By WILL N. HARBEN
Author of "The Redemption of Kenneth Galt," "Gilbert Neal," "Abner Daniel," "Pole Baker," etc.
WITH FRONTISPIECE A. L. BURT COMPANY PUBLISHERS NEW YORK Published by arrangement with Harper & Brothers Copyright, 1910, by HARPER & BROTHERS
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TO THE MEMORY OF THE LATE RICHARD WATSON GILDER, WHOSE KINDLY APPRECIATION OF THE CHARACTER OF "DIXIE HART" WAS MY INSPIRATION IN WRITING THIS BOOK
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In a blaze of splendor the morning sun broke over the mountain, throwing its scraggy brown bowlders, spruce-pines, thorn-bushes, and tangled vines into impenetrable shadow. Massed at the base and along the rocky sides were mists as dense as clouds, through the filmy upper edges of which the yellow light shone as through a mighty prism, dancing on the dew-coated corn-blades, cotton-plants, and already drinking from the fresh-ploughed, mellow soil of the farm-lands which fell away in gentle undulations to the confines of the village hard by.
"A fellow couldn't ask for a prettier day than this, no matter how greedy he was," Alfred Henley mused as he stood in the doorway of his barn and heard the gnawing of the horses he had just fed in the stalls behind him. A hundred yards distant, on the main-travelled road which ran into the village of Chester, only half a mile away, stood his house, the eight rooms of which were divided into two equal parts by an open veranda, in which there was a shelf for water-pails, tin wash-basins, and a towel on a clumsy roller. A slender woman, with harsh, sharp features, older-looking than her thirty years would have justified, and a stiff figure disguised by few attempts at adornment, was sweeping the veranda floor, and in chairs propped back against the weather-boarding sat an old man and an old woman in the plainest of mountain attire.
For a moment Henley's eyes rested on the group, and he sighed deeply. "Yes, she's my wife," he said. "I owe her every duty, and, before God, I'll stick to my vows and do what's right by her, come what may! She was the only woman I thought I wanted, or ever could want. They say every cloud has a silvery lining, but my cloud was made out of lead—and not rubbed bright at that. I reckon, if the truth must be told, that the whole mistake was of my own making. Whatever the Creator does for good or ill, He don't seem to bother about hitching folks together; He leaves that job to the fools that are roped in. Well, I'm going to stick to the helm and guide my boat the best I can. I made my bed, and I'm as good a sleeper as the average."
Here the attention of the man, who was tall, strong, good-looking, and about thirty-five years of age, was attracted by the dull blows of an axe falling on wood, and, looking over the rail-fence into the yard of an adjoining farm-house, a diminutive affair of only four rooms and a box-like porch, he saw an attractive figure. It was that of a graceful young woman about twenty-two years of age. Her hair, which was a rich golden brown, and had a tendency to curl, was unbound, and as she raised and lowered her bare arms it swung to and fro on her shapely shoulders.
"Poor thing!" the observer exclaimed. "Here I am complaining, and just look at her! A stout, able-bodied man that will grumble over a mistake or two with a sight like that before his eyes ain't worth the powder and lead that it would take to kill him. Look what she's took on her young shoulders, and goes about with a constant smile and song on her red lips. Yes, Dixie Hart shall be the medicine I'll take for my disease. Whenever I feel like kicking over the traces I'll look in her direction. I'd jump this fence and chop that wood for her now if I could do it without old Wrinkle making comment."
Her work finished, the girl turned and saw him. She flushed a shade deeper than was due to her exercise, and with the axe in hand she came to him. Her large hazel eyes held a mystic charm behind the long lashes which seemed actually to melt into the soft pinkness of her skin.
"Good-morning, Alfred," she greeted him, her lips curling in a smile. "I know this ain't where you sell goods, but I thought it might save me a trip to town to ask you if you keep axes at your store. This old plug of a thing is about as sharp as a sledgehammer."
"I've got a few poked away behind the counters somewhere," he laughed, as he always did over her droll and original speech, "but the handles ain't in them, and that is a job for a blacksmith, if they are ever made to hold. Let me see that thing." He took the axe from her, and ran his thumb along the blunt and gapped edge. "Look here, Dixie," he said, "I thought you was too sensible a farmer to discard good tools. This axe is an old-timer; you don't find such good-tempered steel in the axes made to sell these days, with their lying red and blue labels pasted on 'em. Give this one a good grinding and it will chop all the wood you'll ever want to cut. Let me have it this morning. I've got a grindstone at the store, and I'll make Pomp put a barber's edge on it."
"Of course you'll let me pay—"
"Pay nothing!" he broke in. "That nigger is taking the dry rot; he's asleep under the counter half the time. The idea of you delving in the hot sun with a tool that won't cut mud! You oughtn't to chop wood, nohow. You ain't built for it. Your place is in the parlor of some rich man's house, leaning back in a rocking-chair, with a good carpet under foot."
"That's the song mother and Aunt Mandy sing from morning to night," the girl smiled, showing her perfect teeth. "They want me to quit work, and get some man to tote my load. I reckon if the average young fellow out looking for a wife could see behind the hedge he'd think twice before he jumped into the thorns."
Henley laughed again, his eyes resting admiringly on her animated face. "I reckon the gals wouldn't primp so much either if they could see the insides of their prize-packages," he returned. "I reckon neither side is as wise while courting is going on as they are after the knot is tied. Folks hereabouts certainly have plenty to say about me and my venture."
There was a frank admission of the truth of his remark in the girl's reply. "Well, if I was you, I wouldn't let anything they say bother me," she said, sympathetically. "Mean people will say mean things; but you've got friends that stick to you powerful close. I've heard many a one say that in taking your wife's father-and mother-in-law to live with you, and treating them as nice as you have, you are doing what not one man in ten thousand would do."
"I don't deserve any credit for that—not one bit," the young man declared. "I'm not going to pass as better than I am, Dixie; I'm just human, neither better nor worse than the average. I reckon you've heard about how I happened to get married?"
"Not from you, Alfred," the girl answered, in a kindly tone. "I have often wondered if the busybodies got it straight. I've heard that you used to go to see your wife before she married the first time."
"Yes, me and Dick Wrinkle was both after her in a neck-and-neck race, taking her to parties, corn-shuckings, and anything that was got up. Hettie never was, you know, exactly pretty, but she had a sort o' queer, say-little way about her that caught my eye. I was a gawky boy, as green as a gourd, and never had been about with women. Dick was just the opposite: he was a reckless, splurging chap that dressed as fine as a fiddle, wasn't afraid to talk, joke, and carry on, and he could dance to a queen's taste; so he naturally had all the gals after him. I was afraid he was going to cut me out, and I was fool enough to—well, I used to hope, when I'd see him so popular in company, that he'd make another choice. And he might—he might have done it—for he was the most wishy-washy chap that ever cocked his eye at a woman; he might, I say, if me an' him hadn't had a regular knock-down-and-drag-out row. He was drinking once, and said more than I could stand about a hoss trade I'd made with a cousin o' his, and it ended in blows. The crowd parted us, and he went one way and me another; but after that he hated me like a rattlesnake, and he told her not to let me come there again. He might not have made that demand if he had thought it over, for it sorter give 'er a stick to poke 'im with. She used to say nice things about me to egg him on, and he often went with her for no other reason than to keep me away. Well, you can see how it was. She wanted to beat the other gals, and he wanted to outdo me, and, in the wrangle, they got married one day all of a sudden."
"And you felt bad, I reckon," Dixie Hart said, sympathetically.
"I wanted to die," Henley answered, grimly. "I cursed man and God. That gal was my life. I was as blind as a bat in daytime."
"Then I've heard," the girl pursued, "that he neglected her and finally went off West with Hank Bradley, and almost quit writing to her."
"Yes," Henley nodded, "and she moped about home as pale as a dead person, and never seemed interested in anything that was going on. All that didn't do me any good, I'm here to tell you. Her trouble become mine. I toted it night and day. I wasn't fit for work. I was as nigh crazy as a man could well be out of an asylum."
"Then the news come back that he was dead?" The girl leaned on the fence and looked down.
"Yes; Hank Bradley come home, and told how Dick was blowed away in the awful tornado that destroyed that new town in Oklahoma. Hank had helped hunt for his body; but it never could be identified among the hundreds that was picked up, and so his remains never was brought home. That one fact nearly killed Hettie. I'm talking plain, Dixie, but me and you are good, true friends, and I want you, anyway, to understand my fix. I used to watch her taking walks all by herself in the woods, always in her thick, black veil, and bowed over like, as if she was under a heavy load. I reckon no woman the Lord ever constructed is quite as attractive to the eye uncovered as she is partly hid, for we are always hunting for perfection, and so nothing under the sun seemed to me to be so good and pure and desirable as Hettie did. I even gloried in the attention she paid his mammy and daddy. I thought it was fine and noble, and that it gave the lie to the charge that women are changeable. I don't want you to think that I rate her any lower now, either, Dixie, for I don't. She's a sight better woman than I am a man, and I certainly dogged the life out of her till she agreed to marry me. She told me fair and square at the start that she'd always love him, and I told her that it wouldn't matter a bit. It hurts my pride a little now, but that ain't her lookout. Folks say she's odd and peculiar, and that may be so, too, but she was that way all along, and it's a waste of time to criticise anybody for what they can't help."
"I've always liked her," the girl said. "She certainly attends to her own business, and that is more than I can say for my chief enemy, Carrie Wade. Alfred, that girl hates the ground I walk on, and yet she keeps coming to see me. She has me on her visiting list so she can devil me. She has no work to do at home, and so she comes over to nag me. She never has a beau or gets a thing to wear without trotting over to tell me about it or flaunt it in my face. She even makes fun of me for having to work in the field, and is actually insulting sometimes. I'd shut the door in her face, but it would only please her to think she'd made me mad."
"She's more anxious to get attention from men than any woman I ever laid eyes on," Henley declared, resentfully. "When drummers come to sell me goods, she scents 'em a mile down the road, and is in the store pretending to want to buy some knickknack or other before they open their samples. I oughtn't to talk agin a lady, Dixie, but she lays herself open to it, and is so much like a man in some things that I forget what's due her as a woman. She has such a sneering way, too. That reminds me. I heard her mention my name when I passed you and her at the spring the other day. I couldn't hear what she said, but from the way she snickered I knew she was poking fun. I caught this much: she said that I was the only man on earth who was fool enough to do something or other. I couldn't hear what it was, and I didn't care much, but—" Henley broke off, and for a moment his eyes rested on the averted face of his companion.
"I don't carry tales," Dixie finally said, with a touch of embarrassment, "but I've a good mind to tell you exactly what she said, Alfred, so that you won't think it is worse than it really was. It wasn't such an awful thing, and she was laughing more at her own smartness than at you. She said—she said you was the only man under the sun who had gone so far as to adopt a step-father-in-law. Now, that wasn't so terrible, was it?"
A sickly smile struggled for existence on the face of the storekeeper, and his color rose. "Well, that was a new way to put it, anyway," he said. "I think I could laugh hearty at that joke if it was on some other fellow, and I'm glad you told me what it was. I didn't know but what she was saying something even nastier than that."
"She really said some nice things," Dixie went on, diplomatically. "She said it was good of you to give a home to the Wrinkles, and—"
"As I said just now, I won't take credit for that," Henley broke in; "in fact, I'd have refused if I could have done it. It come as a surprise, and it almost knocked me silly. I'd counted on Hettie doing a good many odd things, but I never expected that. So when she come home from the camp-meeting, where there had been such a big religious upheaval, and said she'd met the old man and woman there, and that they both looked so lonely and peaked and ill-fed that she felt like she was acting unfaithful to Dick's memory in living in one county and them in another—well, that's the way it happened. I confess I never thought the pair looked so bad when they come over, for they was awful cheerful, and seemed to 'a' been fed on the fat of the land. Hettie told me afterward that she'd been sending 'em all her spare change, so that was explained. You'd never know the old woman was about unless you stumbled over her in the dark, for she is as quiet as a mouse, and never says a thing nor listens to anybody but him. He's all right. The old man's all right. I really think I'd miss 'im if he was to leave. I never like to encourage him too much, but I often laugh at the jokes he plays on folks. People poke fun at me for having him around, but he drives off the blues sometimes. He showed me what to expect from him the first day he got here. He come down to the store, and walked in and looked around till he saw the tobacco-boxes behind the counter, and he went to 'em and pulled a plug off of each one, and smelt of 'em and looked at 'em in the light. Then he took the best one and sidled over to me. He run his hand down in his pocket, and I thought he was going to pay me for it, but he was just hunting for his knife. He grinned as he clipped a corner off the plug, and stuck it betwixt his short teeth. 'You'll find that I'm a great chawer and smoker, Alf,' he said. Then he axed me if I had such a thing as a empty dry-goods box about, and when I pointed to some in the back-yard that I was saving to put seed-corn in, he said he'd take one and wanted me to have the horses and wagon sent over for a pig they had left. 'I wouldn't send for it,' he said, 'but it has got to be a sort of pet. Its pen used to be right at our window, an' me an' the old lady miss its squealing, especially in the morning. It is as good as an alarm-clock.'"
The girl wiped a smile from her merry mouth. "Excuse me, Alfred," she said, "but it does seem powerful funny. It must be the way you tell it."
"I'm glad it's funny to somebody, and you are more than excusable," he said, dryly. "If I could get as good a joke as that on an enemy of mine I'd never kill 'im in a duel; I'd keep him alive to laugh at."
"You didn't say whether Mr. Wrinkle paid for the tobacco or not," Dixie reminded him, expectantly.
"Well, I'll tell you now that he didn't," was the answer, "nor for a pocketful of red stick-candy which he took from a jar. He said it was for his wife's sweet tooth; but if she got any of it she met him on the road home, for he was chucking it in at a great rate as he walked away."
They both glanced toward Henley's house. They saw the subject of their remarks emerge from the kitchen door, and hang his slouch hat on a nail on the veranda, and reach for the dinner-horn.
"He's going to blow for me," Henley smiled, as the spluttering blast from the horn rang out and reverberated from the mountain-side. "Breakfast is ready. He eats like a horse at all times, and is as hardy as a mountain-goat. I'm going to call him 'Kind Words.'"
"Kind Words"? Dixie looked up inquiringly and smiled. "That's as odd as Carrie's 'stepfather-in-law.' Why are you going to call him that?"
"Because," and Henley glanced back as he was moving away, "the Sunday-school hymn says, 'Kind words can never die,' and I know old Wrinkle won't."
As Henley, the axe in hand, approached the house, his stepfather-in-law, with considerable clatter, was hanging the horn on its nail.
"I noticed you was talkin' to Dixie Hart at the fence," he said, as he discarded his quid of tobacco and stroked his grizzled chin, on which a week-old beard grew. "Well, if I wasn't no older'n you are, an' was as good-lookin', which maybe I ain't, I'd chin 'er over the fence mornin', noon, and night—married or unmarried. Man laws was made to keep us straight, I reckon; but when the Lord Himself lived on earth they wasn't quite as bindin' as folks try to make 'em now. A feller, in that day an' time, could be introduced to a new wife every mornin' at breakfast, if he could afford to keep a drove of 'em, and still be looked up to as a wise man and a prophet."
"Dixie was talking about buying a new axe," Henley answered, "but I told her this one was good enough, and that I'd make Pomp grind it."
"She's as purty as red shoes," old Jason said. "And if she hain't had a load to bear, no female ever toted one. Talk about justice! Why, Alf, that gal hain't had a thimbleful sence she was a baby. She has set out to make a livin' fer a mammy that can't hardly see where she's walkin', and an aunt that is mighty nigh tied in a knot with rheumatism, and she is doin' it—bless yore life!—better'n many a man could in the same plight. Folks say she's already paid old Welborne half on that farm, and that before long she'll own it, lock, stock, and barrel. As you may 'a' noticed, I sometimes poke jabs of fun at women, but I never do at her. Somehow I jest can't. I was a-settin' right back of Carrie Wade an' some more frisky gals at meetin' last Sunday when Dixie come in an' tuck a seat on the bench ahead of 'em. I don't let women bother me, one way or another, but I got rippin' mad at that gang. They was makin' sport of her. One of 'em re'ched over an' felt of the ribbon on the pore gal's hat, and then they stuffed the'r handkerchiefs in the'r mouths and come nigh bustin' with giggles. Them sort think they are the whole show, with their white hands, smellin'-stuff, and the'r eyes on every man that passes, while a gal like Dixie Hart is overlooked. I've stood thar at the gate and watched her out in her corn or cotton in the br'ilin' sun with her hoe goin' up and down as regular as the tick of a clock, while the other gals was whiskin' by in some drummer's dinky-top buggy or takin' a snooze flat o' the'r backs in a cool room."
"Is breakfast ready?" Henley asked, with an appreciative nod in recognition of remarks he did not wish to prolong, as he leaned the axe against the front gate and ascended the steps.
"Sech as it is," the old man answered, taking another tack. "When me an' Jane decided to come here to reside, Hettie was goin' to do wonders in the cookin' line. She was particular to ax just what our favorite dishes was, and you may remember how she spread herse'f the fust three days after we was installed. It was like a camp-meetin'. You couldn't think of a single article that she didn't have ready, in some shape or other. But after 'while hot things quit comin' and cold uns appeared that had a familiar look, and now me and you and all of us set down to the same old seven and six. Well, my jaw teeth ain't as good as they used to be, and I make out by soakin' my bread-crust in my coffee. Hettie says she's goin' to have me an' Jane both fitted out with store sets. Folks that have tried 'em say they beat the old sort all holler—that you kin crack hickory-nuts if you have both upper and lower and git a fair clamp on 'em and use yore muscles."
Henley turned into the big dining-room, where his "stepmother-in-law," a diminutive woman, sat at the foot of the oblong table dressed in faded black, even to the poke sunbonnet which, worn indoors and out, completely hid her wrinkled face. Mrs. Henley, as he seated himself on the side of the board opposite Wrinkle, came from the adjoining kitchen carrying a steaming pot of coffee, which she put by her plate at the head of the table, and sat down stiffly. The smooth floor of the room was bare save for a few rugs made of varicolored rags. The walls had a few cheap pictures on them—brilliant old-fashioned prints in mahogany frames, and some enlarged photographs in tawdry gilt. The wide hearth of a deep chimney was whitewashed, as was also the exposed brickwork up to a crude mantelpiece on which towered a Colonial clock with wooden wheels, ornamental dial, ponderous weights, and a painted glass door.
Mrs. Henley had not always been so unattractive; her dark eyes were good and her face held the glow of fine health. She had added to the severity of her sharp features by the too-elderly manner in which she parted her hair exactly in the centre of her high brow and brushed it sharply backward to a scant knot behind. She wore constantly an expression of one who was well aware of the fact that vast and vague duties to the dead as well as to the living rested on her and which should be performed at any cost. She was not usually talkative, and she had few observations to make this morning. As she nibbled the hot biscuit, upon which she had daintily spread a bit of butter, she allowed her glance to rove perfunctorily over the three plates beyond her own. She asked Wrinkle if his coffee was strong enough, and the gap in the black bonnet if the mush was too lumpy. From the bonnet came a mumbling content with the yellow mass into which cream was being slowly stirred with a quivering hand. Wrinkle seemed more ready in the use of his tongue.
"I hain't got no complaint to make," he said. "Especially sence Alf said t'other day at the store that coffee was on the rise. I was curious to see how this batch would sample out. I reckon when the market takes a jump storekeepers has to take a lower grade to keep customers satisfied with the price. But it won't work ef they are as good a judge of the stuff as I am. I parched this lot myself and picked out heaps o' rotten grains."
"They wasn't rotten," Henley explained, authoritatively. "They was water-stained by a wet crop-year, that's all. You was throwing away good coffee."
"Good or not, the chickens wouldn't eat it," argued the tangled head. "I know, fer I watched 'em. They was hangin' round the kitchen-door and would run every time I throwed out a handful, but they didn't swallow 'em any more'n they would so many buckshot. But prices nor nothin' else will ever git right, if I am any judge, till we git free silver. I tell you, Alf, that man Bryant is the biggest gun, by all odds, that ever belched fire in the defence of a helpless nation, and when them dratted Yankees tricked 'im out of the Presidency they put the ball an' chain o' slavery on every citizen of this fair land. Bryant told 'em that sixteen to one would do the work, and what did they say? Huh, they said he was a fool and didn't know how to figure. I tell you if he was a fool, Solomon was a idiot. Who was the'r brag man up in Yankeedom?—why, Abe Lincoln—an' what did he ever do but set back in the White House and tell smutty jokes, while the rest o' the country was walkin' on its uppers, eatin' hardtack, sweatin' blood, an' spittin' out minnie-balls. That man"—Wrinkle swallowed as he pointed the prongs of his fork at the crayon portrait of Henley's predecessor, which, with shaggy mustache and partially bald pate, in a new oaken frame, hung near the clock—"that man was a Bryant supporter from the minute the sixteen-to-one proposition electrocuted the world to the day of his death."
"Electrofied," corrected Mrs. Henley. "You oughtn't to use words out of the common. People don't understand them hereabouts."
"Well, they ought to grow up to it," Wrinkle grunted in his cup. "I read more'n they do, I reckon, an' sometimes a word tickles me till I git it out."
Henley ate his breakfast in silence. He was known to be a good talker himself, but he seldom indulged the tendency when Wrinkle was present. The meal over, he took his hat and went out. The road passing the farm-house led straight into the main street of the village, and along it he strode in the soothing, crisp air. His store stood on the square which encompassed the stone court-house. The store was a plain wooden building which had never been painted, but had received from time and the weather a gray, fuzzy coat which answered every purpose. It was about eighty feet long by thirty in width, and had a porch in front, which was reached from the sidewalk by a few steps. Ascending to the door, Henley unlocked it and proceeded from the rather dark interior to unscrew the faded green window-shutters. These thrown back on the outside, the light filled the long room, displaying two rows of counters and shelving. The right-hand side was devoted to dry goods and notions, the left to groceries, hardware, and crockery. Henley went on to the rear, where, by lifting a massive wooden bar from iron sockets, he opened a door in one side of the house. Next he took up a water-pail from an inverted soap-box, and, emptying the contents, he went to the well in the adjoining yard, a fenced enclosure which contained a conglomerate mass of old junk, broken-down wagons, buggies, agricultural implements, and other odds and ends which the merchant had bought very low or taken in some sort of exchange for new wares whereby they had cost him practically nothing. Returning with the water, he had just seated himself at his desk in the rear when his clerk, James Cahews, entered at the front, busied himself putting out some samples of hardware on the porch, and then came back to his employer. He was tall, well built, had very blue eyes, yellow hair, and a sweeping mustache which was well curled at the ends. He was without a coat and wore a blue cravat and a shirt of fancy cotton which matched none too well.
"You beat me to the tank again, Alf," was his jovial greeting. "I would have got here sooner, but I stopped to drive Mrs. Hayward's cow in for her. The blamed huzzy took a notion to prance about over the school-house lot, and the old lady is too near-sighted to see which way to turn and was afraid she'd get hooked."
"No hurry, no hurry," Henley said, as the other took up a battered tin sprinkling-pot and, filling it from the pail, began to dampen and sweep the floor, after which he lazily wiped the counters with a soiled towel.
"Pomp will be here after a while," the clerk said, pausing near where Henley sat, his glance thoughtfully on the sunlit ground in the yard. "I come by his cabin. He said he had to run for some medicine for his wife, and I told him I'd sweep out for him. Them dern niggers had rather take medicine than eat ice-cream at a festival. I don't know that it's anybody else's business," he went on, after he had stood the broom in a corner and was wiping the top of Henley's desk, "but thar is considerable talk going around that you intend to take a trip to Texas."
"I'm thinking seriously of it," Henley admitted. "I've heard of a deal or two in land out there that I want to get a finger in. You know, Jim, that I don't really make my best trades here in this shack; nothing worth while seems to come this way. I reckon it's because this country is old and settled. In a new, undeveloped section like that out there big things is continually happening. The general impression is that a trading-man can make more amongst ignorant folks than amongst keen traffickers, but it is a mistake. Folks that ain't born with the flea of speculation wigglin' in their brain-pans won't never let loose of nothing. It is the feller that is eternally on the lookout for opportunities that will sell the shirt off his back to raise money when he thinks he sees an opening. Then there ain't no fun nor Christianity in making money out of a fool. I want to know that a feller is up to snuff and fairly in the game, and then I'll swat 'im if it is in my power. It's been the ambition of my life to get the best of old Welborne across the street there. He's made his pile off of widows and orphans, and if I ever get him under my thumb I'll crack every bone in his hide."
"Traders that have the knack of it like you have, Alf, are simply born that way," Cahews smiled. "I never had any turn of that sort. I can talk an old woman into buyin' a dress pattern off of a shelf-worn bolt of linsey, or a pair of shoes too tight for her, but this way you have of buying a feller's wagon that breaks down in the road and having it patched up by a blacksmith that owes you money, and selling the wagon for more than it cost new—well, as I say, I don't know how to do it."
"I believe myself, as you say, that the trading turn is born in a feller," Henley laughed, reminiscently. "I know I was swapping knives 'sight unseen' when I was wearing petticoats. I had a stock of old ones and I kept the jaws of 'em rubbed up bright. My daddy used to whip me for it. He was one of the best men, Jim, that ever wore shoe-leather, and he never could stand to see one neighbor get the best of another. He was dead agin all the deals I made when I was growing up, but I learnt him the trick and showed him the beauty of it before I was twenty."
"You say you did?" Cahews sat down and eyed his employer eagerly.
"Yes, it come about through my fust hoss-trade," Henley smiled. "It was this way. Pa was on the lookout for a hoss to do field-work, and he let everybody know he had the money, and a good many came his way. He wasn't any judge of hoss-flesh, and a gypsy, passing along, stuck him—burned the old chap clean to the bone. It was a flea-bitten hoss that was as round and slick as a ball of butter, and as active under the gypsy's lash and spur as a frisky young colt. The gypsy said he had paid two hundred for him, but, as he was anxious to get to his sick wife in Atlanta, he would make it a hundred and fifty and be thankful that he'd made one man happy. The old man was his meat. He told him he only had a hundred and twenty-five, and—well, the gypsy was a smooth article. He wanted to get his eye on the cash. He said a whole lot about havin' had counterfeit money paid to him, an' that he had to be careful, and with that Pa went to the house and got the money and spread it out before the skunk to prove that it was all right. And in that way the chap got his hands on it. He shed some tears as he put it into his pocket. Pa said he kissed the hoss square betwixt the eyes and rubbed him on the nose and went away with his head hanging down."
"I catch on," the clerk broke in, deeply interested; "it was stolen property, and your Pa had to give 'im up."
"No, the titles was all right," Henley answered, dryly. "The time come when Pa would have greeted any claimant with open arms. The hoss had the disease traders call 'big shoulders.' I was a mile or two off when the calamity fell, but somebody told me Pa'd bought a hoss, and I come home as fast as I could. I found Ma and Pa out in the stable-yard, and he was fairly chattering over his wonderful bargain, and what a kind heart the gypsy had. Pa saw me and grinned from ear to ear.
"'Say, Alf,' he said, 'you are always making your brags about knowing hoss-flesh; what do you think of this prince of the turf?'
"I walked round in front of the animal to size him up, and my heart sunk 'way down in my boots. 'Pa,' I said, 'it looks to me like he's got "big shoulders."'
"'Big nothing!' Pa said; but when he stood in front and took a squint I saw him turn pale. 'Big shoulders, a dog's hind-foot!' he grunted, and he was so mad at me that he could hardly talk. He put the hoss in a stall and jowered at me all that evening, and at the supper-table he clean forgot to ask the blessing. The more he feared I was right the worse he got, till Ma had to call him to order by putting the family Bible in his lap and making him read and pray. I couldn't help laughing, as serious as it was; for while we was on our knees the thought struck me that he ought to ask the Lord to bless that gypsy and restore his wife to health. Well, I was right. Early the next morning, after a good night's rest and plenty of water and feed, we found the hoss lying down. He'd get up and go about a little whenever we'd prod 'im, but he'd lie down whenever our backs was turned."
"I've seen hosses like that," Cahews remarked, "and they might as well be shot."
"That's exactly what Pa decided to do, after two weeks' nursing and cajoling," Henley laughed. "He come in to the breakfast-table one morning with his rifle in his clutch, a sort of resigned look in his eyes.
"'What are you going to do, Pa?' I asked him.
"'Why, I see that danged thing has got on one of his lively spells,' he said, 'and I'm going to shoot him while he's at his best. If there is any hoss-heaven, he'd make a better appearance like he is now than at any other time. I've had my fill. The sight of that hoss peeping out betwixt the bars every day at meal-time and lying on a bed of ease the rest of the day is driving me crazy. He'll be on his way in a few minutes if I can shoot straight.'
"'No, don't kill 'im,' I said, my trading blood up. 'Let me ride 'im to town while he's lively and maybe I can git rid of him. I might get a few dollars for his hide, and that would be better than having to dig a hole to put 'im in.'
"'No, don't kill 'im here,' Ma said, for she had a tender heart—God bless her memory—and so the old man hung his gun up on the rack and went to eating, almost too mad to swallow. Well, after the meal was over I saddled the hoss and rid into town at a purty lively gait. It was really astonishing what a decent trot the thing could take at times. You see, I'd heard that Tobe Wilks, a big hardware man at Carlton, who had a plantation in the country, was looking for a hoss, and I thought I'd see what he'd say to mine. I was jest a boy, but I'd hung around hoss-swappers enough to know that it never was a good idea to be the first to propose a trade, and so I hitched at the post in front of Wilks's store and went in. I bought a pound of tenpenny nails, that I thought would come in handy in patching fences at home, and while the clerk was weighing 'em up I saw Tobe leave his chair behind a counter and go out and walk around the hoss. Finally he come to me and said, said he:
"'Alf, does your Pa want to sell that stack of bones out there?'
"'He don't,' says I, 'fer the hoss is mine; he gave 'im to me.'
"'Oh, that's it!' said Wilks; 'well, do you want to sell him?'
"'Well, I ain't itchin' fer a trade,' I says, and I paid no more attention to Wilks, pretending to be looking at some ploughshares in a pile on the floor, till he come at me again.
"'But you would sell him, wouldn't you?' he asked.
"'Well,' I said, slowlike, as if I had some difficulty in recalling exactly what we'd been talking about, 'I had sorter thought that a good mule would do the work I have to do better than a hoss.'
"'What would you take for him?' Wilks come at me again, and he looked kinder anxious. 'I want a hoss to send out to my plantation. They are needing one about like yours.'
"'It will take a hundred and fifty of any man's money to buy him,' I says. 'Friend nor foe don't get him for a cent less.'
"Well, we went out to the hoss, and Wilks got astraddle of him, and, sir, he took him round the square in the purtiest rack you ever saw shuffle under a saddle. I saw Wilks thought I was his game, for his eyes was dancing as he lit and hitched.
"'How would a hundred and forty strike you, cash down?' he said.
"'I'm needing the other ten,' I said. 'I'm a one-price man. I know what I've got in that hoss' (and you bet I did), 'and you can take him or leave him. I didn't start the talk, nohow.'
"'Well, we won't fight over the ten,' he said, 'but here is one trouble, Alf. You are under age, and I don't often trade with minors. I don't know how your daddy may look at it, and I'm going to make this deal before witnesses so there won't be any trouble later.'
"'You'll not have any trouble with Pa,' says I. 'I'll guarantee that.'
"Well, Wilks called up two of his clerks to see the money handed to me, and with the wad of bills in my pocket I lit out for home. But the nearer I got to the house the more I got afraid Pa wouldn't endorse what I'd done, and so I felt sorter funny when him and Ma met me at the gate, their eyes wide open in curiosity to know what I'd done.
"'Well, what did you do with the hoss?' Pa wanted to know.
"'I sold him,' says I. 'I let him go to Tobe Wilks for cash.'
"'Cash the devil,' says Pa. 'How much?'
"I drawed out my roll and fluttered the bills in the wind. 'A hundred and fifty,' I said. 'If I'd asked less he'd have been suspicious and backed out.'
"Well, sir, Pa was plumb flabbergasted. He leaned against the gate-post and puffed for air, and Ma was the same way. But he wouldn't touch the money. 'It's plain open-and-shut stealing,' he said, when he riz to the surface, 'and we are simply going to hitch a hoss to the buggy and take the money back.'
"Well, it looked like it was no go. I argued and produced evidence till I was black in the face, but Pa just kept saying he wouldn't sanction no such deal, and Ma she agreed with him. So you bet I felt like a whipped school-boy as me and him set side by side and drove into town. He was bewailing all the way that he'd fetched into the world an only son that was no better than a hog-thief in principle, an', if I didn't change, me 'n him would have to part.
"When we got to the square I saw Tobe Wilks standing in the door of the store, and I saw that he was mad. At first I thought he'd found out about the hoss, but I saw it wasn't that as soon as he reached the buggy.
"'Now, I'll tell you right now,' he said to Pa, when the old man drawed the roll out and started to hand it to him over my legs. 'You sha'n't come here and try to back down in a fair trade like that. I made it before witnesses, and your boy said he had your consent. I've sent the hoss out home, and I don't do business that way.' Pa tried to get in a word, but Tobe 'ud cut him short as soon as he opened his mouth, so the old man couldn't do anything but wave the money at him.
"'If you get the hoss you'll do it by law,' Tobe went on, fairly frothing at the mouth, 'and I'll put your boy in the pen for selling stolen property. You can't browbeat me, you old hog.'
"'Old hog!' I heard Pa grunt in his beard, and he stuffed the roll down in his pants pocket. Now Pa wouldn't take advantage of his worst enemy in a trade, but he'd fight a bosom friend if he was insulted. And before I could bat my eyes he had lit out of the buggy, and him and Wilks was engaged in a scrap that'ud make two wildcats go off and take lessons. The town marshal run up and parted them by the aid of bystanders, and some of 'em persuaded me to drive Pa home. He was a good, holy man, but he cussed all the way, and ended by saying that Wilks never should see hair nor hide of that money. And he never offered it back again, neither, and him and Wilks never spoke for two years. Pa bought a fine Kentucky mare with the money, and used to chuckle every time she'd pass him. He got so he thought hoss-trading wasn't the worst crime on earth."
"And what became of the hoss?" the listener asked.
"I never knew," Henley answered; "men don't advertise such things when they go against them. But one day, during election, Tobe asked me to cast a vote for his son, and I promised to do it, and we got kinder friendly. As he was leaving me he turned back and laid his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Alf, I've wondered many a time what in the name of common-sense your Pa wanted with that hoss.'
"'So have I,' said I, and he went one way and me another."
Pomp, the negro porter, was entering the door, and with a laugh Cahews turned to meet him.
The gray light of early dawn had taken on a faint tint of yellow, and the profound stillness of the air, the vast quietude of the mountain foliage and drooping corn-blades gave warning of the fierce heat that was to follow.
Dixie Hart turned her head drowsily on her pillow and opened her eyes and closed them again. "Oh, I could sleep, sleep, sleep till doomsday," she said to herself. "I wish I didn't have to get up. I'd like to take one day off. I could lie here flat on my back till night. But, old girl, you've got to be up an' doing."
She heard the clucking and scratching of her hens, the chirping of the tiny chickens, and the lusty crowing of her roosters in their answering calls to neighboring fowls, the neighing of her horse in the stable, the mooing of her cow in the barn-yard.
"They are all begging me to hurry," she mused. "They don't want to sleep; they've had their fill through the night, while I had to be up. Well, repining don't make good dining, and here goes."
She dressed herself, went out on the little kitchen porch, bathed in fresh, cool well-water, and, with a coarse towel which hung from a nail on the door-jamb, she rubbed her face, arms, and neck till they glowed like the reddening skies.
"My two women, as sound as they pretend to sleep, are crazy for their coffee," she smiled, "but they've got to wait, like people at a circus do, till the animals are fed. The older folks get, the earlier they go to bed and the earlier they rise. Heaven only knows where it will end. If mine could get their suppers early enough they would say good-night at sundown and good-morning when it was so dark you couldn't see 'em in their night-clothes."
"Dixie, is that you, darling?" It was Mrs. Hart's voice, and it came from the open window of a tiny room with a sloping roof which jutted out from the end of the kitchen.
"Yes'm. What is it, mother?"
"Nothing." A thin hand drew a white curtain aside, and a pale, wrinkled face, surrounded by dishevelled iron-gray hair, appeared above the window-sill. "I just wanted to know if you was up. I heard you through the night. Your aunt was suffering, wasn't she?"
"Yes, she couldn't sleep," Dixie replied, as she spread the damp towel out on the shelf where the coming sun's rays would dry it. "She says she sat too long at the spring yesterday. I got up and rubbed her arms and chest twice with the new liniment. It smells like it's got laudanum in it; but it didn't deaden her pain."
"I'd 'a' got up myself," Mrs. Hart said, in her plaintive tone, "but I can't see good enough to help."
"It's well you didn't," Dixie said, lightly, "for you'd just have made double trouble. I'd have laid down my patient and let her grin and bear her pain while I was trotting you back to bed and making you lie there. Don't you ever get up and go stumbling about in the dark while I'm attending to anything like that."
"I think I'll get up and make the coffee while you are feeding," Mrs. Hart said. "Mandy nearly dies waiting for it to come after she wakes up."
"That's right, lay it on her," Dixie laughed, impulsively. "You are getting like a ripe old toper who is always begging whiskey for somebody else. You let that coffee-pot alone. The last time you tried your hand at it you put in a double quantity of corn-meal and couldn't understand why it didn't have a familiar smell as it was boiling."
"I believe a body does become a slave to the habit," the old woman agreed. "The other day you was over at Carlton, and left enough already made for dinner, I accidentally spilled it, and me and Mandy went nearly crazy. It was one of her bad days, and she couldn't get up, and I couldn't find the coffee."
"I remember," Dixie answered, "and you both swigged so much at supper to make up for it that you wanted to talk all night. Oh, you two are a funny lot! But you've got to wait this time, sure. I'm going to feed these things and stop their noise."
She had reference to half a hundred fowls, young and old, that were squawking loudly and fluttering on the steps and even the porch floor. She disappeared in the kitchen and returned in a moment with a dish-pan half filled with corn-meal, and into this she poured a quantity of water, and with her hand stirred the mass into a thick mush. This she began to throw here and there over the yard like a sower of grain till the voices of the fowls had ceased and they had fled from the porch. Then she took up a pail of swill in the kitchen and bore it down to a pen containing a couple of fat pigs and emptied it into their wooden trough. Going into a little corn-crib adjoining the stable and wagon-shed, she brought out a bucketful of wheat-bran and fed it to the cow, which stood trying to lick the back of a sleek young calf over the low fence in another lot. "I'll milk you after breakfast," she said, as she stroked the cow's back. "The calf will have to wait; I can't attend to all humanity and the brute creation at the same time. You'll feel more like suckling the frisky thing, anyway, after you've filled your insides."
The sun was above the horizon when she had breakfast on the table in the little kitchen. She stood in the space between the cooking-stove and the table and attended to the wants of the half-blind woman and the all but helpless aunt. The biscuits she had baked were light and brown as autumnal leaves, the eggs fried with bacon in thin lean-and-fat slices would have tempted the palate of a confirmed invalid. The aroma of the coffee floated like a delectable substance through the still air.
"It's going to be awfully hot to-day," Mrs. Wartrace, the widowed aunt, remarked. "I hope you are not going to hoe in the sun this morning."
"Huh!" Dixie sniffed, as she sat down at the end of the table and began to butter a hot biscuit, "and let the crab-grass and pussley weeds literally choke out the best stand of cotton I ever laid my eyes on. No, siree, not me. I'd hire hands, but all the niggers have gone to town where there are more back-doors to live at; no, there is nothing for me to do but to look out for number one. See here, you two women don't seem to be able to look ahead. I've paid for half of this farm in the last three years, and in two more I'll own it. It is a good thing as it stands, but when I'm plumb out of debt we'll take it easy and set back in the shade once in a while. Alf Henley is a keen trader and knows what values are, and he told me not long ago that he believed a railroad would head for Chester some day, and, if it comes, my land would sell for town lots. Let's let well enough alone and be thankful for the blessings we've got. That's right, Aunt Mandy, drain it to the dregs and I'll fill it again. I knew I'd hit it exactly right this morning by the color of it."
Breakfast was over, and Dixie, aided by the fumbling hands of her mother, was washing and drying the few dishes and putting them away in the safe with perforated tin doors, which was the chief piece of furniture in the room, when the front gate opened and closed with a metallic click of the latch, and a visitor hurried along the little gravelled walk to the front porch.
"It is that meddlesome Carrie Wade," Mrs. Wartrace looked into the kitchen to say. "She's got on a new muslin, and has come over to show it, even as early as this."
"I'm not going to stand at the door and knock like a stranger," the visitor cried out, as she entered the little front hallway and rustled back to the kitchen. "Hello, Dix; Martha Sims and me are invited to spend the day over at Treadwell's. You know the new lumber-camp is there, and there's some dandy fellows working at it. They are going to give a dance, an' told us to send Ned Jones over with his fiddle. Oh, we are going to have a rattling time. We agreed to get up early. It seems funny, don't it? It's been many a day since I saw the sun rise."
The speaker was a tall blonde about Dixie's age. She was thin, inclined to paleness, and had a nervous look.
Dixie was drying her hands on a dishcloth, and she turned upon the visitor, surveying her carefully from her rather worn shoes to the newer dress and gaudily flowered hat with its tinsel ornaments and flowing pink ribbons. She knew full well that her neighbor had come for the sole purpose of showing her finery, and was secretly gloating over her misfortune in having to remain behind, and yet she allowed this knowledge in no way to affect her demeanor.
"You'll have a glorious time," Dixie said. "It's going to be a fine day for a picnic and dance."
"How do you like my dress?" Miss Wade asked, turning round for the inspection.
"It's very pretty, and pink suits you," Dixie answered, touching one of the folds of the skirt.
"It's entirely too long in front," Mrs. Hart said, as she bent forward and squinted sidewise with quite a visible sneer. "You'd look powerful funny walking along kicking up the skirt behind. With a veil on nobody could tell whether you was going or coming. Take my word for it—that stuff'll fade, even in the sun. You won't get more than one or two wearings out of it."
"Oh, do you think so?" The blond face fell. "I was a little afraid of that myself, and maybe you are right about the fit behind, too."
"Mother doesn't know what she's talking about," Dixie said, with a reproachful glance at her parent, who frowningly hovered on the verge of another criticism. "It is the way you've put the flounce on, Carrie, that makes it look that way in front. Wait, let me pin it up."
"Pin it up, I say!" Mrs. Hart sniffed. "You'll never get it to look decent that way. Nothing but making the whole thing plumb over will do any good. You ought to have got you a new sash to go with the muslin; weak-eyed as I am, I can see the dirty, faded edges agin the new cloth. The two don't go together. In war-times it was considered excusable to botch things that way, but not in this day and time when all industrious folks can get what's needed."
Dixie looked up regretfully, and a flush of embarrassment climbed into her fine face as her mother, accompanied by her silent sister, swept stiffly from the room.
When Carrie Wade had left, after her by no means triumphant call, Dixie went to her mother, who stood in the yard under an apple-tree, still with a frown on her really gentle face.
"You oughtn't to have said all that, mother," Dixie said, as she leaned on the smooth handle of the hoe she was going to take to the field. "After all, she was in our house."
"And come in it like a yellow-fanged snake with its forked tongue fairly dripping with poison," was the ready retort. "She come to gloat over you as she always has since the day you cut her out of that young man. She knowed you were going to work at home to-day, and she had the littleness to traipse over here to try to make you feel like you was missing something awful grand. If I hadn't left the kitchen I wouldn't have stopped with what I said about her flimsy dress. I'd have told her that if she'd stay at home more, and keep the holes in her stockings darned, and her underclothes cleaner, she'd stand a better chance roping in some fool man. I'm plain and outspoken, and I resent sneaking hints and false grins as quick as I do slaps. I'm tired o' you doing the way you are, anyhow. I want you to be like the rest of the girls. What do we care about owning this farm. Her daddy can't buy a knitting-needle on time, and yet they live as well as anybody else, and she thinks she is a grade higher than the rest of us."
"Don't you let it bother you, Muttie," Dixie said, tenderly; indeed, she was always moved by a demonstration of her mother's love, and her eyes were moist as she put a caressing hand on the gray locks of the little woman. "We are going to see it through. When the farm is plumb paid for we'll make Carrie so sick with our fine doings she'll wish she was dead."
"It is mighty hard," the old lips quivered, and the gaunt, blue-veined hand was raised to the dim eyes. "I can't stand to see that girl going to places you can't go to. I simply can't, that's all."
"I could have gone, mother," Dixie remarked. "I didn't tell her, for I knew exactly what she would say, but Hank Bradley met me on the way home yesterday and offered to drive me over there. He says he knows all the lumber crowd well."
"Hank Bradley—did he want to take you?" cried Mrs. Hart, "and you wouldn't go?"
"I couldn't, mother. You know every girl that has ever kept company with him has been talked about. I don't like him. I can't stand him. He's a bad man, mother—a gambler, a drunkard, and an idler. He doesn't care for the characters he has ruined. He's fast running through the money his mother left him; he's no good."
"I don't know that you did exactly right," Mrs. Hart said, with the indecision and bad logic into which her ill-fortune sometimes drew her. "I know what he is well enough, but you are able to take care of yourself, and you lose so many chances by being so particular. He knows your true worth, and I've knowed men even as bad as he is to be reformed by loving a good girl."
"I ain't in the reforming business," Dixie laughed. "I'd rather fight crab-grass and pussley weeds, and I'm off now. You go back in the house and set down and don't talk about the picnic. I sha'n't even think about it. I never bother about anything when I get warmed up."
Without a word further the two parted. Mrs. Hart stood on the little porch, and Dixie crossed the stretch of green meadow-land and climbed over the rail-fence of her cotton-field. The long rows of succulent plants, as high as the girl's knees, seemed breathing, conscious things to which she was giving relief as she smoothly cut away the tenaciously encroaching weeds and deep-rooted grass, the heaviest bunches of which she took up and threshed against the hoe-handle and left in the sun to die lest they be revived by some shower which would beat their roots into the mellow soil again. The sun rose higher and higher till it was poised almost directly over her head, and its rays beat more fiercely down upon her. The almost breathless air was as hot as a gust from the open door of a furnace. Her hands, in her heavy, knitted yarn gloves, were moist and red.
In the distance, and nearer to the village, rose the white, pretentious house of old Silas Welborne, the money-lender and the uncle of Hank Bradley, to whom she owed the remaining payment on her land. Almost day and night it stood before her as a mute reminder of her difficult undertaking. This morning, in the golden light, against the mountain background, it seemed an inspiration, as a flag of peace might appear to a tired soldier. Hank Bradley was the orphaned son of old Welborne's sister, and he lived in his uncle's home in lieu of any other that was available. He had made trips to the West and had remained away for indefinite periods, the last being the time he had come home with the carelessly announced death of his companion, Dick Wrinkle. The uncle and nephew were an incongruous pair: old Welborne, with his miserly grasp on the vitals of half the county, and the devil-may-care Bradley, whose wild ways made him the constant talk of the community. Old Silas gave no thought to the fellow's reform. As the administrator of his sister's estate, he doled out honestly enough the various sums in rents, dividends, and interest to which the young man was entitled after his liberal fees as administrator had been deducted, and even smiled when told of Bradley's reckless and almost criminal escapades. Henley had once remarked in his keenly observant way that Welborne, being the next of kin, would be glad to hear that his nephew had died with his boots on in some one of the lynching affairs to which Bradley was suspected of being a party.
Dixie had reached the farthest end of one of her longest cotton-rows, and was turning to work homeward on another, when the branches of the bushes of a near-by coppice parted and Bradley, with a fowling-piece on his arm, appeared.
"Good gracious, you are a queer girl!" he laughed, as he advanced to the low fence and climbed to a seat upon it. "Working here like a corn-field nigger in sun hot enough to bake a potato, when you could have been gliding through the shade behind my horse—to say nothing of the picnic and dance when we got there."
She pushed back the hood of her bonnet and smiled faintly.
"Driving and dancing ain't paying debts," she said, "and there is no other time to do this work. You know your uncle well enough to understand what he expects of folks unlucky enough to be on his books."
"That's another thing I can't understand," the young man said, bracing his heels on one of the rails, and, with his gun across his lap, he began to twist his stiff brown mustache, while his dark eyes rested with growing warmth on her trim figure. "What in the name of common-sense do you want to own land for?"
"What does a body want to breathe for?" Dixie asked him, sharply, "or own the duds on your back, or the grub you eat? Why, it is simply to be independent. I wouldn't quake and shiver every time that old man meets me if I wasn't in his clutch. I ain't afraid of anybody else, but I am of him, and why? Because he's got me where he can do as he likes with me. The last time I went to explain why I couldn't meet the payments exactly to the day, he growled like a bear, and said if I didn't look sharp he'd sell the roof over my head."
"Well, we needn't talk about him," the handsome daredevil said. "What I want to know is why you'd rather hoe cotton in weather like this than go with me to a jolly picnic. Why, Dixie, you don't begin to know your power; you could do as you like in this world, if you only would. You are the best-looking girl in the county, and you grow prettier every day. The blood of life is in your veins; you haven't got the sickly, palish look that the girls have who stay indoors half the time. You've got a clear eye, a good figure, and a complexion that society women would give big money for."
"You needn't begin all that again." The girl lowered her head and half raised her hoe to strike at a weed near a stalk of cotton. "I know what I am well enough. I was born with a load on me, and I'm going to tote it till I get to a dumping-place. My good looks won't set the world on fire."
"Well, they have set me on fire," Bradley laughed, significantly. He lowered his feet to the ground on her side of the fence and leaned his gun against it. "Say, this sun will actually blister us; let's go down to the spring."
"No spring for me to-day," she said, grimly. "I see Aunt Mandy on the back porch now. She'll hang out a towel in a minute. That's the signal that it is half-past eleven by the clock. I've got to go cook dinner."
"Well, I'll walk over with you."
"No, you mustn't."
"Because I'd rather you wouldn't—that's all."
"I declare I believe you mean that, and I won't push myself on you, Dixie. You know how I feel about you, and you oughtn't to be so dadblasted rough with a fellow. I think about you night and day. I didn't come out to shoot anything this morning. I simply couldn't get over the way you turned me down yesterday. I lay awake last night thinking about it, and so I waited for you this morning. I stayed in the bushes over there watching till you hoed up here. I don't believe I'll ever get over feeling that way, and I am not going to give up. I'm going to keep hoping."
"There goes my towel!" Dixie said, as she laid her hoe across her shoulder. "I must go. Don't follow me, Hank. I don't want her, or anybody else, to see me out here with you."
"Then come out to the fence this evening, after supper, won't you, just a minute?"
"No, I can't—I never leave the house after dark. They need me at home."
"Blast them, what have they got to do with you? You are already a slave to them. Well, good-bye. You'll change your mind some day."
He held out his hand with a smile, but she refused to take it.
"You won't even shake hands. Why, what is the matter with you? I can see that you are mad at me by the twitching of—Do you know, Dixie, you have the most maddening mouth and lips that a woman ever owned? Say, shake just once to show that we are friends."
"I won't. I did it once and you held me and tried to kiss me. I'll tell you now in dead earnest, Hank, you must never try that sort of a thing again. I mean it, as God is my judge, I do."
"I never will while you hold a hoe in your grip," he jested, with a thwarted smile, as she turned from him.
He stepped back to his gun and stood watching her as she plodded homeward. "I can't help it," he said, a dark, desperate look on his face. "I simply can't quit thinking about her. I've got staying qualities, and no man ever gained his point that paid the slightest attention to a woman's moods. Right now she may be wishing she'd gone to the picnic."
"Jim, how's your courting getting on?" Henley asked his clerk, half teasingly, one sultry afternoon, as the two were finishing a game of checkers on a board from which the squares were almost obliterated by the constant sliding of the black and white pants-buttons which were used for checkers.
"Don't ask me, Alf," Cahews answered, with a sickly smile. "I'm afraid she's too much for me. We ain't a bit nigher the altar than we was a year ago when I begun. Sometimes I think she is willing, and then ag'in I don't."
"I kinder thought you looked worried the last time you took her to ride," said Henley, sympathetically. "I felt sorry for you. She looked mighty chipper in her finery as you whisked by, but you was down in the mouth. Looked like you was on duty, and that was all."
"Somehow I don't much blame her," Cahews sighed, "but it looks to me like she is having too good a time running here and there to want to settle down. Sometimes I git blue and think she is just holding me as a safe thing to land on while she looks the field over. I have to stay here and attend to business and see her gallivanting in her ruffles and flounces with every drummer and lightning-rod agent that comes along."
"Maybe you ought to sorter lay down the law, at least on that particular point," Henley submitted, delicately. "I've heard my step-daddy-in-law say that a woman was born to be commanded, and when they ain't they hop to t'other extreme and just loll about in their abuse of a feller's good-nature. I don't know—that's the old man's view. You might give out a decided order or two, Jim, and see how—"
"Not to a woman you are tryin' to marry," said the clerk, quite firmly. "Sech a thing might be done to an army of soldiers or a red-handed mob at a lynchin'-bee, but not to a gal that makes you feel like you are sinking down in a mire whenever she looks you in the eyes. No, Alf, not to a gal as purty and sweet as a bunch of roses, and that knows it, and is in the habit o' being told of it as regular as eatin' and sleepin'. A gal like that sort o' feels 'er oats, as the feller said. She knows she's the stuff, and she loves to be told of it as much as a cat loves to sleep in the sun."
"Well, I'll be dadblamed if I'd tag after her without some substantial hope," Henley opined, wisely. "Life is long and life is earnest, and beauty is only skin deep, anyways. It seems to me—now, at least—that if I was out on the hunt for a helpmeet I'd look to the solid qualities in a woman just as I would in a man I wanted to work with. I'd study her character, her pluck under trying circumstances, her industry, and her all-round good-nature. The shape and face and furbelows, eyebrows and color of bangs, would be the last consideration."
"I never hear that from any but married men," Jim said. "They sing that song till they bury their wives, and then they turn to boys again and pick the youngest and prettiest they can lay their hands on."
"I was just thinking, Jim"—Henley seemed unwilling to combat the last assertion. His eyes rested thoughtfully on a sunny spot before the open door—"you see, I've got a little neighbor that—"
"I know—Dixie Hart! I know who you mean," the clerk broke in. "She's all wool and a yard wide, but I never run across her till after I'd got in with old man Hardcastle's daughter. I wouldn't talk to just any stray person this away, Alf, but me and you was boys together, and you've always been my friend. She's got me, Alf—I don't exactly know how—but she could crook her little finger at me and I'd make for her side—yes, sir, I would, through flame and smoke, if the world was coming to an end."
The talk had grown serious; there was a moist gleam in Cahew's blue eyes, and he snuffed as if he had a cold. Henley was glad of the interruption brought about by the arrival of a stranger who entered the front door and came back to them with swift, steady strides. He was fat, middle-aged, short, had a round, smooth face, and in removing his straw hat to fan his pink brow he disclosed a very bald head.
"I don't know whether you gentlemen are in need of anything in my line," he said, as he drew a big book of illustrations from beneath his arm and opened it on Henley's desk. "But I was givin' yore town and vicinity the one and only chance of its life to git the only true and artistic thing in marble. I'm agent for the Adamantyne Tombstone Company, of Tennessee. We own the only quarry of snow-white, non-grit, pristyne Parian rock on this side of the blue ocean, and we have in our employ the best and most world-renowned chisel-artists that ever breathed the spark of life into inanimate matter. Now, just set where you are, gentlemen—don't move—and I'll show you a beauty—a tombstone that will make a man want to die—if he's able to pay the price."
He held his book of illustrations open before Henley, whose eyes were twinkling mischievously as they rested on his clerk.
"I'm not in the market," he said, without a smile. "I wouldn't buy any but a second-handed one, and then it would have to be so cheap that a dead man would kick it off of his grave in disgust. You've got in the wrong box. If you'll look about amongst the junk I've got in my back-yard you may find one or two lying about."
"I see you've got a streak of fun in you," the agent said, good-naturedly, and at this instant old Jason Wrinkle entered and sauntered back to the group. He seemed to recognize the stranger, for the two exchanged nods of greeting. "I'm still at it, you see," the salesman said. "I'm going to give all a chance. How about you, sir?" and he turned to Cahews. "I may find you serious, if this man ain't. Death is beautiful when it is properly looked at and provided for."
"I don't need anything in that line," Cahews said, with a flush.
"You might, Jim," Henley broke in, with a grin, "if you don't git cured of that complaint you was telling me about just now," and Henley winked almost imperceptibly to any one not familiar with the tricks of his face. He bent his head and smiled behind his broad hand. "I'll tell you, sir," he went on to the salesman, after another sly wink at Cahews, "none of us here happen to want anything in your line, but there is a rich old codger across the way—Mr. Silas Welborne—who will trade if you'll stick to him long enough. He's got dead kin with no sort o' tags on 'em. You might have to talk to him all the evening, and even follow him home, but you'll sell him if you understand your business. He's powerful soft-hearted, for one thing, and if you'll tell him a tale or two in the eloquent tongue you was rolling off just now he'll place a dandy order. I'll give you that as a pointer."
"Well, I'm much obliged to you, sir, and thank you kindly," the agent said, as he closed his book. "I'll look him up. I'm doing a big business here. Your people don't seem to have had a chance to invest in my line in no telling how long. Good-day."
"Good-day," Henley echoed, and he endeavored to hide the mischievous smile that was playing about his mouth. In a chuckling undertone he said to Wrinkle and Cahews: "I'd give a pretty to see this oily-tongued chap holding down that crusty old miser. A tombstone is the last thing on earth that Welborne would want to think about or talk about. I'd love to be there and see 'em meet."
Cahews laughed and sauntered toward the front, and old Wrinkle sat down in the chair just vacated and tilted it back against the door-jamb.
"That is a sorter good joke," he said, his small eyes on Henley, "considering the man you mean it for, but as I stood thar hearin' you concoct it I couldn't help thinking if you knowed what a joke this self-same peddler had got off on you you'd not be exactly in the mood for fun—at least not in the grave-rock line."
"What joke are you talking about?" Henley asked, incredulously, his face falling into seriousness. "I have never laid eyes on this chap before."
"I reckon not, but you'll know him the next time you see him; I'll be bound you do, even if you are a mile down the road an' he's round the bend with his back turned to you. The truth is, I just followed him down here to see who he'd strike next. He's been to our house, Alf. He slid in there just after you come off, and set on the porch and begun his palaver. He has a different way with women than he has with men. He seems to know that women are soft on some lines, and chiefly on preachin' and buryin'. He'd picked up a list of folks round about here that had lost kin, and he had me and Jane down on it on account of Dick. Now, it seems that when he gits to a place he goes to the graveyard and looks for stones to tally with his dead list, and when he don't find any he makes a note of it; so, you see, havin' Dick's name down, an' not knowin' the full particulars, he hunted us up, thinkin' we was unsupplied in his line. So, you see, that's why he made sech a leech of hisse'f on our porch."
"Huh, I see," Henley frowned—"I see."
"I can't begin to describe all the chap done or said," Wrinkle resumed. "He riz and walked and ranted, an' prayed an' sung an' mighty nigh called up mourners. I thought them two women would bust out cryin' once or twice, but they belt in tiptop through the hottest of the wrangle. Then I thought I'd put a stop to it, and I up and told him, I did, that he'd made a mistake, an' that we didn't need a thing of the sort—that Dick's body never was recovered, and so on. Then what do you think? The skunk was actually flabbergasted, and didn't know what to say. But he was game, and knowed thar was some way out of his trouble. He said, 'Wait a minute—don't bother me!' an' he shet his eyes tight, an' set thar with his head hangin' down for fully five minutes. Then he looked up an' said, 'I was jest tryin' to recall the good lady's name that had the same trouble, pine blank, as your'n, but it slips me somehow.' An' with that he said it was the custom all over civilized Christendom, in such cases as our'n, to erect a suitable monument jest the same, havin' a plot the right length an' width set aside, with both head and foot rock, and, if a sermon hadn't been preached already, one ought to be on the day the stone was put in place an' consecrated. I 'lowed sure them women would see how plumb silly it was, but they listened like they was gittin' the only directions to the Golden Shore, and begun to look at the pictures in his book like they thought the skunk was savin' 'em from death, destruction, an' disgrace."
"You don't mean to tell me they actually went and ordered—" Henley began, but his voice trailed away into indistinctness. He could only stare at his tormentor hopelessly.
"Only a little one fur five hundred dollars," Wrinkle said, with evident enjoyment. "They had a lots o' trouble pickin' out the design amongst all the doves, broke-off pillars, seraphims, an' angels, but they finally got what they wanted. Not a tear was shed, if you'd stood off a few feet, out o' earshot, you couldn't 'a' told but what they was pickin' out a pattern fer a weddin'-dress or buyin' tickets fer a side-show. After they got under headway I couldn't say anything—they had sech a solemn way about it, and then I couldn't help but be fair and think if I'd been in Dick's place they would have gone through exactly the same antics, an' been jest as liberal in showing due respect. Hettie says it is all to come out of her own money that she had when she married you. She was particular to mention the fact, and I think that showed a sensible streak, for a fool would know you oughtn't to be expected to stand sech expense, and so long after you took her, and that being a thing that would naturally belong to her past career, too. After the agent had gone off I set thar, an' Hettie told me what she was goin' to do. She don't intend to spare expense to do the thing plumb right. She's goin' to send away off for a high-priced reverential orator to give the discourse, an' intends to have evergreens hung all over the church. I don't know whether she designs to have all the business houses in Chester closed that day, but she'd naturally expect you and Jim to shet up an' take it in."
"So this is the joke you said that man had got off on me, is it?" Henley snapped out, irritably.
"Well, I reckon it mought not appear exactly in the same light to you, Alf," answered Wrinkle, "as it would to somebody who'd be more inclined to laugh over a thing of the sort. You was gettin' off what you called a good one on old Tight-fist just now by puttin' this chap on his track, and I reckon you'd have no call to git mad if Welborne made it tit for tat an' fired back at you. You wouldn't be justified in killin' 'im, you know, if he was to take a notion to send you a big bouquet o' flowers out o' his gyarden all tied up in black ribbon with a cyard sayin' he's sorry to hear of the sad loss in yore family, an'—"
"Ah, you make me sick, with your eternal chatter!" Henley burst out, angrily. "I don't care what them two silly women do. I'll not be here to witness such tomfoolery. I'm going to Texas, to be away several months."
"So I've heard," Wrinkle said, a trifle more mildly, "but you'll be missin' some'n out o' the general run, if I'm any judge. Thar may have been sech a thing sence the flood as a married woman callin' out all hands to solemnize her first husband's demise while she's still wearin' the weddin'-clothes bought by her second, but it's a new wrinkle on me, an' I hain't makin' what you mought call a pun, nuther."
Abruptly leaving the old man, Henley joined his clerk at the front.
"I get so mad at that old chap sometimes I could kick him," he said, in an angry undertone. "Nothing under the sun is sacred to him."
"He's gettin' old and childish," Cahews answered. "I sorter love to hear 'im chatter. Some o' the things he says about folks and their peculiarities sound powerful funny."
"Well, they don't to me," burst from Henley, "and I'll tell you another thing, Jim—enough of a thing is a plenty, and while I'm away—" but Wrinkle had approached, and, passing behind the counter, he was tiptoeing that he might reach a candy-jar on the top shelf.
"Looks like I'm about yore only candy customer, Jim," he said to Cahews. "Thar hain't been a stick took out o' this jar sence I was here Monday. I laid one crossways on top just to see. I'd order a fresh lot if I was you. This is gettin' dry and crumbly. I can suck wind through a stick the same as a pipe-stem."
One clear, warm morning a week later Henley stood in the little porch in front of his store and glanced up the street which gave into the road that led on to his farm. In the store Cahews was nailing the top slats on a coop of scrambling, squawking chickens, and with a pot of lampblack and brush was marking it for shipment to Atlanta. In a cloud of dust in the rear, Pomp, the negro porter and all-round servant on Henley's farm, was turning the handle of a clattering machine for the separation of chaff from grain. And while his eyes were resting on the road the storekeeper saw a horse and wagon come around a bend and slowly advance toward him. The horse was a poor beast of great age, and the wagon was none the better for wear. It had lost all its original paint, the woodwork was cracked by the weather and the sun. Its four wheels ran unevenly; some of the spokes were missing, and its bolts and rods of iron rattled in holes worn too large.
"By Gum, it's Dixie Hart, and she's fetching in a load of produce," Henley muttered; then he called out to Cahews: "Say, Jim, get through there and stop that nigger's clatter. We are going to have a visitor. The fairest of the fair will be here in a minute."
Henley stepped down to the edge of the sidewalk and bowed and smiled to her as she drew rein. In her new straw hat and clean, well-ironed gingham she looked decidedly well. She was radiantly bright, and smiled merrily as she extended her hand and shook his over the rickety fore-wheel as she leaned forward from the dilapidated, sagging seat, the springs of which rested on the sides of the wagon-bed.
"I told you I'd be in," she laughed, "and, if the market is off to-day, back I go to my shanty. Nothing but the best prices catch me."
"About as favorable now as any time," he said. "What does your load consist of?" he ran on, jovially, as he glanced behind her at the bags, boxes, coops, pails, and jars.
"Odds and ends," she laughed. "I've got to make a payment to old Welborne on my debt. You and Jim had better give me tiptop bids all through or I'll peddle the truck from door to door and steal your trade right from under your noses."
Henley smiled good-humoredly as he walked round the wagon opening boxes and bags and making notes with a pencil on a scrap of paper. Then he told her what he would pay for each item.
"Is that as good as you can do?" It was a question she always asked, and she did so now more from habit than for any intention of disagreeing with him.
"That's the top-notch, Dixie," he said. "We couldn't do that, but we've got customers that simply won't eat butter and eggs that don't have your brand on 'em."
"I believe you," she said, laconically. "I've met 'em myself. They pass by the house from Carlton sometimes in their fine rigs and ask me why I don't start a milk-and-butter farm. I may do it if I ever get out of debt. I've got sense enough to know it would pay, and pay big, considering that there ain't no such business established. Well, Alfred, I'll take your offer. I don't like to dicker with first one store and then another, and I know you've been straight with me in all my dealings. I'll trade out part of the amount. I've got a few tricks to buy in your line."
"Well, alight and come in and set down," he said. "Jim and Pomp will unload and weigh and measure. I'll make Pomp mind your hoss."
"Oh, old Bob will stand all right!" she laughed, as she put her gloved hand on Henley's shoulder and sprang lightly to the ground. "He's moved all he wants to to-day. It would take a switch-engine to budge him an inch. See 'im nod? He knows what we are talking about."
Henley led her through the long room to his desk in the rear, and gave her a seat near the open door as the clerk and the porter went out to the wagon. She took off her hat and pushed back her luxuriant hair with her fingers.
"You go on with your work," she said; "don't mind me."
He applied himself to some writing he had to do till Cahews came with a slip of paper on which he had noted the weights, quantities, and values of the things she had brought, and with a polite bow he handed it to her.
"Look it over, Dixie," Henley jested. "Old man Hardcastle's daughter has rubbed a rabbit-foot on Jim so that he can hardly add two and two. Besides, he is always rattled when he's waiting on a pretty girl."
"Well, he won't rattle any more than a green gourd round me, if that's the case," Dixie said, as she began to run over the figures, her lips moving as she counted on her fingers. "I know in reason it's correct," she said, extending the slip to Cahews. "No, wait a minute," drawing it back and looking at it again. "If I'm not powerfully mistaken, Jim, you are swindling yourself out of twenty cents on the string-beans. There was one peck instead of two."
"I told you Jim was rattled," Henley continued to jest. "But I won't discharge 'im. I'd pardon him if he was to set the store afire, under the circumstances. I've seen him wash his hands in the kerosene tank and wipe 'em on his clothes just after Julia Hardcastle driv' by in a hug-me-tight buggy with a drummer."
"Well, I wouldn't blame him much," Dixie smiled in her sympathy for the embarrassed clerk. "She is nice and pretty, and one town-girl that isn't stuck up. I like her. She wants to have a good time; she likes attention and good clothes, and I'm sure I'd be just like her if I had half the chance. She called to see me the other day, and Ma and Aunt Mandy fell in love with her. They think she has lots of common-sense, and they know. I had another call. Carrie Wade waited till she saw me go to the field to work, then she come over and asked if I was at the house. Ma told her where I was, and she come over the clods grumbling like a spoilt baby about getting dust on her shoes. What do you reckon she wanted?"
"I can't imagine," Henley answered, as Cahews, flushing with delight over the compliment to the maid of his choice, moved away.
"She come to cut at me," Dixie said, as she took the pile of silver into her hand which Henley was extending. "As she stood there between the corn-rows holding up her skirt she said she was going over to the lumber-camp again with Martha Sims to another big all-day blow-out. She said she was to start early and had so much fixing to do that she wondered if I'd spare the time to wash and iron a muslin dress for her. She said she'd pay well for it, because my things always looked so nice."
"Impudent thing!" Henley said; "she ought to have, knowed better than that."
"She did know better, and that's exactly why she said it. She intended to let me know where she was going, thinking it would break my heart. She admits she is bent on getting married, and says she knows I'll live and die an old maid. She hates me, Alfred; with all her soul she hates me. She will never rest satisfied till she sees me plumb down and out. It all started through no fault of mine, too. You remember that young preacher, Mr. Wrenn, that boarded about in the families three years ago. Well, she made a dead set at him. She literally tagged after him everywhere he went till folks here in Chester was laughing about it and calling her his little dog Fido. They say he got so he'd run and hide every time she'd turn a corner. Well, he stayed at our house two weeks, and, of course, we all tried to make him as comfortable as we could. I give you my word that I never was alone with the fellow more than five minutes in all the time he was there, but I'll admit he hung around considerable—that is, with us all."
"I remember the fellow," Henley said, deeply interested. "I had a talk with your Pa about him not a month before he died. Your Pa said he couldn't see why you was so offish. The fellow made no beans about how he felt, and when the report went out that you had turned him down folks wondered powerful, for all the girls was setting their caps for him."
"I was too young to have good sense, I reckon," the girl said, shrugging her shoulders. "Pa was alive, and we did not want for anything. I never dreamt I'd have such a load on me as I've got now. Then I had a foolish notion about love, anyway. I'd been reading novels, and got an idea in my silly head that when a girl met the right person she went through some sort of dazzling regeneration; and as I didn't feel anyways peculiar when Mr. Wrenn was about I thought I ought to wait, and I told him so. I'll never forget that young man's face. I've thought of it thousands of times, and been sorry."
"And Carrie Wade found out about it?" Henley was leading her along gently and sympathetically.
"Why, he told her himself—told her to her face in a crowd of young folks at Sunday-school the next day, and the worst part of it was somebody in the bunch that didn't like Carrie joked her about it. The whole thing has gone out o' folks' minds by this time, I reckon; but Carrie never laid it aside. It rankled and still rankles. She gloats over my hardships and makes a point of flaunting her good luck in my face, and is eternally telling me of her chances to get married. She's half crazy on the subject, and thinks every one else is like her. I know one thing, Alfred Henley, when I do slip off the coil of single blessedness she'll be madder than a wet hen without shelter on a cold December day. And she won't have long to wait neither—there! I've gone and let the cat out of the bag, but I don't care. I'd trust a friend like you with my life. You talk pretty free to me, and I can to you."
"You don't—you can't mean to—to say that you have got some 'n of the sort in view, Dixie?"
"Well, you just lie low and watch," she laughed, significantly. "I let one chance pass me, and I don't intend to be such a fool again. I can use a stout, willing, and able-bodied man in my line of business. I've got two old women to support and a big debt to pay, and I'm about to the limit of my endurance. I might have put it off, but I'm itching to see my prime enemy's face when I march him out to meeting. It's all on the quiet, and is going to be a big surprise. I never let my folks on to it till just the other day. That reminds me. I want one of your blank envelopes. I've written to him, and I'm clean out of envelopes and want to mail the letter before I go home."
She flushed slightly, and her long lashes rested on her pink cheeks as she drew a folded paper from her pocket and held it in her lap with the money he had given her.
"You don't mean it!" Henley cried in astonishment. "Why, you take my breath away; but, of course, I'm glad. I certainly can congratulate the lucky fellow."
"Ask 'im whether it would be in order before you do." She reached for his pen and dipped it, and began to address the envelope as it lay on her knee.
"And that letter is to him, you say?" Henley said, wonderingly.
"Well, it ain't to no girl," Dixie smiled, with an arch, upward glance. "Stamps and paper cost too much such times as these to waste 'em on women."
"I'm curious to know what sort o' chap you've decided on," said Henley. "What does he look like?"
"He's a pig in a poke." She had finished writing and was drawing the gummed flap of the envelope across her smiling lips. "I never laid eyes on 'im in my life. What do you think of that? But that part must never get out. I want Carrie and all the rest to—to think, you see, that I got acquainted with him in—in the regular way. She never would get through talking if she knew the full truth, and that is nobody's business but his and mine. You may think I am a born fool, Alfred, but for the past six months I've been corresponding with a fellow in Florida. But he's all right. Don't you worry; he's safe, and that is a lot to say in this day of trickery and strife. It all come about by accident. I've got a cousin—Tobe Chasteen—working down there in an orange-grove, and now and then he writes me a letter. Well, in one he wrote that a nice fellow down there wanted to write to some girl up in Georgia, and asked me if I'd answer. So, just for fun, and to kill time, I agreed, and so it started. He writes a good, flowing hand, and has plenty to say, and I got interested in the whole thing. He sent his picture, and wanted one of me. So I put on my best outfit and had a tintype struck off under that tent on the square and sent it to him. It was a frightful daub, I tell you; but he liked it, or said he did; he said it was fine, and if the goods come up to the sample that was all he could ask. I've got his in my pocket. I don't tote it about all the time, but it happened to be in the pocket of this dress. My two women want it to stay in the clock, so they can get it out and peep at it when I'm in the field. They are more crazy about him than I am. They sneak and read my letters, and ask ten thousand questions about him. There are some of his long epistles that I wouldn't show 'em for money—they are so silly. At first we just wrote about what was going on, but he kept edging closer and closer, and I never, in so many words, told him to let up. Once he drew a round ring in the middle of a blank page and asked under it if I couldn't guess what was in the middle of it. I looked close and could see a greasy splotch when it was held sidewise in the light. That kinder disgusted me, and I drew a ring in my answer, and told him there wasn't anything in mine, and never would be. He must have liked what I said, for he wrote back that it was cute, and that he'd bet I was one girl that never had been kissed. Well, he can think that, too, if he wants to. It won't do him any harm. I say all this was going on, but I never dreamt of closing the deal till I got in this present money-tight. You see, I wrote him about my financial trouble, and he said he had saved up some money and that he could wipe out all my obligations, and that me and him together would make a fine team on the farm. He wrote so kind, too, about Ma and Aunt Mandy, and said he'd always want 'em with us. You see, I felt grateful, and, considering everything, I think I acted wise—don't you?"
Henley half nodded, and tried to meet her frankness with a smile that was free from doubt. At this juncture Pomp came back with a telegram. It was an order from an Atlanta hotel for a quantity of eggs and butter. Henley read it and handed it back. "Tell Jim to quote the lowest cash prices," he said, absent-mindedly.
"But it's a order, suh," said the negro.
"Oh yes; I see it is. Well, ship it; it's all right."
"Would you like to see his picture?" Dixie asked. She had taken the crude tintype from her pocket and held it in her lap.
"Yes, I would," Henley replied, and he took the picture and looked at it. He didn't like it. A keen, quick reader of men's faces, he saw what had escaped her less experienced eye. There was something that bespoke prodigious vanity and lack of principle in the low brow, over which the coarse, black hair was plastered down so smoothly; in the heavy, carefully waxed, curled, and perhaps dyed mustache; in the small, conscious eyes, set close together; in the grossly sensuous mouth, from which a weak chin receded.
"He ain't as purty as he thinks he is by a long shot," Dixie remarked, rather lamely, for she was slightly chilled by Henley's failure to comment favorably on the picture, "but he has a good heart. He is a church member in fair standing, and has a Bible class of young ladies in Sunday-school, and was once proposed for superintendent, and lost out because he was unmarried and too young. Oh, I've thought it all over. I'm not jumping without looking for a spot to light on. I thought I could carry my load through, but I had to give in. I can't perform miracles, Alfred; I'm just clay, and the wrong gender of that. If I could keep temptation out of my way I might keep on, but I can't run against Carrie Wade's sneers. I'd rather strut by her house with a husband that was able to take me in out of the wet than anything else I know of, and I want to rest. I want to sleep one night without dreaming of old Welborne's flabby jaws, blinking eyes, and harsh voice snarling at me. Folks may say such an arrangement ain't customary—that it is out of the common—but it seems to me that everything about me is out of the common, anyway, and why shouldn't this fall in line? Customs are just what the most folks want to do. Custom don't look after the under dog in the pack. But when right is on a body's side there is no need to fear, and there won't be a shade of wrong in this if I have anything to do with it. I've made up my mind to do a wife's part in every sense of the word, and let it go at that—nothing risk, nothing have. I never used to think I'd ever marry a man I never saw—in fact, when I was young and silly I used to see myself strutting by whole regiments of fellers all making signs to me to come be his darling, but that was when my eyelids was glued down and before they was jerked open by trouble. Marrying with me in this case is an open-and-shut business proposition. I read somewhere that it is worked that way among high-up folks in France—though the dickering takes place between the parents of the contracting parties; and as I know a sight more about what to do than Ma, why, it was all right for me to take it in hand. Peter is an orphan, and I'm the head of a family, and so there was nobody else concerned. My two women are getting old and plumb helpless—more like children than grown-ups. They may live a long time. I certainly hope they will, for they are all I've got; but they are actually getting so that they don't want to budge out of the house, even as far as the fence. They are afraid a little sun will kill 'em dead. But, Alfred, I don't somehow like the way you look about it. You don't take it like I thought you would. I know in reason that you wish me well, and—"
"I don't know that I have a right to say a thing agin it," Henley broke into her now hesitating words. "But I must confess I'm sorter stunned, Dixie. I've always felt like a big brother to you, and pitied you a good deal, and now—well, you see, I reckon it is natural for me to be sorter afraid that you may be making a mistake in what you are doing. I feel like begging you not to do it, and then ag'in I don't, for I've always made up my mind that marrying was one thing no outsider could decide about. I have been dead agin marriages that afterwards turned out tiptop, and you know I didn't show such far-reaching wisdom in my own case as to set myself up as a judge."
"Well, you needn't have any fears on my account," Dixie smiled, assuringly. "I know what I am about, and I ain't the back-out kind. It's too late, anyway; the day has been set. For the last two weeks I've been giving every spare minute to the making of my outfit. It is a good one. I was determined to give Miss Wade a treat. I do things right, and I've spent some cash. My trousseau will attract attention, and I reckon Peter won't be ashamed. But it is to be kept quiet. Don't you say a word to a soul. A week from to-day I'll drive in and meet the up-train and haul my bridegroom home in my wagon. We'll eat dinner at our house and then drive over to Preacher Sanderson's and have him tie the knot. Now I'll go down in front and buy a few things and mail my letter and hurry home."
"Wait a minute, Dixie." She was moving away, and he stopped her, standing before her, a grave look in his eyes. "Surely it ain't as dead sure as that?"
"Yes, it is, Alfred; it's settled—plumb settled."
"But—but," he pursued, anxiously, "if you didn't like him when you see him, you wouldn't marry him?"
"Oh, that's a gray horse of another color," she smiled. "I think I'll like him; but if I didn't—well, if I didn't, I'd pay his way back to Florida, and beg off."
Henley made no further protest. He sat at his desk and bowed his head in troubled thought as she tripped lightly away.
"What a pity!" he mused. "She deserves the best in the land, and this fellow looks like a worthless scamp."
That evening after supper, while the sultry dusk hung heavily over the land, shutting out the few lights of the village and obscuring the near-by mountain, Henley took his chair into the passage, and, without his coat, he leaned back against the weather-boarding and lighted his pipe. He had not been there long when his wife, having finished her duties in the kitchen, came out and stood over him. Accustomed to her varying moods, he saw by her attitude that she was displeased.
"Pa told me something I don't like," she began. "I tried not to pay attention to it, but it was so unexpected, so unheard-of, so plumb disrespectful, that it hurt me. He said you told him you was going to Texas to keep from being here during the—the memorial service next month."
"I told him no such thing," Henley retorted, with an effort to control his rising temper. "I can't be responsible for the slap-dash way he puts things. I don't like his eternal gab, nohow."
"Well, you must have said something," Mrs. Henley pursued, probingly. "He never makes up things out of whole cloth. He is not that way."
"Well, I suppose I did say something," Henley reluctantly admitted. "He was nagging the life out of me at the store about what you intended to do, and holding me up to ridicule, and I reckon I did say that I wouldn't be here—that my business would keep me in Texas. As for that matter, I told you about the trip long before this queer—long before you decided to do this—this thing."
"I know just how you said it," the woman threw back, sharply. "I know what you've thought all along about Pa and Ma being here, and me loving 'em and caring for 'em. You do your best to hide it, but you can't."
"Well, if I do my best, what more could you expect?" Henley asked, with more logic than patience.
"I'd want you to keep your promise to me," Mrs. Henley said, crisply, and she bent lower over him and fixed her offended eyes on his. "You told me before we were married that you'd promise never to object—you even said you admired me for my feelings, and that it proved to you that I had stability and strength of character—that you wouldn't have a wife that would ever forget her dead husband."
"Well, I have kept my promise," Henley said. "I am not sure that I knowed just precisely what I was doing when I made it, but I've kept it. As for attending his—his funeral services at such a late day, that is another thing. I don't see how you could expect it."