IT was three days before the opening of the quare women’s school in mid-August that Susanna Reeves, their visitor from the Blue Grass, rode off behind Uncle Tutt Logan as volunteer nurse for the family of five, renters on his place, down with typhoid. Uncle Tutt was an old man who lived by himself about two miles up Troublesome. He had been, as he expressed it, of a ‘ rambling natur" in his youth, and somewhere acquired a taste for reading, and now came down frequently to get books from the women’s library.
When Susanna stepped into the door of the tumble-down cabin up the hollow from Uncle Tutt’s house, the five sick persons — a man and a little boy in one bed, a woman and two little girls in the other — lay in their soiled day-clothing among the dingy quilts; there were no sheets. A boy of seven sat on the floor, trying to pacify two dirty, wailing babies. A piece of fat meat dripped over a meal-barrel in one corner, and flies swarmed everywhere.
‘Hit’s beyand a man-person,’ said Uncle Tutt, with a gesture of despair. ‘I never knowed where to begin at. A woman is called for.’
Susanna’s heart was in her shoes, but she made no sign. ‘The first thing,’ she said, ‘ is to fill the wash-kettle there in the yard and build a fire under it. While you do that, I must try to find a place where these babies can be taken care of. Is there no woman in the neighborhood?’
‘Milly Graham is the most nighest,’ he replied. ‘She lives about twowhoops-and-a-holler up Troublesome, and is as clever-turned a woman as ever I seed, with not more’n nine or ten of her own.’
Susanna quickly washed some of the dirt off the faces, hands, and feet of the babies, one of whom was two years old, the other less than one, sought in vain for clean things to put on them, and then, with the help of the small boy, George, took them up the creek.
Milly Graham, who was lifting clothes out of a steaming kettle by the water’s edge and battling them on a smooth stump, laid down her battlingstick and came forward, barefooted and kind-faced, followed by a train of towheads.
‘Sartain I’ll take ‘em in, pore leetle scraps,’ she said, when Susanna had explained the situation. ‘Two more hain’t nothing to me, nohow, with sech a mess of my own.’ Gathering both babies in her arms, she sat down on the battling-stump, opened her dress, and offered a generous breast to each. ‘I allow the biggest hain’t beyand taking the teat,’ she said. It was not; indeed, both sucked as if they were starved.
‘I heared about Uncle Tutt’s typhoids,’ continued Milly, ‘and I would have went right down; but that-air next-to-least-one of mine is croupy and chokes so bad I’m afeared to leave hit a minute, and all is jest a-getting over measles. Onliest time I been off the place in a year was to the quare women’s working, the Fourth of July. I mustered the whole biling and tuck ‘em down along, and seed as fine a time as ever I seed. But that was where they all kotched them measles. I mind you a-being there that day; I allus remembered you from them pretty black eyes and that lavish of black hair.
‘Next thing I heared, you women was all holping with the typhoid down at the Forks. ‘Pears like hit strikes ‘em as reg ‘lar as summer. Hit was right sensible for Uncle Tutt to go down after one of you women. Pore old widder — what could he do? A lone man’s the most helplessest creetur on top of the earth. What possesses him to live thataway, cooking and washing and even milking for hisself, the Lord only knows; no wonder he’s a leetle turned. Hit’s a pyore pity, and flying right in the face of Scripter, too. Not that Uncle Tutt keers for that — he’s a master hand to rail at the Scripter, and the preachers, and the Lord. Eh, law! If he did n’t cuss God Almighty Hisself when a big wind blowed down the most of his corn a year gone! Said there wa’n’t no dependence to be put in Him nohow!
‘Them renters of his’n I hain’t never got acquainted with; they hain’t belongers here — jest blowed in one day about corn-planting time in Aprile. I seed ‘em go down one morning about sunup, the man big and stout, with a poke on his back and a babe in one arm, the woman pore and puny and all drugout from packing tother baby. Most people in these parts don’t confidence strangers and furriners, but Uncle Tutt, though he’s hard on the Lord, allus was saft-hearted to folks; and he tuck pitysake on ‘em and allowed they could stay and crap for him, and give ‘em steads and kivers and cheers and sechlike gear. They allowed their name was Johnson, and they come from Magoffin. Hit’s quare, folks being that fur from home; hit’s quare, too, they don’t never put foot off’n the place. But maybe hit’s right. I ‘ll lay the woman’s right, anyways — she’s as good-countenanced as ever I seed. ‘
Returning to the cabin with the little boy, who seemed old and quiet beyond his years, Susanna found the water boiling in the big kettle, and in the teeth of Uncle Tutt’s solemn warnings and dire prophecies, ‘Hit’ll sartain kill ‘em to wash when they’re sick; I never in all my life and travels heared of sech doings, ‘ and with his very reluctant assistance, bathed the five patients and got them into the nightgowns the women had sent, then cleared away the soiled covers and put the women’s sheets on the lumpy shuck mattresses. Then, after meat and meal-barrel had been removed to Uncle Tutt’s, the joists and walls were washed down with strong suds, and the floor scrubbed, first with a broom, then with the scrubbrush Susanna had brought.
Uncle Tutt went home to get dinner for himself, Susanna, and little George, and to bring milk for the sick ones; and he was then sent back to the Forks after mosquito-netting, which the women had had brought in at the beginning of the typhoid, and the doctor; for a Forks boy, Doctor Benoni Swope, had just come back from medical school to be the first physician in his community.
When at last the day was almost over, and Uncle Tutt was leaving the cabin to get supper, he said, looking back through the net-curtained doorway to the two white beds, ‘Looks pine-blank like a passel of corps laid out in yander. If I was to wake up and find one of them shrouds on me, and a burying-sheet drawed over, I’d give hit up I was everly dead and gone!’
Susanna sat down on the porch and dashed off the following letter: —
DEAR ROBERT: —
This will reach you about the time I had expected to start for home. I was only waiting for the opening of school on Monday. I hope you’ll feel dreadfully disappointed when I don’t come — Aunt Ailsie to the contrary notwithstanding! I am staying to nurse a family of five, down with typhoid, about two miles up Troublesome. Now don’t scoff; of course I know nothing about nursing, except what little I have learned this summer, but anyhow I’m a human being, with a pair of hands and a strong body and a willing mind; and the motto here is ‘Learn by Doing.’
If you could have stepped with me into this cabin this morning you ‘d have had the shock of your life; but if you came now I flatter myself that, finicky surgeon as you are, even you would be pleased. The five patients are in nightgowns, the first they ever wore; the beds are in sheets, the first they ever wore; walls, ceiling, and floor are scrubbed, — you should have seen your idle, useless Susanna down on her wet knees! —and the mosquito-netting over doors, fireplace, and all cracks will soon do away with the flies.
One thing only disturbs me; while the father and three children look as if they could stand anything, the mother is terribly weak and sick to begin with, and Dr. Benoni says we can hardly expect to pull her through.
Now don’t be foolish about me — I am splendidly fit. I boil all the water; Uncle Tutt brings me food from his house; and both he and Dr. Benoni have offered to ‘spell’ me at night so that I may sleep on my cot on the porch. Best of all, it’s so wonderful to feel that I am at last of some actual use in the world that I am thrilled beyond words. It beats dancing, cards, even the races — can I say more?
Call up Sister and swage her down all you can. And take time from your ‘ cyarving ‘ to miss me real hard occasionally during the next few weeks!
Next morning the sick woman, who the day before had said nothing save to assure herself that the babies were in safe hands, lying all day with dull, suffering eyes fixed on the doorway, said weakly to Susanna, while the latter was gently washing her face, ‘ You look gooder to me than ary angel.’
Susanna laid a hand on the drawn, troubled brow. ‘I’m so very glad to be here,’ she said, ‘and everything will be all right now — you must just stop worrying, and rest, and get well.’
Two slow tears trickled from beneath the closed lids. A little later, when Susanna had washed the worn hands and was about to turn away, the fingers closed spasmodically upon her own. ‘You don’t aim to go away, do you?’ asked the frightened voice.
‘Not at all,’ replied Susanna. ‘Not once until you are all well again.’
The woman sighed deeply — a sigh that carried an utmost burden of care and sorrow — and then, as if in apology, said quickly, ‘’Pears like I’m all werried out, hit’s been so long!’
‘Yes, I know it has seemed long since you got down, though it is really only a few days.’
The woman shook her head weakly. ‘Not that,’ she said in a low tone, ‘not that!’ Then she opened her eyes as if frightened at her words. ‘ My wits they must be a-wandering,’ she explained.
The rest of the day she lay quiet, with eyes, as usual, on the doorway. Her husband, a strong, well-built young man who appeared to be at least a dozen years younger than his wife, also lay always silent, one hand under his pillow, inscrutable eyes on the door.
’She looks to me as if she had some dreadful trouble on her mind,’ said Susanna to Uncle Tutt that evening, as she ate her supper of corn bread, milk, and honey under the apple tree in the yard. ‘What do you suppose it is?’
‘Hit’s been that way ever sence they come, Bill allus silent and surly, Cory narvious as a skairt rabbit,’
‘Is he unkind or cruel to her?’
‘I never seed him beat her none, or handle her rough.’
‘He looks much younger than she does.’
‘He’s got a reason for hit, by grab. That-air Bill is the triflingest sluggardly do-nothing ever I come acrost! Strikes about one lick with a hoe to her three, and allus leaves her take the bottom row. That’s the kind of a cuss he is! But he’s a fine-pretty feller to look at, and she worships his tracks in the mud, and works herself pine-blank to a shadder for him and his offsprings, works and worries too.’ He stopped and pulled a stem of grass and began to chew on it, then said, in a confidential tone: —
‘You mind that-air weepon he keeps under his pillow, with his thumb allus nigh the trigger, and would n’t nowise have took away?'
‘And that-air new growth of beard all over his face?’
‘And how he keeps his eyes, like she keeps hern, everly fixed on the door?’
‘Well, the way I riddle hit out, he’s maybe a mean man that has got into a leetle trouble somewheres — kilt somebody, say, and is hiding out here. I never tuck the leastest stock in their being from up Magoffin way; I’d sooner believe hit was ary other p’int of the compass; or their name being Johnson, either. No, the very minute I laid eyes on ‘em I suspicioned they was hunting a hole to hide in. But I knowed from the woman’s face she was a right woman, and I allowed here with me was as safe a place for ‘em to hide out as anywhere. If he had kilt ten men, or was the very old Devil hisself, I would n’t give him up and break pore Cory’s heart. My sympathies allus was with the women-folks anyhow— ‘pears like the universe is again’ ‘em, and God and man confederates to keep ‘em downtrod. In all my travels I have seed hit, and hit’s been the same old story ever sence Eve et the apple. I gonnies! If I’d ‘a’ had the ordering of things then, I’d ‘a’ predestyned the female sect to better things! If replenishing the earth was to be their job, I would n’t have laid on ‘em the extry burden of being everly subject to some misbegotten, hell-borned man-brute! Yes, dad burn my looks, when I see a puny creetur like Cory there, not only childbearing every year reg’lar, but likewise yearning the family bread by the sweat of her brow, hit fairly makes my blood bile, and eends my patience with the ways of the Lord. Yes, taking Him up one side and down tother, God Almighty sartain does as much harm as He does good, if not a leetle more! His doings is allus a myxtery, and sometimes a scandal!'
Dr. Benoni, after his visit the following morning, shook his head ominously when Susanna followed him to the porch. ‘A very sick woman,’ he said; ‘vitality all gone to begin with. She’ll not pull through typhoid.’
"The little girls are so restless, might n’t it help if Cory had a bed to herself?’ asked Susanna.
‘It’s worth trying,’ he said.
Uncle Tutt, appealed to, said yes, by Ned! Cory should have his last remaining bed, a pallet was good enough for him, and the two men went at once for it, bringing also Uncle Tutt’s own feather-bed to put on it, ‘her bones being so nigh through,’ said the old man. Susanna made up the bed, and poor Cory was carefully lifted into it. Uncle Tutt had his reward when she sighed gratefully, ‘These feathers feel so saft to my bones!’ A little later she said, wonderingly, ‘Hit’s quare to have so much room to lay in — I never was in a bed to myself afore.'
In mid-afternoon, while Susanna was giving her the second temperature-bath of the day, for her fever ran very high, she said deprecatingly, ‘I hate for you to do so much nasty work for me — I allow you have sot on a silk pillow all your days!’
‘I suppose I have,’replied Susanna, in a startled and contrite tone, ‘but I ‘m very much ashamed of it now, and want to make up for it by being of some use.’
‘You so good to look at I can’t hardly keep my hands off’n you. I allus did love pretty people. Your hair — I wisht I could feel hit!’
Susanna bent her head and laid one of the feeble hands on the thick waves of her hair. ,
‘Now hain’t hit pretty and saft! I follered having saft hair myself when I was young, but gee-oh! that’s been so long I can’t hardly ricollect hit!’
‘Why, you’re not that old,’ said Susanna. ‘People never get too old to remember their youth.'
‘Yes, they do. Hit’s a long time; seems as fur away as if hit never was; and I ‘m a old woman — twenty-three year old I am!’
‘Twenty-three!’ exclaimed Susanna, in utter amazement, for she had supposed Cory at least thirty-five. ‘Why, twenty-three is not old a bit—it’s young. It’s just my age.’
It was Cory’s turn to be astonished. ‘No woman could n’t look as young as you and be twenty-three,’ she said. ‘You hain’t seed sixteen yet.’
‘I am twenty-three,’ insisted Susanna, ‘but I consider it young, not old. You must have been just a child when you married.’
‘Nigh fifteen I was.'
‘And at twenty-three the mother of six. Good heavens!’ exclaimed Susanna. ‘No wonder you are worn out! But you ‘ll have a chance for a long rest in bed now, to get back your strength. I’m here to see that you do!’
Susanna cast an angry glance at the big, husky young man in the bed by the door. Of course it was his fault that poor Cory at twenty-three had forgotten her youth!
It was three days later, a week after her arrival, that one morning for the first time in the sickroom Dr. Benoni called Susanna by her surname. Uncle Tutt always addressed her and the other quare women by their Christian names. At the words ‘Miss Reeves’ Cory sat up in bed and stared wildly about, only to fall back in a state of collapse when she saw Bill’s eye fixed angrily upon her. Susanna and the doctor supposed it was only a manifestation of delirium, and thought no more about it. But when, in the afternoon, the patients were sleeping, and Susanna sat by Cory’s bedside beginning a letter to Robert, she was surprised when Cory opened her eyes and whispered, ‘What name did he call you by?’
‘Reeves,’ replied Susanna, in a low tone.
‘Where do you live at?’
‘In Lexington, in the Blue Grass.’
‘ Is there many of the name of Reeves there?’
‘Not now; our branch seems to have run largely to daughters, and I am the only one of the name left. My parents are dead, and I live with my married sister, who is much older than I. When I marry, the name will have died out, which is too bad, after a hundred years; for we were among the pioneers. ‘
‘ Hit’s a pretty name, Reeves — I love hit!’ said Cory.
At that instant Bill, who had been apparently sleeping, raised himself on his elbow and gave Cory a look that silenced her. Susanna continued her letter:—
DEAR ROBERT: —
How foolish of you to send that telegram! Of course it had to come across the mountains by mail, and it reached me at the same time as your letter. How foolish, too, to make both so mandatory! No, I will not ‘start home at once. ‘ No, not if it were to my own wedding! I can’t desert my post. You would n’t have me if you knew the need. Poor Cory is in grave danger. Dr. Benoni says there is not a chance in fifty for her, and oh, Robert, I have just found out that instead of being middle-aged, as I had supposed from her looks, the poor thing is only twentythree, just my age, and the mother of six! With a horrid husband who lets her take the bottom row in hoeing corn and work herself to death in other ways! Also I believe she is the victim of some dreadful fear that hangs over her like a nightmare.
Glory for you, Doctor Helm! It’s fine about old Boone Beverly and the thousand-dollar fee! I fervently hope that every rich old turfman and stockbreeder in the Blue Grass will have appendicitis this fall, and ask you to ‘cyarve’ on him, so you can pay off those dreadful debts and marry
Two nights after this the crisis of Cory’s illness was reached. Dr. Benoni had spent both nights at the cabin, to relieve Susanna, so that one of them might be always at the bedside with the required heart-stimulant. At times the poor woman seemed almost too weak to breathe.
The second night Dr. Benoni had called Susanna at three o’clock, himself lying down beside the little girls for a desperately needed nap. Bill snored loudly and the three children were fast asleep. Susanna sat by Cory, holding one of her wasted hands. Suddenly she felt a feeble pressure and heard a whisper: ‘Closter!’
She put her head down.
‘I’m nigh gone, hain’t I?’
‘Oh, I hope not; we don’t intend to let you go! ‘
‘The young-uns — what’ll become of them?’
‘Don’t worry about them; they’ll be cared for. They have their father. ‘
‘But if Bentons gets him? Sh-sh — don’t speak, whisper; they ‘re atter him, and Black Shade he won’t never stop till he finds him. And then the pore leetle orphants, without ary paw or maw! Listen,’ she whispered, desperately, ‘you must take ‘em to my paw and maw when I’m gone; they’ll forgive me then for running off with Anse
— Bill, I mean. He was sech a pretty boy, I had to have him.’
‘Where does your father live, and what is his name?’
‘In Harlan, on Reeves’s Fork of Marrowbone. His name’s same as yourn. There’s a whole tribe of Reeveses there.’
‘Reeves!’ gasped Susanna. ‘What’s his first name?’
‘Sh-sh — George. ‘
‘George Reeves! ‘ exclaimed Susanna. ‘What other names are in your family
— your grandfather, your great-grandfather?’
‘Old Winfield was my grandsir’, and behind him was another George. Them is the main-chiefest names all through. ‘
Susanna took the sick woman’s hands in both hers. ‘Cory,’ she said, ‘Winfield Reeves was the name of my father, and also of my pioneer forefather who came out from Virginia to Kentucky more than a hundred years ago. Near Cumberland Gap his young brother, George, left the wagon train to hunt a deer, and was never afterward heard of. My people went on to the Blue Grass, fought the Indians, subdued the wilderness, and became prosperous and prominent. They always supposed George had been killed by Indians. Instead, he must have found the hunting good, and have wandered from year to year in these mountains, at last settling down and founding the family to which you belong. The names tell the story. You and I are the same blood, and blood means a great deal to a Reeves! So now you can trust me to take care of your children if anything happens to you. I will do for them as if they were my own, and will adopt little George and change his name to Reeves. But you must n’t die, you must live; for now you have found a sister who will always love you and take care of you!’
The entire conversation, tense as it was, had been carried on in whispers. Through it all Bill’s snores had risen regularly; not a child had stirred; Dr. Benoni had slept profoundly.
Cory clutched Susanna’s hand. ‘ You and me the same blood? I hain’t surprised, for I loved you when I seed you. Listen! A Reeves allus stands by a Reeves — you won’t never tell what I tell you?’
‘Well, Anse and the Bentons they had a furse, and he kilt two of ‘em. Then he give it out he had went West, and hid out in the high rocks awhile, and then we traveled here by nights. And, being a Reeves, you won’t never tell on him, and will keep watch with me for Black Shade, and hide Anse if he comes?’
‘Certainly, if it’s possible. I’ll protect him in every way, for your sake. You can depend on me. And now try to rest and sleep, and leave the worry and the watching to me. Remember, you have found a sister. ‘
Kneeling beside the bed, she folded the thin form to her breast; and lying thus poor Cory relaxed, smiled, and soon fell asleep.
The unloading of ‘that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart’ was the beginning of better things. When Dr. Benoni left at six, Cory was still sleeping; her pulse was better, her temperature down two degrees. When at last she awoke, it was only by a glance of the eyes, a pressure of the hands, that she and Susanna indicated their remembrance of what had passed in the night. Bill, sullen and watchful as ever, had evidently heard nothing. Cory’s eyes, instead of being fixed in that dreadful stare on the doorway, now followed Susanna constantly, hung upon her, feasted upon her.
That evening Susanna wrote:—
DEAR ROBERT: —
I have something amazing to tell you. You have heard us speak of the young brother of our pioneer ancestor, who went hunting one day as they came along the wilderness trail and was never heard of again. Well, he is found — at least, his descendants are, and one of them is poor Cory, the sick woman I am nursing! She belongs in Harlan County. Family names — everything shows there can be no mistake. And she and I are the same age. How easily I might have been in her place and suffered what she has suffered! How selfish we prosperous Blue Grass people are, and how little we realize what is going on in this forgotten section of our state, where many of the people doubtless are of the same blood as our boasted aristocracy!
Almost three more weeks passed. Cory had gained steadily. The three children sat up for a while every morning, usually on Susanna’s cot on the porch, and Bill, his splendid frame little impaired by illness, also sat in a chair there, pistol on his knees. This particular afternoon, all had come in for their rest and naps. Cory, the hunted look almost gone from her face, was sleeping, and Susanna sat by her bed reading a month-old magazine. Uncle Tutt had gone up in the timber to measure and mark the poplar trees he was giving to the quare women for their big settlement-house, taking little George with him.
Suddenly a shadow darkened the doorway. The curtain of mosquitonetting was swept aside. A dark man, on noiseless feet, stepped in. Susanna rose, startled. At the same instant Cory’s eyes flew open and she screamed in terror. With a single movement Bill, waking, drew his hand from beneath his pillow and fired, meeting the cross fire of the intruder. Both men continued firing, as swiftly as they could pull trigger, till at the same instant both lurched forward — Bill on his bed, the stranger full-length on the floor, neither so much as twitching a muscle thereafter.
The whole thing had happened in a flash. Cory’s shrieks rent the air. Susanna flew to Bill, raised his heavy body, felt for his heart. Not a beat. But a slow trickle of blood welled out upon her fingers. Laying him back, she dashed a cup of water in his face. No response. Turning then to the intruder, beneath whose body a red pool was spreading on the floor, she looked for a sign of life. None there, either. Rushing to the porch, she took down the gourd-horn Uncle Tutt had left with her in case of need, and blew it loudly, once, twice, thrice.
The sound must have carried some of the poignancy of her suffering, for in an incredibly short time Uncle Tutt came plunging down the slope.
They wasted no time on the dead men, but put in all their energies on the fainting, apparently dying Cory, forcing liquor between her lips, rubbing her cold hands and feet, at last seeing the tide of life flow slowly back again.
‘Hit might be better to leave the pore creetur die,’ said Uncle Tutt. ‘She’s seed enough trouble without this here.’
‘No,’ said Susanna, with determination. ‘That’s the very reason she must live — to see something besides trouble; to get back the youth she has forgotten. I have found, Uncle Tutt, that she is a Reeves, that we are the same blood. I shall make it my business to take care of her and her children, to make life easier and happier for her. Of course she’ll grieve for Bill, but grief never kills. A dead sorrow is better than a living one; in time it will wear away. She is young enough to forget.'
Uncle Tutt received the news calmly.
’I’m proud for her,’ he said. ‘ I allow she has fell into good hands.’ Then, surveying the scene before him with philosophical eyes, he remarked, ‘I knowed hell was to pay somehow. Well, I better get them corps drug out of sight afore she comes to.’
This gruesome task performed, the pistols taken from the clutch of the dead hands, the bodies laid on the porch out of Cory’s line of vision, coins pressed down over the staring eyes, the old man stood in the doorway, looking down meditatively at his work.
‘Hit hain’t often,’ he said, ‘lightning strikes in the right spot. Hit’s more gen’ally apter to hit wrong. I hain’t seed hit fall right sence Heck was a pup. But this time hit went spang clean straight to the mark. I allow both needed killing and needed hit bad.
I know Bill did! Well, hit’s a sight of satisfaction to see jestice fall — kindly cheers a body up and holps up their confidence in the running of things.
I ‘ll say this much for Him, God Almighty is a pyore puzzle and myxtery and vexation of sperrit a big part of the time, but now and again — oncet or twicet maybe in a long lifetime — He does take Him a notion to do a plumb thorough, downright, complete, ondivided, effectual good job!’