In the Clouds
QUIET did not immediately ensue. After Harshaw had been ushered up the rickety ladder to the roof-room he heard voices below in low-toned conference. Occasionally he noted the peculiar chuckle of “ hongry Jeb,” suppressed even beneath its usual undertone ; for it was a sort of susurrus of laughter, never absolutely vocal. — a series of aspirated snorts and pantings. It was not jocular at best, and now conveyed sinister suggestions to Harshaw, as he listened to the vague sound of words he could not distinguish. He had not been conscious of an effort of close observation during the evening, and he was surprised to discover how definitely he could differentiate the murmurs, the mere methods of speech, of the various members of the household. As they discussed his fate, he knew who urged measures, who was overpowered in argument, who doubted. Now and then a word or two in the woman’s shrill voice broke from the huskiness of her whisper, for she was the most insistent of the group. He divined that her views were not mild, and he took hope from the intimations of opposition in the tones of the men as they gruffly counseled quiet. She it was. he felt sure, whom most he had to fear.
He had thrown himself, dressed as he was, on the sorry couch, which was made by placing two poles between the logs of the house, supported at the other end by a cross-bar laid in two crotched uprights on the floor. It was not a stable contrivance, nor, although it upheld a heavy feather bed, conducive to slumber, but Harshaw cared little for sleep.
The rain came through the leaks in the roof, now in an intermittent, sullen pattering, and now the drops falling in quick succession, tossed by the wind that whistled through the crevices, and piped a shrill refrain to the sonorous cadences trumpeted by the great chimney. Once, in a sudden flash of lightning, which was far distant and without thunder, he could see, through gaps in the chinking, the white clouds pressing close to the house.
Again and again his courage would reassert itself, of its own sheer force, and he would experience a sort of affront that it had ever lapsed, He hardly knew how he could hereafter face that fact in his consciousness. Then, in arguing to reinstate his self-respect, he would review the dangers of his position,— and rouse anew the fears he had sought to still. He would wonder that he did not die of fright; that he made no effort to escape, to fire the house and force his way out in the confusion, — his fingers even fumbled the matches in his pocket; that he could lie still and listen to the sound of words impossible to distinguish ; that he could turn, with the heavy gesture of one roused from sleep, when he heard a footfall on the rude stairs, and look yawning over his shoulder, and demand in a slumbrous voice, “ Why in the hell do you make such a racket?”
A glimmer of light quivered on the brown rafters ; it grew momently less flickering ; it revealed the wretched apartment, the slanting floor, one or two pallets rolled up against the wall. And finally, as from a trap-door of a theatre, through the rude aperture in the floor, Jeb’s gaunt black head appeared among the shadows which the tallow dip, that he carried in his hand, could not dispel.
He came in, and placed the sputtering light on the strut that supported one of the rafters, and was converted to shelflike utility. Marvin followed, sitting down on the foot of Harshaw’s bed. His face was more lowering than that of the other man ; he leaned his hands ponderingly on his knees, his elbows turned outward, and bent his eyes on the floor in deep meditation.
There was a pause.
“Hello?” said Harshaw interrogatively, raising himself on his elbow and boldly taking the initiative. “ Anything the matter ? ”
Jeb sat down on a keg close to the chimney, and the perturbed hosts glanced at one another.
“ Waal, stranger,” said Marvin, “ ye hev gone an’ put us in a peck o’ troubles, ter kem interruptin’ us in this fur place, whar we hev been hunted an’ hounded ter.”
“ Yes, sir,” remarked “ hungry Jeb.” “same ez the varmint, ez be specially lef’ out’n salvation by the Bible.”
Marvin cast a glance over his shoulder at Harshaw. Then he continued, evidently striving to put the worst possible interpretation on the situation and to work himself into a rage : “ We-uns air a-thinknu’ ez ye mought be a spy fur the revenuers.”
Harshaw let Ins head fall back on the pillow. His resonant, burly laugh rang out, jarring the rafters, and rousing in its hearty jocundity the reciprocity of a smile on " hongty Jeb’s ” cadaverous face. Even Marvin, casting another hasty look over his shoulder, was mollified.
“ Ye’d better be keerful how ye wake Philetus up, with his nap haffen out ; ye ’ll ’low ye air neighborin’ a catamount,” he admonished his guest.
“I tell you,” said Harshaw, clasping his hands behind his yellow head as he lay at length, “ you fellows live up here in these lonesome woods till your brains are addled. Why on earth would I. single-handed, mind you, a lawyer, a member of the legislature, with a good big farm of my own and half a dozen houses in town ” (he had never before thought to brag of them), “ risk myself here, for the little reward I could get if— mighty big if. folks — if I could get away again ? ”
He lifted his eyes, with a bluff challenge of fair play.
“ You know who I am. You’ve seen me in Shaftesville. You know my farm down there in Kildeer County, on Owl Creek. Spy! Shucks! it makes me laugh. Do the quality often come spying for the revenuers in this neighborhood ? ”
Ten days ago he could not have believed that, however closely harried, his tongue would ever so forget its formula as thus to repudiate his alignment with the Plain People, and to claim to rank with “ the quality.”
Under other circumstances the two mountaineers might have resented this arrogation of superiority. They were, however, by virtue of their law-breaking, a trifle more worldly-wise than their stolid compatriots of the hills. It had been in some sort an education ; bad familiarized them with the springs of commercial action, the relations of producer and consumer, the value of money or its equivalent ; bad endowed them with an appreciation of emergency and an ingenuity in expedients and make-shifts ; had forced upon their contemplation the operations of the law ; and their great personal risk had superinduced care, thoughtfulness, and the exercise of a certain rude logic.
As they unconsciously sought to realize Harshaw’s position in the world, resources. opportunity, their suspicion that he was a spy gradually waned.
There was a short pause. The candle sputtered on the timber where it had been placed, the flame now rising apparently with an effort to touch a resinous knot in the wood just above it, and now crouching in a sudden gust from a crevice bard by. The rain came down with redoubled force for a few moments, then subsided again in to its former steady, monotonous fall. Harshaw’s senses, preternaturally keen now, detected an almost imperceptible stir on the ladder that ascended to the loft. He knew as well as if he had seen the coterie that Marvin’s wife and the rest of the moonshiners were sitting on the rounds, listening and awaiting the announcement of his fate. Perhaps it was this which prompted his reply, when Marvin said pettishly, —
“It air all M’ria’s fault. Ef she hed n’t been so powerful quick ter git down the gun, ye ’d hev never knowed nor axed whar ye war, nor s’picioned nuthin’.”
“ Yes, I would, though,” Harshaw declared.
Marvin once more looked over his shoulder, and the lawyer quaked at the risk he ran.
“ I saw Tad, you know, and I was figurin’ ’round, big as all-out-of-doors, how I was going to produce him in court, and she thought I meant right off. Then, the minute I saw you I knew you, — and I had heard that girl say you were moonshining.”
“ Ai - yi ! Sam Marvin ! ” cried a shrill feminine voice from the primitive stair-way, “ that’s what ye got fur tryin’ ter put the blame on me!”
Sam Marvin turned his bushy head toward the aperture in the floor. It might seem that Mrs. Marvin had left him nothing to say, but the versatility of the conjugal retort is well-nigh limitless, and he could doubtless have defended himself with an admirable valor had not Jeb “ the hongry ” interfered.
“ Shet up, Sam.” he said, looking positively famished in his lean anxiety. “ We-uns bed n’t thunk o’ that. Mink Lorey hev got ter be tried agin.”
It was all that Harshaw could do to restrain some expression of despair at this infelicitous turn given to the consultation, at which he seemed to assist to devise his own doom. He found a certain relief in shifting his position, and still, with his hands clasped under his head, briskly participated in the conversation,
“ Yes,” he assented, in a debonair way which caused Marvin to look at him in lowering amazement. ‘'I’m Mink’s lawyer, but I could n’t testify for him. I could n’t swear of my own knowledge that this Tad is the same boy, for I never saw him before.”
Both of the men lapsed into the attitude of laborious pondering. Now and then each looked at the other, as if to descry some intimation of the mutual effect,
Harshaw, with another bold effort to possess the situation, yawned widely and stretched bis muscles.
“ Oh — oh — oh — oh ! ” he exclaimed, on a steadily descending scale. “ Well, gentlemen,” his features once more at rest, his voice normal,”I should be glad to continue our conversation tomorrow”— lie waved his hand bluffly — " or next week. I ain’t used to huntin’,— that is, huntin’ deer,—and I’m ill and about knocked up. If you’ve got anything to say to me, say it now, or keep it till to-morrow.”
The two looked doubtfully at each other.
“ Mr. Harshaw,” said Marvin, “ weuns air feared to let you-uns go.”
“ Go to sleep ? ” asked Harshaw jocosely.
Jeb grinned, weakly, however, and Marvin continued : —
“ Ter go ’way at all.”
“ Well.” said Harshaw, easily, with another demonstration of somnolence, “ I ’ll stay just as long as you like ; you ’re a clever lot of fellows, and I ’ll be contented enough. I’ll be bound. Your setting up all night is the only fault I have got to find with you.”
They apparently submitted this answer from one to the other, and each silently canvassed it.
“ Ye know too much.” said “ hongry Jeb.”
“ I ’ll know more if I stay. I ’ll find out whether you are moonshining now, sure enough, and where the still is.”
“That’s jes’ what I hev been tellin’ ye! ” cried Mrs. Marvin’s shrill voice from the ladder.
“Shet up, M’ria!” exclaimed Marvin, before “ hongry Jeb ” could interpose his pacifying “ Shet up, Sam.”
“ Waal,” resumed Marvin, in angry perturbation, “it’s mighty ill-convenient, yer nosin’ us out this way, up hyar, an’ many a man fixed like me an’ Jeb would fling ye off’n a bluff, ez ef ye hed fell thar, an’ turn yer mare loose.”
Once more Harshaw’s rich, round laughter jarred the room.
“I’m in earnest,” said Marvin, sternly. “ That’s what most men would do.”
“ Oh no, they would n’t,” said Harshaw, cavalierly.
“ Why would n’t they ? ” demanded Marvin, his curiosity roused by this strange indifference.
“ Because those fellows I was hunting with will be sure to find this place, and they would know I would n’t go fall off a bluff of my own accord, after such a good supper as I had here, and such a good bed. They would n’t know I was n’t allowed to sleep in it, though, on account of a long-jawed couple like you two.”
He looked the picture of unconcern,
— as if he had not really credited their words.
“ They could n’t track ye hyar,” argued Jeb ; “ ground too dry yestiddy fur yer critter’s huffs ter make enny mark.”
“ Bless your bones ! ” cried Harshaw, contemptuously, “ I broke a path nigh a yard wide in the brush, and I blazed every oak-tree I met with my huntingknife, — look and see bow hacked it is,
— and I cut my name on the first beech I came across. Think I was going to get lost in this wilderness without leaving any wav for my friends to find me ? They know pretty well where they left me. As soon as it’s light enough they’ll be on my track.”
He lied seldom, but with startling effect. The verisimilitude of his invention, which had flashed upon him at the last moment, carried conviction. The other two men looked at each other in consternation.
This was the secret of his ease of mind. This was the reason that he was willing to abide with them as long as they listed. These mysterious friends, these lurking hunters, might materialize at any moment when day should fairly dawn. The moonshiners asked with eager curiosity the names of the party. Marvin knew none of them, for it was a new region to him, and his vocation restricted his social opportunities. He had sprung up from the bed, and stood holding his ragged beard with one hand, and gazing with perplexed eyes at the recumbent lawyer. The frightful deed that he and his confederates had contemplated, that had seemed their only safe recourse, — to fling the intruder over a precipice, and leave his mare grazing near, as if in his search he had fallen, — had a predestined discovery through the craft of the man who had marked the devious trail of his footsteps to their door. The moonshiner trembled, as be stood so near this pitfall into which be had almost stumbled.
There had been a stir on the stairway ; clumsy feet descended the rickety ladder. The movements below continued ; there sounded the harsh scraping of a shovel on the rude stones of the hearth, and presently the newly kindled flames were crackling up the chimney; the flickering tallow dip was not so bright that the lines of light in the crevices of the flooring might not indicate how the room below was suddenly illumined. A smell of frying bacon presently pervaded the midnight.
“ By Gosh ! ” cried Marvin, rousing himself from his brown study with a quick start, “ air M’ria demented, ter set out a-cookin’ o‘ breakfus’ in the middle o’ the night ? ”
He turned himself suddenly about, and started down the ladder. " Hongry Jeb,” looking after him with a keen anxiety, rose abruptly, took the candle, and, holding it above his lean, cadaverous face, vanished by slow degrees through the trap-door, feeling with his feet for each round of the ladder before he trusted his weight upon it. Harshaw lifted himself upon his elbow, watching the gradual disappearance. His face was pink once more ; the flesh that had seemed ten minutes since to hang flabbily upon it was firm and full; his opaque blue eyes were bright; the last feeble, ineffective rays of the vanishing candle showed his strong white teeth between his parted red lips, and his triumphant red tongue thrust out derisively.
Then he fell back on his pillow, and tried to sleep. He felt, however, the pressure of the excitement; his pulses, his nerves, could not so readily accord with his calm mental conclusions, his logical inference of safety. The tension upon his alert senses was unrelaxed. The stir below-stairs made its incisive impression now, when he hardly cared to hear, as before, when he had strained every faculty to listen. He knew that it was Mrs. Marvin who had first devised, the solution of the difficulty ; she had already set about its execution while she advocated the measure, and insisted and argued with the men, who were disposed to canvass alternatives, and doubt, and wait. Often her shrill voice broke from the bated undertone in which they sought to conduct the conference, or she whispered huskily, with vibrant distinctness, hardly less intelligible.
“ Ye an’ Jeb take him,” she urged. “ Let the t’others go an’ hide round ’bout the still. When the hunters git hyar they ’ll find me an’ Mose an’ the chillen, an’ I ’ll tell ’em my old man he gone with Mr. Harshaw, a-guidin’ him down the mounting. They ’ll never know ez thar be enny moonshinin’ a-goin’ on hyar-abouts, — nuthin’ ter show fur it.”
She clashed her pans and pots and kettles, in the energy of her discourse, and Harshaw lost the muttered objection.
“ Ef ye don’t,” she persisted, in her sibilant whisper. — " ef ye kill him, fling him off’n the bluff or sech, — they’ll find the body, sure ! ”
A chill ran through the listener as he bent his ear.
“ The buzzards or the wolves will fust, an’ them men 'II track him ter our door, an’ track ye ter the spot.”
The rain pelted on the roof ; the flames roared up the chimney ; the frying meat sputtered and sizzled, and the coffee dissipated a beguiling promissory odor. One of the men — the lawyer thought it was “ hongry Jeb ” — suggested in a dolorous whisper that they could depend in no degree on Harshaw’s promise of secrecy. No man regarded an enforced pledge as sacred.
“ Them ’s all old offenses, ennyhows,” argued the woman. “ But this hyar, what ye men air a-layin’ off ter do ” —
“ ‘ Ye men’!” sneered her husband. “ Ye war the bouncin’est one o’ the whole lay-out fur doin’ of it.”
“ But, Lord A’mighty,” she protested, “ who’d ever hev thunk o’ sech a smart thing ez markin’ his trail ter the very door? He mus’ be the devil. Smart enough, ennyways! ”
She clashed her pots and pans once more, and moved about heavily across the floor.
“ I ain’t misdoubtin’ but what he air a big man whar he hails from, an’ they sets store by him, an’ they’d be mighty apt ter stir round powerful arter him ef he was los’. An’ this would be a new offense, — sure ter git fund out. An’ Lord knows, we-uns hev been runned mighty nigh ter the jumpin’-off place from the face o’ the yearth, an’ I want ter be let ter set down, an’ ketch my breath, an’ see Philetus grow an’ git hearty, an’ let me hev a chance ter die in peace.”
Once more Jeb’s rumbling voice rose along the stair-way.
“ Shet up, Jeb ! ” she cried. “ Ye hev jes’ been a-settin’ thar all the night a-shakin’ yer head, an’ a-lowin’ ye wisht he lied done suthin’ mean ter ye, so ez in gittin rid o’ him yer feelin’s would n’t be hurt. Now yer feelin’s air safe, an’ ye ain’t got no mo’ thankfulness ’n that thar cross-eyed, mangy hound fur the loan o’ a pipe.”
The mystery of cerebration; the strange, unmeasured force which works in uncomprehended methods to unforeseen results; the subtle process now formulating, and now erasing, an idea, like the characters of a palimpsest, was never so potently present to Harshaw as in contemplating the inspiration, the lucky thought, that had given him back to life, to hope, to sheer identity. He took himself to task, knowing that the obvious, the natural, the simple suggestion had lain all the evening in his mind, waiting the effective moment. He reproached himself that he should have suffered the. agony of fright which he had endured. “ I might have known,” lhe argued within himself, in his bluff vanity. " that I’d have come out all right.”
He fell asleep, presently, and when he was roused he rose with so genuine a reluctance that the last lurking doubt which Marvin and “ hongry Jeb ” had entertained vanished, as he went yawning down the ladder.
“ I hate ter hev ter turn ye out’n my house ’fore day,” Marvin remarked, “ but ye know I ’m hunted like a b’ar, or suthin’ wild, an’ I can’t be expected ter show manners like folks. Me an’ Jeb air a-goin’ ter take ye pretty fur off. so ez ye kin never find yer way back, an’ by daylight ye ’ll be set in yer road. I ’m hopin’ yer friends won’t git hyar; ef they does, I don’t want ’em ter kem in, an’ ef they hain’t got no reason ter stop I reckon they ’ll go on. I’m powerful sorry ye kem along.”
“ Though ye be toler’ble good com’p’ny, an’ we-uns ain’t got nuthin’ agin you-uns,” remarked “ hongry Jeb,” politely.
“ Kase,” continued Marvin, in a singsong fashion, as he sat down at his table, on which the corn-dodgers and bacon smoked, “ kase we-uns air hunted an’ driv by the law, — ez ’lows we sha’n’t still our own corn ef we air a mind ter, — we hev been afeard ye “d tell ’bout’n we-uns an’ whar we air hid.”
“What for?” demanded Harshaw, with an incidental manner. He too was seated at the board ; one elbow was on it, and he passed bis hand over his eyes and yawned as he spoke. “ So as to be dead sure to get beat like hell the next time I run for anything? An informer is mighty unpopular, no matter what he has got to tell. And make the biggest kind of hole in my law practice? ”
“ That’s a fac’,” said Jeb. impressed with the logic of this proposition.
“The favor of Cherokee and Kildeer counties is the breath of my political life, and you don’t catch me a-fooling with it by letting my jaw wag too slack,” continued Harshaw.
Philetus, the only member of the family that had gone to bed, slumbered peacefully in a small heap under the party-colored quilts. The dancing firelight revealed his yellow head, and again it was undistinguishable in the brown shadow. The pullet and Mose sat on a bench at one side of the fire, and the moonshiners tilted their chairs back on the hind legs, and watched the bright and leaping flames, which were particularly clear, the fire being rekindled upon a warm hearth and in a chimney already full of hot air. The occasional yawning of the group gave the only indication of the hour. The sharp-faced woman sat in her chair, with folded arms, ever and anon gazing at her guest, who had so strangely commended himself. His clever ruse to insure being followed by his friends had induced infinite admiration of his acumen.
“ I reckon ef ye wanted ter go ter Congress or sech. thar would n’t be nuthin’ ter hender,” she said slowly, contemplating him.
She was a simple woman, and he a wise man. He flushed with pleasure to hear his cherished thought in another’s words. He bore himself more jauntily at the very suggestion. He toyed with his knife and fork as he protested.
“ There !s a mighty long road to travel ’twixt me and Congress.”
“ Waal, you-uns kin make it, I ’ll be bound,” she said.
And he believed her.
As he rose from the table, at the conclusion of the meal, he took out his purse.
“ Nare cent.” said Marvin hastily. “ We-uns hev been obligated by yer comp’ny, an’ air powerful pleased ter part in peace.”
Harshaw insisted, however, on leaving his knife for Philetus, and expressed regret that one of the blades was broken.
“ He can’t cut hisself with that un, nohow,” said the anxious mother, in graciously accepting it.
Harshaw divined that she might have valued it more if all the blades had been in like plight. She placed it carefully on the high mantel-piece, where, it was safe to say, Philetus would not for some years be able to attain it,
Harshaw never forgot that ride. As the light flickered out from the door into the black midnight, vaguely crossed with slanting lines of rain, to the rail fence where his mare stood, saddled, the pistols in the holster, he experienced an added sense of confidence in his own methods and capacities, and an intense elation that so serious an adventure had terminated with so little injury.
When he was in the saddle he looked back at the little house, crouching in the infinite gloom of the night and the vast forests that overhung it, with no fierce recollection of his trepidation, of his deadly and imminent peril. In conducting himself with due regard fori the representations he had made, his mental attitude had in some sort adapted itself to his manner, and he felt as unconcerned, as easy, as friendly, as he looked. He hallooed back a genial adieu to the household standing in the doorway, in the flare of the fire. Philetus, roused by the noise to the sense of passing events, appeared in the midst, rubbing his eyes with both hands. The group gave the guest godspeed, the dogs wagged their tails. As Harshaw rode out of the inclosure, the vista of the room seemed some brilliant yellow shaft sunk in the dense darkness. And then he could see nothing: the rain fell in the midst of the black night; he felt it on his hands, his face, his neck; he turned up the collar of his coat; he heard the hoofs of his mare splashing in the puddles, and he marveled how the beast could see or follow Jeb, who, mounted on the smaller of Marvin’s two mules, led the way, while Marvin himself brought up the rear. He could only trust to the superior vision of the animal, and adjust himself to the motion which indicated the character of the ground they traversed: now through tangles and amongst rocks ; now coming almost to a halt, as the mare stepped over the fallen bole of a tree ; now a sudden jump, clearing unseen obstructions; now down hill, now up; now through the rushing floods of a mountain torrent. Harshaw’s buoyant mood maintained itself; his bluff voice sounded in the midst of the dreary rainfall, and his resonant, gurgling laugh over and again rang along the dark, wintry fastnesses. His geniality was communicated to the other men, and the conversation carried on at long range was animated and amicable.
“ I wonder what ’s become of those scamps I was hunting with,” he remarked. “I just know that shed of pine branches they fixed has leaked on ’em this night. I ’ll bet they ’re wallowin’ in mud.” He experienced a certain satisfaction in the thought. They had not been so badly scared as he, but at all events the camp hunters could not be happy under these circumstances.
How vast, how vast was the wilderness ! Unseen, it gave an impression of infinite space. The wind clashed the bare boughs above his head. The pines wailed and groaned aloud. The commotion of the elements, the many subordinate, undetermined sounds, the weird, tumultuous voices of the forest, rising often to a terrible climax, had a mysterious, overpowering effect. It was a relief to detect a familiar note in the turmoil, even if it were the howl of a wolf, or the distant crash of a riven tree. How his mare plunged and floundered ! — her head and neck now high before him. till he almost fell back upon her haunches, and now diving down so low that he had much ado to keep from slipping over the pommel.
“ Well, Marvin,” said Harshaw. once more on level ground, “ if you and deb will come down to my farm and visit me, I ’ll promise you one thing. — I won’t turn you out of the house at midnight in a downpour like this — ha ! ha ! ha ! Confound you, old lady,” — to the mare, as she stumbled, — “ stand up, can’t you ? ”
“ You-uus ought n’t ter set us down that-a-way,” said Marvin, grieved at the reflection on his hospitality.
“ Lord A’mighty ! ” exclaimed “ hongry Jeb,” — bis tones out of the darkness were vaguely yearning,— " talkin’ ter me ’bout ever kemin’ ter see ennybody at thar farm! Ye mought ez well ax that thar wolf ez we-uns hearn a-liollerin’ yander, ‘ Jes’ kem an’ set awhile, Mister Wolf, an’ eat supper at my farm.’ I would n’t dare no mo’ ter show my muzzle in the settlemints ’n he would his’n. The law ’lows both o’ us air pests an’ cumberers o’ the grouu’, an’ thar’s a price on his bead ez well ez mine. The law ’lows we air both murderers.”
There was a pause, while the tlmd of the horses’ footsteps were barely heard ou the dank, soft mould. Then the voice of “ hongry Jeb ” seemed to detach itself from kindred dreary voices of the rain and the winds and the woods, and become articulate.
“ That’s edzae’ly whar it hurts my feel in’s. The wolf air enough mo’ like the revenuers, a-seekin’ who they may devour. I oughter played the sheep, I reckon, an’ gin ’em my blood stiddier lead ; but I’m human, — I 'm human,” insistently. " An’ when a feller with a pistol draws a bead on me, I jes’ naterally whips up my rifle an’ bangs too. An’ he war a pore shot an’ I war a good un, an’ he got the wust o’ it.”
The horses surged through the ford of an invisible torrent, stumbling among the rolling bowlders and struggling out on the other bank, and then they could hear again the monotonous falling of the multitudinous raindrops ; the dreary wind took up its refrain, and the melancholy voice of Jeb began anew.
“ ’T would hev been self-defense, ef 1 lied n’t been engaged in a unlawful act. preferrin’ ter squeege the juice out’n my apples, an’ bile an’ sell it, ’n ter let ’em rot on the groun’. I war a fool. I ’lowed the apples war mine. Me an’ my dad an’ my gran’dad hed owned the orchard an’ the lan’ sence the Injun went. But’t war n’t my apples.— b’long ter the governmint. I ain’t never shot at no man ez didn’t shoot at me fust. But ’t ain’t self-defense fur me. I ’m got ter play sheep.”
The woful tenor of this discourse seemed to anger Marvin, suddenly.
“ Waal, I wish ye war slartered now ! ” he broke out. “ I’d jes’ ez lief listen ter that thar wolf conversin’ by the hour. What ails ye, Jeb, ter git set a-goin’ so all-tired lonesome an’ doleful ? ”
“ Lord, nuthin’,” said Jeb amenably, from the van of the procession. “ I ain’t lonesome nor doleful, nuther. When Mr. Harshaw ’lowed suthin’ ’bout my kemin’ ter see him on his farm, it jes’ reminded me sorter ez when I war young, afore my diff’unce with the governmint, I used ter be a powerful lively boy, an’ knowed plenty o’ folks, an’ went about mightily, —never lived like I does now. I war sorter o’ a vagrantin’ boy, — used ter consort with boys in the valley, an’ they’d kem’ up ter the cove an’ bide an’ go huntin’, an’ I ’d go down ter thar farms; an’ that’s how kem I knowed whar ye live on Owel Creek. Powerful good land some of it air, — mellow, rich sile ; some cherty hillsides, though. None o’ them boys hev turned out like me. Why, I used ter know Jeemes Gwinnan ez well ez the road ter mill, an’ Jim ’s a jedge a-gracin’ the bench, an’ I’m — a wolf ! ”
Harshaw experienced a sudden quickening of interest. “ You knew Gwinnan ? ”
“ Lord, yes; ez well ez the bark knows the tree. Jeemes war a fine shot, an’ he liked huntin’ fust-rate. He hed n’t his health very well, an’ his mother, bein’ a widder - woman, war more ’n naterally foolish ’bout’n him, an’ war always lookin’ fur him ter die. So she’d keep him out’n doors ez well ez she could. But he’d kerry his book along, an’ read, ’thout he war a-huntin’. So she let him kem whenst he war jes’ a boy, an’ go huntin’ in the mountings along o’ the men growed. An’ it done him good. He war ez fine a shot ez I ever see.”
A wonderful thing was happening in the woods, — the familiar miracle of dawn. The vast forests were slowly asserting dim outlines of bole and branch, lodgment for the mist which clothed them in light and fleecy illusions of foliage. A gray revelation of light, more the sheer values of distinctness than a realized medium, was unfolding before the eye. The serried slants of rain fell at wider intervals, and the equestrian form of Jeb became visible, — lank, lean, soaked with rain, his old white hat shedding the water from its brim in rivulets upon his straight and straggling hair. As he jogged along on the little mule, whose long ears seemed alternately to whisk off the shades of night, he seemed a forlornly inadequate individual to have had a “ diff’unce with the govern mint.”
Jim’s what reminded me of how 1 war fixed in life,” he went on. more cheerfully. “An’this hyar whole trip air what reminded me o’ Jim. I guided him — mus’ hev been fourteen year ago, or mo’— through jes’ sech a rainy night ez this, an’ through these hyar very woods — naw, sir ! more towards the peak o’ Thunderliead.”
“ I dunuo ez ye hev got enny call ter be so durned pertic’iar ’bout the percise spot,” said Marvin, significantly.
“ That *s a fac’,” said Jeb, good-naturedly. “ I guided him through the mountings an’ over the line inter the old North State.”
“ “W hat in hell did lie want to go there for, in the rain and the dead of the night ? ” asked Harshaw. I Its breath was quick ; he felt that he panted on the brink of a discovery. Now plunge !
u Kase, stranger, he war obleeged ter, sorter like you-uns,” said Jeb enigmatically.
He looked back over his shoulder, with perhaps some stirring doubt, some vague suspicion, at the man who followed ; but Harshaw, now lifting a hand to thrust a branch from across the path, now adjusting the bridle about the mare’s head, seemed so careless, so casual, in his curiosity that Jeb was reassured as to the innocuousness of his gossip, and went on.
“ Ye see, them fellers he consorted with — huntin’, an’ a-pitchin’ o’ quates, an’ a-foot-racin’, an’ sech — war mostly powerful servigrus, gamesome folks ; an’ some o’ ’em war gin ter toler’ble wild ways, an’ Jeemes — his mother never keered much what he done, so ez he’d quit stickin’ so all-fired constant ter his law-books, kase he war a-studyin’ law by that time in old Squair Dinks’s lawoffice in Colbury — he war ’bout twentytwo year old — he war mixed up in a deal o’ them goin’s-on. An’ from one little thing an’ another he hed some illwill started agin him wunst in a while. Him an’ Eph Saunders hed a fallin’-out wunst. Eph was a tremenjious strong man, an’ he kep’ flingin’ words at Jeemes. Sence Jeemes hed tuk ter studyin’ o’ law an’ sech, an’ ’peared right hearty, he tuk up with town ways powerful, an’ went ter meet’n a-Sunday nights, ’scortin’ the gals, an’ dressed hisself like a plumb peacock. An’ whenst Eph ’tended circus in Colbury he met up with Jeemes, who hed a lot o’ his galcousins along. An’ Eph war drunk, an’ Jim gin him a push aside, an’ Eph, lie fell on the groun’. Waal, sir, it like ter killed Eph, — ter be knocked down by a man o’ Jeemes’s weight! Jim could n’t hev done it ef Eph hed n’t been drunk. Eph jes’ mourned like Samson arter his hair war cut off. Ye ’d hev ’lowed he war rfe-sgraced fur life ! An’, like Samson, he war n’t a-goin’ ter bide stopped off an’ done fur. He kep’ a-sendin’ all sorts o’ words ter Jeemes ; an’ ez Jeemes never wanted no fuss with Eph, he kep’ out’n his way fur a while. An’ Eph, he 'lowed ez Jim war afeard an’ ahidin’. Waal, sir, that hustled up Jeemes’s feelin’s mightily. He jes’ wanted ter keep out’n his mother’s hearin’, though; she war a powerful chicken-hearted, floppy kind o’ woman, — skeered at everything. Then Jeemes, he sent Eph word ez he war n’t a-goin’ ter be beat inter a jelly fur Tiuthin’ by a man twict his size ; but he war a-kemin’ up ter settle him with his rifle. An’ Eph, he sent word he’d meet him at the big Sulphur Spring, thar on that spur o’ the mounting. Ef Jeemes so much ez dared ter cross the footbredge over Gran’dad’s Creek, an’ set his foot on the t’other side. Eph swore he ’d shoot him dead. An’ Eph, he sent word ter come Chewsday an hour by sun, an’ bring his friends ter see fair play.”
“ Laws-a-massy ! ” exclaimed Marvin, in the fervor of reminiscence, “ I kin jes’ see that thar spot, — that thar old foot-bredge in the woods, an’ the water high enough ter lap the under side o’ the log; ’t war hewn a-top, an’ made toler’ble level footin’. An’ me an’ Jeb dodgin’ in the laurel, fur fear Eph would shoot ’fore Jeemes crost.”
“ Jeemes seemed toler’ble long a-crossin’,” Jeb resumed, — “ I ’member that; an’ he stopped at the furder eend, an’ lifted his rifle ter his shoulder ter be ready ter shoot. An’ thar stood Eph, a sightin’ him keerful ez he kem” —
“ You were both there?” said Harshaw, hastily.
“ Lord, yes,” said Jeh. “ Jeemes hed stayed at my dad’s house the night afore. An’ he never brung none o’ his town friends,—afeard o’ word gittin’ ter his mother. So me an’ Sam, — Sam, he lived nigh me, — we-uns went along.”
“ Did he kill Eph ? ” demanded Harshaw, the query swift with the momentum of the wish.
“ Waal, not edzac’ly,” drawled Jeb. “ That’s whar the funny part kem in. Eph, he knowed ef Jeemes shot fust he war a dead man, — mighty few sech shots ez Jeemes, — but he war n’t a-goin’ ter murder him by shootin’ him afore he put his foot on the groun’ an’ tuk up the dare. So he waited, an’ Jeemes stopped short right at the aidge o’ the bredge.”
“ Lord, I ’members how he looked 1 ” cried Marvin. “ He had tuk off his coat an’ vest, though we-uns hed tole him that thar b’iled shirt o’ his’n war a good mark for Eph, ez looked jes’ the color o’ the clay bank a-hint him, in them brown jeans clothes. Jim’s straw hat war drawn down over his eyes ; he war jes’ about the build o’ his ramrod, — slimmest, stringiest boy! — ez delikitlookin’ ez a gal. One thing Eph called him, ez riled him wuss ’n all, war ‘ Miss Polly.’”
“ He hev widened out mightily sence then, though he ain’t got no fat ter spare yit,” put in Jeb.
“ An’ then, suddint,” resumed Marvin, " he jes’ stepped his foot right on the groun’. In that very minute Eph’s gun flashed. An’ I seen Jeemes standin’ thar, still sightin’. An’ then Eph, he drapped his gun, an’ held his hands afore his face, an’ yelled out, ‘ Shoot, ef ye air a-goin’ ter shoot! I ain’t a-goin’ ter stan’ hyar no longer.’ An’ Jeemes, he looked ez scornful” —
“I never seen a boy’s looks with seek a cuttin’ aidge ter ’em,” interpolated Jeb.
“ An’ Jeemes, he say, ' I ain’t a-wastin’ powder ter-day. I never ’lowed ez skunks war game.’ An’ he drapped his gun.”
“ Yes, sir!” exclaimed Jeb, “ he jes’ hed that much grit. — ter stan’ up ez a shootin’ mark fur Eph Saunders, an’ prove he war n’t afeard o’ nuthin’. He did, sir! ”
“ Why, look here, my good friends ! ” cried the elated lawyer. “ That was a duel. It was a cool, premeditated affair. They met by previous appointment, and fought with deadly weapons and with witnesses. It was a duel.”
“ Mebbe so,” said Jeb, indifferently and uncomprehendingly, “ I call it clean grit.”
Waal,” went on Marvin, “I run across the bredge lookin’ fur Eph’s bullet. I said, ‘ Whar ’d it go ? ’ An’ by that time Eph an’ them low down Kitwin boys war slinkin’ off. An’ sez Jeemes, ‘ Don’t let ’em know it. I don’t want my mother ter hear ’bout it. She air fibble an’ gittin’ old,’ An’ thar I seen the breast o’ his shirt war slow a-spottin’ with blood. Waal, sir, that’s how kem me an Jeb an’ him rid over the mountings inter North Car’lina, whar he hed some kinsfolks livin’ ’mongst the hills.
“ Ye see,” —Jeb again took up his testimony, — “ he did n’t want the news ter git ter his mother afore he got well, kase he war delikit, an’ she war always a-lookin’ fur him ter die ; an’ Eph never knowed Jim war shot, an’ could n’t kerry the tale down ter Colbury. Waal, weuns war all young an’ toler’ble bouncin’ fools, I tell ye, an’ we sorter got light on that fac’ whenst we-uns sot out ter ride with a man with a gun-shot wound — I furgits ’zac’ly whar the doctor say the bullet went in — miles an’ miles through the mountings; an’ the dark kem on an’ the rain kem down, an’ Jeemes got out’n his head. An’ this ride with you-uns air what reminded me o’ it.”
“ I ain’t out of my head ! ” cried Harshaw, with covert meaning. “ You bet your immortal soul on that! ”
“ Naw,” — Jeb admitted the discrepancy, — “ but the rain, an’ the ride, an’ the mountings, an’ the darksomeness.”
“ Lord! a body would n’t hev b’lieved how Jeemes’s pride war hurt ter be called afeard ! ” exclaimed Marvin. “ I ’low he’d let Eph chop him up in minch meat ter prove he war n’t. He air prouder of hisself ’n enny man I ever see. Thar’s whar his soul is, — in his pride.”
“ I 'm glad ter hear it,” said Harshaw, so definitely referring to an occult interpretation of his own that the old white hat, bobbing along in front of him, turned slowly, and he saw the lank, cadaverous face below it, outlined with its limp wisps of black hair against the nebulous vapors. So strong an expression of surprise did Jeb’s features wear that Harshaw hastily added, “ A man that ain’t got any pride ain’t worth anything.”
“ Ef he hev got ennything ter be proud of,” stipulated melancholy Jeb.
The day had fully dawned; the rain, the mists, the looming forests, had acquired a dull verity in the stead of the vague, illusory shadows they had been. Nevertheless, the muddy banks of the creek down which the mare glided, her legs rigid as iron, the obstructions of the ford,— rocks, fallen limbs of trees, floating or entangled in intricacies of overhanging bushes, — were all rendered more difficult, for Harshaw mechanically controlled the reins instead of trusting to the mare’s instinct; as he sawed on the bit, while she threw back her head, foaming at the mouth, he brought her to her knees in the midst of the stream. The water surged up about the great boots which he wore drawn over his trousers to the knee, and the mare regained her footing with snorting difficulty. There were no expletives, and Jeb looked back in renewed surprise.
“ Ye mus’ be studyin’ powerful hard, stranger,” he commented, “ not ter hev seen that thatbowlder.”
“ Yer beastis war a-goin’ ter take slanchwise across the ruver, whar thar war n’t nuthin’ ter hender, till ye in an’ about pulled the jaw off’n her,” Marvin said, as Harshaw pushed through the swollen flood and up the opposite bank. 11 is flushed face was grave; his eyes were intent; he rode along silently, He was indeed thinking.
He was thinking that if what they had told him were true — and how could he doubt it ? — Gwinnan in taking the official oath had committed perjury ; he was disqualified for the judicial office, and liable to impeachment. Harshaw was vaguely repeating to himself and trying to remember the phraseology of the anti-duelling oath exacted of every office-holder in the State of Tennessee, — an oath that he had not directly or indirectly given or accepted a challenge since the adoption of the Constitution in 1835.
Under what pretext, what secret reservation or evasion, had Gwinnan been able to evade this solemn declaration ? Or had he adopted the simple expedient of swallowing it whole? Harshaw wondered, remembering all the acerbities of Gwinnan’s canvass and election, that the old story had not before come to light. But it was a section of frequent feuds and bloody collisions, the subject was trite and unsuggestive, and the details of an old light might seem to promise no novel developments. How odd that he, of all men, should stumble on it, in view of its most signal significance !
Auxiliary facts pressed upon his attention. Nothing that could be now urged against an official was so prejudicial as the crime of dueling. The episode of Kinsard’s boyish demonstration attested the temper of the public. With much difficulty had his friends shielded him by its ambiguity ; and indeed only because it was a meaningless folly, without intention or result, had it proved innocuous. Even Kin.sard, fireeater as he was, had been forced to accept their interpretations of its harmless intent, and to subside under the frown of public displeasure. The more lenient members of the House had had cause to regret their clemency, the disapproval of their constituents being expressed in no measured manner by the unabashed local journals. But no ambiguity was here ; this was the accomplished fact, this the clue that long he had sought. He would think it out at his leisure. But even if the House should decline to act in the matter, Gwinnan could be removed by judicial proceedings, How lucky, how lucky, was this ride !
The rain had ceased at last. They were among the minor ridges that lie about the base of the Great Smoky. They had ridden many a mile out of their way, — Harshaw could not say in what direction, — so that he might not easily retrace his steps. The mists still hung about them when they turned from the almost imperceptible path, which Jeb had followed with some keen instinct or memory, into a road, — a rough wagon track. Bushes were growing in its midst, bowlders lay here and there ; its chief claim to identification as a highway being its occasional mud-puddles, of appalling depth and magnitude, and its red clay mire, fetlock deep at least.
Harshaw roused himself suddenly, as the two moonshiners intimated their intention of parting company with him.
“ Thar’s yer way, stranger,” said Marvin, pausing on the rise and pointing down the road. It was visible only a few rods in the mist, dreary and deserted, with deep ditches, heavily washed by the rain, on either hand ; it might seem to lead to no fair spaces, no favored destination where one might hope to be. But Harshaw drew up his mare, and gazed along it with kindling eyes. His felt hat drooped in picturesque curves about his dense yellow hair, soaked, like his beard, to a darker hue. His closely buttoned coat had a military suggestion. His heavy figure was imposing on horseback. He flushed with sudden elation. Alack! he saw more trooping down that prosaic dirt road than the mist, hastily scurrying; than the vestiges of a faintly stirring wind in the swaying of the stunted cedars, clinging to the gashed and gullywashed embankments; than the last trickling stragglers of the storm.
He did not notice, or he did not care, that the two men had remarked his silence, his evident absorption. He glanced cursorily at them, as they sat regarding him, — one on the little lank mule, his partner on the big lean one, both drenched, and forlorn, and povertystricken, and humble of aspect. Even the mare, perhaps recognizing the road down into Kildeer County, where she had spent the first frisky years of her toilsome pilgrimage, showed a new spirit, and caracoled as Harshaw rode up to the two men to offer his hand.
“ Farewell, stranger,” they said ; and in the old-fashioned phrase of the primitive Plain People, " Farewell,” he replied.
They stood looking after him, hardly understanding what they lacked, what they had expected, as the mare, with a mincing, youthful freshness, cantered a little way along the grassy margin of the road, above the rivulets in the ditches, surging twelve or fourteen feet below.
Presently Harshaw paused, yet unobscured by the mists which had gathered about him, and glanced over his shoulder,—not to thank them for such aid and comfort as they had given him.
“ Gentlemen,” he said, a little ill at ease because of the restive mare, “ I must thank you for the story you told me. You don’t know how much good it did me. A pretty little story, with a pretty little hero. A very pretty little story, indeed.”
He bent his roseate, dimpled smile upon them, and thrust out his red tongue satirically ; with a bound the mare disappeared in the mist, leaving the grave, saturnine mountaineers staring after him, and listening to the measured hoof-beats of his invisible progress till they died m the distance.
Then they looked at each other.
“ Sam,” said Jeb, when they had turned again into their fastnesses, where they could ride only in single file, “I dunno ef we-uns done right las’ night. This worl’ would be healthier ef that man war out’n it.”
“ I ain’t misdoubtin’ that none,” returned Marvin. " ’Peared ter me powerful comical, the way he tuk off down the road, an’ I ain’t able ter study out yit what he meant. My gran’mam always ’lowed ez them ez talks in riddles larnt thar speech o’ the devil, him bein’ tlie deceivin’ one. But’t war n’t healthy fur we-uns ter kill him, even ef we could hev agreed ter do it. I reckon them hunters would hev tracked him. An’ I don’t b’lieve he war no spy nor sech.”
“ Nor me nuther,” said “ hongry Jeb,” well enough satisfied with the termination of the adventure, “ though I ain’t likin’ him now ez well ez I done a-fust.”
They liked him still less, and all their old suspicions returned with redoubled force, upon reaching home, when the afternoon was well advanced. For no hunters had yet appeared, and the lurking moonshiners, becoming surprised because of this, had tracked Ilarshaw’s way to the house by the broken brush, the hairs from the mane and tail of the mare, a bit of his coat clutched off by the briers, the plain prints of the mare’s hoofs along a sandy stretch protected from the rain by the beetling ledges of a crag. There were many oak-trees along this path, — not one blazed by a hunting-knife. They understood at last his clever lie. And Marvin upbraided M’ria: —
“ Thar air more constancy in the ways o’ the wind, an’ mo’ chance o’ countin’ on em, ’n that thar woman. Fust he mus’ be dragged out straight an kilt, — flunged off’n the bluff,— else we-uns would all go ter jail, an’ Philetus be lef’ ter starve ’mongst the painters, ez would n’t keep him comp’ny, but would eat him up. Then when the man limbered his jaw an’ sot out ter lyin’, she gits so all-fired sheered, she bed breakfus’ cooked for we-uns ter journey ’fore I could sati’fy my mind ’bout nuthin - Ef the truth war knowed, we’d all be safer ef M’ria were flunged over the bluff.”
And Maria, staring at the line of oak-trees, all undesecrated by the knife, could not gainsay it.
She could only wring her hands, and rock herself to and fro, and revolve her troublous fears, and grow yet more wan and gaunt with her prescient woes for them all — and for Philetus.
On the second day of February, the ground - hog, true to his traditions, emerged from his bole, and looked about him cautiously for his shadow. Fortunately, it was not in attendance. And by this token the spring was early, and all the chill rains, and late frosts, and unpropitious winds, and concomitant calamities, that might have ensued had he found his ill-omened shadow awaiting him, were escaped. It was not long afterward that small protuberances appeared on every twig and wand, on every branch and bole, although the trees had not budded save in these promissory intimations. The sap was stirring. The dead world was quickened again. That beautiful symbolism of the miracle of resurrection was daily presented in the reawakening, in the rising anew of the spring. So pensively gladsome it was, so gently approaching, with such soft and subtle languors ! The sky was blue ; the clouds how light, how closely akin to the fleecy mists! Sheep-bells were tinkling — for what! the pastures were already green ! And here and there a peach-tree beside a rail fence burst forth in a cloud of blossoms so exquisitely petaled, so delicately roseate, that only some fine ethereal vagary of the sunset might rival the tint. Sometimes among the still leafless mountains these pink graces of color would appear, betokening the peach orchard of some hidden little hut, its existence only thus attested. The Scolacutta River was affluent, with the spring floods : a wild, errant stream this, with many a wanton freak, with a weakness for carrying off its neighbor’s rails ; for snatching huge slices of land from the banks; for breaking off trees and bushes, and whirling them helplessly down its current, tossing and teetering in a frantic, unwilling dance. Many a joke had it played before and since the disaster to old Griff’s mill. The sunbeams might seem the strings of a harp ; whenever touched by a wing they were quivering and trilling with songs. Slowwreathing blue smoke curled in fields here and there where the fires of rubbish blazed ; sometimes a stump would burn sullenly all night and char slowly, and with a puff of wind burst anew into flames. The soft lustres of the Pleiades and the fiery Aldebaran were resplendent in the heavens, and the moon was the paschal moon. A vernal thrill had blessed the wild cherry, and it gave out its glad incense. For miles and miles the exquisite fragrance from its vast growths on the mountain-side pervaded the air. And presently the mountainside wore the tender verdure of budding leaves, and even the gloomy pines were tipped with new tufts of vivid green, unlike their sombre hue ; and here and there crags flaunted a bourgeoning vine, and the wild ivy crept on the ground where the wood violet bloomed. All day the ploughs turned the furrow, and the air echoed with the calls “ gee haw ” to the slow oxen.
And Mrs. Purvine was greatly distraught in the effort to remember exactly where she had stowed away certain bags of seed necessary, in view of their best interests, to be sown in the light of the moon.
Her sun-bonnet was all awry, her face wrinkled and anxious with the cares of the spring-tide “ gyarden spot,” her gestures laborious and weary, as she sat on her porch, the lap of her ample apron filled with small calico bags, each of which seemed to have a constitutional defect in its draw-string; for when found closed it would not open, and if by chance open it would not close. There was a sort of shelf in lieu of balustrade against the posts of the porch, and on this were placed two or three pieces of old crockery, — providentially broken into shapes that the ingenious could utilize, — in which seeds were immersed in water, that they might swell in the night, and thus enter the ground prepared to swiftly germinate. One of these broken dishes stood on the floor at her feet, and a graceless young rooster, that had the air of loafing about the steps, approached by unperceived degrees, picked up several of the seed, and was quenching his thirst when spied by Mrs. Purvine, who was viciously pulling the strings of a recalcitrant bag.
“In the name o’ Moses! ” she adjured him so solemnly that the rooster stopped, and looked at her expectantly. “ I ’m in an’ about minded ter cut them dish-rag-gourd seed out’n yer craw, ye great, big, ten-toed sinner, you ! Ye need n’t turn yer head up ’twixt every sup, — so thankful ter the Lord fur water. Ye ’ll find mo’ water in the pot 'n that. A-swallerin’ them few dish-raggourd seed ez nimble an’ onconsarned, an’ me jes’ a-chasin’ an’ a-racin’ an’ wore ter the bone ter find some mo’! Ye’d better leave ’em be.”
The rooster, hardly comprehending the words, was about to again sample the delicacy when aunt Lely, stamping to startle him, inadvertently overturned the dish and the seed on the floor. The fowl scuttled off, looking askance at the ruin, and the water dripped through the cracks of the puncheon floor.
So absorbed had she been that she had not observed an approach, and Alethea was at the foot of the steps when she lifted her eyes.
“ Hyar I be, aunt Dely,” said the girl, noticing Mrs. Purvine’s occupation with a surprise that seemed hardly warranted, and speaking in a breathless, eager way. “ Air you-uns feelin’ enny better ? ”
For once in her life the crafty Mrs. Purvine was embarrassed; to conceal her confusion, she engaged in a strenuous struggle with one of the bags of seed.
“ I feel toler’ble well,” she said at last, gruffly.
“ Waal ! ” exclaimed Alethea, in amazemeat. “From the word Ben Doaks brung ter Wild-Cat Hollow, ez he war drivin’ up some steers ter the bald o’ the mounting, we-uns ’lowed ez ye hed been tuk awful sick, an’ war like ter die.”
“ I sent ye that word,” said Mrs. Purvine, with admirable effrontery. “ I knowed thar war n’t no other way ter git ye down hyar. When hev ye hed the perliteness ter fetch them bones o’ yourn hyar afore ? ” She looked over her spectacles with angry reproach at the girl.
“ Waal, aunt Dely,” said Alethea in her dulcet, mollifying drawl, sitting down on the step as she talked, “ ye know’ I hev hed ter do so much o’ the ploughin’ an’ sech, a-puttin’ in o’ our craps. We-uns hev got sech a lot o’ folks up ter our house. An’ I dunno when Jacob Jessup hev done less work ’n he hev this spring.”
“ Thought ye be always ’lowin’ ye ain’t layin’ off ter do his work,” said the elder tartly.
“ Waal,” rejoined Alethea wearily, “ I don’t ’pear ter hev the grit ter hold out an’ quar’l over it, like I used ter do. I reckon my sperit’s a-gittin’ bruk; but I don’t mind workin’ off in the field, ’thout no jawin’, whar I kin keep comp’ny with my thoughts.”
“ I would n’t want ter keep comp’ny with ’em,” said aunt Dely cavalierly. “ I ’ll be bound they air heavier ter toiler ’n the plough. Mighty solemn, lowsperited thoughts fur a spry young gal like you-uns! Ef yer head could be turned inside out, thar ain’t nobody ez would n’t ’low it mus’ outside be gray. They d say, ‘ In the name o’ Moses ! old ez tins inside, an’ yaller outside ! ’T ain’t natur’! ’ ”
The girl had taken off her bonnet. Her beauty was undimmed, despite a pensive pallor on her delicate cheek. She fanned herself with her sun-bonnet, and the heavy, undulating folds of her lustrous yellow hair stirred softly. “ I’m powerful glad ter find ye hevin’ yer health same ez common,” she said.
“ I’m s’prised ter hear ye say so,” declared Mrs. Purvine, tart from her renewed conflicts with the bag. “ I ain’t sick, bless the Lord, but I wanted ye ter kem down hyar an’ bide with me, an’ I knowed I could n’t tole ye out’n that thar Eden, ez ye call Wild-Cat Hollow, ’thout purtendin’ ter be nigh dead. So I jes’ held my han’ ter my side an’ tied up my head, an’ hollered ter Ben Doaks ez he went by. He looked mighty sorry fur me ! ” A faint smile flickered across her broad face. “ I bed laid off ter go ter bed afore you-uns kem,. though. I will say fur ye ez ye travel toler’ble fas’. Yes, sir ! ” she went on, after a momentary pause. “ I live in a ongrateful worl’. I hev ter gin out I’m dyin’ ter git my own niece ter kem ter see me. An’ thar’s that thar Jerry Price, ez I hev raised from a ill-convenient infant, ez won’t do nuthin’ I say, nor marry nobody I picks out fur him. I ’ll be boun’ he would n’t hev no say-so ’bout’n it ef his aunt Melindy Jane hed hed the raisin’ of him. An Bluff ez good ez ’lowed this mornin’ ez he ’d hook me ef I didn’t quit foolin’ in his bucket o’ bran, — kase I’lowed ez mebbe the saaft-soap gourd war drapped in it, bein’ ez I couldn’t find it nowhar, an’ I war afeard’t would n’t agree with the critter’s insides. An’ thar’s that rooster,” — he was now out among the weeds : “ he war a aig ez got. by accident inter a tur-r-key’s nest, an’ when he war hatched she would n’t hev him ; an’ ez I hed no hen ez war kerryin’ o’ chickenshis size, I lied ter keer fur him. I useter git up in my bare feet in the middle o’ a winter night ter kiver up that thar rooster in a bat o’ cotton, fur be war easy ter git cold, an’ he could holler ez loud ez a baby. An’ arter all, he kem hyar an’ eat up ’bout haffen my dish-raggourd seed ! I dunno what in Moses’s name is kem o’ the other bags. Never mind ! ” — she shook her head as she: addressed the jaunty and unprescient fowl, — I ’ll git up the heart ter kill ye some day ; an’ ef I can’t eat ye, bein’ so well acquainted with ye, I ’ll be bound Jerry kin.”
Alethea, apprised how precious the seeds were, began to gather them up as she sat on the step.
“ Listen ter Jerry, now ! ” exclaimed Mrs. Purvine, with whom the world had evidently gone much amiss to-day. 4i .Need n’t tell me he don’t hurt Bluff’s feelin’s, callin’ him names whilst ploughin’, an’ yellin’ at him like a plumb catamount. Ef Bluff hed n’t treated me like he done this mornin’, I’d go thar an’ make Jerry shet up.”
Now and then the ox and the man at the plough-tail came into view at the end of the field that sloped down to the road. One of aunt Dely’s boys was dropping corn in the furrow, and the other followed with a hoe and covered the grain in. Alethea watched them with the interest of a practical farmer.
Aunt Dely, too, looked up, repeating the old formula : —
Two fur the blackbird and one fur ter grow.”
Jerry, glancing toward the house, called out a salutation to Alethea. and then at long range entered upon a colloquy with Mrs. Purvine touching the lack of seed.
“ Whar’s that thar t’other bag o’ seedcorn ? ” he demanded.
“ Waal, I ain’t got none ! ” cried out Mrs. Purvine peremptorily. “ I mus’ hev made a mistake, and fedded that thar bag o’ special an’ percise fine seedcorn ter the chickens, — I wish they war every one fried. I disremember now what I done, an’ what I done it fur. Ye jes’ gear up Bluff in the wagin an’ go ter mill, an’ see ef ye can’t git some thar.”
“ Laws -amassy ! ” objected Jerry, “’t ain’t no use ter make Bluff go. I kin git thar an’ back quicker an’ easier ’thout him ’n with him.”
“ Ye do ez ye air bid,” said Mrs. Purvine; and while Jerry stared she presently explained, as she sawed away on the draw-strings of a bag, “ I want ye ter take Lethe along ter the postoffice. ter see ef thar’s enny letter fur me.”
Now, Mrs. Purvine had never written or received a letter in her life; in fact, would not have understood the functions of a post-office, had it not been for her husband’s incumbency some years ago. Nevertheless, in common with half the country-side, whenever she thought of it she gravely demanded if there were a missive for her, and was gravely answered in the negative, and went her way well content.
Both young people understood her ruse well enough. — to throw them together, in the hope that propinquity might do a little match-making. Since Mink’s long sentence of imprisonment had been pronounced upon him. she felt that there was no longer fear of rivalry from that quarter, as the Supreme Court would hardly reverse so plain and just a judgment. And now. she thought, is Jerry’s golden opportunity. However, she elaborately justified the expedition upon the basis of convenience.
“ Ye could fetch the letter an’ the corn too.” she observed, in a cogitating manner; “ but then, goin’ ter mill, ye’d be apt ter git meal sprinkled onto it. I reckon I’d better send Lethe too. Ye kin leave her at the post-office till ye go ter mill.”
This verisimilitude imposed even upon Alethea.
“ Who air ye expectin’ a letter from, aunt Dely ? ” said the girl.
Mrs. Purvine was equal to the occasion.
“ I ’lowed,” she said, with swift inspiration. “ ez some o’ them folks ez we-uns bided with down thar in Shaftesville mought take up a notion ter write ter us.”
Alethea thought this not unlikely. and set out with Jerry with some interest, fully prepared to preserve the precious letter from any contact with meal.
Mrs. Purvine, her ill-humor evaporating in the successful exploiting of her little plan, gazed after them with a benignant smile illuminating her features, as they creaked off in the slow little ox-cart, its wheels now leaning outward and now bending inward, as the loose linch-pin or some obstruction in the road might impel. She noted, however, that the old slouch hat and the brown sun-bonnet, with its coy tress of golden hair showing beneath its curtain, were seldom turned toward each other, and there was evidently little disposition for conversation between the two young people.
“ Bluff hev got mos’ o’ the brains in that thar comp’ny,” she said to herself with indignation because of their mutual indifference. “ But Lethe Ann Sayles air mighty diffe’nt from some wimmin, ef she kin hold her jaw fur twenty year, an’ keep that thar deadan’-gin-out look on her face fur Mink Lorey. He can’t git back ’fore then. An’ Jerry’s got ez good a chance ez Ben Doaks. But it’s mighty bard on a pore old woman like me, ez hed enough trouble marryin’ herself off thirty year ago, a-runnin’ away an’ seeh, ter gin herself ter studyin’ ’bout sech foolishness in her old age ez love-makiu’, an’ onsettlin’ her mind, kase they hain’t got enough sense ter do thar courtin’ ’thout help.”
But this unique grievance was so inadequate that Mrs. Purvine gave up the effort to eke out thereby her illhumor, and gazed about with placid complacence at the spring landscape, tossing all the bags of seed together into a splint basket, to be sorted at some more propitious day.
In Bluff’s slow progress along the red clay road, the gradual unfolding of the scene, the vernal peace, the benedictory sunshine, had their benignant effect on Alethea. Absorbed as she had been, in descending the mountain, by her anxiety for the specious aunt Dely’s illness, she had not noted until now how far the spring was advanced in the sheltered depths of the cove, how loath to climb to the sterile fastnesses of Wild-Cat Hollow.
“ The season ’pears ter he toler’hle back’ard in the hollow, jedgin’ by the cove,” she remarked, her eyes resting wistfully upon the tender verdure on the margin of the river. The sun was warm, for it was not long past noon, and Bluff stopped to drink in the midst of the ford. The translucent brown water above the bowlders, all distinct in its clear depths, washed about the miry wheels, and lapsed with soft sighs against the rocky banks; great silvery circles elastically expanded on its surface about the ox’s muzzle, distorting somewhat the image of his head and his big, insistent, sullen eyes and loug horns, as he drank. Whenever the sunbeams struck the current a bevy of tiny insects might be seen, skittering about over the water ; and hark ! a frog was croaking on a rotten log in the dank shadow of the laurel. From the fields beyond the call of the quail was sweet and clear. The ranges encompassing the cove on every hand seemed doubly beautiful, doubly dear, with the tender promise of summer upon them, with the freshened delights of soft airs pervading them, with the predominant sense of the liberated joys of nature in the hourgeonings and the blooms, in the swift rushing of torrents, in the whirl of wings. The wooded lines of those summits close at hand were drawn in fine detail against the sky, save where the great balds towered, — symmetrical, ponderous, hare domes ; further mountains showed purple and blue, and among them was a lowering gray portent that might have seemed a stormcloud, save to those who knew the strange, cumulose outline of Thunderhead.
Everywhere birds were building. A couple of jays were carrying straws from a heap in a corner of a fence; they rose with a great whirl of blue and white feathers, as Bluff, his horns nodding, approached them. A dove was cooing in a clump of dog-wood trees, whitely blooming by the road. There was a great commotion of wings in the air from a lofty martin-house in a wayside door-yard, as the plucky denizens chased a hawk round and round and out of sight.
“ Thought that thar war the way ter the post-office at Squair Bates’s, Jerry,” Alethea observed, pointing down one of those picturesque winding roads, so common to the region, threading the forests, its tawny red convolutions flecked with shadow and sheen, showing in long, fascinating vistas and luring one to follow.
“ Yes, sir,” said Jerry, “ but I hev got ter take ye ter the post-office at Locust Levels. Ain’t ye hearn aunt Dely ’low that ? An’ I hev got ter leave ye thar whilst I go ter the grist-mill nigh by, off the road a piece.”
Alethea flushed with a dull annoyance, recognizing the device that the long drive might be still longer. She nevertheless made no comment. They were each too dutiful to vary the plan of the journey, although aunt Dely might have considered this only obedience in the letter, and not in the spirit, as neither again spoke for a mile or more.
“ This be Kildeer County,” said Jerry, at last, breaking the long silence. “ We-uns crost the line back thar ’bout haffen hour ago.”
Alethea’s pensive enjoyment of the gentle influences of the scene was marred, To be sure, aunt Dely had an unequivocal right to send, if she liked, to the post-office at Locust Levels, a hamlet of Kildeer County, rather than to the one nearer, in her own county; but it was a patent subterfuge that she should expect to receive letters here from their friends in Shaftesville. It was Alethea’s excellent common sense that had preserved her from the folly of the continual anticipation of a letter, so common among ignorant people, who, with no acquaintances elsewhere, beset the postoffices with their demands. She had never asked for a letter for herself, and there had begun to be revealed to her the fact that it was not a post-office which could produce an epistle for Mrs, Purvine; she needed a correspondent.
“ Ef ye ’low ye ’ll feel like a fool axin’ fur that thar letter, Lethe,” said the acute Jerry, divining her thoughts, “ I ’ll do it. I never mind feelin’ like a fool, — thar’s a heap o’ em in this worl’. An’ whenever I acts like one, I remembers I’m in powerful good company. An’ that’s why I don’t try ter be no smarter ’n I am.”
But Alethea said that she would ask for the letter, as aunt Dely had directed. When she alighted from the wagon at Locust Levels, Jerry and Bluff drove off at a whisking pace, which indicated that both might feel relieved.
At the post-office the wood-pile was in front of the house, and therefore the approach was over chips, splinters, and shreds of bark, which gave out a pungent fragrance. It was a low little gray cabin, partly of log and partly of plank, and with a blossoming company of peach-trees about it. They hung over the fence, and all the steep bank down to the road was covered with their pink petals shed in the wind. Some golden candlesticks and “ butter - and - eggs ” were blooming inside the rickety little palings, and a girl stood upon the porch beside a spinning-wheel.
Alethea noted the unrecognizing stare bent upon her. She opened the gate with difficulty, and went up on the shaded porch. The girl had stopped spinning, but was still gazing at her. A yellow dog, who had been asleep on the floor, his muzzle on his fore-paws, also scanned her curiously, not stirring his head, only lifting his eyes. When she faltered her inquiry for a letter for Mrs. Purvine, the dog got up as briskly as if he were the postmaster.
“ Fur who ? ” demanded a masculine voice, as a man with a plough-line in his hand stepped around the corner, lured by the sound of the colloquy.
“ Mis’ Purvine,” repeated Alethea.
He looked at her with a touch of indignation. He would never get through his spring ploughing at this rate. He strode into the house, however, to investigate. “ I never hearn o’ her in all my life,” he said tartly.
And Alethea began to have a realization how very wide this world is.
The walls of the room bore every flaming grace of advertisement, pasted over the logs. They were of more fantastic device and a newer fashion than Mrs. Purvine’s relics of her husband’s postmastership. There were two neat beds in the room, a very clean floor, and a woman in the chimney-corner, smoking her pipe, who nodded with grave courtesy to Alethea.
The postmaster inserted a key in the lock of a table-drawer, and there, by some perversity, it stuck ; it would neither come out nor go further in, nor turn in either direction. The dog had entered, too, as he always did, with a business-like air, and was standing beneath the table, slowly wagging his tail and lolling out his tongue ; what strange ideas did he connect with the distribution of the mail ? His position involved some danger, as his master struggled and pulled at the drawer, and jerked the table about. Finally, one of its legs came in contact with the foot of the dog, who had the worst of it. As his shrieks filled the room, the perspiring man turned to Alethea.
“ I know thar ain’t no letter fur no Mis’ Purvine,” he declared. “ Thar air jes fower letters in this hyar dadburned drawer, an’ they be fur Jedge Gwinnan. Ye see I can’t open it.”
The mail seemed indeed in safe-keeping. His daughter, who had been peering down the road, suddenly spoke: —
“ Ye ’ll hev ter open it. Fur thar be Jedge Gwinnan now, a-ridin’ up on that thar roan colt o’ his’n, what he hev jes’ bruk.”
A little play with the key, and the drawer abruptly opened.
There was, indeed, no letter for Mrs. Purvine, and snatching up the four for Judge Gwinnan, with some newspapers, the postmaster ran hastily out, hailing the rider as he drew rein at the corner of the orchard fence.
Alethea stood for a moment at the gate, gazing at the equestrian figure that had paused under the soft pink glamours of the orchard. She had heard of his belated plea for Mink Lorey. He evidently bore no grudge for his injuries. Suddenly there flashed into her mind a word that she might say for that graceless and forlorn wight, — a word which, perhaps, might not be taken amiss ; and if it should do no good, it could at least work no harm. It was an abrupt resolution. She stood in trembling impatience, yet loath to interrupt him.
Gwinnan read his letters, one by one, while the postmaster went back to the plough, where the gray mare dozed in the furrow.
As Gwinnan gathered up the reins, looking absently ahead, the girl waiting by the roadside signed to him to stop. He did not see her. Somehow Alethea could not speak. She sprang forward with a hoarse cry, as he was about to pass like a flash, and caught his bridle. The young horse swerved, instead of trampling upon her, but dragging her with him.
“ Take care! ” cried out Gwinnan sharply. He drew up his horse with an effort, and looked down at her in amaze ment as she still clung to the bridle.
The next moment be recognized her.
Charles Egbert Craddock.