DOWN THE RAVINE BY CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK.
The new moon, a gleaming scimitar, cleft the gauzy mists above a rugged spur of the Cumberland Mountains. The sky, still crimson and amber, stretched vast and lonely above the vast and lonely landscape. A fox was barking in the laurel.
This was an imprudent proceeding on the part of the fox, considering the value of his head-gear. A young mountaineer down the ravine was reminded, by the sharp, abrupt sound, of a premium offered by the State of Tennessee for the scalp and ears of the pestiferous red fox.
All unconscious of the legislation of extermination, the animal sped nimbly along the ledge of a cliff, becoming visible from the ravine below, a tawny streak against the gray rock. Swift though he was, a jet of red light flashing out in the dusk was yet swifter. The echoing crags clamored with the report of a rifle. The tawny streak was suddenly still. Three boys appeared in the depths of the ravine and looked up.
"Thar now! Ye can't git him off'n that thar ledge, Birt," said Tim Griggs. "The contrairy beastis couldn't hev fund a more ill- convenient spot ter die of he hed sarched the mounting."
"I ain't goin' ter leave him thar, though," stoutly declared the boy who still held the rifle. "That thar fox's scalp an' his two ears air wuth one whole dollar."
Tim remonstrated. "Look-a-hyar, Birt; ef ye try ter climb up this hyar bluff, ye'll git yer neck bruk, sure."
Birt Dicey looked up critically. It was a rugged ascent of forty feet or more to the narrow ledge where the red fox lay. Although the face of the cliff was jagged, the rock greatly splintered and fissured, with many ledges, and here and there a tuft of weeds or a stunted bush growing in a niche, it was very steep, and would afford precarious foothold. The sunset was fading. The uncertain light would multiply the dangers of the attempt. But to leave a dollar lying there on the fox's head, that the wolf and the buzzard might dine expensively to-morrow!
"An' me so tried for money!" he exclaimed, thinking aloud.
Nate Griggs, who had not before spoken, gave a sudden laugh,—a dry, jeering laugh.
"Ef all the foxes on the mounting war ter hold a pertracted meet'n, jes' ter pleasure you-uns, thar wouldn't be enough scalps an' ears 'mongst 'em ter make up the money ye hanker fur ter buy a horse."
To buy a horse was the height of Birt's ambition. His mother was a widow; and as an instance of the fact that misfortunes seldom come singly, the horse on which the family depended to till their scanty acres died shortly after his owner. And so, whenever the spring opened and the ploughs all over the countryside were starting, their one chance to cultivate a crop was to hire a mule from their nearest neighbor, the tanner. Birt was the eldest son, and his mother had only his work to offer in payment. The proposition always took the tanner in what he called a "jubious time." Spring is the season for stripping the trees of their bark, which is richer in tannin when the sap flows most freely, and the mule was needed to haul up the piles of bark from out the depths of the woods to the tanyard. Then, too, Jubal Perkins had his own crops to put in. As he often remarked in the course of the negotiation, "I don't eat tan bark— nor yit raw hides." Although the mule was a multifarious animal, and ploughed and worked in the bark-mill, and hauled from the woods, and went long journeys in the wagon or under the saddle, he was not ubiquitous, and it was impossible for him to be in the several places in which he was urgently needed at the same time. Therefore, to hire him out on these terms seemed hardly an advantage to his master. Nevertheless, this bargain was annually struck. The poverty-stricken widow always congratulated herself upon its conclusion, and it never occurred to her that the amount of work that Birt did in the tanyard was a disproportionately large return for the few days that the tanner's mule ploughed their little fields.
Birt, however, was beginning to see that a boy to drive that mule around the bark-mill was as essential as the mule himself. As Providence had failed to furnish the tanner with a son for this purpose—his family consisting of several small daughters—Birt supplied a long-felt want.
The boy appreciated that his simple mother was over-reached, yet he could not see that she could do otherwise. He sighed for independence, for a larger opportunity. As he drove the mule round the limited circuit, his mind was far away. He anxiously canvassed the future. He cherished fiery, ambitious schemes,—often scorched, poor fellow, by their futility. With his time thus mortgaged, he thought his help to his mother was far less than it might be. But until he could have a horse of his own, there was no hope—no progress. And for this he planned, and dreamed, and saved.
Partly these considerations, partly the love of adventure, and partly the jeer in Nate's laugh determined him not to relinquish the price set upon the fox's head. He took off his coat and flung it on the ground beside his rifle. Then he began to clamber up the cliff.
The two brothers, their hands in the pockets of their brown jeans trousers, stood watching his ascent. Nate had sandy hair, small gray eyes, set much too close together, and a sharp, pale, freckled face. Tim seemed only a mild repetition of him, as if Nature had tried to illustrate what Nate would be with a better temper and less sly intelligence.
Birt was climbing slowly. It was a difficult matter. Here was a crevice that would hardly admit his eager fingers, and again a projection so narrow that it seemed to grudge him foothold. Some of the ledges, however, were wider, and occasionally a dwarfed huckleberry bush, nourished in a fissure, lifted him up like a helping hand. He quaked as he heard the roots strain and creak, for he was a pretty heavy fellow for sixteen years of age. They did not give way, however, and up and up he went, every moment increasing the depth below him and the danger. His breath was short; his strength flagged, he slipped more than once, giving himself a great fright; and when he reached the ledge where the dead fox lay, he thought, "The varmint don't wuth it."
Nevertheless he whooped out his triumph to Nate and Tim in a stentorian halloo, for they had already started homeward, and presently their voices died in the distance. Birt faced about and sat down on the ledge to rest, his feet dangling over the depths beneath.
It was a lonely spot, walled in by the mountains, and frequented only by the deer that were wont to come to lick salt from the briny margin of a great salt spring far down the ravine. Their hoofs had worn a deep excavation around it in the countless years and generations that they had herded here. The "lick," as such places are called in Tennessee, was nearly two acres in extent, and in the centre of the depression the brackish water stood to the depth of six feet or more. Birt looked down at it, thinking of the old times when, according to tradition, it was the stamping ground of buffalo as well as deer. The dusk deepened. The shadows were skulking in and out of the wild ravine as the wind rose and fell. They took to his fancy the form of herds of the banished bison, revisiting in this impalpable guise the sylvan shades where they are but a memory now.
Presently he began the rugged descent, considerably hampered by the fox, which he carried by the tail. He stopped to rest whenever he found a ledge that would serve as a seat. Looking up, high above the jagged summit of the cliff that sharply serrated the zenith, he saw the earliest star, glorious in the crimson and amber sky. Below, a point of silver light quivered, reflected in the crimson and amber waters of the "lick." The fire-flies were flickering among the ferns; he saw about him their errant gleam. The shadowy herds trooped down the mountain side.
Now and then his weight uprooted a bush in his hands, and the clods fell. He missed his footing as he neared the base, and came down with a thump. It was a gravelly spot where he had fallen, and he saw in a moment that it was the summer-dried channel of a mountain rill. As he pulled himself up on one elbow, he suddenly paused with dilated eyes. The evening light fell upon a burnished glimmer;—a bit of stone—was it stone?—shining with a metallic lustre.
He looked at it for a moment, his eyes glowing in the contemplation of a splendid possibility.
What were those old stories that his father used to tell of the gold excitement in Tennessee in 1831, when the rich earth flung largess from its hidden wealth along the romantic banks of Coca Creek! Gold had been found in Tennessee—why not here? And once—why not again?
The idea so possessed him that while he was skinning the fox his sharp knife almost sacrificed one of the TWO ears imperatively required by the statute, in order that the wily hunter may not be tempted to present one ear at a time, thus multiplying red foxes and premiums therefor like Falstaff's "rogues in buckram."
He took his way homeward through the darkening woods, carrying the pelt in his hand. It was not long before he could hear the dogs barking, and as he came suddenly upon a little clearing in the midst of the dense, encompassing wilderness, he saw them all trooping down from the unenclosed passage between the two log-rooms which constituted the house. An old hound had half climbed the fence, but as he laid his fore-paw on the topmost rail, his deep-mouthed bay was hushed,—he was recognizing the approaching step of his master. The yellow curs were still insisting upon a marauder theory. One of them barked defiance as he thrust his head between the rails of the fence. There was another head thrust through too, about on a level with Towser's, but it was not a dog's head. As Birt caught a glimpse of it, he called out hastily, "Stand back thar, Tennessee!" And then it was lost to view, for at the sound of his voice all the dogs came huddling over the bars, shrilly yelping a tumultuous welcome.
When Birt had vaulted over the fence, the little object withdrew its head from between the rails and came trotting along beside him, holding up its hand to clasp his.
His mother, standing in the passage, her tall, thin figure distinct in the firelight that came flickering out through the open door, soliloquized querulously: -
"Ef that thar child don't quit that fool way o' stickin' her head a- twixt the rails ter watch fur her brother, she'll git cotched thar some day like a peeg in a pen, an' git her neck bruk."
Birt overheard her. "Tennessee air too peart ter git herself hurt," he said, a trifle ashamed of his ready championship of his little sister, as a big rough boy is apt to be of gentler emotions.
If ever infancy can be deemed uncouth, she was an uncouth little atom of humanity. Her blue checked homespun dress, graced with big horn buttons, descended almost to her feet. Her straight, awkwardly cropped hair was of a nondescript shade pleasantly called "tow." As she came into the light of the fire, she lifted wide black eyes deprecatingly to her mother.
"She ain't pretty, I know, but she air powerful peart," Birt used to say so often that the phrase became a formula with him.
If she were "powerful peart," it was a fact readily apparent only to him, for she was a silent child, with the single marked characteristic of great affection for her eldest brother and a singular pertinacity in following him about.
"I dunno 'bout Tennie's peartness," his mother sarcastically rejoined. "'Pears ter me like the chile hain't never hed good sense; afore she could walk she'd crawl along the floor arter ye, an' holler like a squeech-owEL ef ye went off an' lef' her. An' ye air plumb teched in the head too, Birt, ter set sech store by Tennie. I look ter see her killed, or stunted, some day, in them travels o' hern."
For when Birt Dicey went "yerrands" on the mule through the woods to the Settlement, Tennessee often rode on the pommel of his saddle. She followed in the furrow when he ploughed. She was as familiar an object at the tanyard as the bark-mill itself. When he wielded the axe, she perched on one end of the woodpile. But so far, she had passed safely through her varied adventures, and gratifying evidences of her growth were registered on the door. "Stand back thar, Tennessee!" in a loud, boyish halloo, was a command when danger was ahead, which she obeyed with the readiness of a veteran.
Sometimes, however, this incongruous companionship became irksome to him. Her trusting, insistent affection made her a clog upon him, and he grew impatient of it.
Ah, little Sister! he learned its value one day.
The great wood fire was all aflare in the deep chimney-place. Savory odors came from the gridiron and the skillet and the hoe, on the live coals drawn out on the broad hearth. The tow-headed children grew noisy as they assembled around the bare pine table, and began to clash their knives and forks.
Birt, unmindful, crouched by the hearth, silently turning his precious specimens about, that he might examine them by the firelight. Tennessee, her chuffy hand on his shoulder, for she could reach it as he knelt, held her head close to his, and looked at them too with wide black eyes. His mother placed the supper on the table, and twice she called to him to come, but he did not hear. She turned and looked down at him, then broke out sharply in indignant surprise.
"Air ye bereft o' reason, Birt Dicey! Ye set thar nosin' a handful o' rocks ez ef they war fitten ter eat! An' now look at the boy—a stuffin' 'em in his pockets ter sag 'em down and tear 'em out fur me ter sew in ag'in. Waal, waal! Sol'mon say ef ye spare the rod ye spile the child—mos' ennybody could hev fund that out from thar own 'sperience; but the wisest man that ever lived lef' no receipt how ter keep a boy's pockets whole in his breeches."
Birt Dicey lay awake deep into the night, pondering and planning. But despite this unwonted vigil the old bark-mill was early astir, and he went alertly about his work. He felt eager, strong, capable. The spirit of progress was upon him.
The tanyard lay in the midst of a forest so dense that, except at the verge of the clearing, it showed hardly a trace of its gradual despoliation by the industry that nestled in its heart like a worm in the bud. There were many stumps about the margin of the woods, the felled trees, stripped of their bark, often lying among them still, for the supply of timber exceeded the need. In penetrating the wilderness you might mark, too, here and there, a vacant space, where the chestnut-oak, prized for its tannin, had once grown on the slope.
A little log house was in the midst of the clearing. It had, properly speaking, only one room, but there was a shed-room attached, for the purpose of storage, and also a large open shed at one side. The rail fence inclosed the space of an acre, perhaps, which was covered with spent bark. Across the pits planks were laid, with heavy stones upon them to hold them in place. A rude roof sheltered the bark-mill from the weather, and there was the patient mule, with Birt and a whip to make sure that he did not fall into reflective pauses according to his meditative wont. And there, too, was Tennessee, perched on the lower edge of a great pile of bark, and gravely watching Birt.
He deprecated the attention she attracted. He was sometimes ashamed to have the persistent little sister seen following at his heels like a midday shadow. He could not know that the men who stopped and spoke to him and to her, and laughed at the infirmities of the infant tongue when she replied unintelligibly, thought better of him for his manifestation of strong fraternal affection. They said to each other that he was a "peart boy an' powerful good ter the t'other chill'en, an' holped the fambly along ez well ez a man— better'n thar dad ever done;" for Birt's father had been characterized always as "slack-twisted an' onlucky."
The shadows dwindled on the tan. The winds had furled their wings. White clouds rose, dazzling, opaque, up to the blue zenith. The querulous cicada complained in the laurel. Birt heard the call of a jay from the woods. And then, as he once more urged the old mule on, the busy bark-mill kept up such a whir that he could hear nothing else. He was not aware of an approach till the new-comer was close upon him; in fact, the first he knew of Nate Griggs's proximity was the sight of him. Nate was glancing about with his usual air of questioning disparagement, and cracking a long lash at the spent bark on the ground.
"Hello, Nate!" Birt cried out, eagerly. "I'm powerful glad ye happened ter kem hyar, fur I hev a word ter say ter ye."
"I dunno ez I'm minded ter bide," Nate said cavalierly. "I hates to waste time an' burn daylight a-jowin'."
He was still cracking his lash at the ground. There was a sudden, half-articulate remonstrance.
Birt, who had turned away to the bark-mill, whirled back in a rising passion.
"Did ye hit Tennessee?" he asked, with a dangerous light in his eyes.
"No—I never!" Nate protested. "I hain't seen her till this minute. She war standin' a-hint ye."
"Waal, ye skeered her, then," said Birt, hardly appeased. "Quit snappin' that lash. 'Pears-like ter me ez ye makes yerself powerful free round this hyar tanyard."
"Tennie air a-growin' wonderful fast," the sly Nathan remarked pleasantly.
Birt softened instantly. "She air a haffen inch higher 'n she war las' March, 'cordin' ter the mark on the door," he declared, pridefully. "She ain't pretty, I know, but she air powerful peart."
"What war the word ez ye war layin' off ter say ter me?" Nate asked, curiosity vividly expressed in his face.
Birt leaned back against the pile of bark and hesitated. Last night he had thought Nate the most desirable person to whom he could confide his secret whose aid he could secure. There were many circumstances that made this seem wise. But when the disclosure was imminent, something in those small, bead-like eyes, unpleasantly close together, something in the expression of the thin, pale face, something in Nate's voice and manner repelled confidence.
"Nate," said Birt, at last, speaking with that subacute conviction, so strong yet so ill-defined, which vividly warns the ill-judged and yet cannot stop the tongue constrained by its own folly, "what d'ye s'pose I fund in the woods yestiddy?"
The two small eyes, set close together, seemed merged in one, so concentrated was their gaze. Again their expression struck Birt's attention. He hesitated once more. "Ef I tell ye, will ye promise never ter tell enny livin' human critter?"
"I hope I may drap stone dead ef I ever tell!" Nate exclaimed.
"I fund a strange metal in the woods yestiddy. What d'ye s'pose 't war?"
Nate shook his head. His breath was quick and he could not control the keen anxiety in his face. A strong flush rose to the roots of his sandy hair, his lips quivered, and his small eyes glittered with greedy expectation. His tongue refused to frame a word.
"GOLD!" cried Birt, triumphantly.
"Whar be it?" exclaimed Nate. He was about to start in full run for the spot.
"I ain't agoin' ter tell ye, without we-uns kin strike a trade."
"Waal," said Nate, with difficulty repressing his impatience, "what air you-uns aimin' ter do?"
"Ye knows ez I hev ter bide hyar with the bark-mill mos'ly, jes' now," said Birt, beginning to expound the series of ideas which he had carefully worked out in his midnight vigil, "'kase they hev got ter hev a heap o' tan ter fill them thar vats ag'in. Ef I war ter leave an' go a-gold huntin', the men on the mounting would find out what I war arter, an' they'd come a-grabblin' thar too, an' mebbe git it all, 'kase I dunno how much or how leetle thar be. I wants ter make sure of enough ter buy a horse, or a mule, or su'thin', ef I kin, 'fore I tells ennybody else. An' I 'lowed ez ye an' me would go pardners. Ye'd take my place hyar at the tanyard one day, whilst I dug, an' I'd bide in the tanyard nex' day. An' we would divide fair an' even all we fund."
Nate did not reply. He was absorbed in a project that had come into his head as his friend talked, and the two dissimilar trains of thought combined in a mental mosaic that would have amazed Birt Dicey.
"Ye see," Birt presently continued, "I dunno when I kin git shet o' the tanyard this year. Old Jube Perkins 'lows ez he air mighty busy 'bout'n them hides an' sech, an' he wants me ter holp around ginerally. He say ef I do mo' work'n I owes him, he'll make that straight with my mother. An' he declares fur true ef I don't holp him at this junctry, when he needs me, he won't hire his mule to my mother nex' spring; an' ye know it won't do fur we-uns ter resk the corn-crap an' gyarden truck with sech a pack o' chill'n ter vittle ez we-uns hev got at our house."
Nate deduced an unexpected conclusion. "Ye oughter gin me more'n haffen the make," he said. "'Kase ef 'twarn't fur me, ye couldn't git none. An' ef ye don't say two thurds, I'll tell every critter on the mounting an' they'll be grabblin' in yer gold mine d'rec'ly."
"Ye dunno whar it is," said Birt, quietly.
If a sudden jet from the cold mountain torrent, that rioted through the wilderness down the ravine hard by, had been dashed into Nate's thin, sharp face, he could not have cooled more abruptly. The change almost took his breath away.
"I don't mean THAT, nuther," he gasped with politic penitence, "kase I hev promised not ter tell. I dunno whether I kin holp nohow. I hev got ter do my sheer o' work at home; we ain't through pullin' fodder off'n our late corn yit."
Birt looked at him in silent surprise.
Nate was older than his friend by several years. He was of an unruly and insubordinate temper, and did as little work as he pleased at home. He often remarked that he would like to see who could make him do what he had no mind to do.
"Mebbe old Jube wouldn't want me round 'bout," he suggested.
"Waal," said Birt, eager again to detail his plans, "he 'lowed when I axed him this mornin' ez he'd be willin' ef I could trade with another boy ter take my place wunst in a while."
Nate affected to meditate on this view of the question. "But it will be toler'ble fur away fur me ter go prowlin' in the woods, a- huntin' fur gold, an' our fodder jes' a-sufferin' ter be pulled. Ef the spot air fur off, I can't come an' I won't, not fur haffen the make."
"'T ain't fur off at all—scant haffen mile," replied unwary Birt, anxious to convince. "It air jes' yander nigh that thar salt lick down the ravine. I marks the spot by a bowlder—biggest bowlder I ever see—on the slope o' the mounting."
The instant this revelation passed his lips, regret seized him. "But ye ain't ter go thar 'thout me, ye onderstand, till we begins our work."
"I ain't wantin' ter go," Nate protested. "I ain't sati'fied in my mind whether I'll ondertake ter holp or no. That pullin' fodder ez I hev got ter do sets mighty heavy on my stomach."
"Tim an' yer dad ALWAYS pulls the fodder an' sech—I knows ez that air a true word," said Birt, bluntly. "An' I can't git away from the tanyard at all ef ye won't holp me, 'kase old Jube 'lowed he wouldn't let me swop with a smaller boy ter work hyar; an' all them my size, an' bigger, air made ter work with thar dads, 'ceptin' you- uns."
Nate heard, but he hardly looked as if he did, so busily absorbed was he in fitting this fragment of fact into his mental mosaic. It had begun to assume the proportions of a distinct design.
He suddenly asked a question of apparent irrelevancy.
"This hyar land down the ravine don't b'long ter yer folkses—who do it b'long ter?"
"Don't b'long ter nobody, ye weasel!" Birt retorted, in rising wrath. "D'ye s'pose I'd be a-stealin' of gold off'n somebody else's land?"
Nate's sly, thin face lighted up wonderfully. He seemed in a fever of haste to terminate the conference and get away. He agreed to his friend's proposition and promised to be at the bark-mill bright and early in the morning. As he trudged off, Birt Dicey stood watching the receding figure. His eyes were perplexed, his mind full of anxious foreboding. He hardly knew what he feared. He had only a vague sense of mischief in the air, as slight but as unmistakable as the harbinger of storm on a sunshiny summer day.
"I wisht I hedn't tole him nuthin'," he said, as he wended his way home that night. "Ef my mother hed knowed bout'n it all, I wouldn't hev been 'lowed ter tell him. She DEspises the very sight o' this hyar Nate Griggs—an' yit she say she dunno why."
After supper he sat gloomy and taciturn in the uninclosed passage between the two rooms, watching alternately the fire-flies, as they instarred the dark woods with ever-shifting gold sparks, and the broad, pale flashes of heat lightning which from time to time illumined the horizon. There was no motion in the heavy black foliage, but it was filled with the shrill droning of the summer insects, and high in the branches a screech-owl pierced the air with its keen, quavering scream.
"Tennessee!" exclaimed Birt, as the unwelcome sound fell upon his ear—"Tennessee! run an' put the shovel in the fire!"
Whether the shovel, becoming hot among the live coals, burned the owl that was high in the tree-top outside, according to the countryside superstition, or whether by a singular coincidence, he discovered that he had business elsewhere, he was soon gone, and the night was left to the chorusing katydids and tree-toads and to the weird, fitful illuminations of the noiseless heat lightning.
Birt Dicey rose suddenly and walked away silently into the dense, dark woods.
"Stop, Tennessee! ye can't go too!" exclaimed Mrs. Dicey, appearing in the doorway just in time to intercept the juvenile excursionist. "Ketch her, Rufus! Ef she wouldn't hev followed Birt right off in the pitch dark! She ain't afeared o' nothin' when Birt is thar. Git that pomegranate she hed an' gin it ter her ter keep her from hollerin', Rufe; I hed a sight ruther hear the squeech-owEL."
Tennessee, overpowered by disappointment, sobbed herself to sleep upon the floor, and then ensued an interval of quiet. Rufe, a towheaded boy of ten, dressed in an unbleached cotton shirt and blue-checked homespun trousers, concluded that this moment was the accepted time to count the balls in his brother's shot-pouch. This he proceeded to do, with the aid of the sullen glare from the embers within and the fluctuating gleams of the lightning without. There was no pretense of utility in Rufe's performance; only the love of handling lead could explain it.
"Ye hed better mind," his mother admonished him. "Birt war powerful tried the t'other day ter think what hed gone with his bullets. He'll nose ye out afore long."
"They hev got sech a fool way o' slippin' through the chinks in the floor," said the boy in exasperation. "I never seen the beat! An' thar's no gittin' them out, nuther. I snaked under the house yestiddy an' sarched, an' sarched!—an' I never fund but two. An' Towse, he dragged hisself under thar, too—jes' a-growlin' an' a- snappin'. I thought fur sartin every minit he'd bite my foot off."
He resumed his self-imposed task of counting the rifle balls, and now and then a sharp click told that another was consigned to that limbo guarded by Towse. Mrs. Dicey stood in silence for a time, gazing upon the unutterably gloomy forest, the distant, throbbing stars, and the broad, wan flashes at long intervals gleaming through the sky.
"It puts me in a mighty tucker ter hev yer brother a-settin' out through the woods this hyar way, an' a-leavin' of we-uns hyar, all by ourselves sech a dark night. I'm always afeared thar mought be a bar a-prowlin' round. An' the cornfield air close ter the house, too."
"Pete Thompson—him ez war yander ter the tanyard day 'fore yestiddy with his dad," said the boy, "he tole it ter me ez how he seen a bar las' Wednesday a-climbin' over the fence ter thar cornfield, with a haffen dozen roastin'-ears under his arm an' a watermillion on his head. But WAR it a haffen dozen? I furgits now ef Pete said it war a haffen dozen or nine ears of corn the bar hed;" and he paused to reflect in the midst of his important occupation.
"I'll be bound Pete never stopped ter count 'em," said Mrs. Dicey. "Pick that chile up an' come in. I'm goin' ter bar up the door."
Birt Dicey plodded away through the deep woods and the dense darkness down the ravine. Although he could not now distinguish one stone from another, he had an uncontrollable impulse to visit again the treasure he had discovered. The murmur of the gently bubbling water warned him of the proximity of the deep salt spring almost at the base of the mountain, and, guiding himself partly by the sound, he made his way along the slope to the great bowlder beneath the cliffs that served to mark the spot. As he laid his hand on the bowlder, he experienced a wonderful exhilaration of spirit. Once more he canvassed his scheme. This was the one great opportunity of his restricted life. Visions of future possibilities were opening wide their fascinating vistas. He might make enough to buy a horse, and this expressed his idea of wealth. "But ef I live ter git a cent out'n it," he said to himself, "I'll take the very fust money I kin call my own an' buy Tennessee a chany cup an' sarcer, an' a string o' blue beads an' a caliky coat—ef I die fur it."
His pleased reverie was broken by a sudden discovery. He was not standing among stones about the great bowlder; no—his foot had sunk deep in the sand! He stooped down in the darkness and felt about him. The spot was not now as he had left it yesterday afternoon. He was sure of this, even before a fleet, wan flash of the heat lightning showed him at his feet the unmistakable signs of a recent excavation. It was not deep, it was not broad; but it was fresh and it betrayed a prying hand. Again the heat lightning illumined the wide, vague sky. He saw the solemn dark forests; he saw the steely glimmer of the lick; the distant mountains flickered against the pallid horizon; and once more—densest gloom.
It was Nate who had been here,—Birt felt sure of that; Nate, who had promised he would not come.
Convinced that his friend was playing a false part, Birt went at once to the bark-mill in the morning, confident that he would not find Nate at work in the tanyard according to their agreement.
It was later than usual, and Jubal Perkins swore at Birt for his tardiness. He hardly heard; and as the old bark-mill ground and ground the bark, and the mule jogged around and around, and the hot sun shone, and the voices of the men handling the hides at the tanpit were loud on the air, all his thoughts were of the cool, dark, sequestered ravine, holding in its cloven heart the secret he had discovered.
Rufus happened to come to the tanyard today. Birt seized the opportunity.
"Rufe," he said, "ye see I can't git away from the mill, 'kase I'm 'bleeged ter stay hyar whilst the old mule grinds. But ef ye'll go over yander ter Nate Griggs's house an' tell him ter come over hyar, bein' ez I want to see him partic'lar, I'll fix ye a squir'l-trap before long ez the peartest old Bushy-tail on the mounting ain't got the gumption ter git out'n. An' let me know ef Nate ain't thar."
Rufe was disposed to parley. He stood first on one foot, then on the other. He cast calculating eyes at the bark-mill and out upon the deep forest. The exact date on which this promise was to be fulfilled had to be fixed before he announced his willingness to set out.
Ten to one, he would have gone without the bribe, had none been suggested, for he loved the woods better than the woodpile, and a five-mile tramp through its tangles wearied his bones not so much as picking up a single basketful of chips. Some boys' bones are constituted thus, strange as it may seem.
So he went his way in his somewhat eccentric gait, compounded of a hop, and a skip, and a dawdle. He had made about half a mile when the path curved to the mountain's brink. He paused and parted the glossy leaves of the dense laurel that he might look out over the precipice at the distant heights. How blue—how softly blue they were!—the endless ranges about the horizon. What a golden haze melted on those nearer at hand, bravely green in the sunshine! From among the beetling crags, the first red leaf was whirling away against the azure sky. Even a buzzard had its picturesque aspects, circling high above the mountains in its strong, majestic flight. To breathe the balsamic, sunlit air was luxury, happiness; it was a wonder that Rufe got on as fast as he did. How fragrant and cool and dark was the shadowy valley! A silver cloud lay deep in the waters of the "lick." Why Rufe made up his mind to go down there, he could hardly have said—sheer curiosity, perhaps. He knew he had plenty of time to get to Nate's house and back before dark. People who sent Rufe on errands usually reckoned for two hours' waste in each direction. He had no idea of descending the cliffs as Birt had done. He stolidly retraced his way until he was nearly home; then scrambling down rocky slopes he came presently upon a deer-path. All at once, he noticed the footprint of a man in a dank, marshy spot. He stopped and looked hard at it, for he had naturally supposed this path was used only by the woodland gentry.
"Some deer-hunter, I reckon," he said. And so he went on.
With his characteristic curiosity, he peered all around the "lick" when he was at last there. He even applied his tongue, calf-like, to the briny earth; it did not taste so salty as he had expected. As he rolled over luxuriously on his back among the fragrant summer weeds, he caught sight of something in the branches of an oak tree. He sat up and stared. It looked like a rude platform. After a moment, he divined that it was the remnant of a scaffold from which some early settler of Tennessee had been wont to fire upon the deer or the buffalo at the "lick," below. Such relics, some of them a century old, are to be seen to this day in sequestered nooks of the Cumberland Mountains. Rufe had heard of these old scaffolds, but he had never known of the existence of this one down by the "lick." He sprang up, a flush of excitement contending with the dirt on his countenance; he set his squirrel teeth resolutely together; he applied his sturdy fingers and his nimble legs to the bark of the tree, and up he went like a cat.
He climbed to the lower branches easily enough, but he caused much commotion and swaying among them as he struggled through the foliage. An owl, with great remonstrant eyes, suddenly looked out of a hollow, higher still, with an inarticulate mutter of mingled reproach, and warning, and anxiety. Rufe settled himself on the platform, his bare feet dangling about jocosely. Then, beating his hands on either thigh to mark the time he sang in a loud, shrill soprano, prone now and then to be flat, and yet, impartially, prone now and then to be sharp: -
Thar war two sun-dogs in the red day-dawn, An' the wind war laid—'t war prime fur game. I went ter the woods betimes that morn, An' tuk my flint-lock, "Nancy," by name; An' thar I see, in the crotch of a tree, A great big catamount grinnin' at me. A-kee! he! he! An' a-ho! ho! he! A pop-eyed catamount laffin' at me!
And, as Rufe sang, the anger and remonstrance in the owl's demeanor increased every moment. For the owl was a vocalist, too!
Bein' made game of by a brute beastis, War su'thin' I could in no ways allow. I jes' spoke up, for my dander hed riz, "Cat—take in the slack o' yer jaw!" He bowed his back—Nance sighted him gran', Then the blamed old gal jes' flashed in the pan! A-kee! he! he! An' a-ho! ho! he! With a outraged catamount rebukin' of me!
As Rufe finished this with a mighty CRESCENDO, he was obliged to pause for breath. He stared about, gaspily. The afternoon was waning. The mountains close at hand were a darker green. The distant ranges had assumed a rosy amethystine tint, like nothing earthly—like the mountains of a dream, perhaps. The buzzard had alighted in the top of a tree not far down the slope, a tree long ago lightning-scathed, but still rising, gaunt and scarred, above all the forest, and stretching dead stark arms to heaven. Somehow Rufe did not like the looks of it. He was aware of a revulsion of feeling, of the ebbing away of his merry spirit before he saw more.
As he tried to sing: -
I war the mightiest hunter that ever ye see Till that thar catamount tuk arter me! -
his tongue clove suddenly to the roof of his mouth.
He could see something under that tree which no one else could see, not even from the summit of the crags, for the tree was beyond a projecting slope, and out of the range of vision thence.
Rufe could not make out distinctly what the object was, but it was evidently foreign to the place. He possessed the universal human weakness of regarding everything with a personal application. It now seemed strange to him that he should have come here at all; stranger still, that he should have mounted this queer relic of days so long gone by, and thus discovered that peculiar object under the dead tree. He began to think he had been led here for a purpose. Now Rufe was not so good a boy as to be on the continual lookout for rewards of merit. On the contrary, the day of reckoning meant with him the day of punishment. He had heard recounted an unpleasant superstition that when the red sunsets were flaming round the western mountains, and the valleys were dark and drear, and the abysses and gorges gloomed full of witches and weird spirits, Satan himself might be descried, walking the crags, and spitting fire, and deporting himself generally in such a manner as to cause great apprehension to a small person who could remember so many sins as Rufe could. His sins! they trooped up before his mental vision now, and in a dense convocation crowded the encompassing wilderness.
Rufe felt that he must not leave this matter in uncertainty. He must know whether that strange object under the tree could be intended as a warning to him to cease in time his evil ways— tormenting Towse, pulling Tennessee's hair, shirking the woodpile, and squandering Birt's rifle balls. He even feared this might be a notification that the hour of retribution had already come!
He scuttled off the platform, and began to swing himself from bough to bough. He was nervous and less expert than when he had climbed up the tree. He lost his grip once, and crashed from one branch to another, scratching himself handsomely in the operation. The owl, emboldened by his retreat, flew awkwardly down upon the scaffold, and perched there, its head turned askew, and its great, round eyes fixed solemnly upon him.
Suddenly a wild hoot of derision rent the air; the echoes answered, and all the ravine was filled with the jeering clamor.
"The wust luck in the worl'!" plained poor Rufe, as the ill-omened cry rose again and again. "'Tain't goin' ter s'prise me none now, ef I gits my neck bruk along o' this resky foolishness in this cur'ous place whar owELS watch from the lookout ez dead men hev lef'."
He came down unhurt, however. Then he sidled about a great many times through "the laurel," for he could not muster courage for a direct approach to the strange object he had descried. The owl still watched him, and bobbed its head and hooted after him. When he drew near the lightning-scathed tree, he paused rooted to the spot, gazing in astonishment, his hat on the back of his tow head, his eyes opened wide, one finger inserted in his mouth in silent deprecation.
For there stood a man dressed in black, and with a dark straw hat on his head. He had gray whiskers, and gleaming spectacles of a mildly surprised expression. He smiled kindly when he saw Rufe. Incongruously enough, he had a hammer in his hand. He was going down the ravine, tapping the rocks with it. And Rufe thought he looked for all the world like some over-grown, demented woodpecker.
As Rufe still stood staring, the old gentleman held out his hand with a cordial gesture.
"Come here, my little man!" he said in a kind voice.
Rufe hesitated. Then he was seized by sudden distrust. Who was this stranger? and why did he call, "Come here!"
Perhaps the fears already uppermost in Rufe's mind influenced his hasty conclusion. He cast a horrified glance upon the old gentleman in black, a garb of suspicious color to the little mountaineer, who had never seen men clad in aught but the brown jeans habitually worn by the hunters of the range. He remembered, too, the words of an old song that chronicled how alluring were the invitations of Satan, and with a frenzied cry he fled frantically through the laurel.
Away and away he dashed, up steep ascents, down sharp declivities, falling twice or thrice in his haste, but hurting his clothes more than himself.
It was not long before he was in sight of home, and Towse met him at the fence. The feeling between these two was often the reverse of cordial, and as Rufe climbed down from rail to rail, his sullen "Lemme 'lone, now!" was answered by sundry snaps at his heels and a low growl. Not that Towse would really have harmed him—fealty to the family forbade that; but in defense of his ears and tail he thought it best to keep fierce possibilities in Rufe's contemplation.
Rufe sat down on the floor of the uninclosed passage between the two rooms, his legs dangling over the sparse sprouts of chickweed and clumps of mullein that grew just beneath, for there were no steps, and Towse bounded up and sat upright close beside him. And as he sought to lean on Towse, the dog sought to lean on him.
They both looked out meditatively at the dense and sombre wilderness, upon which this little clearing and humble log-cabin were but meagre suggestions of that strong, full-pulsed humanity that has elsewhere subdued nature, and achieved progress, and preempted perfection.
Towse soon shut his eyes, and presently he was nodding. Presumably he dreamed, for once he roused himself to snap at a fly, when there was no fly. Rufe, however, was wide awake, and busily canvassing how to account to Birt for the lack of a message from Nate Griggs, for he would not confess how untrustworthy he had proved himself. As he reflected upon this perplexity, he leaned his throbbing head on his hand, and his attitude expressed a downcast spirit.
This chanced to strike his mother's attention as she came to the door. She paused and looked keenly at him.
"Them hoss apples ag'in!" she exclaimed, with the voice of accusation. She had no idea of youthful dejection disconnected with the colic.
Rufe was roused to defend himself. "Hain't teched 'em, now!" he cried, acrimoniously.
"Waal, sometimes ye air sorter loose-jointed in yer jaw, an' ain't partic'lar what ye say," rejoined his mother, politely. "I'll waste a leetle yerb-tea on ye, ennyhow."
She started back into the room, and Rufe rose at once. This cruelty should not be practiced upon him, whatever might betide him at the tanyard. He set out at a brisk pace. He had no mind to be long alone in the woods since his strange adventure down the ravine, or he might have hid in the underbrush, as he had often done, until other matters usurped his mother's medicinal intentions.
When Rufe reached the tanyard, Birt was still at work. He turned and looked eagerly at the juvenile ambassador.
"Did Nate gin ye a word fur me?" he called sonorously, above the clamor of the noisy bark-mill.
"He say he'll be hyar ter-morrer by sun-up!" piped out Rufe, in a blatant treble.
A lie seemed less reprehensible when he was obliged to labor so conscientiously to make it heard.
And then compunction seized him. He sat down by Tennessee on a pile of bark, and took off his old wool hat to mop the cold perspiration that had started on his head and face. He felt sick, and sad, and extremely wicked,—a sorry contrast to Birt, who was so honest and reliable and, as his mother always said, "ez stiddy ez the mounting." Birt was beginning to unharness the mule, for the day's work was at an end.
The dusk had deepened to darkness. The woods were full of gloom. A timorous star palpitated in the sky. In the sudden stillness when the bark-mill ceased its whir, the mountain torrent hard by lifted a mystic chant. The drone of the katydid vibrated in the laurel, and the shrill-voiced cricket chirped. Two of the men were in the shed examining a green hide by the light of a perforated tin lantern, that seemed to spill the rays in glinting white rills. As they flickered across the pile of bark where Rufe and Tennessee were sitting, he noticed how alert Birt looked, how bright his eyes were.
For Birt's hopes were suddenly renewed. He thought that some mischance had detained Nate to-day, and that he would come to-morrow to work at the bark-mill.
The boy's blood tingled at the prospect of being free to seek for treasure down the ravine. He began to feel that he had been too quick to distrust his friend. Perhaps the stipulation that Nate should not go to the ravine until the work commenced was more than he ought to have asked. And perhaps, too, the trespasser was not Nate! The traces of shallow delving might have been left by another hand. Birt paused reflectively in unharnessing the mule. He stood with the gear in one hand, serious and anxious, in view of the possibility that this discovery was not his alone.
Then he strove to cast aside the thought. He said to himself that he had been hasty in concluding that the slight excavation argued human presence in that lonely spot; a rock dislodged and rolling heavily down the gorge might have thus scraped into the sand and gravel; or perhaps some burrowing animal, prospecting for winter quarters, had begun to dig a hole under the bowlder.
He was perplexed, despite his plausible reasoning, and he continued silent and preoccupied when he lifted Tennessee to his shoulder and trudged off homeward, with Rufe at his heels, and the small boy's conscience following sturdily in the rear.
That sternly accusing conscience! Rufe was dismayed, when he sat with the other laughing children about the table, to know that his soul was not merry. Sometimes a sombre shadow fell upon his face, and once Birt asked him what was the matter. And though he laughed more than ever, he felt it was very hard to be gay without the subtle essence of mirth. That lie!—it seemed to grow; before supper was over it was as big as the warping-bars, and when they all sat in a semicircle in the open passage, Rufe felt that his conscience was the most prominent member of the party. The young moon sank; the night waxed darker still; the woods murmured mysteriously. And he was glad enough at last to be sent to bed, where after so long a time sleep found him.
The morrow came in a cloud. The light lacked the sunshine. The listless air lacked the wind. Still and sombre, the woods touched the murky, motionless sky. All the universe seemed to hold a sullen pause. Time was afoot—it always is—but Birt might not know how it sped; no shadows on the spent tan this dark day! Over his shoulder he was forever glancing, hoping that Nate would presently appear from the woods. He saw only the mists lurking in the laurel; they had autumnal presage and a chill presence. He buttoned his coat about him, and the old mule sneezed as he jogged round the bark- mill.
Jubal Perkins and a crony stood smoking much of the time to-day in the door of the house, looking idly out upon the brown stretch of spent bark, and the gray, weather-beaten sheds, and the dun sky, and the shadowy, mist-veiled woods. The tanner was a tall, muscular man, clad in brown jeans, and with boots of a fair grade of leather drawn high over his trousers. As he often remarked, "The tanyard owes ME good foot-gear—ef the rest o' the mounting hev ter go barefoot." The expression of his face was somewhat masked by a heavy grizzled beard, but from beneath the wide brim of his hat his eyes peered out with a jocose twinkle. His mouth seemed chiefly useful as a receptacle for his pipe-stem, for he spoke through his nose. His voice was strident on the air, since he included in the conversation a workman in the shed, who was scraping with a two- handled knife a hide spread on a wooden horse. This man, whose name was Andrew Byers, glanced up now and then, elevating a pair of shaggy eyebrows, and settled the affairs of the nation with diligence and despatch, little hindered by his labors or the distance.
Birt took no heed of the loud drawling talk. In moody silence he drove the mule around and around the bark-mill. The patient old animal, being in no danger of losing his way, closed his eyes drowsily as he trudged, making the best of it.
"I'll git ez mild-mannered an' meek-hearted ez this hyar old beastis, some day, ef things keep on ez disapp'intin' ez they hev been lately," thought Birt, miserably. "They do say ez even he used ter be a turrible kicker."
Noon came and went, and still the mists hung in the forest closely engirdling the little clearing. The roofs glistened with moisture, and the eaves dripped. A crow was cawing somewhere. Birt had paused to let the mule rest, and the raucous sound caused him to turn his head. His heart gave a bound when he saw that on the other side of the fence the underbrush was astir along the path which wound through the woods to the tanyard. Somebody was coming; he hoped even yet that it might be Nate. He eagerly watched the rustling boughs. The crow had flown, but he heard as he waited a faint "caw! caw!" in the misty distance. Whoever the newcomer might be, he certainly loitered. At last the leaves parted, and revealed- -Rufe.
Birt's first sensation was renewed disappointment. Then he was disposed to investigate the mystery of Nate's non-appearance.
"Hello, Rufe!" he called out, as soon as the small boy was inside the tanyard, "be you-uns SURE ez Nate said he'd come over by sun- up?"
Rufe halted and gazed about him, endeavoring to conjure an expression of surprise into his freckled face. He even opened his mouth to exhibit astonishment—exhibiting chiefly that equivocal tongue, and a large assortment of jagged squirrel teeth.
"Hain't Nate come yit?" he ventured.
The tanner suddenly put into the conversation.
"War it Nate Griggs ez ye war aimin' ter trade with ter take yer place wunst in a while in the tanyard?"
Birt assented. "An' he 'lowed he'd be hyar ter-day by sun-up. Rufe brung that word from him yestiddy."
Rufe's conscience had given him a recess, during which he had consumed several horse-apples in considerable complacence and a total disregard of "yerb tea." He had climbed a tree, and sampled a green persimmon, and he endured with fortitude the pucker in his mouth, since it enabled him to make such faces at Towse as caused the dog to snap and growl in a frenzy of surprised indignation. He had fashioned a corn-stalk fiddle—that instrument so dear to rural children!—and he had been sawing away on it to his own satisfaction and Tennessee's unbounded admiration for the last half-hour. He had forgotten that pursuing conscience till it seized upon him again in the tanyard.
"Oh, Birt," he quavered out, suddenly, "I hain't laid eyes on Nate."
Birt exclaimed indignantly, and Jubal Perkins laughed.
"I seen sech a cur'ous lookin' man, down in the ravine by the lick, ez it sot me all catawampus!" continued Rufe.
As he told of his defection, and the falsehood with which he had accounted for it, Jubal Perkins came to a sudden decision.
"Git on that thar mule, Birt, an' ride over ter Nate's, an' find out what ails him, ef so be ye hanker ter know. I don't want nobody workin' in this hyar tanyard ez looks ez mournful ez ye do—like ez ef ye hed been buried an' dug up. But hurry back, 'kase there ain't enough bark ground yit, an' I hev got other turns o' work I want ye ter do besides 'fore dark."
"War that Satan?" asked Rufe abruptly.
"Whar?" exclaimed Birt, startled, and glancing hastily over his shoulder.
"Down yander by the lick," plained Rufe.
"Naw!" said Birt, scornfully, "an' nuthin' like Satan, I'll be bound!"
He was, however, uneasy to hear of any man down the ravine in the neighborhood of his hidden treasure, but he could not now question Rufe, for Jube Perkins, with mock severity, was taking the small boy to account.
Byers was looking on, the knife idle in his hands, and his lips distended with a wide grin in the anticipation of getting some fun out of Rufe.
"Look-a-hyar, bub," said Jubal Perkins, with both hands in his pockets and glaring down solemnly at Rufe; "ef ever I ketches ye goin' of yerrands no better'n that ag'in, I'm a-goin' ter—TAN that thar hide o' yourn."
Rufe gazed up deprecatingly, his eyes widening at the prospect. Byers broke into a horse laugh.
"We've been wantin' some leetle varmints fur tanning ennyhow," he said. "Ye'll feel mighty queer when ye stand out thar on the spent tan, with jes' yer meat on yer bones, an 'look up an' see yer skin a-hangin' alongside o' the t'other calves, an' sech—that ye will!"
"An' all the mounting folks will be remarkin' on it, too," said Perkins. Which no doubt they would have done with a lively interest.
"I reckon," said Byers, looking speculatively at Rufe, "ez't would take a right smart time fur ye ter git tough enough ter go 'bout in respect'ble society ag'in. 'T would hurt ye mightily, I'm thinkin'. Ef I war you-uns, I'd be powerful partic'lar ter keep inside o' sech an accommodatin'-lookin' little hide ez yourn be fur tanning."
Rufe's countenance was distorted. He seemed about to tune up and whimper. "An' ef I war you-uns, Andy Byers, I'd find su'thin' better ter do'n ter bait an' badger a critter the size o' Rufe!" exclaimed Birt angrily.
"That thar boy's 'bout right, too!" said the man who had hitherto been standing silent in the door.
"Waal, leave Rufe be, Jubal!" said Byers, laughing. "YE started the fun."
"Leave him be, yerself," retorted the tanner.
When Birt mounted the mule, and rode out of the yard, he glanced back and saw that Rufe had approached the shed; judging by his gestures, he was asking a variety of questions touching the art of tanning, to which Byers amicably responded.
The mists were shifting as Birt went on and on. He heard the acorns dropping from the chestnut-oaks—sign that the wind was awake in the woods. Like a glittering, polished blade, at last a slanting sunbeam fell. It split the gloom, and a radiant afternoon seemed to emerge. The moist leaves shone; far down the aisles of the woods the fugitive mists, in elusive dryadic suggestions, chased each other into the distance. Although the song-birds were all silent, there was a chirping somewhere—cheerful sound! He had almost reached his destination when a sudden rustling in the undergrowth by the roadside caused him to turn and glance back.
Two or three shoats lifted their heads and were gazing at him with surprise, and a certain disfavor, as if they did not quite like his looks. A bevy of barefooted, tow-headed children were making mud pies in a marshy dip close by. An ancient hound, that had renounced the chase and assumed in his old age the office of tutor, seemed to preside with dignity and judgment. He, too, had descried the approach of the stranger. He growled, but made no other demonstration.
"Whar's Nate?" Birt called out, for these were the children of Nate's eldest brother.
For a moment there was no reply. Then the smallest of the small boys shrilly piped out, "He hev gone away!—him an' gran'dad's claybank mare."
Another unexpected development! "When will he come back?"
"Ain't goin' ter come back fur two weeks."
"Whar 'bouts hev he gone?" asked Birt amazed.
"Dunno," responded the same little fellow.
"When did he set out?"
There was a meditative pause. Then ensued a jumbled bickering. The small boys, the shoats, and the hound seemed to consult together in the endeavor to distinguish "day 'fore yestiddy" from "las' week." The united intellect of the party was inadequate.
"Dunno!" the mite of a spokesman at last admitted.
Birt rode on rapidly once more, leaving this choice syndicate settling down again to the mud pies.
The woods gave way presently and revealed, close to a precipice, Nate's home. The log house with its chimney of clay and sticks, the barn of ruder guise, the fodder-stack, the ash-hopper, and the rail fence were all imposed in high relief against the crimson west and the purpling ranges in the distance. The little cabin was quite alone in the world. No other house, no field, no clearing, was visible in all the vast expanse of mountains and valleys which it overlooked. The great panorama of nature seemed to be unrolled for it only. The seasons passed in review before it. The moon rose, waxing or waning, as if for its behoof. The sun conserved for it a splendid state.
But the skies above it had sterner moods,—sometimes lightnings veined the familiar clouds; winds rioted about it; the thunder spoke close at hand. And then it was that Mrs. Griggs lamented her husband's course in "raisin' the house hyar so nigh the bluffs ez ef it war an' aigle's nest," and forgot that she had ever accounted herself "sifflicated" when distant from the airy cliffs.
She stood in the doorway now, her arms akimbo—an attitude that makes a woman of a certain stamp seem more masterful than a man. Her grizzled locks were ornamented by a cotton cap with a wide and impressive ruffle, which, swaying and nodding, served to emphasize her remarks. She was conferring in a loud drawl with her husband, who had let down the bars to admit his horse, laden with a newly killed deer. Her manner would seem to imply that she, and not he, had slain the animal.
"Toler'ble fat," she commented with grave self-complacence. "He 'minds me sorter o' that thar tremenjious buck we hed las' September. HE war the fattes' buck I ever see. Take off his hide right straight."
The big cap-ruffle flapped didactically.
"Lor'-a—massy, woman!" vociferated the testy old man; "ain't I a- goin' ter? Ter hear ye a-jowin', a-body would think I had never shot nothin' likelier'n a yaller-hammer sence I been born. S'pos'n ye jes' takes ter goin' a-huntin', an' skinnin' deer, an' cuttin' wood, an' doin' my work ginerally. Pears-like ye think ye knows mo' 'bout'n my work'n I does. An' I'll bide hyar at the house."
Mrs. Griggs nodded her head capably, in nowise dismayed. "I dunno but that plan would work mighty well," she said.
This conjugal colloquy terminated as she glanced up and saw Birt.
"Why, thar's young Dicey a-hint ye. Howdy Birt! 'Light an' hitch!"
"Naw'm," rejoined Birt, as he rode into the enclosure and close up to the doorstep. "I hain't got time ter 'light." Then precipitately opening the subject of his mission. "I kem over hyar ter see Nate. Whar hev he disappeared ter?"
"Waal, now, that's jes' what I'd like ter know," she replied, her face eloquent with baffled curiosity. "He jes' borried his dad's claybank mare, an' sot out, an' never 'lowed whar he war bound fur. Nate hev turned twenty-one year old," she continued, "an' he 'lows he air a man growed, an' obligated ter obey nobody but hisself. From the headin' way that he kerries on hyar, a-body would s'pose he air older 'n the Cumberland Mountings! But he hev turned twenty- one—that's a fac'—an' he voted at the las' election."
(With how much discretion it need not now be inquired.)
"I knows that air true," said Birt, who had wistfully admired this feat of his senior.
"Waal—Nate don't set much store by votin'," rejoined Mrs. Griggs. "Nate, he say, the greatest privilege his kentry kin confer on him is ter make it capital punishment fur wimmen ter ax him questions!— Which I hev done," she admitted stoutly.
And the ruffle on her cap did not deny it.
"Nate air twenty-one," she reiterated. "An' I s'pose he 'lows ez I hev no call nowadays ter be his mother."
"Hain't ye got no guess whar he be gone?" asked Birt, dismayed by this strange new complication.
"Waal, I hev been studyin' it out ez Nate mought hev rid ter Parch Corn, whar his great-uncle, Joshua Peters, lives—him that merried my aunt, Melissy Baker, ez war a widder then, though born a Scruggs. An' then, ag'in, Nate MOUGHT hev tuk it inter his head ter go ter the Cross-roads, a-courtin' a gal thar ez he hev been talkin' about powerful, lately. But they tells me," Mrs. Griggs expostulated, as it were, "that them gals at the Cross-roads is in no way desirable,- -specially this hyar Elviry Mills, ez mighty nigh all the boys on the mounting hev los' thar wits about,—what little wits ez they ever hed ter lose, I mean ter say. But Nate thinks he hev got a right ter a ch'ice, bein' ez he air turned twenty-one."
"Did he say when he 'lowed ter come back?" Birt asked.
"'Bout two or three weeks Nate laid off ter be away; but whar he hev gone, an' what's his yerrand, he let no human know," returned Mrs. Griggs. "I hev been powerful aggervated 'bout this caper o' Nate's. I ain't afeard he'll git hisself hurt no ways whilst he be gone, for Nate is mighty apt ter take keer o' Nate." She nodded her head convincingly, and the great ruffle on her cap shook in corroboration. "But I hain't never hed the right medjure o' respec' out'n Nate, an' his dad hain't, nuther."
Birt listened vaguely to this account of his friend's filial shortcomings, his absent eyes fixed upon the wide landscape, and his mind busy with the anxious problems of Nate's broken promises.
And the big red ball of the setting sun seemed at last to roll off the plane of the horizon, and it disappeared amidst the fiery emblazonment of clouds with which it had enriched the west. But all the world was not so splendid; midway below the dark purple summits a dun, opaque vapor asserted itself in dreary, aerial suspension. Beneath it he could see a file of cows, homeward bound, along the road that encircled the mountain's base. He heard them low, and this reminded him that night was near, for all that the zenith was azure, and for all that the west was aglow. And he remembered he had a good many odd jobs to do before dark. And so he turned his face homeward.
Birt had always been held in high esteem by the men at the tanyard. Suddenly, however, the feeling toward him cooled. He remembered afterward, although at the time he was too absorbed to fully appreciate it, that this change began one day shortly after he had learned of Nate's departure. As he went mechanically about his work, he was pondering futilely upon his friend's mysterious journey, and his tantalizing hopes lying untried in the depths of the ravine. He hardly noticed the conversation of the men until something was said that touched upon the wish nearest his heart.
"I war studyin' 'bout lettin' Birt hev a day off," said the tanner. "An' ye'll bide hyar."
"Naw, Jube—naw!" Andy Byers replied with stalwart independence to his employer. "I hev laid off ter attend. Ef ye want ennybody ter bide with the tanyard, an' keer fur this hyar pit, ye kin do it yerse'f, or else Birt kin. I hev laid off ter attend."
Andy Byers was a man of moods. His shaggy eyebrows to-day overshadowed eyes sombre and austere. He seemed, if possible, a little slower than was his wont. He bore himself with a sour solemnity, and he was at once irritable and dejected.
"Shucks, Andy! ye knows ye ain't no kin sca'cely ter the old woman; ye couldn't count out how ye air kin ter her ter save yer life. Now, I'M obleeged ter attend."
It so happened that the tanner's great-aunt was distantly related to Andy Byers. Being ill, and an extremely old woman, she was supposed to be lying at the point of death, and her kindred had been summoned to hear her last words.
"I hed 'lowed ter gin Birt a day off, 'kase I hev got ter hev the mule in the wagon, an' he can't grind bark. I PROMISED Birt a day off," the tanner continued.
"That thar's twixt ye an' Birt. I hain't got no call ter meddle," said the obdurate Byers. "Ye kin bide with the tanyard an' finish this job yerse'f, of so minded. I'm goin' ter attend."
"I reckon half the kentry-side will be thar, an' I wants ter see the folks," said Jubal Perkins, cheerfully.
"Then Birt will hev ter bide with the tanyard, an' finish this job. It don't lie with me ter gin him a day off. I don't keer ef he never gits a day off," said Byers.
This was an unnecessarily unkind speech, and Birt's anger flamed out.
"Ef we-uns war of a size, Andy Byers," he said, hotly, "I'd make ye divide work a leetle more ekal than ye does."
Andy Byers dropped the hide in his hands, and looked steadily across the pit at Birt, as if he were taking the boy's measure.
"Ye mean ter say ef ye hed the bone an' muscle ye'd knock me down, do ye?" he sneered. "Waal, I'll take the will fur the deed. I'll hold the grudge agin ye, jes' the same."
They were all three busied about the pit. The hides had been taken out, and stratified anew, with layers of fresh tan, reversing the original order,—those that had been at the bottom now being placed at the top. The operation was almost complete before Jubal Perkins received the news of his relative's precarious condition. He had no doubt that Birt was able to finish it properly, and the boy's conscientious habit of doing his best served to make the tanner's mind quite easy. As to the day off, he was glad to have that question settled by a quarrel between his employees, thus relieving him of responsibility.
Birt's wrath was always evanescent, and he was sorry a moment afterward for what he had said. Andy Byers exchanged no more words with him, and skillfully combined a curt and crusty manner toward him with an aspect of contemplative dreariness. Occasionally, as they paused to rest, Byers would sigh deeply.
"A mighty good old woman, Mrs. Price war." He spoke as if she were already dead. "A mighty good old woman, though small-sized."
"A little of her went a long way. She war eighty-four year old, an' kep' a sharp tongue in her head ter the las'," rejoined the tanner, adopting in turn the past tense.
Rufe listened with startled interest. Now and then he cocked up his speculative eyes, and gazed fixedly into the preternaturally solemn face of Byers, who reiterated, "A good old woman, though small- sized."
With this unaccustomed absorption Rufe's accomplishment of getting under-foot became pronounced. The tanner jostled him more than once, Birt stumbled against his toes, and Byers, suddenly turning, ran quite over him. Rufe had not far to fall, but Byers was a tall man. His arms swayed like the sails of a windmill in the effort to recover his balance. He was in danger of toppling into the pit, and in fact only caught himself on his knees at its verge.
"Ye torment!" he roared angrily, as he struggled to his feet. "G'way from hyar, or I'll skeer ye out'n yer wits!"
The small boy ruefully gathered his members together, and after the men had started on their journey he sat down on a pile of wood hard by to give Birt his opinion of Andy Byers.
"He air a toler'ble mean man, ain't he, Birt?"
But Birt said he had no mind to talk about Andy Byers.
"SKEER ME!" exclaimed Rufe, doughtily. "It takes a heap ter skeer ME!"
He got up presently, and going into the shed began to examine the tools of the trade which were lying there. He had the two-handled knife, with which he was about to try his skill on a hide that was stretched over the beam of the wooden horse, when Birt glanced up and came hastily to the rescue. Rufe was disposed to further investigate the appliances of the tanyard left defenseless at his mercy, but at last Birt prevailed on him to go home and play with Tennessee, and was glad enough to see his tow-head, with his old hat perched precariously on it, bobbing up and down among the low bushes, as he wended his way along the path through the woods.
The hides had all been replaced between layers of fresh tan before the men left, and Birt had only to fill up the space above with a thicker layer, ten or fifteen inches deep, and put the boards securely across the top of the pit, with heavy stones upon them to weight them down. But this kept him busy all the rest of the afternoon.
Rufe was pretty busy too. When he came in sight of home Tennessee was the first object visible in the open passage. The sunshine slanted through it under the dusky roof, and the shadows of the chestnut-oak, hard by, dappled the floor. Lying there was an old Mexican saddle, for which there was no use since the horse had died. Tennessee was mounted upon it, the reins in her hands, the headstall and bit poised on the peaked pommel. She jounced back and forth, and the skirts of the saddle flapped and the stirrups clanked on the floor, and the absorbed eyes of the little mountaineer were fixed on space.
Away and away she cantered on some splendid imaginary palfrey, through scenes where conjecture fails to follow her: a land, doubtless, where all the winds blow fair, and sparkling waters run, and jeopardy delights, and fancy's license prevails—all very different, you may be sure, from the facts, an old saddle on a puncheon floor, and a little black-eyed mountaineer.
How far Tennessee journeyed, and how long she was gone, it is impossible to say. She halted suddenly when her attention was attracted to a phenomenon within one of the rooms.
The door was ajar and the solitary Rufe was visible in the dusky vista. He stood before a large wooden chest. He had lifted the lid, and kept it up by resting it upon his head, bent forward for the purpose, while he rummaged the contents with vandal hands.
Tennessee stared at him, with indignant surprise gathering in her widening eyes.
Now that chest contained, besides a meagre store of quilts and comforts, her own and her mother's clothes, the fewer garments of the boys of the family being alternately suspended on the clothes- line and their own frames. She resented the sacrilege of Rufe's invasion of that chest. She turned on the saddle and looked around with an air of appeal. Her mother, however, was down the hill beside the spring, busy boiling soap, and quite out of hearing. Tennessee gazed vaguely for a moment at the great kettle with the red and yellow flames curling around it, and her mother's figure hovering over it. Then she looked back at Rufe.
He continued industriously churning up the contents of the chest, the lid still poised upon that head that served so many other useful purposes—for the gymnastic exhibition involved in standing on it; for his extraordinary mental processes; for a lodgment for his old wool hat, and a field for his crop of flaxen hair.
All the instinct of the proprietor was roused within Tennessee. She found her voice, a hoarse, infantile wheeze.
"Tum out'n chist!" she exclaimed, gutturally. "Tum out'n chist!"
Rufe turned his tow-head slowly, that he might not disturb the poise of the lid of the chest resting upon it. He fixed a solemn stare on Tennessee, and drawing one hand from the depths of the chest, he silently shook his fist. And then he resumed his researches.
Tennessee, alarmed by this impressive demonstration, dismounted hastily from the saddle as soon as his threatening gaze was withdrawn. She tangled her feet in the stirrups and her hands in the reins, and lost more time in scrambling off the floor of the passage and down upon the ground; but at last she was fairly on her way to the spring to convey an account to her mother of the outlaw in the chest. In fact, she was not far from the scene of the soap- boiling when she heard her name shouted in stentorian tones, and pausing to look back, she saw Rufe gleefully capering about in the passage, the headstall on his own head, the bit hanging on his breast, and the reins dangling at his heels.
Now this beguilement the little girl could never withstand, and indeed few people ever had the opportunity to drive so frisky and high-spirited a horse as Rufe was when he consented to assume the bit and bridle. He was rarely so accommodating, as he preferred the role of driver, with what he called "a pop-lashEE!" at command. She forgot her tell-tale mission. She turned with a gurgle of delight and began to toddle up the hill again. And presently Mrs. Dicey, glancing toward the house, saw them playing together in great amity, and rejoiced that they gave her so little trouble.
They were still at it when Birt came home, but then Tennessee was tired of driving, and he let her go with him to the wood-pile and sit on a log while he swung the axe. No one took special notice of Rufe's movements in the interval before supper. He disappeared for a time, but when the circle gathered around the table he was in his place and by no means a non-combatant in the general onslaught on the corn-dodgers. Afterward he came out in the passage and sat quietly among the others.
The freshened air was fragrant, and how the crickets were chirring in the grass! On every spear the dew was a-glimmer, for a lustrous moon shone from the sky. Somehow, despite the long roads of light that this splendid pioneer blazed out in the wilderness, it seemed only to reveal the loneliness of the forests, and to give new meaning to the solemnity of the shadows. The heart was astir with some responsive thrill that jarred vaguely, and was pain. Yet the night had its melancholy fascination, and they were all awake later than usual. When at last the doors were barred, and the house grew still, and even the vigilant Towse had ceased to bay and had lodged himself under the floor of the passage, the moon still shone in isolated effulgence, for the faint stars faded before it.
The knowledge that in all the vast stretch of mountain fastnesses he was the only human creature that beheld it, as it majestically crossed the meridian, gave Andy Byers a forlorn feeling, while tramping along homeward. He had made the journey afoot, some eight miles down the valley, and was later far in returning than others who had heeded the summons of the sick woman. For she still lay in the same critical condition, and his mind was full of dismal forebodings as he toiled along the road on the mountain's brow. The dark woods were veined with shimmering silver. The mists, hovering here and there, showed now a blue and now an amber gleam as the moon's rays conjured them. On one side of the road an oak tree had been uptorn in a wind-storm; the roots, carrying a great mass of earth with them, were thrust high in the air, while the bole and leafless branches lay prone along the ground. This served as a break in the density of the forest, and the white moonshine possessed the vacant space.
As he glanced in that direction his heart gave a great bound, then seemed suddenly to stand still. There, close to the verge of the road, as if she had stepped aside to let him pass, was the figure of an old woman—a small-sized woman, tremulous and bent. It looked like old Mrs. Price! As he paused amazed, with starting eyes and failing limbs, the wind fluttered her shawl and her ample sunbonnet. This shielded her face and he could not see her features. Her head seemed to turn toward him. The next instant it nodded at him familiarly.
To the superstitions mountaineer this suggested that the old woman had died since he had left her house, and here was her ghost already vagrant in the woods!
The foolish fellow did not wait to put this fancy to the test. With a piercing cry he sprang past, and fled like a frightened deer through the wilderness homeward.
In his own house he hardly felt more secure. He could not rest—he could not sleep. He stirred the embers with a trembling hand, and sat shivering over them. His wife, willing enough to believe in "harnts"* as appearing to other people, was disposed to repudiate them when they presumed to offer their dubious association to members of her own family circle.
"Dell-law!" she exclaimed scornfully. "I say harnt! Old Mrs. Price, though spry ter the las', war so proud o' her age an' her ailments that she wouldn't hev nobody see her walk a step, or stand on her feet, fur nuthin'. Her darter-in-law tole me ez the only way ter find out how nimble she really be war ter box one o' her gran'chill'n, an' then she'd bounce out'n her cheer, an' jounce round the room after thar daddy or mammy, whichever hed boxed the chill'n. That fursaken couple always hed ter drag thar chill'n out in the woods, out'n earshot of the house, ter whip 'em, an' then threat 'em ef they dare let thar granny know they hed been struck. But elsewise she hed ter be lifted from her bed ter her cheer by the h'a'th. She wouldn't hev HER sperit seen a-walkin' way up hyar a- top o' the mounting, like enny healthy harnt, fur nuthin' in this worl'. Whatever 'twar, 'twarn't HER. An' I reckon of the truth war knowed, 'twarn't nuthin' at all—forg, mebbe."
This stalwart reasoning served to steady his nerves a little. And when the moon went down and the day was slowly breaking, he took his way, with a vacillating intention and many a chilling doubt, along the winding road to the scene of his fright.
It was not yet time by a good hour or more to go to work, and nothing was stirring. A wan light was on the landscape when he came in sight of the great tree prone upon the ground. And there, close to the edge of the road, as if she had stepped aside to let him pass, was the figure of a little, bent old woman—nay, in the brightening dawn, a bush—a blackberry bush, clad in a blue-checked apron, a red plaid shawl, and with a neat sunbonnet nodding on its topmost spray.
His first emotion was intense relief. Then he stood staring at the bush in rising indignation. This sandy by-way of a road led only to his own house, and this image of a small and bent old woman had doubtless been devised, to terrify him, by some one who knew of his mission, and that he could not return except by this route.
Only for a moment did he feel uncertain as to the ghost-maker's identity. There was something singularly familiar to him in the plaid of the shawl—even in the appearance of the bonnet, although it was now limp and damp. He saw it at "meet'n" whenever the circuit rider preached, and he presently recognized it. This was Mrs. Dicey's bonnet!
His face hardened. He set his teeth together. An angry flush flared to the roots of his hair.
Not that he suspected the widow of having set this trap to frighten him. He was not learned, nor versed in feminine idiosyncrasies, but it does not require much wisdom to know that on no account whatever does a woman's best bonnet stay out all night in the dew, intentionally. The presence of her bonnet proved the widow's alibi.
Like a flash he remembered Birt's anger the previous day. "Told me he'd make me divide work mo' ekal, an' ez good ez said he'd knock me down ef he could. An' I told him I'd hold the grudge agin him jes' the same—an' I will!"
He felt sure that it was Birt who had thus taken revenge, because he was kept at work while his fellow-laborer was free to go.
Byers thought the boy would presently come to take the garments home, and conceal his share in the matter, before any one else would be likely to stir abroad.
"An' I'll hide close by with a good big hickory stick, an' I'll gin him a larrupin' ez he won't furgit in a month o' Sundays," he resolved, angrily.
He opened his clasp-knife, and walked slowly into the woods, looking about for a choice hickory sprout. He did not at once find one of a size that he considered appropriate to the magnitude of Birt's wickedness, and he went further perhaps than he realized, and stayed longer.
He had a smile of stern satisfaction on his face when he was lopping off the leaves and twigs of a specimen admirably adapted for vengeance. He was stealthy in returning, keeping behind the trees, and slipping softly from bole to bole. At last, as the winding road was once more in view, he crouched down behind the roots of the great fallen oak.
"I don't want him ter git a glimge of me, an' skeer him off afore I kin lay a-holt on him," he said.
He intended to keep the neighboring bush under close watch, and through the interlacing roots he peered out furtively at it. His eyes distended and he hastily rose from his hiding-place.
The blackberry bush was swaying in the wind, clothed only in its own scant and rusty leaves. A wren perched on a spray, chirped cheerful matins.
His scheme was thwarted. The boy had come and gone in his absence, all unaware of his proximity and the impending punishment so narrowly escaped.
But when Andy Byers reached the tanyard and went to work, he said nothing to Birt. He did not even allude to the counterfeit apparition in the woods, although Mrs. Price's probable recovery was more than once under discussion among the men who came and went,— indeed, she lived many years thereafter, to defend her lucky grandchildren against every device of discipline. Byers had given heed to more crafty counsels. On the whole he was now glad that he had not had the opportunity to make Birt and the hickory sprout acquainted with each other. This would be an acknowledgment that he had been terrified by the manufactured ghost, and he preferred foregoing open revenge to encountering the jocose tanner's ridicule, and the gibes that would circulate at his expense throughout the country-side. But he cherished the grievance, and he resolved that Birt should rue it. He had expected that Birt would boast of having frightened him. He intended to admit that he had been a trifle startled, and in treating the matter thus lightly he hoped it would seem that the apparition was a failure.
However, day by day passed and nothing was said. The ghost vanished as mysteriously as it had come. Only Mrs. Dicey, taking her bonnet and apron and shawl from the chest, was amazed at the extraordinary manner in which they were folded and at their limp condition, and when she found a bunch of cockle-burs in the worsted fringes of the shawl she declared that witches must have had it, for she had not worn it since early in April when there were no cockle-burs. She forthwith nailed a horseshoe on the door to keep the witches out, and she never liked the shawl so well after she had projected a mental picture of a lady wearing it, riding on a broomstick, and sporting also a long peaked nose.
Birt hardly noticed the crusty and ungracious conduct of Andy Byers toward him. He worked on doggedly, scheming all the time to get off from the tanyard, and wondering again and again why Nate had gone, and where, and when he would return.
One day—a gray day it was and threatening rain—as he came suddenly out of the shed, he saw a boy at the bars. It was Nate Griggs! No; only for a moment he thought this was Nate. But this fellow's eyes were not so close together; his hair was less sandy; there were no facial indications of extreme slyness. It was only Nathan's humble likeness, his younger brother, Timothy.
He had Nate's coat thrown over his arm, and he shouldered his brother's rifle.
Tim came slouching slowly into the tanyard, a good-natured grin on his face. He paused only to knock Rufe's hat over his eyes, as the small boy stood in front of the low-spirited mule, both hands busy with the animal's mouth, striving to open his jaws to judge by his teeth how old he might be.
"The critter'll bite ye, Rufe!" Birt exclaimed, for as Rufe stooped to pick up his hat the mule showed some curiosity in his turn, and was snuffling at Rufe's hay-colored hair.
Rufe readjusted his head-gear, and ceasing his impolite researches into the mule's age, came up to the other two boys. Tim had paused by the shed, and leaning upon the rifle, began to talk.
"I war a-passin' by, an' I thought I'd drap in on ye."
"Hev you-uns hearn from Nate since he hev been gone away?" demanded Birt anxiously.
"He hev come home," responded Tim.
"When did he git home?" Birt asked with increasing suspicion.
"Las' week," said Tim carelessly.
Another problem! Why had Nate not communicated with his partner about their proposed work? It seemed a special avoidance.
"I onderstood ez how he aimed ter bide away longer," Birt remarked.
"He did count on stayin' longer," said Tim, "but he rid night an' day ter git hyar sooner. It 'pears like ter me he war in sech a hurry so ez ter start ME ter work, and nuthin' else in this worl'. I owe Nate a debt, ye see, an' I hev ter work it out. I hev been so onlucky ez I couldn't make out ter pay him nohow in the worl'. Ye see, I traded with Nate fur a shoat, an' the spiteful beastis sneaked out'n my pen, an' went rootin' round the aidge o' the clearin', an' war toted off bodaciously by a bar ez war a-prowlin' round thar. An' I got no good o' that thar shoat, 'kase the bar hed him, but I hed to pay fur him all the same. An' dad gin his cornsent ter Nate ter let me work a month an' better fur him, ter pay out'n debt fur the shoat."
"What work be you-uns goin' ter do?" Birt had a strong impression, amounting to a conviction, that there was something behind all this, which he was slowly approaching.
"Why," said Tim, in surprise, "hain't ye hearn bout'n Nate's new land what he hev jes' got 'entered' ez he calls it? He hev got a grant fur it from the land-office down yander in Sparty, whar he hev been."
"New land—'ENTERED!'" faltered Birt.
Tim nodded. "Nate fund a trac' o' land a-layin' ter suit his mind what b'longed ter nobody but the State—vacant land, ye see—an' so he went ter the 'entry-taker,' they calls him, an' gits it 'entered,' an' the surveyor kem an' medjured it, an' then Nate got a grant fur it, an' now it air his'n. The Gov'nor o' the State hev sot his name ter that thar grant—the Gov'nor o' Tennessee!" reiterated Tim pridefully. "An' the great seal o' the State!"
"Whar be the land?" gasped Birt, possessed by a dreadful fear.
His face was white, its muscles rigid. Its altered expression could not for an instant have escaped the notice of Timothy's brother Nathan.
"Why, it lays bout'n haffen mile off—all down the ravine nigh that thar salt-lick; but look-a-hyar, Birt—what ails ye?"
The stunned despair in the white face had at last arrested his careless attention.
"Don't ye be mindin' of me—I feel sorter porely an' sick all of a suddint; tell on 'bout the land an' sech," said Birt.
He sat down on the end of the wood-pile, and Tim, still leaning on the rifle, recommenced. He was generally much cowed and kept down by Nate, and was unaccustomed to respect and consideration. Therefore he felt a certain gratification in having so attentive a listener.
"Waal, I never hearn o' this fashion o' enterin' land like Nate done in all my life afore; though dad say that's the law in Tennessee, ter git a title ter vacant land ez jes' b'longs ter the State. Mebbe them air the ways ez Nate l'arned whilst he war a-hangin' round the Settlemint so constant, an' forever talkin' ter the men thar."
Birt's precocity had never let him feel at a disadvantage with Nate, although his friend was five years older. Now he began to appreciate that Nate was indeed a man grown, and had become sophisticated in the ways of his primitive world by his association with the other men at the Settlement.
There was a pause. But the luxury of being allowed to talk without contradiction or rebuke presently induced Tim to proceed.
"He war hyar mighty nigh all day long," he said reflectively. "He eat his dinner along of we-uns."
"Who? the Gov'nor o' the State?" exclaimed Birt, astounded.
"Naw, 'twarn't HIM," Tim admitted somewhat reluctantly, since Birt seemed disposed to credit "we-uns" with a gubernatorial guest. "It's the surveyor I'm talkin' 'bout. Nate hed ter pay him three dollars an' better fur medjurin' the land. He tole Nate ez his land war ez steep an' rocky a spot ez thar war in Tennessee from e-end ter e-end. He axed Nate what ailed him ter hanker ter pay taxes on sech a pack o' bowlders an' bresh. He 'lowed the land warn't wuth a cent an acre."
"What did Nate say?" asked Birt, who hung with feverish interest on every thoughtless word.
"Waal, Nate 'lows ez he hev fund a cur'ous metal on his land; he say it air GOLD!" Tim opened his eyes very wide, and smacked his lips, as if the word tasted good. "He 'lowed ez he needn't hev been in sech a hurry ter enter his land, 'kase the entry-taker told it ter him ez it air the law in Tennessee ez ennybody ez finds a mine or val'able min'ral on vacant land hev got six months extry ter enter the land afore ennybody else kin, an' ef ennybody else wants ter enter it, they hev ter gin the finder o' the mine thirty days' notice."
Tim winked, an impressive demonstration but for the insufficiency of eyelashes: -
"The surveyor he misdoubted, an' 'lowed ez gold hed never been fund in these parts. He said they fund gold in them mountings furder east 'bout twenty odd year ago—in 1831, I believe he said. He 'lowed them mountings hain't got no coal like our'n hev, an' the Cumberland Mountings hain't got no gold. An' then in a minit he tuk ter misdoubtin' on the t'other side o' his mouth. He 'lowed ez Nate's min'ral MOUGHT be gold, an' then ag'in it moughtn't."
The essential difference between these two extremes has afforded scope for vacillation to more consistent men than the surveyor.
"Thar's the grant right now, in the pocket o' Nate's coat," said Tim, shifting the garment on his arm to show a stiff, white folded paper sticking out of the breast pocket. "I reckon when he tole me ter tote his gun an' coat home, he furgot the grant war in his pocket, 'kase he fairly dotes on it, an' won't trest it out'n his sight."
Nate was in the habit of exacting similar services from his acquiescent younger brother, and Tim had his hands full, as he tried to hold the gun, and turn the coat on his arm. He finally hung the garment on a peg in the shed, and shouldered the weapon. Suddenly he whirled around toward Rufe, who was still standing by.