BAINTREE lifted his sleek black head for a moment, and covertly surveyed his fireside companion, whose eyes were fixed meditatively on the coals. There was an expression of acute though surprised comprehension in the face of the crafty mountaineer; his elevated eyebrows, keen, quick glance, and thin pursed lips betokened much deft and agile deduction and analysis, although none of these swift processes were indicated in the brooding and reflective mien into which he had relapsed before Rathburn’s attention once more reverted to him.
“ Marcelly air pritty enough,” he said, still spreading his thin fingers to the blaze. “ Thar ain’t no two ways ’bout’n that. I reckon a man mought take a righteous oath ez thar ain’t sech another lookin’ gal in the Newnited States — but she ain’t like them young citified Glaston gals, what walks with par’sols, — in no wise like them ez walks with par’sols,” he repeated the phrase with relish of its aptness, for to him it expressed the totality of the status. “ An’ she don’t know none of the things they knew. Why shucks ! even the men-folks in the mountings air a thousand million o’ miles away behind the times. I fund that out through jes’ goin’ ter jail in a sureenough town. I reckon they would fall down stunned ef they war ter see a three-story house. I ’ll be bound they would be plumb afeard ter go inside o’ one, thinkin’ bein’ so high it mought fall in onto them an’ mash ’em tee-totally! ” He looked up half laughing, half sneering at the thought of his compatriots’ ignorance, and Rathburn’s face wore a responsive gleam,—Jake Baintree’s attitude of superiority expressed so definitely how relative a thing is sophistication !
“The folks in the mountings don’t know nuthin’ sca’cely,” he went on, evidently bitten by that tarantula of decrying the home-keeping things characteristic of more learned travelers in wider circuits. “ But they won’t b’lieve that, though. Why, even me — I useter think thar war n’t no kentry but Tennessee, an’ No’th Carliny, an’ Georgy, an’ sech. It liked ter hev knocked me down whenst that man ez war my cell-mate in Glaston — ye ’member, he hed a chronic mis’ry in his throat — an’ bless the Lord, he showed me Ashy an’ Africky an’ Europe on a map he hed, an’ I could n’t sleep none that night — the news liked ter hev tuk my breath away ! ”
He reached behind the chair to the woodpile, lifted a great log split in half, and flung it on the fire, which sent up a myriad of sparks and a cloud of smoke, and then seemed to dwindle in discouragement for a season, only now and then emitting a timorous blue or yellow flame to coil like a thong around the bulk of the wood, disappearing the next moment in the slowly ascending gray wreaths that had usurped the place of the dancing blazes. The room had grown very nearly dark. Rathburn could ill distinguish the crouching figure, with its elbows on its knees, seated in the rickety chair on the opposite side of the hearth. It seemed lighter without than within. He could see through the rift in the batten shutter a section of the deeply purple sky, athwart which the leafless twigs of a bough near at hand moved fitfully, fretted by the wind. Once in their midst a great white star shone, pulsating in some splendid ecstasy, and then the clouds surged over it anew. The lash-like blaze sprang out once more about the log, and he caught Baintree’s eye, still illumined with a jeering laugh, and a twinkling appreciation of the incongruity between his present fully-posted estate and his former ignorance.
“ Did ye see Eli ? ” he demanded presently.
“ Hev he got sensible agin ? ” asked Baintree, remembering his delirious condition when they visited the house together.
“ He talked very sensibly indeed, this evening,” the physician replied evasively, the professional punctilio instantly on the alert, “ especially about lynchers and law-breakers generally — sound views.”
Baintree became suddenly rigid.
“ Ye war n’t fool enough,” he said, sitting stiffly upright, “ter go tellin’ Eli Strobe, the off’cer o’ the law, ’bout’n them men by name — they’d hang ye fur a informer, ef they lied nutliin else agin ye, ef enny of ’em fund it out.”
“ That for their slip-knots! ” cried Rathburn, snapping his fingers and laughing in gay bravado. “I’m not in collusion with ’em, and I ’ll do nothing to protect ’em. I 'll give ’em away every time ! ”
Baintree visibly winced at the mere idea of this defiance. He made no response for a moment, but looked doubtfully over his shoulder at the broken batten shutter. It shivered and shook as if in sympathy with his glance.
“The wind is harsh ter-night,” he said again.
“ I’m through with this skulking and hiding,” said Rathburn, the superficial composure and friendly tone that he had maintained giving way suddenly. “ I ’ll say what I mean, and wliat I think, and what I feel. And I’m going to hire twenty — fifty hands — to sink shafts in both those gorges where the best indications are.”
Baintree had been startled by his sudden change of tone, and had listened with relaxing muscles and lips parted. A certain hardening took possession of his features as the final words fell on the air. A covert triumph, a definite appreciation of his own superior cleverness, shone in his eyes, incongruously enough with the mild tenor of his speech as he said, “Waal, Eugene, I wish ye well — I wish ye well! Ye an’ me hev been mighty frien’ly tergether an’ I hev enjyed yer comp’ny.”
Rathburn, tilted back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head, looked, with curling lip and sarcastic, glowing eye, the sneering protest that it was futile to speak. Since he had been so free with his company he could not logically quarrel with Baintree for presuming to find it agreeable.
“ I be sorry ye hev got tired o’ me. I ain’t ez school-larned ez ye, though I ain’t like a ignorant mountaineer, outlier. I hev larned some in books, an’ I be one o’ them ez kin lam out’n ’em, too. Thar’s a heap o’ things I know — through jes’ bein’ knowin’.” His look was the very essence of boastful slyness as he cast his eyes up obliquely at the flushing face of the young townsman. He had his elbows once more on his knees, and his chin in his long bony hand, and his drawl was not as distinct, thus hampered, as it might have been. “ Eli Strobe hev been ter Glaston time I war war tried, likewise Teek Jepson. They never larnt thar what I larned ’bout town ways; they never seen thar what I seen ! Though Teek Jepson hev got sech a survigrous vision ez he kin view the prophets o’ the Lord lopin’ around the Big Smoky Mountings ! — when the men never war out’n Ashy in all thar born days, ’ceptin’ they lied a sorter stampin’-ground o’ captivity in Egypt.” He gave the self-flattering laugh of conscious cleverness, and then went on with that manner compounded of mock-bumility and fraternal familiarity that had become so offensive to Ratliburn. “ But I ain’t ekal ter sech ez you-uns, Eugene, an’ I don’t wonder none ef ye hev in an’ about lied enough o’ me. I don’t wish ye nuthin’ but well. Mebbe ye mought hire some o’ them men ez war along o’ Teek Jepson at the blacksmith’s barn ter-night ter kem an’ dig an’ sink shafts.” He rubbed his chin in pretended cogitation upon ways and means. “ Folks in Brumsaidge ain’t gin over ter diggin’ much — seems ez ef it in an’ about kills ’em ter hev ter scratch the top o’ the ground enough with thar shallow ploughin’ ter put in the leetle bit o’ corn an’ sorghum an’ sech ter keep the life in ’em. But mebbe ef ye war ter hire ’em, they would be cured o’ thar dad-burned laziness, an’ would jes’ jump fur jye fur the pleasure o’ diggin’ down sixty or sebenty feet in the hard groun’. They would git used ter giant-powder an’ sech, too, aider a while — an’ would n’t ’low the Devil was in it.”
Eugene Ratliburn was chewing the end of his mustache, now and then pausing with his white teeth set, and looking at Baintree with antagonistic eyes, his anger held in bounds only by the sense of being at a disadvantage, and the demoralizing effect of sustaining an unrequitable rebuff, — for Baintree’s sarcasm admitted of no successful retort. It was merely for the sake of going through the motions of self-confidence and asserting independence, that he said in an off-hand way, “ Oh, I meant laborers from Glaston — Irish ditchers ; they are willing to dig, I fancy.”
Jake Baintree affected to receive this with solemn consideration. “ Yes, sir ! They ’d dig. Useter see a gang a-workin’ on that thar new railroad — whilst lookin’ out’n the jail window.”
It seemed a wide and varied expression of the world and of life that that jail window had given upon, so much had the crafty observation been able to glean therefrom.
“ They ’d’stonish the mounting folks ! Thar ain’t no sech dirt-slingers nowhar. But ’pears like ter me, Eugene, they mought be sorter expensive — ef — ef, ye know — it war ter turn out ez thar war n’t silver in payin’ quantities. Ye know bes’, Eugene, what with yer hooklamin’, yer g’ology an’ sech, an’ yer leetle assayin’ consarns, but ez fur ez I kin jedge, ye air powerful welcome ter enny min’ral in them two gorges. I’m wiflin ter gin ye my sheer ! ” He had spoken gravely, but suddenly a glancing smile lighted up his eyes and curved his lips with so spontaneous an expression of malicious enjoyment that it seemed in his rare relish of the situation his will had lost control of his muscles. He instantly recovered himself, and although he noted the fact that Eugene Ratliburn, quietly looking at him, had marked the dropping of the mask, he went on in the same mock-fraternal vein, “ I dunno ez I be hopeful ’bout’n it, Eugene — but I wish ye well, I wish ye well, Eugene.”
Rathburn was holding his every muscle in a sedulous placidity. There was a conscious, intent, exacting calmness upon his face and in his voice.
“ Baintree,” he said slowly, “ I am glad I slept to-day. I am glad I have my nerves abnormally under my control. Otherwise I should kill you, — I should strike you dead where you are. No man under ordinary circumstances could resist the temptation.”
Baintree cast a searching glance upon him ; then emboldened by his quiescent aspect, he sneered as he laughed.
“ Then I ’m glad, too, ye slept. Thanky kindly, sir ! But I hain’t slept none. An’ I know ye would n’t ’low ez I war right perlite ef I war ter kill ye an’ take yer life, kase I hain’t lied my nap. I ’m glad, too; I never s’picioned afore how much interest I oughter take in yer sleepin’ sound an’ satisfactory.”
Rathburn felt the blood rush to his temples, and he heard his hurrying pulses beat surcharged with the impetus of rage. He did not stir. He still sat with his hands clasped behind his head, his chair tilted on the hind legs. He looked very trim, and sinewy, and lithe in his close-fitting blue flannel shirt and trousers, with the well-shaped high boots coming to the knee, in contrast with the long and lean Baintree, upon whose gaunt frame his ill-made brown jeans hung with many a crease and wrinkle. Beside the florid young physician, the jail-bird seemed to have no blood in his veins, so pallid was his clearly-cut face, so black his sleek hair close to his narrow head. As they steadfastly gazed at one another, the comparison might have interested a third party looking on in the firelight, now richly aglow once more ; but they were alone in the vastness of the Great Smoky Mountains, the slope of this lofty dome inhabited by naught else save bear, or panther, or wolf. Only the mist peered in at the rift of the batten shutter, white-faced, and wild, and disheveled, fleeing forever before the ousting wind that made the brooding, silent thing a vagrant. It seemed as if to escape the antagonistic element that it sought to enter the rift in the shutter, sending in a timorous wreath, slowstealing, pausing aghast in the glow of the fire, and disappearing in the instant.
As the two comrades faced each other it was hard to say which had the advantage, the clever man with the aid of culture, or the clever man so clever despite the lack of culture.
Baintree’s insidious sarcasms, with their ever-ready thrust, had acquired an edge from the attrition with his malicious mirth. And Ratliburn found that his seriousness weighted his anger and, since he would not sanction its outburst, made his defense clumsy.
“ I don’t understand you, Jake,” he said at last in a mollifying tone, — “to save my life I can’t understand you. You go fooling me along with a bait of rich float from month to month pretending to show me where you found it. And when I tell you that it is impossible that you could have found it here, and there, and elsewhere, because the formation proves you a liar, you make out all at once that you were mistaken, and we plod about, and you affect to recognize other landmarks, and so we have the whole tomfoolery over again. If you were half as smart as you think you are, you would realize that you can’t light hap-hazard on any similar rich spot — you have got to go where you found that piece of float, and follow it up or dig there.”
“ Laws-a-massy, Eugene,” said Baintree, adopting in turn a more pacific tone, and holding out both empty hands with the palms upward as if to express a vacuity of unworthy intention, “ don’t I try an’ try ter find the percise spot, an’ ef I fool ye don’t I fool myse’f too ? ’T war toler’ble long ago whenst I fund that rock, an’ the Big Smoky Mountings seem sorter roomy whenst ye take ter huntin’ fur one percise leetle yard medjure o’ groan’, whar a boy live year ago picked up a rock.”
Somehow as he became less acrid the temper of the other waxed stronger, feeling the opposition lessen. With this spirit encroaching upon his self-control Rathburn said suddenly, “ I don’t believe one word of it. You know the spot well enough. You are afraid to go to it.”
Baintree, whose attitude remained unchanged, barely having had time to shift the deprecating earnest look he had worn to a defiant sneer, seemed petrified for one moment as he sat still holding out his hands, his laugh rigid on his startled face.
“ ’Fraid ! ” he echoed, glancing over his shoulder at the spectral mists that came in at the crevice in the shutter and paused at the sight of the fire, and shivered into invisibility. “ ’Fraid ! ”
Suddenly the rain came down on the roof with a thousand tentative touches upon the clapboards, as if to try their sonorous capacities, and elicit what element of melody so unpromising an instrument might add to the music of the storm. Through its iterative staccato beat, one might hear the blended, unindividualized fall of the floods in the distance, a low, mellow resonance. A chill blast came in under the door. The chimney piped. The pallid mists were torn from the rift in the shutter, and one could see upon the black and limited space of darkness without certain fine gray palpitating lines of rain, close at hand, continuously shifting, but never ceasing nor breaking into drops.
“ I believe,” continued Rathburn, “that the silver is at the spot where you ki— where that man Samuel Keale lost his life.” He did not fail to note that Baintree winced at the name. “ And you are afraid to go there, and — ignorant fool that you are ! — you think because silver is there, it is anywhere else, and if we dig hard enough we will find it somewhere in the mountains.”
Baintree said nothing. He sat moistening his thin dry lips with the tip of his tongue, and looking at Rathburn with eyes small, bright, and with an expression that reminded him of the eyes of a rat in a trap, timorous, furtive, and bespeaking mercy that it did not hope to receive.
“ Where is that cave ? Tell me that,” urged Rathburn, all his eager desire for the hidden treasure goading him anew with the recital and the recollection of how long lie had been forced to dally upon the verge of an opulent discovery.
“Where is that cave?” he demanded. He was fain to raise his voice to he heard above the din of the elements, and the commanding tones added to the sense of power that possessed him more and more as Baintree’s confidence collapsed. “ I don’t ask you to tell me where the float was found —simply where is that cave ? ”
Still Baintree met his eye like a caged and helpless thing. He nevertheless had something in his power, — to be speechless ; and as Rathburn perceived a resolution in his dumbness lie persisted more vehemently.
“ Tell me! Tell me ! Then, if you won’t, Teck Jepson will be ready enough to tell me where he found the man’s coat and hat, and I suppose the cave can’t he far away in the gorge. I shall find it — I shall find it — I. shall never cease to search until ” —
As he spoke he caught a glint of triumph in Baintree’s eyes. He realized how far afield his hopes had carried him, that long and devious distances lay between the spot to which he might be guided and the spot he sought.
With a sudden savage cry and the agility of a panther he flung himself upon the man at the fireside and grappled at his throat.
“ Tell me ! ” he ground out between his set teeth. “ Tell me ! ”
A hoarse, half-strangled, intermittent scream for help filled the log-cabin, and penetrated to the stormy voids of the wilderness without. How vain ! The heedless rain beat upon the roof. The unrecking wind passed by. They were alone in the lofty fastnesses of the mountains, and one was at the mercy of the other. Eugene Rathburn had never thought to put his knowledge of the mechanism of the human throat to such uses, but the mountaineer’s superior strength had enabled him only to rise and to writhe helplessly upon the verge of strangulation, under the scientific pressure of those fine and slender hands upon his bare throat, practically demonstrating how nearly a man may be choked and still live. For now and again their grasp relaxed, not to permit that hoarse, futile cry that twice and thrice ensued, but as the essential means of an answer to the question, —
“ Tell me, where did you find it ? ”
Baintree, taken by surprise, his eyes starting out of his head, his face almost purple, both unnerved hands grasping RathburiTs lifted arms, seemed in these intervals, in catching his breath, to regain a modicum of his faculties. He ceased his instinctive efforts to tear away the strong clutch at his throat. He swiftly passed his arms around the waist of his assailant, and with a sudden wrench sought to fling him to the floor. But the lithe Rathburn kept his feet, and the two went staggering together across the room; crashing over the chairs ; dragging the saddle that lay on the floor under their clumsy, stumbling steps, the stirrup-irons clattering on the puncheons ; now swaying this way and now that; overturning the table, with its scanty store of crockery breaking unheeded on the hearthstone. The red firelight, sole witness of the strife, flickered bravely on the brown walls ; the green wood, with the sap still in the fibres, sang a mellow elfin song, fine and faint, all unheard. Their shadows had lost the pacific habit of many evenings of fraternal communings when the silhouettes smoked many a pipe in Barrneeidal fashion, and drank together in dumb show, and imitated their hilarious, genial, and hopeful gestures. Now, adopting their example anew, they reeled furiously after them as they went.
Baintree’s vise-like grip failed only when the strong pressure on his throat was renewed ; his wind-pipe seemed to close; the strength of the convulsive struggle, in which all his unconscious physical forces were asserted, proved futile. There was a different expression in his bulging eyes — he was beginning to believe that the reply to the question was the price of his life. Perhaps Rathburn noticed and interpreted the sign of subduement. The pressure of the strongdeft fingers, where no equal strength, uninformed by a certainty of knowledge, could have availed, relaxed again.
“ Where did you find the float — tell me!” he reiterated.
“ I never fund it,” Baintree gasped. The fingers tightened on his throat, then the grasp loosened, for he was about to speak again. “ Sam’l Keale fund it.”
“ Where — where ? ” demanded Rathburn, his teeth set. hard and his breath fluttering.
“ I dunno,” gasped the victim, — “ he would n’t never tell me ! ”
“You killed him for that?” Rathburn asked swiftly — suddenly his fingers began to tremble. Had he too been tempted to this hideous crime through the lure of that bit of float? “What ever became of him ? ”
He asked the question less with the desire of response than an instinctive effort to elude even to his own conscience the tracing of so repulsive a parallel. But, Baintree could not divine his train of thought nor that aught had served to weaken that clutch upon his throat save the wish to facilitate reply. He was in momentary expectation of its renewal. He had yielded and yielded utterly.
“ I never knowed,” he sputtered, — “ ez the Lord air my witness I never knowed. He jes’ disappeared one day, an’ I traced his steps ter the mouth o’ a cave, — than hed been a rain, — an’ I never seen him agin.”
“Was the cave where Jepson found his hat and coat ? ” Rathburn demanded.
“ Naw ! ” exclaimed Baintree, his eyes growing suddenly intent with anger. “ Naw ! Ef I hed knowed at the trial ez Teck Jepson war a-goin’ ter find them old clothes in the gorge, an’ make sech a power o’ a ’miration over ’em arterward at the baptizin’, I ’d hev tole wliar the cave war sure enough whenst they put me on the stand. An’ Teck Jepson would n’t hev liked that so mighty well, I reckon, kase all the kentry knowed ez him an’ Sam’l war at loggerheads fur years an’ years.”
“ Why ? — what would Jepson have cared ? ” cried Rathburn.
It was only in the revived interest of the moment that his muscles grew tense, but his grasp had the intimation of coercion to Baintree, who instantly responded, with a nod of the head, —
“ Kase the cave’s on his land — in Teck Jepson’s woods. That’s why! An’ folks war powerful worked up an’ excited then, an’ mought hev s’picioned him.”
Rathburn’s hands fell from his throat to his shoulders. “ Jake,” he said, amazed, his voice bated with uncertainty and excitement, “ why did you never tell this before, if you had no hand in his death — if, in fact, he is dead at all ? ”
“ What did I want ter tell fur ? How ’d I know what ter tell an’ what not ter tell ? Nobody knowed how nuthin’ would strike the jury — not even the lawyer. An’ I ’lowed ef they fund Sam’l tbar,” —he shivered a little at the suggestion, — “ he ’d hev looked tunable, mebbe, an’ hev hed his hones bruk — an’ that would hev made it all go harsher at the trial. EvTybody knowed he had been consortin’ with me, a-sarchin’ fur silver, an’ war seen las’ along o’ me. So I jes’ portended I could ’nt find the spot agin, an’ the steps ez led ter the cave ; it hed rained mo’, an’ the groun’ war washed up cornsider’ble. An’ they all lowed t war up in the gorge whar them clothes war fund. Why n’t I tell, an’ why n’t I tell ? ” lie reiterated. “ I he sorry now I hev tole what I hev tole.”
He cast his brooding, anxious eyes absently about the room with a harried, hunted look. Evidently the disclosure he had made was of paramount importance to him, and precluded for the moment consideration or realization of the coercion which had elicited it.
“ That’s of no importance — you could n’t be tried again for the same offense,” said Rathburn reassuringly.
“ Waal — that rule don’t hold good in Jedge Lynch’s court,” returned Baintree gloomily.
Rathburn walked away a few steps with his hands in his pockets. It was difficult to assume a casual air after the episode of the evening, but his efforts were aided by Baxntree’s fixed attention upon the engrossing subject of Keale’s disappearance rather than his recent injuries.
He stopped short suddenly. “ Thought you and lie were scuffling and playing when he fell into the chasm ? ” He looked at Baintree with a revival of suspicion.
“ I ’lowed that whenst I war confused an’ did n’t know what ter say,” replied Baintree. “We war n’t playin’ nor nuthin’. He lef’ me a-diggin’ in the gorge — an’ lef’ his hat an’ coat thar — an’ ’lowed he war a-goin’ ter a spot ter peck at the rocks a leetle furder down ; an’ I waited an’ waited, — I waited a week fur him, whenst I fund his track ter the cave — 'feard ter go home. He ain’t kem yit.”
Rathburn sank down into his chair beside the fire with a dazed, baffled sense of loss. He was trembling with excitement, and exhausted by the struggle. His eyes were fixed, unseeing, on the fire, and he panted heavily as he drew out his handkerchief and passed it over his forehead.
“ Why did n’t you tell me before that it was he who found the float; that you didn ’t know where in this big, thriceaccursed wilderness it came from ? ”
“ Kase I war ’feard ye would n’t “low ’t war wuth while ter sarch, then,” responded Baintree, with the promptitude of the instinct of self-defense. “ I ’lowed ef Sam’l Keale, knowin’ the leetle he did ’bout min’ral, could find sech ez that, ye with all yer bookdarnin’ could. What’s the good o’ yer g’ology, an’ all yer other gear, ef ye can’t ? ”
“ I can’t find silver if it is n’t in the rock,” said Rathburn. This was not said in the tone of a retort. A gnawing sense of shame, a burning self-reproach, had the ascendancy in his consciousness, — even the vanishing prospects of wealth, diminishing gradually in the far perspective of probability, were secondary for the time. He could not justify his deeds — he blushed for his motives. He felt in this cooler moment of reflection as if he had suffered some metamorphosis — some translation into another sordid entity, whose every impulse was followed by an anguish of remorse. He looked down at his hands, still red and smarting with the strain to which he had subjected them, as if he could hardly endure to acknowledge them after the work which they had done for him so well and cleverly. His lids drooped a little as he looked up at Baintree, and he evasively glanced hastily away.
“ Jake,” he said in an embarrassed and husky tone, — the mountaineer had seated himself opposite, and was unwinding a large handkerchief which he had worn around his throat, the folds, as they fell, showing the bruised and swollen flesh, —441 am sorry I got to quarreling with you. I don’t know what in the world made me do it.”
Baintree paused in unrolling his neckgear, and glanced keenly at the troubled and downcast face.
“ I dunno what made ye do it, nuther. I be sorry, too. I hev got reason ter be. An’ if ye call it quar’lin’ — it’s toler’ble survigrous quar’lin’, I will say.”
The flames in the chimney cowered as the wind swept down, and crouched like a beaten thing. The smoke puffed into the room. The gusts had a wild, insurgent, menacing note. The batten shutter rattled. The rain redoubled its force upon the roof. The place seemed infinitely solitary, and distant, and forlorn.
“ I wish T had never heard of the silver. I wish I had let it alone,” said Rathburn, from out his moody reflections.
“ That ain’t goin’ ter do ye no good,” declared Baintree suddenly. 44 Ye "11 go right hack ter it, same ez a frog ter water. Them ez hanker arter it hev got the love of it rooted in ’em. Hey, Lord ! I ’lowed wunst ez I hed enough o’ it. I ’lowed tliar war a everlastin’ curse on it. Arter Sam’l Keale, he jes’ vamosed like he done, an’ they ’rested me, an’ I hed ter go ter jail an’ be tried fur my life — an’ paid everything I hed in the world, even my gun. an’ my pistol, ter the lawyer, fur defendin’ me — I ’lowed ’t war kase I hed hankered arter the silver ez the Lord hid away in the hills. An’ I did n’t keer no’ mo’ fur it then. Not even whenst ye kem ter physic me, an’ seen that piece o’ float I hed kerried jes’ by accident in my pocket. Not even whenst ye ’peared so streck of a heap, an’ kep’ sayin’ how rich, — how rich ’t war. Naw, sir! An’ whenst I kem home, I tuk cornsider’ble pains ter git religion. I ’lowed X war n’t goin’ ter gin the Lord no mo’ excuse fur goin’ back on me. I got religion an’ sot out ter save my soul. I hed hed enough o’ sarchin’ arter silver an’ hevin’ nuthin’ ter kem o’ it, so I hed sot out a-sarchin’ arter salvation. I wanted ter find suthin’ this time! I wanted ter be a prosperous saint o’ the Lord, an’ what with knowin’ how ter read an’ write, I mouglit git ’leeted ter office some day, ef I stood well in the church. Could n’t find salvation, nuther ! This hyar Teck Jepson kem a pouncin’ down on me at the very water’s aidge, whenst I war a-goin’ ter wash my sins away, an’ git the right sperit ter lead my feet ter heaven, an’ he war a-totin’ Sam’l’s old gyarments what I hid ter be rid of ’em, an’ Pa’son renounced me. So now I hev got ter go ter hell — but hevin’ lived sech a life in Brumsaidge ez hev been my sheer, I reckon’t won’t be sech a turr’ble change ez most folks find it.”
“ Come, Jake, you don’t have to be baptized to go to heaven ! ” exclaimed Rathburn. He was looking at his fireside companion with an anxious commiseration upon his deprecatory, flushed face, despite the laugh that fluctuated over tt.
But the rustic, however he may he awakened to a sense of Ids ignorance of mundane matters, stoutly maintains all the arrogations of a spiritual adept. The mountaineer sneered the theological proposition scornfully away.
“ Ye dunno nuthin’ ’bout’n it — I hev hearn ye say things ez makes me low ye ain’t haffen a b’liever; ye ’pear ter sense religious things mighty purely! Ef ye read the Bible mo’, an’ yer g’ology an’ min’rology, ez ye call ’em, less, ye’d be mo’ able ter entertain the sperit, ef ye ever war ter hev a chance.”
As he shook his head drearily over the fire, the sombre reflections evoked by bis review of his forlorn, distraught fate imprinted on bis pallid, clear-cut face, bis throat momentarily showing more definitely the marks of the lingers that had clutched it. his poverty, and its concomitant hopelessness, despite his native cleverness, expressed in his rough jeans clothes, and his broken hoots, and his bent old hat, Rathburn’s heart smote him anew.
“ Jake,” he said, air insistent inward monitor clamoring for confession, “ you don’t know how sorry I am that I was so —so harsh.” He adopted in his uncertainty a word that Baintree often used; it expressed for him many phases of the physical and temporal world. “ You don’t know how badly I feel about it.”
“ Waal,” said Baintree, carefully abstaining from any intimation of being appeased, although he made no definite sign of resentment, “ I feel toler’ble bad myse’f.” He touched his throat with a gingerly gesture, as he rearranged his neck-gear. It appealed to Rathburn with all the power that the sight of physical injury, however slight, exerted upon him. He could without compunction have brutally lacerated Iris fellow-creature’s sentiments, hut for his cuticle lie had a humane professional regard, and remorse found him an easy prey.
“ I’d give a hundred dollars if I had n’t done it,” he said.
“ Waal — I would n’t,” Baintree protested, with mock earnestness, “ lease I never lred a liunderd dollars in all my life ter give,” he added dryly.
Rathburn turned aside, clearing his throat with a sound that was much like a stifled groan.
There was silence for some moments, except for the ceaseless splashing of the water into the gullies below the eaves, and the sharp staccato beat of the rain on the clapboards above. The roof leaked in more than one place, and now and then a solemn, intrusive series of drops fell upon the floor, with a deliberate iteration of chilly intimations. Once Rathburn fancied he heard a wolf howl at no great distance, and then doubted if it Were not the wind sounding a new and savage pipe.
He began to fancy that Baintree, relishing his contrition, was disposed to make the most of it, and give him as much to be sorry for as his capacity for repentance could accommodate. But he strove to banish this caviling mood, incongruous with the injury he had done, and the regret and humiliation that it had entailed. His perceptions, however, could not be denied the prominent lugubriousness of Baintree’s mien, albeit his mental faculties were interdicted any deductions therefrom.
Baintree’s voice had a latent reproach in its very tones as he went on : —
“ An’ then whenst I war a-tryin’ ter git over that back-set — findin’ out thar war n’t no mo’ room fur me in heaven than thar war on yearth—up ye lied ter pop, like a devil out’n a bush, a-goin’ ter sarch in the mountings fur silver, sech ez that float ez I lied. An’ ye got me set ter honin’ an’ hankerin’ arter silver an’ sech — whenst I mought hev k no wed ez Satan war in it, through Sam l’s takin’ off bein’ so durned cur’ous.” He rubbed his hands silently for a few minutes as he looked at the fire. “ That war the reason I tuk ye ter Jepson’s old cabin ter bide a-fust — I ’lowed ye mought find sech float ’mongst them steep ledges an’ rocky slopes.”
Rathburn looked up at him with an alert and kindling eye. His sense of humiliation, his wounded conscience, were forgotten in an instant. “We never went near the cave! ” he exclaimed. “ That was where the fellow was going. That is where you tracked his steps, Jake. ’ He rose to his feet and leaned over and clapped his comrade on the shoulder. “ We ’ll find it yet. There’s the ore. We ’ll explore the cave ! ”
The color had flared into his face ; his full, red lips curved hopefully under his yellow mustache ; his hand stroked it with his wonted alert, confident gesture.
The mountaineer looked up at him with a face cadaverous in its extreme pallor and the elongation of all its traits. His remonstrant eyes had a presage of hopeless defeat in the midst of their anxious entreaty.
“That won’t do, Eugene,” he said, in palpitant eagerness. “ Laws-a-massy, boy, we can’t go rummagin’ round a dead man’s bones fur silver ! ”
He seemed to take note of the unmoved resolution in Rathburn’s face. In his despair and fear he sought to assume a casual air of confidence which might impose upon his companion, however little root it had in fact.
“ But shucks! ye would n’t dare to go a-meddlin’ round dead folks. Ye know ye be afeard o’ ’em ! ”
“ I? ” exclaimed Rathburn, looking down at him with a bantering smile, “ I ?— afraid of dead men’s bones P ”
Looking up into his flushed, handsome, triumphant face, full of life, and light, and spirit, Baintree quailed. For did be not remember, so late though it was, his coadjutor’s profession? And had lie not once seen, in the back room of Rathburn’s office, a bleached white skull that the young physician considered a beautiful thing ? The sight was renewed to his recollection with the vivid dread of a nightmare. He felt a suffocating pressure upon his chest. He did not move as he sat staring into the limited, dull, and dreary scenes of his memory. A hoarse, wheezing, half-smothered, unconscious cry broke from his lips.
“ Why, Jake ! ” Rathburn began, in a cheerful, rallying, reassuring tone; but the mountaineer had started to his feet, and the impetuous torrent of words would not be stopped.
“ Ye air puttin’ a rope round my neck ! Ye — knowin’ the Brumsaidge boys like ye do ! Ef they war ter find his bones — ye know, ye know what would happen! O God A’miglity! ” He struck his long, lean hands together as he held them above his head. “ An’ ye ’d do it! Ye ’d put a rope around my neck fur the bare chance, the bare chance o’ findin’ the silver ! O Lord ! I hev been gin over — plumb gin over ! What ailed me,” he went on, in futile self-reproach, — “ what ailed me ter tell the true place, many a lie ez I hev tole ? Even the Devil fursook me, — never whispered me nare lie ter tell this time,
— this time, when a lie would hev saved my life ! What ailed me ter tell the place — the place ” —
“ Oh Jake, stop — hush!” exclaimed Rathburn, irritably.
“ Oh, I never lowed ez ye ’d sarch that spot — ez ye’d put me in danger
— the man ez gin ye all the chance ye ever hed ” —
“ Mighty good chance! ” sneered Rathburn, losing patience. “ A piece of float that another fellow found, God knows where, — stop that racket, Jake ! ”
“ Stop ! ” cried the mountaineer, still clasping and unclasping his hands above his head as he moved convulsively about the floor. “ Why n’t ye ax that thar worm in the fire,” —he pointed his quivering hand at a wretched, writhing thing that the heat had summoned from its nest in the rotten heart of the log forth into the midst of the flames, to turn hither and thither in a futile frenzy until consumed, — “ why n’t ye ax that worm ter stop ? ”
“ Go on, then, and have a fit,” said Rathburn coolly, “ or work yourself into a fever.” He pointed to a small medicine-chest. “ Shan’t cost you anything, — got that advantage over the worm.”
His ridicule and his assumption of indifference were salutary. Baintree paused, looking restlessly about for a moment, then he returned to the hearth, shoving his chair with his knee back into the corner where he had sat before. His fear was not allayed, however, nor his sense of injury assuaged.
“ Oh, ye air a mighty aggervatin’ cuss, Eugene Rathburn! ” he declared, lowering hopelessly at him across the hearth. “ Ef I hed lived the life other men do, an’ hed hed my sheer o’ the good luck other folks gits, I’d hev too much sperit ter let ye kerry things like ye do. I VI kill ye afore I VI let ye harm me ! ”
“ I ain’t going to harm you,” said Rathburn casually. He did not even remember his clutch on his comrade’s throat.
“ Ef I hed n’t been through with jes’ what I hev been through with, ye wouldn’t treat me so. Ye wouldn’t dare treat another man — Teck Jepson, say — this-a-way.”
“ Now I’m not afraid of Teck Jepson ; you can bet high on that,” Rathburn protested, with a sudden flush. “ You are such a fool, Jake, though you think yourself very smart indeed, that you make all sorts of mistakes, and you want me to make them, too. You ought never to have said that the man fell into a cave or chasm — for you don’t know it.” A sudden doubt crossed his mind, and he cast a quick, suspicious glance across the hearth at Baintree, whose trembling hands were spread out to the fire, his pallid face hearing that recent impress of a strong nervous shock, indescribable, but as unmistakable as the print of a blow. “ You ought never to have hid his coat and hat, — and, by the way, the Broomsedge despot took no measures to punish you for that, — and I dare say if the man’s bones were found in a cave on his land, people would like to know how his cave came by them.”
Baintree looked up with a sudden flash of his former sly intelligence, then bent his brooding eyes once more on the fire.
“ Especially,” Rathburn continued, after a pause, “ as they were always on bad terms. You would be in a better position to stand such a discovery than Jepson, for the jury has said that you had nothing to do with his bones. What did Jepson quarrel with him about? ”
Baintree never spoke of the victim of the catastrophe save with a bated voice and a strained, anxious expression, almost a contortion, in its speculative desire to detect the lack of confidence that was the usual sequence of his words.
“ Bout’n the way he treated his wife.”
“ His wife ? — thought he was a young fellow, a mere boy.”
“He war married young, —’bout twenty. Gal war young, too. They did n’t agree tergetlier. Some folks ’lowed he beat her, but Sami’s kin declared they jes fought tergetlier — her bein’ ez survigrous ez him. But Jepson, bein’ the gal’s cousin, went over thar one day whenst she hed her head tied up, lowin’ her husband hed busted it, an’ he gin Sam’l a turr’ble trouncin’. He hed his head tied up arter that. Jepson set store by the gal, bein’ her cousin, an’ lowed she should n’t suffer through hevin’ no brother nor dad.”
“ She did n’t mourn her loss, then ? ” suggested Rathburn, with a jeering smile.
‘‘Took on turr’ble a-fust, an’ married agin ’fore the year war out.”
“ Glad to get rid of him, eh ? ”
“ He 'd hev been mighty glad ter git rid o’ her. Useter low sometimes ez he ’d run away from her ef he hed ennywhar ter run ter, an’ from Jepson, too. He war turr’ble ’feard o’ Jepson. He useter low sometimes ez he wisht he hed never kern from North Car’liny, wliar he useter live an’ work in a silver mine. It gin out, though, an’ war n’t wuth nuthin’ ter its owners.”
“ I wonder,” said Rathburn speculatively, “ if that is n’t where he is right now.”
“ Hed n’t been hearn on thar time o’ the trial,” said Baintree.
“ Or else,” pursued Rathburn meditatively, “ if in trouncing him, according to his royal prerogative, Jepson might not have overdone the chastisement, and stowed away the evidences of how justice had overborne mercy in that cave of his.”
Both would have liked to credit this, but Baintree shook his head.
“ I don’t believe he fell into any cave,” Rathburn presently resumed, — “a deft-footed mountaineer! He either went in there searching for silver, or he was put in there for some purpose, or he has run away from his matrimonial infelicity and the despot of Broomsedge Cove.”
He paused to kick the chunks of the logs together, between the stones that served as fire-dogs, for they were burnt out now save for their bulky and charred ends. The flames leaped up anew. The smoke had ceased to puff into the room, but its aroma, with the pungent fragrance of the wood, lingered in the air. The worm, in which Jake Baintree had descried a parallel of cruelly perplexed anguish, was gone, and the world was as if it had never been. The sinuous contortions of his fear and harassment continued with hardly more hope of ultimate rescue. Nevertheless, like the worm, he could but strive.
“ Eugene,” he said, “ let’s leave the cave alone. Su’thin’ dreadful will kem o’ it ef we go meddlin’ thar. Ye know ye don’t want ter put me in no danger wuss n I he in now. Ye would n’t, now would ye ? ” in an unctuous, coaxing voice, and with an appealing eye.
“ Why, not for worlds, Jake, not for worlds ! ” exclaimed Rathburn heartily.
A sigh of relief was on the lips of the suspected man, a look of renewing life in his jaded eye. There had not yet been time to evolve doubt, suspicion, qualification, before Rathburn spoke again.
“ Nothing that I am going to do can injure anybody. I was placed in far greater jeopardy by your concealments and mystery about the forge than ever you will be by anything I counsel or do.”
“ Ye mean ye won’t go ter the cave ? ” said Baintree, his lips dry and moving with seeming difficulty.
“ Now don’t be ail ignoramus and a fool, Jake. Of course I shall look for more of the float about the cave. I believe that’s where the man found it. I should he a fit subject for the lunatic asylum if I did n’t search there, and that’s just what you are. No harm in the world can come of it,” He was silent for a moment. “ Why,” taking a hit of paper from his pocket and deftly rolling a cigarette, — “why, Jake,” —he spoke in answer to Baintree’s silent look, — “what would you have done if, some of those days when we were at Jepson’s house, I had stumbled on the mouth of that cave ? ”
He cocked the cigarette between his teeth, its tiny red tip brightly flaring, for the room was growing dull and dusky, and looked with an expression of good-natured argument at Baintree across the hearth.
The mountaineer’s ruminative eyes were fixed upon him. “ I tuk good pains ye should n’t,” he admitted, in a tone, however, which implied that he had yielded the previous points of controversy. “ I never guided ye in that d’rection.”
Rathburn took his cigarette from his mouth, emitted an airy wreath of smoke, and shook his head seriously from side to side. Then as he smoked on he said, “ I have a very pretty quarrel with you, Jake. By your own confession, you have systematically deceived me for a matter of six months or more. You made me believe that you had found the float, and of course knew where you found it, when you were only trying to get the benefit of such scientific knowledge as I had, — to discover mineral where there was no reason to believe it to be. If you were not so ignorant you would n’t have tried a foolish, hopeless dodge like that. You have made me work very hard at this wildgoose chase, digging, and tramping, and blacksmithing, and you got me into a scrape that might have cost me my life. Indeed, but for that timely warning that put me on my guard and made me behave like a man instead of a sheep-killing dog, I believe it would have cost me my life.”
His face grew grave and conscious at the thought of Marcella. He sat silent for a moment or two, looking steadfastly at the fire and rolling the cigarette delicately between his fingers.
“ It is absurd, because you are afraid of this and afraid of that, to ask me to give up the whole thing or go and search where there are no indications, or very slight ones, as you had me do all summer, when you knew where the only chances lay. But I forgive you, and I ’m not going to do anything that can possibly injure you,”
Baintree was sitting so still in the dusky gloom of the darkening cabin that he hardly seemed alive. With the brown color of his coat dimly suggested on the darker tones about him, he looked like an effigy of a man rudely fashioned from a root.
“ What be ye a-goin’ ter do ? ” he demanded.
The lack of candor could hardly be urged against Eugene Rathburn among his many and conspicuous faults.
“ I ’m going to search that cave from end to end, if the good Lord spares me,” he asseverated. “ That’s what I’m going to do. There’s nothing there that I shan’t find.”
His cigarette, so far spent it was, required some deft manipulation that it should not burn his fingers or lips and yet yield the last treasures of nicotian luxury that it contained. His eyes were fixed upon it, and he lost the look with which Jake Baintree received this unequivocal statement. When he glanced up, the mountaineer had risen and was filling his pipe from some tobacco on the mantel-piece.
“ Going to smoke again ? ” asked Rathburn. “ Well, good-night to you, for I’m going to turn in.”
He had found that a thick rug and a heavy blanket comported more nearly with his idea of comfort than did the lumpy shuck mattresses of the region. One end of the drapery of this primitive paraphernalia placed over the saddle served as pillow, and as he lay thus upon the floor before the dying fire he seemed to take scant heed of the vigil of the silent, watchful figure, still erect in his chair, and still smoking his pipe. Only once the young townsman stirred after he lay down. “ Plow good the rain sounds on the roof,” he said drowsily. A few moments afterward he was doubtless asleep — a sound, dreamless slumber, the close counterfeit of death, motionless, silent, deep. Nevertheless Jake Baintree hardly felt sure of its genuineness until after he had arisen and arranged his own pallet with some unnecessary stir, that might have seemed an experiment to judge if the sleeper would rouse again on any slight provocation. Then he sat down once more and meditatively eyed the red embers dwindling, still dwindling, in the white and gray ashes.
The monotone of the rain still beat on the roof ; he heard the wind from far away ; the vague stir of the crumbling fire was distinguishable, although it might seem so fine and subtle a rustle would have been lost in the sound of aught else. The muffled figure on the floor was still discernible in the red glow ; even the yellow hair showed in a dull gleam amidst the umber tones of the shadows. Jake Baintree’s eyes were upon it as with a careful hand he reached into a crevice of the jamb of the chimney and drew forth something that had a sudden steely glitter even in the semiobscurity, and laid it cautiously on his knee.
He did not move for some time afterward, although in the increasing dusk his shadowy figure could hardly have been distinguished from the inanimate shadows about him. Presently his hands were moving softly to and fro with swift, industrial intentness.
Even the embers seemed to cling to life and yield it with the reluctance and vacillating struggle pathetically typical of the passing of human breath. Their sparkle, and verve, and flamboyant energies were all spent, but suddenly they sent forth an unexpected red glow, strong in the midst of the ashes, that was like the transitory revival in the last flickering moments of a doomed creature.
It irradiated Baintree’s wary bright eyes fixed abruptly upon it, as he sat in the corner. So sudden was its flare that he had not an instant to prepare for it, and a whisking feather in his hand still mechanically moved to and fro as he oiled a pistol, now and then dipping it into a tin vessel that stood on the jagged edge of the jamb beside him. It was poised and motionless the next moment above the weapon, as he gazed with alert anxiety at the sleeping man upon the floor. The room was fully revealed in the melancholy red suffusion; Rathburn’s face was distinct with its far-away, unconscious expression. He did not stir; he saw naught of what he might have thought strange enough in the dead hour of the midnight, — Jake Baintree slipping cartridge after cartridge into the six chambers of Dr. Ratliburn’s neglected revolver, not loaded before since he had come to the mountains in August.
The storm wrought great havoc in the aspect of the outer world. The dull light of the autumn days that ensued served to show how the red and gold of the leaves had faded, and what resources of brown and a sere tawny gray the ultimate stages of decay held in store. They were thickly massed on the ground now, and most of the boughs were bare and wintry, and swayed, black with moisture, against the clouds, that in their silent shifting illustrated an infinite gradation of neutral tints between pearl and purple. Yet they seemed still, these clouds, so imperceptibly did each evolution develop from the previous presentments of vapor.
Far away the gray mountains appeared akin to the dun cloud-masses they touched, as if range and peak were piled one above the other almost to the zenith. Certain fascinating outlines of the distance, familiars of the fair weather, were withdrawn beneath this lowering sky, and strangely enough the landscape seemed still complete and real without them, as if they, had been merely some fine illusions of hope, some figment of a poetic mood, painted in tender tints upon an inconstant horizon. Close at hand the heights loomed grim and darkly definite. In dropping the mask of foliage they showed fierce features hitherto concealed,— gaunt crags and chasms, and awful beetling steeps; ravines, deeply cleft in the heart of the range; torrents, flung headlong down the precipices to be lost in the river ; many sterile, hare rocky slopes.
To Marcella a new glow of interest was shed upon the sombre scene; often she looked up at those more open expanses, wondering -where, in the vast bewilderment of the fastnesses, the stranger and his mountain guide had made their temporary home. Far away as they were, he seemed near in the definiteness of her new knowledge of him. And this she supplemented by knowledge not so definite. With this basis for speculation, her imagination constructed, with all the ease of that airy workmanship, a status for his previous life, endowed him with a series of predilections and prejudices, and many noble ideal qualities with which Rathburn might have found himself somewhat embarrassed, having had but scant experience with such fine aesthetic gear. There were circumstances connected with his recent danger which gave her an intense satisfaction, •— she had requited the good deed he had done that night when he had come to her father’s aid through the storm. She had repaid the debt four-fold. She remembered, with a certain soft elation, how he had recognized the risk she had encountered, how he had esteemed it of no slight magnitude. It might have been vanity, it might have been some tenderer thrill astir, but it was sweet to her to hear again — as so easily she might, when she would — the quiver in his voice when he had declared that an angel of mercy, an angel had rescued him ! Often she paused at her simple tasks to recall anew those fervent words, those earnest, swift glances, which said so much that the subtlest words might fail to convey. Flis gratitude held all the finest essences of the incense of flattery, and she recognized a unique delight in the fact that the words and the glances were so cleverly calculated for her alone. Always her lips curved, with that rarest relish of laughter, when it is for joy alone, unmarred by any element of scorn or ridicule, when she remembered her grandmother’s satiric flouts at his “ nangel ” and subsequent speculation as to which of the mountain girls he deemed, in his sentimental folly, bore any resemblance to a celestial being. These thoughts were undulled by repetition. They bore her company coining or going, spinning or weaving, and most of all, in her out-door tasks they kept pace with her loitering footsteps. It was not until one afternoon, on a bleak hillside, that into this inner radiance of thought and spirit a certain shadow fell — a shadow as gray, as chill, as prophetic, as if it were akin to the gray, chill, prophetic shadows of the day that stood, dejected, on every slope, and waited as for a doom. She had gone out to salt the sheep, and she carried a gourd of salt in her hand. Her bonnet — it was of a gay yellow calico — hung on her shoulders, the strings knotted about her neck, and her heavy, waving brown tresses falling over it almost hid its assertive color beneath their curling luxuriance. Her dress was of a more sombre tone ; it had encountered disasters in its dyes, and had not withstood the test of soap and water. It was difficult to say whether the result were a darkly brownish green or a darkly greenish brown. It was not incongruous with the dulling tints of the landscape ; as she stood, it served to define her light, lithe figure distinctly against the tawny stretches of broomsedge behind her, that rose gradually to the summit of the hill. There seemed the full development of its tentative shade in the dark green of the pines clustering along the background of the mountain. Gray rocks cropped out of the red clay gullies that scarred the descent at her feet. In all the monotony of the scene, the flaring yellow about her throat seemed a triumphant climax of color, so luminous and intense it was. Her eyes were fixed on the gray sky opposite, for she looked far over the sere valleys where it bent its great concave to a low level. Her hand hesitated as it was thrust into the brown gourd that she held. The sullen elements had no power to dim the fair, rich tints of her face, and grave though it was, it bore the happy trace of recent smiles. The sheep pressed close about her, the black sheep of the flock, all unaware of his unenviable metaphorical notoriety among men, preferring his claim for salt with calm assurance. She was motionless for a moment, then, as if the thought had come to her for the first time, “ Why hev he never, never kem agin ? ” she said.
Her mind went back slowly, with a benumbing anxiety to count the days, knowing they were not few. It was difficult to differentiate them, they were all so alike — so alike in thought. As she reviewed the trivial incidents that might serve to individualize them, keeping a tally with her fingers on the gourd, she began to realize what she had not noticed before, — that lately there had been many visitors at the house, not her own, nor her grandmother’s ; men, chiefly, wanting to see Eli Strobe. The doctor’s orders had precluded their entrance, being rigorously obeyed since they subserved the pride of the women, who had sought to shield Strobe’s infirmity from general observation in Broomsedge Cove.
“ We-uns don’t want ’em ’round hyar a-crowin’ over Eli in the pride o’ sech brains ez they hev got, till he hev hed a fair chance ter git well,” Mrs. Strobe had said to her granddaughter. “ Folks knowed ez he Avar out’n his head with fever an’ his mind wandered some whenst he war fust knocked down, but nobody suspicions ez he hev plumb gone deranged ’bout killin’ Teck Jepson ’eeptin’ them two doctor men an’ Andy LongAvood, an’ I know they ain’t goin’ ter tell.”
Many, then, had been to the door of late, but the yellow-haired young stranger had come no more, and Marcella wondered, with a dull presage of gloom, would be ever come again.
When next the chords of memory vibrated with his declaration that an angel had saved him it had a jarring clangor of doubt, of ridicule, that made its wonted dulcet iteration a discord. Human nature is not generally so recognizant of celestial condescension and kindness that much is necessarily implied in the protestation of equivalent gratitude and indebtedness to an earthly benefactor. Marcella did not realize this. Was it thus, she asked herself, that he would have passed her by if he had felt in his heart the word upon his lips ?
Now and again the gourd in her hand AVUS nudged by the soft nozzle of a sheep, and she would once more bethink herself to cast a handful of salt down upon the rock as they pressed about her. There was no other stir in all the broad spaces she overlooked save the vibrations of the wind in the bare boughs that clashed together with a dull rattling sound, and the rustling shiver through the tawny tufts of broomsedge.
She gave a great start when her eyes were suddenly concentrated upon an object in the midst of its tall growth halfway down the hill, beginning slowly to move, to rise. It seemed to her suddenly recalled attention, still dazed by the transition from the world of thought to the more exigent material sphere, as if it were some gigantic mushroom toiling up the ascent, having just come in sight above a projecting knoll of earth. Beneath the broad bent hat she presently discerned a chubby dark-eyed face, and the rest of the person of a fat young fellow-creature of the age of four, perhaps, arrayed in a short, stout homespun skirt and a straight waist tightly encircling a singularly round body, was revealed to view.
So unexpected was this apparition, despite its simplicity, that as she gazed she was not aware that a man had ascended the hill further to the right, and stood leaning on a long rifle silently contemplating her. Not until he spoke did she turn. Then she looked at him with a start.
“ Ain’t ye goin’ ter gin me nare word, Marcelly ? ” said Teck Jepson.
She flushed deeply. She had a sense of discovery, as if he might have read in her unguarded face, before slie was conscious of his watchful eyes, the thoughts that had silently hovered about Rathburn. Taken thus at a disadvantage, she forgot for a moment her anger toward him.
“ I never seen ye — howdy,” she said meekly.
Her flush was instantly reflected on his face as the red glow of a sunset irradiates the alien eastern sky. There was a new light in his eyes. She detected in his voice something of the impetus of the false hope that lured him, although he only said casually, as if seeking to formally acquit her of any discourtesy, —
“ I seen ye war noticin’ Boh, thar, — he air a mighty s’prisin’ sight down in the valley, I know.”
Even so slight a pleasantry seemed odd from him, so exacting a gravity he bore in his daily walk and conversation. She subtly understood it as the out-gushing happiness of the mistake under which he had fallen ; so trifling a hope, so slight a relenting counted for much in the depths of despair into which he had sunk. She would have been glad to undeceive him, but she was still agitated and confused by the sudden severance of her troubled and absorbed train of thought, and the abrupt surprise of his presence here. Slie merely said, “ Air that leetle Bob Bowles, yer nevy ? ”
He nodded, his face relaxing into its infrequent smile as he looked down at the plodding plumpness approaching through the broomsedge.
“ He air visitin’ ye, then, I reckon.”
“ Not edzac’ly ; he hev runned away from home.”
The fat Boh sat down upon one of the outcropping ledges of the rock near where the sheep crowded about Marcella, at whom he looked with apprehensive eyes. Mrs. Bowles was the only woman in his very restricted social circle with whom he was acquainted, and his experience with her did not tend to foster confidence in the sex.
“ He looks at me ez ef he ’lowed I’d hurt him,” cried Marcella, flushing and suddenly affronted. “ I never knowed I war so turr’ble ez all that.”
“ Bob — Bob, ye look the other way ! ” Jepson admonished him.
But Boh, with scant regard, evidently, for his mandates, continued to gaze wincingly up at the fair face of the girl, meeting her indignant and wounded eyes. Detecting at last a protest in her expression, he lifted his chubby arm and crooked it over his head, a forlornly inadequate guard against the blow he expected.
“ He thinks I ’d hurt him ! ” she cried in an aggrieved tone. “ Why, don’t ye know I would n’t fur nuthin’, — fur nuthin’ ? ”
She sat down by him on the rock and took his hard little sunburned hand in her soft clasp. His eyes were alight and alert with fear. With a wonderful show of elasticity he edged bouncingly along the ledge to evade her overtures ; but a sheep had lain down across the rock, and although he pressed close into the wool of the creature, it did not rise, and he was at the mercy of his captor. She still held the gourd of salt, and the flock crowded about with insistent, rummaging nozzles. One of the sheep, standing on the higher ground behind her, looked pensively over her shoulder at the broad mountain landscape, the delicate, slender head of the animal almost touching the bright hair so heavily curling on her yellow sun-bonnet, still hanging loosely about her neck.
The graceless Bob! Jepson could only lean his six feet of helplessness upon his long rifle, and earnestly breathe that sinking hope against hope known only to those who have callow relatives placed in a conspicuous and exacting position, with every opportunity for lamentable infringement of etiquette. Did ever so doubtful, suspicious, and terrified a look meet such suave, sweet, smiling eyes ? Was ever a round, dodging, bullet head so evasively shifted from beneath so light a caress as the touch of those falling curling tresses ? How wasted, how inopportunely wasted on Bob her soft words, —
“ I love ye — an’ X want ye ter love me ! ”
But Bob, who evidently harbored a distrust in amazing disproportion to his small size and his tender years, was proof against even so enchanting a siren. He merely knitted his limited eyebrows in perplexity because of the unexpected nature of the attack, for that unhappy and striking developments were to ensue he did not permit himself to disbelieve for an instant. He left his hard little hand in hers, for his theory that least resistance resulted in the minimum smart had been proved often enough to commend it. A short little puff of breath — in an adult it might have been called a sigh — escaped from his half-parted lips, and betokened suspense.
“ How ye all mus’ hev treated him up on the mounting ! ” Marcella exclaimed, flashing her angry eyes upward at Teck Jepson. “He’s ’feard—an’ jes’ see the leetle size of him ! He’s feard ; he would n’t dodge that-a-way ef he hed n’t been hit a heap o’ times fur nuthin’. Who treats him so mean ? ”
Jepson hesitated. Certainly he owed naught to Mrs. Bowles, but they had been of the same household, and he had a certain reluctance to expose her to scorn and contumely, however richly merited.
She noted his hesitation and broke forth impulsively, “I don’t wonder ye look ’shamed of it. I mought hev knowed it! ”
He shifted his position suddenly, and as he gazed at her, still leaning on the rifle, his eyes widely open, his lips parted, his breath coming quick, it might have seemed that he had need of his weapon to uphold him, — he was shaken as if by a blow.
“ Marcelly ! ” he exclaimed, — and the voice hardly seemed his, so unlike was the husky quaver to his wonted full, mellow tones, — “ kin ye think that o’ me, — ez ’t war me ez hev persecuted that thar leetle bit of a critter ? ”
He paused and looked about him with an air of finality. His nerves were still distraught; his lip quivered. She sat, a little pale and shaken by the sight of his agitation, gazing up at him from under her eyebrows, and hardly lifting her head, expectant, waiting, and making no sign of denial.
“Waal,” he said, drawing himself to his full height, “ this finishes it. I hev b’lieved, I hev lived in hope ez some day ye mought kem ter keer fur me, ’spite o’ all that hev kem an’ gone. But now ez I hev fund out how awful mean ye think I be, ez ye kin b’lieve fur one minit ez I bed enny hand in tormentin’ a leetle trembly soul like that, I ’ll gin hope up. I ’ll trouble ye with my feelin’s no mo’. An’ I ’ll never furgive ye whilst I live ! ”
Marcella sat quite still and with downcast eyes during this outburst. There was something very like a sob in his throat as he spoke the last words, but when she glanced up again his face was so calm, his gaze so loftily discursive as he cast his eyes over the landscape, his attitude so impressive and striking, that she interpreted this serenity of pride as triumph, and she suddenly felt a goad in his last avowal.
“ Waal, strange ez it may seem,” she said, tossing her hair backward, and the breeze, catching the locks, flinging them gayly about, “ I kin live without it. An’ I hev beam ye talk ’bout yer feelin’s an’ sech till thar’s mighty leetle entertainment lef’ in ’em. An’ treatin’ this hyar leetle chile mean, till he looks ter be heat ef a body glances thar eye at him, ’pears ter me mightily of a piece with bein’ the captain o’ a gang o’ lynchers an’ sech evil doin’s.”
There was a momentary silence. Her eyes, restless, unseeing, wandered vaguely over the broad brown expanse of valley and mountain. Once more she bethought herself of the sheep, and poured the salt out of the gourd on the ground. The excitement of the moment pulsed heavily in her temples ; she felt a vague, gnawing pain at her heart, and she was unhappy.
The cause of all this trouble hardly comported himself in a congruous manner. Boh was relieved when her attention was diverted from him, and gave a fat little sigh of content. He sat for a moment quite still, looking very rotund in build, contemplating the resources of the scene for juvenile enjoyment. Then leaning forward, he placed his broad white wool hat on the unsuspecting head of a sheep near at hand, and it was difficult to say whether the smothered “ baa ” that proceeded from the eclipsed beast, or its groping as it rose to its feet, or its unique aspect as it stood, with the hat on its head, uncertain what might ensue, was the chief factor in eliciting a low, jovial chuckle from the distended gleeful lips.
But neither of his elders noticed the wiles of the callow martyr, for Jepson’s attention was fixed upon the revelation contained in Marcella’s last words, and she was nervously biting her lips in futile regret that they had thence escaped.
“ I hev no call ter gin account o’ sech ez I do ter you-uns,” he said, with that serene arrogance which she had always felt was intolerable, and which she had in vain sought to reduce. “ I ’d hev been mighty pleased ef ye lied thunk well o’ my deeds an’ could liev put enny dependence in me, hut ef ye don’t, it don’t make me think no ill o’ myself nor my aims. I ain’t got two faces, ter turn this one, an’ ef ye don’t like its looks, turn that one. I he guided by sech light ez the sperit hev revealed ter me, an’ I don’t ax ye nor enny other human ter show me the way an’ guide my feet.” He paused, looking reflectively at the broomsedge waving about his high boots ; then he recommenced suddenly. ££ Bein’ ez ye hev got a interus’ in the man ez tole ye I war a captain o’ a gang o’ lynchers, ye hed better warn him not ter let his jaw wag too slack. — not about me; I ain’t keerin’ what he say ’bout vie. but them t’ other men mought hear o’ his talkin’ too free, an’ I ain’t round about the Settlemmf much, an’ could n’t bender ’em ef they war ter set out ter do him a damage. Tell him that. They air powerful outdone with me ennyhow, kase I would n’t gin my cornsent ter sech ez they wanted that night he kem ter the forge.”
Marcella hardly breathed, so strong upon her was the terror of jeopardizing the safety of Rathburn, who was rash enough at best.
“ How do ye know who tole me ? ” she demanded, gazing up at him with a feint of defiance in her contracted eyebrows and curling lip. “ Ye may be talkin’ ’bout one man, an’ me ’bout another.”
He looked straight into the clear depths of her eyes. They faltered suddenly, and the long lashes fell as he said, —
“Naw, we be both talkin’ ’bout’n that Doctor Rathburn, ez he calls hisse’f, — that be who we air talkin’ ’bout.”
She leaned back silently against a rugged bowlder amongst the outcropping ledges, the gourd, empty now, the neck of it still in her listless hand, lying beside her on the trampled broomsedge. Her greenish-brown dress was much like the mosses in the fissures of the gray rock, against the cold monotone of which her fair young face seemed so delicately and finely tinted. The flock had scattered, feeding amongst the brambles and on tufts of grass that seemed, beneath the fallen leaves, to have escaped the frost. The sheep that had worn the hat rid himself of it at last, and looked on stupidly when the little mountaineer, with an agile elasticity of gait incongruous with his infantile rotundity, ran out and triumphantly crowned another, slipping back to his seat beside Marcella, and attracting no notice save from the placid flock, pausing to gaze in mildeyed wonder.
“ I ain’t lookin’ ter see that man agin,” said Marcella, her eyes fixed on tlie summits across the broad valley. “ I can’t tell him.”
She paused, in the hope that he might ask if she had not seen him lately, but Jepson could he betrayed into no unseemly show of curiosity, and she was presently fain to continue.
“ I ain’t seen him sence he war at our house that night. I dunno what’s kem o’ him.”
He stood impassive, silent, leaning upon his rifle, which he held with one hand, while the other was thrust in his leather belt. When she spoke he looked down at her, and his eyes met hers, but when she was silent he glanced with grave preoccupation at the leaden sky or the sombre ranges.
“ I ’lowed mebbe he hed gone home,” she said, after one of these intervals. A pensive wistfulness was on her face. Her eyes saw far into the dreary desert of vague absence with no return in view. Her attitude became more listless. The despondency of a fresh disappointment was upon her. It was so recently that she had become definitely aware how long it had been since he was at the house, how fully the recollection of his words had sufficed in the certain expectation of his return, that she was for the first time canvassing the probabilities. She looked up appealingly.
“ Mebbe so,” he replied non-committally.
She gave a sudden quick gasp, and turned pale.
“Them men— them men, mebbe, hev tuk him at las’. They waylaid him agin, — hev they ? — hev they ? ”
“ Not ez I hev beam on,” he replied.
His evident lack of excitement in regard to the possibility roused her anger anew. Her nerves were all a-quiver under the unexpected strain. She hardly sought to control her words ; they were a relief to her tense, overwrought anxiety.
“ How kin ye stand thar an’ ’low, ‘Not ez I hev hearn on,’ ez keerless ez ef I war a-talkin’ ’bout a fox ketched in a trap? Ye don’t keer, Teck Jepson, ye don’t keer! Ye’d jes’ ez soon he would be kilt by them mis’able Brumsaidge rangers ez not. Ye air a cruel, bloodthirsty man! Ye don’t keer ef the innereent stranger war kilt.”
Despite his protestations of independence of spirit, he was roused to defend himself against this imputation.
“ Ef I hed n’t keered,” he said, his lip curling with a scornful half laugh, and his eyes far away, “ I would n’t hev gone with them fellers at the barn. I lowed I could header ’em from doin’ ennytliing onjust, or hasty, or mischieevious, though ef the stranger lied been at enny wicked device, I dunno ez I would hev perfected him an’ sot him free like I done.”
Marcella’s heart was throbbing with contending emotions, the dominant feeling a resentment that Teck Jepson should thus credit himself with the humane and generous rescue of Ratliburn, the merits of which that young gentleman’s rhetoric had greatly exalted in her estimation, for she had thought it a simple, natural, matter-of-course action when she had first been moved to do aught in his behalf. She had logic enough to realize, however, that her timely warning and Rath burn’s clever boldness would have availed little had not Jepson’s mood been judicial, and the sway which he exerted over his comrades perfect and complete. Nevertheless her claim was not to be easily belittled. Her ingenuity renewed its hold.
“Then,” she said, “ye let him off, I ’ll be bound, not kase ye knowed ’t war right an’ jestice, but jes’ kase ye fund out ez’t war me ez lied warned the man, an’ ye ’lowed’t would put me in a good humor with you-uns ef ye war ter holp me out an’ save his life. Ye done it ter please me.”
He was not quite sure he understood her at first. He seemed dumfounded ; then, as the light of comprehension dawned in his eyes, he looked down into her face and laughed.
“ Kem, Boh,” he said, turning away, “ it’s time we-uns war a-travelin’.”
But Bob had met a young friend of somewhat his own tastes and disposition. A lamb had strayed near where he was sitting, and the two had spent some profitable moments in gazing silently at one another with that irresistible curiosity and manifest fellow-feeling which infancy has for infancy. What they thought each of the other no one can ever say. That the scrutiny was not mutually derogatory in its results may he inferred from the fact that the lamb leaped suddenly to one side on its slender, knobby little legs, with a sort of aquiline alacrity, and kicked up some very frolicsome heels. Whereupon Boh mitigated the intensity of his stare, and began to run about nimbly with his short skirts flying, his round body very straight, his agility seeming necessarily somewhat knock-kneed in order to give free play to such redundant calves. He showed a very merry pair of heels, that served him as well as the lamb’s two pairs, and neither of the blithe young tilings took the smallest notice of Jepson’s summons.
Marcella gave them no heed. She had never been so deeply wounded as by Jepson’s evident surprise, his laugh, disclaiming the motive to please her. Always he had seemed to her secretly subservient to her power, however he might seek to assert his own independence. She was amazed that he would openly and disdainfully disavow any influence of hers upon his actions. She was humiliated that she should have suggested it, to receive a renunciation rather than a protestation. It was as if he had told her that he did not love her so much as she thought — not so blindly, so idolatrously. She had over-flattered herself ; her vanity had palpably convicted her. Strangely enough she was not angry. Every emotion was absorbed in the perception that he did not love her as she thought he did — he had laughed at the supreme power which she assumed to wield over him.
She glanced up at him aslant under her long lashes. He was not looking at her. He had shouldered his rifle and was advancing upon the swiftly revolving Bob and his nimble four-footed acquaintance.
“ Kem on, bubby. Kem on, Bob. We-uns mus’ go home now.”
But the gleeful Bob, with distended ruddy cheeks, and two rows of snaggled white teeth, and gleaming eyes almost eclipsed in rolls of fat, continued his merry round, finding a new joy in flapping his arms, in which he had an advantage over the Iamb, who had no arms to flap, and who often paused with meditative lowered head to gaze at these gyrations.
“ Kem on, Bob — or I ’ll make ye ! Ye ’ll repent it, sir ! Kem on ! ”
And once more he approached the elusively whisking Bob. “ Kem on! Like a good boy.” He resorted to entreaty.
But Bob evidently disbelieved in retribution from this source, and was hardhearted enough to disregard softer suasion.
As Marcella looked on, a little uncertain, a new light was shed upon her mind.
“ He be a powerful obejient chile ! ” she remarked, with a little satiric laugh.
“ He’s young yit,” returned Jepson, flustered and mortified. £ Whenst he gits a leetle older he ’ll do better. Bob, I ’ll let ye tote my shot-pouch, like ye love ter do.”
But Bob, with a soul above bribes, circled as before. Marcella, with an arch sidelong glance, turned her eyes from him to Jepson. “ How mean ye must treat him ! How ’feard o’ you-uns he do be ! ” she exclaimed with laughing irony.
A flush rose suddenly to his brow, and she saw anew how deeply wounded he had been by the ignoble and odious accusation. Little wonder, since he felt it so, that he had declared he would never forgive her.
“ I furgot he bed a stepmother,” she faltered by way of excuse.
“ I never said nuthin’ agin his step-mother,” he rejoined sternly, darkly frowning.
Bob was beginning to show signs of exhaustion. As Jepson turned toward him again Marcella gave a sudden start. She felt she had done him a grievous injustice and she repented it. With some vague apologetic intention she sought to detain him on some pretext, — on any pretext, — and she spoke upon the impulse of the moment.
“ Mus’ I tell the folks at home ez ye never wunst thunk ter inquire arter them ? ” Her eyes were dewy and bright; a faint flush was in her cheek ; the tender curves of her red lips wore a half-smiling sweetness ; as she lifted her head upward to look at him, the hair curling on her shoulders fell still further down over the dangling yellow sun-bonnet.
He turned a changed face. “ I war ’feard ter ax, Blarcelly,” he said, in his low melancholy drawl. “ I know ye feel so hard ter me ’bout’n Eli — an’ I never kin forgive myself, though I never went ter do no harm. I hear ’bout Eli constant — ’tliout hevin’ ter harry yer feelin’s by axin’ ye arter him.”
The girl felt a certain reassurance, a satisfaction that in this at least he had not changed. Since he had wrought so grievous an injury to Eli Strobe, remorse was the meet sequence. But her alert intuition presently apprehended a tone not altogether applicable to the past.
“ He air thrivin’ toler’ble, now,” she observed.
He glanced at her with the keen suspense of an unexpected hope shining in his eyes. “ Then what they say at the Settlemint ain’t true ! ”
She felt a sudden fear clutch at her heart. Her face paled — her eyes dilated.
“ What air they sayin’ agin him at the Settlemint ? ” she asked, trembling, yet roused into instant defiance.
“ ’T aint faultin’ Eli noways,” he explained anxiously. “ They 'low, though, ez his ailment hev streck his brain, an’ he hev gone deranged.”
Her short, sudden scream rang out shrilly in the dull silence of the gray afternoon. She sprang to her feet. “ Who hev tole that — who hev tole that on him ? I ’ll be bound them sly foxes at the Settlemint air plottin’ su’thin agin him. I hey won’t gin him time ter git well, an’ they don’t want ter let him be constable, what he hev done been ’lected ter be. Who hev tole it ? Who hev tole it ? ” Her eyes flashed an insistent inquiry at him and he could only reply doubtfully, —
“ I dunno, Marcelly. I jes’ beam a whole pack of ’em at the store ” — she winced visibly at the idea of this wide dissemination of the rumor — “ a-talkin’ bout’n it. But I dunno who set it a-goin’ fust.”
“I do! ” she exclaimed frantically. “ That stranger —he ’peared tickled ter death whenst he fust noticed it. Never seen a man so streck by nuthin’ in yer life. Tuk an’ felt his pulse, sir, an’ peared like he ’d rutlier hear sech foolishness talked ’n the sober wisdom o’ Sol’mon ! I war mad then — but what through bein’ called a nangel ” — She broke off suddenly. “ ’T war him — ’t war him — kase nobody else knowed it. Dad hain’t seen nobody else ’ceptin’ him an’ Andy Longwood one day, — but Andy hain’t got lamin’ enough ter feel folkses pulses an’ sense thar shortcomin’s an’ sech. ’T war him! ’T war him! Oh, ye air all alike. I never see nobody ez I take a notion air mighty good an’ fine, an’ I go round like a fool studyin’ ’bout ’em all day, but what — ef I know ’em long enough — I find out they air jes’ plain common men-folks sech ez hev been sence the worl’ began, — jes’ like Adam, rather guzzle a apple ’n bide in Paradise.” She smiled reflectively, a scornful retrospection, as if the thought of some past folly were both bitter and ludicrous.
“ Waal,” she resumed, turning upon him, “ what war they ’lowin’ at the store they war goin’ ter do ’bout’n it ? ”
He shifted his weight to the other foot, then leaned heavily on his gun. “ I hate ter tell ye, Marcelly,” he said with a low-spirited cadence. “ I hoped ’twar n’t true.”
” I mus’ know,” she asserted insistently.
“ Waal,” lie reluctantly began, “they lowed ez some o’ them ‘ smart Alecks ’ of politicians an’ sech lied gin information ez thar war a crazy in the county ez oughter be restrained o’ his liberty.” A short exclamation, little less than a scream, came from her with an accent as if it were wrung forth by physical pain. “ Ef the county court app’ints the sher’ff ter summons a jury fur a inquisition o’ lunacy, ail’ they see Eli an’ ’low he air insane, they think they kin git up perceedin’s ez will take away his office.”
She listened silently as she stood holding the empty gourd in her hand. He felt as if he were pronouncing a sentence of some terrible doom, in thus destroying her pride. She esteemed the humble office so high and noble an estate, its shattered incumbent the chief of men!
“Marcelly,” he said, “look here. No matter what ye want ter do ’bout’n it, ef ye kin do ennything, I stand ready ter help. Promise me ye ’ll let me know. Promise me ye ’ll let me help.”
She looked up at him. Her lips were compressed. Pier eyes were dry and steady. “ Help ! ” she echoed bitterly. “ It’s you-uns ez hev brung all this torment on dad. An’ now ye talk about ‘help.’ It’s too late — too late ter help.” Then she turned away.
He stood watching her as she went ; her dull greenish-brown dress was visible a long way against the tawny tints of tlie broomsedge ; the wind was rising and tossed lier hair, for her head was bare, the yellow sun-bonnet still hanging upon her shoulders. A leaden cloud was coming down the opposite mountain side, rapidly advancing across the valley; she seemed to be going to meet the storm, and suddenly it was as if she had been caught up in it. The sombre vapors enfolded her; there was a swift, transient, ocherous gleam, then she was seen no more, and the dreary sound of the invisible rain falling, falling in the beclouded valley filled all the air.
Charles Egbert Craddock.