"I'm going home to-morrow, Miss Sis," he said finally, in sheer desperation.
"Well, you've had a heap of fun—I mean," she added, "that you have had a nice time."
"I have been a fool!" he exclaimed bitterly. Seeing that she made no response, he continued: "I've been a terrible fool all through. I came here to hunt up blockade whisky——"
Sis's voice was sharp and eager, full of doubt, surprise, and consternation.
"I came to Gullettsville," he went on, "to hunt up blockade whisky, and failed, and three weeks ago I sent in my resignation. I thought I might find a gold mine on my land-lot, but I have failed, and now I am going to sell it. I have failed in everything."
Gloating over his alleged misfortunes, Woodward, without looking at Sis Poteet, drew from his pocket a formidable-looking envelope, unfolded its contents leisurely, and continued—
"Even my resignation was a failure. Hog Mountain will be raided to-morrow or next day."
Sis rose from her chair, pale and furious, and advanced toward him as if to annihilate him with her blazing eyes. Such rage, such contempt, he had never before beheld in a woman's face. He sat transfixed. With a gesture almost tragic in its vehemence, the girl struck the papers from his hands.
"O you mean, sneaking wretch! You——"
And then, as if realising the weakness of mere words, she turned and passed swiftly from the room. Woodward was thoroughly aroused. He was not used to the spectacle of a woman controlled by violent emotions, and he recognised, with a mixture of surprise and alarm, the great gulf that lay between the rage of Sis Poteet and the little platitudes and pretences of anger which he had seen the other women of his acquaintance manage with such pretty daintiness.
As the girl passed through the kitchen, she seized a horn that hung upon the wall, and went out into the darkness. The old women continued their smoking, their snuff-rubbing, and their gossiping. Mrs. High-tower was giving the details of a local legend showing how and why Edny Favers had "conjured" Tabithy Cozby, when suddenly Mrs. Poteet raised her hands—
The notes of a horn—short, sharp, and strenuous—broke in upon the stillness of the night. Once, twice, thrice! once, twice, thrice! once, twice, thrice! It was an alarm that did not need to be interpreted to the sensitive ear of Hog Mountain. The faces of the old women became curiously impassive. The firelight carried their shadows from the floor to the rafters, where they seemed to engage in a wild dance,—whirling, bowing, jumping, quivering; but the women themselves sat as still as statues. They were evidently waiting for something. They did not wait long. In a little while the sharp notes of the horn made themselves heard again—once, twice, thrice! once, twice, thrice! once, twice, thrice!
Then the old women arose from their low chairs, shook out their frocks, and filed into the room where Mr. Philip Woodward, late of the revenue service, was sitting. There would have been a good deal of constraint on both sides, but before there could be any manifestation of this sort, Sis came in. She seemed to be crushed and helpless, nay, even humiliated.
"Why, my goodness, Sis!" exclaimed Mrs. Hightower, "you look natchully fagged out. A body 'ud think you'd bin an' taken a run up the mountain. We all 'lowed you wuz in here lookin' airter your comp'ny. Wher'd you git the news?"
"From this gentleman here," Sis replied, indicating Woodward without looking at him. She was pale as death, and her voice was low and gentle.
Woodward would have explained, but the apparent unconcern of the women gave him no opportunity.
"I declare, Sis," exclaimed her mother, with a fond, apologetic little laugh; "ef you hain't a plum sight, I hain't never seed none."
"She's thes es much like her Gran'pap Poteet," said Mrs. Hightower, "ez ef he'd 'a' spit'er right out'n his mouth—that she is."
This led to a series of reminiscences more or less entertaining, until after a while, Sis, who had been growing more and more restless, rose and said—
"Good night, folks; I'm tired and sleepy. The clock has struck eleven."
"Yes," said Mrs. Poteet, "an' the clock's too fast, bekaze it hain't skacely bin more'u a minnit sence the chickens crowed for ten."
This remark contained the essence of hospitality, for it was intended to convey to Mrs. Poteet's guests the information that if they were not ready to retire, she was prepared to discredit her clock in their interests. But there was not much delay on the part of the guests. The women were dying to question Sis, and Woodward was anxious to be alone; and so they said "Good night," the earnestness and quaint simplicity of the old women carrying Woodward back to the days of his childhood, when his grandmother leaned tenderly over his little bed, and whispered: "Good night, dear heart, and pleasant dreams."
Shortly afterward the lights were put out, and, presumably, those under Teague Poteet's roof addressed themselves to slumber. But what of the news that Sis had given to the winds? There was no slumber for it until it had fulfilled its mission. Where did it go, and what was its burden? Three sharp blasts upon a horn, thrice repeated; then an interval; then three more thrice repeated. Up, up the mountain the signal climbed; now faltering, now falling, but always climbing; sending echoes before it, and leaving echoes behind it, but climbing, climbing; now fainting and dying away, but climbing, climbing, until it reached Pullium's Summit, the smallest thread of sound. Two men were sitting talking in front of a cabin. The eldest placed one hand upon the shoulder of his companion, and flung the other to his ear. Faint and far, but clear and strenuous, came the signal. The men listened even after it had died away. The leaves of the tall chestnuts whipped each other gently, and the breeze that had borne the signal seemed to stay in the tops of the mountain pines as if awaiting further orders; and it had not long to wait.
The man who had held his hand to his ear slapped his companion on the back, and cried, "Poteet's!" and that was news enough for the other, who rose, stretched himself lazily, and passed into the cabin. He came out with a horn—an exaggerated trumpet made of tin,—and with this to his lips he repeated to the waiting breeze, and to the echoes that were glad to be aroused, the news that had come from Poteet's. Across the broad plateau of Pullium's Summit the wild tidings flew, until, reaching the western verge of the mountain, they dived down into Prather's Mill Road—a vast gorge which takes its name from the freak of a drunken mountaineer, who declared he would follow the stream that rushed through it until he found a mill, and was never heard of again.
The news from Poteet's was not so easily lost. It dropped over the sheer walls of the chasm, three hundred feet down, and refused to be drowned out by the rush and roar of the waters, as they leaped over the boulders, until it had accomplished its mission. For here in Prather's Mill Road burned the slow fires that kept the Government officials in Atlanta at a white heat. They were burning now. If one of the officials could have crawled to the edge of the gorge, where everything seemed dwarfed by the towering walls of rook and the black abyss from which they sprang, he would have seen small fitful sparks of flame glowing at intervals upon the bosom of the deeper and blacker night below. These were the fires that all the power and ingenuity of the Government failed to smother, but they were now blown out one after another by the blasts from Sis Poteet's horn.
The news that was wafted down into the depths of Prather's Mill Road upon the wings of the wind was not at all alarming. On the contrary, it was received by the grimy watchers at the stills with considerable hilarity. To the most of them it merely furnished an excuse for a week's holiday, including trips to both Gullettsville and Villa Ray. Freely interpreted, it ran thus: "Friends and fellow-citizens: this is to inform you that Hog Mountain is to be raided by the revenue men by way of Teague Poteet's. Let us hear from you at once." There was neither alarm nor hurry, but the fires were put out quickly, because that was the first thing to be done.
Teague Poteet owned and managed two stills. He was looking after some "doublings" when the notes of the horn dropped down into the gorge. He paused, and listened, and smiled. Uncle Jake Norris, who had come to have his jug filled, was in the act of taking a dram, but he waited, balancing the tin cup in the palm of his hand. Tip Watson was telling one of his stories to the two little boys who accompanied Uncle Jake, but he never ended it.
"Sis talks right out in meetin'," said Teague, after waiting to be sure there was no postscript to the message.
"What's the row, Teague?" asked Uncle Jake, swallowing his dram.
"'Nother raid comin' right in front er my door," Teague explained, "an' I reckon in reason I oughter be home when they go past. They use to be a kinder coolness betweenst me an' them revenue fellers, but we went to work an' patched it up."
Tip Watson appeared to be so overjoyed that he went through all the forms of a cotillon dance, imitating a fiddle, calling the figures, and giving his hand to imaginary partners. The boys fairly screamed with laughter at this exhibition, and Uncle Jake was so overcome that he felt called upon to take another dram—a contingency that was renewed when Tip swung from the measure of a cotillon to that of a breakdown, singing—
"I hain't bin a-wantin' no mo' wines—mo' wines— Sence daddy got drunk on low wines—low wines."
"Come, Tip," said Teague, "yess shet up shop. Ef Sis ain't a caution," he said, after a while, as he moved around putting things to rights. "Ef Sis ain't a caution, you kin shoot me. They hain't no mo' tellin' wher' Sis picked up 'bout thish 'ere raid than nothin' in the worl'. Dang me ef I don't b'lieve the gal's glad when a raid's a-comin'. Wi' Sis, hit's movement, movement, day in an' day out. They hain't nobody knows that gal less'n it's me. She knows how to keep things a-gwine. Sometimes she runs an' meets me, an' says, se' she: 'Pap, mammy's in the dumps; yess you an' me make out we er quollin'. Hit'll sorter stir 'er up;' an' then Sis, she'll light in, an' by the time we git in the house, she's a-scoldin' an' a-sassin' an' I'm a-cussin', en' airter a while hit gits so hot an' natchul-like that I thes has ter drag Sis out behin' the chimbly and buss 'er for to make certain an' shore that she ain't accidentally flew off the han'le. Bliss your soul an' body! she's a caution!"
"An' what's 'er maw a-doin' all that time?" inquired Uncle Jake, as he took another dram with an indifferent air.
Teague laughed aloud as he packed the fresh earth over his fire.
"Oh, Puss! Puss, she thes sets thar a-chawin' away at 'er snuff, an' a-knittin' away at 'er socks tell she thinks I'm a-pushin' Sis too clost, an' then she blazes out an' blows me up. Airter that," Teague continued, "things gits more homelike. Ef 'twan't fer me an' Sis, I reckon Puss 'nd teetotally fret 'erself away."
"St. Paul," said Uncle Jake, looking confidentially at another dram which he had poured into the tin cup,—"St. Paul says ther' er divers an' many wimmin, an' I reckon he know'd. Ther' er some you kin fret an some you can't. Ther's my ole 'oman: the livin' human bein' that stirs her up'll have ter frail 'er out, er she'll frail him."
"Well," said Teague, by way of condolence, "the man what's stabbed by a pitchfork hain't much better off 'n the man that walks bar'footed in a treadsaft patch."
The suggestion in regard to Mistress Norris seemed to remind Uncle Jake of something important. He called to his boys, took another modest dram, and disappeared in the undergrowth. Teague Poteet and his friends were soon ready to follow this worthy example, so that in another hour Prather's Mill Road was a very dull and uninteresting place from a revenue point of view.
Woodward was aroused during the night by the loud barking of dogs, the tramp of horses, and the confused murmur of suppressed conversation. Looking from the window, he judged by the position of the stars that it was three or four o'clock in the morning. He sat upon the side of the bed, and sought, by listening intently, to penetrate the mystery of this untimely commotion. He thought he recognised the voice of Tip Watson, and he was sure he heard Sid Parmalee's peculiar cough and chuckle. The conversation soon lifted itself out of the apparent confusion, and became comparatively distinct. The voices were those of Teague and Sis.
"Come now, pap, you must promise."
"Why, Sis, how kin I?"
"You shall, you shall, you shall!"
"Why, Sis, hon, he mought be a spy. Sid Pannalee he 'lows that the whole dad-blamed business is a put-up job. He wants to bet right now that we'll all be in jail in Atlanty 'fore the moon changes. I lay they don't none of 'em fool Sid."
"You don't love me any more," said Sis, taking a new tack.
"Good Lord, Sis! Why, honey, what put that idee in your head?"
"I know you don't—I know it! Its always Dave Hightower this, and Sid Par-malee that, and old drunken Jake Norris the other. I just know you don't love me."
Teague also took a new tack, but there was a quiver in his voice born of deadly earnestness.
"I tell you, Sis, they er houndin' airter us; they er runnin' us down; they er closin' in on us; they er hemmin' us up. Airter they git your pore ole pappy an' slam 'im in jail, an' chain 'im down, who's a-gwineter promise to take keer er him? Hain't ole man Joshway Blasingame bin sent away off to Albenny? Hain't ole man Cajy Shannon a-sarvin' out his time, humpback an' cripple ez he is? Who took keer them? Who ast anybody to let up on 'em? But don't you fret, honey; ef they hain't no trap sot, nobody ain't a-gwineter pester him."
"I wouldn't trust that Sid Parmalee out of my sight!" exclaimed Sis, beginning to cry. "I know him, and I know all of you."
"But ef they is a trap sot," continued Teague, ignoring Sis's tears, "ef they is, I tell you, honey, a thousau' folks like me can't hol' the boys down. The time 'a done come when they er teetotally wore out with thish 'ere sneakin' aroun' an' hidin'-out bizness."
This appeared to end the conversation, but it left Woodward considerably puzzled. Shortly afterward he heard a rap at his door, and before he could respond to the summons by inquiry or invitation, Teague Poteet entered with a lighted candle in his hand.
"I 'lowed the stirrin' 'roun' mought 'a' sorter rousted you," said Teague, by way of apology, as he placed the light on a small table and seated himself on a wooden chest.
"Yes. What's up?" Woodward inquired.
"Oh, the boys—thes the boys," Teague replied, chuckling and rubbing his chin with an embarrassed air; "hit's thes the boys cuttin' up some er ther capers. They er mighty quare, the boys is," he continued, his embarrassment evidently increasing, "mighty quare. They uv up'd an' tuk a notion for to go on a little frolic, an' they uv come by airter me, an' nothin' won't do 'em but I mus' fetch you. S' I, 'Gentermen, they hain't no manners in astin' a man on a marchin' frolic this time er night,' s' I; but Sid Parmalee, he chipped in an' 'lowed that you wuz ez high up for fun ez the next man."
Woodward thought he understood the drift of things, but he was desperately uncertain. He reflected a moment, and then faced the situation squarely.
"If you were in my place, Mr. Poteet, what would you do?" he asked.
This seemed to relieve Teague, His embarrassment disappeared. His eyes, which had been wandering uneasily around the room, sought Woodward's face and rested there. He took off his wide-brimmed wool hat, placed it carefully upon the floor, and ran his fingers through his iron-grey hair.
"I don't mind sayin'," he remarked grimly, "that I uv seed the time when I'd uv ast you to drap out'n that winder an' make for the bushes, knowin' that you'd tote a han'ful er bullets in thar wi' you. But on account er me an' Sis, I'm willin' to extracise my bes' judgment. It mayn't be satisfactual, but me an' Sis is mighty long-headed when we pulls tergether. Ef I was you, I'd thes slip on my duds, an' I'd go out thar whar the boys is, an' I'd be high up for the'r frolic, an' I'd jine in wi' 'em, an' I'd raise any chune they give out."
With this Poteet gravely bowed himself out, and in a very few minutes Woodward was dressed and ready for adventure. He was young and bold, but he felt strangely ill at ease. He realised that, with all his address, he had never been able to gain the confidence of these mountaineers, and he felt sure they connected him with the revenue raid that was about to be made, and of which they had received information. He appreciated to the fullest extent the fact that the situation called for the display of all the courage and coolness and nerve he could command; but, in the midst of it all, he longed for an opportunity to show Sis Poteet the difference between a real man and a feebleminded, jocular rascal like Tip Watson.
His spirits rose as he stepped from the low piazza into the darkness and made his way to where he heard the rattle of stirrups and spurs. Some one hailed him—
"Ah-yi!" he responded. "It's here we go, gals, to the wedding."
"I knowed we could count on 'im," said the voice of Tip Watson.
"Yes," said Sid Parmalee, "I knowed it so well that I fotch a extry hoss."
"Where are we going?" Woodward asked.
"Well," said Parmalee, "the boys laid off for to have some fun, an' it's done got so these times that when a feller wants fun he's got to git furder up the mounting."
If the words were evasive, the tone was far more so, but Woodward paid little attention to either. He had the air of a man accustomed to being called up in the early hours of the morning to go forth on mysterious expeditions.
A bright fire was blazing in Poteet's kitchen, and the light, streaming through the wide doorway, illuminated the tops of the trees on the edge of the clearing. Upon this background the shadows of the women, black and vast—Titanic indeed,—were projected as they passed to and fro. From within there came a sound as of the escape of steam from some huge engine; but the men waiting on the outside knew that the frying-pan was doing its perfect work.
The meat sizzled and fried; the shadows in the tops of the trees kept up what seemed to be a perpetual promenade, and the men outside waited patiently and silently. This silence oppressed Woodward. He knew that but for his presence the mountaineers would be consulting together and cracking their dry jokes. In spite of the fact that he recognised in the curious impassiveness of these people the fundamental qualities of courage and endurance, he resented it as a barrier which he had never been able to break down. He would have preferred violence of some sort. He could meet rage with rage, and give blow for blow, but how was he to deal with the reserve by which he was surrounded? He was not physically helpless, by any means, but the fact that he had no remedy against the attitude of the men of Hog Mountain chafed him almost beyond endurance. He was emphatically a man of action—full of the enterprises usually set in motion by a bright mind, a quick temper, and ready courage; but, measured by the impassiveness which these men had apparently borrowed from the vast aggressive silences that give strength and grandeur to their mountains, how trivial, how contemptible all his activities seemed to be!
But the frying was over after a while. The Titanic shadows went to roost in the tops of the trees, and Teague Poteet and his friends, including ex-Deputy Woodward, took themselves and their fried meat off up the mountain, and the raid followed shortly after. It was a carefully-planned raid, and deserved to be called a formidable one. Like many another similar enterprise it was a failure, so far as the purposes of the Government were concerned, but fate or circumstance made it famous in the political annals of that period. Fifteen men, armed with carbines, rode up the mountain. They were full of the spirit of adventure. They felt the strong arm of the law behind them. They knew they were depended upon to make some sort of demonstration, and this, together with a dram too much here and there, made them a trifle reckless and noisy. They had been taught to believe that they were in search of outlaws. They caught from the officers who organised them something of the irritation which was the natural result of so many fruitless attempts to bring Hog Mountain to terms. They betrayed a sad lack of discretion. They brandished their weapons in the frightened faces of women and children, and made many foolish mistakes which need not be detailed here.
They rode noisily over the mountain, making a circle of Pullium's Summit, and found nothing. They peered over the precipitous verge of Prather's Mill Road, and saw nothing. They paused occasionally to listen, and heard nothing. They pounced upon a lonely pedlar who was toiling across the mountain with his pack upon his back, and plied him with questions concerning the Moonshiners. This pedlar appeared to be a very ignorant fellow indeed. He knew his name was Jake Cohen, and that was about all. He had never crossed Hog Mountain before, and, so help his gracious, he would never cross it again. The roads were all rough and the ladies were all queer. As for the latter—well, great Jingo! they would scarcely look at his most beautiful collection of shawls and ribbons and laces, let alone buy them. In Villa Bay (or, as Cohen called it, "Feel Hooray") he had heard that Teague Poteet had been arrested and carried to Atlanta by a man named Woodward. No one had told him this, but he heard people talking about it wherever he went in Villa Ray, and there seemed to be a good deal of excitement in the settlement.
Cohen was a droll customer, the revenue officers thought, and the longer they chatted with him the droller he became. First and last they drew from him what they considered to be some very important information. But most important of all was the report of the arrest of Teague Poteet. The deputies congratulated themselves. They understood the situation thoroughly, and their course was perfectly plain. Poteet, in endeavouring to escape from them, had fallen into the clutches of Woodward, and their best plan was to overtake the latter before he reached Atlanta with his prize, and thus share in the honour of the capture. With this purpose in view, they took a dram all round and turned their horses' heads down the mountain.
Cohen certainly was a droll fellow. He stood in the road until the revenue men had disappeared. Then he unbuckled the straps of his pack, dropped it upon the ground, and sat down upon a boulder. With his head between his hands, he appeared to be lost in thought, but he was only listening. He remained listening until after the sounds of the horses' feet had died away.
Then he carried his precious pack a little distance from the roadside, covered it with leaves, listened a moment to be sure that the deputies were not returning, and then proceeded to a. little ravine in the side of the mountain where the Moonshiners lay. He had been waiting nearly two days where the revenue men found him, and his story of the capture of Teague Poteet was concocted for the purpose of sending the posse back down the mountain the way they came. If they had gone on a mile further they would have discovered signs of the Moonshiners, and this discovery would have led to a bloody encounter, if not to the capture of the leaders.
The deputies rode down the mountain in the best of spirits. They had accomplished more than any other posse; they had frightened the Moonshiners of Hog Mountain to their hiding-places, and not a deputy had been killed, or even wounded. The clatter they made as they journeyed along attracted the attention of Ab Bonder, a boy about fifteen, who happened to be squirrel-hunting, and he stepped into the road to get a good view of them. He was well grown for his age, and his single-barrelled shot-gun looked like a rifle. The revenue men halted at once. They suspected an ambuscade. Experience had taught them that the Moonshiners would fight when the necessity arose, and they held a council of war. The great gawky boy, with the curiosity of youth and ignorance combined, stood in the road and watched them. When they proceeded toward him in a compact body, he passed on across the road. Hearing a command to halt, he broke into a run, and endeavoured to make his way across a small clearing that bordered the road. Several of the deputies fired their guns in the air, but one, more reckless than the rest, aimed directly at the fugitive, and Ab Bonner fell, shot through and through.
Viewed in its relations to all the unfortunate events that have marked the efforts of the Government officials to deal with the violators of the revenue laws from a political point of view, the shooting of this ignorant boy was insignificant enough. But it was important to Hog Mountain. For a moment the deputy-marshals were stunned and horrified at the result of their thoughtlessness. Then they dismounted and bore the boy to the roadside again and placed him under the shade of a tree. His blood shone upon the leaves, and his sallow, shrunken face told a pitiful tale of terror, pain, and death.
The deputy-marshals mounted their horses and rode steadily and swiftly down the mountain, and by nightfall they were far away. But there was no need of any special haste. The winds that stirred the trees could carry no messages. The crows flying over, though they made a great outcry, could tell no tales. Once the boy raised his hand and cried "Mammy!" but there was no one to hear him. And though ten thousand ears should listen, the keenest could hear him no more He became a part of the silence—the awful, mysterious silence—that sits upon the hills and shrouds the mountains.
This incident in the tumultuous experience of Hog Mountain—the killing of Ab Bonner was merely an incident—had a decisive effect upon the movements of ex-Deputy Woodward. When Jake Cohen succeeded in turning the revenue officials back, the mountaineers made themselves easy for the day and night, and next morning prepared to go to their homes. Some of them lived on one side of Hog Mountain, and some on the other. They called themselves neighbours, and yet they lived miles apart, and it so happened that, with few exceptions, each went in a different direction. Teague Poteet gave the signal—
"Come, Cap," he said to Woodward, "yess be a-traipsiu'. Puss'll be a-puttin' on biskits for supper before we git thar if we don't push on. Be good to yourse'f, boys, an' don't raise no fracas."
Poteet and Woodward rode off together. That afternoon, half a mile from Poteet's, they met a woman running in the road, crying and wringing her hands wildly. She moved like one distracted. She rushed past them, crying—
"They uv killed little Ab! They uv killed him. Oh, Lordy! they uv killed little Ab!"
She ran up the road a little distance and then came running back; she had evidently recognised Poteet. As she paused in the road near them, her faded calico sun-bonnet hanging upon her shoulders, her grey hair falling about her face, her wrinkled arms writhing in response to a grief too terrible to contemplate, she seemed related in some vague way to the prophets of old who were assailed by fierce sorrows. Here was something more real and more awful than death itself. Woodward felt in his soul that the figure, the attitude, the misery of this poor old woman were all Biblical.
"Oh, Teague," she cried, "they uv killed him! They uv done killed my little Ab! Oh, Lordy! that mortal hain't a-livin' that he ever done any harm. What did they kill him for?" Then she turned to Woodward: "Oh, Mister, Mister! please tell me what he done. I'm the one that made the liquor, I'm the one. Oh, Lordy! what did they kill little Ab for?"
Teague Poteet dismounted from his horse, took the woman firmly but gently by the arm, and made her sit down by the side of the road. Then, when she was more composed, she told the story of finding her son's body. It was a terrible story to hear from the lips of the mother, but she grew quieter after telling it, and presently went on her way. The two men watched her out of sight.
"I'll tell you what, Cap," said Teague, as he flung himself into the saddle, "they er houndin' airter us. They er 'buzin' the wimmin an' killin' the childern; stidder carryin' out the law, they er gwine about a-shootin' an' a-murderin'. So fur, so good. Well, now, lemme tell you: the hawk 'a done lit once too much in the chicken-lot. This is a free country. I hain't a-layin' no blame on you. Me an' Sis stood by you when the boys s'ore they wuz a-gwine to rattle you up. We made 'em behave the'rse'ves, an' I hain't a-blamin' you, but they er houndin' airter us, an' ef I wuz you I wouldn't stay on this hill nary 'nuther minnit longer than it 'ud take me to git offn it. When the boys git wind er this ongodly bizness, they ull be mighty hard to hol'. I reckon maybe you'll be a-gwine down about Atlanty. Well, you thes watch an' see what stan' the Government's gwineter take 'bout Ab Bonner, an' ef hit don't take no stan', you thes drap in thar an' tell 'em how you seed er ole man name Teague Poteet, an' he 'lowed that the revenue fellers better not git too clost ter Hog Mountain, bekaze the hidin'-out bizness is done played. The law what's good enough fer pore little Ab Bonner is good enough fer the men what shot 'im."
They rode on until they came to Poteet's house.
"We'll thes go in an' git a snack," said Teague, "an' airter that your best gait is a gallop."
But Woodward declined. He was dazed as well as humiliated, and he had no desire to face Sis Poteet. He pictured to himself the scorn and bitterness with which she would connect his presence on the Mountain with the murder of Ab Bonner, and he concluded to ride on to Gullettsville. He took Teague Poteet by the hand.
"Good-bye, old man," he said; "I shall remember you. Tell Miss Sis—well, tell Miss Sis good-bye." With that he wheeled his horse and rode rapidly toward Gullettsville.
It was a fortunate ride for him, perhaps. The wrath of Hog Mountain was mightily stirred when it heard of the killing of Ab Bonner, and Woodward would have fared badly at its hands. The wrath of others was stirred also. The unfortunate affair took the shape of a political issue, and thus the hands of justice were tied. But all this is a matter of history, and need not be dwelt upon.
In the meantime, as the days passed, Teague Poteet became dimly and uncomfortably conscious that a great change had come over Sis. One day she would be as bright and as gay as the birds in the trees; the next, she would be quiet, taciturn, and apparently depressed. As Teague expressed, "One minnit hit's Sis, an' the nex' hit's some un else." Gradually the fits of depression grew more and more frequent and lasted longer. She was abstracted and thoughtful, and her petulance disappeared altogether. The contrast resulting from this change was so marked that it would have attracted the attention of a person of far less intelligence than Teague Poteet. He endeavoured to discuss the matter with his wife, but Puss Poteet was not the woman to commit herself. She was a Mountain Sphinx.
"I'm afeard Sis is ailin'," said Teague, upon one occasion.
"Well," replied Puss, "she ain't complainin'."
"That's hit," Teague persisted; "she hain't complainin'. That's what pesters me. She looks lonesome, an' she's got one er them kinder fur-away looks in her eyes that gives me the all-overs." The Sphinx rubbed its snuff and swung in its rocking-chair. "Some days she looks holp up, an' then ag'in she looks cas' down. I 'low'd maybe you mought know what ailed her."
"Men folks," said Puss, manipulating her snuff-swab slowly and deliberately, "won't never have no sense while the worl' stan's. Ef a 'oman ain't gwine hether an' yan', rippity-clippity, day in an' day out, an' half the night, they er on the'r heads. Wimmen hain't men."
"That's so," replied league gravely, "they hain't. Ef they wuz, the men 'ud be in a mighty nice fix."
"They'd have some sense," said Puss.
"Likely so. Yit 'oman er man kin sliet one eye an' tell that Sis looks droopy, an' when Sis looks droopy, I know in reason sump'n' nuther ails her."
"Well, goodness knows; I wish in my soul somebody'd shet one eye an' look at me," exclaimed Puss, with a touch of jealousy in her tone. "I traipse 'roun' this hill ontell I'm that wore out I kin skacely drag one foot alrter t'other, an' I don't never hear nobody up an' ast what ails me. It's Sis, Sis, Sis, all the time, an' eternally. Ef the calf's fat, the ole cow ain't got much choice betwixt the quogmire an' the tan-vat."
"Lord, how you do run on," said the iron-grey giant, rubbing his knuckles together sheepishly. "You don't know Sis ef you go on that away. Many's the time that chile 'ud foller me up an' say, 'Pap, ef you see my shawl a-haugin' out on the fence, Puss'll be asleep, an' don't you come a-lumberin' in an' wake her up, nuther.' An' many's the time she'd come out an' meet me, an' up an' say, 'Pap, Puss has takin' an' bin a-mopin' all day long; yess you an' me go in an' fetch her up.' An' bless your life," Teague continued, addressing some imaginary person on the other side of the fireplace, "when me an' Sis sets our heads for to fetch anybody up, they er thes natchully erbleeged ter come."
Puss rubbed her snuff and swayed to and fro in her rocking-chair, disdaining to make any reply to this array of facts and arguments; and Teague was as ignorant as ever of the cause of the queer change in his daughter. Perhaps, as becomes a dutiful husband, he should have retorted upon his complaining wife with complaints of his own; but his interests and his isolation had made him thoughtful and forbearing. He had the trait of gentleness which frequently sweetens and equalises large natures. He remembered that behind whatever complaints— reasonable or unreasonable—Puss might make, there existed a stronghold of affection and tenderness; he remembered that her whole life had been made up of a series of small sacrifices; he knew that she was ready, whenever occasion made it necessary, to cast aside her snuff-swab and her complaints, and go to the rack without a murmur.
But Teague was by no means satisfied with the condition of affairs, so far as Sis was concerned. He said no more to his wife, but he kept his eyes open. The situation was baffling to the point of irritation, but Teague betrayed neither uneasiness nor restlessness. He hung about the house more, and he would frequently walk in quietly when the women thought he was miles away.
There were times when Sis ignored his presence altogether, but as a general thing she appeared to relish his companionship. Sometimes at night, after her mother had gone to bed, she would bring her chair close to Teague's, and rest her head upon his shoulder, while he smoked his pipe and gazed in the fire. Teague enjoyed these occasions to the utmost, and humoured his daughter's slightest wish, responding to her every mood and fancy. If she talked, he talked; if she was silent, he said nothing. Once she dropped asleep with her head on his arm, and Teague sat holding her thus half the night. When she did awake she upbraided herself so earnestly for imposing on her old pappy (as she called him) that Teague yawned, and stretched himself, and rubbed his eyes, and pretended that he, too, had been asleep.
"Lordy, honey! I wuz that gone tell I didn't know whe'er I 'uz rolled up in a haystack er stretched out in a feather-bed. I reckon ef you'd 'a' listened right clost you'd 'a' heern me sno'. I thes laid back an' howled at the rafters, an' once-t er twice-t I wuz afeard I mought waken up Puss."
Sis's response to this transparent fib was an infectious peal of laughter, and a kiss which amply repaid Teague for any discomfort to which he may have been subjected.
Once, after Sis had nestled up against Teague, she asked somewhat irrelevantly—
"Pap, do you reckon Mr. Woodward was a revenue spy after all?"
"Well, not to'rds the last. He drapped that business airter he once seed its which-aways. What makes you ast?"
"Because I hate and despise revenue spies."
"Well, they hain't been a-botherin' roun lately, an' we hain't got no call to hate 'em tell they gits in sight. Hatin' is a mighty ha'sh disease. When Puss's preacher comes along, he talks ag'in it over the Bible, an' when you call 'im in to dinner, he talks ag'in it over the chicken-bones. I reckon hit's mighty bad—mighty bad."
"Did you like him?"
"Who? Puss's preacher?"
"Now, you know I don't mean him, pap."
"Oh! Cap'n Woodward. Well, I tell you what, he had mighty takin' ways. Look in his eye, an' you wouldn't see no muddy water; an' he had grit. They hain't no two ways about that. When I ast 'im out with us that night, he went like a man that had a stool to a quiltin'-bee; an' when Duke Dawson an' Sid Parmalee flung out some er the'r slurs, he thes snapt his fingers in the'r face, an' ups an' says, says he, 'Gents, ef youer up for a frolic, I'm your man, an' ef youer in for a fight, thes count me in,' says he. The boys wuz a little drinky," said Teague, apologetically.
Sis squeezed up a little closer against her father's shoulder.
"Did they fight, pap?"
"Lord bless you, no. I thes taken am' flung my han' in Duke's collar an' fetched 'im a shake er two, an put 'im in a good humour thereckly; an' then airterwerds Tip Watson sot 'em all right when he read out the letter you foun' on the floor."
"Oh, pap!" Sis exclaimed in a horrified tone, "I slapped that letter out of Mr. Woodward's hand!"
Teague laughed exultantly.
"What'd he say?"
"He didn't say anything. He looked like he expected the floor to open and swallow him. I never was so ashamed in my life. I've cried about it a thousand times."
"Why, honey, I wouldn't take an' cry 'bout it ef I wuz you."
"Yes you would, pap, if—if—you were me. I don't know what came over me; I don't know how I could be so hateful. No lady would ever do such a thing as that."
Sis gave her opinion with great emphasis. Teague took his pipe out of his mouth.
"Well, I tell you what, honey, they mought er done wuss. I let you know, when folks is got to be a-runnin' here an' a-hidin' yander, hit's thes about time for the gals for to lose the'r manners. Nobody wouldn't a-blamed you much ef you'd a-fetched the Cap'n a clip stidder the letter; leastways, I wouldn't."
The girl shivered and caught her breath.
"If I had hit him," she exclaimed vehemently, "I should have gone off and killed myself."
"Shoo!" said Teague in a tone intended to be at once contemptuous and reassuring, but it was neither the one nor the other.
This conversation gave Teague fresh cause for anxiety. From his point of view, Sis's newly-developed humility was absolutely alarming, and it added to his uneasiness. He recognised in her tone a certain shyness which seemed to appeal to him for protection, and he was profoundly stirred by it without at all understanding it. With a tact that might be traced to either instinct or accident, he refrained from questioning her as to her troubles. He was confused, but watchful. He kept his own counsel, and had no more conferences with Puss. Perhaps Puss was also something of a mystery; if so, she was old enough to take care of her own affairs.
Teague had other talks with Sis—some general, some half-confidential,—and he finally became aware of the fact that every subject led to Woodward. He humoured this, awkwardly but earnestly, and thought he had a clew, but it was a clew that pestered him more than ever.
He turned it round in his mind and brooded over it. Woodward was a man of fine appearance and winning manners, and Sis, with all the advantages—comparative advantages merely—that the Gullettsville Academy had given her, was only a country girl after all. What if——? Teague turned away from the suspicion in terror. It was a horrible one; but as often as he put it aside, so often he returned to it. It haunted him. Turn where he might, go where he would, it pursued him night and day.
One mild afternoon in the early spring, Mr. Philip Woodward, ex-deputy marshal, leaned against the railing of Broad Street bridge in the city of Atlanta, and looked northward to where Kennesaw Mountain rises like a huge blue billow out of the horizon and lends picturesqueness to the view. Mr. Woodward was in excellent humour. He had just made up his mind in regard to a matter that had given him no little trouble. A wandering prospector, the agent of a company of Boston capitalists, had told him a few hours before that he would be offered twenty thousand dollars for his land-lot on Hog Mountain. This was very important, but it was not of the highest importance. He nodded familiarly to Kennesaw, and thought: "I'll slip by you to-morrow and make another raid on Hog Mountain, and compel that high-tempered girl to tell me what she means by troubling me so."
A train of cars ran puffing and roaring under the bridge, and as Woodward turned to follow it with his eye he saw standing upon the other side a tall, gaunt, powerful-looking man, whom he instantly recognised as Teague Poteet. Teague wore the air of awkward, recklessly-helpless independence which so often deceives those who strike the mountain men for a trade. Swiftly crossing the bridge, Woodward seized Teague and greeted him with a cordiality that amounted to enthusiasm.
"Well, of all the world, old man, you are the one I most wanted to see." Teague's thoughts ran with grim directness to a reward that had been offered for a certain grey old Moonshiner who had made his headquarters on Hog Mountain. "How are all at home?" Woodward went on, "and what is the news?"
"The folks is porely and puny," Teague replied, "an' the news won't skacely b'ar relatin'. I hain't a-denyin'," he continued, rubbing his chin and looking keenly at the other, "I hain't a-denyin' but what I'm a-huntin' airter you, an' the business I come on hain't got much howdyin' in it. Ef you uv got some place er nuther wher' ever'body hain't a-cockin' up the'r years at us, I'd like to pass some words wi' you."
"Why, of course," exclaimed Woodward, hooking his arm in Teague's. "We'll go to my room. Come! And after we get through, if you don't say that my business with you is more important than your business with me, then I'll agree to carry you to Hog Mountain on my back. Now that's a fair and reasonable proposition. What do you say?"
Woodward spoke with unusual warmth, and there was a glow of boyish frankness in his tone and manners that Teague found it hard to resist.
"Well, they's thes this much about it," he said; "my business is mighty troublesome, an' yit hit's got to be settled up."
He had put a revolver in his pocket on account of this troublesome business.
"So is mine troublesome," responded Woodward, laughing, and then growing serious. "It has nearly worried me to death."
Presently they reached Woodward's room, which was up a flight of stairs near the corner of Broad and Alabama Streets. It was a very plain apartment, but comfortably furnished, and kept with scrupulous neatness.
"Now, then," said Woodward, when Teague had seated himself, "I'll settle my business, and then you can settle yours." He had seated himself in a chair, but he got up, shook himself, and walked around the room nervously. The lithograph of a popular burlesque actress stared brazenly at him from the mantelpiece. He took this remarkable work of art, folded it across the middle, and threw it into the grate. "I've had more trouble than enough," he went on, "and if I hadn't met you to-day I intended to hunt you up to-morrow."
"No; on Hog Mountain. Oh, I know the risk," Woodward exclaimed, misinterpreting Teague's look of surprise. "I know all about that, but I was going just the same. Has Miss Sis ever married?" he asked, stopping before Teague and blushing like a girl. "Not less'n it happened sence last We'n'sday, an' that hain't noways likely," replied the other, with more interest than he had yet shown. Woodward's embarrassment was more impressive than his words.
"I hardly know how to say it," he continued, "but what I wanted to ask you was this: Suppose I should go up to Hog Mountain some fine morning, and call on you, and say, as the fellow did in the song, 'Old man, old man, give me your daughter,' and you should reply, 'Go upstairs and take her if you want to,' what do you suppose the daughter would say?"
Woodward tried in vain to give an air of banter to his words. Teague leaned forward with his hands upon his knees.
"Do you mean, would Sis marry you?" he asked.
"That is just exactly what I mean," Woodward replied.
The old mountaineer rose and stretched himself, and drew a deep sigh of relief. His horrible suspicion had no foundation. He need not fly to the mountains with Woodward's blood upon his hands.
"Lemme tell you the honest truth, Cap," he said, placing his hand kindly on the young man's shoulder. "I might 'low she would, an' I might 'low she wouldn't; but I'm erbleege to tell you that I dunno nothin' 'bout that chil' no more'n ef I hadn't a-never seed 'er. Wimmin is mighty kuse."
"Yes," said Woodward, "they are curious."
"Some days they er gwine rippitin' aroun' like the woods wuz afire, an' then ag'in they er mopin' an' a-moonin' like ever' minnit wuz a-gwine to be the nex'. I bin a-studyin' Sis sence she wan't no bigger'n a skinned rabbit, an' yit I hain't got to A, B, C, let alone a-b ab, u-b ub. When a man lays off for to keep up wi' the wimmiu folks, he kin thes make up his min' that he'll have to git in a dark corner an' scratch his head many a time when he oughter be a-diggin' for his livin'. They'll addle 'im thereckly."
"Well," said Woodward, with an air of determination, "I'm going back with you and hear what Miss Sis has to say. Sit down. Didn't you say you wanted to see me on business?"
"I did start out wi' that idee," said Teague, slipping into a chair and smiling curiously, "but I disremember mostly what 'twuz about. Ever'thing is been a-pesterin' me lately, an' a man that's hard-headed an' long-legged picks up all sorts er foolish notions. I wish you'd take keer this pickle-bottle, Cap," he continued, drawing a revolver from his coat-tail pocket and placing it on the table. "I uv bin afeard ever sence I started out that the blamed thing 'ud go off an' far my jacket wrong-sud-outerds. Gimme a gun, an' you'll gener'lly fin' me somewheres aroun'; but them ar cliokety-cluckers is got mos' too many holes in 'em for to suit my eyesight."
Usually, it is a far cry from Atlanta to Hog Mountain, but Teague Poteet and Woodward lacked the disposition of loiterers. They shortened the distance considerably by striking through the country, the old mountaineer remarking that if the big road would take care of itself he would try and take care of himself.
They reached Poteet's one afternoon, creating a great stir among the dogs and geese that were sunning themselves outside the yard. Sis had evidently seen them coming, and was in a measure prepared; but she blushed painfully when Woodward took her hand, and she ran into her father's arms with a little hysterical sob.
"Sis didn't know a blessed word 'bout my gwine off to Atlanty," said Teague awkwardly but gleefully. "Did you, honey?"
Sis looked from one to the other for an explanation. Woodward was smiling the broad, unembarrassed smile of the typical American lover, and Teague was laughing. Suddenly it occurred to her that her father, divining her secret—her sweet, her bitter, her well-guarded secret— had sought Woodward out and begged him to return. The thought filled her with such shame and indignation as only a woman can experience. She seized Teague by the arm—
"Pap, have you been to Atlanta?"
"Yes, honey, an' I made 'as'e to come back."
"Oh, how could you? How dare you do such a thing!" she exclaimed passionately. "I will never forgive you as long as I live—never!"
But she was gone, and neither Teague nor her mother could get a word of explanation from her. Teague coaxed, and wheedled, and threatened, and Puss cried and quarrelled; but Sis was obdurate. She shut herself in her room and remained there. Woodward was thoroughly miserable. He felt that he was an interloper in some measure, and yet he was convinced that he was the victim of a combination of circumstances for which he was in nowise responsible. He had never made any special study of the female mind, because, like most young men of sanguine temperament, he was convinced that he thoroughly understood it; but he had not the remotest conception of the tragic element which, in spite of social training or the lack of it, controls and gives strength and potency to feminine emotions. Knowing nothing of this, Woodward knew nothing of women.
The next morning he was stirring early, but he saw nothing of Sis. He saw nothing of her during the morning, and at last, in the bitterness of his disappointment, he saddled his horse, and made preparations to go down the mountain.
"I reckon it hain't no use to ast you to make out your visit," said Teague gloomily. "That's what I says to Puss. I'm a free nigger ef Sis don't beat my time. You'll be erbleege to stop in Gullettsville to-night, an' in case er accidents you thes better tie this on your coat."
The old mountaineer produced a small piece of red woollen string, and looped it in Woodward's button-hole.
"Ef any er the boys run up wi' you an' begin to git limber-jawed," league continued, "thes hang your thum' in that kinder keerless like, an' they'll sw'ar by you thereekly. Ef any of 'em asts the news, thes say they's a leak in Sugar Creek. Well, well, well!" he exclaimed, after a little pause; "hit's thes like I tell you. Wimmin folks is mighty kuse."
When Woodward bade Puss good-bye, she looked at him sympathetically and said—
"Sometime when youer passin' by, I'd be mighty thankful ef you 'ud fetch me some maccaboy snuff."
The young man, unhappy as he was, was almost ready to accuse Mrs. Poteet of humour, and he rode off with a sort of grim desire to laugh at himself and the rest of the world. The repose of the mountain fretted him; the vague blue mists that seemed to lift the valleys into prominence and carry the hills further away, tantalised him; and the spirit of spring, just touching the great woods with a faint suggestion of green, was a mockery. There was a purpose—a decisiveness—in the stride of his horse that he envied, and yet he was inclined to resent the swift amiability with which the animal moved away.
But it was a wise steed, for when it came upon Sis Poteet standing by the side of the road, it threw up its head and stopped. Woodward lifted his hat, and held it in his hand. She gave him one little glance, and then her eyes drooped.
"I wanted to ask you something," she said, pulling a dead leaf to pieces. Her air of humility was charming. She hesitated a moment, but Woodward was too much astonished to make any reply. "Are you very mad?" she asked with bewitching inconsequence.
"Why should I be mad, Miss Sis? I am glad you have given me the opportunity to ask your pardon for coming up here to worry you."
"I wanted to ask you if pap—I mean, if father went to Atlanta to see you," she said, her eyes still bent upon the ground.
"He said he wanted to see me on business," Woodward replied.
"Did he say anything about me?"
"Not that I remember. He never said anything about his business even," Woodward went on. "I told him about some of my little troubles, and when he found I was coming back here, he seemed to forget all about his own business. I suppose he saw that I wouldn't be much interested in anybody else's business but my own just then." Sis lifted her head and looked steadily at Woodward. A little flush appeared in her cheeks, and mounted to her forehead, and then died away.
"Pap doesn't understand—I mean he doesn't understand everything, and I was afraid he had——Why do you look at me so?" she exclaimed, stopping short, and blushing furiously.
"I ask your pardon," said the young man; "I was trying to catch your meaning. You say you were afraid your father——"
"Oh, I am not afraid now. Don't you think the weather is nice?"
Woodward was a little puzzled, but he was not embarrassed. He swung himself off his horse and stood beside her.
"I told your father," he said, drawing very near to the puzzling creature that had so wilfully eluded him—"I told your father that I was coming up here to ask his daughter to marry me. What does the daughter say?"
She looked up in his face. The earnestness she saw there dazzled and conquered her. Her head drooped lower, and she clasped her hands together. He changed his tactics.
"Is it really true, then, that you hate me?"
"Oh! if you only knew!" she cried, and with that Woodward caught her in his arms.
An hour afterwards, Teague Poteet, sitting in his low piazza, cleaning and oiling his rifle, heard the sound of voices coming from the direction of the Gullettsville road. Presently Sis and Woodward came in sight. They walked slowly along in the warm sunshine, wholly absorbed in each other. Woodward was leading his horse, and that intelligent animal improved the opportunity to nip the fragrant sassafras buds just appearing on the bushes. Teague looked at the two young people from under the brim of his hat and chuckled, but when Sis caught sight of him, a little while after, he was rubbing his rifle vigorously, and seemed to be oblivious to the fact that two young people were making love to each other in full view. But Sis blushed all the same, and the blushes increased as she approached the house, until Woodward thought in his soul that her rosy shyness was the rarest manifestation of loveliness to be seen in all the wide world. As she hovered a moment at the gate, blushing and smiling, the old mountaineer turned the brim of his hat back from his eyes and called out with a great pretence of formal hospitality—
"Walk in an' rest yourselves; thes walk right in! Hit's lots too soon in the season for the dogs to bite. Looks to me, Cap, like you hain't so mighty tender wi' that 'ar hoss er your'n. Ef you uv rid 'im down to Gullettsville an' back sence a while ago, he'll be a-needin' feed thereckly. Thes come right in an' make yourselves at home."
Woodward laughed sheepishly, but Sis rushed across the yard, flung her arms around Teague's neck, and fell to crying with a vehemence that would have done credit to the most broken-hearted of damsels. The grizzled old mountaineer gathered the girl to his bosom and stroked her hair gently, as he had done a thousand times before. He looked at Woodward with glistening eyes.
"Don't min' Sis, Cap. Sis hain't nothin' but a little bit of a slip of a gal, an' sence the day she could toddle 'roun' an' holler—good news or bad, mad er glad—she's bin a-runnin' an' havin' it out wi' her ole pappy. Wimmen an' gals hain't like we all, Cap; they er mighty kuse. She never pestered wi' Puss much," continued league, as his wife came upon the scene, armed with the plaintive air of slouchiness, which is at once the weapon and shield of women who believe that they are martyrs—"she never pestered wi' Puss much, but, cry or laugh, fight or frolic, she allers tuck it out on her ole pappy."
Puss asked no questions. She went and stood by Teague, and toyed gently with one of Sis's curls.
"Sis don't take airter none er the Pringles," she said after a while, by way of explanation. "They hain't never bin a day when I couldn't look at Teague 'thout battin' my eyes, an' ma use to say she 'uz thes that away 'bout pap. I never know'd what the all-overs wuz tell thes about a hour before me an' Teague wuz married. We 'uz thes about ready for to go an' face the preacher, when ma comes a-rushin' in—an' she won't never be no paler when she's laid out than she wuz right that minnit. 'In the name er the Lord, ma, is you seed a ghost?' s' I. 'Puss!' se' she, 'the cake hain't riz!' I thes tell you what, folks, I like to a-went through the floor—that I did!"
At this Sis looked up and laughed, and they all laughed except Puss, who eyed Woodward with an air of faint curiosity, and dryly remarked—
"I reckon you hain't brung me my maccaboy snuff. I lay me an' my snuff wan't in your min'. 'Let the old hen cluck,' ez the sparrer-hawk said when he courted the pullet. Well," she continued, smiling with genuine satisfaction as she saw that Woodward no more than half-relished the comparison, "I better be seein' about dinner. Ol' folks like me can't live on love."
The days that followed were very happy ones for the two young people— and for the two old people for that matter. Teague enjoyed the situation immensely. He would watch the young lovers from afar, and then go off by himself and laugh heartily at his own conceits. He was very proud that Sis was going to marry Somebody—a very broad term, as the old mountaineer employed it. At night when they all sat around the fire (spring on Hog Mountain bore no resemblance to summer) Teague gave eager attention to Woodward's stories, and laughed delightedly at his silliest jokes.
If Teague was delighted with Woodward, he was astounded at Sis. She was no longer the girl that her surroundings seemed to call for. She was a woman, and a very delightful one. From the old scholar, whom fate or circumstance had sent to preside over the Gullettsville Academy, she had caught something of the flavour and grace of cultivation—a gentle dignity, leaning always to artlessness, and a quick appreciation, which was in itself a rare accomplishment.
The day for the wedding was set, and Woodward went his way to Atlanta. He had urged that the ceremony be a very quiet one, but Teague had different views, and he beat down all opposition.
"Why, good Lord, Cap'." he exclaimed, "what 'ud the boys say?—Poteet's gal married an' no stools [Footnote: Invitations] give out! No, siree! Not much. We hain't that stripe up here, Cap. We hain't got no quality ways, but we allers puts on the pot when comp'ny comes. Me an' Sis an' Puss hain't had many weddin's 'mongst us, an' we're thes a-gwine to try an' put the bes' foot foremos'. Oh no, Cap! You fetch your frien's an' we'll fetch our'n, an' ef the house hain't roomy enough, bless you, the woods is."
When Hog Mountain heard the news, which it did by special messenger, sent from house to house with little pink missives written by Sis, it was as proud as Teague himself. Fat Mrs. Hightower laid aside her spectacles when the invitation was translated to her, and remarked—
"They hain't nobody on the face er the yeth good enough fer Sis, but that air feller's got the looks an' the spunk. I'll set in this very day an' hour, an' I'll bake Sis a cake that'll make the'r eyes water." And so it went. Everybody on Hog Mountain had some small contributions to make.
The wedding, however, was not as boisterous as the boys proposed to make it. They had their frolic, to be sure, as Sid Parmalee or Tip Watson will tell you, but an incident occurred which took the edge off their enjoyment, and gave them the cue of soberness.
Two of Woodward's friends—young men from Atlanta—bore him company to Hog Mountain. At Gullettsville they fell in with Uncle Jake Norris, at all times a jovial and companionable figure.
"Roundabout man, roundabout way," remarked Uncle Jake, by way of explaining his presence in Gullettsville. "My house is away an' beyan' frum Poteet's, but I says to myself, s' I, in obejunce to the naked demands of the law I'll go this day an' git me a jug er licker that's bin stomped by the Govunment, an' hide it an' my wickedness, ez you may say, in league's hoss-stable. Yes, frien's, them wuz the words. 'Let the licker be stomped by the Govunment for the sakes of the young chap,' s' I, 'an' I'll hide the jug along er my wickedness in Teague's hoss-stable.' So then, frien's, yess be a sojourneyin', an' ef you feel the needance er somethin' quick an' strong for to brace you for endurance, make your way to the lot, an' feel behin' the stable-door— an' watch out for the kickin' mule! I give you my intentionals cle'r an' clean. What does St. Paul say?—'Ef you can't do good by slippance, do it by stealth.'"
They journeyed along as rapidly as the nature of the mountain road would permit, but before they reached Poteet's the shadows of twilight began to deepen. The road, like most mountain roads, wound itself painfully about. At one point they were within a short half-mile of Poteet's, but a towering wall of rock barred their approach. The road, accommodating itself to circumstances, allowed the towering wall to drive it three miles out of the way. Uncle Jake Norris, turning readily to reminiscences, connected the precipitous shelf with many of the mysterious disappearances that had at various times occurred in army and revenue circles.
"Natur' built it," he said lightly, "an' a jaybird showed it to the boys. Teague, up thar, he 'lowed that a man wi' grey eyes an' a nimble han' could git on that rock an' lay flat of his belly an' disembowel a whole army. Them wuz his words—disembowel a whole army."
While Uncle Jake was speaking, the travellers had passed beyond the wall, but the declivity on their left was still too steep to accommodate the highway, and so they rode along with the shadows of night on one side of them and pale symptoms of the day on the other.
Suddenly a thin stream of fire, accompanied by the sharp crack of a rifle, shot out of the side of the mountain straight at Woodward, and seemed, as one of his companions said afterwards, to pass through him. His horse shied with a tremendous lurch, and Woodward fell to the ground.
"He is shot!" cried one of the young men.
"What devil's work is this?" exclaimed Uucle Jake. "Cap, you ain't hurt, is you?"
Receiving no reply, for Woodward was stunned into semi-unconsciousness, Uncle Jake addressed himself to the bushes—
"Come forth," he cried. "Jestify this deed!"
There was a moment's silence, but not a moment's inaction. Uncle Jake leaped from his horse, and, telling the frightened yoxing men to look after Woodward, ran up the mountain-side a quarter of a mile, placed his hands to his mouth, and hallooed three times in rapid succession. Then he heard Poteet's dogs bark, and he hallooed again. This time he was answered from above, and he turned and ran back to where he left Woodward.
When he got there he beheld a sight and heard words that made his blood run cold. Woodward was still lying upon the ground, but by his side was kneeling a gaunt and hollow-eyed woman. Her thin grey hair hung loose upon her shoulders and about her eyes, and the ragged sleeves of her gown fluttered wildly as she flung her bony arms in the air. She was uttering loud cries.
"Oh, Lordy! it's little Ab! I uv done killed little Ab over ag'in! Oh, my little Ab! It's your pore ole mammy, honey! Oh, Mister! make little Ab wake up an' look at his pore ole mammy!"
The two young men from Atlanta were paralysed with horror. When Uncle Jake Norris ran up the mountain to alarm Poteet, the witch-like figure of the woman sprang from the bushes and fell upon Woodward with a loud outcry. The whole occurrence, so strange, so unnatural, and so unexpected, stripped the young men of their power of reasoning; and if the rocks had opened and fiery flames issued forth, their astonishment and perplexity and terror could have been no greater.
But if they had been acquainted with the history of this wild-eyed woman,—if they had known that for weeks she had been wandering over the mountain bereft of reason, and seeking an opportunity to avenge with her own hands the murder of Ab Bonner, her son,—they would have been overcome by pity. Uncle Jake Norris understood at once that Ab Bonner's mother had shot Woodward, and he forgot to be merciful.
"Woe unto you, woman, ef you have done this deed! Woe unto you an' your'n, Rachel Bonner, ef you have murdered this innocent!"
"That he wuz innocent!" exclaimed the woman, swaying back and forth and waving her hands wildly. "The unborn babe wan't no innocenter than little Ab!"
"Woe unto you, Sister Bonner!" Uncle Jake went on, examining Woodward and speaking more calmly when he found him breathing regularly. "Woe unto you, and shame upon you, Sister Bonner, to do this deed of onjestifiable homicide, ez I may say. Let flesh an' min' rankle, but shed no blood."
"Oh, my little Ab! I uv kilt 'im ag'in!"
"You may well sesso, Sister Rachel Bonner," said Uncle Jake, turning Woodward over and examining him with the crude skill of an old soldier; "you may well sesso. Drap down where you is, an' call on the Lord not to give you over to a reprobate min' for to do the things that were unconvenient, ez St. Paul says. Let tribulation work patience, lest you git forsook of hope, Sister Jane Bonner. Come, Cap," he went on, addressing himself to Woodward, "Teague'll be a drappin' on us, thereckly, an' it twon't never do in the roun' worl' for to be a-makin' faces at 'im frum the groun'. Roust up, roust up."
Woodward did rouse up. In fact his unconsciousness was only momentary, but he had been making a vain effort to trace his surroundings, disordered as they were by the wild cribs of the woman, to a reasonable basis.
By the time he had been helped to his feet, and had discovered that the bullet from Mrs. Bonner's rifle had merely grazed the fleshy part of his shoulder, Teague and a number of his friends had arrived upon the scene. There was nothing to be said, nothing to be done, except to move up the mountain to Poteet's.
"Ah, pore woman!" exclaimed Uncle Jake. "Pore mizerbul creetur! Come wi' us, Sister Jane Bonner, come wi' us. Ther's a warm place at Teague's h'a'th fer sech ez you."
The woman followed readily, keeping close to Woodward. To her distracted eyes he took the shape of her murdered son. Poteet was strangely reticent. His tremendous stride carried him ahead of the horses, and he walked with his head held down, as if reflecting. Once he turned and spoke to Parmalee—
'S'posen it had thes a bin a man?'
"Good-bye, Mr. Man!"
It is not necessary to describe the marriage of Sis and Woodward, or to recite here the beautiful folk-songs that served for the wedding music. As Mrs. Poteet remarked after it was all over, "They wer'n't a bobble frum beginnin' to en';" and when the wedding party started down the mountain in the early hours of the morning to take conveyances at Gullettsville for the railroad station, thirty miles away, Uncle Jake Norris was sober enough to stand squarely on his feet as he held Sis's hand.
"Ez St. Paul says, I prophesy in perportion to my faith. You all is obleege to be happy. Take keer of thish 'ere gal, Cap!"
Teague Poteet went down the mountain a little way, and returned after a while like a man in a dream. He paused at a point that overlooked the valley and took off his hat. The morning breeze, roused from its sleep, stirred his hair. The world, plunging swiftly and steadily through its shadow, could not rid itself of a star that burned and quivered in the east. It seemed to be another world toward which Sis was going.
An old woman, grey-haired, haggard, and sallow, who had been drawn from the neighbourhood of Hog Mountain by the managers of the Atlanta Cotton Exposition to aid in illustrating the startling contrasts that the energy and progress of man have produced, had but one vivid remembrance of that remarkable display. She had but one story to tell, and, after the Exposition was over, she rode forty miles on horseback, in the mud and rain, to tell it at Teague Poteet's.
"I wish I may die," she exclaimed, flinging the corners of her shawl back over her shoulders and dipping her clay pipe in the glowing embers—"I wish I may die ef I ever see sech gangs, an' gangs, an' gangs of folks, an' ef I git the racket out'n my head by next Chris'mas, I'll be mighty lucky. They sot me over ag'in the biggest fuss they could pick out, an' gimme a pa'r er cotton kyards. Here's what kin kyard when she gits her han' in, an' I b'leeve'n my soul I kyarded 'nuff bats to thicken all the quilts betwix' this an' Californy. The folks, they 'ud come an' stan', an' star', an' then they 'ud go some'rs else; an' then new folks 'ud come an' stan', an' star', an' go some'rs else. They wuz jewlarkers thar frum ever'wheres, an' they lookt like they wuz too brazen to live skacely. Not that I keer'd. No, bless you! Not when folks is a plumpin' down the cash money. Not me! No, siree! I wuz a-settin' thar one day a-kyardin' away, a-kyardin' away, when all of a sudden some un retched down' an' grabbed me 'roun' the neck, an' bussed me right here on the jaw. Now, I hain't a-tellin' you no lie, I like to 'a' fainted. I lookt up, an' who do you reckon it wuz?"
"I bet a hoss," said Teague dryly, "that Sis wa'n't fur from thar when that bussin' wuz a-gwine on."
"Who should it be but Sis!" exclaimed the old woman, leaning forward eagerly as she spoke. "Who else but Sis wuz a-gwine to grab me an' gimme a buss right here on the jaw, a-frontin' of all them jewlarkers? When I lookt up an' seen it twuz Sis, I thought in my soul she 'uz the purtiest creetur I ever laid eyes on. 'Well, the Lord love you, Sis,' s' I; 'whar on the face er the yeth did you drap frum?' s' I. I ketched 'er by the arm an' belt 'er off, an' s' I, 'Ef I don't have a tale to tell when I git home, no 'oman never had none,' s' I. She took an' buss'd me right frontin' of all them jewlarkers, an' airter she 'uz gone I sot down an' had a good cry. That I did. I sot right whar I wuz, an' had a good cry."
And then the old woman fell to crying softly at the remembrance of it, and those who had listened to her story cried with her. And narrow as their lives were, the memory of the girl seemed to sweeten and inspire all who sat around the wide hearth that night at Teague Poteet's.
A PIECE OF LAND.
THE history of Pinetucky District in Putnam County is preserved in tradition only, but its records are not less savoury on that account. The settlement has dispersed and disappeared, and the site of it is owned and occupied by a busy little man, who wears eye-glasses and a bob-tailed coat, and who is breeding Jersey cattle and experimenting with ensilage. It is well for this little man's peace of mind that the dispersion was an accomplished fact before he made his appearance. The Jersey cattle would have been winked at, and the silo regarded as an object of curiosity; but the eye-glasses and the bob-tailed coat would not have been tolerated. But if Pinetucky had its peculiarities, it also had its advantages. It was pleased with its situation and surroundings, and was not puzzled, as a great many people have since been, as to the origin of its name. In brief, Pinetucky was satisfied with itself. It was a sparsely settled neighbourhood, to be sure, but the people were sociable and comparatively comfortable. They could remain at home, so to speak, and attend the militia musteri, and they were in easy reach of a church-building which was not only used by all denominations—Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians—as a house of worship, but was made to serve as a schoolhouse. So far as petty litigation was concerned, Squire Ichabod Inchly, the wheel-wright, was prepared to hold justice-court in the open air in front of his shop when the weather wag fine, and in any convenient place when the weather was foul. "Gentlemen," he would say, when a case came before him, "I'd a heap ruther shoe a horse or shrink a tire; yit if you will have the law, I'll try and temper it wi' jestice." This was the genuine Pinetucky spirit, and all true Pinetuckians tried to live up to it. When occasion warranted, they followed the example of larger communities, and gossiped about each other; but rural gossip is oftener harmless than not; besides, it is a question whether gossip does not serve a definite moral purpose. If our actions are to be taken note of by people whose good opinion is worth striving for, the fact serves as a motive and a cue for orderly behaviour.
Yet it should be said that the man least respected by the Pinetuckians was the man least gossiped about. This was Bradley Gaither, the richest man in the neighbourhood. With few exceptions, all the Pinetuckians owned land and negroes; but Bradley Gaither owned more land and more negroes than the most of them put together. No man, to all appearances, led a more correct life than Bradley Gaither. He was first at church, and the last to leave; he even affected a sort of personal interest in politics; but the knack of addressing himself to the respect and esteem of his neighbours he lacked altogether. He was not parsimonious, but, as Squire Inchly expressed it, "narrer-minded in money matters." He had the air of a man who is satisfied with himself rather than with the world, and the continual exhibition of this species of selfishness is apt to irritate the most simple-minded spectator. Lacking the sense of humour necessary to give him a knowledge of his own relations to his neighbours, he lived under the impression that he was not only one of the most generous of men, but the most popular. He insisted upon his rights. If people made bad bargains when they traded with him—and he allowed them to make no other kind,—they must stand or fall by them. Where his lands joined those of his neighbours, there was always "a lane for the rabbits," as the saying is. He would join fences with none of them. Indeed, he was a surly neighbour, though he did not even suspect the fact.
He had one weakness,—a greed for land. If he drove hard bargains, it was for the purpose of adding to his landed possessions. He overworked and underfed his negroes in order that he might buy more land. Day and night he toiled, and planned, and pinched himself and the people around him to gratify his land-hunger.
Bradley Gaither had one redeeming feature,—his daughter Rose. For the sake of this daughter Pinetueky was willing to forgive him a great many things. To say that Rose Gaither was charming or lovely, and leave the matter there, would ill become even the casual historian of Pinetucky. She was lovely, but her loveliness was of the rare kind that shows itself in strength of character as well as in beauty of form and feature. In the appreciative eyes of the Pinetuckians she seemed to invest womanhood with a new nobility. She possessed dignity without vanity, and her candour was tempered by a rare sweetness that won all hearts. She carried with her that mysterious flavour of romance that belongs to the perfection of youth and beauty; and there are old men in Rockville to-day, sitting in the sunshine on the street corners and dreaming of the past, whose eyes will kindle with enthusiasm at mention of Rose Gaither's name.
But in 1840 Bradley Gaither's beautiful daughter was not by any means the only representative of womankind in Pinetucky. There was Miss Jane Inchly, to go no further. Miss Jane was Squire Inchly's maiden sister; and though she was neither fat nor fair, she was forty. Perhaps she was more than forty; but if she was fifty she was not ashamed of it. She had a keen eye and a sharp tongue, and used both with a freedom befitting her sex and her experience.
Squire Inchly's house was convenient to his shop; and just opposite lived the Carews, father and son, once the most prosperous and prominent family in the neighbourhood. It was the custom of Pinetucky to take a half-holiday on Saturdays, and on one of these occasions Squire Inchly, instead of going to his shop or to the store, sat in his porch and smoked his pipe. After a while Miss Jane brought out her sewing and sat with him. Across the way Uncle Billy Carew sat in his easy-chair under the shade of a tree, and made queer gestures in the air with his hands and cane, while his son, a young man of twenty-five or thereabouts, paced moodily up and down the veranda. The birds fluttered in and out of the hedges of Cherokee rose that ran along both sides of the road, and over all the sun shone brightly.
"Billy is cuttin' up his antics ag'in," said the Squire, finally. "First the limbs give way, and then the mind. It's Providence, I reckon. We're all a-gittin' old."
"Why, you talk, Ichabod, as if Providence went around with a drink of dram in one hand and a stroke of palsy in t'other one," said Miss Jane. "It's the Old Boy that totes the dram. And don't you pester yourself on account of old Billy Oarew's palsy. A man's nimble enough in the legs when he can git to the dimmy-john."
"Well, I'm sorry for Jack, Sister Jane," exclaimed the Squire, heartily. "I am, from the bottom of my heart. The boy is too lonesome in his ways. He needs comp'ny; he needs to be holp up, Sister Jane. He does, certain and shore."
"Well, we're all near-sighted; but when Im in trouble, I'm like a hen a-layin'; I don't want nobody to stand around and watch me. Not even them that feeds me. The Lord knows what he keeps old Billy Carew here to fret poor Jack for, but I don't," continued Miss Jane, with a sigh. "I'm much mistaken if that old creetur hain't got years before him to drink and dribble in."
"It passes me, Sister Jane," said Squire Inchly, moving uneasily in his chair. "It passes me, certain and shore. Here was Billy, rich and healthy, Jack at college, and ever'thing a-runnin' slick and smooth, when nothin' must do but the old creetur must take to the jug, and it's gone on and gone on, till old Bradley Gaither owns in-about all the Carew plantation that's wuth ownin'. Maybe it was Billy's wife druv him to it, Sister Jane."
"I say the word!" exclaimed Miss Jane, scornfully,—"I say the word! How could a little bit of a dried-up 'oman drive a grown man to drink?"
"They are a heap livelier than they look to be, Sister Jane," said the Squire reassuringly. "Little as she was, I lay Billy Carew's wife had her say."
"Well," said Miss Jane, "a mouse'll squeal if you tromple on it." Squire Inchly had a jovial appearance ordinarily; but when he found it necessary to wrestle with the moral problems that the sharp tongue of his sister presented to his mind, he was in the habit of putting on his spectacles, as if by that means to examine them more impartially. He put his spectacles on now, and with them a severe judicial frown.
"That's the trouble, Sister Jane,—that's the trouble," he said after a while. "The mouse'll squeal and squeal, but where's the man that ever got use to sech squealin'?"
"Don't pester the mouse then," said Miss Jane, sententiously.
"Old Bradley Gaither," remarked the Squire, showing a disposition to wander away from a dangerous discussion,—"Old Bradley Gaither ain't only got mighty nigh all the Carew plantation, but he's hot arter the balance of it. Last sale-day he took me off behind the Court-house, and, says he—
"'Square,' says he, 'I'd like mighty well for to git that Carew place,' says he.
"'Why, Mr. Gaither,' says I, 'you've in-about got it all now,' says I.
"'Square Ichabod," says he, 'it's only a matter of two hundred acres or thereabouts, and it cuts right spang into my plantation,' says he.
"'Well,' says I, 'two hundred acres ain't much, yit arter all it's a piece of land,' says I.
"'That's so,' says he, 'but I want that land, and I'm willin' for to pay reasonable. I want you to buy it for me, Square,' says he.
"Right across from where we sot," the Squire continued, taking off his spectacles, "old Billy Carew was a cuttin' up and singin' his worldly-reminded gongs, and Jack was a-tryin' for to git him off home.
"'Mr. Gaither,' says I, 'do you want to crowd that poor old creetur out 'n the county?' says I. 'And look at Jack; you won't find a better-favoured youngster,' says I.
"I disremember what he said," the Squire went on; "but when I named Jack he puckered up them thin lips of his'n like he was fortifyin' his mind ag'in anger. I didn't let on about Rose and Jack, Sister Jane, but I reckon Mr. Gaither has got his suspicions. No doubt he has got his suspicions, Sister Jane."
"Ichabod," said Miss Jane, scratching her head with the long teeth of her tucking-comb, "you're too old to be made a tool of. Let old Bradley Gaither do his own buyin' and sellin'. That old scamp is deep as a well. Them that didn't know him'd think he was sanctified; yit he's got devilment enough in him to break the winders out 'n the meetin'-house. Well, he needn't pester wi' Jack and Rose," Miss Jane went on; "Jack'll never marry Rose whilst old Billy Carew is hoppin' along betwixt the grocery and the graveyard. Lord, Lord! to think that sech a no-'count old ereetur as that should be a-ha'ntin' the face of the earth!"
"He took to fiddlin' and drinkin' arter he was fifty year old," remarked the Squire.
"Yes, and the property he hain't drunk up he's fiddled away, till now he hain't got nothin' but a passel of half-free niggers and a little piece of land, and old Bradley Gaither is hungry for that. And that ain't all," exclaimed Miss Jane, solemnly; "Jack is ruined, and Rose is distracted."
"Ah!" said the Squire.
"Yes," said Miss Jane. "Trouble is always double and thribble. Rose was here last Tuesday, and she sot by the winder there and watched Jack all the time she stayed.
"'That's what I call courtship at long taw,' s' I.
"'Yes, Miss Jane,' se' she, 'it is, and I'm in a great deal of trouble about Jack. I understand him, but he don't understand me,' se' she. 'He's mad because father loaned his father money and then took land to pay for it. But I'd marry Jack,' se' she, 'if only to give him his land back.'
"I declare!" Miss Jane continued, "'twould 'a' melted airy heart in the universe to see that child blushin' and cryin', I went and stood by her and put my arms round her, and I says to her, s' I—
"'Don't you fret, honey, don't you fret. Old Billy Carew is full of capers and vain babblin's,' s' I, 'and your pappy is puffed up by his fleshly mind; but the Almighty, he's a-watching' 'em. He'll fetch 'em up wi' a round turn,' s' I; 'He knows how to deal wi' unreasonable and wicked men.' I said them very words."
"Saint Paul said 'em before you, Sister Jane, but you said 'em right,— you said 'em right," exclaimed Squire Inchly, heartily.
"Well, I don't set up to judge nobody, but I don't need no spyglass to see what's right in front of my face," said Miss Jane.
Thus these two old people sat and talked about the affairs of their friends and neighbours,—affairs in which they might be said to have almost a personal interest. The conversation turned to other matters; but across the way they saw enacted some of the preliminaries and accompaniments of a mysterious complication that finally became as distressing and as disastrous as a tragedy.
Old Billy Carew continued to gesticulate with his cane and to talk to himself. He desired no other audience. One moment he would be convulsed with laughter; then he would draw himself up proudly, wave his hand imperiously, and seem to be laying down a proposition that demanded great deliberation of thought and accuracy of expression. After a while his son, apparently growing tired of the humiliating spectacle, left his father to himself, and went over to Squire Inchly's.
Jack Carew was a great favourite with the Squire and his sister. Miss Jane had petted him as a boy; indeed, after the death of his own mother, she had maintained towards him the relations of a foster-mother. His instinct had told him, even when a child, that the asperity of Miss Inehly was merely the humorous mask of a gentle and sensitive heart.
As he flung himself wearily in the chair which Miss Jane had been quick to provide, he seemed, notwithstanding his dejection, to be a very handsome specimen of manhood. His hair was dark, his eyes large and lustrous, his nose straight and firm, and his chin square and energetic. His face was smooth-shaven, and but for the glow of health in his cheeks, his complexion would have been sallow.
"Father has gone to the legislature again," he said with a faint apologetic smile and a motion of the hand toward the scene of the poor old man's alcoholic eloquence.
"Well," said Miss Jane, soothingly, "he hain't the first poor creetur that's flung his welfare to the winds. The Old Boy's mighty busy in these days, but the Almighty hain't dead yit, I reckon, and he'll come along thereckly and set things to rights."
The young man's face grew gloomy as he looked across the way at his homestead. The house was showing signs of neglect, and the fences were falling away here and there, The jagged splinters of a tall oak, whose top had been wrenched off by a storm, were outlined against the sky, and an old man babbled and dribbled near by. On the hither side the Cherokee roses bloomed and the birds sang. It seemed as if some horrible nightmare had thrust itself between Jack Carew and the sweet dreams of his youth.
"I trust you are right, Miss Jane," said Jack, after a long pause; "but He will have to come soon if lie sets my affairs to rights."
"Don't git down-hearted, Jack," exclaimed Miss Jane, laying her hand upon the young man's arm with a motherly touch. "Them that's big-hearted and broad-shouldered hain't got much to be afear'd of in this world. Have you forgot Rose Gaither, Jack?"
"I haven't forgotten Bradley Gaither," said Jack, frowning darkly, "and I won't forget him in a day, you may depend. Bradley Gaither is at the bottom of all the misery you see there." The young man made a gesture that included the whole horizon.
"Ah, Jack!" exclaimed Miss Jane, solemnly, "I won't deny but what old Bradley Gaither is been mighty busy runnin' arter the rudiments of the world, but the time was when you'd kindle up barely at the mention of Rose Gaither's name."
"Shall I tell you the truth, Miss Jane?" asked Jack Carew, turning to Miss Inchly with a frank but bashful smile.
"You've never failed to do that, Jack, when the pinch come."
"Well, this is the pinch, then. But for Rose Gaither I should have sold out here when I first found how matters stood. I could easily sell out now—to Bradley Gaither."
"That's so, Jack, you could," said Squire Inchly, who had been a sympathetic listener. "Yes, sir, you could; there ain't no two ways about that."
"But I wouldn't, and I won't," continued Jack. "Everybody around here knows my troubles, and I propose, to stay here. I haven't forgotten Rose Gaither, Miss Jane, but I'm afraid she has forgotten me. She has changed greatly."
"You look in the glass," said Miss Jane, with a knowing toss of the head, "and you'll see where the change is. Rose was here t'other day, and she stood right in that room there, behind them identical curtains. I wish—but I sha'n't tell the poor child's secrets. I'll say this: the next time you see Rose Gaither a-passin' by, you raise your hat and tell her howdy, and you'll git the sweetest smile that ever man got."
"Miss Jane!" exclaimed Jack Carew, "you are the best woman in the world."
"Except one, I reckon," said Miss Jane, dryly.
Jack Carew rose from his chair, and straightened himself to his full height. He was a new man. Youth and hope rekindled their fires in his eyes. The flush of enthusiasm revisited his face.
"I feel like a new man; I am a new man!" he exclaimed. Then he glanced at the pitiful figure, maundering and sputtering across the way. "I am going home," he went on, "and will put father to bed and nurse him and take care of him just as if—well, just as if I was his mother."
"The Lord'll love you for it, Jack," said Miss Jane, "and so'll Rose Gaither. When ever'thing else happens," she continued, solemnly, "put your trust in the Lord, and don't have no misdoubts of Rose."
The superstition that recognises omens and portents we are apt to laugh at as vulgar, but it has an enduring basis in the fact that no circumstance can be regarded as absolutely trivial. Events apparently the most trifling lead' to the most tremendous results. The wisest of us know not by what process the casual is transformed into the dreadful, nor how accident is twisted into fate.
Jack Carew visited the Inchlys almost daily; yet if he had postponed the visit, the purport of which has been given above, the probability is that he would have been spared much suffering; on the other hand, he would have missed much happiness that came to him at a time of life when he was best prepared to appreciate it. He had determined in his own mind to sell the little land and the few negroes he had saved from the wreck his father's extravagance had made; he had determined to sell these, and slip away with his father to a new life in the West; but his conversation with Miss Jane gave him new hope and courage, so that when Bradley Gaither, a few weeks afterwards, offered to buy the Carew place for two or three times its value, he received a curt and contemptuous message of refusal.
Young Carew was high-strung and sensitive, even as a boy, and events had only served to develop these traits. When he was compelled to leave college to take charge of his father's' affairs, he felt that his name was disgraced for ever. He found, however, that all who had known him were anxious to hold up his hands, and to give him such support as one friend is prepared to give another. If the Pinetuckians were simple-minded, they were also sympathetic, There was something gracious as well as wholesome in their attitude. The men somehow succeeded in impressing him with a vague idea that they had passed through just such troubles in their youth. The idea was encouraging, and Jack Carew made the most of it.
But he never thought of Rose Gaither without a sense of deepest humiliation. He had loved Rose when they were schoolchildren together, but his passion had now reached such proportions that he deeply resented the fact that his school-hoy love had been so careless and shallow a feeling. Now that circumstances had placed her beyond his reach, he regretted that his youthful love experience was not worthier of the place it held in his remembrance. He could forget that Rose Gaither was the daughter of the man to whom he attributed his troubles, but he could never forget that he himself was the son of a man whose weakness had found him out at an age when manhood ought to have made him strong.
Still, Jack Carew made the most of a bad situation. He had the courage, the endurance, and the hopefulness of youth. He faced his perplexities with at least the appearance of good-humour; and if he had his moments of despair, when the skeleton in the jug in the closet paraded in public, Pinetucky never suspected it. The truth is, while Pinetucky was sympathetic and neighbourly, it was not inclined to make a great fuss over those who took a dram too much now and then. Intemperance was an evil, to be sure; but even intemperance had its humorous side in those days, and Pinetucky was apt to look at the humorous side.
One fine morning, however, Pinetuoky awoke to the fact that it was the centre and scene of a decided sensation. Rumour pulled on her bonnet and boots, and went gadding about like mad. Pinetucky was astonished, then perplexed, then distressed, and finally indignant, as became a conservative and moral community. A little after sunrise, Bradley Gaither had galloped up to Squire Inchly's door with the information that two bales of cotton had been stolen from hie place the night before.
The facts, as sot forth by Bradley Gaither, were that he had twelve bales of cotton ready for market. The twelve balei had been loaded upon three, wagons, and the wagons were to start for Augusta at daybreak. At the last moment, when everything was ready, the teams harnessed, and the drivers in their seats, it was discovered that two bales of the cotton were missing. Fortunately, it had rained during the night, and Bradley Gaither had waited until it was light enough to make an investigation. He found that a wagon bad been driven to his packing-screw. He saw, moreover, that but one wagon had passed along the road after the rain, and it was an easy matter to follow the tracks.
The fact of the theft had surprised Squire Inchly, but the details created consternation in his mind. The tracks of the wagon led to the Carew place! Squire Inchly was prompt with a rebuke.
"Why, you've woke up wi' a joke in your mouth, Mr. Gaither. Now that you've spit it out, less start fresh. A spiteful joke before breakfus' 'll make your flesh crawl arter supper, Mr. Gaither."
Squire Inchly spoke seriously, as became a magistrate. Bradley Gaither's thin lips grew thinner as he smiled.
"I'm as serious as the thieves that stole my cotton, Squire Inchly," said Bradley Gaither.
"Two whole bales of cotton in these days is a heavy loss," said the Squire, reflectively. "I hope you'll ketch the inconsiderate parties to the larceny."
"If you will go with me, Squire, we'll call by for Brother Gossett and Colonel Hightower, and if I'm not mistaken we'll find the cotton not far from here."
"Well, sir," said the Squire, indignantly, "you won't find it on the Carew place. I'll go wi' you and welcome. We don't need no search warrant."
The long and the short of it was that the cotton was found concealed in Jack Carew's rickety barn under a pile of fodder. Of those who joined Bradley Gaither in the search, not one believed that the cottor would be found on the Carew place; and some of them had even gone so far as to suggest to Mr. Gaither that his suspicions had been fathered by his prejudices; but that injured individual merely smiled his cold little smile, and declared that there could be no harm in following the wagon tracks. This was reasonable enough; and the result was that not only was the cotton found, but the wagon standing under the shelter, and two mules at the trough in the lot showed signs of having been used.
These things so shocked those who had gone with Bradley Gaither that they had little to say. They stood confounded. They could not successfully dispute the evidence of their eyes.
They were simple-minded men, and therefore sympathetic. Each one felt ashamed. They did not look into each other's eyes and give utterance to expressions of astonishment. They said nothing; but each one, with the exception of Bradley Gaither, fell into a state of mental confusion akin to awe.
When Bradley Gaither, with cm. air of triumph, asked them if they were satisfied, they said nothing, but turned and walked away one after the other.
They turned and walked away, and went to their homes; and somehow after that, though the sun shone as brightly and the birds fluttered and sang as joyously, a silence fell upon Pinetucky,—a silence full of austerity. The men talked in subdued tones when they met, as though they expected justice to discharge one of her thunderbolts at their feet; and the women went about their duties with a degree of nervousness that was aptly described by Miss Jane Inchly long afterwards, when reciting the experiences of that most memorable day in the history of Pinetucky. "I let a sifter drop out 'n my hand," said she, "and I declare to gracious if it didn't sound like a cannon had went off."
In all that neighbourhood the Carews, father and son, had but one accuser, and not one apologist. Pinetucky existed in a primitive period, as we are in the habit of believing now, and its people were simple-minded people. In this age of progress and culture, morality and justice are arrayed in many refinements of speech and thought. They have been readjusted, so to speak, by science; but in Pinetucky in the forties, morality and justice were as robust and as severe as they are in the Bible.
It was not until after the machinery of justice had been set in motion that Pinetucky allowed itself to comment on the case; but the comment was justified by the peculiar conduct of the Carews, When they were confronted with the facts—the cotton concealed in the barn and the warrant in the hands of the sheriff,—old Billy Carew fell to trembling as though he had the palsy. Jack had turned pale as death, and had made a movement toward Bradley Gaither as though to offer violence; but when he saw his father shaking so, the colour returned to his face, and he exclaimed quickly—
"The warrant is for me alone, Mr. Sheriff. Pay no attention to father. He is old, and his mind is weak."
"He's a liar!" the old man screamed, when he found his voice. "He's a miserable liar! He never stole that cotton. Don't tetch him! don't you dast to tetch him! He'll lie to you, but he won't steal your cotton! Put my name in that warrant. Bradley Gaither stole my money and land; I reckon I've got the rights to steal his cotton."
"He's drunk again," said Jack. "We'll carry him in the house, and then I'll be ready to go with you."
But the old man was not carried to the house without a scene. He raved, and screamed, and swore, and finally fell to the ground in a fit of impotent rage, protesting to the last that Jack was a liar. When those who were present had been worked up to the highest pitch of excitement, Bradley Gaither spoke—
"Don't criminate yourself, Jack. I am willing to drop this matter." He appeared to be greatly agitated.
"Drop what matter?" exclaimed young Carew in a passion. "I have a matter with you, sir, that won't be dropped."
"Go your ways, then," said Bradley Gaither; "I've done my duty." With that he mounted his horse, and Jack Carew was left in the hands of the sheriff.