt sorry for him, and out of the new kindness of his heart had his good wife make a nice set of clothes in his size. Jacket with long tails, knee britches, a jaunty hat with a feather, and striped stockings set the picture. The kobold was that grateful to him. He put on the clothing, looked at himself in the mirror, and said to Moriarty. "It's that thankful I am to ye, old friend. In return I'll take the curse off your purse. From now on it will hold nothing but gold coins." He paused. "Now I've such good clothes I can never work for ye agin, ye know. Goodbye." And he disappeared.
Poor Willy. He had no gold coins, and his purse wouldn't hold anything but gold coins. For the next three years Willy was reduced to actually working in his smithy, and beggin' for bread and potatoes from neighbors he had helped in the past.
Finally the seven years were up. The devil was not going to take any more chances with Will at home so he waited for him in a nearby field. "Come along me boy." He said, and Will, dressed in his rags, walked along with him.
"As they walked they came on this little pub. "Sor." Will said. "It's beholdin' I am to ye for a good life of enjoyment. Still something is missing before I go. In this pub are some of the worst rogues ye've ever seen in all yer life. Sure they've cheated me down through the last seven years, and It's revenge I want.. Now if you'd change yourself into a gold coin so I could put you in my purse they 'd think I was rich and we could pull a nasty trick on them."
"Old Nick was never one to let a nasty trick go by, so he agreed. Will went in the pub and had a few drinks, pretended to be drunk, laid his purse on the table and told them to take what they wanted. Try as they might they couldn't get that gold coin out. The purse wouldn't hold any other coin, but it held onto that one as though it was a prison. Will took the purse, closed it, and left. He used that trick no matter where he went, never drinking enough to get drunk, but giving every appearance of it, and laying his purse out so anyone could take the money. No one could, so he lived very well for the next month."
"Well, the devil got tired of the game, so to get even he changed himself into a gold ingot. Since it was gold he still couldn't get out. Will took him to his blacksmith shop where he picked up a sledge and began trying to shape the ingot while it lay in the purse. He couldn't change its shape in the least. Finally he gave up and used the ingot to get things for himself. So Will took the purse home and put it under his pillow. That night Satan made such a noise sighing, puffing, and fretting that it woke Will's wife."
"She promptly woke him. 'Sure the divil's under the bed.' She whispered in a frightened voice. 'Sure now, if that noise keeps up I'm leavin'."
"Will didn't want that so he said, 'I'll take this purse down to the forge again and give it such a bettering it won't be able to make another noise."
"Once downstairs Satan pleaded, 'Moriarty, let me go and I'll never bother you again. Sure and I promise you that if whiskey don't kill you, you can live until you die."
"Will nodded at that. "Sure that's a deal." He said, and opening his purse he gave the devil his freedom. Now Will lived for a long time after that and when he finally did die he found himself in front of the gates of Hell. He battered on them to be let in. Satan heard it and asked one of the imps who it was. "Its Old Will Moriarty." The imp said, "And he demands admittance."
"Lock and bar the gates." The devil shouted. "That man's a trickster of the worst kind. I won't have him in here to disturb me any further." Well, Heaven wouldn't have Will either, so he wound up back at the gate and this time asked kindly to see Satan. He explained the situation to the devil who took pity on him. "Tell you what, old friend. I don't want you and Heaven won't have you. Here's a candle. We call it a wisp down here. I'll light it and you go back to earth. You'll be able to lure bad and gullible people away from their paths, but the good won't follow. Then, when time ends, we'll see where you're sent."
"So, you see, younker, that were old Will O' the Wisp trying to lure you off the right path. I'm glad to see you're a right honorable feller, and didn't fall for that old liar."
Later, when I got back to Two Rivers I had a few questions about that story, but it was too late. I suspect next time I see Old Bill he'll have another such for me. I've learned you don't take his stories with only a grain of salt, you need about a ton of the stuff. Still, for some reason, I like the old geezer. Fact is, I think I'll get one of those vanity license plates, except I'll have it read 'Old GZR'. I don't think he'll know, but I'll know who it refers to.
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