The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains
IT is seldom, in this world at least, that a man who absents himself from church repents it with the fervor of regret which Amos James experienced when he heard of the unexpected proceedings at the Notch.
“ Sech a rumpus — dad-burn my luck — I mought never git the chance ter see agin! ” he declared, with a pious sense of deprivation. And he thought it had been a poor substitute to sit on the doorstep all the forenoon Sunday, “ez lonesome ez a b’ar in a hollow tree,” because his heart was yet so raw and sensitive that he could not see Dorinda’s pink sun-bonnet without a rush of painful emotion, or her face without remembering how she looked when he talked of the rescue of Rick Tyler.
The “ gang o’ men ” — actively described by his mother as " lopin’ roun’ the mill” — lingered long in conclave this morning. Perhaps their views had a more confident and sturdy effect from being propounded at the top of the voice, since the insistent whir of the busy old mill drowned all efforts in a lower tone; but it was very generally the opinion that Micajah Green had transcended all the license of his official character in making the arrest at the place and time he had selected.
“ I knows,” commented one of the disaffected, “ ez it air the law o’ Tennessee ez a arrest kin be made of a Sunday, ef so be it must. But ’pears like ter me ’t war nuthin’ in this worl’ but malice an’ meanness ez tuk ch’ice o’ the minute the man hed stood up ter preach the Word ter arrest him. ’Cajah Green mus’ hev tuk keerful heed o’ time, — jes’ got thar spang on the minute.”
“ He w-war n’t p-p-preachin’ the Word,” stuttered Pete Cayce, antagonistically. “He hed jes’ ’lowed he w-w-war n’t fit ter preach it. No more war he.”
He had come down from the still to treat for meal for the mash, He was willing to wait, — nay, anxious, that he might bear his share in the conversation.
He tilted his chair back against the wall, and nodded his long, drab-tinted locks convincingly.
The water whirled around the wheel; the race foamed with prismatic bubbles, flashing opal-like in the sun ; the vague lapsing of the calm depths in the pond was like some deep sigh, as of the fullness of happiness or reflective content, — not pain. The water falling over the dam babbled in a meditative undertone. All sounds were dominated by the whir of the mill in its busy, industrial monody, and within naught else could be heard, save the strident voices pitched on the miller’s key and roaring the gossip. Through the window could be seen the rocky banks opposite, their summits tufted with huckleberry and sassafras bushes and many a tangle of weeds ; the dark shadow in the water below ; the slope of the mountain rising above. A branch, too, of the low-spreading chestnut-oak, that hung above the roof of the mill, was visible, swaying close without ; it cast a tempered shade over the long cobwebs depending from the rafters, whitened by the dust of the flour. The rough, undressed timbers within were of that mellow, rich tint, intermediate between yellow and brown, so restful to the eye. The floor was littered with bags of corn, on which some of the men lounged; others sat in the few chairs, and Amos James leaned against the hopper.
“ Waal, ez fur ez ’Cajah Green could know, he’d hev been a-preachin’ then, an’argyfyin’ his own righteousness; an’ ’Cajah laid off ter kem a-steppin’ in with his warrant ter prove him a liar an’ convict him o’ sinmin’ agin the law ’fore his congregation.”
“ ’Pears like ter me ez pa’son war sorter forehanded,” said Pete, captiously. “ He hed proved hisself a liar ’fore the sher’ff got thar; saved ’Cajah the trouble.”
“I hearn,” said another man, “ez pa’son up-ed an’ ’lowed ez he did n’t b’lieve in the Lord, an’ prophesied his own downfall an’ his trial ’fore the sher’ff got thar.”
“ He d-d-did ! ” shouted Pete. “ We never knowed much more arter ’Cajah an’ the dep’ty kem ’n we did afore. Pa’son said they’d gird him an’ t-t-take himwhar he did n’t want ter g-go, — an’ so they d-d-d-d id.”
“ D-d-did what?” mockingly demanded Amos James, with unnecessary rancor, it might have seemed.
Pete’s infirmity became more pronounced under this cavalier treatment. “ T-t-take him w-vv-w-wlmr he did n’t w-w-w-want ” — explosively — “ ter go. ye fool, you ! ”
“ Whar ? ”
“ D’ ye reckon he wanted ter go ter jail in Shaftesville ? ” demanded Pete, with scathing scorn. His sneering lip exposed his long, protruding teeth, and his hard-featured face was unusually repellent.
“ Hev they tuk him ter jail, — the pa’son ? — Pa’son Kelsey ? ” exclaimed Amos James, in a deeply serious tone, He looked fixedly at Pete, as if he might thus express more than he said in words. There was indignation in his black eyes, even reproach. He still leaned on the hopper, but there was nothing between the stones, for he had forgotten to poutin more corn, and the flurry and industry of the unsentient old mill was like the bustle of many clever people, — a great stir about nothing. He wore his broad-brimmed white hat far back on his head. His black hair was sprinkled with flour and meal, and along the curves of his features the snowy flakes had congregated in thin lines, bringing out the olive tint of his complexion, and intensifying the sombre depths of his eyes.
Pete returned the allusion to his defective speech by a comment on the intentness of the miller’s gaze.
“Ye look percisely like a ow-el, Amos, — percisely like a old horned ho-ho-hooter,” he declared, with a laugh. “ Ya-as,” he continued, “ they did take pa’son ter jail, bein’ ez the jestice that the sher’if tuk him afore — old Squair Prine, ye know — h-he could n’t decide ez ter his g-guilt. The Squair air so oncertain in his mind, an’ wavers so ez ter his knowledge, that I hev hearn ez ev’y day he counts his toes ter make sure he’s got ten. So the old Squair h-hummed and h-h-hawed over the evidence, an’ he ’l-lowed ter Pa’son K-Kelsey ez he could n’t b’lieve nuthin’ agin him right handy, ez he bed sot under his p-preachin’ many a time an’ profited by it ; but thar war his cur’ous performin’ ’bout’n the gaynder whilst Rick got off, an’ he lied hearn ez pa’son turned his back on the Lord in a s’prisin’ way. Then the Squair axed how he kem ter prophesy his own arrest ef he hed done nuthin’ ter bring it on. The Squair ’lowed’t war a serious matter, a pen’tiary offense; an’ he war n’t cl’ar in his own mind; an’ he up-ed an’ down-ed, an’ twisted an’ turned, an’ he did n’t know what ter do: so the e-end war he jes’ committed Pa’son Kelsey ter jail, ter await the action o’ the g-g-g-gran’ jury.”
Pete gave this detail with some humor, wagging his head hack and forth to imitate the magisterial treatment of the quandary, and putting up first one hand, then the other, stretching out first one rough boot, then the other, to signify the various points of the dilemma.
Amos James did not laugh, He still gravely gazed at the narrator.
“ Why n’t he git bail ? ” he demanded gruffly.
“ Waal, he did n’t— ’kase he could n’t. The old man, he fixed the bail without so much dilly-dallyin’ an’ jouncin’ ’roun’ in his mind ez ye mought expec’. He jes’ put on his specs, an’ polished his old bald noodle with his red h-h-handkercher, an’ tuk a fraish chaw o’ terbacco, an’ put his nose in his book, an’ tuk it out ter brag ez them crazy bugs in N-N-Nashvul sent him a book ev’y time they made a batch o’ new laws, — pore, prideful old critter mus’ hev been lyin’! — an’ then he put his nose in his book agin, like he smelt the law an’ trailed it by scent. ’T war n’t more ’n haffen hour ’fore he tuk it out, an’ say the least bail he could take war a thousand d-d-dollars fur the defendant, an’ five hunderd fur each of his sureties, — like it hev been in ev’y sech case ’fore a jestice s-sence the Big Smoky Mountings war made.”
Pete laughed, his great fore-teeth, his flexible lip, his long, bony face and tangled mane, giving him something of an equine aspect. His mood was unusually jocular; and indeed a man might experience some elation of spirit to be the only one of the “ lopers round ” at the mill who had been present at a trial of such significance. The close attention accorded his every word demonstrated the interest in the subject, and the guffaws which greeted his sketch of the familiar character of the old “ Squair ” was a flattering tribute to his skill as a raconteur. The peculiar antagonism of his disposition was manifested only in the delay and digressions by which he thwarted Amos James’s eagerness to know why Parson Kelsey had not been admitted to bail. He could not accurately interpret the lowering indignation of the miller’s look, and he cared less for the threat it expressed. Cowardice was not predicable of one of the Cayce tribe. Perhaps it might have been agreeable for the community if the discordant Pete could have been more readily intimidated.
“ Why n’t pa’son gin the bail, then ? ” demanded Amos, again.
“He did gin it,” returned Pete, perversely.
“ Waal, then, how’d the sher’ff take him ter jail ? ”
“ Right down the county road, ez ye an’ me an’ the rest of us hyar in the Big Smoky hev worked on till sech c-c-cattle ez ’Cajah Green an’ his buzzardy dep’ty hain’t got no sort’n c-chance o’ breakin’ thar necks over the rocks an’ sech.”
“ Look a hyar, Pete Cayce, I ’ll fling ye bodaciously over that thar bluff! ” exclaimed Amos James, darkly frowning.
A rat that had boldly run across the floor a number of times, its whiskers powdered white, its tail white also, and gayly frisking behind it, had ventured so close to the miller’s motionless foot that when he stepped hastily forward it sprang into the air with a wonderfully human expression of fright; then, with a sprawling anatomy and a scuttling sound, it sped away to some dark corner, where it might meditate on the escaped danger and take heed of foolhardiness.
“ W-w-what would I be a-doin’ of, Amos Jeemes, whilst ye war a-flingin’ m-me over the b-b-bluff ? ” demanded Pete, pertinently.
“ What ails ye, ter git tuk so suddint in yer temper, Amos ? ” asked another of the baffled listeners, who desired rather to promote peace and further the detail of Parson Kelsey’s examination before the magistrate than to witness one of Pete Cayce’s acrid contentions. “ Amos jes’ axed ye, Pete, why pa’son war n’t admitted ter bail.”
“ H-h-he never none, now,” said Pete. “ He axed w-w-why Pa’son Kelsey did n’t g-gin bail, He did gin it, but ’t-t war n’t accepted.”
“What fur?” demanded Amos, relapsing into interest in the subject, and leaning back against the hopper.
“ Waal,” said Pete, preferring, on the whole, the distinction of relating the proceedings before the magistrate to the more familiar diversion of bickering, “ pa’son, he ’lowed he’d gin his gran’dad an’ his uncle ter go on his bond; an’ the Squair, arter he hed stuck his nose into his book a couple o’ times, an’ did n’t see nuthin’ abolishin’ gran’dads an’ uncles, he tuk it out an’ refraished it with a pinch o’ snuff, an’ ’lowed he ‘d take gran’dad an’ uncle on the bond. An’ then up jumped Gid Fletcher, the blacksmith over yandcr ter the Settlemiut, — him it war ez swore out the warrant, — an’ demanded the Squair would hear his testimony agin it. That thar ’Cajah Green, he sick-ed him on, all the time. I seen Gid Fletcher storp suddint wunst, an’ wall his eye ’round onsartin’ at ’Cajah Green, ez ef ter make sure he war a-sayin’ all right. An’ ’Cajah Green, he batted his eye, ez much ez ter say, ‘ Go it, old boss ! ’ Sure ez ye air born them two fixed it up aforehand.”
“ I do de-spise that thar critter, ’Cajah Green ! ” exclaimed one of the men, who was sitting on a sack of corn in the middle of the floor. “ He fairly makes the trigger o’ my rifle itch ! I hope he won’t kem out ahead at the August election. The Big Smoky ’ll hev ter git him beat somehows ; we can’t hev him aggervatin’ ’roun’ hyar another two year.”
The fore-legs of Pete Cayce’s tilted chair came down with a thump. He leaned forward, and with a marked gesture offered his big horny paw to the man who sat on the bag of corn; they solemnly shook hands as on a compact.
Amos James still leaned against the empty hopper, listening with a face of angry gloom as Pete recommenced : — “ Waal, the Squair, he put his nose inter his book agin, an’ then he ’lowed he’d hear Gid Fletcher’s say-so. An’ Gid, — waal, he ’ll he mighty good metal fur the devil’s anvil; I feel it in my bones how Satan will rej’ice ter draw Gid Fletcher down small, — he got up an’ ’lowed ez pa’son an’ his uncle an’ his gran’dad did n’t wuth two thousand dollars. They hed what they hed all tergether, an’ ’t war n’t enough, — ’t war n’t wuth more ’n a thousan’, ef that. An’ so the Squair, — waal, he looked toler’ble comical, a-nosin’ in his book an’ a-polishin’ off the torp o’ his head with his red handkercher, an’ he war ez oneasy an’ onsartain in his actions ez a man consortin’ accidentally with a humbly bee. He tried ’em all powerful in thar temper, bein’ so gin over ter backin’ an’ fo’thin’; but ez he war the jestice they bed ter sot ’round an’ look solemn an’ respec’ful. An’ at las’ he said he could n’t accept the bail, ez ’t war insufficient. The dep’ty looked like he’d jump up an’ down, an’ crack his heels together ; peared like lie war glad fur true. An’ the Squair. he ’lowed ez the rescue war a crime ez mought make a jestice keerful how he tuk insufficient bail. Ennybody ez would holp a man ter escape from oust’dy would jump his bond himself, though he war tol’ble keerful ter explain ter pa’son ez he never ondertook ter charge either on him, nuther. An’ he hed ter bear in mind ez he oc’pied a m-m-mighty important place in the I-law, — though I can’t see ez it air so mighty important ter h-h-hev ter say, ‘I dunuo ; let the court decide.’ ”
Amos James remembered the hopper at last. ITe turned, and, as he lifted a bag and poured in the corn, he asked, his eyes on the golden stream of grain, —
“ An’ what did pa’son say when he fund it out ? ”
Pete Cayce laughed, his big teeth making the facetious demonstration peculiarly pronounced. He was looking out of the window, through the leafy bough of the overspreading chestnutoak, at the deep, transparent water in the pond. The dark, lustrous reflection of the sassafras and huckleberry bushes on the summit of the vertical rocky bank was like some mezzotinted landscape under glass. A frog on one of the ledges at the waterside was a picture of amphibious content; sometimes his mouth opened and shut quickly, with an expression, if not beautiful, implying satisfaction. Pete lazily caught up a stick which he had been whittling. The slight missile flew through the air, catching the light as it went. Its aim was accurate, and the next moment the monotony of the placid surface was broken by the elastically widening circles above the spot where the frog jumped in.
“ The pa’son,” he said languidly, having satisfactorily concluded this exploit, — “ at fust it looked like the c-critter could n’t make it out, — he ’peared toler’ble peaked an’ white-faced, but the way he behaved ter the sher’ff ’minds me o’ the tales the old men tell ’bout’n Hangin’ Maw an’ Bloody Feller, an’ them t’other wild Injuns that useter aggervate the white folks in the Big Smoky, — proud an’ straight, an’ lookin’ at ’Cajah Green ez ef he war jes’ the dirt under his feet. Waal, pa’son ’lowed, calm an’ quiet, ez I M be skinnin’ a deer or suthin’, ez be’d ruther be obligated ter his own f-folks fur that holp, but ez that could n’t be be’d git bail from others. ’T war n’t m-much matter jes’ till he could ’pear ’fore the court, fur nuthin’ could be easier ’n ter prove ez he bed n’t rescued Rick Tyler, nor never gin offense agin the law. An’ he turned round ez s-s-sure an’ quiet ter Pa’son Tobin, who bed kem along ter see what mought be a-doin’, an’ sez he, ‘ B-Brother Jake Tobin, you-uns an’ some o’ the c-chureh folks, I know, will be ’sponsible fur the bail.’ An’ ef ye ’ll b’lieve me, Brother Jake Tobin, be got up slanch-wise, an’ in sech a hurry the cheer fell over ahint him; an’ sez he, ‘ Naw, brother, — I will call ye brother,’ — like that war powerful ’commodatin’, —'I kin not sot my p-people ter do sech, arter yer words yistiddy. We kin lose no money by ye,—the church air pore an’ the cause air n-needy. I kin only pray fur the devil ter 1-loose his holt on ye, f-fur I perceive the devil in ye.’ Waal, sir,” continued Pete, drawing a plug of tobacco from his pocket, and gnawing on it with tugging persistence, “ Christian perfesser ez I be, I felt sorter ’shamed o’ Brother J-Jake Tobin, — he looked s-s-sech a skerry h-half-liver, ’feard o’ losin’ money ! Shucks ! I could sca’cely keep my hands off’n him. He looked so — so cur’ous,
I wanted ter— ter ” — he remembered the reverence due to the cloth — “ter trip him up,” he concluded, temperately. “ An’ then, ez he war a-whurlin’ his fat sides around ter pick up the cheer, Pa’son K-Kelsey, — he hed t-turned plumb bleached, like a corpse, — he stood up an’ sez, ‘ The Lord hev forsaken me ! ’ An’ Brother Jake Tobin humps around, with the cheer in his hand, an’ sez, ‘ Naw, brother, naw, ye hev fursook the Lord ! ’ ”
“ Waal,” said the man on the bag of corn, gazing meditatively at the dusty floor and at a great yellow cur who had veutured within, as a shelter from the midday heat, and lay at ungainly length asleep near the door, “ I dunno ez I kin blame Brother Jake Tobin. ’T would hev made a mighty scandal ter keep Pa’son Kelsey in the church, arter what he said agin the faith. We’ll hev ter turn him out; an’ ez he air ter be turned out, I dunno ez the church members hev enny call ter go on his bond. He air none o’ we-uns, nowadays.”
“ Leastwise none o’ ’em war a-goin’ t-ter do it,” said Pete quietly. “ They air all mindful o’ Brother Jake Tobin’s longest ear, ez kin hear a call from the church yander in Cade’s Cove ev’y time he g-gits mad at ’em. But I tell ye,” added Pete, restoring his plug of tobacco to his pocket, and chewing hard on the bit which his strong teeth had wrenched off, “it did ’pear ter me ez they mought hev stretched a p’int when I see the pa’son ridin’ off with them two sneaking off’cers. He hed so nigh los’ his senses with the notion he war a-goin’ ter be jailed ez they hed ter hold him up in the saddle, else he ’d hev been under the beastis’s huffs in a minute.”
“ Why n’t you-uns go on his bond ? ” asked Amos James, suddenly.
“Who?” shouted Pete in stentorian amaze, above the clamor of the old mill.
“ You-uns, — the whole Cayce layout,” reiterated Amos James.
His blood bad risen to his face. All the instincts of justice within him revolted at the picture Pete had drawn, coarsely and crudely outlined, but touched with the vivid realities of nature. It was as a scene present before him : the falsely accused man borne away, crushed with shame, while the true criminal looked on with a lax conscience and an impersonal interest, and thriftily saved his observations to recount to his cronies at the mill. Amos James cared naught for the outraged majesty of the law. The rescue of the prisoner from its fierce talons seemed to him, instead, humane and beneficent. His sense of justice was touched only by the manifest cruelty when one man was forced to bear the consequences of another’s act.
“ You-uns mought hev done ez much,” he said significantly.
“ I reckon they would hev ’lowed ez we war n’t wuth it,” said Pete, quietly ruminant; “ the still can’t show up.”
“ Ye never tried it,” said Amos.
“ Waal, d-dad, he war n’t thar, an’ I could n’t ondertake ter speak fur the rest. An’ I ain’t beholden no ways ter Pa’son Kelsey. I hev no call ter b-b-bail him ez I knows on. I hev no hand in his bein’ arrested an’ sech.”
“ Hev no hand in his bein’ arrested ! ” retorted Amos, scornfully.
Pete was staring stolidly at him, and the other men assumed an intent, inquiring attitude. Amos James felt suddenly that he had gone too far. He had no wish to fasten this stigma upon the Cayces; he had every reason to avoid it. He did not know how far he had been accounted a confidant in the intimacies of the cave when Rick Tyler had found a refuge there. He could not disregard the trust reposed in him. And yet he could not recall his words.
Pete’s blank gaze changed to an amazed comprehension. He spoke out bluntly the thought in the other’s mind.
“ Ye air a-thinkin’, Amos Jeemes, ez ’t war we-uns ez cut Rick Tyler a-loose o’ the sher’ff! ” he exclaimed.
Amos, confronted with his own suspicion, listened with a guilty air.
“ Ye air surely the b-b-b-biggest f-f-f-fool” — the words seemed very large with these additional consonants — “in the shadder o’ the B-b-b-Big S-s-s-smSmoky M-m-Mountings ! ” Pete spread them out with all the magnifying facilities of his infirmity.
“ Waal, then,” said Amos, crestfallen, “ who done it? ”
“ Why, P-Pa’son lvelse}", I reckon.”
That memorable arrest in the Big Smoky was the last official act of the sheriff, except the surrender of his books and papers and taking his successor’s receipt for the prisoners in the county jail. The defeat had its odious aspects. The race had been amazingly unequal. Had the ground tottered beneath him, as he stood in the grass-fringed streets of Shaftesville, and heard the rumors of the returns from the civil districts, he could hardly have experienced a sensation of insecurity commensurate with this, for all his moral supports were threatened. His self-confidence, his arrogant affinity for authority, his pride, and his ambition keenly barbed the prescience of this abnormal flatness of failure. He was pierced by every careless glance ; every casual word wounded him. He had a strange disturbing sense of a loss of identity. This anxious, browbeaten, humiliated creature, — was this Micajah Green ? He did not recognize himself; every throb within him had an alien impulse ; he repudiated every cringing mental process. It was his first experience of the rigors of adversity : it did not quell him ; he felt effaced.
He feebly sought to goad himself to answer the rough chaff of spurious sympathizers with his old bluff spirit; his retort was like the lisp of a child in defiance of the challenge of a bugle. He saw with faltering bewilderment how the interesting spectacle increased his audience ; it resembled in some sort an experiment in vivisection, and where the writhings most suggested an appreciated anguish, each curious scientist most longed to thrust the scalpel.
The coroner held the election, as the sheriff himself was a candidate, and when the result became known the details excited increased comment. In the district of the county town he had a majority, but the unanimity against him in the outlying districts, especially in the Big Smoky and its widespread spurs and coves, was unprecedented in the annals of the county. He had hoped that the election of judge and attorneygeneral, taking place at the same time, might divert attention from the disastrous completeness of his failure. But their race involved no peculiar phase of popular interest, and the more important results were subordinated, so far as the county was concerned, to the spectacle of ’Cajah Green, “flabbergasted an’ flustrated like never war seen.” New elements of gossip were added now and then, vivaciously canvassed among the knots of men perched on barrels in the stores, or congregated in the post-office, or sitting on the steps of the court-house, and were ruthlessly detailed to the ex-sheriff, whose starts of rage, unthinking relapses into official speech, jerks of convulsive surprise, prolonged the amusement beyond its natural span.
It ceased suddenly. The adjustment to a new line of thought and a future under altered conditions was facilitated by the inception of an immediate definite intention and a sentiment coequal with the passion of despair. The idlers of the town might not have been able to accurately define the moment when the drama of defeat, with which he had prodigally entertained them, lost its interest. But there was a moment that differed from all the others of the lazy August hours; the minimum of time charged with disproportionate importance. It might be likened to a symbol of chemistry, which though the simplest alphabetical character, is significant of the chiefest principle of life, — perhaps of death.
That moment the wind came freshly down from the mountains ; the glare of the morning sun rested on the empty, sandy street of the village ; the weeds and grass that obscured the curbing of the pavement were still overhung by a glittering gossamer net of dew. A yellow butterfly flitted over it, followed by another so like that it could not be distinguished from its aerial counterpart. The fragrance of new-mown hay somewhere in the rural metropolis was sweet on the air. A blue-bottle, inside the window of the store hard by, droned against the glass, and seemed in some sort an echo to the monotonous drawl of a man who had lately been up in the Big Smoky, and who had gleaned fresh points concerning the recent election.
“ What did ye ever do ter the Cayces, ’Cajah, or what did Bluff Peake ever do fur ’em ? ” he asked, as preliminary to detailing that the Cayces had turned out and pervaded the Great Smoky Mountains, electioneering against the incumbent. “ They rid hyar an’ they rid thar, — up in the mountings an’ down in the coves ; an’ some do say thar war one o’ ’em in ev’y votin’-place in all the mounting deestric’s the day the ’lection kem off, jes’ a-stiffenin’ up the Peake men, an’ a-beggin’, an’ a-prayin’, an’ a-wraslin’ in argymint with them ez hed gin out they war a-goin’ ter vote fur you-uns. Bluff Peake say they fairly ’lected him, though he ’lowed’t war n’t fur love o’ him. I wonder ye done ez well ez ye did, ’Cajah, though ye could n’t hev done much wuss, sure enough. All o’ ’em war out, from old Groundhog down ter Sol, when they war ’lectioneerin’, an’ the whiskey ez war drunk round the Settlemint an’ sech war ’sprisin’. Some say old Groundhog furnished it free.”
The ex-sheriff made no reply. There was a look in his eye that gave his long, lean head, deeply sunken at the temples, less the aspect of that of a whipped hound than it had worn of late. One might have augured that he was a dangerous brute. And after that, the conversation with the recent election as a theme flagged, and died out gradually.
It was only a few days before he bad occasion to go up into the Great Smoky Mountains, on matters, he averred, connected with closing unsettled business of the office which he had held. As he jogged along, he moodily watched the distant mountains, growing ever nearer, and engirdled here and there with belts of white mists, above whose shining silver densities sometimes would tower a gigantic “ bald,” with a suspended, isolated effect, like some wonderful aerial regions unknown to geography, foreign to humanity. The supreme dignity of their presence was familiar to him. Their awful silence, like the unspeakable impressiveness of some overpowering thought, affected him not. The vastness of the earth which they suggested, beneath the immensities of the sky, which leaned upon them, found no responsive largeness in his emotions. Those barren domes of an intense blue, tinged with purple where the bold rocks jutted out, flushed where the yellow sunshine languished to a blush; those heavily wooded slopes below the balds, sombre and rich in green and bronze and all darkling shades, — touched, too, here and there with a vivid crimson where the first fickle sumach flared ; those coves in which shadows lurked and vague sentiments of color were abroad in visionary guise, in unexplained softness of grays and hardly realized blues, in dun browns and sedate yellows, vanishing before the plain prose of an approach, — he had reduced all this to a scale of miles, and the splendors of the landscape were not more seemly or suggestive than the colors of a map on the wall. It was a mental scale of miles, for the law decreeing a sufficiency of mileposts seemed to weaken in the ruggedness of the advance, and when he was fairly among the coves and ravines they disappeared. He pushed his horse rather hard, as the time wore on, but sunset was on the mountains before he came upon the great silent company of dead trees towering above the Settlement in the reddening light, and tracing their undeciphered hieroglyphics across the valley beneath and the heights beyond. The ringing vibrations of the anvil were on the air; the measured alternations of the hand-hammer and the sledge resounded in a clear, metallic fugue ; the flare from the forge fire streamed through the great door of the blacksmith’s shop, giving fluctuating glimpses of the interior, but fainting and fading into impotent artificiality before the gold and scarlet fires ablaze in the western sky.
A wagon, broken down and upheld by a pole in lieu of one of the wheels, stood in front of the blacksmith’s shop, and was evidently the reason of Gid Fletcher’s industry at this late hour.
Its owner loitered desolately about; now looking, with the gloat of acquisition, at his purchases stowed away in the wagon, and now nervously at a little barefoot girl he had brought with him to behold the metropolitan glories of the Settlement. He occasionally asked her anxious questions. “Ain’t you-uns ‘most tired out, Euraliny ? ” he would say ; or, “ Don’t ye feel wore in yer backbone, hevin’ ter wait so long ? ” or, “ Hed n’t ve better lay down on the blanket in the wagin an’ rest yer bones, bein’ ez we-uns started ’fore daybreak ? ” But the sturdy Euralina shook her sunbonnet, with her head in it, in emphatic negation at every suggestion, and sat upright on the board laid across the rough, springless wagon, looking about her gravely, with a stalwart determination to see all there was in the famed Settlemint ; thinking, perhaps, that her backbone would have leisure to humor its ails in the retirement of home. What an ideal traveler Euralina would be under a wider propitiousness of circumstance ! And so the anxious parent could only stroll about as before, and contemplate his purchases, and pause at the door of the blacksmith’s shop to say, “ Ain’t you-uns ’most done, Gid ? ” in a tone of harrowing insistence, for the fortieth time since the blacksmith’s services were invoked.
Gid Fletcher looked up with a lowering brow as Micajah Green entered. The shadows of evening were dusky in the ill-lighted place ; the fluctuations of the forge fire, now flaring, now fading, intensified the idea of gloom. The redhot iron that the blacksmith held on the anvil threw its lurid reflection into his swarthy face and his eyes; his throat was bare; his athletic figure, girded out with his leather apron, demonstrated in its poses the picturesqueness of the simple craft; his sleeve was rolled tightly from his huge, corded hammer arm. His hand-hammer seemed endowed with some nice discriminating sense as it tapped here and there with an imperative clink, and the great sledge in the striker’s hands came crashing down to execute its sharp behests, while the flakes flew from the metal in jets of golden sparks.
A man is never so plastic to virtuous impulses as when he is doing well his chosen work. Labor was ordained to humanity as a curse; surely God repented him of the evil. What blessing has proved so beneficent!
The suggestions entering with the new-comer were at variance with this wholesome industrial mood. They recalled to the blacksmith his baffled avarice, his revenge, and the malice that had influenced his testimony at the committing trial. More than once, of late, while the anvil sang responsive to the hammer’s sonorous clangor, and the sparks flew, emblazoning the twilight of the shop with arabesques of golden flakes, and the iron yielded like wax to fire and force, he had a sudden fear that he had not done well. True, he had sworn to nothing which he did not believe, either in the affidavit for the warrant or at the committing trial ; but the widely chartered credulity of an angry man ! He said to himself in extenuation that he would not have gone so far but for the sheriff.
He was not glad, with these recollections paramount, to see Micajah Green again. Some concession he made, however, to the dictates of hospitality.
“ Hy ’re, ’Cajah,” he said, albeit gruffly, and the monotonous clinking of the hand-hammer and the clanking of the sledge went on as before.
Micajah Green’s knowledge of life had not been wide, but there was space to evolve a cynical reflection that, being down in the world now, he must bite the dust, and he attributed this cavalier treatment to the perverse result of the election.
He had acquired something of the manner of bravado, from his recent experience as a defeated candidate, and he swaggered a little about the dirt floor of the shop; glancing at the forge fire, slumberously glowing, at the smoky hood above it, at the window opening upon the purpling mountains and the fading west. He even paused, and turned with his foot the clods of the cavity still yawning below the lowest log, where the escaped man had crawled through.
There was an altercation at this moment between the smith and his assistant ; for the work was not so satisfactory as when Gid Fletcher’s mind was exclusively bent upon it, and his striker officiated also as scapegoat, although that function was not specified as his duty in their agreement. Gid Fletcher had marked with furtive surprise and doubt every movement of the intruder, and this show of interest in the only trace of the escape by which was lost his rich reward roused his ire.
“ Even the dogs hev quit that, ’Cajah,” he said, enigmatically, as he caught up the iron for a new skene and thrust it into the fire, while the striker fell to at the bellows. The long sighing burst forth ; the fire flared to redness, to a white heat, every vivid coal edged by a fan of yellow shimmer. The blacksmith’s fine stalwart figure was thrown backward; his face was lined with sharp white lights ; he was looking over his shoulder, and laughing silently, but with a sneer.
“The dogs?” said Micajah Green, amazed. He did not sneer.
“ The dogs tuk ter cropin’ in an’ outer that thar hole fur five or six days arter Rick Tyler got away,” Gid Fletcher explained. “ ’Peared ter be nosin’ round fur him, too. I dunno what notion tuk ’em, but I never would abide ’em in the shop, an’ so I jes’ kep’ that fur ’em,” —he nodded at a leather strap hanging on the rod, — “ an’ larnt ’em ter stay out o’ hyar. But even they hev gin it up now.”
“ I hain’t gin it up, though,” said Micajah Green, still turning the clods with his foot. “ I ’ll be held responsible by the court fur the escape, I reckon, ef the gran’ jury remembers ter indict me fur it, ez negligence. An’ ef I kin lay my hands on Rick Tyler yit I ’ll be mighty glad ter feel of him.”
The blacksmith, without changing his attitude, looked hard at his visitor for a moment. Something rang false in the speech. He could not have said what it was, but his moral sense detected it, as his practiced ear might have discovered by the sound a flaw in the metal under his hammer.
“ Ye ain’t kem up the Big Smoky a-huntin’ fur Rick Tyler,” he said at length.
“ Naw,” admitted Micajah Green ; “it’s jes’ ‘bout some onsettled business o’ the county. But ef I war ter meet up with Rick in the road I would n’t pass him by.”
He said this with a satirical half laugh, still turning the clods with his foot, the vivid white light illuminating his figure and his face beneath his straw hat. The next moment the sighing bellows was silent, and Gid Fletcher and his striker had the red-hot metal between them on the anvil, and were once more forging that intricate metallic melody, with its singing echoes, that seemed to endow the little log cabin with a pulsing heart, that flowed from its surcharged chamber out into the gray night, to the deeply purple mountains, to the crescent golden moon, to the first few stars pulsating as if in rhythm to the clinking of the hand-hammer and the clanking of the sledge, — forging this, and as its incident the durable skene which should enable Euralina and her parent to leave the Settlement shortly.
“ I hopes ter git home ’fore daybreak, Gid,” he said, desperately, standing in the door, and looking wistfully at the iron in process of transformation upon the anvil. He turned out again presently, and Micajah Green paused, leaning against the window, and looking doubtfully from time to time at the striker. This was an ungainly, heavy young mountaineer, with a shock of red hair, a thick neck, and unfinished features which seemed not to have been accounted worthy of more careful moulding. Ihere was a look of humble pain in his face when the blacksmith angrily upbraided him. His perceptions were inefficient to accurately distribute blame ; he was only receptive, poor fellow! and we all know that in every sense those who can only take, and cannot return, have little to hope from the world. He was evidently not worth fearing; and Micajah Green disregarded him as completely as the presence of the anvil.
“ Talkin’ ’bout Rick Tyler, did youuns go sarchin’ that night — the dep’ty’s party — ter the still they say old man Cayce runs ? ”
“ Naw, " — Gid Fletcher paused, his hammer uplifted, the red glow of the iron on his reflective face and eyes ; the striker, both hands upholding the poised sledge, waited in the dusky background, — “ naw. We met up with Pete Cayce, an’ he ’lowed ez he hed n’t seen nor hearn o’ Rick Tyler.”
“ Ef I hed been along I’d Lev sarched the still, too.”
The blacksmith stared in amaze.
“Pete Payee’s say-so war all I wanted,’ he declared; “ an’ I hed the two hunderd dollars ez I hed yearned, an’ ye hed flanged away, a-hangin’ on to it,” he added.
“ I hev a mind ter go thar now, whilst I be on the Big Smoky, an’ talk ter the old man ’bout’n it,” Green said meditatively. He had drawn out his clasp knife, and was whittling a piece of white oak which he had picked up from the ground. With the energy of his intention the slivers flew.
The blacksmith glanced in furtive surprise at his downcast face, but for a moment said nothing.
Then, “ Hain’t you-uns hearn how the Cayces turned out agin ye at the ’lection ? Ef they did n’t defeat ye, they made it an all-fired sight wuss. Ez fur ez I could hear, me an Tobe Grimes war the only men in the Big Smoky ez voted fur ye. I war plumb ’shamed o’ it arterward. I hates ter be beat. I ‘m thinkin’ they ain’t a-hankerin’ ter see ye down yander at the still.”
The defeated candidate’s face turned deeply scarlet pending this recital. But he said with an off-hand air, “ I ain’t a-keerin’ fur that now ; that’s ’count o’ an old grudge the Cayces hold agin me. All I want now is ter kein up with Rick Tyler, ef so be I kin, afore the gran’ jury sits agin ; an’ I hev talked with ev’ybody on the mountings, mighty nigh, ’ceptin’ it be the Cayces. Which fork o’ the road is it ye take fur the still, — I furgit,—the lef’ or the right?”
Gid Fletcher burst into a sudden laugh, almost as metallic, as inexpressive of any human emotion, as if it had issued from the anvil. His face flushed, not the reflection from the iron, which had cooled, but with his own angry red blood ; his figure, visible in the sullen illumination of the dull forge fire, was tense and motionless.
“ Ye never knew, ’Cajah Green ! ” he cried. “ Ye don’t take nare one o’ the forks o’ the road. Ye ain’t a-goin’ ter know, nuther, from me. I ain’t a-hankerin’ ter be fund dead in the road some mornin’, with a big bullet in my skullbone, an’ nobody ter know how sech happened. Ef ye hev a mind ter spy out the Cayces fur the raiders, ye air on a powerful cold scent; thar ain’t nobody on this mounting ez loves lead well enough ter tell whar old Groundhog holds forth. Them ez he wants ter know — knows ’thout bein’ told. Ye ain’t smart enough, ’Cajah Green, ter match yer meanness ! ”
It is difficult for a man, without the hope of deceiving, to maintain a deception, and it was with scant verisimilitude that Micajali Green denied the detection of his clumsy ruse, and swore that he only wanted to come up with Rick Tyler. He went through the motions, however, while the blacksmith looked at him with uncovered teeth, and a demonstration that in a man might be described as a smile, but in a wildcat would be called a suarl. The fierce, surprised glare of the eyes added the complement of expression. Now and then he growled indignant interpolations : “ Naw ; ye ’lowed ez I’d tell ye, an’ then somehow ye’d hev shifted it on me, an’ them Cayces — five of ’em an’ all thar kin — would hev riddled me with thar bullets till folks would n’t hev knowed which war metal an’ which war man.”
Still Micajah Green maintained his feint of denial, and the blacksmith presently ceased to contradict.
It was fletcher’s privilege to entertain this visitor at the Settlement, and the behests of hospitality could hardly he subserved but by ignoring the disagreement that had arisen between them. Little, however, was said while the wagon axle and skene were in process of completion, and then adjusted to the vehicle by the light of a lantern. Jer’miah came over from the store, and presided after the manner of small boys, regarding each phase of the operation with an interest for which a questioner would have found no corresponding fullness of information, — a sort of spurious curiosity, satisfying the eye, but having no connection with the brain. Euralina, who was small for her sun-bonnet, stood a grotesque and top-heavy little figure in the forge door, — also a wide-eyed and impressed spectator. The blacksmith was a very good illustration of a rural Hercules, as he riveted his bolts, and lifted the body of the ponderous vehicle, and went lightly in and out of the forge. He did his work well and quickly too, for a mountaineer, and he had the artisan’s satisfaction in his handicraft, as with his hammer still in his hand, he watched the slow vehicle creak along the road between the cornfield and the woods, and disappear gradually from view. The wheels still sounded assertively on the air; the katydids’ iteration rose in vibrant insistence; the long, vague, pervasive sighing of the woods added to the night its deep melancholy. The golden burnished blade of the new moon was half sheathed in invisibility behind a dark mountain’s summit. The blacksmith’s house was on the elevated slope beyond the forge, and as he turned on his porch and looked back he noted the one salient change in the landscape as seen from the higher level,—above the distant mountain summit the moon showed its glittering length, as if withdrawn from the scabbard. He glanced at it and shut the door.
Micajah Green had the best that the humble log cabin could afford, and no dearth of fair words as a relish to the primitive feast. It was only the next morning, when his foot was in the stirrup, that his host recurred to the theme of the evening before.
“ Look a hyar, ’Cajah Green, you-uns jes’ let old Groundhog Cayce be. Ye ain’t a-goin’ ter find out whar his still air a-workin’, an’ ef he war ter hear ez ye hed been ’quirin’ ’round ’bout’n it ’t would be ez much ez yer life air wuth.”
Micajah Green renewed his hollow protestations, discredited as before, and the blacksmith, shading his eyes from the sun with his broad blackened right hand, watched him ride away. Even when he was out of sight Gid Fletcher stood for a time silently looking at the spot where horse and man had disappeared. Then he shook his head, and went into the forge.
“ Zeke,” he said to his humble striker, “ ye air a fool, an’ ye know it. But ye air a smart man ter that loon, fur the hell of it air he dunno he air a loon.”
His warnings, however, had more effect than he realized. They served as a check on Micajah Green’s speech with the few men that he met, — all surly enough, however, to repel confidence, were there no other motive to withhold it. He saw in this another confirmation of the Cayces’ enmity against him, and their activity in weakening his hold on the people. He began to think it hard that he should be thus at their mercy ; that his office should be wrested from him ; that they should impose unexampled indignities of defeat; that he should not dare to raise his hand against them, — nay, his voice, for even the reckless Gid Fletcher had cautions for so much as a word.
Some trifling errand which he had used for a pretext for his journey brought him several miles along the range, and when he was actually starting down the mountain, his vengeance still muzzled, his ingenuity at fault, his courage faltering, all the intention of his journey merged in its subterfuge, he found himself upon the road which led past the Cayces’ house, and in many serpentine windings down the long, jagged slopes to the base. Noontide was near. The shadows were short. He heard the bees droning. The far-away mountains were of an exquisite ethereal azure, discrediting the opaque turquoise blue of the sky. The dark wooded coves had a clear distinctness of tone and definiteness of detail, despite the distance. The harmonies of color that filled the landscape culminated in a crimson sumach growing hard by in a corner of a rail fence. The little house was still. The muffled tread of his horse’s hoofs in the deep, dry sand did not rouse the sleeping hounds under the porch. The vines clambering to its roof were full of tiny yellow gourds; he could see through the gaps Dorinda’s spinningwheel against the wall. A hazy curl of smoke wreathed upward from the chimney with a deliberate grace in the sunshine. He smelled the warm fragrance of the apples in the orchard at the rear, stretching along the mountain side. The corn that Dorinda had ploughed on the steep slope was high, and waved above the staked and ridered fence, There were wild blue morning-glories among it, the blossoms still open here and there under a sheltering canopy of blades; and there were trumpet flowers, too, boldly facing the blazing sun with a beauty as ardent. He looked up at this still picture more than once, as he paused for his horse to drink at the wayside trough, and then he rode on down the mountain, speculating on his baffled mission.
He hardly knew how far he had gone when he heard loud voices in angry altercation. He could not give immediate attention, for he was in a rocky section of the road, so full of bowlders and sliding gravel and outcropping ledges that it was easy to divine that the overseer had a lenient interpretation of the idea of repair. Once his horse fell upon his knees, and after pulling the animal up with an oath of irritation, he came suddenly, turning sharply around a jutting crag, upon another rider and a recalcitrant steed. This rider was a child, carried on the shoulders of a girl of twelve or so, who had a peculiarly wiry and alert appearance, with long legs, a precipitate and bounding action, a tousled mane, the forelock hanging in her wild, excited eyes, He recognized at once the filly-like Miranda Jane, before either caught a glimpse of him, and he heard enough of her remonstrance to acquaint him with Jacob’s tyranny in insisting that his unshod steed should keep straight up the rocky “ big road,” as he ambitiously called it, in lieu of turning aside in the sandy by-ways of a cow-path.
The expedient flashed through Micajah Green’s mind in an instant. He drew up his horse. “ I ‘ll give ye a lift, bubby,” he said ; then, with a mighty effort at recollection, “ Howdy, Mirandy Jane ! ” he cried, jubilantly. His
success in recalling the name affected him like an inspiration.
The girl had shied off, according to her custom, with a visible tremor, looking at him with big eyes and a quivering nostril, instantly accounting him a raider. As he called her name she stopped, and stared dubiously at him.
“ How’s granny,” he asked familiarly, “ an’ D’rindy ? ”
“ She’s well,” Miranda Jane returned, lumping them in the singular number.
Had he inquired for the men folks, she would have been alarmed. As it was, she began to be at ease. She could not remember him, it was true, but he was evidently a familiar of the family.
“ Come, bubby,” he said to Jacob, who had been peering over Miranda Jane’s head, sharing her doubts, but sturdily repudiating her fears, “ I ‘ll gin ye a ride ter the trough.”
Jacob held up his arms, he was swung to the pommel, and the cortege started, Miranda June nimbly following in the rear.
Such simple things Jacob said, elicited by the questions the craft of which he could not divine. Where had he been ? He and Mirandy Jane had gone with the apples in the wagon, but the wagon had afterward been driven to the mill, and Mirandy Jane had been charged by D’rindy to " tote ” him on the way home if he got tired, and Mirandy Jane wanted to tote him in the cow - path, ’mongst the briers. And where did he say he went with the apples ? To the cave.
“ To the cave ! ” exclaimed the querist, astonished.
“ Over yander on the backbone,” returned the guileless Jacob, reinforcing the information with a stubby forefinger, pointing toward the base of the mountain.
And here was the trough. And Miranda Jane and Jacob stood at the roadside to regretfully watch the big gray horse trot slowly away.
Charles Egbert Craddock.