In the Clouds
IMPRISONMENT proved an efficacious method of exorcising the “ harnt ” upon the jury. Much of the sojourn in the county jail was expended in criminations and recriminations. Not one of the jurymen would admit any responsibility for their plight. Not one had entertained the slightest belief in their ghostly associate. The mere contact with that practical, prosaic mundane force, the law of the land, had so roused them that they were emboldened to roundly denounce the harnt. And the name of poor Peter Rood, which had been whispered with bated breath in the jury-room, came smartly enough from the tongue even of Bylor. In fact, he was the most persistent in disavowing susceptibility to spectral influence.
“ I begged an’ begged ye ter shet up talkin’ ’bout sech,” he cried, which was indeed the truth. “ An’ ye jes’ kep’ it up an’ kep’ it up, till ye skeered yerse’fs out’n yer boots, an’ then I could n’t do nuthin’ with ye.”
They had all been locked temporarily into one room of the jail, while the sheriff and jailer consulted together as to the accommodations for so unusual a number of prisoners. In their close quarters the jurymen leaned against the wall or walked the floor, jostling each other in the shadow, for the room was dark save for the moonbeams slanting through the bars of the window. The foreman hung about in the obscure places, freely addressed, — for they knew, without seeing, that he was there, — and required to bear the brunt of all the reproaches for the calamity. Once he plucked up spirit to retort.
“ Ye war the very man ez yapped fur the dep’ty,” he said to Bylor, who allowed himself to be drawn into argument.
“ How’d I know ez you-uns war a-goin’ ter traipse down them steers an’ ’low ter the jedge ez you-uns knowed mo’ law ’n he do ? Ye dad-burned aged idjit, ef ye war n’t older ’n me I ’d lay ye out on this floor.”
“ I felt jes’ like the tail of a dog in a fight, — could neither holp nor hender the critter ez toted me ahint him, but war jes’ ez apt ter git gnawed ez him,” said Jerry Price disconsolately.
“ I looked ter see the jedge fetch him a pop ’side the head, myself,” said the new juryman, evidently unacquainted with judicial methods. He had regarded his capture to serve on the jury as a woful disaster, and could hardly bear up under this aggregation of misfortunes.
“ Ef I hed knowed what war comin’, I would n’t hev followed him down them steers.”
“Six spry young steers ’mongst my cattle, — I ’ll never see ’em agin ! ” cried old man Beames from out the darkness, reminded anew of his journeying herds under the insufficient guidance of Bob. “ I hev never done no wrong in my life. I hev tuk heed ter my feet ter walk in the right way. An’ hyar in my old age, through another man’s fault, the door of a jail hev been shet on me.”
His voice dropped. They were all feeling the poignant humiliation of the imprisonment. They were honest men, to whom it could scarcely have come but for this mischance. At every contortion of wounded pride they turned upon the unlucky foreman.
“ I ’lowed I’d drap in my tracks,” cried Ben Doaks, “ whenst he jes’ tuk the Code o’ Tennessee by the hawns an’ tail, an’ dragged it up afore the jedge.”
And Jerry Price was fain to sneer, too.
“ Did the Code hev nuthin’ in it ’bout cuttin’ out the tongue of a foreman of a jury ? ” he demanded.
But the Code was an unabated fact still, and the nephew of the ex-justice alone could say what was in it. “ Naw, sir ! ” he retorted, emboldened by the allusion to his superior knowledge, “nor about jailin’ a jury, nuther. I don’t b’lieve the jedge hed the right ter jail the jury.”
“ Waal,” drawled Jerry, satirically, “ we-uns hed better make up our minds powerful quick how we air a-goin’ ter pay him back fur it.”
The foreman was saved the mortification of acknowledging the hopelessness of reprisal. A voice without sounded suddenly.
“ I wanter see how many thar air,” said the jailer.
“ On a jury ? Shucks ! ye ’re funnin’. Twelve,” in the familiar tones of the sheriff.
“ I jes’ wanter look at ’em agin.”
“ Ye sha’n’t,” retorted the sheriff.
He did not reckon on the fact that although he, as sheriff, had the legal authority and control of the jail, the jailer was possessed of the material keys, and locked and unlocked the doors at will. He opened this one now, gingerly, and every man within felt the grin they could not see.
“ Brung ’em hyar ’kase they could n’t count,” he said, jocosely. “ They air the fust boarders we hev hed fur sech ez that.”
The sheriff, who was holding a lamp in the hall, pulled the door to, still animated by his sense of duty, and the jury heard the lock click as the facile jailer turned the key.
“ They ’lowed thar war a harnt in the jury-room,” said the officer.
Within all were silent, that they might hear.
“ I ain’t s’prised none,” said the jailer ; “plenty o’ harnts hyar. Men ez war hung, ye know, — liked our accommodations better ’n them they got arterwards ; that brings ’em back. Tim Jenkins war dragged right out’n that thar room whar the jury be now, when the lynchers kem an’ tuk him. Hed me tied down-steers, ye ’member.”
He went off gayly down the hall, jingling his keys. Presently his voice was heard in another mood, swearing at the judge and demanding, “ What sorter man is this hyar Gwinnan, ennyhow, ez you-uns hev got out thar on the bench ? Send me twelve men ter eat an’ sleep, an’ the jail ez full ez it air ! Does he think I keep a tavern ? Thar ain’t room enough hyar fur twelve fleas ! ”
He compassed the problem somehow, for the jury, smarting with the indignity and hardship, were led forth the next morning, having slept as well as was possible considering the united grievances of the accommodations and the mortification, and eaten as their reduced appetites and the prison fare permitted.
They resumed their deliberations in the jury-room, and it argues much for their earnest desire to do right and their respect for their oath that they did not find a verdict at hap-hazard. They reported again and again that they could reach no decision. They were held over Sunday, and after nightfall on Monday they came into the court-room, and in guarded phrase and with some perturbation of manner announced once more that they could not agree as to the guilt or innocence of the prisoner.
In answer to the usual question, the foreman was eager to explain that they had experienced no difficulty other than a difference of opinion, and felt no want of further instructions. He forbore to offer criticisms upon judicial methods, and the men behind him, all acutely realizing the position of the dog’s tail, breathed more freely. The judge looked at them with a certain resentment in his eyes. He leaned back in his chair, gnawing the end of his mustache. Mink sat beside his lawyer, eager, intent, hardly appreciating at the moment the significance of the disagreement. Harshaw had turned aside with a pettish mutter to his yellow beard, for the final adjournment for the term impended, Gwinnan being compelled to leave on the train that night to hold court in a remote county in his own circuit.
How Gwinnan could infuse into his impassive mien and his soft, expressionless drawl so caustic a suggestion of displeasure is one of those mysteries of manner addressed to a subtle and receptive sense which can take account of so fine and elusive a medium of communication. The jury, in receiving their discharge, felt like culprits until they were once more at large and in the outer air, when they swore at the judge with the heartiest unanimity, —on this point they could agree, — and promised themselves, taking note of his character as politician, that if ever they were vouchsafed the opportunity they would get even with him. Then among the loungers about the tavern they fell to asking the news with the hungry interest of travelers who have been long absent.
They experienced a certain surprise to find that their accountability as jurors had not ceased with their discharge. There was a manifest inclination on the part of public opinion, as embodied in the idlers about the hotel, to hold them individually responsible for the mischances of the trial. Perhaps the impression that they had been long absent was strengthened by the revolution which popular prejudice had accomplished in the interval. Its flexibility could hardly be better illustrated than by the fact that the prankish Mink had suddenly risen in its estimation to the dignity of a public martyr.
“ He’s a tremenjious wild scamp, the Lord knows,” said one, “ but folks ain’t jailed fur bein’ gamesome, an’ by rights ye oughter hev turned Mink out’n that jail this evenin’.”
“ Yessir,” assented another. ‘‘Mink oughter be mighty nigh Hazel Valley by now, ef he had been gin a fair trial.”
That conclusive formula, “ This is a free country, by the Lord ! ” was often insistently reiterated in the discussion, for the bewildered jury discovered that the persuasion of the prisoner’s innocence had never wavered after Alethea Sayles had sworn that she had seen Tad Simpkins since the disaster. The community at large had not been subjected to the morbid influences of seclusion, and mental stress, and the nervous shock which the jury had sustained upon the death of Peter Rood, and the necessity of persistent consideration of spiritual and spectral phenomena forced upon them by the attorney-general.
“ You see, gentlemen,” said a young sprig of a lawyer, glad to air his information, “you went off on the wrong road. ”T war n’t the business o’ the defense to account for Tad. ‘T was the prosecution’s business to prove he was dead and that Mink killed him. And they did n’t do it; they just proved he was missing, for that girl swore she saw him afterward. They ’ve got to prove the corpus delicti, gentlemen, in a case like this.”
The jurymen were laughed to scorn when they suggested their doubts of the genuineness of Tad’s appearance.
“ Now did n’t the attorney-general stuff you as full of lies as an egg of meat! ” cried the young lawyer, divided between admiration of the attorney-general’s resources and contempt for their credulity.
“ Ye air the only folks in Cherokee County ez b’lieves sech,” said another by-stander. “ Old man Griff an’ all his gran’chil’n lef’ town yestiddy evenin’ plumb sati’fied Tad’s alive, an’ goin’ter hunt him up. An’ then I reckon the old man’ll furgit all about his repentance, an’ club an’ beat him same ez he always done.”
“ Waal,” demanded the ex-foreman, who was disposed to maintain the difficulty of the question, “ how could a id jit keer fur hisself all this time ? ”
“ Tad never war sech a idjit; could run a mill, an’ plough, an’ pull fodder, an’ feed stock ! I ‘ll be bound thar’s a mighty differ round old man Griff’s diggins now, sure. He ’peared a idjit mos’ly when he war beat over the head. Mos’ folks would look miser’ble then. He air lackin’, I know, but I reckon he kin work fur hisself ez well ez he done fur old man Griff. It’s a plumb shame ter jail Mink Lorey fur fower month more till he kin git another fool jury ter try him, an’ mebbe send him ter the Pen’tiary fur five year. I dunno what oughter be done ter sech a jury ez you-uns.”
It was probably well for the public peace that events of general interest had taken place during the seclusion of the jury which the by-standers found a certain gloomy satisfaction in detailing, and their attention was thus readily enough diverted from the disagreements of the jury-room to the circumstances of Peter Rood’s funeral, — who preached the sermon, and who were in attendance. They all sat, solemnly chewing, tilted back in their splint-bottomed chairs on the front gallery of the little hotel. The lights which came from the doors and windows of the building, slanting out in wide shafts, seemed to sever the gloom in equal sections. The figures of the men were dimly seen in the dusky intervals. The stars, in infinite hosts, marshaled in the black sky, for the moon was late tonight. Only about the horizon were melancholy desert spaces. The summit line of the distant mountains was indistinguishable in the gloom. The landscape was all benighted. The presence of invisible trees close at hand was perceptible only to some fine sense of the differing degrees of density in the blackness. A horse trotted through the slant of light falling into the road and showing the sleek roan of the steed and the impassive face under the drooping hatbrim of the rider, — then loomed an indeterminate centaur in the alternate glooms. The sounds of the town were shrill, then faint, with lapses of silence. One forlorn cricket was piping somewhere between the bricks of the pavement.
“ ’Pears ter me,” said Bylor, “ toler’ble cur’us ez they wagoned deceased ” — he had adopted the word from the reports of the sermon — “ way up yander ter Eskaqua Cove, ter be buried in the graveyard thar.”
“ Waal,” explained a by-stander, “ his mother ’lowed he’d feel mo’ lonesome down hyar ’n he would ’mongst the mountings, — an’ I reckon he would.”
“ Ennybody ez air dead always looked lonesome ter me,” suggested Ben Doaks.
“ I don’t b’lieve thar’s a man in the Newnited States, alive or dead, ez lonesome ez me ! ” cried the cattle-owner. “ I wisht that thar durned moon would heft over the mountings. Ez soon ez she shows her aidge I’m a-goin’ ter light out arter my cattle an’ Bob.”
“ ’Pears ter me,” said Doaks, reflectively, “ez things hev turned out mighty cur’us, ez he war buried in the same graveyard whar Lethe Sayles seen Tad’s harnt.”
“ I would n’t go by thar of a dark night fur nuthin’,” declared Bylor. “ Mought see both of ’em.”
“ I reckon,” said Ben Doaks, “ ez Peter Rood knows all ’bout’n it now, — whether it war Tad’s harnt or no.”
Something at a distance sounded sharply and fell into silence.
“ I reckon folks ez air dead hev got suthin’ mo’ ter tend ter ’n studyin’ ’bout folks they knowed in this life,” said Bylor, nodding his head with grim conviction.
“ Yes, sir-ee ! ” exclaimed the ex-foreman, as he chewed vigorously, and spat at the post which upheld the floor of the gallery above; he was an effective marksman. “ They hev got a verdict in the courts of the t’other world on Peter Rood by now. They ain’t got no failin’ human jury thar,” he continued sanctimoniously. “ I reckon he’s burnin’ in Torment before now.” He offered this suggestion with the singular satisfaction in the symmetry of the theory of fiery retribution characteristic of the rural religionist.
Ben Doaks stirred uneasily. “ I dunno ’bout that,” he said, dubiously. “ Rood war a perfessin’ member.” He, himself, laid great stress upon this unattained grace.
“ I know that,” said the ex-foreman, “ but ’t ain’t done him no good. I hearn him ’low at camp ez he war a backslider, an’ ef the truth war knowed I reckon he war a black-hearted sinner.”
Once more that strange sound, half smothered by the distance, smote upon the air. Then the regular hoof-beat of a horseman riding by on the red clay road interposed and rattled against the stones, and echoed from the bridge below with hollow reverberations.
“ What war that cur’us noise ? ” demanded Ben Doaks.
“ Sounded ter me like cattle a-bellerin’,” said old man Beames.
The attentive pause was illustrated by the red spark of each man’s pipe, dulling as it was held motionless for a moment in the hand ; then restored to the smoker’s lips, it glowed into subdued brilliancy, sometimes giving an elusive glimpse of the delicate and shadowy blue smoke curling from the bowl. There was nothing but a vague murmur, dropping presently into silence.
“ I b’lieve,” said Bylor, “ ez Peter Rood hed suthin’ on his mind.”
“ Me, too,” spoke up another man. “ He sot next ter me, an’ he looked troubled an’ tried, somehows, an’ wunst in a while he sighed mightily. I dunno what ailed him.”
“ I reckon he war sick,” suggested a by-stander.
“ He did n’t ’pear ter be sick. He turned an’ looked at me plumb pleased ter death when that Lethe Sayles ’lowed Tad war alive. An’ then when the ’torney-gineral made it out ez ’t war jes’ Tad’s harnt he jumped for’ards, an’ pinted with his finger, an’ next thing I knowed the man war a harnt hisself.”
The sound in the distance had become continuous, louder. Once more it broke upon the conversation. “ Boys,” said Jerry Price, in a tone of conviction, “ suthin’ is a-goin on somewhar.”
The vocation for the rôle of spectator is strong in humanity. Each of the long, lank mountaineers started up with unusual willingness, under the impression that he was balked of some entertainment at which nature intended that he should be dead-headed. The distant murmur was once more lost in the sounds nearer at hand. A sudden resonant, brazen clangor challenged the dark stillness. It had a vibratory, swaying iteration, for it was the court-house bell, rung as an alarum to the law-abiding population. As the group started swiftly in the direction of the sound, a man came running at great speed down the pavement, almost overturning old Beames, and called loudly to the proprietor of the hotel, asking if Judge Gwinnan were within. They recognized the deputy sheriff as he rushed into the bar-room.
“ The old man ’s been hevin’ hell with Mink Lorey, down yander at the jail,” he explained in breathless gasps. “ He kerried on like a crazy idjit when we tuk him back, — fout like a wild-cat every foot o’ the way. An’ now thar’s a crowd at the jail a-batterin’ the doors, an’ breakin’ the winders, an’ swearin’ they ’ll take Mink Lorey out.”
In pursuit of the promise of excitement their feet did not lag. They heard, as they set out, the deputy’s rasping voice behind them renewing his anxious demand for Judge Gwinnan ; then all other sounds were lost in the ceaseless thud of their own feet, and the insistence of the bell filling the darkness with its deliberate alternations of tone, till the night rocked and swayed with the oscillating, remonstrant sound. Approaching the court-house, they could hear those fainter and continuous vibrations of the bell-metal, the turbulent but bated undertones, that set the air a-trembling and seemed some muttered affirmation, some reserve of clamors, that should presently break out, too, and intone wrath and measured menace. The darkness seemed unparalleled, since there was something to be done and at hazard. Only at long intervals in the blackness, windows and doors of dwellings were opened, and here and there a venturesome female head was thrust out in baffled and hopeless curiosity. But most of the houses had closed blinds and barred doors, for the alarum of the court-house bell had told the inmates all that the prudent might care to learn. The streets of Shaftesville, grass-grown as they were, had known the tread of lynchers, and distrusted any lawless mission. It was so dark that men, meeting at intersections of the streets, ran blindly against each other, recoiling with oaths, — sometimes against trees and posts. A few provident souls, carrying lanterns, and looking in the blackness like fleet fire-flies, were made aware when they encountered the rescuers, in pressing in among the crowd in the jailyard, — the posse and the mob otherwise indistinguishable, — by having the lanterns struck out of their hands. The jail was silent; its very vicinity had a suggestion of glum resistance. Some consciousness in the air of a darker and solid mass was the only cognizance that the senses could take of its propinquity, except, indeed, the sound of breaking glass. A rail had been dragged from a fence, and, in the hands of unseen parties, after the manner of a battering-ram, the glass in the lower panes was shattered. This was wanton destruction, for the bars withstood the assault. The working of some instrument at them, ever and anon, was an evasive bit of craft, for, follow the sound as they might, the sheriff and his posse could never locate it. A light showing in an upper window was saluted by a volley of stones, and quickly disappeared. The missiles fell back in the dense, panting, nameless, viewless crowd, eliciting here and there a howl, succeeded by jeering laughter.
Once, as the glass crashed in a lower window, a child’s voice within whimpered suddenly; a soothing murmur, and the child was silent.
“ Mis’ Perkins,” called out a voice from among the mob to the jailer’s wife, “ make Jacob open the do’! Tell him we ’ll string him up ef he don’t, when we git holt o’ him.”
There was intense silence in the closely jammed, indistinguishable crowd without, for who could say who was the posse or who the mob, helpless against each other ?
A murmur of remonstrance within. An interval. A sharp insistence from the crowd, and a quavering response.
“ I can’t, gentlemen ! ” cried a shrill feminine voice. “ Jake’s sech a bullheaded fool, he won’t! ”
The summit line of the distant mountains was becoming vaguely visible ; the stars were not less bright, the black earth was as dark as ever, but the moonvise was imminent.
There was suddenly a surging commotion in the crowd ; it swayed hither and thither, and rushed violently upon the door. The point of attack being plain enough, there was some feeble resistance, offered presumably by the posse. A pistol was fired in the air — another — a wild turmoil ; all at once the door crashed and gave way ; half the assailants were carried over its splintered ruins by the force of their own momentum. There were lights enough now springing up in every direction. Men with torches dashed through the halls, holding them aloft with streaming clouds of flame and smoke, as erratic as comets. It required only a moment, with the united exertions of half a dozen stalwart young fellows, to break the door of Mink’s cell; it offered no such opposition as the main entrance.
There was no cry of joy as they rushed in ; no fraternal embrace for the liberators who had risked so much in the cause of natural justice.
The cell was empty. The bars at the window were firm as ever. The locked door was broken but a moment ago. And he was gone !
The word rang through the building. The infuriated crowd pervaded the cell in a moment, like some tumultuous flood. The jailer himself was not to be found. His wife and children had sought refuge elsewhere.
The doors were guarded against the sheriff, while a select party searched every room in the house. Some serious fright was occasioned to certain malefactors, who had reason to fear the people more than the law, and esteemed the jail in some sort as a haven, but there were many appeals for liberation. One of these, a victim of the federal court, Big Brandy Owen by name, made so earnest an insistence that his case was considered. But he was no genuine moonshiner, it was argued, in inversion of the usual pleas; he was only a saloonkeeper, who had fallen a victim to the liquor laws. “ We dunno ye,” they prevaricated. “ Ye ain’t labeled Brandy, ye see.” And so they locked his door upon him.
They did as much damage as they could, in default of accomplishing their object, and on retiring they dispersed without recognition among the peaceful citizens who had weakly striven, half heartedly, to uphold the law.
The moon was up. The Great Smoky Mountains, in magnificent immensity, clasped the world in the gigantic curve about the horizon east and south. The trees seemed veiled in some fine, elusive silver web, so gleaming a line of light came to the eye from their boughs. Frost sparkled upon the grass-fringed streets. The shadows were sharp and black. The stars — few now — faintly scintillated in empyreal distances. The town was so still, not even a dog barked. The rescuers experienced a luxury of bravado in the realization that it was for fear of them that it was fain to hold its breath and lie in darkness, save for the light of the moon. Perhaps it was as well, and spared further mischief, that they exulted in riding their horses at a gallop through the streets, breaking now and then into wild fantasies of yells, with a fantastic refrain of echoes.
The rioters after a time dispersed. A long interval, and perhaps a single equestrian figure would ride down the straggling street and whoop aloud, and turn in his saddle to listen for a comrade’s response, and then ride on.
Finally silence fell. The waning moon was high. The night was wellnigh spent. Sundry movements of shadows on window blinds, sundry dim yellow lights showing through them, despite the lustre of the moon, indicated that the inhabitants considered that the drama had been played, and were betaking themselves to bed. Alethea Sayles, crouching in the dormer window of the cottage where the witness fee had sufficed to lodge her, looking with dilated eyes over the little town enmeshed in the silver net of its frosted trees, strained her ears in the silence, and exclaimed in the anguish of suspense, “ They mus’ hev tuk him out, aunt Dely, or they would n’t hev been so gamesome.”
She knew little of town ways. Had the mob been successful, the frost itself could not disappear more silently.
Mrs. Purvine, her wise head pillowed, for the first time in her life, as she remarked distrustfully, on “ town folkses’ geese,” sleepily assented.
The moon looked down in Alethea’s upturned eyes. The fir that stood by the window tapped upon the pane. She felt as if it were a friendly and familiar thing, here where there were so few trees ; for the sight of houses — crowded, indeed, they seemed— overwhelmed her in some sort, and embarrassed her. It was all a-shimmer with the frost; even an empty bird’s-nest on a bough was a miracle of delicate interweaving of silver gleams. Her hair in its rich dishevelment fell in coils and tangles half-way to her waist. She clasped her hands over one knee. It was an interval of peace.
“ Lethe ! ” said Mrs. Purvine, rousing herself. “Ain’t that gal kem ter bed yit! ” The admonition was a subterfuge. She was about to impart information. “ Lethe, ef ye b’lieve me, these hyar crazy muskrats o’ town folks hev got sun-bonnets ready-made in these hyar stores.”
The vicissitudes of the trial had been the veriest trifles to her. She had utilized the metropolitan sojourn. She had pervaded the stores, as women of her sort do elsewhere. Mighty little there was in these stores that aunt Dely had not rummaged.
“ Ye tole me that afore,” said the absorbed Alethea.
Mrs. Purvine chuckled aloud as she reviewed the fact. It afforded her an occult complacence, yet she laughed at it.
Presently she recurred to it.
“ My cracky ! Lethe,” she exclaimed, “ who makes ’em ? ”
And with this problem in her mind, she fell asleep among the dubious comforts of “ town folkses’ geese.”
The fires of discontent smouldered throughout the next day. Although many of the country people had left town, there was more than the usual stir upon the streets. Idle knots of men strolling about or standing on the street corners neglected their avocations in eager discussions of the events of the previous evening. There was very general reprehension of the action of the mob, — so general that it might suggest a wonder as to whence came its component elements, and an unpleasant feeling that perhaps a satirical ringleader might be advancing these rebukes, and watching with secret laughter their effect. Many rumors prevailed, some so fantastic as to balk the credulity that sought to accept them, and others probable enough to be a solution of Mink’s disappearance. Some maintained that he had been liberated by the mob. Others said that at the time of the onslaught he had been hidden in the cellar with the jailer and the jailer’s family ; and this was again roundly denied, for the cellars were reported to have been thoroughly searched. It was said, too, that the prisoner had been gagged, bound securely, and boldly carried forth from the back door through the crowd in the intense darkness, and that he was now held in retreat at the sheriff’s house. However it might have been, that officer received about noonday two or three threatening letters signed, “ The men that elected you.”
He had since been disposed to exonerate himself, and he bore a troubled, anxious face about the town, and talked in a loud, strained, remonstrant falsetto. It was through some words which he let fall, in the perturbation of the discovery that he was liable to be held to account personally by this unknown and numerous enemy, that it became public he had applied to Judge Gwinnan, not in his judicial capacity, but for advice in this emergency, and that it was Gwinnan who had devised the ruse which had baffled the rescuers.
The curiosity as to Mink’s fate grew so pronounced as the day wore on that a party of young roughs went openly to the jail and interrogated the jailer. For that functionary had returned. He showed himself at the window of his stronghold jauntily enough. He had a jovial expression, a black mustache that turned cheerfully upward, — for he laughed often and usually laughed last, — quick brown eyes, and a bushy, unkempt head ; he was unshaven and in his shirt-sleeves. He seemed to care not an atom for the illogical views of his fellow-citizens.
“ I’m appinted by the sher’ff o’ Cherokee County ter keep folks in jail, an’ by Hokey, I ’m a-goin’ ter do it.”
They begged him to let them in; they had come to see him sociably, — a-visitin’, they protested.
“ Can’t git in hyar, ’thout ye steal a horse or kill yer gran’mother, one.” He shook his keys jocosely at them, and vanished.
At noon, when the train was due at the little station, the mystery was solved. The jailer was strolling up and down the platform, grave enough for once in his life, and with apparently no purpose. Asked if he were going to Glaston he replied, with an effort at his usual manner, “ Not in these clothes, if the court knows itself, an’ it rather think it do! ”
It was a day of doubtful moods, of sibilant gusts of wind and intervals of brooding stillness. There was a pervasive suggestion of moisture in the air, but as yet no rain. The odor of decaying leaves came from the woods on the other side of the road. The sunshine was uncertain. White clouds were silentty astir in the upper regions of the atmosphere ; among the distant blue ranges the intervenient valleys could he distinctly located by the mist rising from them, elusively showing, then veiling the further heights, and anon falling like some airy cataract over a mountain side, seeming to cleave it in twain, and simulating a gap, a pass, in the impenetrabilities of the massive cliffy range. The little stream that flowed along on the other side of the rails reflected the vacillating sentiments of the sky: now a cloud driving faster than its current showed up on its lustrous olive-green surface among the reflections of the crimson sumach bushes that lined its banks, and now it glittered in a burst of sunshine and emulated the azure of the changing heavens. The little town lay at a considerable distance; whether it hoped to grow up to the depot, or desired the advantages of civilization without its close contact, one might speculate in vain. Its clustering roofs were quite distinct among the thinning red and yellow and brown leaves of the trees.
A number of loungers waited to watch the train pass ; for it was only a short time since the road had been completed, and the engine was still a mechanical miracle in the estimation of many of the country people, who came sometimes great distances to see it. Harshaw was going down to attend the court at Glaston. He was much smarter than usual, although he wore on his yellow head a soft wide hat, which gave him a certain highwayman-like aspect. A gay necktie of blue shot silk showed beneath his yellow beard ; his stiffly starched cuffs, already much crumpled, protruded beneath his coat sleeves.
“ What are you about, my friend? Going to jump the country?” he demanded of the deputy-sheriff, who was embarrassed, and replied evasively that he was waiting to see a man. Harshaw turned to greet Gwinnan, who was also going off, having adjourned the court a few moments too late the preceding evening and thereby failing to catch the night train. Harshaw accosted him with a full expression of his large, bluff, familiar manner. It was received with a certain coolness, which may have been Gwinnan’s normal social temperature, but Harshaw was keenly alert to descry significance, and was disposed to refer it to the hasty threat at the court-house door. Gwinnan’s impassive inexpressiveness gave him no intimation whether or not it had been repeated, and as the judge stood looking about the little unpainted wooden depot, all its business easily to be comprised in the two rooms, Harshaw began to detail to him how much the road had cost, how it was hoped it would aid in developing the resources of the country, how it had already begun to conduct itself like a sure enough grown-up railroad, and had got into law. Suddenly the two shining parallel rails trembled with a metallic vibration. A distant roar growing ever nearer and louder impinged upon the air. A cloud of smoke appeared above the trees, and with a glitter of ournished metal, a turmoil of sound, a swift gliding rush, the overpowering imperious presence of the engine gladdened the sight of the simple country folks.
Gwinnan was silent as Harshaw talked, until suddenly that worthy broke off, “ Hello ! what’s going on here ? ”
Some distance up the red clay road from the direction of the town, a buggy was driven at a furious rate, with the evident intention of forestalling the departure of the train.
All the loungers saw it. The conductor saw it, and yet he cried out, “ All aboard ! ” and sprang upon the platform as the train began to move. The by-standers understood the ruse the next moment. There were two men in the buggy: one was handcuffed ; the other was the sheriff. The deputy and two guards dragged the prisoner across the platform and upon the slowly moving train, which forthwith rattled away around the curve at the greatest speed of which it was capable, leaving the suspected rescuers gazing blankly at it, and realizing that because of the insecurity of the county jail Mink was to be lodged in the metropolitan prison of Glaston.
It is said that nothing so expands the mental horizon as the experience of emotion. In this sense Mink was becoming a wise man. He knew despair not as a word, a theory, a sentiment, but in its baffled, futile finality. He had conned all the fine vacillations of suspense. He had exhausted the delusions of hope.
Only the supreme passion of rage had as yet unsated capacities. As he sat in the car, shackled, among his guards, he fixed his shining eyes, full of suppressed ferocity, on Gwinnan’s face, who was absorbed in a book and heedless, of his fellow-travelers. The guards did not notice the prisoner’s gaze, and after a moment it was diverted for a time. For Mink had quick enough perceptions and no mean power of deduction. He divined that his guards and fellowpassengers were in much perturbation lest the train should be stopped. At every intersection of the country roads with the track there was a perceptible flurry amongst them, an anxious outlook to descry mounted and armed men.
He had himself no further expectation of deliverance.
“Nobody’s goin’ ter resk ten year in the Pen’tiary fur rescuin’ me in broad daylight whar they could be knowed. Ef the mob wanted ter hang me, though, they would,” he said, with the cynicism of the truth.
“ Nobody wants ter hang you-uns, Mink, nor hurt ye no-ways. All ye need is a leetle patience ter wait fur another trial,” said the deputy.
“I ain’t got no mo’ patience,” said Mink drearily.
His fatigued faculties, that had almost sunk into stupor under the strain of excitement and suspense, roused themselves to take note of the surroundings. The motion of the train filled him with amaze. He held his breath to see the fantasies of the flying landscape without. The panting snorts and leaps of the engine, like some great living monster, the dull rolling of the wheels, the iterative alternating sound of the clanking machinery, each registered a new estimate of life upon his intent, expressive face. His eyes rested on the lamp fixtures shining in their places as if he beheld enchantment. The tawdry ornamentation, the paneling of light and dark woods with occasional glimmers of gilding, the faded red velvet of the seats, were to his unaccustomed eyes unparalleled magnificence. He asked no questions. He accepted it all simply, without comment, without consciousness. His fine head, with its rich coloring of complexion and eyes and hair, looked as if it might have been painted upon the panel of maple on which it leaned, he sat so still. His hat lay on the seat beside him ; he was well used now not to wear it. It may have been because he was innocent, it may have been because he felt no shame, but the handcuffs on his wrists seemed not more ignominious than a wild creature’s captivity.
He had been so docile, so unresisting all the morning that the deputy, who had grown to like the young fellow in their constrained intercourse, and valued him far more than a duller and a better man was disposed to treat him as gently as was consistent with duty. The guards were jolly and they joked with him ; but he had little to say, and presently they talked to each other, and looked over their shoulders at the rest of the company, covertly entertaining themselves with such fragments of the conversation as the roaring and clangor of the train permitted to be audible. They noticed after a time that the surroundings had ceased to interest him, and that he was looking with lowering and surly ferocity at Judge Gwinnan, intent upon his book.
“ Look-a-hyar,”said one of the guards, nudging Mink violently, “ye ’pear like some wild varmint. Ye look ez keen an’ wicked an’ mean ez a mink. Quit eyin’ Jedge Gwinnan like that, else I ’ll blindfold ye, —sure ’s ye born, I will.”
Mink’s dilated eyes rested upon the unconscious, half-averted face for a moment longer. Then they turned to the face of the deputy in front of him.
“ That thar man,” he said between his set teeth, and for all his voice was low it was distinct, even in the rumbling and noise of the train, so charged it was with the emphasis of intention, the definiteness of a cherished revenge, — “d’ye know what he hev done ter me ? He put Pete Rood on the jury, though he knowed Pete hated me, an’ why. He put the jury in jail, kase they war fools, an’ ’lowed they hed a harnt on the panel, an’ bein’ jailed conflusticated ’em so they could n’t find a verdict. He knows an’ they know Tad’s alive, but I hev got ter bide in jail fewer month longer an’ resk the Pen’tiary agin, account o’ a drownded boy ez hev run away. An’ when my friends wanted ter take me out’n jail, —God A’mighty ! I did n’t know I hed sech friends, — he goes out’n his way ter tell the sher’ff how ter flustrate ’em. An’ I war gagged an’ ironed, an’ toted out’n the back door, an’ kep’ at the sher’ff’s house, an’ am tuk off on the train. ’T war n’t his business. Ye know thar war n’t ez much ez that done whenst the lynchers kem fur Tim Jenkins, — not ter save the man’s life.”
“ Waal, he hed ter be hung some time, ennyhow,” said the deputy indisputably.
“ What did this hyar Jedge Gwinnan do all this hyar fur ? ” continued Mink.
“ Waal, Mink, he war obleeged ter, by his office. Ye know I don’t hold no grudge ter ye, though ye mighty nigh bruk my head when I arrested ye ; yit I ’m bleeged ter iron ye an’ gyard ye. I could n’t set no mo’ store by ye ef ye war my own blood relation,” said the deputy.
“ Naw, sir ! naw ! ” exclaimed Mink. “ This hyar man have tuk a notion ter Lethe Sayles, — I seen it; an’ he ’lows I ain’t good enough fur her, an’ he be doin’ sech ez he kin agin me on account o’ her.”
The deputy sheriff broke into a horse laugh. The others laughed, too, but more moderately. “ Ye air teched in the head, Mink,” one of them remarked.
“ Mebbe so,” Mink responded quietly enough, but with a glancing gleam in his dark eyes. “ But I ’ll remember what he hev done ter me. An’ I ’ll kill him fur it. By the Lord, I’ll kill him fur it. An’ ye shell see the day.”
He leaned back against the window, with his eyes cruelly bright, his lips curving, tossing his tangled hair with a quick, excited gesture, as if he saw his revenge an accomplished fact.
Somehow his look impressed the guards.
“ Naw, ye won’t,” said one of them. “ Ye won’t do nuthin’ like it. Ye air goin’ ter jail fower month an’ arter that ter the Pen’tiary five year, an’ time ye git out’n thar ye ’ll be so powerful pleased ter be foot-loose ye’ll mind yer manners the rest o’ yer days, an’ ye will hev clean furgot Jedge Gwinnan.”
He evidently thought some harshness salutary. Mink made no reply, and they presently fell to talking together of their town affairs and gossip, excluding him from the conversation, in which, in truth, he desired to take no share.
In contrast with the steam-cars, the old ox-cart was a slow way of getting through the world, and had little of that magnificence which forced itself upon Mink’s jaded and preoccupied faculties. But as Alethea turned her face toward the mountains, it seemed the progress into Paradise, so happy was she in the belief that the rescuers had prevailed. For she, aunt Dely, and Jerry Price had left town early that morning, before doubts and contradictions were astir. The waning yellow moon still swung high in the sky, above the violet vapors of the level west. Long shadows were stalking athwart the fields and down the woodland ways, as if some mystic beings of the night were getting them home. A gust of wind came shivering along the road once and again, — an invisible, chilly presence, that audibly rustled its weird garments and convulsively caught its breath, and was gone. Above the Great Smoky Mountains the inexpressible splendors of the day-star glowed and burned. She walked behind the cart much of the time with Jerry, while aunt Dely sat, a shapeless mass, within it. A scent of tar issued from its clumsy wheels, heavy with the red clay mire of many a mile; a rasping creak exuded from its axles, in defiance of wagon grease. The ox between his shafts had a grotesque burliness in the moonlight. The square, unpainted little vehicle was a quaint contrivance. Four of the dogs ran beneath it, in leash with their nimble shadows. And aunt Dely’s sun-bonneted head, nodding with occasional lapses into sleep, was faithfully reproduced in the antics of the silhouettes upon the ground that journeyed with them.
Now and again the Scolacutta River crossed their way in wide, shining curves scintillating with the stars, and then Alethea would perch upon the tail-board, and Jerry would clamber into his place as driver, and the dogs would yelp and wheeze on the bank, reluctant to swim, and the ox would plunge in, sometimes with a muttered low of surprise to find the water so cold. Fording the stream was slow work; the wheels often scraped against great hidden bowlders, threatening dislocation and destruction to the running gear. The transit was attended with a coruscation of glittering showers of spray, and left a foaming track across the swift current. Sometimes it was a hard pull up the steep, rocky bank opposite. The old ox had a sober aspect, a resolute tread, and insistently nodding horns. His sturdy rustic demeanor might have suggested that he was glad to be homeward bound, and to turn his back upon the frivolities of civilization and fashion. Not so aunt Dely. It seemed for a time as if her enforced withdrawal from these things had impaired her temper. She woke up ever and anon with caustic remarks.
“ I reckon now, Lethe Ann Sayles, ye be goin’ ter bide along o’ yer stepmother ? ”
“ Ye know that’s my home. I hev ter, aunt Dely.”
The girl’s voice was clear, sweet, thrilling with gladness, like some suddenly awakened bird’s singing a stave before dawn.
“ I b’lieve ye ! ” satirically. “ Ennybody but you-uns would be ’shamed ter own up ez ye hev got no home. Old ez ye be, an’ ye ain’t married yit! How old be ye ? Lemme see,” — with a tone intimating that she would give no quarter,— “nineteen year, five month, au’ fower days. It’s plumb scandalous,” she muttered, arranging her shawl about her. “Ye Bluff!” addressing the ox in a querulous crescendo, “ ye goin’ ter jolt the life out’n me, a-tryin’ ter ape the gait o’ the minchin’ sinners ye seen in Shaftesville! Actially the steer hev got the shuffles! I tell ye, Sodom an’ G’morrah war n’t nowhar fur seethin’ sin ter Shaftesville. The devil be a-gatherin’ his harvest thar. His bin an’ barn air full. Them folks will know some day ez store clothes ain’t no defense agin fire. They hev bartered thar salvation fur store clothes. But I do wisht,” she broke off suddenly, dropping her voice from her sanctimonious whine to her cheery drawl, “I hed one o’ them readymade sun-bonnets. I hed traded off all my feathers an’ truck for store sugar an sech afore I seen ’em. I was so full o’ laff that I could n’t keep my face straight whenst I viewed the contrivance.”
The darkness had fled ; the moonlight had failed ; the fine, chastened pallor of the interval — the moment’s pause before the dawn — showed the colorless sky, the massive dusky mountains, the stretches of woods below, almost leafless now, the gaunt, tawny fields here and there, the zigzag lines of the rail fences, the red clay road. There were gullies of such depth on either side that the ox, who received so little supervision that he appeared to have the double responsibility of drawing and driving the cart, demonstrated, in keeping out of pitfalls, ampler intellectual capacities than are usually credited to the bovine tribe. But indeed his gifts were recognized. “ I ain’t s’prised none ef some day Bluff takes ter talkin’,” his mistress often averred, with her worldly pride in her possessions.
The wind freshened : the white frost gleamed ; a pule flush, expanding into a suffusion of amber light, irradiated the blue sky; and the great red wintry sun rose slowly above the purple ranges.
They had barely passed through a gap of the mountain, and entered Eskaqua Cove, when they saw riding along an intersecting road close to the bank of the river a girl in a yellow homespun dress, with a yellow bonnet on her head, and mounted on a great white mare. She had the slaie of a loom in her hand which she had borrowed of a neighbor, and which served to explain her early errand.
Alethea, in her joy, had forgotten Elvira’s sneers and gibes the night she had brought to the Hollow the raccoon which Mink had given her. All other considerations were dwarfed by the rapturous idea that he was at liberty. Eager to tell the news, she sprang forward.
“ Elviry ! ” she cried. The girl drew up her mare and turned about. Alethea ran down the road and caught the bridle. “ Elviry,” she reiterated, “ Reuben air out o’ jail ! He’s free ! He’s free ! ”
The news was not received as she expected. Elvira put back her bonnet from the soft rings of short hair that lay about her head. She fixed her dark eyes on Alethea in doubting surprise.
“ Waal,” she demanded, as if herself sitting in judgment, “ who killed Tad?”
“Tad be alive ez I be!” cried Alethea, harried by the reawakening of those questions which she had thought were forever set at rest.
“ An’ did the jury say sech ?” Elvira asked. It might have seemed that with the breach between her and Mink complete, she was not rejoiced to hear of his good fortune.
“ The jury could n’t ’gree,” said Alethea breathlessly. “ The rescuers tuk him out.”
“ Sech ez that be agin the law,” said Elvira staidly.
“ I ain’t keerin’ fur the law! ” cried Alethea. “ He hev done no harm, an’ all the kentry knowed it. An’ ’t war n’t right ter keep him cooped in jail. So they tuk him out.”
She lifted her head and smiled. Ah, did she indeed look upon a wintry landscape with those eyes ? So irradiated with the fine lights of joy, so soft, they were, it might seem they could reflect only endless summers and plains of asphodels. The gaunt, bleak mountains shivered in the niggardliness of the averted sun ; the wind tossed her loose locks of golden hair from beneath her brown bonnet as if they were flouts to the paler beams.
Elvira looked down at her with the pitiless enmity of envy.
“ Waal,” she said, “ ’twixt ye two ye hev done me a powerful mean turn. Mink kep’ a-tryin’ ter cut out Pete Rood till I did n’t know my own mind. An’ then ye a-tellin’ them tales ’bout harnts till Pete drapped dead, — ye knowiu’ he hed heart disease ! Yes, sir, he’s dead ; buried right over yander in the graveyard o’ the church-house in the cove. An’ I reckon ye be sati’fied now, — ef ye kin be sati’fied.”
She looked away over the swift flow of the river, and fell to flecking her shoe with the hickory switch she carried.
Alethea’s face fell. She still stood holding the mare’s rein, but aunt Dely’s voice had broken upon the silence. For Bluff had followed Alethea when she turned from the main road, and had refused to be guided by Mrs. Purvine’s acrid adjurations. As to Jerry, he was stalking on ahead, unaware that the others were not close on his steps. Sawing upon the ropes on Bluff’s horns which served for reins, aunt Dely succeeded in drawing him up when she reached the spot where the two girls stood. She suddenly joined in the conversation with an astute intention.
“ Yes, sir, Mink’s out,” she said, confirming her niece’s statement. “ An’ ye ’ll hev ter do mighty little tollin’ ter git him back agin, Elviry,” she added beguilingly.
“ I don’t want no jail-bird roun’ me,” said Elvira, with a toss of her head.
“ Mebbe ye air right, chile ! ” cried Mrs. Purvine. “ That’s edzacly what I tole Lethe.” She nodded gayly, and her head-gear, swaying with the expressive gesture, could not seem more jaunty had it been a ready-made sun-bonnet from the store. “ Ye mark my words, Lethe air gain’ ter marry a man she seen in Shaftesville.” Elated with this effort of imagination, she continued, inspirationally, “ He ’lowed she war a plumb beauty, beat ennything he ever dreampt could hev kem out’n the mountings. He air a town man, an’ he be a fust rate one.”
“ Oh, aunt Dely ! ” faltered Alethea, amazed and almost speechless.
But aunt Dely, charmed with the image she had conjured up, had no mind to relinquish this mythical man, and added another touch of verisimilitude: “ He’s well off, too. Lethe, she don’t keer nuthin’ ’bout riches, but bein’ ez I hev’ sociated so much with town folks, I sorter set store by worldly goods, — though not enough ter resk my soul’s salvation, nuther.”
Aunt Dely’s evident desire was to combine spiritual and material welfare, and in that she was not unlike more sophisticated religionists.
The opinionated Bluff being induced to turn around at last, aunt Dely let fly a Parthian dart: “ But ez ter you-uns, Elviry, I dunno whether ye hed better be lookin’ down on fust one boy, an’ then another. Ye ’ll git lef’ hyar a lonesome single woman, the fust thing ye know, — the only one in the cove ! But then, mebbe ye’d better jes’ bow yer mind ter the dispensation, fur arter all ye mought n’t be able ter ketch Mink. The gals honey him up so ez he air toler’ble sp’iled ; they ’low he air special good-lookin’, though I hev never been able ter see good looks in him sence he kem ter my house, one night, an’ bedeviled my front steps so ez they hev never been so stiddy sence.”
“ Aunt Dely,” cried Alethea, when they were once more on their homeward way, “what ailed ye ter tell Elviry sech a pack o’ ” — Respect for her elders restrained her.
“ I war prompted by my conscience!” replied the logical Mrs. Purvine, unexpectedly. “ I can’t be at peace with my conscience ’thout doin’ all I kin ter purvent a spry, good-lookin’ gal like you-uns from marryin’ a wuthless critter sech ez Mink Lorey.” She made no secret of her designs. “ He be good a plenty an’ ter spare fur that thar snakeeyed Elviry Crosby, but I want ye ter marry Jerry Price, an’ kem an’ live along o’ me.”
The immaterial suitor evolved by Mrs. Purvine’s conscience dwelt in Alethea’s mind with singular consistency and effect afterward. When she was once more in Wild-Cat Hollow, and day after day passed, — short days they were, of early winter, — and Mink did not come, expectation was supplanted by alternations of hope and disappointment, and they in their turn by fear and despair. Was it possible, she asked herself, that he could have heard and credited this fantastic invention of Mrs. Purvine’s affection and pride; that Elvira had poisoned his mind; that he was jealous and angry ; that for this he had held aloof? Then the recollection of their old differences came upon her. His sorrows had obliterated them in her contemplation. It did not follow, however, that they had brought her nearer to him. He had long ago fallen away from her. Why should she expect that he would return now ? She remembered with a new interpretation his joyous relief the morning that she had told to him and his lawyer in the jail the story of her glimpse of Tad; although she had shared his gratulation, it was for his sake alone. She remembered his burning eyes fixed with fiery reproaches upon her face in the court-room, when the disclosure was elicited that it was in a graveyard she had seen the missing boy. After all, she had done nothing for him; her testimony had fostered doubt and roused superstition, and other and stronger friends had effected his release.
She became silent, sober-eyed, and absorbed, and went mechanically about the house. Her changed demeanor occasioned comment from Mrs. Jessup, who sat idle, with a frowzy head and an active snuff-brush, by the fireside instead of on the porch, as in the summer days. “ When Lethe fust kem back from Shaftesville she ’peared sorter peart an’ livened up. Her brain war shuck up, somehow, by her travels. I ’lowed she war a-goin’ ter behave arter this like sure enough folks, — but shucks ! she ’pears ter be feared ter open her mouth, else folks ’ll know she hev got a tongue ’twixt her teeth.” For Alethea found it hard now to reply to the continual queries of Mrs. Sayles and Mrs. Jessup, who had relished her opportunity, and in the girl’s observation of village life were enjoying all the benefits of travel without impinging upon their inertia or undertaking its fatigues. The elder woman sat smoking in the corner, her pink sun-bonnet overhanging her pallid, thin face, ever and anon producing a leaf of badly cured tobacco, and drying it upon the hearthstone before serving her pipe. Now and then she chuckled silently and toothlessly at some detail of the gossip. It had hurt the girl to know how little they cared for the true object of the expedition. They had not even asked for the result of the trial. Mink Lorey was naught to them, and they did not affect a picturesque humanity which they did not feel.
“ Waal, sir ! ” Mrs. Sayles would say, “I’ll be bound them town folks air talkin’ ’bout Dely Purvine yit. I jes’ kin view in the sperit how she went a-boguein’ roun’ that town, stare-gazin’ everything, like she war raised nowhar, an’ war n’t used ter nuthin’. Did n’t the folks laff powerful at yer aunt Dely ? ”
“ I never seen nobody laffin’,” protested Alethea, loyally.
Jacob Jessup, sober enough, but surly, was wont to sit in these days, too, idle by the fire. The farm work, such as it was, had been done. The stock he fed when he liked. He chose to consider Alethea’s metropolitan trip as a bit of personal self-assertion, and sneered whenever it was mentioned, and sought to ignore it as far as he might. For his own part, he had never been to Shaftesville, and he grudged her the distinction. He would not recognize it; he treated the fact as if it were not, and thus he extinguished it. He seemed somehow, as he sprawled idly about, to take up much more room by the fire than the women, despite their skirts, and he was often engaged in altercations with the dogs, the children, and the pet cub as to the space they occupied. The bear had been reared in a bad school for his manners ; he had grown intelligent and impudent and selfish in captivity among his human friends. He would stretch himself along the hearth in front of the family, absorbing all the heat, snarling, and showing his teeth sometimes, but steeling himself in his fur and his fat and his fortitude, and withstanding kicks and blows till his persecutor was tired. Sometimes Jessup would catch him by the rolls of fat about his neck and drag him to the door, but the nimble beast would again be stretched upon the hearthstones before the man could reach his chair. Jessup did the brute no great hurt, for, lowering and ill-natured as the fellow was, he was kindly disposed toward animals, and this made the more marked a sort of spite which he seemed to entertain toward the raccoon which Mink had given Elvira, and which she had brought to Alethea. The grotesque creature was in some sort a domestic martyr. As it scuttled about the uneven puncheon floor, he would affect to stumble over it, swear at it, seize it by the tail, and fling it against the wall. But the coon was of a mercurial disposition, and its griefs were readily healed. It would skulk away for a time, and then be seen eating stolen delicacies in its dainty fashion, washing the food between its two fore-paws in the drinking pail. Old man Sayles, silent, subdued, sat a sort of alien at his own fireside, sorting seeds, and bits of tobacco, buttons, herbs, tiny gourds, which went by the name of lumber with him, in a kind of trough beneath the window that served in lieu of sill. Now and then he passed his hand over his head and sighed. Perhaps he regretted his second matrimonial venture ; for the domestic scene was one of frowzy confusion, very pronounced when crowded into one small room, instead of being shared with the porch, which the wind swept now and shook, and where the mists congregated of evenings or the frosts convened. The children, L’onidas and Lucindy, were shrill at play. The baby had got on its feet, and was walking into everything, — unwary pans and kettles and tubs of water. Tige’s overbearing disposition was very manifest in his capacity as fireside companion. And when the chimney smoked, and L’onidas preferred his complaints at Alethea’s side as she sat and carded wool, and the cub leaned his weight against her as he contemplated the fire with his head upon her knee, and her step-mother scolded, and Jacob Jessup fumed and contradicted, and the experimental baby brought down the churn with a crash, while the cat lapped amid the waste, Mrs. Jessup would shift her snuff-brush to the other corner of her pretty mouth, and demand, “ Now ain’t Lethe a plumb fool ter live hyar along o’ sech cavortin’ ways up on the side o’ a mounting, a-waitin’ fur a pore wuthless scamp like Mink Lorey, when she could hev a house ter herself in Piomingo Cove, with no hendrance but Ben Doaks, a quiet, respectable boy, ez I don’t look down on kase he ain’t got religion ! I know some folks ez religion itself can’t holp.”
Sometimes, however, — it was at long intervals,—even Mrs. Jessup would be summoned to rouse herself from the heavy sluggishness that made all exertion beyond the necessary routine positive pain. The code of etiquette that prevails in the mountains, simple as it is, has yet its rigorous requirements; and when the death of a kinsman in Eskaqua Cove presently occurred, the graceless creature deplored it less than the supervening necessity of attending the obsequies. There was no snow, nor ice, nor rain, to urge as an excuse. The weather was singularly fine and dry. It was easier getting down the mountain now than in the summer. And so she was constrained to go.
The sunshine was still, languid ; the air was calm. Wild-Cat Hollow wore its wintry aspect, although below in the cove one might have glimpses of red and yellow, as if the autumn yet lingered. Everywhere there was a wider outlook because of the denudation of the woods, albeit the landscape was the more gaunt, the more rugged. It was like a mind stripped of the illusions of youth ; the stern facts are the plainer, and alas! more stern. The purplish-garnet hue of the myriads of bare boughs in the forests covering the mountain slopes contrasted with the indeterminate blue of the sky. There was a fibrous effect in their fine detail; even the great mass, seen at a distance, was like some delicate penciling. Singularly still it was, the air very dry ; the dead leaves on the ground did not rustle ; the corn-stalks, standing withered and yellow in the fields, did not stir. The only motion was the slow shifting of the shadows as the day went on, and perhaps high, high even above the Great Smoky, a swift passing of wild geese flying southward, their cabalistic syllable Houk! Houk! floating down, seeming in the silence strangely intoned and mysterious. At night a new moon looked through the gaunt, naked trees. The feeble glimmer from the little log cabin was solitary. The stars themselves were hardly more aloof from the world, from life. The narrow vista through the gap only made visible how darkly indistinguishable was the cove, how annihilated in the blackness were the mountains.
No sound of cattle drifted down now from the bald ; the herds were gone; sometimes in the midnight the howl of a wolf echoed and reëchoed in all the tortuous ways of the wilderness ; then silence, that seemed to tremble with fear of the reiteration of the savage cry. Alethea was prone to be wakeful and sad and anxious, so perhaps it was well that she had much to occupy her thoughts during the day. The baby fretted for its mother. Mrs. Jessup was not a model mother, but she was the only one the baby had, and it was not recreant to filial sentiment. It exacted a vast number of petty attentions from Alethea which it had never before required. Tige and the cub resented the pampering she gave it; they were jealous, and made their feeling known in many dumb manifestations : they kept themselves sadly in the way ; now they were hungry, and now they were thirsty, and they whined continually about her.
She hardly noticed at first that a thick haze had appeared over the cove, yet did not dim the sky. It climbed the mountain sides, and hung like a gauze veil about the cabin and the sheds. Suddenly she became aware of the pungent odor of smoke. She put the child away from her, as it clung to her skirts, and stepped out upon the porch. The dog and cub pressed close after her, fancying that they scored one against the baby, who had sunk, squalling because of its desertion, upon the floor.
She looked about for a moment at the still white presence that had usurped the earth, the air, the sky.
“ Somebody hev set out fire in the woods! ” she cried.
“ Hev ye jes’ fund that out ? ” drawled Jacob Jessup, as he sat on the porch. Her father and he were languidly discussing whether they should fire against it. It was far enough away as yet, they thought, and with the annual conflagrations in the woods they had become experts in judging of the distance and of the emergencies of fighting fire with fire.
She listened as they talked, thinking that Sam Marvin’s home, milesa way, would presently be in danger, if they were right as to the location of the fire. The cruel flames would complete the desolation she had wrought. Her conscience winced always at the recollection of its bare, denuded plight. Some small reparation was suggested in the idea that she might save it; she might go thither now and fire the dead leaves on the slopes below. Above there was a desolate, barren stretch of rocks, covering many acres, which the flames could hardly overleap. There was no wind, but a slight stir was now in the air. Its current was down the mountain.
She set out, Tige and the coon with her : the wild thing ambling demurely along with all the decorum of cultivated manners ; the domestic animal barking and leaping before her in mad ecstasy for the simple privilege of the excursion. The cub looked after them from the doorway, whined, and crept within to the fire.
As she went she was vividly reminded of the day when she had journeyed thither before, although the woods had then worn the rich guise of autumn, and they were now austere and bleak and silent, and shrouded in the white smoke. She even noted the lick-log at the forks of the road, where she had sat and trembled and debated within herself. She wondered if what she had said in the court-room would pursue the moonshiner in his hiding-place. Would it harm him? Had she done right or wrong? It seemed to her that with some moral perversity the wrong always pursued the right, and overcame it, and transformed it.
Still walking on up the steep slant to the moonshiner’s house, seeing only a yard or two before her, she presently came upon the fence. She paused and leaned upon the rails, and looked about her. The corn - field comprised more acreage than is usual in mountain agriculture. The destination of the crop was not the limited legitimate market of the region. It was planted for use in the still. She experienced another pang when she realized that it too was a grievous loss ; for Sam Marvin had been forced to leave the fruit of his industry when it stood immature in August. Now, the first of December, the full crisp ears leaned heavily from the sere stalk. She wondered that the abandoned crop, a fine one, had not been plundered. Then she bethought herself how deep in the wilderness it stood secluded. All at once she heard a rustling among the corn. Her first thought was the bear. In amaze she discerned a wagon looming hard by in the smoke. Then the indistinct figures of a man, a woman, and a half - grown girl came slowly down the turn row. To judge from their gestures, they were gathering the corn.
Charles Egbert Craddock.