His Vanished Star
KENNISTON’S gracious mood was not of long continuance. He was of the temperament which demands a prerequisite for good nature. Given an adequate reason to be happy, and he could show you a fine article of felicity. But his heart would not bubble with gratitude on general principles for ordinary blessings enjoyed in common by humanity at large. It was not enough for him that the fried chicken was fat; that his cigar was good ; that, as he smoked after supper on the little porch, the air was so fragrant, so fine, so dry ; that the stars were brighter for the great dark amphitheatre of mountains above whose summits, serrated against the horizon, his farreaching gaze sought them ; that Julia, as she sat on the step of the threshold, had an outline and a coiffure that he would have discriminated as classic in marble ; that every trace of the battered beauty of old “ Cap’n Lucy’s ” countenance vanished, leaving it a unique ideal for a gargoyle, when his guest chanced to intimate that he had written to the register in the county town, who had furnished him with the calls from his title deeds, and that he felt very sure that Captain Lucy had inadvertently trespassed on his neighbor’s domain. Harmoniously ugly as his countenance was, Captain Lucy’s conduct was more so.
“ Waal, sir,” he said, after an interval of stunned dismay, during which Kenniston leaned forward, drawing with his cane an imaginary line on the floor, and repeating the measurements for the boundaries from the paper in his hand, “ye an’ the register may go to hell, sir, an’ brile, sir ! ”
Captain Lucy’s face was very distinct in the light from the fire within the door, as he sat tilted back in his chair against the post of the porch, and a sudden sensation ensued amongst his household as they gazed upon him, astounded by this unprecedented breach of all the canons of hospitality. There was silence for a moment. Luther stirred uneasily, the legs of his chair rasping harshly on the rough flooring of the porch. Even Julia gave signs of having heard by turning her head slowly, with a certain interest and incipient excitement on her impassive face. Adelicia’s eyes dilated with alarm as she half rose from her seat on the step of the porch; she had grown pale; her delicate, fine little chin and her lips quivered with the agitation of the moment.
“ Oh, uncle Lucy, ye don’t mean that, — ye don’t mean that, now ! ” she urged.
“Oh, I ain’t partic’lar ez ter when!” the old man blurted out. And then he paused to chuckle in sinister fashion over his play upon the double meaning of the word “ now ” in this connection. He had a satisfaction, too, in thwarting the everready peacemaker and apologist, and in her look of balked surprise as she cogitated upon his answer.
His grimly jocose pride in his cleverness relieved the tension of the moment. It suddenly became more practicable for Kenniston to overlook his rude rage, when the circumstances rendered it hardly possible for him to take cognizance of it. His indignant repugnance to the situation was sharply manifest in his face, however, which was of an expressive type, but he compassed an offhand manner as he said, —
“ Oh, the register and I may be burned indefinitely and to your heart’s content, in due course of spiritual justice; but I fancy it won’t be the direct consequence of anything in the nature of muniments of title, and it won’t change the metes and bounds of this land by one rod. perch, or pole.”
Another voice broke into the discussion abruptly : —
“ What reason hev ye got ter ’low ez Cap’n Lucy be on yer land ? ”
The dull irradiation of the porch from the flicker of the fire within the house barely sufficed to show Lorenzo Taft’s burly form standing beside the post. His approach had been unnoticed by the group, but his question apprised them that he had joined them some moments previously, and the pawing of his mare at the gate showed that she had been hitched in anticipation of passing the evening there. In the excitement of the situation the usual greetings were dispensed with, and Kenniston not unwillingly recited anew the calls of the title papers, again sketching the boundary line with his cane on the floor, and even taking from his pocket a letter, and drawing upon the back of the envelope a miniature plat of the irregularly shaped body of land. Even in his preoccupation he could but note the intelligence of the attention which the visitor closely bent upon his exposition and the rude draught, the receptivity of his mind, the pertinence of his questions, Taft stood leaning over the back of Kenniston’s chair, his blue eyes fixed on the paper in the slim deft fingers of the draughtsman, his own brawny hand laid meditatively on his long yellow beard.
“ Of course,” said Kenniston, folding the paper, and by way of concluding the matter, “ I am ready to pay the colonel the full value of his improvements. He has only to name his price.”
The irate glance which Captain Lucy shot at him served to steady him a trifle, to tame his buoyant sense of triumph. He had an ample fund of physical courage ; that is, in his fresh, healthy, normal mental impulses he never thought of fear. But he had seldom been brought into actual personal danger, and the details of sundry lawless and furious feuds that had come to his knowledge during his stay in the mountains were brought suddenly to his remembrance by that swift, scathing look ; and he was further reminded that few of these bloody chronicles recounted so definite a provocation as the effort at eviction. Nevertheless, the sense of proprietorship was strong within him, and the active aggressiveness of a man with the coercions of that weapon in his hand, the law of the land, made his blood stir when Captain Lucy, wagging his arbitrary old head, retorted, “ An’ s’pose I say — like I hev said — ez my li’a’thstone ain’t got no price ! S’pose I won’t sell, an’ I won’t gin in, an’ I keep my line whar I know my line hev got a right ter be, — whut then, hey ? ”
But for his gray head, so did his manner and expression reach the climax of aggravation, it might have seemed righteousness to smite him. Kenniston, held in the bonds of such considerations, controlled himself with difficulty. He was unused to self-restraint, or to occasions that necessitated it. The color had overspread his face; he was hot, impatient, indignant. “ Why, then, there’s nothing for it but to procession the land and establish the boundary,” he declared.
Captain Lucy stayed in amazement. This possibility seemed never to have occurred to him as a solution.
“ Percession my lan’ ! ” he cried at last, as if the extremity of insult had been offered him. “ Percession my lan’ ! ”
His face was scarlet; his eye blazed ; his hand, held out with a gesture of insistence toward Kenniston, shook with fury.
“Or my land,” Kenniston sneered. “ ’T is n’t capital punishment. Plenty of men have survived the processioning of land, —thriven on it! My land, then; the process won’t hurt it. Get the line, — that ’s what I want.”
Once or twice Adelicia sought, in her agitation, to interpose. Now she rose and came to Captain Lucy’s side, taking hold of the shaking hand which he brought ever nearer to Kenniston’s face, who would not draw back, nor mitigate or postpone his demand, in the front of this threatening gesture. “ Oh, uncle Lucy — don’t — don’t! Sweet uncle Lucy, don’t! Thar’s room enough in the mountings fur all o’ we-uns ! Look at the mountings — how big they air — toler’ble roomy fur sure ! Don’t quar’l ’bout lan’, uncle Lucy—whenst we-uns hev got all out o’ doors fur lan’ — an’ git in a fight, mebbe, an’ git hurt, an’ ” —
“ Ad’licia,” snarled “ sweet uncle Lucy,” with a gasp, pretermitting his attentions to Kenniston to turn upon her his corrugated face,"Ad’ licia, I tole that man ez war so dead set ter marry ye I would n’t let him hev ye. But I hev changed my mind. I ’ll tell him he kin cart ye off from hyar ter-morrer, an’ welcome, mighty welcome, ef so be he ain’t changed his mind ; fur I can’t abide ye an’ yer ‘peace talks,’ like a Injun, an’ yer interferin’ with yer elders, an’ yer purtenses, no mo’ ! Thar, now ! ” he exclaimed in triumph, as she fell back quite speechless because of this disclosure of the matrimonial proposition. “ I reckon ye ’ll set down now, an’ stay set! ”
Then he turned to Kenniston with an accession of fury, the fiercer for the momentary stemming of the tide.
“ An’ I say, hyar I be, an’ yer percessionin’ don’t tech me nowhar. An’ hyar I ’ll ’bide, no matter whut ! An’ I won’t sell out, an’ I won’t take no price fur my h’a’thstone, no matter whut! ”
“ Then,” said Kenniston hotly, “ you ’ll be ejected in due process of law, — that ‘s all.”
He changed color the next moment and bit his lip, for he had put himself in a false position.
“ That ’s toler’ble tall talk ter a man under his own roof,” said Captain Lucy, suddenly cool, and not without dignity.
Kenniston was out of countenance for the nonce. He felt that there was scant grace or utility in forcing the matter, which was beyond the control of either, to this unseemly issue. He had been hurried by his impatience of contradiction and Captain Lucy’s illogical and arbitrary temper far beyond his intention. which was originally merely to propose to have the surveyor run out the boundary line in order to demonstrate for the old man’s enlightenment the fact that he was a trespasser, and to offer to pay the full value of the improvements. But he was not of the type from whom penitents are developed. The acknowledgment of being in the wrong was inexpressibly repugnant to him. Perhaps he could not have constrained himself to make it but that he foresaw the reversal of their mutual positions.
“ You ’re more than half right, colonel. I am out of place here. I feel that. And, under the circumstances, I think I had better take myself off.”
He had intended to get the better of his host. But his most cruel desire could never have sought to compass the deep humiliation of vanquishment which had befallen poor Captain Lucy. The implied reflection upon his hospitality, the consciousness that his own hasty words justified it, the receding and diminishing aspect of the provocation common to the mental vision at such moments, with the magnifying of the offense, all combined to render him a chopfallen and lugubrious old non-combatant in the space of a second. But Captain Lucy’s talent for open confession and repentance was not more marked than Kenniston’s. He sat grum, crestfallen, afflicted of mien, but silent. His keen eye had no longer an alert interest ; it was fixed with an absorbed, reflective stare on an intermediate point some two feet from the floor, with the air of insight rather than outward vision. Kenniston was not prepared, either, for the protest from the younger and ordinarily acquiescent members of the family.
“ Thar, now ! ” exclaimed the apathetic Luther, rising to the occasion like a man of this world. “ Ye hev actially got ter the p’int o’ quar’lin’ over yer old land an’ worldly goods an’ sech. An’ what diff’unce do it make ? The line is thar, no matter what air one of ye say, an’ I reckon the county surveyor air man enough ter find it. Mebbe ye ’low ye air powerful interestin’, but I ain’t listenin’ much, through wantin’ ter interjuice this hyar plumb special applejack I got this evenin’ from the crossroads. Ye ’lowed ye hed never tasted sech, Mr. Kenniston. Now try this, sir, an’ ye ’ll feel good enough ter set out an’ sing psalms an’ hymns an’ speritchul chunes the rest of the evenin’.”
Adelicia took a pitcher which the languid Julia had alertly fetched. She spoke for her, as if Julia were dumb. She looked up at Kenniston, with her delicately tinted old-fashioned oval face set in smiles.
“ Ef ye want ter temper it enny ? ” she suggested.
“ Git out’n the way. Ad’licia, with that pernicious jug o’ cold water ! ” exclaimed Luther, shoving her aside. “ Take it straight, stranger ; don’t spile the good liquor.”
The feminine members of the family had observed that Kenniston’s glass was usually diluted, and in their eagerness to facilitate peace they gave him no excuse. He hardly liked to nullify his bluster of incipient farewell by accepting this show of good fellowship and further hospitality, and yet he could not rudely repel it. He felt that both he and his host had gone too far, much farther than he had intended. Yet nevertheless his was not the nature nor the practice to overlook an affront. He took the glass, with a slight laugh and the outward show of amity, but he was determined to adhere to his threat of departure. Their interests were too adverse to make a longer sojourn appropriate ; time would render them even more inimical, and he was under no obligations to put up with indignities at the hands of Captain Lucy or any other man. Could he have thought anything humorous that affected his interests, he must have been moved by the seriocomic aspect of the old man, sedulously silent lest his tongue escape him, solemnly sampling the new liquor, — for his son had filially and with great show of courtesy waited upon him, — a sort of aged pallor upon the wrinkles of his face, where erstwhile his rage had glowed so ruddily. In drinking, Taft had unconsciously a knowing and discriminating air. He was comparing the quality of the beverage with the apple brandy of the Lost Time still. He looked very thoughtful as he lowered the glass, and let the flavor permeate his palate, and once more took a careful, considerate draught. It was more like business than pleasure. Luther himself did not indulge beyond the merest swallow for form’s sake. He was occupied in guiding the conversation clear of difficulties and bellicose suggestions ; and, considering his limited and uncouth experience. his efforts to reëstablish the decorums of peace were worthy of praise. He evidently considered that he had failed utterly when Kenniston rejoined him in the porch, after the rest of the family had retired for the night, and communicated his intention of immediate departure. “ I can make the cross-roads by daylight or breakfast time, no doubt,” he said, “ if you will let me have my horse ; and I can rest there an hour or so, and then ride on and reach the train, the night express, as it passes the tank and stops for water, about sundown.”
In vain Luther protested. Kenniston declared this his original intention. He would save time, and prevent making both journeys by daylight. “ I don’t believe I could stand the sun two days in succession, at this season. And if I like, I ’ll lie over at the cross-roads, and make another night ride.” He urged Luther to say nothing to Captain Lucy or the other members of the family, as he did not want to combat any objections to his departure. “ The old cap’n will think I bear malice, and —really I must go.”
Luther’s hesitation in the matter was a trifle nettling to a free agent. He evidently hardly liked to take the responsibility of acting without the autocratic paternal concurrence. Kenniston himself felt the irking of leading-strings. “ Cap’n Lucy or no Cap’n Lucy, I’m going,” he said to himself, making a dash for liberty, as it were. “ I believe the man thinks Cap’n Lucy owns the earth.”
Luther’s obduracy gave way presently, although he persisted in saddling his own horse, also, and accompanying his guest as far as the cross-roads, Kenniston was oppressed with the sense of so punctilious a host, and the long ride in the dewy night, along the deserted roads, under the white silent stars, would have accorded better with his humor had he been solitary. But the freshening wind that came with the daybreak had a sense of liberty in the broad spread of its wings. Under the slow revelation of the clear gray skies of dawn, he marked how far the tumult of its flight extended in the stirring of the forests on the mountain sides, awakening from the lethargies of the night, He experienced a certain quickening interest in the unrolling of an unfamiliar landscape from the obscurities of the darkness. He had a keen zest for its beauty, the splendid symmetry of its setting amidst a new and strange conformation of the mountains ; he was responsive. too. to that touch of pensive melancholy, that sense of loss, which one must feel in noting the day-star fade, the quenching of that white, tremulous, supernal lustre in the midst of the roseate mists; but his strong mundane heart stirred to see the sun sail majestically up amidst the full argosy of scarlet and amber clouds, freighted with the future, and the breathless expectation of the quiescent landscape merge into the certainty of largess to the present moment. And he had a yet deeper satisfaction : he noted the inferiority of the magnificence about him to the scene he had left, his own, his very own, and he dwelt upon the recollection of it with a personal triumph, as if he had himself designed and budded it. It was with an influx of hopefulness, of content, of renewed interest in the world, that he shook hands with Luther, glad enough to part with him.
The mountaineer looked after him with a certain wistfulness. His experience was too limited, his idea of the world beyond too vague, for his thoughts to follow the traveler. It was only the sudden dim perception of that fresh, vital, alert turning to fields beyond his ken that smote upon him with a sense of deprivation or of discontent, too subtle to be definitely discriminated.
It was, fortunately, fleeting. Luther’s satisfaction to discover that old Captain Lucy approved of his course, and in fact was secretly pleased to be rid of Kenniston’s presence, dominated every other consideration. As the day wore on. the old man’s jaunty self - importance returned. From various, meditative pauses, in which he evidently argued anew the situation, he visibly derived self-justification. He was altogether at ease and himself again in an indefinitely short time, for the father was hardly more worldly-wise than the son. He considered Kenniston’s departure final. He assumed that his taunt and his sturdy resistance had bluffed the man off from the design of processioning the land, which, being a thing undreamed of hitherto, Captain Lucy vaguely feared, albeit sure enough that he stood well within his own boundaries. As time went by without incident or news, he began even to speak of the projected hotel as a thing of the past, a sort of mental mirage of a crackbrained visionary.
It came upon him, therefore, with the force of an unexpected blow when Luther one day burst into the house with a paper in his hand giving notice of the proposed processioning, and blurted out that he had seen the public notice posted, according to law, at the voting-place of the district, which was the gristmill on Tomahawk Creek.
Captain Lucy, lapsed in the soft securities of peace, was stunned for a moment. That valiant essence, his temper, of all his faculties recovered its vitality first. He mounted his horse and rode to Sawyer’s Mill, where, confronting the obnoxious notice, conspicuous upon the doorpost, he stood for a moment, the centre of a curious group of idlers, frowningly contemplating it ; then, with a single irate gesture, he promptly tore it down, in defiance of the law. He silently got upon his horse and rode away, leaving Luther and the kindly miller to patch the fragments together, and to replace the notice as before, where, the fractions not perfectly adjusted, it haltingly and disconnectedly continued to proclaim the date, some twenty days hence, when said Kenneth J. Kenniston designed to cause his land to be processioned, stating the corner at which he intended to begin, to ascertain and establish its boundary line.
Kenniston’s absence, however. Captain Lucy still appreciated as a boon. He was free to flounder about amongst the dense jungles of the laurel, “ huntin’ fur the line ez ef ’t war hid ’mongst the bushes like a rattlesnake, an’ he mought find it by hearin’ it rattle,” Luther observed, with his first unfilial criticism. Since the full value of the improvements would doubtless he paid, should it be ascertained that the land was Kenniston’s, the son could only think it a matter of inconvenience to be obliged to move, and a misfortune to that extent. But he regarded the contingency as untenable as a casus belli, having no realization of the reserves of obduracy in Captain Lucy’s mind, or of that aversion to change so characteristic of the home-loving aged. He deemed the surveyor the fit discoverer of the line, and deprecated his father’s long jaunts up and down the mountain from one “ monument of boundary” to the other; for since there was no adversary to relish the spectacle, Captain Lucy’s pride did not preclude him from daily patrolling the extent of his possessions so far as his strength and his horse’s legs might serve. But Luther came to think this a frivolous objection indeed, in comparison with his view of his father’s standpoint later.
One day Captain Lucy rode up to the side of the cornfield, a late planting, where Luther, with a bull-tongue plough, was industriously engaged in bustin out the middles,” since the land had been planted, in view of the backwardness of the season, without the preliminary breaking up.” The young man reluctantly came to the fence, his ruddy countenance shadowy glimpsed beneath his broad-brimmed hat.
“ Mount an’ kem along straight,” commanded his father.
Obedience, implicit and unquestioning, had been Luther’s lifelong habit. He looked with desperation at his suffering corn. “ Why, dad, I ain t got on no shoes,” he ventured to urge.
“ I ain’t keerin’ ef ye ain’t got on no skin,” the arbitrary elder declared. “ Git on yer beastis an’ kem along with me.”
The surprised old plough horse was released, and, with his clanging gear still rattling about, him. and his owner on his saddleless back, began to take his way. following Captain Lucy’s lead, up the precipitous slope of the mountain. The dark forests closed high above their heads. The transition from the glare of the noontide of the open field to the chill twilight of the shade was grateful to the senses. The undergrowth and the jungle of the laurel seemed wellnigh impenetrable, except indeed for the traces in broken boughs and bruised leaves of Captain Lucy’s former transits. They had journeyed nearly to the summit, and Luther was ruefully meditating on the loss of two good hours of farming weather, when the old man turned his head, glanced over his shoulder, and drew rein.
“ Luther,” he said, excitement shining in his blue eyes and the color rejuvenating his face, “ ye know that Kenn’ston ’lows his southeast corner air at. that boulder ‘ known ez Big Hollow Boulder,’ ” — he quoted from the notice with a sneer, — “ ez ef it could hev been known ez a peegeon-aig boulder or seeh.”
Luther nodded in surprise.
“ Waal, he gins notice ez he begins thar.”
Luther nodded again in assent.
Waal, sir, that thar boulder hev been moved.”
The young man stared for a moment. Then a blank alarm settled on his face.
Why, dad, it’s onpossible ! ” he exclaimed.
“ Kem an’ see! Kem an’ see.” And Captain Lucy rode on as before.
Luther was never sure whether he really came upon the old landmark earlier than he expected to see it, or whether the anticipation of something novel and incongruous colored his mind. There it was, presently, lying on the steep slope in the midst of the wilderness, as he had always known it, — a vast boulder, weighing many tons, with a cavity in it which almost pierced through its bulk, and was large enough to accommodate a man standing at full height. The slope above was bare, for it was near the bald of the mountain, and with outcropping ledges of rock; athwart these several trees were lying, one apparently old and lightning-scathed long ago, the others freshly storm-riven, for the winds had raged in a recent tempest, and instances of its fury were elsewhere visible in broken branches in the woods.
“ The wind could n’t hev done it,” observed Luther, as his father pointed at the boulder with a wave of the hand.
“ Wind ? — ye sodden idjit! ”
“ ’Pears like ter me it air whar it always war,” said Luther, seeking refuge in conservatism from the hazards of conjecture.
“ Luther,” said his father impressively, “I know that thar rock war the fust thing my gran’dad viewed in Tennessee, whenst he wagoned ’crost the range ter settle. I hev hearn him say that word time an’ agin. He said he struck camp by it, ’count o’ the spring close by, up over thar. I hev knowed it familiar fur better ’n fifty year, an’ I tell ye ez it useter war around the curve o’ the bend o’ the mounting up over thar, a-nigh the spring.”
“ Hev ye viewed that spot lately?” asked Luther, drawing his horse to one side, and gazing blankly at the big hollow boulder.
“ Nuthin’ ter view, — jes’ rock an’ laidges an’ sech.”
“ Why, dad, how could it hev kem down hyar ? ” demanded Luther.
Old Captain Lucy broke into a high, derisive laugh.
“ Ax Mr. Kenn’ston ; don’t ax me. I ain’t ’quainted with them things he talks ’bout by the yard medjure, — ’splosives an’ giant powder an’ daminite.” (Thus Captain Lucy profanely denominated a certain cogent compound.) “ Enny one o’ them would be ekal ter fetchin’ the rock ‘known ez Big Hollow Boulder’ down hyar whar he wants it to be.”
“ Whut fur, dad ?” demanded Luther.
“ Whut fur, ye fool ? Ter make the line run ter suit him, ter take my house an’ lot an’ sech in his boundary, ter turn me out’n house an’ home ter suit his pleasure ! He can’t buy it, so he ’s a-fixin’ ter take it, — take it by changing the corner fur the start o’ the survey.”
His eyes dilated with anger, and his chin shook with the weakness of age and the vehemence of his emotion.
Luther’s face grew grave. “ That’s agin the law, ain’t it ? ”
“ Ter move corner lan’marks or monimints o’ boundaries air a felony, that’s whut,” said Captain Lucy, cavalierly swinging his feet in his stirrups. “ Mr. Kenn’ston hed better gin keerful heed ter his steps.”
He grinned fiercely as he took up the reins, and, followed by the astounded, dismayed, and ruminating Luther, fared cheerfully enough down the mountain.
The roof beneath which Jack Espey had found shelter was the readiest expression of hospitality. Its several expansions beyond its builder’s original gambrel design were betokened by the incongruity of the additions, and the varying tints and fashion of the warped and worn old clapboards. Two shed-rooms were obviously of a later date than the clank and mossy covering of the main building ; a queer projection above a modern porch exhibited an aboriginal inspiration correlated to a dormer window, albeit lacking the aperture; a section of the limited porch itself was boarded up to serve further as house-room ; and a valiant disregard of the possibility of leakage characterized the intrepid domestic architect. It further differed from the conventional roofs of the district in its surroundings. In lieu of the bare dooryard and the neighboring fields, or the low tangle of peach and apple orchards, great forest trees loomed above it, the gigantic poplar and white oak of the region ; for the space about it was rugged with the outcropping rock that sheered off further down into the great precipice on the mountain slope, precluding the possibility of cultivation. An exhaustless freestone spring burst out from the rocks close at hand, the reason of the selection of its vicinity as a building-site, and the “gyardin spot” and the cornfields were lower down the slope at the side, out of view amidst the clustering foliage. So little industrial were the suggestions that hung about it, so allied was it in its rough, gray, mossy aspect to the rugged bark and gnarled boles of the great trees, that it too might haye seemed some spontaneous production of the soil, as it rose from the ledges of the rock, mossy and gray and rugged, too, like the rest. It had an intimation, also, of an aspiration toward higher things, as it, like the trees, gazed out upon the environing lofty seclusion of the mountains, the very inner sanctuary of nature; for, save the mystic mist, or the sun and the pursuing shadow, or the vagrant wind, naught ventured into that vast semicircle of mountains and intermediate valleys that lay before it, refulgent with color, massive, multitudinous, illimitable, the compass of the human vision failing to trace further than the far horizon the endless ranges still rising tier upon tier.
Whether the inmates of the house consciously derived aught from the scene, from its calm, its splendor of extent that might widen the imagination in looking upon it, its vast resources of suggestion, one of them spent many idle hours in gazing upon it. Often Jack Espey lay all the forenoon upon the hay in the loft of the little barn, watching through the bare logs, guiltless of “‘chinking,” the shadows dwindling on the hazy indented slopes, blue in the sunshine, amethyst in the shade. The white clouds would sail when the wind set fair, or in still noontides would lie at anchor off the great shimmering domes. Sometimes these loiterings were prolonged till the pageants of sunset-tide were on the march along the great purple western slopes, and from the shipping of the skies floated every pennant of splendid color; the sun, with the burnished dazzling quality quenched in the great blood-red sphere, would go slowly dropping down behind the western ranges, leaving the sky of a delicate amber tint with scarlet strata, amongst which incongruous gorgeousness the evening star would shine with a pure, pensive white radiance. The loft of the flimsy little barn, but now all aglow with bars of gold alternating with brown shadow as the sunlight fell between the logs, gilding even the tissues of cobweb and the masses of hay, would sink into a dull, dusky monochrome. A shadow would seem to fall upon his spirit. The anxiety to which the contemplative, languorous idleness had granted surcease roused itself anew; the voices from the house, never silent, were reasserted upon his attention, and the necessity would supervene of joining the family circle, — a necessity sometimes infinitely repugnant to his troubled soul, craving solitude for its indulgence of woe, and hardly able to maintain the cheerful disguise which must needs screen it.
So poor were his arts of deception that perhaps they would scarcely have served his purpose elsewhere, but here he and his peculiarities were given scant heed. He could not have found another domicile, in all the length and breadth of the country, where he could have been installed and have excited so little attention and curiosity. And indeed, to Mrs. Larrabee, the head of the house, he was only one more in addition to the rest of the tribe that must be warmed and fed and housed, or, as she expressed it, “tucked away somewhar.” She always was equal to the emergency, although whenever Espey entered the large circle about the fireside it seemed to have been recruited somewhere, and more numerous than at his last survey.
“ Ye ’pear ter hev a eornsider’ble head o’ humans hyar, Mis’ Haight,” he observed on one occasion to the old grandam who sat in the corner, the stepmother-in-law of Mrs. Larrabee, and whose reproval seemed the natural incident of all that her daughter-in-law did. The world had gone much awry with her, after the mundane manner, and in the evening of her days she had neither the softening influence of religion nor the resources of culture to mitigate the asperities of the result.
“ In course, — in course ! ” she exclaimed rancorously, gazing at him over her spectacles with little dark eyes, the brighter for exasperation. “ Thar’s me an’ my ole man, —he ’s got the palsy,” as if this rendered him more numerous; “ an’ thar’s Jerushy, my darter, an’ her chil’n, five, an’ her husband ; an’ S’briny Lar’bee herself, an’ her son Jasper. An’ ez ef that war n’t enough, she hearn ez Henrietty Timson’s husband war dead, an’ they war burnt out an’ hed no home, so S’briny Lar’bee jes’ wagons down the mounting an’ brung ’em hyar tor stay, seben of ‘em, — seben with thar mammy makes eight. S’briny jes’ tucks ’em away somehows. ez she ’lows, in this hyar leetle house ! ” She sneered toothlessly, then laughed aloud. Suddenly she leaned forward, and, with her knitting needle in her hand, pointed at the group of floundering children. “ See that thar brat, the leetlest one ? ”
Espey, turning in his chair, descried a tow-head bobbing not far above the floor. The significant eye of the old woman fixed him as if reciting an enormity.
“ He war a infant whenst he kem,— a ill-convenient infant in arms, with the rickets ! ”
As the subject of this criticism scampered out of the crowd, with a single unbleached cotton garment on, very rotund as to trunk, very fat and cherubic as to legs, very loud and blatant as to voice, very arrogant and impudent as to manner, the young man was moved to remark that he “’peared toler’ble hearty now.”
“ Course he do,” she assented,
“ through a-gormandizin’ of so much fat meat; scandalous, impident shoat, — ez well ez a bear ! ”
She loved a quiet life, did Mrs. Haight. She had been an only daughter. She had had only two children. She had always had her house to herself; and in this congregation of incongruous elements around her widowed daughter-inlaw’s hearth she beheld only inconvenience, perversity, and an unfilial disregard of her own very sage advice. It had even been advanced to exclude her own daughter.
“ Let Jerushy’s husband take keer o’ her. She would marry him, spite o’ all. Let her ’bide by her ch’ice.”
But poor Jerusha’s husband was a drunkard, and the forlorn household had suffered hardship and very nearly grazed starvation before they made their happy advent into this populous haven.
There were certain sensitive thrills of pride and shame in the fugitive’s heart, as he listened to this arraignment of the numbers crowded about the hospitable hearth. He said to himself, in justification, that he was only one more among so many, but he felt that he was an imposition. There was no such thought, however, in Mrs. Haight’s mind. She regarded him only as a visitor, a personable young man, and moreover as possessing a certain unique interest for her ; for in her youth she had spent some days in Tanglefoot Cove, and, despite the wide diversity of their age, occupation, and outlook at life, they passed sundry companionable hours in gossiping of the people of that locality, and detailing the various chances that had befallen families known to both. During these sessions he was wont to hold her yarn for her to wind. She never slipped the hank across his wrists that he did not bethink himself of other wristlets destined for him, perchance, and made of sterner stuff. He was prone to be silent for a time during the winding of the skeins, but she improved the opportunity to talk to an attentive listener; for Sabrina was too liable to interruptions from her various charges to meet her somewhat exacting demands as an interlocutor, and she was at scornful variance with the other elders of the family.
“ Mis’ Lar’bee ’pears ter be fond o’ comp’ny,’’ said Jack, as he leaned forward, with his submissive hands outstretched for the yarn.
The old woman, peering keenly through her spectacles as she sought to find the end of the thread,—she had a cautious, skillful, alert air, as of a trapper, — paused suddenly, her knotted, withered hand poised like a claw.
“ ’T ain’t that! ” she exclaimed scornfully. “ Nothin’ like it! Ye reckon enny ’oman in her senses likes sech ez that ? ”
She nodded acrimoniously, and Jack, following the direction of her eye,glanced over his shoulder at the turmoil of towheads scuffling together in the flickering firelight. Supper was in course of preparation, and they were even noisier at this glad prospect than their wont. One of them, under cover of Espey’s preoccupation. had approached, and, slipping his hand under the arm held out for the skein, was venturing slyly to touch the pistols in his belt, with all the greed of the small boy for deadly weapons. Espey. his white hat far back on his head, looked down upon him, his suddenly scowling face all unshaded, and the little mountaineer fell back affrighted and in dismay; for, despite his humble estate in life, he had encountered few frowns.
“ Naw, S’briny’s reason ain’t got no reason in it.” Mrs. Haight had begun the winding now, and the red ball was whirling, ever larger, in her nimble fingers. “ She jes’ hed a son kilt in the wars. Leastwise the tale ez kem back war that he war wounded in a scrimmage, terrible ; an’ his folks war all on the run. An’ he crawled ter a house nigh by, an’ the ’oman tuk him in. An’ he died in her house stiddier on the groun’ or in a fence corner. That war the tale. S’briny never could find out who war the ’oman, nor edzac’ly whar it happened. But sence then, ter pay back her debt, she takes ’em all in, an’ whenst they gits too crowded she knocks up a shed or suthin’ an’ packs ’em in ; whenst like ez not the ‘oman lef’ Alvin ter die on the hard, cold groun’, an’ mebbe sot the dogs on him ter hurry the job.”
There was silence for a few moments, while the firelight flickered upon Espey’s absorbed eyes and intent, listening figure. The wrinkled, parchment-like face of the old woman was partly in the shadow as she sat in the corner, but her spectacles gleamed with unwonted brilliancy as she actively moved and nodded her head under her big ruffled cap.
“ S’briny say, too, ez old pa’son Jenks say ez ye mought entertain angels unaware. An’ I say, then agin ye mought n’t! Fur ef enny o’ these hyar that S’briny hev entertained air angels, they air powerful peart at hidin’ it, sure ! ”
Once more she cast a caustic glance at the group, and her sarcastic laughter fell upon the air, sharply treble.
If celestial visitants, these were certainly well disguised. He glanced at the bloated face of the inebriate husband of Jerusha, tremulous, full of sudden fits and starts; at Jerusha herself, slatternly, slothful, and down at the heel, a snuff brush in her mouth, and her forlorn discontent with life in general on her weak, flabby face ; at the old feebleminded man dozing and muttering in the corner, — he had once in his life worked in the Lost Time mine, and he sometimes gave Espey a sudden start by bringing out the name with a deep, full, blood-curdling curse. Henrietta Timson’s thankfulness had merged into a suspicion that too much gratitude was expected of her, and she was prone to magnify the lighter tasks which she selected, and went about with an overworked, drudging air, and with some distinct proclivity for the rôle of martyr. It was a furtive, jealous eye which she cast upon Mrs. Larrabee, at home, competent, and emphatically in command. The children, nevertheless, were disposed to take undue advantage of their protectress ; and the smaller they were, the more capable, by reason of her leniency, of imposing upon her. This disposition characterized even an infant turkey which had contracted some disease by exposure to the inclemency of the weather, and, being put into a basket of cotton to recuperate, found its way out, from time to time, with a cotton girdle adhering about its middle, and, with a fifelike voice, made the grand tour of the hearth, in imminent danger of catching fire in its cotton gear, causing her acute anguish lest it should be baked alive and before its time.
Even Mrs. Larrabee herself, — if there were aught spiritual about her, it must have been in the ends of her fingers. She was much given to wearing a sunbonnet, in the depths of which her thin, pallid face had a look like marble, with its keen, straight features. Her busy eye had not casual observation : she looked at the children to see if they were sick or cold or hungry; at Jerusha’s husband to descry if perchance he were drunk again ; at Jack Espey to discover if he wanted aught, and if he had no want or ailment she noticed him not at all. He could hardly have been more free to come and go as he would, and the long hours when he and Larrabee were away at the still passed altogether without remark. It was nevertheless to her that he resolved to open his heart. The door was ajar, and he could see that the long, loitering summer night had come at last. Through the gap in the trees the stars were visible, glowing white above the sombre mountains in the distance ; he could not distinguish a constellation, — only a whorl of brilliant stellular points of light in the scant interval where the black leaves of the oak, as distinct and as dark as if cut of bronze, failed to fill the space between the threshold and the zenith. It was not long now before she would be at leisure, and sleep would silence the juvenile members of the family, except indeed the turkey, which, though unclassified amongst nocturnal fowl, was wont to pipe lugubriously in the dead watches of the night, necessitating the uprising of the mistress of the house with a draught of water and a light lunch of corn-meal batter to compose it once more to slumber. As Espey observed it gadding about on its long legs, disproportioned to the size of its body even when begirt with the cotton batting, he sagely thought that Mrs. Larrabee’s tolerance toward its exacting idiosyncrasies was the result of no sense of obligation to it or its kind. “ She’s a powerful good-hearted woman, and smart, too,” he said to himself; “ she’s got enough sense ter hev some feelin’s.”
The evening, passed in winding the yarn, wore slowly away to him after his resolve. He was very taciturn and still, and Mrs. Haight, finding so acquiescent a coadjutor, grew industrious, and hank succeeded hank upon his motionless and submissive wrists. His silence did not discourage her How of words. On the contrary, it assumed the narrative form in lieu of their usual dialogue ; and as the fervor of reminiscence waxed, her small black eyes grew brighter, her parchmentlike cheek flushed, and, with her red “ shoulder shawl ” and big white cap and snowy hair and blue apron, she looked like some fairy godmother. And indeed, as she briskly wound the thread, now blue, now red, and again gray “ clouded ” with white, it might have seemed that she wielded some sorcery to reduce to the humble fireside utility this wild-eyed, defiant spirit. The young desperado, his belt stuck full of weapons, was oddly at variance with the solicitude which he now and again exhibited when a troublous tangle developed, and the thread perversely knotted and broke. The firelight that flickered on his face, the fairer from his sojourn in the sunless depths of the Lost Time mine, his great boots and spurs, his pliant attitude and submissive gestures, and his aged and incongruous companion served also to show what speed was made in disposing of the youthful gentry for the night. With that perverse disinclination for bedtime which betrays the old Adam in the youngest infant, they severally resisted, each to the best of his very respectable capacity. One or two of tender years, having been hustled up the ladder to the loft, came down again in scant attire, and he who had triumphed over the rickets, and whose bed was in a box, resuscitated himself from amongst the bedclothes whenever he was stowed away, but finally was overtaken, and fell asleep on the old house-dog’s neck as he lay snoring on the hearth.
Espey was of that type of man to whom juvenility is neither comical nor alluring. Duty was revealed to him in graduated doses adapted to the age of the taker, and he was disposed to make no allowance to infants for delinquency. It seemed to him that Mrs. Larrabee’s patience was much misplaced, and he now and again gazed with unkindly eyes at the group. He was obliged to linger long before she was at leisure, and sitting in front of the hearth with the shovel in her hand, ready to heap the ashes over the coals to keep the fire till day. The two beds in the room were edged with the tow-heads of the children, sleeping crosswise ; the baby’s box-crib and the turkey’s basket had each its wonted occupant.; and if the dreams that went up from the conclave could have been materialized, wliat a wild display of phantasmagoria they would have made ! The door had been barred up against the possible marauder of the elder’s apprehension, and the black bear of juvenile dread. The shadows of the two loiterers were on the red, dully illumined ceiling, two gigantic, distorted heads of dusky brown.
“ I war sorter waitin’ fur Jasper,” observed Espey disingenuously, having noticed that Mrs. Larrabee looked inquiringly at him. “ I reckon he be a-visitin’ down at Tems’s.”
“ Mebbe so,” she acquiesced succinctly, rasping the shovel on the hearth. She seemed indisposed for conversation.
“ Mis’ Haight’s mighty good comp’ny,” he continued, leaning sideways in his chair, with his elbow on its back as he supported his head in his hand. “ Talkin’ ’bout old times, an’ her courtin’ days, an’ sech.”
For, according to Mrs. Haight’s own account, she had been a truculent heartbreaker in her heyday. There were few names that one might mention, native to her locality, which she could not have worn had she chosen. She always alluded cavalierly to the husband she had and to the one she had lost as “toler’ble samples o’ the whole b’ilin’.”
Mrs. Larrabee’s immobile face was more inexpressive than before, as the red light sought it out in the depths of her sunbonnet. She had her secret doubts as to this wholesale destruction of the peace of youth a half century before.
“ Toler’ble interestin’ ter me ! ” protested Espey suddenly. “ I hev been sorter in love myse’f — leastwise ” — He did not continue to qualify, for Mrs. Larrabee turned her face, illumined by maternal interest, upon him. “It’s gin me a heap o’ trouble, too,” he broke out impetuously, divining her sympathy.
She was looking at him tenderly, remembering her own youth and her own young lover, dead and gone this many a year. Jacob Larrabee had, in happier days, laughed retrospectively at his own lackadaisical woe and wakeful nights and anxious doubts. “ Sech a funny fool I war. Thar may hev been ez big fools, but I ‘ll swar I war the funniest.” But his woe had always appealed to her commiseration, and she was glad she had consciously been no factor in it. “ I would n’t hev hed ye so tormented fur nuthin’, Jacob, ef I hed knowed,” she would say gently.
Jack’s young face, worn with fiercer griefs and turmoils and keener fears, was appealing in its anxious lines ; her warm motherly heart went out to him. He leaned his hands on his knees, and assumed a confidential tone.
“ Now, Mis’ Lar’bee,” he said, “ I ’lowed I ’d ax ye what this hyar gal means. I hev done everything I knowed how ter please her, — even whenst she tole me ter go a-perlitin’ around another gal. I done jes’ like she ordered, an’ what ye s’pose she done ? ”
“ What ? ” demanded his partisan confidante angrily, knitting her brows heavily.
“ She hit me.”
“ Did she hurt ye ? ” exclaimed Mrs. Larrabee sympathetically, dropping her voice in contemplation of the enormity.
Remembering the relative proportions and force of Adelicia and himself, Espey and his woe were out of countenance for the nonce. He laughed a little sheepishly. “ Naw,” he admitted reluctantly. “ She did n’t hurt me none ter speak on.”
Mrs. Larrabee’s brow cleared. “Sonny, ‘t war jes’ love-licks,” she suggested, in old-fashioned maternal phrase.
“ Naw, sir ! Naw, sir ! ” Espey shook his head with grave protest. “ She war too leetle ter hurt me, she war bound ter know. She jes’ wanted ter hurt my feelin’s. An’ she done it, too.”
Mrs. Larrabee’s face was all commiseration ; and suddenly a truly feminine curiosity became manifest. “ Whar do the gal live ? Hyaiabouts or in Tanglefoot ? ”
However far a man may trust a woman, he never trusts her completely. Jack Espey caught himself sharply. “ It’s fur off, — mighty fur, ’pears like ter me,” he said mendaciously. “ Now, Mis’ Lar’bee, I wants ter git yer advices. What ails the gal ter treat me that-a-way, jes’ ’kase I done her bid an’ gin the t’other gal good-evenin’, full perlite like she told me ter do ? What ails her ? ”
“ Pride,” said Mrs. Larrabee sternly. She could be severe enough with people whom she did not see, and her mental image of a buxom termagant was far enough removed from the fragile and shrinking Adelicia.
Espey looked at her with doubtful, troubled eyes. “Jes’ turned on me an’ smit me!” he protested. “I feel like I ’ll never git over that lick. I ’ll die of it yit! ”
“ Pride ! ” fiercely reiterated Mrs. Larrabee. “ An’ ef ye wanter make her repent it, ye jes’ perlite up the t’other gal fur true ! Whenst I went back ter Tanglefoot Cove, I ’d show sech manners ez it ain’t used ter,—ye’d better b’lieve I would. That thar gal ’lows she kin git ye too easy, too powerful cheap. T’other gal good lookin’ ? ”
“ Waal,” drawled Espey uneasily, evidently contemplating apprehensively this heroic treatment for the small smiter, “ nobody don’t look party ter me but one, an’ she’s plumb beautiful, ter my mind.”
“ Oh, shucks ! ” Mrs. Larrabee exhorted him scornfully.
“ T’other gal hev got the name of it, though,” he said reluctantly, plainly jealous for the preëminence of his lady love. “ T’other gal is named a reg’lar gyardin lily fur beauty.”
“ Waal, then, perlitin’ ’round her won’t go so turrible hard with ye,” said Mrs. Larrabee discerningly. “ Though mebbe ye hed better let the ‘ gyardin lily’ inter the secret, ’kase she mought fall in love with ye an’ yer perliteness.”
But Jack Espey shook his head ; he had bitter cause to distrust candor. “ I can’t go ’round warnin’ the gals off’n me,” he said sturdily. “ Ef she falls in love with me, she ’ll jes’ hev ter fall out agin, that’s all.”
He sat for a little time gazing moodily at the fire, and contemplating the details of this scheme of reprisal. Then, with a curt good-night, he rose and tramped off to the roof-room, which he shared with Jasper and a delegation of the larger boys ; leaving Mrs. Larrabee covering the embers, and pausing now and again, as she knelt on the hearth, with the red light on her statuesque features, to ponder on the lover of her past youthful days, and the sensible advice she had given Jack Espey to reduce the inordinate pride of the arrogant, arbitrary damsel of his heart in Tanglefoot Cove.
But the bars so stoutly made fast against the door were not destined to keep their place that night. The moon had long before slipped from the vaguely illumined limited space of the sky, which her own light had rendered faintly blue, down behind a jutting crag of the western mountains; it glowed a sombre purple as the crescent passed, with a pearly gleaming mist half revealed against the black summits about it. The white stars, whiter still, pulsated in the darkening sky. So pervasive a sense of silence was in their mute splendor that even the benighted mountain wilderness seemed to assert many voices, strange, murmurous, unknown to the light. Espey, stretched upon his pallet in the recess of the dormer window above the porch, with his wakeful, troublous thoughts, languidly sought to differentiate the sounds, He heeded the rustle of a vagrant zephyr, the twitter of a nestling, the murmur of the spring in the rocks near at hand, the never silent chirring of the cicada of the Southern summer night. But what was it in the insensate world of crag and forest and mountain and chasm that drew a long breath, and paused, and once more sighed heavily, and again resigned itself to silence? He could see in the rifts of the clapboards above his head a palpitating white star, — how its heart of fire beat! He felt his own pulses throb heavily, and the next moment they seemed to cease. A new sound intruded into the monotony of the mountain stillness. He heard it once far away, and then silence. He lifted himself upon his elbow and listened, with dilating eyes. Only the sense of the noiseless dewfall, the cracking of a sun-dried clapboard, the swift scurrying of a mouse amongst the rafters, and once more silence, or that mysterious voice of the night which rose and fell in the cadence of sighs. He was about to lie down when the sound came again,— distinct this time, unmistakable, so close at hand that it seemed the very malice of fate that he should not have distinguished it earlier. It was the hoofbeat of horses, and they came at a swift gallop, — so swift that he had hardly a moment to take counsel with himself, in a turmoil of doubt and fear; his foot was barely on the stairway when a heavy tread fell upon the little porch, and a sturdy fist thundered at the door.
Into the dusky red darkness of the room below — for the glow of the embers could hardly be reckoned as light —a feeble white glimmer was stealing. Mrs. Larrabee, without her sunbonnet for once, had hustled on her homespun dress, buttoned all awry, and was striking a light for a tallow dip. Perhaps its dim flicker revealed the young man standing high in the deep shadows, on the stair that led to the roof-room, or perhaps she only distinguished his step in the midst of the clamor at the door, for she called out suddenly to him, “ Open the door, Jack, open the door, sonny, no matter who it be ! Every chile in the house will be a-swarming up d’rectly ef that thar bangin’ be ’lowed ter go on, an’ I reckon we ‘ll never git the baby inter bed agin ! ”
The turkey was already awake and alert, its piercing pipe adding to the confusion and nervous stress of the situation, as Jack Espey, after one irresolute moment, strode to the door, and Mrs. Larrabee rose from her knees on the hearth and stood in the dusky brown background, shading with her hand the timorous flame of the candle.
Perhaps it was well for Jack Espey that the bars went down with so resolute and hearty a clangor, for, as he confronted the men at the door, they did not doubt that they faced the son of the house.
“ Widder Lar’bee lives hyar ? ” said a keen, tall, dark-eyed man, with high cheek-bones and a hooked nose, above which his thick black eyebrows met. His soft black hat had a sort of peaked crown, and he wore a suit of plaided “ store clothes,” as befitted one having access to the towns, but which were much creased, and his boots were drawn, country fashion, over his trousers to the knees.
“ Air that enny reason ter bust the door down ? ” demanded Espey, looking at the stout battens as if expecting to discern injury as it swayed in his hand.
Mrs. Larrabee interposed blandly, “ I be Widder Lar’bee. ’T ain’t no use ter talk loud. I got some mighty fractious chil’n hyar ’sleep.”
The fractious turkey stood upon the hearth and piped till the end of its tail quivered with the energy of its vocalization. A cricket was shrilling keenly. The trivial sounds seemed to throb in Espey’s brain when the visitor said, “ I be a dep’ty sher’ff o’ Cher’kee County, Mis’ Lar’bee, an’ I hear ez thar war a stranger in the Cove a-puttin’ up hyar.”
The two men behind the officer looked over his shoulder, their bearded faces keenly inquisitive.
“ Naw, sir, I ain’t got no stranger hyar ; not but whut I would take ’em in, — me an’ my son hev made a rule o’ that, — but we-uns bide too fur off’n the road.” She did not account Espey a stranger, so accustomed a figure had he become in the domestic circle.
There was a definite disappointment in the officer’s keen, high-featured face.
Mrs. Larrabee turned to Espey. “Ye ain’t hearn o’ enny stray man hyarabouts, hev ye, sonny ? ”
“ Thar be a stranger down at Tems’s,” said Espey ; “ though I reckon he ain’t done nuthin’ agin the law, — saaft-spoken an’ perlite an’ peaceable.”
The high-featured face was contorted in a jocose grimace, to which the meeting of the black eyebrows gave a singularly sinister effect. Espey felt his heart sink as the official winked at him.
“ Perliteness would hev been wuth mo’ ter this man ef he could hev showed manners sooner. War mighty onpolite indeed in Tanglefoot Cove, Mis’ Lar’bee, an’ shot a man.”
“ Kilt him ? ” she demanded in a bated voice, and turning pale. She held the candle awry, as she spoke, and the flickering light of the tallow melting and dripping heavily on the floor showed only her own straight features and masses of brown hair, dulled with gray, coiled at the back of her head.
Espey’s overladen heart thumped heavily. The cold drops stood thick on his face, all in the shadow, white and drawn with suspense.
“ In an’ about, — a sorter livin’ death. An’ sence he hev got so much worse his folks want the malefactor apprehended straight. We hearn ez he air hyarabouts or in Persimmon Cove, one. An’ ez the constable o’ this deestric’ air sick abed, — ailin’ ole cattle like him ought n’t ter be ’lowed ter hold office!—the high sher’ff sent me ter look arter him, ef I could come up with him. Waal,” — he was turning away, — “I’m sorry I hed ter roust ye and yer son up this time o’ night.”
Mrs. Larrabee took no note of this misdescription. Her thoughts were engrossed by a sudden hospitable intention.
“ Would n’t a bite an’ a sup hearten ye up sorter, arter so much ridin’ in the night wind?” she drawled amiably.
The deputy, despite his lean, lank, illnourished air, was susceptible to the allurements of the pleasures of the table. He hesitated, and a very little urgency sufficed to induct him into a chair by the side of the fire, while Mrs. Larrabee ransacked her stores for the bite and sup, which were more easily promised than provided.
He was new to his office, and disposed to magnify its dignities and difficulties, as he and his two companions waited for the refection, while Espey stirred up the fire and rescued the turkey, which had burrowed into a mound of dead ashes, still permeated, however, with the grateful warmth of the embers.
“ Ye ’d be plumb s’prised, Mis’ Lar’bee, at the slyness o’ sech malefactors, an’ the trouble they ’ll gin. Now I be a stranger ter this e-end o’ the county, an’ what with the constable sick everybody sorter holds back ’bout’n informin’ the off’eer o’ the law; turrible ‘fraid lest the folks in gineral takes it out on them, ye know. Some ’lows I be a-trappin’ moonshiners ; an’ that ain’t my business at all. I got no mo’ agin moonshiners ’n I hev agin whiskey. It’s all one ter me. I don’t c’lect the tax, an’ I don’t pay it nuther. I drinks mos’ly on treats, sech ez this.” He held up his glass, for Espey had proffered the product of the Lost Time still, and it seemed to him at the moment that the very jug looked conscious. “ I could n’t git a critter ter kem with me ter-night ’thout reg’lar summonsin’ a posse ; one man ailin’ ; t’other man, sick wife ; another man, sore foot; another man, lame horse. Course I could hev made ’em kem,” waving the hand with the glass in it with a capable gesture; “but I didn’t want ter be harsh an’ requirin’ with the citizens, ’kase, ye know,” with a sudden sly geniality illumining his countenance, “ J mought want ter run fur sher’ff myse’f some day, — that is, ef the old man was ter git done with the office,” he added, mindful of his tenure through the favor of the high sheriff. “ Now this hyar man,” pointing out one of his followers, who bore with a sort of wooden equanimity the united gaze of Mrs. Larrabee and Espey, “ he be a stranger hyarabouts, too, — kems from my deestric’, frien’ o’ mine, — so o’ course he war n’t acquainted hyarabout, nuther.”
Mrs. Larrabee’s perceptions detected something embarrassing to a sensitive nature in this invited survey of the silent, bearded man, who had not opened his mouth except to put a biscuit into it. As amends, she handed him the plate anew, and the second biscuit silently went the way of the first.
“ Now this hyar other man,” — the officer indicated a short, square-set fellow,— “he war powerful leetle ’quainted round hyar, though he kem from neighboring ways, the Gap; so he ondertook ter p’int out yer house ” —
The short man interposed in great haste, and with his mouth full: —
“ Though I hev never hed nuthin’ agin you-uns, Mis’ Lar’bee, an’ I hope ye won’t lay it up agin me, marm. I knowed ’t war mighty safe, ’kase youuns war n’t the sort ter harbor evil-doers ’gainst the law an’ sech ez that, hevin’ been powerful well ’quainted with yer husband whenst he war a boy ; an’ this hyar dep’ty war so powerful partic’lar, an’ I did n’t see how ter git out’n it, an’ ” — The crumbs in his throat and the scruples in his heart combined to choke his utterance, and as the climax came in a paroxysm of coughing Mrs. Larrabee turned to the officer.
“ I got nobody hyar wuss ’n yerse’f, sher’ff,” she drawled, with a slow smile.
“ Waal, now, Mis’ Lar’bee,” said the officer, probably mindful of political hopes, “ ef ever ye want ennything of me, ye jes’ lemme know. I wanter show ye how I ’ll remember this hyar squar meal ternight. I ain’t one o’ them ez can’t ’member dinner till it’s dinner time agin.” He smiled gallantly upon her from under his superabundance of brows. Then he turned to Espey. “ I been so well treated it makes me plumb bold ter ax another favior. I want ye ter git on yer horse an’ ride with me ter set me in the road ter Tems’s. Nare one o’ these men air ’quainted with the way.”
His dark eyes hardened under his sinister black brows, and Espey, who had taken heart of grace, felt his hope of escape annihilated in the instant. His eyes were fastened with a fixed stare on the officer’s face ; his nerves were all a-quiver; his heart seemed to stand still; a cold insidious thrill crept along the fibres of his skin. The conviction seized him that the conversation which had seemed so incidental was merely a blind devised for the purpose of getting him apart from the women and children, that he might be captured with less ado or danger to the bystanders, perhaps further from the chance of rescue. He thought of rescue, himself, of Jerusha’s husband blind drunk in the shed-room, of Jasper away at the Lost Time mine. Through some other sense than that of conscious sight he was aware of the movements of the deputy’s comrades: that one, seated in the chair, was carefully examining his revolver; that the other was standing beside the door with his hand on the latch. But Espey’s eyes never quitted the face of the sheriff, who apparently took note of this fixed, unresponsive gaze.
“ Air he deef ? ” he demanded of Mrs. Larrabee, and was about to repeat his demand in a louder key, when his hostess interposed.
“No deefer than them in gineral be who ain’t willin’ ter hear.” she muttered. “ Go saddle yer critter. Jack. ’T won’t take ye long.” Then, in a lower aside, “ Ye ’ll jes’ hev ter guide ’em ez fur ez Tems’s, ennyhow.”
Her insistence constrained him; and indeed no alternative was definite to his mind. He turned with a bewildered, submissive mien toward the door.
The chill midnight air, blowing freshly on his face as he held it open and the draught rushed through, revived him like the very breath of freedom. The obvious opportunity hashed through his mind like an inspiration. He could give them the slip while saddling the horse. He would have the start of them even if by only a few paces. Let him but once get foot in the stirrup again, with the kindly shield of the darkness about him, and he would give them a good run through this pathless mountain wilderness. He caught up his saddle that lay upon the floor, and made for the door with a sudden eager alacrity.
He heard an abrupt clanging noise, as one hears a sound in sleep, muffled, unreal, distant. It was only when he saw one of the men stoop and rise again and follow him that he realized what had happened. One of the stirrup irons had fallen from the saddle, unbuckled perhaps in the unwarranted juvenile curiosity of the meddling youngsters of the house. The deputy sheriff also followed. “ I ‘ll put that on agin whilst ye air a-ketchin’ an’ a-bridlin" of the nag,” he said.
Espey heard the loud, strident tones of his hasty farewells as he took leave of Mrs. Larrabee, — he evidently intended to return no more, — and then he was by the young man’s side in the barn, followed by his two companions. For the horse was not in the pasture lot; he had repaired to the little shed that served as barn, and had stretched himself on his bed of straw. At the first indication of the prospect of journeying the roan horse struggled up, and, with a sound of greeting that was almost articulate, came out from the stall, ready and willing to be saddled and bridled. Espey experienced a sort of animosity toward the creature for his unreasoning alacrity. He was even denied the poor respite which the usual delay in catching the horse might have given.
In his numbing, silent despair as he buckled the girth and slipped the bridle over the horse’s head and the bit into his mouth, he took no definite heed of his surroundings, and yet they were all impressed upon his consciousness. He noted, uncaring, how the horse tossed up his head askance at the stranger’s touch, when one of the men laid his hand on the powerful shoulder and opined that he must be a “ toler’ble good goer.” He was aware, somehow, of the blue-black, translucent gloom of the air, and the differing darkness with its effect of solidity, of the fodder stack looming close by, of the fantastic roof of the little log cabin against the stars, and of a vague sense of motion where the invisible smoke curled up from the chimney, faring off into the dense black gloom of the foliage of the great trees. The door was still open, and the yellow light fell far out into the darkness; in the interior he could see the gaunt, tall form of Mrs. Larrabee walking back and forth, and in her arms the baby, who had been roused by the falling of the spur. The child needed little tenderness, in his robust self-sufliciency, and was elderly indeed for such infantile coddling. His fat legs stuck far out of her arms, and his bawling objections to the interruption of slumber attested temper rather than delicacy. Espey realized how her heart would go out to a real trouble, — how she would feel for him if she only knew ! Somehow the thought of that fictitious anguish of sympathy soothed him for the moment, and he was resigned to say to himself that it was best as it was. She could have done naught. He was no child like the others to cling to her in a sort of fervid faith in her omnipotence. No ; resistance would only have endangered her and hers. And so he was strengthened to put his foot in the stirrup and ride away, with the sheriff at his right hand, and the other men close behind, all looking alertly forward into the gloom. The roan horse, fresh from slumber, was beginning to feel his oats and corn, snuffing the freshening wind, pulling on the bit, and forging on at a more speedy gait. The other men noticed this, for now and again, with a touch of the spur, they closed up, and the roan horse was in the centre of the squad.
Charles Egbert Craddock.