In the Clouds
UNDER the strong pull on the curb, the young horse stood quivering in every limb beneath the blooming peach boughs that overhung the grassy margin of the road. There seemed a reflection of their delicate roseate tints in Alethea’s upturned face, as with one hand she still grasped the bridle. Her old brown bonnet, falling back, showed her golden hair in its dusky tunnel. The straight blossoming wands of the volunteer peach sprouts, that had sprung up outside the zigzag barriers of the rail fence, clustered about the folds of her homespun dress, as she stood in their midst.
All at once she was trembling violently. Her luminous brown eyes suddenly faltered, as she looked up. In her every consideration she herself was always so secondary — not a sedulous effort of subordination, but yielding with a fine and generous instinct to the interest of others — that until this moment it had not recurred to her mind that it was she who had been the unconscious cause of Gwinnan’s injuries. For her he had been struck down and brought near to death. Some sense of a reciprocal consciousness, an overwhelming appreciation of Mink’s folly in fancying him a rival, a vague wonderment as to the effect of the idea upon Gwinnan, seized upon her for the first time now in his presence, as if she had had no space to think before of these things. She could not speak. She could not meet his serious, intent, expectant eye as he looked down at her.
“ Did you have something to say to me ? ” he asked, taking the initiative.
It was the same voice that had given her sympathetic encouragement in the court-room, charged with a personal interest, a grave solicitude, all unlike the superficial, unmeaning courtesy of the lawyers. She spoke impetuously now as then, and with instant reliance upon him.
“ I hearn, jedge,” she cried, looking up radiantly at him, “ ez how ye hev gin out ez ye never wanted Reuben Lorey ter be prosecuted fur tryin’ ter kill ye, an’ axed fur him ter be let off, an’ I ’lowed ye hold no gredge agin him. ’Pears ter me like ye war powerful good ’bout’n it.”
“ But he was prosecuted,” the judge said quickly, fancying that she was under a delusion. “ His sentence was the extremest limit of the law.”
“ I know ! ” she cried, with a poignant accent. “ I know ! I hearn it all.”
She thought of his justification, his fancied provocation, and once more timidity beset her. How could she have found courage to attempt to speak in his behalf to Gwinnan ? The judge himself was embarrassed ; she knew it by the way he turned the reins in his hands. She noted with a concentrated sense of detail minutiæ which usually, when her faculties were not so abnormally alert, would not have arrested her attention : the sleek coat of the handsome young horse, which now and then shook his head as if in disdain of her grasp ; the superfine accoutrements of saddle and bridle ; the toilless hands that held the reins ; the severely straight lineaments, shadowed by the brim of the hat; and the searching, intent gray eyes, which saw, she felt, her inmost thought.
The postmaster, ploughing, came ever and anon down to the fence, pausing there to turn, and sometimes to thrust with his foot the clinging mould from the share. Occasionally he glanced at the incongruous couple, but as if the colloquy between them were a very normal incident, and with that courteous lack of curiosity and speculation characteristic of the region. All the fowls of the place followed in the furrow, clucking with gustatory satisfaction ; now and then, with a gluttonous outcry, they darted to favored clods, upturned by the plough, and the pantomime indicated much mortality among those poor troglodytes, the worms of the earth.
“ You wanted to speak to me about him,” said Gwinnan, with, it seemed to her, wonderful divination.
“ Ye know, jedge,” she went on, more calmly, instantly reassured whenever he spoke, “ they hev fund out ez ’t war n’t him ez bust down the mill. A boy seen it done, an’ he war feared ter tell afore. I reckon that war what set Reuben off so awful onruly, — knowin’ he never done it, nor drowned Tad nuther, — an’ the ’torney-gin’al makin’ folks ’low I seen a harnt.”
“ I dare say,” said Gwinnan, dryly.
“ An’ I ’lowed,” she continued, faltering, and looking at him with beautiful, beseeching eyes, “ ez ’t won’t do him much good ef he kin git off at his nex’ trial, kase then he ’ll be bound ter be in the prison arterward, ennyhow, fur twenty year. An’ I ’lowed I’d ax ye, seein’ ez ye don’t hold no gredge agin him, — I wonder at ye, too! — if ye can’t do nuthin’ ez kin git him out now.”
The wind waved the peach boughs above their heads, and the pink petals were set a-drifting down the currents of the air. Among the blossoms bees were booming, and on a budding spray a blue and crested jay was jauntily pluming its wings. Golden flakes of sunshine shifted obliquely through the rosy, inflorescent bower delicately imposed upon the blue sky. In its fine azure cirrus clouds were vaguely limned. On the opposite side of the road was the bluff end of a ridge, presenting a high escarpment of grim splintered rocks ; among the niches ferns grew and vines trailed downward; there came from them a dank, refreshing odor, for they continuously trickled with moisture, and a hidden spring in a cleft by the wayside asserted its presence, its tinkling distinctly heard in the pause that ensued.
He looked meditatively at the jagged heights. Then suddenly he turned his eyes upon her.
She was only an humble mountain girl, but it seemed to him that never since the first spring bloomed had woman worn so noble and appealing a face, so fine and delicate a personality. The familiar dialect, common enough to him, accustomed to the region, significant of all ignorance, of all poverty, of all hopeless isolation from civilization, of all uncouth manners, was in her all that speech might be, — a medium for her ideas ; the coarseness of her dress could hardly impinge upon the impression of her grace, — it was merely a garb. Her embarrassment had ceased. She looked straight at him ; the unconscious dignity of her manner, the calmness of her grave eyes, the fading flush in her cheek, betokened that she had made her appeal to his generosity and that she had faith in it.
He was not a man who made promises lightly. He was still silent. Again he looked up the road, with an absorbed and knitted brow. He tipped his hat further forward over his face ; he shifted the reins uncertainly in his hands ; the horse impatiently shook his head and struck the ground with his forefoot.
“ It would be the worst thing I could do — for you,” Gwinnan said at last, surprised himself at the tone he was taking.
She made no rejoinder ; her face did not change ; she only looked expectantly at him.
“ You ought not to marry a man like that,” he continued. “ You are too good for him ; and that is not saying much for you, either.”
“Oh,” she cried, renewing her hold upon the bridle, and looking up with a face that coerced credulity, “ ’t ain’t fur myself I want him free ! It air jes’ fur him. He seemed ter set mo1 store by another gal ’n me. I ain’t thinkin’ ez we-uns would marry then. Like ez not he ’d go straight ter Elviry Crosby.”
Another man might have experienced an amusement, a sort of self-ridicule, that he should remember the names of the infinitely insignificant and humble actors in the little drama played in the court-room. But to Gwinnan people were people wherever he found them, and he had more respect for their principles than for their clothes. He recollected without effort Elvira’s rôle in the testimony.
Nevertheless, with that many-sided view of the lawyer, he rejoined, oblivious of the suggestion conveyed, “ I think not. It was on your account he attacked me.”
Her face crimsoned, but with that fine instinct of hers she steadfastly met his gaze, intimating that she placed no foolish interpretation upon his words or actions. She answered quietly enough, “ Reuben air sorter gin ter reckless notions. I reckon he noticed ez ye sorter tuk up fur me whenst them lawyers war so besettin’. He war n’t used ter sech ez that in Wild-Cat Hollow. Folks ginerally air sot agin me. Though I ain’t treated mean, noways,” she added, hastily, lest she might decry her relatives. “ Only nobody thinks like me.”
A forlorn isolation she suggested, away up in the Great Smoky Mountains, thinking her unshared thoughts.
There was an increased attention in his face, as he demanded, “ Think differently about what ? ”
He had an imperative eye, an insistent voice. It did not occur to her that his interest was strange. And indeed he was not a man to be questioned.
She paused for a moment, her eyes full of a dreamy retrospection. Once more she was not looking at him, but at the boughs of pink blossoms above his horse’s head, and then absently following the motions of a black butterfly, bespangled with orange and blue, across the road to the ferns about the spring. As the fluttering wings disappeared she seemed to start from her reverie.
“ Jedge,” she said, in a piteous deprecation, “ things seem right ter me, an’ other folks thinks ’em wrong. An’ I feel obligated ter do what I ’low air right, an’ it all turns out wrong. An’ then I’m besides myself with blame ! I reckon ye would n’t b’lieve it, but it ’s all my fault ’bout’n this trouble o’ Reuben Lorey’s. Ef it hed n’t been fur me, he would n’t hev gone down ter Shaftesville ter gin up all he hed ter old man Griff, — like I tole him ter do ez soon ez I hed hearn ’bout bustin’ the mill down. I tole him ter do it, an’ he done it. An’ look, — look ! ” She lifted her hand as if she drew a veil from the disastrous sequences. Her voice choked, her eyes were full of tears. “ An’ then I told that thar moonshiner ez I would n’t promise ter keep his secret, an’ they runned away fur fear o’ me, kase Tad went thar arter he got out o’ the ruver. I seen Sam Marvin arterward, an’ he ’lowed ter me they s’posed he war a spy, an’ beat him, an’ — an’ — I dunno what else they done ter him. None o’ that would hev happened ef I hed promised ter hold my tongue. But it did n’t ’pear right ter me.”
“ Then you were right not to promise,” he said, reassuringly. “ No one can do more than what seems right; that is,” — it behooves a man of his profession to modify and qualify, — “ within the limits of the law.”
She looked up at him a little wonderingly. Her latent faculties for speculation were timorously developing in the first realization of intelligent sympathy, of recognition, that had ever fallen to her lot. How strange that such as he — and somehow she subtly appreciated in him that unification of mental force, education, civilization, natural endowment, and moral training, of the existence of which she was otherwise unconscious — should tolerate her doctrine ; nay, should revere and accept it as a creed !
“ A heap o’ harm an’ wrong hev kem of it,” she said, submitting the logic of Wild-Cat Hollow.
“ That is not our lookout. The moral law is to do what seems right, no matter what happens.”
A vague smile broke upon his face ; his eyes were illumined with a new light; his stern lips curved softly ; he seemed suddenly young and very gentle.
“ You need never be afraid of doing any harm; you may rely on it, you know what is right.”
He was laughing at himself a moment later, — to gravely discuss these elementary ethics with a weighty sense. And yet he was glad to reassure her.
“ Oh, jedge ! ” she cried, overcome with a sense of relief, with her happy reliance on his superior knowledge, — was not he the judge ? — “that ain’t what folks tell me. They ’low I be like that thar harnt o’ a herder on Thunderhead: ef I can’t kill ye, I jes’ withers yer time an’ spiles yer prospects. Oh!”
— she struggled for self-control, — “I hev studied on that sayin’ till it ’peared ’t would kill me.”
“ Whoever told you that was very cruel, and I dare say very worthless,” said Gwinnan sharply. His words were prompted by an impersonal resentment; he was prefiguring to himself some harshfaced mountain neighbor, as he asked sternly, “ Who said it ? ”
She saw the indignation in his face, and suddenly feared that she was near to wrecking her lover’s interest with the powerful man whom she sought to enlist.
“ I — I can’t tell,” she faltered.
He waived the matter. “ All right,” he said, hastily. His face had hardened ; he was laughing a little, cynically. Who it was he knew right well. He had known right well, too, and many months ago, that she was infatuated with this young mountaineer, scapegrace, jail-bird, — how incomparably handsome, how dashing, how spirited, the man looked, in his sudden recollection ! — and only now he began definitely to resent it. He glanced down at her with reprehensive, reproachful eyes. He was but a man, for all that he sat upon the bench and knew the law.
Alethea was conscious of the subtle change in his face. It bewildered and confused her, but her surprise was as naught to the amazement that overpowered her on discovering that the sun was low in the purple Chilhowee, the sky reddening, all the intervenient levels suffused with a golden haze, while down the tawny, winding road she discerned a moving speck, which she divined might be Jerry Price and Bluff coming for her from the mill. So unconsciously does a woman beloved feel her power that it never occurred to her to wonder at her temerity that she should thus detain Judge Gwinnan to stand in the road and give judgment for her comfort and ease of mind. Her rigorous conscience only took her to task that, beguiled by a word of sympathy, of comprehension, she should have let the forlorn interests of her captive lover wait while she listened.
“ Oh, jedge,” she exclaimed, clinging to the bridle, — and it seemed he heard for the first time the voice of supplication, — “ I know ye ain’t one ez medjures a gredge an’ pays it back. An’ I ’lowed I ’d ax ye ter do suthin’ fur him. He air a onruly boy, I know, but he never meant ter do sech — no harm — leastwise he — He war harried by things turning out so ez he could n’t git jestice. An’ leastwise, jedge ” —
Poor Alethea was unskilled in argument, and even Harshaw had been fain to let Mink’s moral worth pass without emblazonment.
“ Oh, jedge,” she cried, “ ef ye could do suthin’ fur him, ’t would be sech a favior ter him, — all his life’s gone in that sentence, — an’ — an’ ter me.”
He slowly shook his head.
“ Not to you. It surprises me that a girl like you, who know so well what is right and good, should care for a man like that. He has only two alternations: he is either mischievous or malicious.”
She was once more helplessly feeling aloof from all the world; for here his sympathy ended.
“ It is a folly, and that is very wrong. You have mind enough, if you would exert it, to be sensible, to be anything you like.”
And so he thought, with all the rest, that she was too good for the man she loved, and for this he would not help. Ah, what joys of liberty, what griefs of long laborious years, what daily humiliation of that sturdy pride, what inexorable tortures to break that elastic spirit, — for break at last it must, — had Mink’s half-hearted affection cost him! Her face had grown pale ; the ebbing of her hope, that had rushed in upon her in a strong, tumultuous tide, was like the ebbing of life. Her eyes filled with tears, and her despair looked through them at him.
He had known much of the finalities of life. He dealt in conclusions. Volition, circumstance, character, might all make vital play in the varied causes that brought the event under his jurisdiction, but he wielded the determining influence and affixed the result. All human emotions had been unveiled to him : he could finely distinguish and separate into its constituent elements hate, misery, despair, fear, rage, envy; he even must needs seek to analyze the incomprehensible black heart of the murderer. He was a man of ample learning, of chastened aspirations, of excellent nerve, untouched by any morbid influence. He had pronounced the death sentence without a tremor. He was deliberate, cautious, reserved.
And yet because her cheek paled, because her eyes looked at him with the reproach of a dumb creature cruelly slain, because she said no word, he was pierced with pity for her. He was definitely aware now of his own generosity, when he promised aught for her lover. He was amazed at himself, — amazed at the pang that it gave him when he said, —
“ But I ’ll try, — I ’ll see what can be done. I shall be in Nashville soon, and I ’ll talk to the governor, and make a strong effort to get a pardon. Not at once, you understand, but after a little time.”
He gathered up the reins; the long tossing horns of Bluff, approaching very near, were affronting the tender sensibilities of the roan colt, who snorted and stamped at the sight of them, and seemed likely to bolt. Alethea had, perforce, moved back among the pink blossoms by the wayside ; from amidst them she looked up at Gwinnan with a rapture of gratitude, of admiration, of benediction, for which she had no words. She felt that she did not need them, for he understood so well, he understood so strangely, her most secret thought. He nodded to her and to the staring Jerry, who sat in the ox-cart. Then the restive roan bounded away into the golden spring sunshine, his glossy coat and flying mane distinct against the delicate green of the wayside, far, far up the road; and presently he was but a dwindling atom, and anon lost to view.
The spectacular effects of the newly built railroad through Cherokee County were of ceaseless interest to the denizens of the little log cabins that lie at wide intervals upon the route, along which, indeed, the only trace of civilization and progress is the occasional swift apparition of the locomotive, and the long parallel steel rails glistening in the sun. The dwellers in a certain hut near the river might be considered to afford typical manifestations. The children appear behind the rickety fence, or perhaps perched on the giddy eminence of the topmost rail, and salute the engine with the dumb show of much shouting and sometimes of derision. An old man hastily hobbles to the door; a woman hanging out clothes in the sun, on the althea bushes, desists, to stare; the round-eyed baby on the doorstep becomes motionless in amaze; the gazing dogs wag approving tails ; the farmer, leaning on his plough-handles, watches it till it is but a speck in the distance; a cow in the pasture is turning, in her shambling run, to look back in affright; and near the woods-lot you may see the hind heels and the flying mane and tail of a panic-stricken filly, plunging, and kicking, and snorting. And however often it may be vouchsafed, the sight of the great, splendid, burnished motor, with its clouds of white steam, its thundering gait, its servitors standing upon the platform, and all its trains of loaded coaches, from which human faces look forth, to be curiously scanned, is thus greeted. But at night a mystery hangs about it. The reverberations of its footsteps may sound in the deepest dreams. Where is the darkness so dense, when is the storm so wild, that it cannot make its way as it lists ? It appears then to these simple folks like some strange development of unexplained force, as it rends the gloom with its white glare, as it skims along the denser medium of the earth like a meteor through the sky, or some strange serpent with a glittering eye, drawing after it its sparkling convolutions. The rocks clamor with the wild clangors it has taught them, and the tumultuous, exultant shrieks of its whistle pierces the night. And for a time after it is gone the rails shiver with the thought of it, and the hills cry out again and again with fear.
It might seem that the river held some vague terror for this bold nocturnal marauder; always it slackened its speed and bated its voice when it approached the bridge, and gave to the current a thousand glittering gauds of reflection. If the hour were not too late or the weather too cold, the wayside family came out and stood to watch the train cross. When it reached the other side, and sped away with a loud cry of triumph and a renewed redundancy of motion, the old man would turn, with an air of disappointment, a wag of the head, and a muttered insistence : “ Can’t do that thar fool trick every time.” He had opposed the theory of railroads, and had looked for a judgment to descend; in especial he had watched the building of the bridge in a spirit of indignation, prophesying that there would be a “ big drownding ” there one day, and had even lavished his advice upon the engineer in charge of the work, who, nevertheless, did not desist. Always he was convinced that that gossamer web, that union of strength and lightness, would give way some time under the weight, and one spring night, as he hobbled to the door as usual to look at the flying and fiery dragon, no longer mythical, the catastrophe appeared imminent.
There was a variety among the passengers in the smoking-car. The commercial traveler, returning with the swallow, was taking his way once more to the places that knew him. Conference had been held in a neighboring town, and the reverend gentlemen, homeward bound, were secular of aspect, genial and jolly, enveloped in clouds of tobacco smoke of their own making. The deputy-sheriff of Cherokee County was on board, and in his charge was Mink Lorey, on his way to stand his new trial in Shaftesville, handcuffed with Pete Owens, of the same county, who had had the misfortune to lose his temper on a small provocation, and to kill his brother. They and the guards were also a merry party. The deputy was undisguisedly glad to see Mink again, and rehearsed for his benefit the news from the town, and the rumors from the coves, and the vague echoes from the mountains, as he sat facing his prisoner, his elbows on his knees, fanning himself with his hat, now and then tousling his rough hair with one hand as he laughed, as if to add this dishevelment to the contortions and grotesqueness of his hilarity.
Mink listened with the wistful attention of one for whom all these things are forever past. This world of redundant interest was to be his world no more. Already it wore only the tender glamours of memory. The brown shadows and yellow lights from the lamps were shifting and shoaling, as the train jogged and lurched continually. The fluctuating gleams showed that his face was a trifle thinner, perhaps ; the expression of his vivid brown eyes had changed ; they were desperate and hardened, but quickly glancing, and even brighter and larger than before. His white wool hat was thrust on the back of his head, as he leaned against the red velvet cushion, and his auburn hair, longer than ever, curled down upon the collar of his brown jeans coat. Now and then, when the deputy waxed facetious, he smote with his unmanacled hand his long leg, booted to the knee, and laughed aloud in sympathy.
The moon was a-journeying, too, with all the train of stars. Always through the open window one could find a serene transition from the interior, with its gaudy colors, its lounging masculine figures, its wreathing tobacco smoke, and the suffusion of yellow light and alternating brown shadow. The sky was pure and blue ; he marked the weather-signs; the wind was astir, — a breeze other than the motion of the train ; he saw the trees on the hillsides waving in the sweet spontaneity of the air; he noted the shadow of the great monster swiftly traversing the wheatfields, with its piles of smoke scurrying behind it, and seeming not less material. He leaned to the window, and called to the deputy to mark how forward the crops were. And then he fell back, with a white despair on his face, for the train was thundering through a forest, and the interfulgent sheen and shadow of the great trees had caught the woodland creature’s eye. Their sylvan fragrance came to him for a moment. The fair, lonely vista lured him. How long, how long it had been since he had trodden such wilds ! Rocks towered in the midst, and he was glad when they closed about the way, and the reverberating clamors of the cut drowned the groan that burst from him. And then they grew fainter, and here were the levels once more, and suddenly — the Tennessee River! How should he fail to know its splendid breadth and muscle, its majestic sinuosity as it curved! He leaned once more to the window, catching at the sill ; the man with whose hand his own was manacled complained of the strain. He dropped the hand, and once more looked out, as the train, at a bated and circumspect pace, drew its slow length upon the bridge. Most of the passengers were looking out, too, under the fascination that the water in a landscape always exerts upon travelers. The moon hung above the broad vista of the dark, lustrous stream, flinging upon its surface some gigantic magical corolla, softly refulgent, to float on the water like a great white lily. The dense forest, with a deeper gloom of shadow at its roots, stood solemn and silent on either hand. The glare of the head-light fell distorted on the ripples, and the lanterns of the brakemen found twinkling reflections below. The dank, vernal odors from the banks came in on the breeze, and the wheels rolled slowly, and yet more slowly. They were just beginning to accelerate their speed, when one of the passengers, glancing within to comment to a friend, saw the lithe young prisoner rise suddenly and liberate his hand with a violent jerk, while his companion in shackles clutched frantically at him with his one free hand, and uttered a hoarse cry. The guard turned with a start, as the young mountaineer, with an indescribably swift and elastic bound, sprang through the window and caught the timbers of the bridge. A violent jerk, a bell’s sharp jangle, and an abrupt shiver seemed to run through all the length of the train. Then the reflection of the calcium glare and the lesser radiating points of light in the river were motionless. The train was at a stand-still in the middle of the bridge. A wild clamor arose from many voices ; the brakemen on the platforms flashed their lanterns back and forth; a heavy body sprang into the swift waters with a great splash, and the sharp crack of a pistol echoed from the dark woods on either bank.
The startled passengers were treated to a fine display of conflicting authorities, as they poured out on the platform of the smoking-car, where it appeared that the conductor of the train was laboring under the delusion that he could arrest the sheriff of Cherokee County.
“ You had no right to pull the bellcord and stop my train, — and stop it on the bridge ! ” he exclaimed.
“ I’m bound ter ketch my prisoner! ” cried the deputy-sheriff, wildly. “ He was handcuffed with this one, and he slipped his paw out somehow, an’ lept through the window, an’ perched thar on that timber o’ the bredge ; an’ I knowed he war expectin’ the train ter go right on, an’ I pulled the rope ter stop it. I ’d hev hed him, — I ’d hev hed him, ef the durned mink hed n’t tuk ter the water ! Lemme go ! Lemme go!”
But the train was in motion again, slowly crossing the bridge, and the sheriff could only rush to a window and look wildly over the waters, illumined by the contending glare of the calcium and the light of the moon, and fire at devious black floating objects that showed resemblance to the head of a swimming man struggling for his life. Several of the passengers derived great sport from this unique target-practice, and the quiet was invaded with the reiterated ping of the pistol pealing over the water, mingled with cries of excitement. There! a fair shot! the object sinks — only a floating rail, for it is distinct as it rises once more to the surface; and again the balls make havoc only among the ripples. The quarry eludes — eludes strangely. He must have had great practice in diving, or, as one hopeful soul cries out, he must be at the bottom of the river.
Its current was placid enough when the train was safely on the other side at a stand-still, and the people from the little log-cabin below climbed the embankment to hear the cause of the unprecedented stoppage. The bridge did not break this time, but the old man is very sure they cannot do this “ fool trick ” again.
Although the train waited while the banks of the river were patrolled, it was gone clanging on its way long before the rocks had ceased to echo the tramp of excited horsemen, and their hoarse cries as they beat the bushes in the neighboring woods ; for the whole country-side was roused. The opinion that the reckless young mountaineer had, in leaping into the river, struck against some floating log, and had been killed by the concussion, or had gone to the bottom among the bowlders with a fatal force, gained ground as the day gradually dawned and no trace of him was detected.
By degrees the search degenerated into the idler phases of morbid curiosity. Many people visited the spot, ostensibly to join in the quest, who stared at the bridge and speculated on its height, and strolled up and down the banks, wondering futilely. Even when the sunset was reddening the water; when the evening star was tangled in the boughs of a white pine on the bank; when the sound of lowing kine was mellow on the air ; when the bridge doffed its massive aspect, and became illusory, a shadow not more material than its reflection in the water below, — footing for the moonbeams, lodgment for the dew, a perch for a belated bird, familiar of the mist, — still vague figures lingered about the water-side, and raucous voices grated on the evening air. But at last the night slipped down ; the train came and went; silence fell upon the river, save for its own meditative, iterative voice, the croaking of frogs, and the exquisite melody of the mocking-bird, as he sang in the slant of the moonbeams glistening through fringes of the pines. A wind rose and died away. The night was inexpressibly solitary. Far off a dog howled, and was still. The constellations imperceptibly tended westward. Presently, in the dark loneliness of the dead hour, something, — an otter, a musk-rat, a mink ? — some stealthy wild thing, stirred itself on the margin, beneath a broad ledge of the jagged, beetling rocks along the bank, beneath the current, on the gravelly shallows. It made some commotion ; the water receded in widening circles far out toward the middle of the river. A scramble, a stroke or two, and it rose to its full height and waded along the shore ; for it was the battered image of a man. He wore no hat; his long locks hung in straight wisps down upon his shoulders. He glanced about him continually with fearful eyes, as he skulked, hobbling stiffly, up the bank. Once he sat down on the roots of a tree in the shadow, and essayed to draw off the great cow-hide boots, heavy with water, and hampering his every motion. But the leather, so long steeped, had swelled, and he could not divest himself of them.
“ Mought lose ’em, ennyhow, ef I war ter take ’em off,” he said, sturdily adapting his optimism to the cumbrous impediments. So he limped on. He shivered in every limb. Over and aga-in his breath appeared to fail him. More than once his head whirled, and he leaned against a tree to steady himself. The air was chill, but although the wind blew he was not sorry; it would the earlier dry his garments.
“ An’ I reckon I hev done cotch all the rheumatiz I kin hold, ennyways, a-layin’ thar under the aidge o’ the ruver, half kivered with water, fur a night an’ a day.”
When the woods began to give way to fields, he hung back, feeling desolate and affrighted. How could he barter these sheltering shadows, this nullifying darkness, for those wide, exposed spaces of the pasture ? Its dewy slope, with here and there an outcropping rock, but never a bush or a tree, lay under the slanting light of the moon. The mountains, he knew by its position, lay straight in that direction ; and presently he took courage to climb a fence, and, with his hobbling shadow at his side, — from which he sometimes shrank with abrupt fear, and glanced over his shoulder askance, — skulked across the grassy space, now in the melancholy sheen, and now in the vague shadow of a drifting cloud. There were sheep at one side of the slope, all asleep, huddled and white, save one, that held its head up and looked at him with a contemplative eye as he passed. A dog seemed their only guardian. He did not bark, but came down toward the stranger with a sinister growl. Mink had no fear of dogs, and somehow they trusted him. The shepherd sniffed in surprise at his heels, bounded up to lick his hand, followed with a wagging tail till he climbed the fence, and regretfully saw him take his way down the road. For his courage was renewed by its own achievements. He was bold enough presently to invade a garden where potatoes had lately been planted, and he dug up the sliced fragments, each carefully cut that it might contain two or more “ eyes.” He found, too, some turnips, and was greatly refreshed and strengthened by his surreptitious meal. As he rose from the garden border and turned away among the currant bushes, he was suddenly confronted by the figure of a man. He sprang back, his heart plunging. He thought for a moment that he was discovered. And yet — it stood so strangely still. Only a suit of clothes, stuffed with straw, and surmounted by an ancient and battered hat.
Mink gazed gravely at the scarecrow, that had surpassed its evident destiny in frightening that larger fowl, a jail-bird.
It might seem that with the weight of his heavy cares, the anguish of his forlorn plight, the dispiriting influence of his imprisonment, the jeopardy of his tortured freedom, his doubtful future, — exhausted, chilled, sore, — he would find scant amusement or relish in the grotesque image. One might wonder at the zest with which he applied himself, with convulsive, feeble efforts, to uproot the pole that sustained it. He conveyed it across the garden, — daring the dogs, — and placed the scarecrow where it might seem to peer into the front window of the house. He stood looking at it with intense satisfaction for a moment, — so like a man it was! He could forecast how the women of the house would cry aloud with terror when they should see it, how the mystified men would stare and swear. He did not laugh; the feat appeared in some other method to satisfy his sense of the ludicrous. It did not occur to him as a futile waste of his time and strength ; of both he presently stood in sore need. For the day was breaking, and still he trudged between the zigzag lines of farm fences, along a road that bore evidences of much travel, in a country which he did not know, of which the only familiar objects were the dying moon and the slowly developing outline of the Great Smoky Mountains, far away.
“ I ‘ll git ter Shaftesville in time ter stair my trial, ef I don’t mind, ’fore the dep’ty does,” he said to himself in a panic.
Nowhere were forests visible promising shelter. Here and there a limited woods-lot lined the road; more often fields of corn, barely showing tender sprouts above the ground, or stretches of winter wheat or millet, or pastures. He was in the midst of a scene of exclusive agricultural significance, when the startling sound of wagon wheels broke upon the air, and a man driving a pair of strong mules rose gradually from over the brow of the hill.
Mink’s clothes were already dry ; his hair curled freshly once more down upon the collar of his coat. He was painfully conscious of the lack of his hat, and he knew that the teamster’s eyes rested upon him in surprise. The man drew up his mules at once. But the wily fugitive hailed him first.
“ Howdy,” he remarked, advancing sturdily, putting one foot on the hub of the front wheel and his hand on the off mule’s back, and looking up with his bold, bright eyes at the driver. “ Do you-uns hail from nighabouts ? ”
“ Down yander at Peters’ CrossRoads,” responded the catechumen promptly.
“ I ax kase I ’lowed mebbe ye hed hearn some word o’ that thar prisoner ez got away from the sher’ff o’ Cher’kee County, — Reuben Lorey.”
“ Mink Lorey, I hearn his name war,” corrected the teamster.
“ Waal,” — Mink’s careless glance wandered aimlessly up and down the sunny road, — “ he oughter be named Mink, ef he ain’t; mean enough.”
“ Ye ’re ’quainted with him, I reckon,” said the teamster, still looking at his hatless head.
“ Mighty well! He hev gin me a heap o’ trouble. I dunno but I’d nigh ez soon he’d be in the bottom o’ the Tennessee Ruver ez not. We-uns hail from the same valley, — Hazel Valley.”
“ What ye doin’ ’thout no hat ? ” demanded the saturnine, perplexed, and vaguely suspicious man.
“ Lost it in the ruver. Been fishin’. I been visitin’ some folks in the flatwoods ez I be mighty well ’quainted with. I’m goin’ ter the store ter git me another hat.”
There was a pause.
“ They ’low that thar man war drownded,” said the teamster, discursively.
“Waal,” said Mink drawlingly, “I ’lowed I’d ax, so ez when I git ter Hazel Valley I mought tell his folks a straight tale.”
The teamster’s wonderment as to the bare head of the young fellow being satisfied, he was eager to proceed on his journey. Certainly all imaginable suspicions must have been allayed by the pertinacity with which Mink hung upon the wheel, and talked about the rheumatism he feared he had caught a-fishing, and how he had found no sport in it.
Finally, with apparent reluctance, he took his foot from off the hub, and the teamster was glad to go creaking along on his journey.
Although the danger was so successfully thwarted, the strain upon his ingenuity, his nerves, and his presence of mind had told heavily upon Mink’s reserve force of strength and courage. When at last he reached the deep woods he was more dead than alive, as he flung himself down in the hollow of a poplartree, struck long ago by lightning, — its great length fallen, its branches burned, only its cylindrical bole standing to boast what proportions this chief of the savage wilds had borne. The young mountaineer could almost stretch himself at full length. He doubted, as he fell asleep, if he would ever wake. But exhaustion did not prevail. Over and again consciousness would seize upon him, and he would be himself long enough to contrast his forlorn plight with the feignings of his dream, and so sink again into troubled sleep. Yet it was with a deep satisfaction that he gazed out at intervals upon the lonely, crowded sylvan limits. The underbrush closed about him ; the great trees upreared their heads against the sky, showing only, it might be, a glimpse of the blue or a flake of the burnished vernal sunshine. How restful the sight, how reassuring the sound of the wind in the leaves! A squirrel frisked by, sleek and dapper, with a brilliant, unaffrighted eye and a long, curling tail. The familiar creature seemed like a friend. “ Howdy, mister,” observed Mink. “ Ye air the fust pusson I hev seed ez I ain’t afeard on.”
But the squirrel came no more, although ever and anon Mink lifted himself to look out. He noted the moss, green and gray, on the bark of a rotting log ; he started to hear the woodpecker tapping ; he watched for a long time a crested red-bird’s graceful and volant motions, as he sought to teach a small, stubby brown scion of his house to fly. The vibrant, peevish juvenile remonstrance was somnolent in its effects, and when Mink next opened his eyes darkness enveloped the world, and the picture of evening had all flown. He could hardly say who he might be: he did not know where he was. The oppression of his familiar cell in the Glaston jail filled his consciousness, until, as he stretched forth his hands, he felt the rotting sides of the old tree and realized that he was free.
“ I mus’ be a-travelin’,” he said to himself.
Free, but with so burning a pain in every limb he could hardly stand upon his feet ; and what was this new misfortune ? His forlorn boots were bursting into fragments. As he staggered into the moonshine he sat down, and, putting one foot on his knee, examined the sole in rueful contemplation.
“ Now don’t that thar beat kingdom come ! Them boots war mighty nigh new when I went ter jail, an’ I never stood on ’em none thar sca’cely. Mus’ hev been the soakin’ they got. I ain’t useter goin’ bar’foot lately, an’ how ’ll I travel thirty mile this-a-way ? ”
It was with difficulty that he hobbled along; now and then he stumbled, and would have fallen but for his hasty clutch at a bush or a tree. His feet were pierced by flints through the crevices of his boots, and he was presently aware that he was marking his steps with blood. He made scant progress, although he struggled strenuously, and it was long before day when he was fain to lie down in a rift in a great bank of rocks, and recruit his wasted energies with sleep. “ I hope I ain’t a-goin’ ter die in sech a hole ez this,” he said, “ ez ef I war a sure-enough mink, or sech vermin. But Lord-a-massy, what be I, ef I ain’t a mink ? ”
He laughed sarcastically as he turned himself over. He had evolved some harsh theories of worldly inequalities. If he had knocked Jerry Price or Ben Doaks senseless with a bit of iron, he argued, he would hardly have been in jeopardy of arrest; the affair would perchance have been chronicled by the gossips as “ a right smart fight.” But he must forfeit twenty years of his life for assaulting a man of Gwinnan’s quality. He had some bitter reflections to divert his mind, with the functions of a counter-irritant, from his aching bones, his bleeding feet, his overpowering sense of fatigue. It was not till the next night — for he again lay hidden all day — that he passed through the gap of the mountain and entered Eskaqua Cove. His spirits had risen at the sight of the familiar things, — the foam on the river dancing in the light of the moon, which nightly rose earlier, the dense, solemn forests, the great looming, frowning rocks. He hardly cared how steep the hillsides were, how his sore feet burned and ached, how heavily he dragged his weight. He could have cried aloud with joy when he beheld the little foot-bridge which he knew so well, albeit he could hardly stagger over the narrow log; the low little house on the bank, where Mrs. Purvine lived. It was dark and silent under the silver moon, for the hour was late, reckoning by rural habits, — about ten o’clock, he guessed. He hesitated for a moment when he was in the road beside the fence. He thought he might shorten the way by crossing the corn-field, for the road made a bend below. He had climbed the fence and was well out in the midst of the sprouting grain, when suddenly he started back. There was a shadow coming to meet him. He could not flee. He could not hope to escape observation. Yet, when he looked again, the dim figure seemed curiously busy, and was not yet aware of his presence. It was the figure of a woman, and he presently recognized Mrs. Purvine. Her head was evidently much wrapped up against the night air, and her sun-bonnet was fain to perch in a peaked attitude, in order to surmount the integuments below ; it was drawn down over her face. It was by other means than the sight of her countenance that he identified her. It might seem an uncanny hour for industry, but Mink could well divine that Mrs. Purvine had experienced belated pangs of conscience concerning sundry rows of snap-beans, left defenseless, save for her good wishes, against the frost. She was engaged in covering them, — detaching a long board from a pile beside the fence, and placing it, with a large stone beneath either end, above the tender vegetable. Her shadow was doing its share, although it gave vent to none of the pantings and puffings and sighs with which the flesh protested, as it were, against the labor. It jogged along on the brown ground beside her in dumpy guise, and stooped down, and rose up, and set its arms akimbo to complacently observe the effect of the board, and even wore a sun-bonnet at the same impossible angle. It started off with corresponding alacrity to the pile to fetch another board for another row, and was very busy as it bent to adjust a stone beneath. It even sprang back and threw up both arms in sudden affright, when Mrs. Purvine exclaimed aloud. For a deft hand had lifted the other end of the board, and as she glanced around she saw a man kneeling on the mould and placing the stone so that the delicate snap-beans might be sheltered.
“ In the name o’ Moses ! ” faltered Mrs. Purvine between her chattering teeth, as she rose to her feet, “ air that thar Mink Lorey —or —or ”— she remembered how far away, how safe in jail, she had thought him — “ or his harnt ? ”
Mink turned his pallid face toward her. She saw the lustrous gleam of his dark eyes.
He hesitated for a moment. Then he could not resist. “ I died ‘bout two weeks ago,” he drawled circumstantially.
Mrs. Purvine stood as one petrified for a moment. Then credulity revolted.
“ Naw, Mink Lorey ! ” she said sternly. “ Naw, sir! Ye ain’t singed nowhar. Ef ye war dead, ye’d never hev got back onscorched.” She shook her enveloped head reprehensively at him.
Regret had seized upon him. The fleeting privilege of frightening Mrs. Purvine scarcely compensated for the risks he felt he ran in revealing himself.
He stood silent and grave enough, as she set her arms akimbo and gazed speculatively at him.
“ How d’ ye git out’n jail ? ” she demanded.
“ Through thar onlockin’ the door,” said Mink.
Mrs. Purvine knitted her puzzled brows.
“ War they willin’ fur ye ter leave ?” she asked, seeking to fathom the mystery.
“Waal, Mis’ Purvine,” equivocated the fugitive, jauntily, “ I ain’t never fund nobody, nowhar, right up an’ down willin’ fur me to leave ’em. They hed ter let me go, though.”
“ Waal, sir ! ” exclaimed Mrs. Purvine, with the accent of disappointment. “ I never b’lieved ez Jedge Gwinnan war in earnest, whenst he promised Lethe Sayles ter git ye pardoned. Whenst she kem back rej’icin’ over it so, I ’lowed the jedge war jes’ laffin’ at her.”
The man, staring at her with unnaturally large and brilliant eyes, recoiled suddenly, and his shadow appeared to revolt from her words. “Jedge Gwinnan ! pardon ! ” he cried, contemptuously, his voice rising shrilly in the quiet night. “ He got me no pardon ! I ’d hev none off’n him, damn him ! I’d bide in the prison twenty year, forty year, — I ’d rot thar, — afore I ’d take enny faviors out’n his hand ! Lord! let me lay my grip on that man one more time, an’ hell an’ all the devils can’t pull me off ! ”
His strength failed to support his excitement. He staggered to the pile of boards and leaned against them, panting, now and then passing his hand over his brow, lifting the hair that curled upon it. Mrs. Purvine noted how white his face was, how exhausted his attitude.
“ Ye ’pear sorter fibble,” she remarked, prosaically, “ an’ ye walk toler’ble cripple.”
“ Yes,” observed Mink, with his wonted manner, “ it ’peared ter me a toler’ble good joke ter jump off the middle o’ the bredge inter the Tennessee Ruver. But it turned out same ez mos’ o’ my jokes, — makes me laugh on the wrong side o’ my mouth.”
Mrs. Purvine began to understand. Her lower jaw dropped. “ Whar hev ye got ennything ter eat ? ” she demanded, with bated breath.
“ Waal,” said Mink, argumentatively, “ eatin’ ’s a powerful expensive business; we-uns would all save a heap ef we’d quit eatin’.”
Mrs. Purvine received this in pondering silence. Then she broke forth suddenly : —
“ Ye air a outdacious, sassy, scandalous mink, an’ I hev ‘lowed ez much fur many a year, but I never looked ter see the time when ye’d kem an’ prop yerse’f up in my gyardin-spot, an’ look me in the eye, an’ call me stingy. How war I ter know ye war n’t ez full ez a tick, ye impident half-liver ? I kin see ez ye ain’t fat in nowise, but how kin I tell by the creases in a man’s face what he hed fur dinner ?”
“ Laws-a-massy, Mis’ Purvine! ” exclaimed Mink, deprecating the untoward interpretation which his words seemed to bear. “I never meant sech ez that. Ef it bed been enny ways nigh cookin’ time, I’d hev kem right in, — ef I hed n’t been afraid ye ’d tell on me, — an’ axed ye fur a snack. Ain’t I eat hyar time an’ agin along o’ Jerry Price ? I hev hed a heap o’ meals from you-uns, — more ’n ye know ’bout, fur I hev treated yer watermillion patch ez ef it hed been my own.”
If Mrs. Purvine was placated, she did not at once manifest her mollification. “ What d’ ye know ‘bout cookin’ time, or cookin’ air one, ye slack-twisted, lazy, senseless critter ? Jes’ kerry yer bones right inter that thar door, fur eat ye hev got ter. In Moses’s name! ” she ejaculated piteously, “ the boy kin sca’cely walk.”
But Mink hesitated. “ I don’t wanter see Jerry,” he said. “ I dunno what Jerry mought think ’bout’ll it all.”
“ Jerry’s dead asleep, an’ so air all the boys,” declared the industrious Mrs. Purvine. “ Ye reckon ye air goin’ ter find ennybody up this time o’ night ’ceptin’ a hard-workin’ old woman like me ? I can’t be no surer o’ ye ’n I be a’ready. Go ’long in, ’fore I set Bose on ye.”
He was sorry for himself, — to gauge the joy, the comfort, that the very sight of the humble and familiar room afforded him. The fire had been covered with ashes, but Mrs. Purvine promptly pulled out the coals and piled on the pine knots, and the white flare showed the low-ceiled room, its walls covered with the old advertisements ; the punch eon floor ; the hanks of yarn ; the many pendent strings of pepper from the beams, and the quilting-frame clinging to them like a huge bat ; the two high beds ; the glister of the ostentatious mirror ; the prideful clock, silent on the shelf. As the interior became brilliantly illuminated, Mink looked suspiciously at the glass in the windows; he experienced a relief to note that the batten shutters were closed.
“ I did n’t want nobody ter git a glimge o’ me,” he said, “ kase I dunno but what they mought try ter hold ye ’sponsible fur feedin’ me, cornsiderin’ I be a runaway.”
“ They ain’t never goin’ ter find out ez ye hev been hyar, now,” said Mrs. Purvine.
“ They mought ax ye,” suggested Mink.
“ Waal, lies air healthy.” Mrs. Purvine accommodated her singular ethics to many emergencies. “ Church-yards air toler’ble full, but thar ain’t nobody thar ez died from tellin’ lies. Not but what I ’m a perfessin’ member,” she qualified, with a qualm of conscience, “an’ hev renounced deceit; but ef ennybody kems hyar inquirin’ roun’ ’bout my business, — what I done with this little mite o’ meat, an’ that biscuit, an’ the t’other pot o’ coffee, — I answer the foolish accordin’ ter his folly, like the Bible tells me, an’ send him rej’icin’ on his way.”
Mink, his every fear relieved, thought it a snug haven after the storms that he had weathered, as he sat in Mrs. Purvine’s own rocking-chair, and felt the grateful warmth of the blaze. He had hardly hoped ever again to know the simple domestic comforts of the chimneycorner. The coffee put new life into him, and after he had eaten the hot ash cake and bacon broiled on the coals, he took, at her insistence, another cup, and drank it as she sat opposite him on the hearth. In this last potation she joined him, having poured her coffee into a gourd, to save the trouble, as she explained, of washing another cup and saucer.
“ How do Lethe keep her health ? ”
“ Fust-rate,” said Mrs. Purvine. Her tone had changed. She looked at him speculatively from under the brim of her sun-bonnet, which she wore much of the time in the house. “ She air peart an’ lively ez ever.”
His lip curled slightly. He was sarcastic and critical concerning Alethea’s mental attitude, — the reaction, perhaps, of much rebuke and criticism received at her hands.
“ I reckon she ain’t missed me none, then ?” he hazarded.
“ She never seen much o’ you-uns las’ summer, bein’ ez ye war constant in keepin’ company with Elviry then ; though she’s missed ye cornsider’ble. Ye need n’t never ’low the gals will furgit ye, Mink,” she added, graciously. “ The las’ time Lethe seen Jedge Gwinnan she war a-beggin’ him fur ye, — an’ he promised, too. Lethe’s pretty enough ter make a man do mos’ ennything, — leastwise these hyar town folks think so.”
The color had sprung into Mink’s face. He stood up for a moment, searching for Jerry’s tobacco on the mantelpiece. He lighted his pipe by a coal which he scooped up with the bowl, and as he put the stem between his lips he looked covertly at Mrs. Purvine’s placid face, as she drank her coffee from the gourd, and meditatively swung her foot; the right knee was crossed over the left; the other foot was planted squarely upon the floor ; a narrow section of a stout gray stocking was visible above a leather shoe, laced incongruously with a white cotton cord, the kitten having carried off its leather string, and Mrs. Purvine continually forgetting to properly supply its place.
“ Ben Doaks, — air he still thinkin’ ’bout marryin’ Lethe ? ” demanded Mink between two puffs of smoke.
“ Ef he air, he air barkin’ up the wrong tree, I kin tell ye! ” exclaimed Mrs. Purvine, angrily. “Lethe Sayles air goin’ ter marry a town man, — leastwise that ’s what all the kentry air sayin’. He ’lows she be plumb beautiful. An’ I always did think so, though she air my own niece,” as if this ought to be an obstacle. “ I names no names,” — which would have been difficult, under the circumstances, — “ but he air a town man, an’ hev got a high place, an’ air well off. Some folks don’t keer nuthin’ ’bout money, but I ain’t one of ’em. An’ he air o’ good folks, — fustrate stock ; an’ I sets store on fambly, too.”
Mink was leaning forward, with his elbows on his knees; his eyes burnt upon her face ; his pipe-stem was quivering in his gaunt hand.
“ Whar did she meet up with him ? ”
“ Down in Shaftesville, when she went ter testify fur you-uns,” said Mrs. Purvine. Then, with her felicity of inspiration, “ He seen her fust in the court-room, an’ he war smitten at sight.”
She could not accurately define the impression she was making. But she grew a little frightened as she watched the keen, clear-cut face, changing unconsciously, responsive to unimagined thoughts : his wild dark eyes, in no sort tamed or dimmed, dwelt steadily on the white vistas of the fire ; his fine red hair curled alluringly on his collar. As she looked at him, fain to note how handsome he was, she wished very heartily, poor woman, that that mythical fortunate suitor had added to the charming qualities with which she had endowed him the simple essential, existence.
Mink burst suddenly into a satiric laugh, startling to hear. Mrs. Purvine turned upon him, the gourd trembling in her hand.
“ Ye ain’t got no manners, Mink Lorey,” she said, trying to resume her note of superficial severity. “ What be ye a-laffin’ at ? ”
“Jes’ at thoughts,” he said enigmatically, — 44 thoughts ! ”
“ Thoughts ’bout me, I ’ll be bound,” said Mrs. Purvine aggressively.
44 Naw; jes’ ’bout Lethe an’ that thar town man.” He whirled from the fire, and walked up and down the floor, with his hands in his pockets.
44 Waal, don’t ye say no mo’ ’bout’n him, ” said Mrs. Purvine, desirous of contemplating him no longer, 44 an’ don’t ye ax me who he be, fur I won’t tell ye! ”
“ Thar ain’t no need ter ax ye ; I know.”
Mrs. Purvine pondered this for a moment. She forgot it in her effort to persuade the young fellow to accept the hospitalities of the spare bedroom, of which she was so proud. 44 Ye kin jest stay in thar all night, Mink, an’ all termorrer. Ye won’t wake up fur no breakfus’, arter the tramp ye hev hed, an’ a long sleep ’ll ease yer bones. An’ ter-morrer night, ’bout ten o’clock, arter all the chill’n hev gone ter sleep, I ’ll gin ye a good meal, an’ ye kin set out heartened up an’ strong. I ’d ruther Jerry an’ the boys did n’t know ’bout yer bein’ hyar, kase I dunno what the law does ter folks ez holps them ez be runnin’ from jestice — or injestice; ’bout the same thing, ez fur ez I kin make out. An’ I don’t want them ter git inter trouble.”
44 Mebbe the sher’ff ’ll kem arter youuns,” Mink warned her.
44 Waal, I ’ll tell him I ain’t got no time ter fool with him, an’ ter take himself off the way he kem;” and Mrs. Purvine dismissed the imaginary ministerial officer with a lofty sniff.
The next day it seemed to Mrs. Purvine that many immediate requisites were stowed away temporarily in the bedroom. She was continually on the alert to prevent Jerry or the boys from invading it. 44 Keep out’n that thar bedroom. I ain’t keerin’ ef ye ain’t got no symblin’ seed. I ain’t goin’ ter let ye s’arch thar. I hev got all my fine quilts what I pieced myself — ’ceptin’ with a leetle help from Lethe Sayles — a-hangin’ up thar ter air. Hang ’em up in the sun, ye say ? Who d’ ye reckon wants ter fade them gay colors out ? ”
When at last Jerry desisted, in deference to this new, strange whim, one of the boys was beset with anxiety to get his shoes which he had set away there.
“That ’s the way the shoe-leather goes, — walkin’ on it,” said aunt Dely reasonably. 44 Naw, sir ! Save them soles, an’ go bar’foot. The weather’s warm now.”
The youngest, the most pertinacious and hard to resist, was tumultuous to get a certain 44 whang o’ leather ” which Bluff needed to complete his gear, in order to continue ploughing.
“ I ain’t a-keerin’ ef one o’ Bluff’s horns was lef’ in thar, an’ he could n’t low without it. I ain’t goin’ ter hev them quilts disturbed.”
Presently, when drowsy from her long vigil of the preceding night, she placed her chair before the door, that no one might enter without rousing her, and thus solemnly sentinel, she alternately knitted and nodded away the afternoon.
It was a great relief to her when the house was still, the family all asleep, and the fugitive’s meal prepared. She had taken special pains with it, albeit she went about it yawningly, and had filled a tin pail with provisions that he might carry with him.
She waited ten minutes or so after all was ready. She lintened, as she knelt on the hearth. There was no sound within but the stertorous breathing of the sleepers in the roof-room. From without only the murmur of the river, the croaking of a frog ; the stir of the wind came in at the open back door, through which she could see the white moonshine, lying in lonely splendor upon the dark, prosaic expanse of the newly ploughed fields. She rose and closed it, that the fugitive might not be revealed to the casual eye of any nocturnal fisherman, striking through her domain on his way to the river bank. Then she went to the bedroom door.
As she tapped on the panel, the door moved under the pressure, and she saw that it was unbuttoned on the inside. “ That thar keerless boy ought ter hev buttoned this door ! ” she exclaimed. “ The sher’ff could hev gone right in and nabbed him whilst he war asleep. Ye Mink! Mink!”
There was no answer.
“Waal, sir ! I never seen the beat.” Then in imperative crescendo, “ Ye Mink ! ”
She pushed open the door. The moonlight slanted through the porch and into the little bedroom, revealing the bed empty, the room deserted save for Mrs. Purvine’s rows of dresses hanging by the neck, and the piles of quilts on a shelf, rising in imposing proportions to attest her industry and a little help from Lethe Sayles.
He had fled, — when, why ? She could not say ; she could not imagine. She stood staring, with a vacillating expression on her face. She was ready for an outburst of futile anger, could she construe it as one of his minkish tricks ; he might even now be far away, laughing to picture how she would look when she would stand at the open door and find the room empty. Her face reddened at the thought. But perhaps, she argued, more generously, he had taken some alarm, and fled for safety.
Mrs. Purvine had had no experience in keeping secrets, and her colloquial habits were such as did not tend to cultivate the gift. More than once, the next day, as she speculated on the mysterious disappearance of Mink, she would drop her hands and exclaim in meditative wonderment, “ Waal ! waal ! waal! This worl’ an’ a few mo’ sech worl’s ez this! ”
It went hard with her to resist the curious questionings that this demonstration was calculated to excite. But when asked what she was talking about, she would only reply in enigmatical phrase, “ Laros to ketch meddlers! ” and shake her head unutterably. Nevertheless, when it became evident that her household had exhausted all their limited wiles to elicit the mystery of which she seemed suddenly and incomprehensibly possessed, and had reluctantly desisted, her resolution grew weaker instead of stronger, and she was bereft of a piquant interest in their queries and guesses. She began herself to play around the dangerous subject ; her remarks appeared to excite no suspicion and no surprise, and thus she was astonished in her turn.
“ I wonder, Jerry,” she said, as he and she, their pipes freshly lighted after supper, strolled about the “gyardin-spot” to note how the truck was thriving, Bose and a comrade or two at their heels, — “ I wonder how high that thar new bredge be over the Tennessee Ruver ? ”
“ Never medjured it,” returned Jerry, his eyes twinkling as they met her serious gaze.
“ Ye g’ ‘long ! ” exclaimed Mrs. Purvine tartly. She was addressing only the unfilial spirit that prompted his reply, for she had no intention of dismissing the audience, as she resumed at once in her usual tone. “ Waal, from all ye hev beam, would n’t ye ’low ez ennybody jumpin’ off’n it war ’bleeged ter break thar neck ? ” she argued.
“ I’d hev thunk so,” admitted Jerry, “ but it seems not.”
She looked sharply at him from over her spectacles, as she canvassed his reply. It must have been accident. How could he know aught of Mink ? She was for a moment so impressed with a sense of danger here that she hastily spoke from the purpose.
“ Ye see them butter-beans ?” she remarked, pointing to the white seed lying on the top of the ground. “ It always ’peared mighty comical ez they air planted in the ground, an’ soon ez they sprout they fling the seed on the top. Whenst I war a leetle gal I useter go ’round an’ stick ’em all under agin, — we never hed more ’n a few messes a season at our house.”
“ Them peas ’ll hev ter be stuck afore long,” said Jerry, complacently.
But the simple pleasure in a garden was too insipid long to enchain the interest of the sophisticated Mrs. Purvine ; her mind reverted to her burning secret and the many speculations to which it gave rise. She hardly noted the red sky, stretching so far above the purple mountains ; the river, with reflections of gold and pink amid its silver glinting. In the south Procyon, star of ill-omen, swung in the faint blue spaces. A whippoor-will sang. Darkness impended.
Once more she skirted the forbidden topic.
“ Waal, I wouldn’t advise nobody ter try it.” She was alluding not to the industrial necessity of sticking the peas, but to jumping off the bridge.
“ Naw, sir,” Jerry assented, quietly. “ ’Bout some things Mink ’pears ter hev the devil’s own luck, though ginerally they run agin him. I reckon nobody but Mink could hev lept from that bredge an’ swum out’n the ruver ’thout gittin’ cotched.”
Mrs. Purvine trembled from head to foot. As she turned her face toward him the light of the evening struck upon her glittering spectacles in the depths of her sun-bonnet, and it seemed a fiery and penetrating gaze she bent on her adopted son.
“ In the name o’ Moses, Jerry Price! ” she solemnly adjured him. “ How did you-uns know ennything ’bout Mink Lorey ? ”
“ Same way ye did,” said Jerry, in accents of surprise.
Mrs. Purvine sat down abruptly on the pile of boards beside the fence.
Jerry, astonished at her evident agitation, proceeded: —
“ Yer mem’ry air failin’, surely, ef ye hev furgot ez the dep’ty-sher’ff tole us ‘bout’n it yistiddy, — rid his critter right up thar ter the side o’ the fence, an’ I lef’ Bluff whar I war a-ploughin’, an’ went down an’ talked ter him.”
“ What war I a-doin’ of ? ” demanded Mrs. Purvine, feebly.
“Ye war settin’ knittin’ right in front o’ the bedroom door,— ter keep we-uns from raidin’ in on them quilts ez ye war airin’ in the bedroom, whar thar ain’t no air.”
Mrs. Purvine breathed more freely. She had a vague memory of hearing a man hallooing at the fence, and of seeing Jerry running to meet him; the rest was lost in the deep slumber which she called “ dozin’ off,” as she sat sentinel in front of the door. “ I mus’ hev been noddin’,” she said, trembling a little at the idea that the sheriff and the prisoner had been at such close quarters. “ I never beam none o’ it.”
“ Waal,” explained Jerry, “ he hed traced Mink up somewhar nighabouts. An’ he war mighty keen ter ketch him. He ’lowed Mink war a turrible fool ter her runned off, kase they hed n’t lef’ Glaston more ’n two hours ’fore Mink’s pardon kem. Jedge Gwinnan hed gone an’ beset the gov’nor, an’ tole him ’t war a plumb mistake, an’ Mink war n’t no reg’lar jail-bird, nor hardened critter, nor nuthin’ but a simple country boy. An’ he’d hed a reg’lar martyrdom o’ injestice, an’ sech. An’ the ’sault war jes’ a boy’s hittin’ a feller ez he ’lowed war gittin’ the better o’ him. ’T war n’t ’count o’ the trial. He war jes’ jealous. Jedge Gwinnan ’lowed ez the fight war mighty onfair, kase Mink war chained an’ he war n’t. An’ he would n’t let him be prosecuted ef he could hev helped it. An’ ez Mink’s case hed been affirmed by the S’preme Court the gov’nor pardoned him. Skeggs ’lowed folks say the gov’nor war right down glad ter do it, kase he hev hed ter be toler’ble hard on some folks lately ez applied fur pardons; an’ he did n’t want ter git onpop’lar, an’ ter ’pear set agin mercy ez a constancy.”
“ Waal! waal! ” exclaimed Mrs. Purvine, divided between surprise and an effort to gauge the effect of this intelligence on the prisoner listening in the little room.
“Skeggs ’lowed ’twar mighty mean in Mink ter hide out an’ leave him ter ketch all the consequences, — he air ’sponsible fur the ’scape, — kase they don’t want Mink fur nuthin’ now but that thar leetle case ’bout’n the mill, an’ everybody knows Tad ain’t dead. Mr. Harshaw ’lows he seen Tad when he war huntin’ up in the mountings. An’ Lethe, she seen him. An’ Skeggs air honin’ an’ moanin’ ’bout’n it, an’ ’lows Mink mought kem an’ be tried, ef he hed the feelin’s o’ a man stiddier a mink.”
Mrs. Purvine rose slowly, and bent her meditative steps toward the door, wondering all the more why Mink should have disappeared so mysteriously, cognizant as he must have been how his dangers had lessened, — whither he had gone, with what purpose.
“Aunt Dely,” said Jerry, suddenly, following her slowly, “ how did ye know ennything ’bout Mink, ef ye never hearn Skeggs tell it ? ”
“ Jerry Price,” said Mrs. Purvine, sternly, “ ef ye hed been raised by yer aunt Melindy Jane, I ’ll be bound ye’d hev larned better ’n ter ax fool questions with every breath ye draw.”
Charles Egbert Craddock.