The Despot of Broomsedge Cove
AN interval of silence succeeded. The heavy, black shadows of the great trees hard by did not stir. The mute moonlight lay all down the vacant road, and rested unbroken upon the rude floor of the loft. The man at the square window stood motionless, his hand still uplifted, his illumined face questioning, intent. The only sound was the vague, lingering stir communicated through all the fibres of the hay when Bassett, half rising upon one knee in its midst, had shifted his weight. Suddenly an acorn from a chestnut-oak fell upon the roof, with a loud, imperative accent in the tense, expectant moment. It cracked upon the clapboards, that reverberated with the ready resonance of the void spaces of the interior, rebounded with a rattle, rolled deliberately down the eaves, and dropped thence to the ground. It was a slight thing, but if aught more significant had sounded in the interval, this trivial clamor had nullified it. The opportunity to continue to listen and identify the mysterious voice was lost, for one of the cows, below, had begun to low fitfully, and the rocks close at hand prolonged and reduplicated the lingering, melancholy note.
A half-articulate curse, and here and there a long-drawn respiration, intimated that the breathless tension of expectation had given way.
“ ’T warn’t nuthin’ but a owel,” said one of the mountaineers, who had paused, as if petrified, in the middle of the floor, his hands in his pockets, his hat on the back of his head. He had a sedulously unimaginative aspect, as if determined to belittle the occurrence and denude it of consequence; and yet there was something in his tone that intimated a hope of contradiction.
“ Owel! Waal, mebbe ’t war,” ejaculated the man at the window perversely, divining his desire.
“ Waal, then, what did it sound like ter you-uns ? ” demanded the first speaker, frustrated in argument, and realizing that he would first have to foster a sensation in order to assume his favorite iconoclastic rôle. It is an old saying that two are required to make a quarrel, and it is not worn out yet.
“ Sounded ter me,” put in the simple Clem, “like a woman a-callin’.”
“ Else a wild-cat, or suthin’,” suggested the first speaker. He was Peter Bryce, Mrs. Bowles’s former lover; and although he had survived her cruelty, his disposition had succumbed to the souring influences of disappointment, and his estimate of women had suffered.
“ Naw, sir ! ” said Clem, with a definite accession of acerbity, and becoming communicative under its stress. “ I ’lowed ’t war my mother a-callin’ me. Mought hev been mistaken, though,” he qualified.
Bassett, still half kneeling in the billowy hay, in the shadow save for a slender moonbeam falling upon him from a crevice in the roof above, skein-like and fibrous in its long, unbroken effect, turned a suspicious eye upon the stalwart young blacksmith, indistinct in the semi-obscurity.
“ Clem Sanders,” he said sternly, “ hev ye been fool enough ter tell her ’bout we-uns, an’ sech ez we air lookin’ ter do ? ”
There was no striding to and fro now ; all the burly armed figures were still and silent for a moment, their eyes, whether distinct and shining in the moonlight, or barely discerned in the shadow, fixed with one accord upon Clem Sanders, who needed all his courage to face the suspicion of treachery that they expressed.
“ Of course I never. What would I be a-tellin’ mam sech ez that fur, in the name o’ common sense ? She be a-callin’ me, I reckon, ter feed some apple-parin’s ter the peegs, fur all I know.”
There was a momentary silence ; then discerning the distinctly sullen note in his reply, Bassett found the tact to say: —
“ Ye know, Clem, we hain’t got no objection ter Mis’ Sanders, ’ceptin’ her bein’ a woman; bes’ one in the worl’, though. But ye know, Clem, ’t ain’t safe ter trest ’em with sech. They tell everythin’ they know, an’ they hain’t got no sense ter reason on jestice an’ sech ; ’t would jes’ let them men plumb off, ef enny woman war ter git a-holt o’ it. ’T won’t do ter trest ’em with sech.”
“ Nor with nuthin’ else,” said the cynical Peter Bryce, speaking from the fullness of his own experience, but with an abstract application to the whole sex that gave Clem Sanders no offense for his mother’s sake, and left him at liberty to experience sundry guilty pangs that beset him at the recollection of his disclosure to Marcella. He threw himself down on the hay, close to the wall, his hat pulled far over his brooding eyes, his elbow upon the elastic masses, and resting his head in his hand. The cat, in a crevice between the unchinked logs, looked around at him with lustrous, recognizing eyes, and, kitten-like, she put out a white, velvety paw with a feint of touching his brown hand, falling short by an inch. Then she once more gazed calmly out, drawing her tail about her, and seeming always to rise slightly, as she purringly closed and unclosed the nails of her fore - paws. Her shadow on the floor, above that of the prostrate man, was like a crouching tiger, ready to spring.
“Can’t trest wimmen with nuthin’,’’ asseverated Peter Bryce loudly, for the cynic is rarely ready to enjoy alone his discoveries in human nature. He calls in all his world to help him make merry over the distortions of the poor, warped thing before it can get itself away.
“ Waal, now, the Lord made ’em,” expostulated an elderly, grizzled fellow. It was not altogether piety which animated him. He had the threatening, lowering mien which bespeaks a personal interest. He had seven daughters, when he would have infinitely preferred seven sons. He had, in each instance, absolved himself of any obligation to feel any special affection for these young people, who persisted in being so great a shock to his prejudices ; he sought to steel himself in indifference, and in his judgment that each was an affliction and a dead weight. But poor human nature is weak at best. His seven afflictions, all unabashed, proceeded to entwine themselves about his rude heartstrings as valiantly as could any seven sons. When he became conscious of this, and of his helplessness in the premises, he applied such simple philosophy as his untutored brain could evolve to devising excuses for them, as it were; and thence he advanced to insistence upon their equality —nay, superiority — to any seven sons that could be mustered in Broomsedge Cove. “ The Lord made wimmen,” he solemnly declared.
“ By accident, I’m a-thinkin’,” said Bassett.
“ ’T warn’t no job ter be proud of,” echoed Dake.
“ War they made a-purpose so durned changeable ? ” demanded Bryce.
“ An’ so onreasonable ? ” said Bassett.
“ An’ sech a tongue onto all of ’em ? ” Dake suggested.
“ An’ no answer but ‘ Bekase’t is,’ ter every why ? ” said Peter Bryce.
The father of the seven afflictions looked from one to the other, his eyes vigilant, like a creature at bay. He seemed to have a large contract on his hands, but he was inured, in his paternal charge, to large contracts, and thus he was not altogether dismayed. Perhaps in the exclusively feminine association at home he had learned something of the potency of feminine logic, and of the futility of imposing upon one’s capacities the devising of answers to categorical posers. He took refuge in a broad, unimpeachable proposition, which he delivered with all the impressiveness of refutation. “The Lord made wimmen,” he solemnly asseverated anew, as if piety forbade any criticism of the supreme handiwork, and on this ground defying contradiction.
“ An’ what diff’ence is that ? ” demanded Bassett, with a sneer that the moonlight accented, glittering on his teeth.
“ Who hev said contrariwise ? ” echoed Dake.
“ The Lord made ’em,” the paterfamilias again averred, with an arrogation of originality in his attitude and face, as he advanced into the square of moonlight, which showed his bronzed features, with his short beard broadening the effect of his countenance; his mild eye assuming belligerent intimations, as of a peaceful soul, who will, nevertheless, fight for his own; his long, thin lips firmly compressed beneath his bristly mustache. “ The Lord made ’em, an’ I ain’t goin’ ter hear nuthin’ said agin ’em.”
There was a pause. The frolicsome filly down in the stall below, kept awake, perchance, by the noise above, frisked about on two or three boards, upon which her small hoofs clattered noisily, doubtless to the admiration of her slower, wide-eyed friend the calf, and sent forth a shrill, gleeful little whinny, all head tones, indescribably callow. The mother responded with a note of maternal remonstrance ; there was a sound of a scampering gallopade to her side, and the stall was still. The setting hen, close in to the wall, amidst the hay, stretched her long neck with its panting open bill, and emitted a sort of hysterical clucking of apprehension when the whole great mass trembled, as Bassett flung himself at length into its midst. His head was pillowed high amongst the fragrant billows, but his booted and spurred feet hung down unsupported, dangling to and and fro with a disparaging gesture, as he demanded, “ Hev ye tole yer wife an’ that thar congregation o’ small gals o’ yourn ’bout sech ez air goin’ for’ard ternight ’mongst we-uns ? ”
The grizzled head, held askew as its owner listened, gave an angry jerk. “ Course I hain’t,” the elderly champion rejoined, in surly but succinct denial.
There was a sort of suppressed snort of indignation amongst the vigilantes, prophetic of the fury that would await the supposititious betrayal; it seemed, indeed, that the very hypothesis was not a safe subject. Clem Sanders stirred uneasily.
“ Waal, now,” said the crafty Bassett, “ why don’t ye tell ’em ? ”
The elderly champion of the fair stood helpless and at a hopeless disadvantage; he lay hold of his square-cut beard, and held it meditatively as he gazed silently at his interlocutor.
“ Why don’t ye tell ’em ? ” repeated Bassett, half chuckling at his own cleverness, the trend of his argument seeming hardly less than inspiration. “Ye know wimmen - folks never talk none; ’twarn’t one o’ them, surely, ez tuk ter gossipin’ in the very Gyardin o’ Eden with the Evil One hisse’f. They never talk none an’ spread the news, an’ when thar ain’t no news air plumb ekal ter makin’ it. Then they never sets tharse’fs ter frustratin’ the men on principle, jes’ fur the enjyemint o’ the thing, though some folks, ez don’t know ’em ez well ez ye an’ me, hev’ lowed wunst or twict sence the work began ez they air always ekal ter that. A leetle spindlin’ snip o’ a gal kin fool a man six feet high an’ a two hunderd pounder ’bout ennythin’ she gins her mind ter.”
“ That she kin ! ” sourly exclaimed Peter Bryce, whose infelicitous love affairs had been so widely bruited abroad, at the time when he and Maria Price, subsequently Mrs. Bowles, quarreled, that reserve on the subject would have been but an empty formality.
“ Oh, Pete, he’s jes’ funnin’ ; he ain’t hed no ’sperience o’ thar onreliability,” resumed Bassett, enraptured by the extent of his own satiric capacities when fairly tested, and having no mind to relinquish the floor of which he was so conspicuous an ornament. “ Then they air so reasonable, — that’s what makes ’em so easy ter git along with. Ef enny one o’ them war ter know ’bout what we air aimin’ ter do, an’ ez we air ready ter hang them men ef we find Jake Baintree air arter enny mo’ devilmint — sence he killed Sam’l Keale, an’ got off from the court through the jedge an’ jury bein’ so all-fired weak-kneed, what would that woman say ? She’d say, ‘ Don’t hang ’em; it mought hurt ’em.’ ”
There was a smothered guffaw from the younger men, and the father of the seven reasonless beings stood mute and without a word of contradiction.
“ Don’t hang ’em; it mought hurt ’em, — that air what every sistren of ’em in this broad land would say,” the speaker continued, in high feather, gratified by his unexpected fluency and the flattering coincidence of the majority. “ Now, Clem, ye kin bear me out,” he said, turning unexpectedly toward the young blacksmith, who gave a guilty start, so abrupt that the cat in the moonlit crevice rose up suddenly, with a back bowed high and an angry hiss ; then, with her tail aloft and stiff she ran off with an unprecedented nimbleness, up the mound of hay, and composed herself to watch studiously a certain beam high out of reach, on which she had seen a lithe whisking shadow of rodent-like action. Clem heavily turned himself in the hay ; he was swift to indorse mentally any plausible proposition, and he remembered with anxious self-reproach and many twinges of conscience his disclosures to Marcella. She had disapproved, as Bassett urged that any woman would. Would she act upon this disapproval ? But after all, would she dare, and what could she do ? He sought to solace his fears, and to shake off his overpowering sense of treachery and guilt, by arguing within himself the futility of any scheme she might devise ; even circumstance seemed to favor him. He felt ashamed to experience a certain gratulation that her father, so vehement a stickler for the maintenance of the law, was not available in this emergency. “ Eli be too sick fur her ter resk excitin’ him ’bout sech. She ain’t goin’ ter ’sturb Eli ef Jake Baintree war ter git hung, like he oughter hev been a year ago an’ better, an’ would hev been ef Teck Jepson hed hed his way.”
He was summarily roused from these absorptions by Bassett’s raucous drawl:
“ Why n’t ye answer, Clem ? Air ye a-snoozin’ thar, ye sleepy-headed sorreltop ? ”
“ I hearn ye,” replied Clem gruffly. “I dunno how I kin bear ye out. I dunno all the wimmen in the mountings, an’ I don’t wanter. Some will do one way an’ some another ; ennythin’ ez air onexpected an’ suddint.”
“ That’s jes’ it! ” exclaimed Bassett. “The Bible ’lows ez the woman war made from one o’ Adam’s ribs, an’ I ‘ll be bound, though the Bible don’t say so, ez her brains war jes’ the odds an’ e-ends lef’ over from Adam’s brains, an’ that’s why her thoughts air jes’ higglety-picklety; a leetle o’ this, an’ a tech o’ that, an’ none ter las’ more ’n a minit. An’ she did n’t shine on that ’casion in the Gyardin as an adviser, an’ that’s how it happens men ever sence hev been glad ter git shet o’ thar wife’s advice.”
“ I ain’t never seen one woman ez larnt enny lesson from Eve,” remarked Peter Bryce. “They gin thar advice yit ez ef’t war one o’ the precious things o’ the yearth, an’ air always powerful ’stonished an’ conflusticated every time ez the men folks ain’t willin’ ter break thar necks ter profit by it.”
The sentinel had left the discussion, and reverted to the window; he beckoned to one of the other mountaineers presently, and pointed down the long avenue of the great oaks. Here and there were broad open spaces, where the moonlight fell in unbroken and splendid effulgence ; the autumn winds had left the trees but scantily leaved; bough and bole were often distinct through the foliage, and even amidst the motionless shadows, which duplicated each leaf and twig ; the white frost lent an accentuation of brilliancy. Upon the sere curled leaves that lay on the ground a hoofbeat was falling, and an equestrian figure rode with a mounted shadow beside him to lurk among the trees ; to skulk, strangely foreshortened, on the ground ; to rise suddenly upon the vertical surface of a crag into the full stature of a man and the complete equipment of the horse, with a definiteness that had an uncanny effect, somehow, in the solitude. So brilliant was the moon that it seemed to seek out and reveal vague, spectral, halfrealized things, affinities of the night and the unknown.
“ Edzac’ly, — jes’ ez I said. Teck ridin’ ’long like some great captain,” exclaimed Bassett, whom the faint jingle of spurs in the frosty air had brought to the window.
The mounted figure passed close to the building, never lifting his head nor making a sign, although he must have been conscious of the half dozen men looking down at him. The horse whickered gleefully upon nearing the barn, and the rocks echoed and reëchoed the sound, until it simulated the distant neighing of a squadron of cavalry. Even when it had sunk to silence, some seeming charger far away again broke the quiet, neighing in the solitary defiles of the mountain. The men looked significantly at one another; here and there a spark of irritation, perceptible the moment that the horseman had first been glimpsed through the aisles of the woods, began to flare definitely into anger.
“ Hev ye ever hearn a bigger racket ? ”
“ He ain’t keerin’ how much n’ise he lets them men hear.”
“ He don’t mind sech ez we-uns say; he air jes’ sot an’ sodden in his own way.”
“ He oughter be tuk down somehow. He air too robustious an’ domineerin’ ter live.”
The next moment a step sounded upon the rungs of the ladder. As Teck Jepson emerged through the aperture in the floor, glancing up at the silent figures grouped about, watching his ascent, there seemed something in his eye which coerced apparent acquiescence, and in this fostered a sort of subservient dissimulation toward him. His grave " Howdy, neighbors,” in his low, melancholy drawl, evoked a friendly “ Howdy, Teck,” which expressed all the goodfellowship of approving welcome. Only Dake stood silent and morose, retaining in his manner something of the sentiment which had animated the coterie before Jepson’s entrance. He could not have expressed a categorical opinion of Jepson’s character, but was aware of his acute observation and his alert divination of motive. Jepson, he was sure, could not have failed to notice the chill protest and displeasure in the single exception to the cordiality of the greetings.
Dake felt that Jepson’s lofty indifference and serenity were in the nature of a triumphant retort. He broke forth angrily:
“ What air yer notion, Teck Jepson, ter kem ter a secret meetin’, a-tromplin’ an’ a-jinglin’ with spurs through the woods, an’ ridin’ of yer horse ez goes whinnyin’ fur corn inter the stable. Ef I war Clem, I would n’t give him nare grain. Ef them men hev enny ears, they air bound ter hear ye an’ take a warnin’. I b’lieve ye air in league with ’em.”
Jepson turned slowly upon him. “I b’lieve I ’ll throw ye out’n that winder,” he said.
There was a hasty cry of protest from the group, and several interposed between the two. “ Naw, Teck, naw; ye must n’t git a-fightin’, ye an’ Gid ! ” exclaimed the father of the seven, with a patriarchal air which became him well at home, and in view of his seniority did not seem out of place here. “ Ye know, boys, we-uns hev got tergether ter hold up the right, whether the law will tote its e-end or no. It air fur the good an’ the peace o’ the kentry. We can’t gin our cornsent ter wickedness goin’ on an’ dodgin’ its due in the darkness, but we ’ll meet up with it an’ medjure it, sure. ’T won’t do ter git ter quar’lin’, so jestice will be frustrated in the courts an’ out’n ’em. Ef the arm o’ the law be got so spindlin’ an’ puny ez it can’t take holt an’ deal jestice, but flops par’lytic in the empty air, the people air strong yit, an’ ain’t goin’ ter suffer no wrong-doin’. Naw, sir ! ”
He uttered this with a sing-song delivery, reminiscent of the pulpit of the circuit-rider, his voice rising and falling in alternate waves and with rhythmical cadences ; then he suddenly assumed an indescribably coaxing tone, that had often proved exceedingly efficacious with recalcitrant small girls, and its persuasiveness was not altogether without effect upon these children of a larger growth.
“ Don’t ye git ter quar’lin’ with Gid, Teck ! An’ Gid, ye oughter be ’shamed! Teck’s our main man; he’s a plumb ringleader, an’ ye know we air all bound ter b’lieve in Teck, wharfore or what not. I notice we-uns all do his bid, whether we aim ter or no. Teck ain’t goin’ ter git up no commotion ez them men kin hear. An’ ez ter Teck bein’ in league with ’em, we-uns all know — everybody knows — ez he hev been plumb down on Jake Baintree ever sence the jury let him off; Teck ’lowed ez Jedge Lynch ought ter take his case up. Teck’s our main man ! ”
An unwonted frown had gathered on Jepson’s face, distinctly seen in the moonlight which sifted through the dark shadows from the crannies of the high peaked roof. The peacemaker had touched some false note, and the jarring discord was instantly manifested. Jepson deliberately drew his arm from the grasp of the elder man.
“ I ain’t a-aimin’ ter be a leader,” he said. “ I ain’t sech ez covets the fust place. I hev no wish fur words of praise. I look within fur the testimony an’ the voice o’ the Lord ez sounds in the silences. Sech ez my steps air, they air tuk in His path.”
He half turned from his well-meaning exhorter, who stood, a trifle crest-fallen but deeply impressed, gazing at him, the ligaments of his strong bare neck tense as he thrust his head forward.
Jepson paused, looking over his shoulder ; his luminous handsome eyes rested upon Dake for a moment with a more familiar and worldly expression.
“ Ez ter Gid Dake, he air welcome ter his thoughts ; his wust enemy would n’t gredge him sech pore leetle things ez he kin think. But ye air in an’ about right ter gin rebukes fur quar’lin’, — we ain’t met fur sech ez that. An’ I won’t throw Gid out’n the winder jes’ yit; but,” he sneered, “ let him think his thoughts. A body ought ter be sorry fur a man condemned ter pass his life in sech comp’ny ez Gid an’ his thoughts.”
The elderly peacemaker received the intimation that his interference was praiseworthy and well timed with a distinct and grateful glow. Dake, with his hands in his pockets and a flouting shrug of his shoulders, ejaculated, “ Shucks ! ” and walked away amongst the others, quick enough, however, and sensitive enough to note the glances askance and the half-veiled contempt which marked the degree to which they considered him defeated, and the consequent depths to which he had sunk in their opinion.
“ I rid, but I tuk a short cut through the woods, an’ never teched the road nowhar,” continued Jepson, standing in the middle of the floor, taller than them all, very distinct in the moonlight, his chin held a trifle high, “ I rid bekase I war so all-fired late.” It was unusual that he deigned to explain his motives, and this betokened an unwonted geniality and sense of nearness and oneness with them all. “ It takes me mighty nigh the whole evenin’ ter cook a leetle dab o’ supper. My mother war the bes’ cook ez ever seen a fire, but I don’t ’pear ter take arter her. I actially can’t turn a hoe-cake over.” He smiled slightly at the laughter that this revelation of his domestic difficulties evoked. Then he went on : “ Mos’ folks rej’ice mightily when meal-times come, but it air a season o’ hardship an’ labor fur me. The skillets an’ the pans ’pear ter hide, somehows, an’ I can’t find nuthin’; though I aim ter put everythin’ in its place, t’ ain’ t thar whenst I want it agin.”
“ Ye miss Mis’ Bowles cornsider’ble, don’t ye ? ” suggested Bassett, with a leer, — “ specially meal-times.”
“ I never hearn Mis’ Bowles war ennythin’ so tremenjious s’prisin’ ez a cook,” sneered Peter Bryce, nettled at the very mention of her name, and resolved not to indorse any presumable merits and culinary accomplishments.
But Teck Jepson had a sentiment of loyalty to the hospitable board, although it was self-interest that had spread it. “ She never let me go hongry,” he averred heartily, “ an’ that’s more ’n I kin say fur myself.”
“ Ye oughter git married, Teck,” said the champion of the fair. “ A man ’thout a wife air like a house ’thout a h’a’th-stone: thar ain’t no chances for comfort, nor cheerfulness, nor light, nor nuthin’, ’thout it; it’s jes’ the heart o’ a home.”
“ Yes; an’ ye kin make mighty sure thar ain’t a skillet in Brumsaidge Cove spry enough ter hide from Marcelly Strobe,” broke in Dake irreverently, glad to touch upon a tender point; having heard and believed Andy Longwood’s representations of Marcella’s preference for Clem Sanders, and knowing that Teck Jepson had also been an aspirant for favor.
Jepson, with an angry start, was about to retort, when Clem Sanders, growling an oath, rose up from the hay, stamping heavily first one foot and then the other, to rouse them from the premature slumbers in which they had been surreptitiously indulging while the rest of his system was broad awake. “ Air we-uns a-goin’ ter stay hyar all night, a-colloguin’ ’bout skillets an’ sech, an’ not even peekin’ out o’ the winder ter keep watch on them men at the forge ? They could hev been at thar evil works, an’ a-doin’ a dunno-what-all in secret an’ agin the law, an’ we-uns air sech all-fired drivilin’ idjits we can’t ketch ’em, though we sets up night arter night a-watchin’, kase we gits ter jawin’ ’bout Eve an’ Adam, an’ skillets, an’ Marcelly Strobe ! Them men air mighty safe. I wisht I knew I war a-goin’ ter be ez fur off from harm an’ hurt all my days. Them men air mighty safe, no matter what they air a-aimin’ an’ a-plottin’ ; mighty safe from sech vengeance ez we-uns kin git tergether in Brumsaidge Cove.”
It was seldom that Teck Jepson was affected by the speech of others, but the coercive influence of this logical outburst was very apparent in his manner, as he turned abruptly away, evidently terminating and casting off the whole previous train of thought, and strode to the window. As he stood there, the moonlight upon his clearly chiseled features, his full, deep eyes fixed with a searching intentness upon the dark little shanty of the forge down the road, his hand resting upon the handle of his pistol that he wore thrust in his belt, his high boots drawn over the trousers to the knee, his spurs catching the light and scintillating, albeit, they were as motionless as if they had been the accoutrements of some sculptured soldier, there was so much agile strength suggested in his pose, so much fire and force in his face, earnest of the vassalage of circumstance to this full-pulsed spirit, that Clem Sanders, dolorously gazing, felt his heart sink within him. Teck Jepson had forgotten his enterprise, for the moment, and he himself had reminded him of it, forgetful in his turn of the horror Marcella had expressed, and of his own protestations that no task she could impose would be too onerous for him to show his wish to please her. And now he had had but to hold his tongue, and the intruders might have come and gone while the vigilantes wrangled together in the loft; no bloodshed would darken this silver night, and Marcella’s tender heart would be unwrung. “ Me, ez ’lowed I ’d shoot all these fellers an’ run ’em off from hyar ter keep ’em from harmin’ Jake Baintree an’ that thar slouch of a blacksmith he hev got along with him ! ” he said, aghast at the rift between his performance and his protestations. He began to be appalled by the significance and consequence that now seemed to attend his hap-hazard speech and actions. He was not reflective, he had no habits of forecast and serious intention, and he felt enmeshed in troublous toils in the knowledge that he secretly wished to hinder that which he apparently sought to help forward. He would have given much to recall his words. He had lost all desire to assist in adjudicating public affairs in the courts of Judge Lynch, to investigate the mystery of the intrusion into his own forge, even to punish the bungling smith that surreptitiously broke and mended; these things had become repugnant to him, under the knowledge of Marcella’s disapproval. He stood for a few moments in the shadow, silently regarding Teck Jepson in the mellow splendor of the moonlight, adding its indefinite idealization to those advantages of symmetry and pose which Clem considered constituted a “ powerful finebuilt man.” The blacksmith turned, slouching forward his heavy shoulders, a manner he affected when displeased and out of sorts, and which had an oddly aging effect, making him appear like some burly fellow of forty-five or fifty, bent with toil and trouble. He flung himself, with a short sigh, into his former nest in the hay, and upheld his head on one hand. The moonlight had shifted since he last lay there. The hay that in the semi-obscurity retained its dull amber tint, tending here and there to a dusky brown or the nullity of invisibility, was in the light a fine and fibrous silver ; it gleamed with lustrous reflections as he moved, and threw his head and face into distinct relief, despite the shadow of his hat-brim.
“ Clem looks like ez ef he bed been a-feedin’ on ten-penny nails as his daily fare,” suggested Jube, the parson’s son, who had lately come in, and who sat upon an inverted half-bushel measure. He was amusing himself by shelling an ear of corn, and dropping the grains through the cracks in the ill-laid flooring upon the little filly in the stall below, which he could see quite distinctly, and enjoying the surprise of the little animal; it was varied by periodic panic and flight, the filly always returning, however, to reëxamine the phenomenon, until, finally, Jube forced the empty cob through the crevice, hitting her fairly upon the head, when, with a terrified snort and an elastic bound, she disappeared, to return no more.
Clem made no retort. He did not fail, however, so sharpened were his blunt perceptions, to notice that Teck Jepson, despite his preoccupation, glanced round at the sound of his name; he remembered, with an irritated sense of the grotesqueness of the mistake, that Jepson fancied him an accepted lover, and there was no relish in masquerading in this triumphant guise with so dreary and hopeless an identity within.
“ What’s the news from the forge, Teck ? ” demanded Jube, reaching out to the pile of corn for an ear to bold in readiness in case the filly should venture out again. Jepson once more turned to the window.
“ All dark thar.” he replied.
“ Shucks ! ” said Jube easily, craning over the crevice in the floor in an effort to see the filly again, as if badgering the small denizen of the stall below were the praiseworthy errand which had brought him hither; he even broke off a bit of the ear of corn, and cast it down the cranny, in the hope that it might prove a lure. But the filly, though slow to learn, learned thoroughly, and his craft was in vain.
There was a sensation among the others that savored more of angry disappointment than their disinterested professions of seeking to promote the welfare and the peace of the community might justify. They became more sensible of the hardship of their long restraint, and manifestly chafed at being thus balked of the expected excitement. More than one was restively striding back and forth upon the quaking flooring, and between Dake and Bassett arose a somewhat clamorous controversy concerning the number of times that they had thus fruitlessly watched and waited.
“ I ain’t half awake in the daytime, stumblin’ along arter the plough-tail or huntin’ like somebody walkin’ in thar sleep ! ” Bassett angrily exclaimed. “ An’ ef we-uns war the men we-uns purtend ter be, we ’d go in the daytime, an’ git Baintree off ter the woods, an’ hang him then.”
“ Oh, shet up, Joe ! ” called out Clem from where he lay half buried in the hay. He had scant imagination or sensitiveness, but his pulses had come to beat in sympathy with Marcella’s sentiments, and he felt as it were by proxy the cold thrill of horror at the murderous words ; his nerves were tense with a sense of resistance to the bloody-minded cruelty of the careless proposition. “Ye fairly make me hone ter git up an’ beat that empty cymblin’ o’ a head off’n them narrer, spindlin’ shoulders o’ yourn.”
He had not gauged the effect of his words. Before Bassett could reply Jepson whirled round, with a flash of the eye that was fiery even in the pallid moonlight.
“ An’ what ails you-uns ter take this suddint turn, Clem Sanders ? ” he demanded, his voice tense with scorn. “ The las’ time I hearn from you-uns ye war plumb crazed ’bout yer leetle tongs, — not kase they war bruk, but kase they hed been mended. ’Peared like ’t would kill ye kase ye couldn’t approve o’ that thar job. I war ’feard we could n’t find a rope long enough nor a tree high enough ter hang the man ez war so gin ter pernicious ways ez ter fool with them leetle tongs. An’ now ye ’pear not ter keer nuthin’ ’t all ’bout them desolated leetle tongs. Ye can’t hold ter nuthin’, Clem Sanders, an’ ennybody ez puts thar ’pendence in ye air leanin’ on a broken reed, — even ter shoein’ a horse-critter, ef the truth war knowed.”
Clem Sanders had palpably winced under this arraignment, despite his bluff courage, fancying that he had too definitely evinced his changed feeling, and fearing that in some way it might result in eliciting the fact that he had divulged their plans to Marcella Strobe. He detected the influence of her fancied preference in the evident acrimony of Teck Jepson’s sentiment toward him, but he was not moved to reply until the slur was cast upon his capacities as a blacksmith. Even in this moment of supreme emotion his simple art was dear to him.
“ Whar ’ll ye find a better blacksmith ? ” he cried, springing to his feet, and holding both arms outspread. “ Whar ’ll ye find him ? Tell me, an’ I ’ll walk a hunderd mile ter see him ! ”
The dignity of the worker who loves his craft and does his utmost in its service was in his face and manner, as he stood, and served to neutralize his overweening vanity.
“ Ef he war ter tell ye, ye would n’t b’lieve him,” said Dake discerningly, as Jepson turned slightingly away, and Clem sank back once more into the deep, elastic meshes of the hay.
“ Waal,” Bassett resumed his objections, “ air we-uns a-goin’ ter keep this up till Christmas ? An’ what did we begin it fur ? Ef it air perlite an’ agreeable ter hang Baintree down hyar, why ain’t it jes’ ez perlite an’ agreeable to go git him up in the mountings? ’T would save time an’ sleep, an’ be jes’ edzac’ly the same ter him.”
“ Hang him fur what?” demanded Teck Jepson succinctly.
Clem Sanders, with a galvanic start, turned his head as he lay in the masses of the hay, and stared at the speaker.
“ Fur — fur — a-doin’ of whatever he air a-doin’ of,” said Bassett, to whom a reputation for a logical, level head was by no means a cherished ambition.
Jepson shook his own head with an imperatively negative gesture. “ We hev got ter find out ez he air arter some harm fust, — some wickedness ez air agin the interus’ o’ the kentry. He mought hev done nothin’ wuss ’n fool with them leetle tongs; an’ ef Clem ’s half the blacksmith he makes hisself out ter be, he ought ter be able ter fix ’em agin.”
“ Hang him fur a-killin’ of Sam’l Keale, o’ course,” said Bassett casually, his unthinking face repulsive in its lack of any expression that might attest some protest of humanity, some reluctant though urgent and distorted sense of justice, as he paused in his striding to and fro, and stood in the illumined square of the window. “Ye always ’lowed’t war jestice.”
“ Not now!” cried Jepson vehemently,— “not now.” He lifted a convincing forefinger, and laid it in the palm of the other hand at every point he made, as if telling it off. The others, great, lumbering, massive figures in the silver-shotted dusk, gathered about him, watching with pondering intentness his gesture as he spoke, and slowly deliberating upon the subject matter. “ At fust, when the courts let him go, I ’pealed ter Jedge Lynch. But now he hev ez good ez got the promise o’ the kentry on it. He hev been let ter go free an’ ’thout fear, an’ Brumsaidge hev ’peared ter cornsent ter the verdict o’ the jury. An’ arter six month an’ better Brumsaidge can’t turn around now an’ say, “I b’lieve I’ll change my mind, bubby, an’ hang ye arter all.’ Naw ; ’thout he hev done somethin’ fraish, he ’ll hev ter go scot-free. An’ ’t ain’t likely he hev done ennythin’ agin ekal ter killin’ Sam’l Keale.”
Clem Sanders had slowly drawn himself into a sitting posture in the hay. He gazed at the speaker with startled, dilated eyes, his suddenly formed conviction taking fast hold upon his mind. In this reasoning, inconclusive though it was, he thought he saw that trait of mercy, of humanity, which Marcella had urged half heartedly upon him, and then let fall, since he could do naught, she said. Could Teck Jepson do more ? He wondered if this were her decision. Had she rated Jepson more efficacious ? Had she appealed to him for the men she chose to befriend in the name of sheer humanity ? How else could be explained this sudden elaborate construction of the acquiescence of Broomsedge Cove in the verdict of the jury ? What careful argument was this for the delectation of lynchers, assembled for the purpose of defying quirks and palliations, and administering condign punishment for the deed done ? He noted the varying astonishment in the half-seen moonlit faces grouped about; and there was on more than one a flouting indignation, and here and there a baited, disappointed, bloodthirsty lour that he remembered to have seen in the unguarded look of a sheep-killing dog glimpsing a distant flock on a hill. But one trait made them all alike, — an expression of suspicious surprise. Had not Gideon Dake spoken more truly than he knew when he said that Teck Jepson was in league with those men ? And if this were so, it was for Marcella’s sake; and these words were almost trembling into sound upon the blacksmith’s quivering, angry lips, as he rose up slowly and confronted Teck Jepson, still standing in the centre of the circle. There was something so significant in Clem Sanders’s look that he turned expectantly toward him.
Keen, keen on the frosty air, incisive, iterative, metallic, fell the sudden stroke of a hammer on the anvil, and every pulse thrilled to the sound.
The moment had come. That fact took precedence of every other impression, and annulled all the previous careful preparation. There was an instant rush toward the ladder, and the floor quaked beneath the swift but heavy feet. Swift as they all were, one was the foremost ; a voice checked the advance, that was like a rout in its wild, unreasoning motive power —
“ The fust man ez steps a foot on that thar rung, I ‘ll let the light through him! ”
There was a sharp, decisive click, and the lynchers knew that Teck Jepson had cocked the pistol, which he wore no longer in his belt, but held in his right hand, as he stood beside the aperture in the floor.
A momentary hovering about it, a sound of quick, excited panting, and the massive figures fell back a little.
“ Why n’t ye say who air ter go fust, then ? ” exclaimed Bassett, in angry reproach. “Ye air too durned sot in yer way ter live, Teck Jepson. Ef we war right smart, we ’d hang ye a leetle before we set out ter settle them t’other men.”
“ Don’t quar’l, boys, — don’t quar’l,” urged the paternal peacemaker. “Teck knows jes’ what we’d bes’ do.”
There was a murmur of dissent to this, but the voice of the usurper is stronger than his who wields delegated authority, in that his supremacy is the trophy and the triumph of his bow and spear. These wild and lawless men might hardly have accorded so ready an obedience to Teck Jepson’s mandate had his power been conferred by the State of Tennessee.
“ Ye ’ll stay right hyar till ye air wanted,” he said despotically. “ I be goin’ ter take one man an’ go down ter see what they air a-doin’ of. Ef I fire my pistol, ye kin come, the whole bilin’ of ye, ez hard ez ye kin travel. Me an’ one man will go fust.”
“ I be that man! ” cried Clem Sanders turbulently.
Jepson could hardly say him nay, since he was the first to volunteer. But his objection showed very plainly in his shining eyes, and the blacksmith sturdily responded to it.
“ It’s my forge ! ” He protested his special interest.
“ Laws-a-massy, yes ! an’ its yer leetle tongs, too! ” sneered Jepson, with the scorn of one who cares little for material possessions, as he took his way down the ladder.
Clem followed, and as the two emerged from the shadowy barn upon the frostwhitened sward below and into the full splendor of the moonlight, they were conscious of the eyes that pursued them from the window above. Once Jepson turned his head and glanced over his shoulder. It was not a reassuring sight, even to one whom it in no manner threatened, — that broad, low window of the simple log-barn, filled with the bearded, eager faces of silent armed men, some half crouching, others standing that they might look over the shoulders of those in front. Behind them all was visible, the hay piled to the roof, here silver skeins in the light, and again full of shadows and indefinite suggestions of depth.
As the two walked on together, Jepson took note of the moon in the sky. “ Ain’t it some earlier ’cordin ter the moon than ’t war that night when ye say ye kem so nigh ter ketchin’ ’em ? ”
“ Dunno,” panted Clem. “ I hev hed suthin’ else ter do, sence then, than ter stare-gaze the moon.”
The tone of the retort arrested Jepson’s attention. He had hitherto taken little account of his rival’s mental attitude toward him. As he turned his head, and, though still walking forward, looked at Clem, he could scarcely interpret his expression. Antagonism he could read, to be sure, in the hard - set jaw, the gleam of his teeth between his halfparted lips, the glitter of his eye ; but a sort of uncertainty was shadowed in his manner, with a tumultuous, fluttering excitement, a badgered, hopeless, yet still struggling anxiety, — he could not account for these in the light of the present surroundings. A much wiser man could hardly have divined the turbulent perplexity that surged through Clem’s mind, the coercive rigors of decision and yet the wild regret for whatever course he took. He seemed to himself to be living at a climax. Every breath he drew chronicled an emergency. He was in the clutch of contradictions, the victim of distorted and strangely reversed circumstances. He had set the machinery of vengeance in motion again when it had seemed to flag, and he had wished to hinder. He had forced himself upon Teck Jepson as his lieutenant in this abhorrent enterprise, hoping that in the guise of lending him aid be might be able to frustrate him utterly. Yet he was beginning to perceive that, should his scheme in aught go awry, it would seem to Marcella as if he had been foremost and active in the participation of the deed which she deemed an infamous cruelty, and which her father accounted a crime. His senses reeled as he sought to escape his dilemma. He wished himself back at the barn, leaving Jepson to conduct the affair at his own imperious will, and he wondered futilely and bitterly why he should have come forth at all in obedience to an impulse so strong, but so unreasoning. What had he, in his folly, hoped to do ? What could it avail to keep by Jepson’s side, and hold him under surveillance ? He realized acutely that his simple brain was no instrument for clever scheming, — that every course of action which he sought to plan had only its preliminary impulse, thereafter dwindling to vague nullity in lieu of logical sequences. Nevertheless, he caught himself ever and anon casting sidelong glances at Teck Jepson, informed with a wild inclination to spring upon him unaware, and stifle his cries, and overbear him — for what ? Even the futureless Clem could look forward far enough to prefigure the sallying forth of the reserves at the barn after so long a time, in default of any sign from the leader of the expedition.
“ I don’t wanter stan’ in Jake Baintree’s shoes,” he muttered, forecasting their fury if balked. His tone, low as it was, was audible, so silent was the night, to the man who walked by his side.
Jepson cast a glance of deep objection upon him.
“ His shoes air mebbe powerful safe foot-gear,” he returned in a hated tone. “ It depends on what he be a-doin’ of, an’ what sort’n account he kin gin o’ hisself. Ye air jes’ like them men yander; ” he nodded his head backward toward the barn. “ They ’pear ter rate tharse’fs with a pack o’ hounds arter a wild critter what they hev got a nateral right ter pull down. They fairly yelled ez ef they war on a hot scent, whenst they hearn that hammer fust tech the metal.”
Clem Sanders suddenly lost his scanty self-control.
“ I know whar ye got all that thar fine talk from,” he flared out in jealous rage. “ Powerful nice an’ perlite ter be a-comparin’ baptized Christians ter hounds an’ sech. Ye been a-talkin’ ter Marcelly Strobe. Them ’s her very words.”
The next moment, the tide of suspicion that had rolled in so tumultuously upon him was ebbing gradually. Once more he was to learn the irrevocability of a word given to the air. The idea that sound-waves, once astir, infinitely vibrate to perpetuate a record, albeit too subtle for mortal ear, was not even a vague theory with him, but he experienced in some sort its practical illustration. Teck Jepson had paused in the road, smitten motionless in amazement, and the inadvertent Clem saw gradually dawning in his eyes, widely opened and speculatively fixed upon him, the counterpart of the view which he himself had entertained. The inference was too plain for him to hope that Jepson might pass it over. It was now not difficult to divine Clem’s confidences, and where they had been bestowed. It was evident, too, that with these words Marcella had received them.
Jepson said nothing. He still stood where he had paused, the moonlight a burnished glitter upon the barrel of the pistol that he held in his hand. His face, white in the pallid sheen, was reflective. He gazed now, not at Clem Sanders, but beyond him, into the vague shimmer of the frost amongst the black shadow of the trees; the curled dead leaves on the ground at his feet held within their curves the fine sparkling incrustation. Every bramble of the undergrowth close by the roadside showed lines of silver gleams, and through the heavy interlacing boughs of the gigantic trees above their heads, rising high into the clear dark air, came the crystalline scintillation of the stars. Encircling all, the mountains stood sombre and lofty, clearly defined against the sky; adown the road the heavy shadows gloomed ; suddenly, athwart them a red light flared, and the sigh of the bellows breathed forth. Teck Jepson, reminded of their destination, turned abruptly from the road, which they had hitherto followed, into the undergrowth of the woods.
“ Bes’ take ter the bresh,” Jepson remarked in an undertone. " They mought hev set a lookout ter watch the road.”
Despite its denudation by the autumnal blast, the " brush ” still afforded a dense covert, by reason of the young growth of the pines, whose lower branches jutted out level with the ground, and the predominance in its midst of the ever-green laurel. The crestfallen Clem kept close at Jepson’s heels, as he pushed cautiously through the shrubs, laden with the white rime and glittering with the moon. Now and again some dry fallen bough cracked loudly beneath Clem’s careless, heavy tread, or thorns of a stripped bush would catch and tear his garments, the rending of the fabric loud in the dumbness of the windless autumn night. And when this chanced Jepson cast over his shoulder a warning glance, imposing silence and heed, so freighted with the spirit of their expedition, so oblivious of all else, that Clem, preposterously hopeful, began to breathe more freely. Surely he had not so definitely committed himself as he had feared. In the excitement of the moment, he perchance did not distinguish between what he thought and what he said. Jepson doubtless had not understood; had he not stood like a stock in the road and stared, motionless and mute ? When he saw Jepson pause beneath the gnarled, lowhanging boughs of a chestnut-oak, gray with lichen, and here and there glimmering icily as if in presentiment of the coming snows, this idea had so possessed him that he had no apprehension that his coadjutor had aught of significance to say.
Jepson lifted grave, intent eyes as Clem came stumbling up. He was leaning, as he waited, against the tree. His hat was thrust far back, and his face was all unshaded ; it seemed melancholy, but the light was pensive, and his voice had always those falling inflections.
“ She war agin it, then,” he said, and the tone had no more the spirit of interrogation than the form.
Clem took an unguarded step backward, recoiling as if he had been struck. Then he clumsily recovered his equilibrium, standing unsteadily on the uneven ground. He made some feint of selfdefense.
“ Who air ye a-talkin’ ’bout ? ” he demanded gruffly, slouching his heavy shoulders forward and fixing his long, narrow, gleaming eyes surlily on Jepson.
“ Marcelly Strobe,” Jepson answered promptly. " Ye said she ’lowed them men war like hounds on a trail. She war agin ’em, then.”
Clem made still another desperate effort to shield himself. “ She said some men — ginerally. How ’d she know ennything ’bout our goin’s on ? ”
“ How ’d she know ? Kase ye told her,” retorted the discerning Jepson. “ An’ it air ez much ez yer life air wuth.”
This knowledge, familiar enough to his own consciousness, became doubly impressive and coercively veracious in another man’s words. Clem Sanders, stout-hearted as he was, felt the sudden thrill of panic. It sharpened his faculties.
“ It air jes’ ez likely ye told her ez me — ef she knows,” he equivocated. “ Hyar ye air, a-dilly-dallyin’ in the woods, ’feared ter move hand or foot, doubtin’ ’bout whether she air agin it or no. I ain’t showed ez I set no sech store by sech ez she thinks or don’t think. Ef ennybody tole her, it mought jes’ ez well hev been you-uns.”
Jepson’s reproachful and surprised gaze dealt a poignant wound to Clem’s careless conscience, but it failed to elicit confession. “ Ef she won’t tell, the Lord knows I won’t,” he said stoutly to himself, but knowing his uncontrollable tongue, he was glad that Jepson began to speak of himself.
“ I ain’t one ter falter fur sech ez others say,” protested Jepson, “ though I ain’t got the pleasure in this hyar business ez folks in the old time ’peared ter take. Them in the Bible never turned fur the sight o’ blood, an’ they hung folks an’ chopped ’em into minch meat, an’ seemed ter find a savor in sech doin’s ez all my religion can’t gin! I can’t holp feelin’ sorter sorry fur the evil-doer wunst in a while, specially whenst the avenger air hard on his track; fur my heart is weak an’ needs strengthenin’ from above. The men o’ this day air pore, degenerate critters, an’ don’t sense jestice much more ’n Marcelly Strobe. But my hand air nerved by a stronger power ’n I kin command, an’ I dare all the mountings ter show the road whar I tuk the backtrack, or tell the day.”
He turned resolutely, pushing on toward the forge, and Clem Sanders, greatly cast down and too much troubled to even glance toward the future, kept at his elbow.
The ringing clamor of the hammer came to them again as they pressed on, not regular, but with fitful pauses ; and by the time that they were at the verge of the woods they heard voices, loudly conversing, casual voices. The tones came from the forge, and alternated with the clink of the hammer. Jepson paused, his hand closing with a vise-like grip on Clem Sanders’s arm, for there were several voices, and one of them was a woman’s.
The next moment the little lowbrowed log shanty was before them, seen through the arching vistas of the laurel and the oak; its slanting roof glistened with moisture ; the crag loomed high above, with the sentinel pines on its summit. Beyond the valley the dark mountains, black but for dusky olivegreen suggestions, towered against the horizon; and the moon, a sphere of lambent, gleaming pearl, swung high in the violet sky. So lavish of splendors was it, so munificent of magic, of gauds of fancy, of vacillating illusions! A great, gleaming, silver roadway seemed to span the dark, lustrous waters of the river, and bridge it from bank to bank. Before the open doorway of the forge, a feeble red flare alternated with a fleeting brown flicker as the sigh of the bellows again broke forth. When, suddenly, the two vigilantes stood in the broad doorway, a man was at the anvil once more, and its keen, fine vibrations rang out responsive to the shriller tone of the hand-hammer, for he had no striker.
He did not move, for all he must have seen their eager eyes fastened upon him.
“ Hey ! ” he cried out, with a gay intonation, not intermitting his labors. “ Hello! ”
That he was a stranger, a man of medium size and slenderly built, bending over the anvil in the shadow, since the fire languished for the lack of the breath of the bellows, was the merely momentary impression made upon Jepson’s mind. He turned his searching eyes into the red, dusky, half-illumined spaces of the room for the woman whose voice he had heard.
She sat motionless on a keg of nails, and he did not recognize her instantly, although she rose at once and advanced upon them.
Clem Sanders stepped back, a look of astounded doubt, as if he could not believe his eyes, contending with the certainty in his face. For the woman was his mother.
“ Waal, I hev hunted fur ye, an’ hunted,” she exclaimed in a tone of acrid exasperation. “An’ I hollered an’ hollered. An’ I sent leetle Silas hyar ” — she pointed to a small nephew of Clem’s, a frequent visitor at the blacksmith’s house, whom Jepson had not seen until this moment, a tow-headed urchin of twelve, who sat in a clumped position on the hub of a broken wheel which lay on the floor — “ arter ye, an’ he could n’t find ye. Hyar’s a strange man in the Cove kem up ter the house a-sarchin’ fur ye, an’ wantin’ a leetle job o’ blacksmithin’ done, an’ ye can’t be rooted out from nowhar! ”
She was a tall, angular, thin-faced woman, with an expression of gravity and anxious care in her lined features, and she had a tone that might well promise the rigors of domestic inquisition as she demanded, “ Whar hev ye been ? ”
Clem’s wildly anxious glance at his tools in the stranger’s hands availed nothing. The account of himself was evidently the essential preliminary.
Jepson touched his shoulder with his own as a secret warning, as they stood side by side in the door of the forge, but had the disclosure been far more significant the hap-hazard Clem would have blurted it out as he did.
“ In the barn,” he replied.
“Ye air tellin’ a story,” his mother retorted, with a manner reprehensive certainly, but with a coolness as if contemplating an offense of infinitely multiplied precedents. “ I sent leetle Silas ter the barn, an’ he ’lowed ye warn’t thar, though he hearn harnts talkin’ in the loft, an’ they made him ’feared. An’,” lifting her bony arm, shaking her forefinger, and lowering her voice impressively, as if fairly cornering him, “ I sent him agin ter climb up inter the loft, ez no harnts would hurt him with me so nigh, an’ he kem back, an’,” triumphantly, “he say ye warn’t thar, nuther.”
The small Silas, disingenuous beyond his years and size, turned his eyes, which were of a very light color, and with a superabundance of white, that made them marked even in the duskiness, with a pleading apprehensiveness upon his uncle, but the excited, confused Clem was quaking, even at this moment, with the danger overpast. How closely discovery had approached the vigilantes in the barn! He had not his wits sufficiently about him to reproach his mother for believing the deceptive Silas rather than himself.
“ Whar hev ye been ? ” she demanded anew. Then with the impetus of her long pent-up rebukes constraining her, she went on without waiting for an answer.
“ Hyar be this hyar man, obligated ter hev his tools mended, kase his work calls him betimes termorrer by daylight, an’ him a stranger in the Cove, an’ ’lowed mebbe he mought git a leetle blacksmithin’ done, though ’twar arter dark, bein’ ez his work called him far up in the mountings by daylight. An’ me an’ Silas kem down hyar ter see ef we-uns could find yer tools, bein’ ez ye war nowhar, so ez he could patch his pick hisself. He ’lowed he knowed suthin’ ’bout blacksmithin’ ” —
“ Mighty leetle, I ’ll be bound! ” cried Clem, his professional consciousness restored by this arrogation on the part of the stranger. He dropped the hang-dog look that he had worn under his mother’s lecture, and strode with his habitual easy, confident air across the floor and stood beside the anvil, watching the amateur smith’s performance with an air of silent, repressed ridicule and halfsmiling scorn.
“ Go ahead,” he observed, with affected encouragement, as the young stranger looked up and hesitated. “ What air ye goin’ ter do now, — het it some mo’ ? ” as the other turned doubtfully toward the fire. “ Ho ! ho ! ” with a manner of bluff superiority. " Shucks ! Git out o’ the way, my frien’. Lemme show ye what blacksmithin’ air.”
He shouldered the stranger summarily from his own post at the anvil, then paused to take the bit of iron, on which the amateur had been working, in the small tongs that had sustained so serious an injury in the mending, and shook his head smilingly, as if with an unspeakable contempt, as he carefully surveyed this handiwork. He turned and thrust it amongst the coals, evidently rejecting it as a mere beginning, and starting the process anew.
“ I’m willing,” the stranger said, with a laugh, as if accepting good-naturedly this cavalier criticism; and Jepson divined that he did not consider proficiency at the anvil the chief object of existence. He offered to work the bellows, but Clem, with a contemptuous " Don’t take two men ter do a leetle job like this,” discouraged further proffers of assistance, and then bent himself wholly to the work with as complete an absorption as if there were no band of expectant, eager, bloodthirsty men waiting at the barn for a signal, and as if Teck Jepson’s presence, as he stood in the door, were not more significant than his daily loitering there.
His enforced idleness and the white light of the fire flaring up as Clem worked the bellows with one hand, while holding the metal in the coals with the other, left the stranger to the scrutiny of Jepson, who, recovering from his surprise, was taking due note of him. He sought to be just; to contend with mere suspicion; to separate his consideration of the subject from the personal interest that persistently linked itself with the circumstances. How much had Marcella known ? Had she taken any action in the matter ? And with what motive ? He could not banish these thoughts as he gazed at the stranger, who stood leaning against the elevated hearth, affecting to watch the smith’s work, but with a tense, alert attitude, and a wary eye that ever and anon furtively sought the silent figure standing in the broad, moonlit doorway, with the dark landscape, silver-flecked, vaguely visible in the background. His light hair made his head very definite against the black and sooty hood of the forge. Now and then he put up a slender hand, sun-embrowned, and pulled his long, yellow mustache with a gesture and manner alien to the mountains. The very shape of his boot, his attitude, and garb, marked and individualized him. He was not of the region.
None of this did Clem Sanders observe as he worked. Once he held up the precious little tongs. “ This is yer doin’,” he said reproachfully, indicating a small protuberance where the piece, broken off, had been welded on again.
The stranger burst into a laugh, showing his strong white teeth beneath his yellow mustache. A pleasant face he had, with this more jovial expression upon it. Clem Sanders’s frown relaxed as he looked at him.
“ So you’ve found me out, have you ? This ain’t the first time I’ve been here,” he said easily.
And then, although it might not be said how it was done, for there was not a perceptible lifting of an eyelid nor a hair’s-breadth turn of the head, Teck Jepson was aware that the man had covertly looked to note the effect of the words upon him. Already he had made the distinction between the two men as to which was to be feared.
“ Yes, that’s a fac’ ! ” cried Mrs. Sanders, with an unwonted animation. The singular event in her dull experience had roused a not unpleasurable excitement, and she had looked on at the two at the anvil with a dull and reluctant sense of being shut out from continued participation, and having reached a finality. The allusion to the past revived her capacity for extracting more sensation from the circumstance. “ What d’ ye think, Clem ? This hyar man ’lows ez one night, not so long ago, he started over the mountings, ter hem down hyar ter git his pickaxe mended,—it war bruk, — an’ he los’ his way, an’ miscalc’lated his time somehows, an’ ’t war middlin’ late ’fore he got hyar. An’ he kem ter the house, an’ knocked an’ knocked, an’ never rousted up nobody. So ! ha, ha! ” The detail seemed to commend itself to Mrs. Sanders’s sense of humor, as she sat bolt upright on the keg of nails and recounted. “ So ez he war goin’ back he passed by hyar, an’ a suddint thought streck him : he jes’ kindled up the fire, — thar war a few coals lef’ alive, — an’ mended his tool hisse’f. He jes’ wondered what we-uns would hev said ef we hed woke, an’ seen the light an’ hearn the hammer ! I’d hev ’lowed ’twar Satan or a harnt, one.”
She folded her arms, and with a deft motion of her head shook her sun-bonnet a little further back, that she might turn her smile upon the stranger; not so pleasing a demonstration as its goodnature might have desired to make it, for she had lost several of her front teeth, and those that were left were conspicuous in their isolation. It showed Teck Jepson that the stranger had succeeded in winning her good opinion ; and even Clem, more thoroughly posted though he was, lifted his eyebrows and looked significantly at his coadjutor, evidently accepting this candid and obvious explanation of the mystery. Jepson began to see that he need expect nothing but hindrance from both mother and son, and that the least plausible wiles might prove efficacious to hoodwink these simple souls. He still stood in the doorway, but leaning against its frame, his arms folded across his broad chest, his hat far back on his head; and although he often gazed up speculatively at the moon, whose light was full in his face, he saw that the stranger still held his every movement under notice, and gave him the attention of a conjectural glance after every phrase, as if seeking to judge how it impressed him.
The silence was broken only by a cricket, in some sheltered nook among the eaves, and a wheezing coughing that Silas presently set up, as he crouched on the hub of the broken wheel, as if some of the lies he had told were choking him. But when Mrs. Sanders remarked, parenthetically, that she would give him some hoarhound when she got him to the house, he contrived to swallow them all, and relapsed into wideeyed silence.
“ That was the time I broke the tongs. I was here once besides,” said the stranger, who seemed to feel more and more at ease.
“ Ye don’t say!” exclaimed Mrs. Sanders, who evidently thought the intrusions a great joke.
“ Waal, stranger,” said Teck Jepson, and the man’s nerves became tense and his face rigid and watchful the moment the melancholy, drawling, mellow voice sounded on the air, “ what mought yer work be on the mounting? ”
Mrs. Sanders cast a glance of indignant reproof at her neighbor, for curiosity concerning another’s affairs is a breach of all the courtesies of mountain etiquette.
But, the stranger answered quickly, as if he were prepared to meet the question and glad to have it asked. He had a sudden, sharply clipped method of enunciation, doubly marked in contrast with the mountaineer’s liquid elongation of the vowels. His words were even more compact and staccato than their wont.
“ I’m prospecting, — prospecting for silver.”
There was a momentary silence. Even Clem held the hammer poised for an instant, while the iron glowed on the anvil, and looked contemptuous comment from out his long, narrow, twinkling eyes. Mrs. Sanders observed, “ Law. stranger, ain’t ye got no better sense ’n that? Thar ain’t no silver in these mountings, — leastwise none the yearth’s a-goin’ ter spare. Jes’ enough ter fool fellers inter wastin’ thar time.”
“An’ breakin’ the p’ints off ’n thar good pickaxes,” added Clem, examining the implement with some interest; “ fustrate one, too, — oughter las’ ye a long time.”
Jepson watched the stranger color with vexation ; then his lip curled slightly in covert ridicule. Presently he observed, “ I reckon may be I ’ll come up with a little silver, after a while ; indications are first-rate,”
“Thar war a man,” Jepson began abruptly, “ he lived hyarabouts five year ago an’ better — he b’lieved thar war silver hyar. He got put down in the mouth of a cave ; his partner done it; he war n’t seen no more.”
The stranger’s light brown eyes were all afire. He leaned forward, and held out one arm to Jepson. “ Say! ” he exclaimed, “ do you know where that exact cave is ? ”
Jepson turned an impassive look upon him. “ Dunno the edzac’ spot, an’ don’t want ter know.”
A patent disappointment was on the stranger’s face. Then rallying himself, “ I ain’t one of the kind that gets put down in caves ; you need n’t be uneasy about me.”
This was something in the nature of a flippant retort. He was evidently sorry for it immediately afterward, and there was a deprecatory expression on his face as he looked at Jepson, who, however, showed no sign of feeling of any sort as he casually inquired, —
“ Who did ye hev ter strike fur ye ? Could ye do sech work by yerself ? ”
He turned his large contemplative eyes on the stranger’s face. It was not an ingenuous face, but the circumstances were coercive, and it showed the heed, the fear, the vacillating hope, that animated him as he replied, “ Yes, I had Jake Baintree to strike for me.”
His lips were dry. He bit the nether one hard as he looked at Jepson, seeing in his eyes that he understood much, — much that was not said.
For Jepson knew well that this man had been warned and that he had flung himself upon the truth perchance with some slight admixture for safety, and despite his fear could realize that the boldness of innocence alone could rescue him. Had he devised this course, Jepson wondered, or was Marcella so clever a counselor ? As to Baintree, it was eminently in character that he should cringe, and cower, and lurk in hiding, knowing that the investigation by vigilantes impended.
Nevertheless, despite Clem’s confidences to Marcella and the warning which she had conveyed, it was evident that the facts could be elicited here and now as well as if the men had been taken by surprise. The stranger made no resistance to the inquiry, and this indicated that he recognized its inevitable character, and had not sought to shirk it. Jepson went on steadily, unmoved by any consideration save the effort to perform his duty to the organization that had entrusted him with his mission. But notwithstanding its paramount interest, it seemed secondary in importance, in Clem’s estimation, to the necessity of forging the bit of metal on the anvil, and the subsequent conversation took place annotated by his ringing blows, from which the stranger, his nerves on the rack, palpably recoiled, but which had scant effect on the more impassive mountaineer, save to induce him to slightly lift his voice.
“ How long hev ye been bidin’ in the mountings ? ”
“ Since August.”
“ Dell-law ! ” commented Mrs. Sanders. “ Ye hev kep’ yerse’f mightily ter yerse’f; I ’ll say that fur ye.”
The logical inference might be that she commended his magnanimity in sparing them his society. But the good woman meant nothing of this kind, her exclamation being simply a rural formula.
“ Who hev ye bided with ? ” demanded Jepson.
The stranger colored slightly. Then making an effort to put the matter in its most favorable aspect, he replied with some show of communicativeness : —
“ With Baintree. You see I was his doctor — I am a physician by profession — when he was in jail, and he told me about the silver mine he thought he had discovered. So I came to see if it were true. I happen to know something about mining. But Jake, — he’s a queer fish, — he was n’t willing for anybody to know what we were after. I believe he never tells me truly where his best find was ; he thinks somebody will chouse him out of it yet.”
“ Ez ef ennybody would hev it,” exclaimed Mrs. Sanders, with sweeping contempt, “ an’ ez ef thar war enny ter hev! ”
“ Whar hev ye bided with him ? ” asked Jepson, seemingly all unaffected by any phase of the detail.
“ Waal, Teck Jepson!” cried Mrs. Sanders, scandalized by his curiosity, as she construed his persistence, “ ye mus’ hev hed yer tongue iled. I hev never hearn sech a lot o’ whys an’ wharfores ez it hev got on ter the e-end o’ it ternight.”
But the catechumen responded at once, scarcely waiting for her to finish her sentence. “We stayed for a while in a deserted house, — the old Jepson house, he said it was.”
“ His’n! ” broke in Mrs. Sanders, identifying the locality joyously, and pointing Jepson out still more unmistakably with a long, bony index-finger.
“ Is it yours ? ” said the young stranger. “ Well, the owner came and fired out our traps, one day, while we were gone, so we went to another cabin, over on the other side of the mountain.”
“ Mighty cur’ous way ter be a-livin’,” commented Mrs. Sanders, with a very definite infusion of scorn. “ An’ fur a silver mine, ez mought be in the mountings, an’ then agin mought n’t. Looka-hyar, stranger, ain’t ye ’quainted with nobody in Brumsaidge Cove mo’ spectable ’n Jake Baintree ? ”
There was a sudden triumph in the young man’s face. He shook himself free from his unpalatable confessions, as if they had been a cloak falling from his shoulders. “ I’m acquainted with some very respectable people, — very good people. I’m well acquainted with the Strobe family.”
He had lived somewhat in the world, and was aware that in some places people have been known to prop their social standing by bragging of their acquaintances. He had never thought that this necessity would supervene for him in Broomsedge Cove.
“ Dell-law! ” exclaimed Mrs. Sanders, seemingly as delighted to meet the Strobes in the desolation of the stranger’s social circle — which had consisted, apparently, of Jake Baintree — as if she had encountered them in the solitude of a desert island. “ Old Mis’ Strobe ! ”
“ Yes, old Mrs. Strobe,” he said, “ and the young girls, Miss Marcella and little Isabel.”
The impartial, judicial interest with which Tech Jepson had listened gave way suddenly. His eyes were deeply glowing, and fastened intently on the stranger’s face. His cheek had flushed darkly. Somehow the idea of the warning that Marcella had conveyed had suggested to his mind no personal association. She had told Baintree, perhaps, or she had sent a message. But her name upon the stranger’s lips — the very sound of it odd and incongruous, with his unfamiliar accent and the unwonted and punctilious title — intimated abruptly the possibility of a personal interest, of a longer acquaintance, of a future of which Jepson had never dreamed. She had risked much, — with the transparent blacksmith to know that she was in possession of the secret, — she had risked much. And what a dapper, slender, handsome young fool was this silver hungry stranger!
“ An’ Eli! ” cried Mrs. Sanders in a shrill crescendo of pleasurable reminiscence.
“ I never knew him before he was injured. But I had a long talk with him this evening, and ” — he drew out his watch composedly — “I promised him that I would come back if it is not too late, after I got through at the forge here. A very respectable family, and very hospitable.”
Charles Egbert Craddock.