The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains
KELSEY trudged on with his slide and his oxen, dated by his moral triumph. He glorified himself for his meekness, He joyed, with all the turbulent impulses of victory, in the blacksmith’s discomfiture.
Yet he was cognizant of his own deeper, subtler springs of action. There was that within him which forbade him to take the life of an unarmed man, but he piqued himself that he forbore, he had withheld even the return of the blow. But he knew that in refraining he had struck deeper still. He dwelt upon the scene with the satisfaction of an inventor. He, too, could foresee the consequences: the blood-curdling eloquence ; the port and pose of a martyr the far-spread doubt of the truth of the blacksmith’s professions of piety, under which that doughty religionist already quaked.
And as he reflected he replied, tartly, to the monitor within, “ Be angry and sin not.”
And the monitor had no text.
Because of the night drifting down, perhaps, —drifting down with a chilling change ; because of the darkened solemnity of the dreary woods ; because of the stars shining with a splendid aloofness from all that is human ; because of the weird suggestions of a will-o’-thewisp glowing in a marshy tangle, the exultation of his mood began to wane.
“ Thar it is! ” he cried, suddenly, pointing at the mocking illusion,— “ that’s my religion : looks like fire, an’ it’s fog ! ”
His mind bad reverted to his wild supplications in the solitudes of the “ bald,” — his unanswered prayers. The oxen had paused of their own accord rest, and he stood looking at the spectral gleam.
“ I ’d never hev thunk o’ takin’ up with religion,” he said, in a shrill, upbraiding tone, “ ef I bed been let ter live along like other men be, or ef me an’ mine could die like other folks be let ter die ! But it ’peared ter me ez religion war ’bout all ez war lef’, arter I hed gin the baby the stuff the valley doctor hed lef’ fur Em’ly, — bein’ez I couldn’t read right the old critter’s cur’ous scrapin’s with his pencil, — an’ gin Em’ly the stuff fur the baby. An’ it died. An’ then Em’ly got onsettled an’ crazy, an’ tuk ter vagrantin’ ’roun’, an’ fell off’n the bluff. An’ some say she flunged herself off’n it. An’ I knows she flunged herself off’n it through bein’ out’n her mind with grief.”
He paused, leaning on the yoke, his dreary eyes still on the ignis fatuus of the woods. “ An’ then Brother Jake Tobin ’lowed ez religion war fur sech ez me. I hed no mind ter religion. But the worl’ lied in an’ about petered out for me. An’ I tuk up with religion. I hev sarved it five year faithful. An’ now ” — he cast his angry eyes upward — “ ye let me believe that thar is no God! ”
Copyright, 1835, by HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & Co.
So it was that Satan hunted him like a partridge on the mountains. So it was that he went out into the desert places to upbraid the God in whom he believed because he believed that there was no God. There was a tragedy in his faith and his unfaith. That this untrained, untutored mind should grope among the irreconcilable things, — the problems of a merciful God and his afflicted people, foreordained from the beginning of the world and free agents! That to the ignorant mountaineer should come those distraught questions that vex polemics, and try the strength of theologies, and give the wise men an illimitable field for the display of their agile and ingenious solutions and substitutions ! He knew naught of this ; the wild Alleghanies intervened between his yearning, empty despair and their plenished fame, the splendid superstructure on the ruins of their faith. He thought himself the only unbeliever in a Christian world, the only inherent infidel ; a mysteriously accursed creature, charged with the discovery of the monstrous fallacy of that beneficent comfort, assuaging the grief of a stricken world, and called an overruling Providence. Again his flickering faith would flare up, and he would reproach God who had suffered its lapse. This was his secret and his shame, and he guarded it. And so when he preached his wild sermons with a certain natural eloquence ; and prayed his frantic prayers, instinct with all the sincerities of despair; and sang with the people the mournful old hymns in the little meeting-house on the notch, or on the banks of the Scolacutta River, where they went down to be baptized, his keen introspection, his moral dissent, which he might not forbear, yet would not avow, were ail intolerable burden, and his spiritual life was the throe of a spiritual anguish.
Often there was no intimation in those sermons of his of the quaint doctrines which delight the simple men of his calling in that region, who are fain to feel learned. His Christ, to judge from this mood, was a Paramount Emotion : not the Christ who confuted the wise men in the temple, and read in the synagogues, and said dark allegories; but he who stilled the storm, and healed the sick, and raised the dead, and wept, most humanly, for the friend whom he loved. Kelsey’s trusting heart contended with his doubting mind, and sometimes the simple humanities of these sermons comforted him. Sometimes he sought consolation otherwise; he would remember that he had never been like his fellows. This was only another manifestation of the dissimilarity that dated from his earliest recollections. He had from his infancy peculiar gifts. He was learned in the signs of the weather, and predicted the mountain storms; he knew the haunts and habits of every beast and bird in the Great Smoky, every leaf that burgeons, every flower that blows. So deep and incisive a knowledge of human nature had he that this faculty was deemed supernatural, and akin to the gift of prophecy. He himself understood, although perhaps he could not have accurately limited and defined it, that he exercised unconsciously a vigilant attention and an acute discrimination ; his forecast was based upon observation so close and unsparing, and a power of deduction so just, that in a wider sphere it might have been called judgment, and, reinforced by education, have attained all the functions of a ripened sagacity.
Crude as it was, it did not fail of recognition. In many ways his “word” was sought and heeded. His influence yielded its richest effect when his confrére of the pulpit would call on him to foretell the fate of the sinner and the wrath of God to the Big Smoky. And then Brother Jake Tobin would accompany the glowing picture by a slow rhythmic clapping of hands and a fragmentary chant, “ That dreadful Day air a-comin’ along!” — bearing all the time a smiling and beatific countenance, as if he were fireproof himself, and brimstone and flame were only for his friends.
Rousing himself from his reverie with a sigh, Hiram Kelsey urged the oxen along the sandy road, which had here and there an interval of bowlders, threatening the slide with dissolution at every jolt. They began presently to quicken their pace of their own accord. The encompassing woods and the laurel were so dense that no gleam of light was visible till they brought up suddenly beside a rail fence, and the fitful glimmer of firelight from an open door close at hand revealed the presence of a double log cabin. There was an uninclosed passage between the two rooms, and in this a tall, gaunt woman was standing.
“Thar be Hi now, with the steers,” she said, detecting the dim bovine shadows in the flickering gleams.
“ Tell Hiram ter kem in right now,” cried a chirping voice, like a superannuated cricket. “ I hev a word ter ax him.”
“ Tell Hiram ter feed them thar steers fust,” cried out another ancient voice, keyed several tones lower, and also with the ring of authority.
“Tell Hiram,” shrilly piped the other, “ ter hustle his bones, ef he knows what air good fur ’em.”
“ Tell Hiram,” said the deeper voice, sustaining the antiphonal effect, “ I want them thar steers feded foresshortly.”
Then ensued a muttered wrangle within, and finally the shriller voice was again uplifted: “ Tell Hiram what my word air.”
“ An’ ye tell Hiram what my word air.”
The woman, who was tall as a grenadier, and had a voice like velvet, looked meekly back into the room, upon each mandate, with a nod of mild obedience.
“ Ye heam ’em,” she said softly to Kelsey. Evidently she could not undertake the hazard of discriminating between these coequal authorities.
“ I hearn ’em,” he replied.
She sat down near the door, and resumed her occupation of monotonously peeling June apples for “ sass.” Her brown calico sunbonnet, which she habitually wore, in doors and out, obscured her visage, except her chin and absorbed mouth, that now and then moved in unconscious sympathy with her work. There was a piggin on one side of her to receive the quartered fruit, and on the other a white oak splint basket, already half full of the spiral parings. Behind her, in the doorway, there sat on the step her husband, a shaggy-headed, full - bearded, unkempt fellow, in brown jeans trousers reaching almost to his collar-bone in front, and supported by the single capable suspender so much affected in the mountains. His unbleached cotton shirt was open at the throat, for there was fire enough in the huge chimney-place to make the room unpleasantly warm, despite the change of temperature without. Now and then he stretched out his hand for an apple already pared, which his wife gave him with an adroit back-handed movement, and which he ate in a mouthful or two. He made way for Kelsey to enter, and asked him a question, almost inarticulate because of the apples, but apparently of hospitable intent, for Kelsey said he had had a bite and a sup at Jonas Trice’s, and did not want the supper which had been providently saved for him.
Kelsey did not betray which command he had thought best to obey.
“ I hed ter put my rifle on the rack in the t’other room, gran’dad,” he observed meekly, addressing one of two very old men who sat on either side of the huge fireplace. There were cushions in their rude arm-chairs, and awkward little three-legged footstools were placed in front of them. Their shoes and clothing, although coarse to the last degree, were clean and carefully tended. They had each long ago lived out the allotted threescore years and ten, but they had evidently not worn out their welcome. One had suffered a paralytic attack, and every word and motion was accompanied with a convulsive gasp and jerk. The other old man was saturnine and lymphatic, and seemed a trifle younger than his venerable associate.
“ What war ye a-doin’ of with yer ride ? ” mumbled “ gran’dad,” in wild, toothless haste.
“ I tuk it along ter see, when I war a-comin’ home, ef I mought shoot suthin’ tasty for supper.”
“ What did ye git ? ” demanded gran’dad, with retrospective greed ; for supper was over, and he had done full justice to his share.
“ I never got nuthin’,” said Kelsey, a trifle shamefacedly.
“Waal, waal, waal! These hyar latter times gits cur’ouser ez they goes along. The stren’th an’ the seasonin’ hev all gone out’n the lan’. Whenst I war young, folks ez kerried rifles ter git suthin’ fur supper did n’t kem home a-suckin’ the bar’]. Folks ez kerried rifles in them days did n’t tote ’em fur — fur — a ornamint. Folks in them days lef’ preachin’ an’ prophecy an’ seeh ter thar elders, an’ hunted the beastis an’ the Injun’, — though sinners is plentier than the t’other kind o’ game on the Big Smoky these times. No man, in them days, jest turned thirty sot hisself down ter idlin’, an’ preachin’, an’ convictin’ his elders o’ sin.”
Kelsey bore himself with the deferential humility characteristic of the mountaineers toward the aged among them.
“ What war the word ez ye war a-Iayin’ off ter say ter me, gran’dad ? ” he asked, striving to effect a diversion.
“Waal, waal, look a hvar, Hyram!” exclaimed the old man, remembering his question in eager precipitancy. “ This hyar ’Cajah Green, ye know, ez air a-runuin’fur sher’ff — air — air he Republikin or Dimmycrat?”
“ Thar’s no man in these hyar parts smart enough ter find that out,” interpolated Obediah Scruggs iu the door, circumspectly taking the apple seeds out of his mouth. He was the son of one of the magnates, and the son-in-law of the other ; his matrimonial venture had resulted in doubling his filial obligations. His wife had brought, instead of a dowry, her aged father to the fireside.
“ ’Cajah Green,” continued the speaker, “run ez a independent las’ time, an’ thar war so many bolters an’ sech they split the vote, an’ he war ’lected. An’ now he air a-runnin’ agin.”
The old man listened to this statement, his eye blazing, his chin in a quiver, his lean figure erect, and the pipe in his palsied hand shaking till the coal of fire on top showed brightening tendencies.
“Waal, sir! waal!” exclaimed the aged politician, with intense bitterness. “ The stren’th an’ the seasonin’ hev all gone out’n the lan’! Whenst I war young,” he declared dramatically, drawing the pitiable contrast, “folks knowed what they war, an’ they let other folks know, too, ef they bed ter club it inter ’em. But them was Old Hickory’s times. Waal, waal, we ain’t a-goin’ ter see Old Hickory no more — no — more ! ”
“ I hopes not,” said the other old man, with sudden asperity. “ I hopes we ’ll never see no seeh tomintin’ old Dimmycrat agin. But law ! I need n’t fret my soul. Henry Clay shook all the life out’n him five year afore he died. Henry Clay made a speech agin Andrew Jackson in 1840 what forty thousan’ people kem ter hear. Thar war a man fur ye! He hed a tongue like a bell; ’pears like ter me I kin hear it yit, when I listens right hard. By Gum ! ” triumphantly, " that day he tuk the stiffenin’ out’n Old Hickory! Surely, surely, he did ! Ef I thought I war never a-goin’ter hear Old Hickory’s name agin I’d tune up my ears fur the angel’s quirin’. I war born a Republikin, I grow’d ter be a good Whig, an’ I ’ll die a Republikiu. Ef that ain’t religion I dunno what air ! That’s the way I hev lived an’ walked afore the Lord. An’ hyar in the evenin’ o’ my days I hev got ter set alongside o’ this hyar old consarn, an’ hear him jow ’bout’n Old Hickory from mornin’ till night. Ef I hed knowed how he war gobi’ ter turn out ’bout’n Old Hickory in his las’ days, I would n’t hev let my darter marry his son, thirty five year ago. I knowed he war a Dimmycrat, but I never knowed the stren’th o’ the failin’ till I war called on ter ’speriunce it.”
“Ye ’lowed t’other day, gran’dad,” said Kelsey, addressing the aged paralytic in a propitiatory manner, " ez ye war n’t a-goin’ ter talk ’bout’n Old Hickory no more. It ’pears like ter me ez ye oughter gin yer ’tendon ter the candidates ez ye hev got ter vote fur in August,— ’Cajah Green, an’ sech.”
But it must be admitted that Micajab Green was not half the man that Old Hickory was, and the filial remonstrance had no effect. The acrimonies of fifty years ago were renewed across the hearth with a rancor that suggests that an old grudge, like old wine, improves with time. No one ventured to interrupt, but Obediah Scruggs, still lounying in the door, commented in a low tone: —
The law stirs itself ter sot a time when a man air old enough ter vote an’ meddle with politics ginerally, ’Pears like ter me it ought ter sot a time when he hev got ter quit.”
“ Waal, Obediah ! ” exclaimed the soft-voiced woman, the red parings hanging in concentric circles from her motionless knife. “ That ain’t religion. Ye talk like a man would hev ter be ez sensible an’ solid fur politics ez fur workin’ on the road. They don’t summons the ole men fur sech jobs ez that. They mouglit ez well enjye the evenin’ o’ thar days with this foolishness o’ polities ez enny other.”
“Shucks!” said Obediah, who had the courage of his convictions. “ These hyar old folks hev hed ter live in the same house an’ ride in the same wagin thirty-five year, jes’ ’kase, when we war married, they agreed ter put what they hed tergether; an’ they hev been a-fightin’ over thar dead an’ gone politics ev’y minit o’ the time since. Thar may be some good Dimmyerats, an’ thar may be some good Republikins ; but they make a powerful oneasy team, yoked tergether. An’ when it grows on ’em so, the law oughter kem in, an’ count ’em over age, an’ shet ’em up. ’Specially ez dad hev voted fur Andy Jackson fur Presidint, outer respec’ fur his mem’ry, ev’y ’lection sence the tormentin’ old critter died.”
But he said all this below his breath, and presently fell silent, for his wife’s face had clouded, and her soft drawling voice had an intimation of a depression of spirit.
“The kentry hev kem ter its ruin,” exclaimed the paralytic, “ when men — brazen-faced buzzards — kin go an’git ‘lected ter office ’thout no party ter boost ’em! Look a hyar,” — he turned to his grandson, — “ ye air always a-prophesyin’. Prophesy some now. Air ’Cajah Green a-goin’ ter be ’lected ? ”
He thumped the floor with his stick, and fixed his imperative eye upon Hiram Kelsey’s face.
“ Naw, gran’dad. He won’t be ’lected, said the prophet.
The old man’s face was scarlet because of this contradiction of his own dismal vaticinations.
“ ’Cajah Green will be ’lected,” he cried. “ The kentry ’s ruined. Folks dunno whether they air Republikins or Dimmycrats! Lor’ A’migbty, ter think o’ the like o’ that! The kentry’s ruined ! An’ yer prophesyin’ don’t tech it. They hed false prophets in the old days, an’ the tribe holds out yit.”
He struck the floor venomously with his stick. Its defective aim once or twice brought it upon a rough black bundle that lay rolled up in front of the fire like a great dog. A slow head was lifted inquiringly, with an offended mien, from the rolls of fat and fur. Twinkling small eyes glared out. When another blow descended, with a wild disregard of results, there was a whimper, a long low growl, a flash of white teeth, and with claw and fang the pet cub caught at the stick. The old man dropped it in a panic.
“ Look a-yander at the bar! ” he shrieked.
But the cub had crouched on the floor since the stick had fallen, and was whimpering again, and looking about in cowardly appeal.
The old man rallied, “ What d’ye bring the savage beastis home fur, Hiram, out’n the woods whar they b’long ? ” he vociferated.
“ Kase he ’lowed he hed killed the dam, an’ the young ’un war bound ter starve,” put in the other old man actuated, perhaps, by some sympathy for the grandson, whose strength and youth counted for naught against this adversary.
“ What air ye a-aimin’ ter do with it ? Ter kill sech chillen ez happen ter make game o’ ye ? That’s what the prophets of old cited thar bars ter do, — ter kill the little laffin’ chillen.”
Kelsey winced. The cruelties of the old chronicles bore hard upon his wavering faith.
The old man saw his advantage, and with the wantonness of tyranny followed it up: “That’s it, — that’s it! That would suit Hiram, like the prophets, — ter kill the innercent chillen ! ”
The young man recoiled suddenly. The patriarch, a wild terror on his pallid, aged face, recognized the significance of his words. He held up his shaking hands as if to recall them, to clutch them. He had remembered the domestic tragedy : the humble figure of the little mountain child, all gayety aud dimples and gurgling laughter, that had known no grief and had wrought such woe, whose mortal records were a rude, empty cradle in the corner, a mound — such a tiny mound ! — in the mountain graveyard, and an imperishable selfreproach, unquenchable as the fires of hell.
“ I furgot, — I furgot! ” shrieked the old man. “ I furgot the baby! When war she buried ? — las’ week or year afore las’? The only one, — the only great-gran’child I ever hed. The frien’liest baby ! Knowed me jes’ ez well! ” He burst into senile tears. " Don’t ye go, Hiram. What did the doctor say ye gin her? Laws-a-massy! ’Pears like ’twar jes’ yestiddy she war a-crawlin’ ’roun’ the floor, stiddier that heejus beastis ez I wisht war in the woods — laffin’ — Lord A’mighty ! laffin’ an’ takin’ notice ez peart. Hiram, don’t ye go, — don’t ye go! Peartes’, pretties’ chile I ever see — an’ I had six o’ my own — an’ the frien’lies’! An’ I hed planned fur such a many pleasures when she hed got some growth an’ hed l’arned ter talk. I wanted ter hear what she hed ter say, — the only great-grandchild I ever hed, — an’ now the words will never be spoke. ’Pears like ter me ez the Lord shows mighty little jedgmiut ter take her, an’ leave me a-cumberin’ the groun’.”
Then he began once more to wring his hands and sob aloud,— that piteous weeping of the aged ! — and to mumble brokenly, “ The frien’lies’ baby ! ”
The woman left her work and took off her bonnet, showing her gray hair drawn into a skimpy knot at the back of her head, and leaving in high relief her strong, honest, candid features, on which the refinements of all benign impulses effaced the effects of poverty and ignorance. She crossed the room to the old man’s chair; her velvety voice soothed him. He suffered himself to be lifted by his son and grandson, and carried away bodily to bed in the room across the passage. In the mean time the woman filled a tin cup with lard, placing in its midst a button tied in a bit of cloth to serve as a wick, and lighted it at the fire, while the cub presided with sniffling curiosity at the unusual proceeding, pressing up close against her as she knelt on the hearth, well knowing that she was not to be held in fear nor in any special respect by young bears.
“ I’m goin’ ter gin him a button-lamp ter sleep by, bein’ ez he hev tuk the baby in his head agin,” she said to her father in explanation ; “ he won’t feel so lonesome ef he wakes up.”
He had looked keenly after his venerable compeer as he was borne across the uninclosed passage between the two rooms.
“ He’s breaking some. He’s aging,” he said critically; not without sympathy, but with a stalwart conviction that his own feebleness was as strength to the other’s weakness. “ He’s breaking some,” he repeated, with a physical vanity that might have graced a prizefighter.
The next moment there came sharp and shrill through the open door the old man’s voice, high and glib in cheerful forgetfulness, conversing with his attendants as they got him to bed.
“ Whenst I war young,” he cried, " I went down to Sevierville wunst. ’T war when they war a-ruunin’ of Old Hickory.”
“Thar it is again!” exclaimed the ancient Republican. “ Old Hickory war bad enough when he war alive ; but I b’lieves he’s wusser now that he is dead, with this hyar old critter a-moanin’ ’bout him night and day. I’d feel myself called ter fling him off’n the bluff, ef it war n’t that he hev got the palsy, an’ I gits sorry fur him wunst in a while. An’ then, I b’lieves that ennybody what is a Dimmycrat air teched in the head, an’ ain’t ’sponsible fur thar foolishness, ’kase sensible folks ain’t Dimmycrats. That’s been my ’speriunce fur eighty year, an’ I hev bed no call ter change my mind. So I hev ter try my patience an’ stan’ this hyar old critter’s foolishness, but it air a mighty tough strain.”
The shadows of the great dead trees in the midst of the Settlement were at their minimum in the vertical vividness of the noontide. They bore scant resemblance to those memorials of gigantic growths which towered, stark and white, so high to the intensely blue sky ; instead, they were like some dark and leafless underbrush clustering about the sapless trunks. The sandy stretch of the clearing reflected the sunlight with a deeply yellow glare, its poverty of soil illustrated by frequent clumps of the woolly mullein-weeds. The Indian corn and the sparse grass were crudely green in the iuclosures about the gray, weather-beaten log-houses, which stood distinct against the dark, restful tones of the forest filling the background. The mountains with each remove wore every changing disguise of distance: shading from sombre green to a dull purple; then overlaid with a dubious blue ; next showing a true and turquoise richness ; still further, a delicate transient hue that has no name ; and so away to the vantage-ground of illusions, where the ideal poises upon the horizon, and the fact and the fantasy are undistinguishably blended. The intermediate valleys appeared in fragmentary glimpses here and there: sometimes there was only the unbroken verdure of the tree-tops; one was cleft by a canary-colored streak which betokened a harvested wheatfield ; in another blazed a sapphire circle, where the vertical sun burned in the waters of a blue salt “ lick.”
The landscape was still, — very still; not the idle floating of a cloud, not the vague shifting of a shadow, not the flutter of a wing. But the Settlement on the crags above had known within its experience no similar commotion. There were many horses hitched to the fences, some girded with blankets in lieu of saddles. Clumsy wagons stood among the stumps in the clearing, with the oxen unyoked and their provender spread before them on the ground. Although the log-cabins gave evidence of hospitable proceedings within, family parties were seated in some of the vehicles, munching the dinner providently brought with them. All the dogs in the Great Smoky, except perhaps a very few, incapacitated by extreme age or extreme youth, were humble participants in the outing, having trotted under the wagons many miles from their mountain homes, and now lay with lolling tongues among the wheels. About the store lounged a number of men, mostly the stolid, impassive mountaineers. A few. however, although in the customary jeans, bore the evidence of more worldly prosperity and a higher culture ; and there were two or three resplendent in the “ b’iled shirt and store clothes ” of civilization, albeit the first was without collar or cravat, and the latter were of antique cut and reverend age. These were candidates, — talkative, full of anecdote, quick to respond, easily flattered, and flattering to the last degree. They were especially jocose and friendly with each other, but amid the fraternal guffaws and exchanges of “chaws o’ terbacco ” many quips were bandied, barbed with ridicule ; many good stories recounted, charged with uncomplimentary deductions; many jokes cracked, discovering the kernel of slander or detraction in the merry shell. The mountaineers looked at them with eyes devoid of envy, and despite their stolidity with an understanding of the conversational masquerade. Beneath this motley verbal garb was a grave and eager aspiration for public favor, and it was a matter of no small import when a voter would languidly look at another with a silent laugh, slowly shake his head with a notto-be-convinced gesture, and spit profusely on the ground.
In and out of the store dawdled a ceaseless procession of free and enlightened citizens ; always emerging with an aspect of increased satisfaction, wiping their mouths with big bandanna handkerchiefs, and sometimes with the more primitive expedient of a horny hand. Nathan Hoodendin sat in front of the door, keeping store after his usual fashion, except that the melancholy wheeze “ Jer’miah ” rose more frequently upon the air. Jer’miah’s duties consisted chiefly in serving out whiskey and apple-jack, and the little drudge stuck to his work with an earnest pertinacity, for which the privilege of draining the very few drops left in the bottom of the glass after each dram seemed hardly an adequate reward.
The speeches, which were made in the open air, the candidate mounted on a stump in front of the store, were all much alike, — the same self-laudatory meekness, the same inflamed party spirit, the same jocose allusions to opponents, — each ending, " Gentlemen, if I am elected to office I will serve you to the best of my skill and ability. Gentlemen, I thank you for your attention.” The crowd, close about, stood listening with great intentness, each wearing the impartial pondering aspect of an umpire.
On the extreme outskirts of the audience, however, there was an unprecedented lapse of attention ; a few of the men, seated on stumps or on the wagontongues, now and then whispering together, and casting excited glances toward the blacksmith’s shop. Sometimes one would rise, approach it stealthily, stoop down, and peer in at the low window. The glare outside made the interior seem doubly dark, and a moment or two was needed to distinguish the anvil, the fireless hearth, the sooty hood. A vague line of light fell through a crevice in the clapboard roof upon a shock of yellow hair and gleaming eyes, two sullen points of light in the midst of the deep shadows. None of the mountaineers had ever seen a wild beast caged, but Rick Tyler’s look of. fierce and surly despair, of defiance, of all vain and vengeful impulses, as he sat bound hand and foot in the forge, was hardly more human. The faces multiplied at the window, — stolid, or morbidly curious, awe-struck, or with a grinning display of long tobacco-stained teeth. Many of them were well known to Rick Tyler, and if ever he had liked them he hated them now.
There was a stir outside, a clamor of many voices. The speaking ” was over. Footsteps sounded close to the door of the blacksmith’s shop. The sheriff was about to enter, and the crowd pressed eagerly forward to catch a glimpse of the prisoner. Arriving this morning, the sheriff had been glad to combine his electioneering interests with his official duty. The opportunity of canvassing among the assemblage gave him, he thought, an ample excuse for remaining a few hours longer at the Settlement than was necessary ; and when he heard of the impending diversion of the gander-pulling he was convinced that his horse required still more rest before starting with his prisoner for Shaftesville jail.
He went briskly into the forge, carrying a pair of clanking handcuffs. He busied himself in exchanging these for the cord with which the young fellow’s wrists were bound. It had been drawn brutally tight, and the flesh was swollen and raw. “ It seems ter me, ez ’t was the blacksmith that nabbed ye, he might hev done better for ye than this, by a darned sight,” he said in an undertone.
He had not been reluctant at first that the crowd should come in, but he appreciated unnecessary harshness as an appeal for sympathy, and he called out to his deputy, who had accompanied him on his mission, to clear the room.
“ We’re goin’ ter keep him shet up fur a hour or so, an’ start down the mounting in the cool of the evenin’,” he explained ; “ so ef ye want ter view him the winder is yer chance.”
The forge was cleared at last, the broad light vanishing with the closing of the great barn-like doors. Rick heard the lowered voices of the sheriff and deputy gravely consulting without, as they secured the fastenings with a padlock which they had brought with them in view of emergencies. They had taken the precaution, too, to nail pieces of scantling at close intervals across the shutterless window; more, perhaps, to prevent the intrusion of the curious without than the escape of the manacled prisoner. The section of the landscape glimpsed through the bars, — the far blue mountains and a cluster of darkly garnet poke-berries, with a leaf or two of the bush growing close by the wall — sprang into abnormal brilliancy at the end of the dark vista of the interior. It was a duskier brown within for that fragment of vivid color and dazzling clearness in the window. Naught else could be seen, except a diagonal view of the porch of one of the log-cabins and the corn-field beyond.
Curiosity was not yet sated; now and then a face peered in, as Rick sat bound, securely, the cords still about his limbs and feet and the clanking handcuffs on his wrists. These inquisitive apparitions at the window grew fewer as the time went by, and presently ceased altogether. The bustle outside increased : it drowned the drowsy drone of the cicada; it filled the mountain solitudes with a trivial incongruity. Now and then there was the sudden tramp of a horse and a loud guffaw.
Rick knew that they were making ready for the gander-pulling, which unique sport had been selected by the longheaded mountain politicians as likely to insure the largest assemblage possible from the surrounding region to hear the candidates prefer their claims.
Electioneering topics were not suspended even while the younger men were saddling and bridling their horses for the proposed festivity. As Micajah Green strolled across the clearing, and joined a group of elderly spectators who sat tilted in their chairs against the walls of the store, which began to afford some shade, he found that his own prospects were under discussion.
“ They tell me, ’Cajah,” said Nathan Hoodendin, who had hardly budged from his chair that day, his conversational activity, however, atoning for his physical inertia, “ ez ye air bound ter eend this lection with yer finger in yer mouth.”
“ Don’t know why,” said Micajah Green, with a sharp, sudden effect as of an angry bark, and lapsing from the smiling mien which he was wont to conserve as a candidate.
“ Waal, word hev been brung hyar ter the Settlemint ez this prophet o’ ourn in the Big Smoky, he say ye ain’t goin’ ter be rejected.”
The sheriff laughed scornfully, snapping his fingers as he stood before the group, and whirled airily on his bootheel.
Nevertheless, he was visibly annoyed. He knew the strength of a fantastic superstition among ignorant people, and their disposition to verify rather than disprove. There were voters in the Big Smoky liable to be controlled by a morbid impulse to make the prophet’s word true. It was ail unexpected and unmeasured adverse influence, and he chafed under the realization.
“ An’ what sets Pa’son Kelsey agin me ? ” he demanded.
“ He ain’t in no ways sot agin youuns ez I knows on,” discriminated Nathan Hoodendin, studious impartialityexpressed among the graven wrinkles of his face. “ Not ez it war sot agin ye; but he jes’ ’lows ez that air the fac’. Ye ain’t goin’ ter be ’leeled agin.”
“ The pa’son hev got a gredge agin the old man, hyar,” said the deputy. He was a stalwart fellow of about twenty-five years of age. He had sandy hair and mustache, a broad freckled face, light gray eyes, and a thin-lipped, defiant mouth. He bore himself with an air of bravado, which conveyed as many degrees of insult as one felt disposed to take up. “ He lit out on me fust, — I war with Amos Jeemes thar, — an’ the pa’son put us out’n the meet’n’-house. He did ! He don’t want no sorter sher’ffs in the Big Smoky. An’ he called Gid Fletcher, the blacksmith, Judas fur arrestin’ that lot o’ bacon yander in the shop, when he kem hyar ter the Settlemint fur powder, ter keep him able ter resis’ the law ! Who sold Rick Tyler that powder, Mister Hoodendin ? ” he added, turning his eyes on the proprietor of the store.
Old Hoodendin hesitated. “Jer’miah,” he wheezed feebly.
His anxious eyes gleamed from out their perplexed wrinkles like a ray of sunlight twinkling through a spiderweb.
There was an interchange of glances between the sheriff and his deputy, and the admonished subordinate continued:
“ ’T war jes’ the boy, eh; an’ I reckon he war afeard o’ Rick’s shootin’-irons an’ sech.”
“ ’T war Jer’miah,” repeated the storekeeper, his discreet eyes upon the bosom of his blue-checked homespun shirt.
“Waal, the pa’son, ez I war sayin’, he called the blacksmith ‘Judas’ fur capturin’ the malefactor, an’ the gov’nor’s reward ‘blood money,’” continued the deputy, expertly electioneering, since his own tenure was on the uncertain continuance of the sheriff in office.
“An’ now he’s goin’ ’round the kentry prophesyin’ ez ’Cajah Green ain’t goin’ ter be ’lected. Waal, thar war false prophets ’fore his time, an’ will be agin, I’m tkinkin’.”
There rose a sudden clamor upon the air ; a vibrant, childish voice, and then a great guffaw. An old crone had come out of one of the cabins and was standing by the fence, holding out to Gid Fletcher, who seemed master of ceremonies, a large white gander, whose foolish physiognomy was thrown into bold prominence by a thorough greasing of the head and neck. His wings flapped, he hissed fiercely, he dolorously squawked. A little girl was running frantically by the side of the old woman, clutching at her skirt, and vociferously claiming the “gaynder.” Hers it was, since “ Mam hed gin me the las’ aig when the gray goose laid her ladder out, an’ it war sot under the old Dominicky hen ez kem off ’n her nest through settin’ three weeks, like a hen will do. An’ then’t war put under old Top-knot, an’ ’t war the fust aig hatched out’n old Top-knot’s settin’.”
This unique pedigree, shrieked out with a shrill distinctness, mixed with the lament of the prescient bird, had a ludicrous effect. Fletcher took the gander with a guffaw, the old crone chuckled, and the young men laughed as they mounted their horses.
The blacksmith hardly knew which part he preferred to play. The element of domination in his character gave a peculiar relish to the role of umpire; yet with his pride in his deftness and strength it cost him a pang to forego the competition in which he felt himself an assured victor. He armed himself with a whip of many thongs, and took his stand beneath a branch of one of the trees, from which the gander was suspended by his big feet, head downward. Aghast at his disagreeable situation, his wild eyes stared about; his great wings flapped drearily; his long neck protruded with its peculiar motion, unaware of the clutch it invited. What a pity so funny a thing can suffer !
The gaping crowd at the store, on the cabin porches, on the fences, watched the competitors with wide-eyed, widemouthed delight. There were gallant figures among them, shown to advantage on young horses whose spirit was not yet quelled by the plough. They filed slowly around the prescribed space once, twice; then each made the circuit alone at a break-neck gallop. As the first horseman rode swiftly along the crest of the precipice, his head high against the blue sky, the stride of the steed covering mountain and valley, he had the miraculous effect of Prince Firouz Shah and the enchanted horse in their mysterious aerial journeys. When he passed beneath the branch whence hung the frantic, fluttering bird, the blacksmith, standing sentinel with his whip of many thongs, laid it upon the flank of the horse, and despite the wild and sudden plunge the rider rose in his stirrups and clutched the greased neck of the swaying gander. Tough old fowl! The strong ligaments resisted. The first hardly hoped to pluck the head, and after his wild, convulsive grasp his frightened horse carried him on almost over the bluff. The slippery neck refused to yield at the second pull, and the screams of the delighted spectators mingled with the shrieks of the gander. The mountain colt, a clay-bank, with a long black tail full of cockleburrs, bearing the third man, reared violently under the surprise of the lash. As the rider changed the balance of his weight, rising in his stirrups to tug at the gander’s neck, the colt pawed the air wildly with his fore feet, fell backward, and rolled upon the ground, almost over the hapless wight. The blacksmith was fain to support himself against the tree for laughter, and the hurrahing Settlement could not remember when it had enjoyed anything so much. The man gathered himself up sheepishly, and limped off ; the colt being probably a mile away, running through the woods at the height of his speed.
The gander was in a panic by this time. If ever a fowl of that gender has hysterics, that gander exhibited the disease. He hissed ; he flapped his wings; he squawked ; he stared ; he used every limited power of expression with which nature has gifted him. He was so funny one could hardly look at him.
As Amos James was about to take his turn, amid flattering cries of “ Amos ’ll pull his head!” “ Amos’ll git his head! ” a man who had suddenly appeared on horseback at the verge of the clearing, and had paused, contemplating the scene, rode swiftly forward to the tree.
“ Ye can’t pull out’n turn, — ye can’t pull out’n turn, pa’son ! ” cried half a dozen voices from the younger men. The elders stared in amaze that the preacher should demean his calling by engaging in this public sport.
Kelsey checked his pace before he reached the blacksmith, who, seeing that he was not going to pull, forbore to lay on the lash. The next moment he thought that Kelsey was going to pull; he had risen in his stirrups, with uplifted arm.
“What be you-uns a-goin’ ter do?” demanded Gid Fletcher, amazed.
“I’m a-goin’ ter take this hyar critter down.”
His words thrilled through the Settlement like a current of electricity. The next phrase was lost in a wild chorus of exclamations.
“ Take the gaynder down ?”
“ What fur ? ”
“ Hi Kelsey hev los’ his mind ; surely he hev.”
Then above the angry, undistinguishable tumult of remonstrance the preacher’s voice rose clear and impressive:
“ The pains o’ the beastis he hev made teches the Lord in heaven ; fur he marks the sparrow’s fall, an’ minds himself o’ the pitiful o’ yearth ! ” He spoke with the authority appertaining to his calling. “ The spark o’ life in this fow-el air kindled ez fraish ez yourn, — fur hevin’ a soul, ye don’t ginerally prove it; an’ hevin’ no soul ter save, this gaynder hain’t yearned the torments o’ hell, an’ I’m a-goin’ ter take the critter down.”
“ ’T ain’t yer gaynder ! ” conclusively argued the blacksmith, applying the swage of his own conviction.
“ He air my gaynder ! ” shrieked out a childish voice. “Take him down,— take him down ! ”
This objection to the time-honored sport seemed hardly less eccentric than an exhibition of insanity. To apply a dignified axiom of humanity to that fluttering, long-suffering tumult of anguish familiarly known as the “gaynder” was regarded as ludicrously inappropriate. To refer to the Lord and the typical sparrow in this connection seemed almost blasphemy. Nevertheless, with the rural reverence for spiritual authority and the superior moral perception of the clergy, the crowd wore a submissively balked aspect, and even the young men who had not yet had their tug at the fowl’s neck succumbed, under the impression that the preacher’s flat had put a stop to the gander-pulling for this occasion.
As Kelsey once more lifted his hand to liberate the creator of the day’s merriment, the blacksmith, his old grudge reinforced by a new one, gave the horse a cut with his whip. The animal plunged under the unexpected blow, and carried the rider beyond the tree. Reverence for the cloth had no longer a restraining influence on the young mountaineers. They burst into yells of laughter.
“ Cl’ar out, pa’son ! ” they exclaimed, delightedly. “ Ye hev hed yer pull. Cl’ar out! ”
There was a guffaw among the elders about the store. A clamor of commenting voices rose from the cabin porches, where the feminine spectators stood. The gander squawked dolorously. The hubbub was increased by the sudden sharp yelping of hounds that had started game somewhere near at hand. Afterward, from time to time, canine snarls and yaps rose vociferously upon the air, — unheeded, since the inherent interests of a gander-pulling were so enhanced by the addition of a moral discussion and the jeopardy of its conclusion.
The next man in turn, Amos James, put his horse to a canter, and came in a cloud of yellow dust toward the objective point under the tree. In another moment there was almost a collision, for Kelsey had wheeled and ridden back so swiftly that he reined up under the bough where the fowl hung as Amos James, rising in his stirrups, dashed toward it. His horse shied, and carried him past, out of reach, while the blacksmith stepped precipitately toward the bole, exclaiming angrily, “ Don’t ride me down, Hi Kelsey ! ”
He recovered his presence of mind and the use of his whip in another moment, and laid a stinging lash upon the parson’s horse, as once more the champion of the bird reached up to release it. The next instant Gid Fletcher recoiled suddenly ; there was a significant gesture, a steely glimmer, and the blacksmith was gazing with petrified reluctance down the muzzle of a six-shooter. He dared not move a muscle as he stood, with that limited field of vision, and with more respectful acquiescence in the opinion of another man than he had ever before been brought to entertain. The horseman looked at his enemy in silence for a moment, the broad-brimmed hat shading his face, with its melancholy expression, its immobile features, and its flashing eyes.
“ Drap that lash,” Kelsey said.
Gid Fletcher’s grasp relaxed; then the parson with his left hand reached up and contrived to unloose the fluttering gander. He handed the bird down to the little girl, who had been fairly under the horse’s heels at the tree since the first suggestions of its deliverance. She clutched it in great haste, wrapped her apron about it, and carrying it, babywise, ran fleetly off, casting apprehensive glances over her shoulder.
So the gander was saved, hut in its fright, its woe, and the frantic presage in whatever organ may serve it for mind, the fowl had a pretty fair case against the Settlement for exemplary damages.
The sport ended in great disaffection and a surly spirit. Several small grievances among the younger men promised to result in a disturbance of the peace. The blacksmith, held at bay only by the pistol, flared out furiously when relieved of that strong coercion. His pride was roused in that he should be publicly balked and terrorized.
“I ’ll remember this,” he said, shaking his fist in the prophet’s face. “ I ’ll save the gredge agin ye.”
But he was pulled off by his brethren in the church, who thought it unwise to have a member in good standing again assault the apostle of peace.
Amos James — a tall, black-eyed fellow of twenty three or four, with black hair, slightly powdered with flour, and a brown jeans suit, thus reminiscent also of the mill — sighed for the sport in which he had hoped to be victorious.
“ Pa’son talked like the gaynder war his blood relation, — own brothers, I’m a-thinkin’,” he drawled, disconsolately.
The sheriff was disposed to investigate prophecy. “ I’ve heard, pa’son,” he said, with a smile ill concealing his vexation, “ ye have foreseen I ain’t goin’ ter be lucky with this here ’lection ; goin’ ter come out o’ the leetle eend o’ the horn.”
The prophet, too, was perturbed and out of sorts. The sustaining grace of feeling a martyr was lacking in the event of to-day, in which he himself had wielded the coercive hand. He marked the covert aggressiveness of the sheriff’s manner, and revolted at being held to account and forced to contest. He fixed his gleaming eyes upon the officer’s face, but said nothing.
“ I’m a-hustlin’ off now,” said Micajah Green, “ an’ ez I won’t be up in the Big Smoky agin afore the ’lection, I ’lowed ez I’d find out what ails ye ter set sech a darned thing down as a fac’. Why ain’t I goin’ ter be ’lected?” he reiterated, his temper flaring in his face, his eyes fierce. But for the dragging block and chain of his jeopardized prospects he could not have restrained himself from active insult. With his peculiar qualifications for making enemies, and the opportunities afforded by the difficult office he had filled for the past two years, he illustrated at this moment the justice of the prophecy. But his evident anxiety, his eagerness, even his fierce intolerance, had a touch of the pathetic to the man for whom earth held so little and heaven nothing. It seemed useless to suggest, to admonish, to argue.
“ I say the word,” declared the prophet. “ I can’t ondertake ter gin the reason.”
“ Ye won’t gin the reason ? ” said the sheriff, between his teeth.
“ Naw,” said the prophet.
“ An’ I won’t be ’lected, hey ? ”
“ Ye won’t be ’lected.”
The deputy touched the sheriff on the shoulder. “ I want ter see ye.”
“ In a minute,” said the elder man impatiently.
“ I want ter see ye.”
Something in the tone constrained attention. The sheriff turned, and looked into a changed face. He suffered himself to be led aside.
“ Ye ain’t goin’ ter be ’lected,” said the deputy, grimly, “ an’ for a damned good reason. Look a thar ! ”
They had walked to the blacksmith’s shop. The deputy motioned to him to look into the window.
“ Damn ye, what is it ? ” demanded Micajah Green, mystified.
The other made no reply, and the officer stooped, and looked into the dusky interior.
Charles Egbert Craddock.