Many years ago and after midnight on a fine summer night, Joseph Pult, road surveyor to the district, and Anton Klotz, tax collector at Meran, came out of the Kaiser Inn at Unterau along with other late guests. The company stood for some minutes under the shining stars while the door were bolted behind them for the night. After this, singly or by twos and threes, all departed, except Pult and Klotz. They continued an argument just outside the inn, till the landlord thrust his face out of the window above and asked them to move elsewhere so that he should not be disturbed by their noise.
The two walked off sulkily toward Meran, some miles down the Floitental. They tramped along the deserted road. Pult was long and bitter, and Klotz was short and round and reckoned to be the very best of good company.
Pult and Klotz were seasoned bachelors, and had kept up a firm, if bickering, friendship for many years. They were much together.
It had been a boisterous evening at the Kaiser Inn. Since seven o'clock the elders had played at cards or skittles. The younger men had wrestled, and there had been some good bouts and dancing.
All that and the good wine served at the inn, had fired Pult and Klotz. The outside air was fresh and sweet under a sky where bright stars glittered. It was past one when they reached the highest point on their homeward road and began the long walk down into the Floitental. Hemmed in by rugged peaks, the valley widened and rose in great shelves to the foot of the mountains.
As the two tramped along the highway, they could see, on either side, broad stretches covered with ox-eye daisies, pale under the starshine.
"What a fine night!" exclaimed Klotz.
Pult answered: "We are fit for nothing but early hours and a soft bed now."
"Oh! you think so, do you?" answered Klotz. "Let us make a wager of that: Between now and sunrise, we shall walk over to Alber's Pillar, up there on the left. What is more, from the cherry tree next to it, each of us shall gather a hatful of fruit. Afterwards we will walk down to Meran and let the landlord of the Adler decide who of us has picked the worse cherries. The loser of the bet shall spend a meal of rice and peas and fowl cooked with pepper, and two bottles of the best. How is that for an idea? I'm waiting for an answer."
For a moment the lanky fellow did not reply. Alber's Pillar was a tall stone set in a pasture three miles to the southwest. Near it, oddly enough, grew a cherry tree that bore a great load of frui in the season- However, the crop was never touched save by birds or insects, because of a dreadful spirit called Alber. This monster showed himself at times as a vast, fiery shape, winging through the gorge that led to the Zillertal. Whenever he appeared like that, some misfortune, such as war, plague, or famine, would follow. At night he haunted the stone pillar and attacked anyone he found near it.
As for the fruit of the tree, all who ate of it suffered violent pains and rarely escaped with life. Everybody dreaded the place and avoided getting near it. Many declared they had heard the rush of great wings, loud as a storm gust, and had seen a huge, shadowy shape glide swiftly through the gloom.
Remembering these reports, Pult's pale face grew paler, but he would not withdraw. He growled. "I wondered how should get you home if you faint with fright if we should hear a bat squeak. I accept the bet."
Klotz stared at him. He had never dreamed that his challenge would be taken up, but now he felt he must carry through the thing or endure his companion's sneers afterwards, for a long, long time.
With an effort he pulled himself together. "And now," he added, "off we go for an hour's walk. When we get there, it will be pitch dark, and we will have to rely on touch or luck and later see who picks the best fruit."
Pult did not answer. They followed the road for some distance, then struck off leftwards, along pastures. Often they stumbled in the darkness. In the end, however, they came safely out on a bare, rock-strewn slope and saw before them a low flat-topped hill. On it, barely visible in the darkness, rose a stone pillar, and a tree stood beside it.
For a while the two stood listening. Then, in silence they stepped warily across rough ground, up to the stone. It was a pillar of grey rock, about twelve feet high, rudely squared. On the smoothest of the sides, they could distinguish the outline of a carving, which was, as they knew, the figure of a winged serpent coiled round a staff. Some said this carving represented Alber himself.
Pult and Klotz were afraid by now. For the last hour every step had made them more uneasy, until they now was on the verge of running from the place.
Klotz had long repented he dared his friend and thought he would never forgive himself if the surveyor came to harm through him. However, to draw back now was impossible. Standing on tip-toe, and licking his dry lips, he said to Pult:
"Come on, let us walk over to Alber's cherry tree, pick the fruit, and be off."
A few steps brought them under the cherry tree. As they came beneath the foliage, it seemed to both that they were suddenly surrounded by darkness pierced by glittering stars.
The two men halted, but heard no sound except that of their racing hearts.
Now, on their way to the pillar, Pult had remembered that, he had seen in earlier years that the fruit was finer and more plentiful near the top of the tree. If he climbed the tree he might get the good fruit there. He whispered to Klotz:
"As the one who was challenged to do this, I think I ahve the right to choose where I shall pick cherries, so I go for the upper branches."
Klotz scratched his head, but he happened to use a walking-stick with a crook handle when he wandered about – and even now -, so he brightened up and answered:
"OK. Suit yourself. Only do what we came here for.
Pult groped for the trunk and reached the first branches. He hoisted himself further, and was soon near the top. He reached out with his right hand, bent the supple boughs towards him, and soon felt the cool touch of clustered cherries. These he gathered and slipped into his pocket.
Meanwhile the little man underneath used his stick to hooked down branch after branch and groped among the leaves for cherries. He did not have any success at first. Then at last he found some cherries.
But at that moment a sudden, awful noise broke the silence. It sounded like the roar of a fierce storm gust. The tree reeled. There came bright flashes from somewhere, so bright that the surrounding mountain slopes became visible. The two men were terrified.
Near the tree-top, Pult saw above him a huge, bat-like shape with web-like, flaming wings. It circled round above the cherry tree. Pult tried to climb down, lost his hold and crashed from branch to branch till he was bruised and breathless, but fortunately landed in a fork of the tree before he reached the ground.
Klotz had sprung out of the shadow, and, seeing the dreadful shape, thought he was doomed. He closed his eyes, prayed for help – and was moved to call out:
"Welcome, Alber! It is good you come and show us a light; for it is so dark we can hardly see to pick. Heaven bless you for helping us!"
There was a blinding dance of flames round the tree, then, the spirit yelled angrily, flashed flames, winged down the valley and disappeared.
A deep hush followed. It was broken by Pult, who got all the way down from the tree. He called on Klotz, and rushed headlong into the darkness.
As Klotz was preparing to hasten after Pult, he heard a crash and the sound of many uncivil words. The uproar guided him to where his friend lay half-dazed among the scrub. In his haste the surveyor had tripped over a root and fallen heavily.
Klotz was relieved to find that his companion was not seriously injured. Together they made their way down to the road and rested by the wayside.
As they sat there, dawn came, and the sun climbed above the peaks. The world began to stir. Herdsmen, and other early risers came by. Some of these people, noticing the dishevelled appearance of the two friends, stopped to question them, but Pult and Klotz were in no mood to reply. They continued on their way and by six o'clock came in sight of Meran.
Utterly exhausted, they turned aside and lay down in a field by the road. Klotz was cheerful, though weary, after he had dealt with Alber. Feeling about himself, brought out several handfuls of sound, ripe cherries. These he put into his hat, which he set on the grass before them.
"Now, Pult," he said, "show me your bag."
For answer, the lanky man fumbled in his damp pockets, and drew from them some handfuls of juicy pulp.
"You have won!" he grumbled. "Stand up, wave your arms and crow! I lost my footing in the darkness and slid down the tree."
Klotz rose and clapped him on the back "Let us cry quit," he said, "and shake hands over it. We are a couple of fools. but I am the greater one, for it was I who dared you in this. If any harm had happened to you, Joe, I should never have forgiven myself. I ask your pardon, friend. Come down with me to the Adler, and I will stand you a breakfast fit for the Emperor himself."
Pult looked at the little man. His mocking eyes softened as he held out his hand to Klotz.
"We are certainly two fools, Toni, but if you are, I will say this: you are the best-natured one in all Tyrol. You pay the food and I the drinks; that is my answer. And now let us get rid of this fruit. Bury it deep here, where nobody will find the stuff."
So, arm in arm, the couple went down to the inn, followed by the wondering eyes of half Meran.
For a long time both men kept the tale of that night to themselves, but in the end they gradually made it known to their neighbours. In that way it was made clear to the others why the surveyor and the tax-collector had suddenly got an intense dislike for cherries, no matter how fine and ripe, and disliked that fruit that to their dying day.
Even in heaven all are not saints. (Proverb from Tyrol)