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By G. W. Ogden
Trail's End Claim Number One The Land of Last Chance The Rustler of Wind River The Duke of Chimney Butte The Flockmaster of Poison Creek
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GEORGE W. OGDEN
Chicago A. C. McClurg & Co. 1922
Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1922
Published October, 1922
Copyrighted in Great Britain
Printed in the United States of America
CONTENTS I. Delivered Into Bondage 1 II. A Dry-Salt Man 21 III. The Spark in the Clod 47 IV. A Stranger at the Gate 66 V. The Secret of the Clover 84 VI. Blood 99 VII. Deliverance 114 VIII. Will He Tell? 126 IX. The Sealed Envelope 152 X. Let Him Hang 166 XI. Peter's Son 171 XII. The Sunbeam on the Wall 188 XIII. Until the Day Break 210 XIV. Deserted 228 XV. The State vs. Newbolt 241 XVI. "She Cometh Not" He Said 249 XVII. The Blow of a Friend 259 XVIII. A Name and a Message 276 XIX. The Shadow of a Dream 304 XX. "The Penalty Is Death!" 311 XXI. Ollie Speaks 325 XXII. A Summons of the Night 341 XXIII. Lest I Forget 359
DELIVERED INTO BONDAGE
Sarah Newbolt enjoyed in her saturnine, brooding way the warmth of April sunshine and the stirring greenery of awakening life now beginning to soften the brown austerity of the dead winter earth. Beside her kitchen wall the pink cones of rhubarb were showing, and the fat buds of the lilacs, which clustered coppicelike in her dooryard, were ready to unlock and flare forth leaves. On the porch with its southern exposure she sat in her low, splint-bottomed rocker, leaning forward, her elbows on her knees.
The sun tickled her shoulders through her linsey dress, and pictured her, grotesquely foreshortened, upon the nail-drawn, warped, and beaten floor. Her hands, nursing her cheeks, chin pivoted in their palms, were large and toil-distorted, great-jointed like a man's, and all the feminine softness with which nature had endowed her seemed to have been overcome by the masculine cast of frame and face which the hardships of her life had developed.
She did not seem, crouched there like an old cat warming herself in the first keen fires of spring, conscious of anything about her; of the low house, with its battered eaves, the sprawling rail-fence in front of it, out of which the gate was gone, like a tooth; of the wild bramble of roses, or the generations of honeysuckle which had grown, layer upon layer—the under stratum all dead and brown—over the decaying arbor which led up to the cracked front door. She did not seem conscious that time and poverty had wasted the beauties of that place; that shingles were gone from the outreaching eaves, torn away by March winds; that stones had fallen from the chimney, squatting broad-shouldered at the weathered gable; that panes were missing from the windows, their places supplied by boards and tacked-on cloth, or that pillows crowded into them, making it seem a house that stopped its ears against the unfriendly things which passengers upon the highway might speak of it.
Time and poverty were pressing upon Sarah Newbolt also, relaxing there that bright hour in the sun, straying away from her troubles and her vexations like an autumn butterfly among the golden leaves, unmindful of the frost which soon must cut short its day. For, poor as she was in all that governments put imposts upon, and men list in tax returns and carry to steel vaults to hoard away, Sarah Newbolt had her dreams. She had no golden past; there was no golden future ready before her feet. There was no review for her in those visions of happy days and tender memories, over which a woman half closes her eyes and smiles, or over the incense of which a man's heart softens. Behind her stretched a wake of turbulence and strife; ahead of her lay the banked clouds of an unsettled and insecure future.
But she had her dreams, in which even the poorest of us may indulge when our taskmaster in the great brickworks of this hot and heavy world is not hard by and pressing us forward with his lash. She had her dreams of what never was and never could be; of old longings, old heart-hungers, old hopes, and loves which never had come near for one moment's caress of her toil-hardened hand. Dreams which roved the world and soothed the ache in her heart by their very extravagance, which even her frugal conscience could not chide; dreams which drew hot tears upon her cheeks, to trickle down among her knotted fingers and tincture the bitterness of things unrealized.
The crunch of wheels in the road now startled her from her profitless excursions among the mist of visions and dreams. She lifted her head like a cow startled from her peaceful grazing, for the vehicle had stopped at the gap in the fence where the gate should have stood warder between its leaning posts.
"Well, he's come," said she with the resignation of one who finds the long expected and dreaded at hand.
A man got out of the buggy and hitched his horse to one of the old gate-posts, first trying it to satisfy himself that it was trustworthy, for stability in even a post on those premises, where everything was going to decay, seemed unreasonable to expect. He turned up the path, bordered by blue flags, thrusting their swordpoints through the ground, and strode toward the house, with that uncouth giving at the knees which marks a man who long has followed the plow across furrowed fields.
The visitor was tall and bony, brown, dry-faced, and frowning of aspect. There was severity in every line of his long, loose body; in the hard wrinkles of his forehead, in his ill-nurtured gray beard, which was so harsh that it rasped like wire upon his coat as he turned his head in quick appraisement of his surroundings. His feet were bunion-distorted and lumpy in his great coarse shoes; coarse black hair grew down upon his broad, thick-jointed hands; a thicket of eyebrows presented, like a chevaux-de-frise, bristling when he drew them down in his peering squint.
Sarah Newbolt rose to meet him, tall in the vigor of her pioneer stock. In her face there was a malarial smokiness of color, although it still held a trace of a past brightness, and her meagerness of feature gave her mouth a set of determination which stood like a false index at the beginning of a book or a misleading sign upon a door. Her eyes were black, her brows small and delicate. Back from her narrow forehead she had drawn her plentiful dark hair in rigid unloveliness; over it she wore a knitted shawl.
"Well, Mr. Chase, you've come to put us out, I reckon?" said she, a little tremor in her chin, although her voice was steady and her eyes met his with an appeal which lay too near the soul for words.
Isom Chase drew up to the steps and placed one knotted foot upon them, standing thus in silence a little while, as if thinking it over. The dust of the highroad was on his broad black hat, and gray upon his grizzly beard. In the attitude of his lean frame, in the posture of his foot upon the step, he seemed to be asserting a mastery over the place which he had invaded to the sad dispersion of Sarah Newbolt's dreams.
"I hate to do it," he declared, speaking hurriedly, as if he held words but frail vehicles in a world where deeds counted with so much greater weight, "but I've been easy on you, ma'am; no man can say that I haven't been easy."
"I know your money's long past due," she sighed, "but if you was to give Joe another chance, Mr. Chase, we could pay you off in time."
"Oh, another chance, another chance!" said he impatiently. "What could you do with all the chances in the world, you and him—what did your husband ever do with his chances? He had as many of 'em as I ever did, and what did he ever do but scheme away his time on fool things that didn't pan out when he ought 'a' been in the field! No, you and Joe couldn't pay back that loan, ma'am, not if I was to give you forty years to do it in."
"Well, maybe not," said she, drawing a sigh from the well of her sad old heart.
"The interest ain't been paid since Peter died, and that's more than two years now," said Chase. "I can't sleep on my rights that way, ma'am; I've got to foreclose to save myself."
"Yes, you've been easy, even if we did give you up our last cow on that there inter-est," she allowed. "You've been as kind and easy over it, I reckon, Mr. Chase, as a body could be. Well, I reckon me and Joe we'll have to leave the old place now."
"Lord knows, I don't see what there is to stay for!" said Chase feelingly, sweeping his eyes around the wired-up, gone-to-the-devil-looking place.
"When a body's bore children in a place," she said earnestly, "and nussed 'em, and seen 'em fade away and die; and when a body's lived in a house for upward of forty years, and thought things in it, and everything——"
"Bosh!" said Isom Chase, kicking the rotting step.
"I know it's all shacklety now," said she apologetically, "but it's home to me and Joe!"
Her voice trembled over the words, and she wiped her eyes with the corner of her head-shawl; but her face remained as immobile as features cast in metal. When one has wept out of the heart for years, as Sarah Newbolt had wept, the face is no longer a barometer over the tempests of the soul.
Isom Chase was silent. He stood as if reflecting his coming words, trying the loose boards of the siding with his blunt thumb.
"Peter and I, we came here from Kentucky," said she, looking at him with a sidelong appeal, as if for permission to speak the profitless sentiments of her heart, "and people was scarce in this part of Missouri then. I rode all the way a-horseback, and I came here, to this very house, a bride."
"I didn't take a mortgage on sentiment—I took it on the land," said Chase, out of humor with this reminiscent history.
"You can't understand how I feel, Mr. Chase," said she, dropping her arms at her sides hopelessly. "Peter—he planted them laylocks and them roses."
"Better 'a' planted corn—and tended to it!" grunted Chase. "Well, you can grub 'em all up and take 'em away with you, if you want 'em. They don't pay interest—I suppose you've found that out."
"Not on money," said she, reaching out her hand toward a giant lilac with a caressing, tender air.
"Sit down," said he in voice of command, planting himself upon the porch, his back against a post, "and let's you and I have a little talk. Where do you expect to go when you leave here; what plans have you got for the future?"
"Lord, there's not a clap-board in this world that I can poke my head under and lay claim to its shelter!" said she, sitting again in her low rocker, shaking her head sadly.
"Your boy Joe, he'll not be able to command man's wages for three or four years yet," said Chase, studying her averted face as if to take possession of even her thoughts. "He'll not be able to do much toward supportin' you, even if he could light on to a steady, all-the-year job, which he can't, the way times is."
"No, I don't reckon he could," said she.
"And if I was to let you two stay on here I wouldn't be any nearer bein' paid back that four hundred dollar loan in two or three years than I am now. It's nearly five hundred now, with the interest pilin' up, and it'll be a thousand before you know it. It'd take that boy a lifetime to pay it off."
"Peter failed," she nodded; "it was a burden on him that hackled him to the grave. Yes, I reckon you're right. But there's no tellin' how Joe he'll turn out, Mr. Chase. He may turn out to be a better manager than his pap was."
"How old is he?" asked Chase.
"Most nineteen," said she, some kind of a faraway hope, indefinable and hazy, lifting the cloud of depression which had fallen over her, "and he's uncommon big and stout for his age. Maybe if you'd give Joe work he could pay it off, interest and all, by the time he's twenty-one."
"Not much need for him," said Chase, shaking his head, "but I might—well, I might figure around so I could take him over, on certain conditions, you understand? It all depends on your plans. If you haven't anywhere to go when you leave this house, you're bound to land on the county."
"Don't tell me that, Mr. Chase—don't tell me that!" she begged, pressing her battered hands to her eyes, rocking and moaning in her chair.
"What's the use of puttin' the truth back of you when you're bound to come face up to it in the end?" he asked. "I was talkin' to Judge Little, of the county court, about you this morning. I told him I'd have to foreclose and take possession of this forty to save myself.
"'It'll throw her and that boy on the county,' he says. 'Yes, I reckon it will,' I told him, 'but no man can say I've been hard on 'em.'"
"Oh, you wouldn't throw me on the county at the end of my days, Mr. Chase!" she appealed. "Joe he'll take care of me, if you'll only give him a chance—if you'll only give him a chance, Mr. Chase!"
"I meant to take that up with you," said he, "on the conditions I spoke of a minute ago."
He turned to her, as if for her consent to give expression to his mysterious terms. She nodded, and he went on:
"In the winter time, ma'am, to tell you the plain truth, Joe wouldn't be worth wages to me, and in the summer not very much. A boy that size and age eats his head off, you might say.
"But I'll make you this offer, out of consideration of my friendship for Peter, and your attachment for the old place, and all of that stuff: I'll take Joe over, under writing, till he's twenty-one, at ten dollars a month and all found, winter and summer through, and allow you to stay right on here in the house, with a couple of acres for your chickens and garden patch and your posies and all the things you set store on and prize. I'll do this for you, Missis Newbolt, but I wouldn't do it for any other human being alive."
She turned slowly to him, an expression of mingled amazement and fear on her face.
"You mean that you want me to bind Joe out to you till he's his own man?" said she.
"Well, some call it by that name," nodded Chase, "but it's nothing more than any apprenticeship to any trade, except—oh, well, there ain't no difference, except that there's few trades that equal the one the boy'll learn under me, ma'am."
"You're askin' me to bind my little son—my only child left to me of all that I bore—you want me to bind him out to you like a nigger slave!"
Her voice fell away to a whisper, unable to bear the horror that grew into her words.
"Better boys than him have been bound out in this neighborhood!" said Chase sharply. "If you don't want to do it, don't do it. That's all I've got to say. If you'd rather go to the poorhouse than see your son in steady and honorable employment, in a good home, and learning a business under a man that's made some success of it, that's your lookout, not mine. But that's where you'll land the minute you set your foot out in that road. Then the county court'll take your boy and bind him out to somebody, and you'll have no word to say in the matter, at all. But you can suit yourself."
"It—kind of—shook me," she muttered, the mother-love, the honor and justice in her quailing heart shrinking back before the threat of that terrible disgrace—the poorhouse.
The shadow of the poorhouse had stood in her way for years. It had been the fear of Peter when he was there, and his last word was one of thankfulness to the Almighty that he had been permitted to die in a freeman's bed, under his own humble roof. That consolation was to be denied her; the shadow of the poorhouse had advanced until it stood now at her door. One step and it would envelop her; the taint of its blight would wither her heart.
Sarah Newbolt had inherited that dread of publicly confessed poverty and dependence. It had come down to her through a long line of pioneer forebears who feared neither hardship, strife nor death, so that it might come to them without a master and under the free sky. Only the disgraced, the disowned, the failures, and the broken-minded made an end in the poorhouse in those vigorous days. It was a disgrace from which a family never could hope to rise again. There, on the old farm with Peter she had been poor, as poor as the poorest, but they had been free to come and go.
"I know I've got the name of being a hard man and a money-grabber and a driver," said Chase with crabbed bitterness, "but who is it that gives that reputation to me? People that can't beat me and take advantage of me and work money out of me by their rascally schemes! I'm not a hard man by nature—my actions with you prove that, don't they?"
"You've been as kind as a body could expect," she answered. "It's only right that you should have your money back, and it ain't been your fault that we couldn't raise it. But we've done the best we could."
"And that best only led you up to the poorhouse door," said he. "I'm offering you a way to escape it, and spend the rest of your days in the place you're attached to, but I don't seem to get any thanks for it."
"I am thankful to you for your offer—from the bottom of my heart I'm thankful, Mr. Chase," she hastened to declare.
"Well, neither of us knows how Joe's going to turn out," said he. "Under my training he might develop into a good, sober farmer, one that knows his business and can make it pay. If he does, I promise you I'll give him a chance on this place to redeem it. I'll put him on it to farm on shares when he fills out his time under me, my share of the crops to apply to the debt. Would that be fair?"
"Nobody in this world couldn't say it wasn't generous and fair of you, and noble and kind, Mr. Chase," she declared, her face showing a little color, the courage coming back into her eyes.
"Then you'd better take up my offer without any more foolishness," he advised.
"I'll have to talk it over with Joe," said she.
"He's got nothing to do with it, I tell you," protested Chase, brushing that phase of it aside with a sweep of his hairy hand. "You, and you alone, are responsible for him till he's twenty-one, and it's your duty to keep him off the county and away from the disgrace of pauperism, and yourself as well."
"I ought to see Joe about it first, Mr. Chase, I ought to talk it over with him. Let me think a minute."
She settled down to her pensive attitude, elbows on knees, chin in hands, and looked over the homely scene of riotous shrubbery, racked buildings, leaning well-curb, rotting fences. In one swift, painful moment she pictured what that spot would be after Isom Chase had taken possession.
He would uproot the lilacs; he would level the house and the chimney, stone by stone; he would fill up the well and pull down the old barn that Peter built, and drive his plow over the hearthstone where she had suckled her babies in the years of her youth and hope. He would obliterate the landmarks of her bridal days, and sow his grain in the spot where Peter, fresh in the strong heat of youth, had anchored their ambitions.
It was not so much for what it had been that her heart was tender to it, for the years had been heavy there and toilsome, disappointing and full of pain; not so much for what it had been, indeed, as what she and young Peter, with the thick black hair upon his brow, had planned to make it. It was for the romance unlived, the hope unrealized, that it was dear. And then again it was poor and pitiful, wind-shaken and old, but it was home. The thought of the desolation that waited it in the dread future struck her breast like the pangs of bereavement. Tears coursed down her face; sobs rose in her aching throat.
Joe, she thought, would do that much for her and the old home place; it would be but a little more than two years of sacrifice for him, at the most, with the bright hope of independence and redemption at the end. Being bound out would not be so disgraceful as going to the poorhouse. Joe would do it for her, she was sure of that. But it would be better to wait until evening and ask him.
"Joe, he'll be along home from his work about dusk," said she, "and we could let you know tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," said Isom Chase, rising stiffly, "I'll have to send the sheriff here with the papers. Tomorrow, ma'am, will be too late."
That dreadful picture swept across her inner vision once more—the chimney down, the house gone. She saw corn growing over the spot where she sat that moment; she remembered that Isom Chase had plowed up a burying-ground once and seeded it to timothy.
"What will I have to do to bind Joe over to you?" she asked, facing him in sudden resolution.
"We'll git in the buggy," said he, with new friendliness, seeing that he had won, "and drive over to Judge Little's. He can make out the papers in a few minutes, and I'll pay you a month's wages in advance. That will fix you up for groceries and garden seeds and everything, and you'll be as snug and happy as any woman in the county."
In less than two hours the transaction was completed, and Sarah Newbolt was back again in the home upon which she had secured her slipping tenure at the sacrifice of her son's liberty. As she began "stirring the pots for supper," as she called it, she also had time to stir the deep waters of reflection.
She had secured herself from the threat of the county farm, and Joe had been the price; Joe, her last-born, the sole remaining one of the six who had come to her and gone on again into the mists.
She began to fear in her heart when she stood off and viewed the result of her desperate panic, the pangs of which Isom Chase had adroitly magnified. If Joe could work for Isom Chase and thus keep her from the poorhouse, could he not have worked for another, free to come and go as he liked, and with the same security for her?
Chase said that he had not taken a mortgage on sentiment, but he had made capital out of it in the end, trading upon her affection for the old home and its years-long associations. As the gloomy evening deepened and she stood in the door watching for her son's return, she saw through the scheme of Isom Chase. She never would have been thrown on the county with Joe to depend on; the question of his ability to support both of them admitted of no debate.
Joe's industry spoke for that, and that was Isom Chase's reason for wanting him. Isom wanted him because he was strong and trustworthy, honest and faithful. And she had bargained him in selfishness and sold him in cowardice, without a word from him, as she might have sold a cow to pay a pressing debt.
The bargain was binding. Judge Little had pressed that understanding of it upon her. It was as irrevocable as a deed signed and sealed. Joe could not break it; she could not set it aside. Isom Chase was empowered with all the authority of absolute master.
"If he does anything that deserves thrashing for, I've got a right to thrash him, do you understand that?" Isom had said as he stood there in the presence of Judge Little, buttoning his coat over the document which transferred Joe's services to him.
Her heart had contracted at the words, for the cruelty of Isom Chase was notorious. A bound boy had died in his service not many years before, kicked by a mule, it was said. There had been mutterings at that time, and talk of an investigation, which never came to a head because the bound lad was nobody, taken out of the county home. But the fear in the widow's heart that moment was not for her son; it was for Isom Chase.
"Lord 'a' mercy, Mr. Chase, you mustn't never strike Joe!" she warned. "You don't know what kind of a boy he is, Mr. Chase. I'm afraid he might up and hurt you maybe, if you ever done that."
"I'll handle him in my own way," with portentous significance; "but I want you to understand my rights fully at the start."
"Yes, sir," she answered meekly.
Joe was coming now, pitchfork over his shoulder, from the field where he had been burning corn-stalks, making ready for the plow. She hastened to set out a basin of water on the bench beside the kitchen door, and turned then into the room to light the lamp and place it on the waiting table.
Joe appeared at the door, drying his hands on the dangling towel. He was a tall, gaunt-faced boy, big-boned, raw-jointed, the framework for prodigious strength. His shoulders all but filled the narrow doorway, his crown came within an inch of its lintel. His face was glowing from the scrubbing which he had given it with home-made lye soap, his drenched hair fell in heavy locks down his deep forehead.
"Well, Mother, what's happened?" he asked, noting her uneasiness as she sat waiting him at the table, the steaming coffee-pot at her hand.
"Sit down and start your supper, son, and we'll talk as we go along," said she.
Joe gave his hair a "lick and a promise" with the comb, and took his place at the table. Mrs. Newbolt bent her head and pronounced the thanksgiving which that humble board never lacked, and she drew it out to an amazing and uncomfortable length that evening, as Joe's impatient stomach could bear clamorous witness.
Sarah Newbolt had a wide fame as a religious woman, and a woman who could get more hell-fire into her belief and more melancholy pleasure out of it than any hard-shell preacher in the land. It was a doleful religion, with little promise or hope in it, and a great deal of blood and suffering between the world and its doubtful reward; but Sarah Newbolt lived according to its stern inflexibility, and sang its sorrowful hymns by day, as she moved about the house, in a voice that carried a mile. But for all the grimness in her creed, there was not a being alive with a softer heart. She would have divided her last square of corn-bread with the wayfarer at her door, without question of his worth or unworthiness, his dissension, or his faith.
"Mr. Chase was here this afternoon, Joe," said she as the lad began his supper.
"Well, I suppose he's going to put us out?"
Joe paused in the mixing of gravy and corn-bread—designed to be conveyed to his mouth on the blade of his knife—and lifted inquiring eyes to his mother's troubled face.
"No, son; we fixed it up," said she.
"You fixed it up?" he repeated, his eyes beaming with pleasure. "Is he going to give us another chance?"
"You go on and eat your supper, Joe; we'll talk it over when you're through. Lands, you must be tired and hungry after workin' so hard all afternoon!"
He was too hungry, perhaps, to be greatly troubled by her air of uneasiness and distraction. He bent over his plate, not noting that she sipped her coffee with a spoon, touching no food. At last he pushed back with a sigh of repletion, and smiled across at his mother.
"So you fixed it up with him?"
"Yes, I went into a dishonorable deal with Isom Chase," said she, "and I don't know what you'll say when you hear what's to be told to you, Joe."
"What do you mean by 'dishonorable deal'?" he asked, his face growing white.
"I don't know what you'll say, Joe, I don't know what you'll say!" moaned she, shaking her head sorrowfully.
"Well, Mother, I can't make out what you mean," said he, baffled and mystified by her strange behavior.
"Wait—I'll show you."
She rose from the table and reached down a folded paper from among the soda packages and tins on the shelf. Saying no more, she handed it to him. Joe took it, wonder in his face, spread his elbows, and unfolded the document with its notarial seal.
Joe was ready at printed matter. He read fast and understandingly, and his face grew paler as his eyes ran on from line to line. When he came to the end, where his mother's wavering signature stood above that of Isom Chase, his head dropped a little lower, his hands lay listlessly, as if paralyzed, on the paper under his eyes. A sudden dejection seemed to settle over him, blighting his youth and buoyancy.
Mrs. Newbolt was making out to be busy over the stove. She lifted the lid of the kettle, and put it down with a clatter; she opened the stove and rammed the fire with needless severity with the poker, and it snapped back at her, shooting sparks against her hand.
"Mother, you've bound me out!" said he, his voice unsteady in its accusing note.
She looked at him, her hands starting out in a little movement of appeal. He turned from the table and sat very straight and stern in his chair, his gaunt face hollowed in shadows, his wild hair falling across his brow.
"Oh, I sold you! I sold you!" she wailed.
She sat again in her place at the table, spiritless and afraid, her hands limp in her lap.
"You've bound me out!" Joe repeated harshly, his voice rasping in his throat.
"I never meant to do it, Joe," she pleaded in weak defense; "but Isom, he said nothing else would save us from the county farm. I wanted to wait and ask you, Joe, and I told him I wanted to ask you, but he said it would be too late!"
"Yes. What else did he say?" asked Joe, his hands clenched, his eyes peering straight ahead at the wall.
She related the circumstances of Chase's visit, his threat of eviction, his declaration that she would become a county charge the moment that she set foot in the road.
"The old liar!" said Joe.
There seemed to be nothing more for her to say. She could make no defense of an act which stood before her in all its ugly selfishness. Joe sat still, staring at the wall beyond the stove; she crouched forward in her chair, as if to shrink out of his sight.
Between them the little glass lamp stood, a droning, slow-winged brown beetle blundering against its chimney. Outside, the distant chant of newly wakened frogs sounded; through the open door the warm air of the April night came straying, bearing the incense of the fields and woodlands, where fires smoldered like sleepers sending forth their dreams.
His silence was to her the heaviest rebuke that he could have administered. Her remorse gathered under it, her contrition broke its bounds.
"Oh, I sold you, my own flesh and blood!" she cried, springing to her feet, lifting her long arms above her head.
"You knew what he was, Mother; you knew what it meant to be bound out to him for two long years and more. It wasn't as if you didn't know."
"I knew, I knew! But I done it, son, I done it! And I done it to save my own mis'able self. I ain't got no excuse, Joe, I ain't got no excuse at all."
"Well, Mother, you'll be safe here, anyhow, and I can stand it," said Joe, brightening a little, the tense severity of his face softening. "Never mind; I can stand it, I guess."
"I'll never let you go to him—I didn't mean to do it—it wasn't fair the way he drove me into it!" said she.
She laid her hand, almost timidly, on her son's shoulder, and looked into his face. "I know you could take care of me and keep off of the county, even if Isom did put us out like he said he'd do, but I went and done it, anyhow. Isom led me into it, Joe; he wasn't fair."
"Yes, and you bound me out for about half what I'm worth to any man and could demand for my services anywhere, Mother," said Joe, the bitterness which he had fought down but a moment past surging up in him again.
"Lord forgive me!" she supplicated piteously. She turned suddenly to the table and snatched the paper. "It wasn't fair—he fooled me into it!" she repeated. "I'll tear it up, I'll burn it, and we'll leave this place and let him have it, and he can go on and do whatever he wants to with it—tear it down, burn it, knock it to pieces—for anything I care now!"
Joe restrained her as she went toward the stove, the document in her hand.
"Wait, Mother; it's a bargain. We're bound in honor to it, we can't back down now."
"I'll never let you do it!" she declared, her voice rising beyond her control. "I'll walk the roads and beg my bread first! I'll hoe in the fields, I'll wash folks' clothes for 'em like a nigger slave, I'll lay down my life, Joe, before I let you go into that murderin' man's hands!"
He took the paper from her hands gently.
"I've been thinking it over, Mother," said he, "and it might be worse—it might be a good deal worse. It gives me steady work, for one thing, and you can save most of my wages, counting on the eggs you'll sell, and the few turkeys and things. After a while you can get a cow and make butter, and we'll be better off, all around. We couldn't get out of it, anyway, Mother. He's paid you money, and you've signed your name to the contract along with Isom. If we were to pull out and leave here, Isom could send the sheriff after me and bring me back, I guess. Even if he couldn't do that, he could sue you, Mother, and make no end of trouble. But we wouldn't leave if we could. It wouldn't be quite honorable, or like Newbolts at all, to break our contract that way."
"But he'll drive you to the grave, Joe!"
A slow smile spread over his face. "I don't think Isom would find me a good driving horse," said he.
"He said if you done well," she told him, brightening as she clutched at that small stay of justification, "he'd let you work this place on shares till you paid off the loan. That was one reason——"
"Of course," said Joe, a cheerfulness in his voice which his pale cheeks did not sustain, "that was one thing I had in mind when I spoke. It'll all come out right. You've done the wisest thing there was to be done, Mother, and I'll fulfill your agreement to the last day."
"You're a brave boy, Joe; you're a credit to the memory of your pap," said she.
"I'll go over to Isom's early in the morning," said Joe, quite sprightly, as if the arrangement had indeed solved all their troubles. He stretched his arms with a prodigious yawn. "You don't need to bother about getting up and fixing breakfast for me, for I'll get some over there."
"I hope he'll give you enough," said she.
"Don't you worry over me," he counseled kindly, "for I'll be all right at Isom's. Sunday I'll come home and see you. Now, you take a good sleep in the morning and don't bother."
"I'll be up before you leave," said she, her eyes overflowing with tears. "Do you reckon I could lie and sleep and slumber when my last and only livin' one's goin' away to become a servant in the house of bondage? And I sold you to it, Joe, my own flesh and blood!"
There had been little tenderness between them all their days, for in such lives of striving, poverty too often starves affection until it quits the board. But there was a certain nobility of loyalty which outlived the narrowness of their lot, and certain traditions of chivalry in the Newbolt heritage which now guided Joe's hand to his mother's head as she sat weeping and moaning with her arms flung upon the disordered table.
"It'll be all right, Mother," he cheered her, "and the time will soon pass away. What are two years to me? Not much more than a month or two to an old man like Isom. I tell you, this plan's the finest thing in the world for you and me, Mother—don't you grieve over it that way."
She was feeling the comfort of his cheerfulness when he left her to go to bed, although she was sore in conscience and spirit, sore in mind and heart.
"The Lord never gave any woman a son like him," said she as the sound of Joe's steps fell quiet overhead, "and I've sold him into slavery and bondage, just to save my own unworthy, coward'y, sneakin' self!"
A DRY-SALT MAN
Joe was afoot early. His mother came to the place in the fence where the gate once stood to give him a last word of comfort, and to bewail again her selfishness in sending him away to serve as bondboy under the hard hand of Isom Chase. Joe cheered her with hopeful pictures of the future, when the old home should be redeemed and the long-dwelling shadow of their debt to Isom cleared away and paid. From the rise in the road which gave him the last sight of the house Joe looked back and saw her with her head bowed to the topmost rail of the fence, a figure of dejection and woe in the security which she had purchased for herself at such a heavy price.
Although Joe moved briskly along his way, his feet as light as if they carried him to some destination of certain felicity, there was a cloud upon his heart. This arrangement which his mother had made in an hour of panic had disordered his plans and troubled the bright waters of his dreams. Plans and dreams were all his riches. They were the sole patrimony of value handed down from Peter Newbolt, the Kentucky gentleman, who had married below his state and carried his young mountain wife away to the Missouri woods to escape the censure of family and criticism of friends.
That was the only legacy, indeed, that Joe was conscious of, but everybody else was aware that old Peter had left him something even more dangerous than dreams. That was nothing less than a bridling, high-minded, hot-blooded pride—a thing laughable, the neighbors said, in one so bitterly and hopelessly poor.
"The pore folks," the neighbors called the Newbolts in speaking of them one to another, for in that community of fairly prosperous people there was none so poor as they. The neighbors had magnified their misfortune into a reproach, and the "pore folks" was a term in which they found much to compensate their small souls for the slights which old Peter, in his conscious superiority, unwittingly put upon them.
To the end of his days Peter never had been wise enough to forget that nature had endowed him, in many ways, above the level of the world to which Fate had chained his feet, and his neighbors never had been kind enough to forget that he was poor.
Even after Peter was dead Joe suffered for the family pride. He was still spoken of, far and near in that community, as the "pore folks's boy." Those who could not rise to his lofty level despised him because he respected the gerund, and also said were where they said was, and there are, where usage made it they is. It was old Peter's big-headedness and pride, they said. What business had the pore folks's boy with the speech of a school-teacher or minister in his mouth? His "coming" and his "going," indeed! Huh, it made 'em sick.
Joe had lived a lonely, isolated life on account of the family poverty and pride. He was as sensitive as a poet to the boorish brutality, and his poor, unlettered, garrulous mother made it worse for him by her boasting of his parts. She never failed to let it be known that he had read the Bible through, "from back to back," and the Cottage Encyclopedia, and the Imitation of Christ, the three books in the Newbolt library.
People had stood by and watched Peter Newbolt at his schemes and dreams for many a year, and all the time they had seen him growing poorer and poorer, and marveled that he never appeared to realize it himself. Just as a great many men spend their lives following the delusion that they can paint or write, and waste their energies and resources on that false and destructive idea, Peter had held the dream that he was singled out to revolutionize industry by his inventions.
He had invented a self-winding clock which, outside his own shop and in the hands of another, would not wind; a self-binding reaper that, in his neighbor's field, would not perform its part; and a lamp that was designed to manufacture the gas that it burned from the water in its bowl, but which dismally and ignobly failed. He had contrived and patented a machine for milking cows, which might have done all that was claimed for it if anybody—cows included—could have been induced to give it a trial, and he had fiddled around with perpetual motion until the place was a litter of broken springs and rusty wheels.
Nothing had come of all this pother but rustic entertainment, although he demonstrated the truth of his calculations by geometry, and applied Greek names to the things which he had done and hoped to do. All this had eaten up his energies, and his fields had gone but half tilled. Perhaps back of all Peter's futile strivings there had lain the germ of some useful thing which, if properly directed, might have grown into the fortune of his dreams. But he had plodded in small ways, and had died at last, in debt and hopeless, leaving nothing but a name of reproach which lived after him, and even hung upon his son that cool April morning as he went forward to assume the penance that his mother's act had set for him to bear.
And the future was clouded to Joe Newbolt now, like a window-pane with frost upon it, where all had been so clear in his calculations but a day before. In his heart he feared the ordeal for Isom Chase was a man of evil repute.
Long ago Chase's first wife had died, without issue, cursed to her grave because she had borne him no sons to labor in his fields. Lately he had married another, a woman of twenty, although he was well along the road to sixty-five himself. His second wife was a stranger in that community, the daughter of a farmer named Harrison, who dwelt beyond the county-seat.
Chase's homestead was a place pleasant enough for the abode of happiness, in spite of its grim history and sordid reputation. The mark of thrift was about it, orchards bloomed upon its fair slopes, its hedges graced the highways like cool, green walls, not a leaf in excess upon them, not a protruding bramble. How Isom Chase got all the work done was a matter of unceasing wonder, for nothing tumbled to ruin there, nothing went to waste. The secret of it was, perhaps, that when Chase did hire a man he got three times as much work out of him as a laborer ordinarily performed.
There were stories abroad that Chase was as hard and cruel to his young wife as he had been to his old, but there was no better warrant for them than his general reputation. It was the custom in those days for a woman to suffer greater indignities and cruelties than now without public complaint. There never had been a separation of man and wife in that community, there never had been a suit for divorce. Doubtless there were as many unhappy women to the square mile there as in other places, but custom ruled that they must conceal their sorrows in their breasts.
To all of these things concerning Isom Chase, Joe Newbolt was no stranger. He knew, very well indeed, the life that lay ahead of him as the bondboy of that old man as he went forward along the dew-moist road that morning.
Early as it was, Isom Chase had been out of bed two hours or more when Joe arrived. The scents of frying food came out of the kitchen, and Isom himself was making a splash in a basin of water—one thing that he could afford to be liberal with three times a day—on the porch near the open door.
Joe had walked three miles, the consuming fires of his growing body were demanding food. The odors of breakfast struck him with keen relish as he waited at the steps of the porch, unseen by Isom Chase, who had lifted his face from the basin with much snorting, and was now drying it on a coarse brown towel.
"Oh, you're here," said he, seeing Joe as he turned to hang up the towel. "Well, come on in and eat your breakfast. We ought to 'a' been in the field nearly an hour ago."
Hungry as he was, Joe did not advance to accept the invitation, which was not warmed by hospitality, indeed, but sounded rather like a command. He stood where he had stopped, and pushed his flap-brimmed hat back from his forehead, in nervous movement of decision. Chase turned, half-way to the door, looking back at his bound boy with impatience.
"No need for you to be bashful. This is home for a good while to come," said he.
"I'm not so very bashful," Joe disclaimed, placing the little roll which contained his one extra shirt on the wash-bench near the door, taking off his hat, then, and standing serious and solemn before his new master.
"Well, I don't want to stand here waitin' on you and dribble away the day, for I've got work to do!" said Isom sourly.
"Yes, sir," said Joe, yielding the point respectfully, but standing his ground; "but before I go across your doorstep, and sit at your table and break bread with you, I want you to understand my position in this matter."
"It's all settled between your mother and me," said Chase impatiently, drawing down his bayoneted eyebrows in a frown, "there's no understanding to come to between me and you—you've got nothing to say in the transaction. You're bound out to me for two years and three months at ten dollars a month and all found, and that settles it."
"No, it don't settle it," said Joe with rising heat; "it only begins it. Before I put a bite in my mouth in this house, or set my hand to any work on this place, I'm going to lay down the law to you, Mr. Chase, and you're going to listen to it, too!"
"Now, Joe, you've got too much sense to try to stir up a row and rouse hard feelin's between us at the start," said Isom, coming forward with his soft-soap of flattery and crafty conciliation.
"If I hadn't 'a' known that you was the smartest boy of your age anywhere around here, do you suppose I'd have taken you in this way?"
"You scared mother into it; you didn't give me a chance to say anything, and you took an underhanded hold," charged Joe, his voice trembling with scarce-controlled anger. "It wasn't right, Isom, it wasn't fair. You know I could hire out any day for more than ten dollars a month, and you know I'd never let mother go on the county as long as I was able to lift a hand."
"Winter and summer through, Joe—you must consider that," argued Isom, giving his head a twist which was meant to be illustrative of deep wisdom.
"You knew she was afraid of being thrown on the county," said Joe, "you sneaked in when I wasn't around and scared her up so she'd do most anything."
"Well, you don't need to talk so loud," cautioned Isom, turning an uneasy, cross look toward the door, from which the sound of a light step fled.
"I'll talk loud enough for you to hear me, and understand what I mean," said Joe. "I could run off and leave you, Isom, if I wanted to, but that's not my way. Mother made the bargain, I intend to live up to it, and let her have what little benefit there is to be got out of it. But I want you to know what I think of you at the start, and the way I feel about it. I'm here to work for mother, and keep that old roof over her head that's dearer to her than life, but I'm not your slave nor your servant in any sense of the word."
"It's all the same to me," said Isom, dropping his sham front of placation, lifting his finger to accent his words, "but you'll work, understand that—you'll work!"
"Mother told me," said Joe not in the least disturbed by this glimpse of Isom in his true guise, "that you had that notion in your mind, Isom. She said you told her you could thrash me if you wanted to do it, but I want to tell you——"
"It's the law," cut in Isom. "I can do it if I see fit."
"Well, don't ever try it," said Joe, drawing a long breath. "That was the main thing I wanted to say to you, Isom—don't ever try that!"
"I never intended to take a swingle-tree to you, Joe," said Isom, forcing his dry face into a grin. "I don't see that there ever need be any big differences between me and you. You do what's right by me and I'll do the same by you."
Isom spoke with lowered voice, a turning of the eyes toward the kitchen door, as if troubled lest this defiance of his authority might have been heard within, and the seeds of insubordination sown in another bond-slave's breast.
"I'll carry out mother's agreement with you to the best of my ability," said Joe, moving forward as if ready now to begin.
"Then come on in and eat your breakfast," said Isom.
Isom led the way into the smoky kitchen, inwardly more gratified than displeased over this display of spirit. According to the agreement between them, he had taken under bond-service the Widow Newbolt's "minor male child," but it looked to him as if some mistake had been made in the delivery.
"He's a man!" exulted Isom in his heart, pleased beyond measure that he had bargained better than he had known.
Joe put his lean brown hand into the bosom of his shirt and brought out a queer, fat little book, leather-bound and worn of the corners. This he placed on top of his bundle, then followed Chase into the kitchen where the table was spread for breakfast.
Mrs. Chase was busy straining milk. She did not turn her head, nor give the slightest indication of friendliness or interest in Joe as he took the place pointed out by Chase. Chase said no word of introduction. He turned his plate over with a businesslike flip, took up the platter which contained two fried eggs and a few pieces of bacon, scraped off his portion, and handed the rest to Joe.
In addition to the one egg each, and the fragments of bacon, there were sodden biscuits and a broken-nosed pitcher holding molasses. A cup of roiled coffee stood ready poured beside each plate, and that was the breakfast upon which Joe cast his curious eyes. It seemed absurdly inadequate to the needs of two strong men, accustomed as Joe was to four eggs at a meal, with the stays of life which went with them in proportion.
Mrs. Chase did not sit at the table with them, nor replenish the empty platter, although Joe looked expectantly and hungrily for her to do so. She was carrying pans of milk into the cellar, and did not turn her head once in their direction during the meal.
Joe rose from the table hungry, and in that uneasy state of body began his first day's labor on Isom Chase's farm. He hoped that dinner might repair the shortcomings of breakfast, and went to the table eagerly when that hour came.
For dinner there was hog-jowl and beans, bitter with salt, yellow with salt, but apparently greatly to the liking of Isom, whose natural food seemed to be the very essence of salt.
"Help yourself, eat plenty," he invited Joe.
Jowls and beans were cheap; he could afford to be liberal with that meal. Generosity in regard to that five-year-old jowl cost him scarcely a pang.
"Thank you," said Joe politely. "I'm doing very well."
A place was laid for Mrs. Chase, as at breakfast, but she did not join them at the table. She was scalding milk crocks and pans, her face was red from the steam. As she bent over the sink the uprising vapor moved her hair upon her temples like a wind.
"Ain't you goin' to eat your dinner, Ollie?" inquired Isom with considerable lightness, perhaps inspired by the hope that she was not.
"I don't feel hungry right now," she answered, bending over her steaming pan of crocks.
Isom did not press her on the matter. He filled up his plate again with beans and jowl, whacking the grinning jawbone with his knife to free the clinging shreds of meat.
Accustomed as he had been all his life to salt fare, that meal was beyond anything in that particular of seasoning that Joe ever had tasted. The fiery demand of his stomach for liquid dilution of his saline repast made an early drain on his coffee; when he had swallowed the last bean that he was able to force down, his cup was empty. He cast his eyes about inquiringly for more.
"We only drink one cup of coffee at a meal here," explained Isom, a rebuke in his words for the extravagance of those whose loose habits carried them beyond that abstemious limit.
"All right; I guess I can make out on that," said Joe.
There was a pitcher of water at his hand, upon which he drew heavily, with the entire good-will and approbation of Isom. Then he took his hat from the floor at his feet and went out, leaving Isom hammering again at the jowl, this time with the handle of his fork, in the hope of dislodging a bit of gristle which clung to one end.
Joe's hope leaped ahead to supper, unjustified as the flight was by the day's developments. Human creatures could not subsist longer than a meal or two on such fare as that, he argued; there must be a change very soon, of course.
It was a heavy afternoon for Joe. He was weary from the absolute lack of nourishment when the last of the chores was done long after dusk, and Isom announced that they would go to the house for supper.
The supper began with soup, made from the left-over beans and the hog's jaw of dinner. There it swam, that fleshless, long-toothed, salt-reddened bone, the most hateful piece of animal anatomy that Joe ever fixed his hungry eyes upon. And supper ended as it began; with soup. There was nothing else behind it, save some hard bread to soak in it, and its only savor was salt.
Isom seemed to be satisfied with, even cheered by, his liquid refreshment. His wife came to her place at the table when they were almost through, and sat stirring a bowl of the mixture of bread and thin soup, her eyes set in abstracted stare in the middle of the table, far beyond the work of her hands. She did not speak to Joe; he did not undertake any friendly approaches.
Joe never had seen Mrs. Chase before that day, neighbors though they had been for months. She appeared unusually handsome to Joe, with her fair skin, and hair colored like ripe oats straw. She wore a plait of it as big as his wrist coiled and wound around her head.
For a little while after finishing his unsatisfying meal, Joe sat watching her small hand turning the spoon in her soup. He noted the thinness of her young cheeks, in which there was no marvel, seeing the fare upon which she was forced to live. She seemed to be unconscious of him and Isom. She did not raise her eyes.
Joe got up in a little while and left them, going to the porch to look for his bundle and his book. They were gone. He came back, standing hesitatingly in the door.
"They're in your room upstairs," said Mrs. Chase without turning her head to look at him, still leaning forward over her bowl.
"I'll show you where it is," Isom offered.
He led the way up the stairs which opened from the kitchen, carrying a small lamp in his hand.
Joe's room was over the kitchen. It was bleak and bare, its black rafters hung with spiderwebs, plastered with the nests of wasps. A dormer window jutted toward the east like a hollow eye, designed, no doubt, and built by Isom Chase himself, to catch the first gleam of morning and throw it in the eyes of the sleeping hired-hand, whose bed stood under it.
Isom came down directly, took his lantern, and went to the barn to look after a new-born calf. Where there was profit, such as he counted it, in gentleness, Isom Chase could be as tender as a mother. Kind words and caresses, according to his experience, did not result in any more work out of a wife so he spared them the young woman at the table, as he had denied them the old one in her grave.
As Isom hurried out into the soft night, with a word about the calf, Ollie made a bitter comparison between her lot and that of the animals in the barn. Less than six months before that gloomy night she had come to that house a bride, won by the prospect of ease and independence which Chase had held out to her in the brief season of his adroit courtship. The meanest men sometimes turn out to be the nimblest cock-pheasants during that interesting period, and, like those vain birds of the jungles, they strut and dance and cut dazzling capers before the eyes of the ladies when they want to strike up a matrimonial bargain.
Isom Chase had done that. He had been a surprising lover for a dry man of his years, spurring around many a younger man in the contest for Ollie's hand. Together with parental encouragement and her own vain dreams, she had not found it hard to say the word that made her his wife. But the gay feathers had fallen from him very shortly after their wedding day, revealing the worm which they had hidden; the bright colors of his courtship parade had faded like the fustian decorations of a carnival in the rain.
Isom was a man of bone and dry skin, whose greed and penury had starved his own soul. He had brought her there and put burdens upon her, with the assurance that it would be only for a little while, until somebody could be hired to take the work off her hands. Then he had advanced the plea of hard times, when the first excuse had worn out; now he had dropped all pretenses. She was serving, as he had married her to serve, as he had brought her there in unrecompensed bondage to serve, and hope was gone from her horizon, and her tears were undried upon her cheeks.
Isom had profited by a good day's work from Joe, and he had not been obliged to drive him to obtain it. So he was in great spirits when he came back from the barn, where he had found the calf coming on sturdily and with great promise. He put out the lantern and turned the lamp down a shade seeing that it was consuming a twentieth more oil than necessary to light Ollie about her work. Then he sat down beside the table, stretching his long legs with a sigh.
Ollie was washing the few dishes which had served for supper, moving between table and sink with quick competence, making a neat figure in the somber room. It was a time when a natural man would have filled his pipe and brought out the weekly paper, or sat and gossiped a comfortable hour with his wife. But Isom never had cheered his atrophied nerves with a whiff of tobacco, and as for the county paper, or any paper whatever except mortgages and deeds, Isom held all of them to be frauds and extravagances which a man was better off without.
"Well, what do you think of the new hand?" asked Isom, following her with his eyes.
"I didn't pay any particular notice to him," said she, her back toward him as she stood scraping a pan at the sink.
"Did you hear what he said to me this morning when he was standin' there by the steps?"
"No, I didn't hear," listlessly, indifferently.
"H'm—I thought you was listening."
"I just looked out to see who it was."
"No difference if you did hear, Ollie," he allowed generously—for Isom. "A man's wife ought to share his business secrets, according to my way of lookin' at it; she's got a right to know what's going on. Well, I tell you that chap talked up to me like a man!"
Isom smacked his lips over the recollection. The promise of it was sweet to his taste.
Ollie's heart stirred a little. She wondered if someone had entered that house at last who would be able to set at defiance its stern decrees. She hoped that, if so, this breach in the grim wall might let some sunlight in time into her own bleak heart. But she said nothing to Isom, and he talked on.
"I made a good pick when I lit on that boy," said he, with that old wise twist of the head; "the best pick in this county, by a long shot. I choose a man like I pick a horse, for the blood he shows. A blooded horse will endure where a plug will fall down, and it's the same way with a man. Ollie, don't you know that boy's got as good a strain in him as you'll find in this part of the country?"
"I never saw him before today, I don't know his folks," said she, apparently little interested in her husband's find.
Isom sat silent for a while, looking at the worn floor.
"Well, he's bound out to me for two years and more," said he, the comfort of it in his hard, plain face. "I'll have a steady hand that I can depend on now. That's a boy that'll do his duty; no doubt in my mind about that. It may go against the grain once in a while, Ollie, like our duty does for all of us sometimes; but, no matter how it tastes to him, that boy Joe, he'll face it.
"He's not one of the kind that'll shirk on me when my back's turned, or steal from me if he gets a chance, or betray any trust I put in him. He's as poor as blue-John and as proud as Lucifer, but he's as straight as the barrel of that old gun. He's got Kentucky blood in him, and the best of it, too."
"He brought a funny little Bible with him," said Ollie in low voice, as if communing with herself.
"Funny?" said Isom. "Is that so?"
"So little and fat," she explained. "I never saw one like it before. It was there on the bench this morning with his bundle. I put it up by his bed."
"Hum-m," said Isom reflectively, as if considering it deeply. Then: "Well, I guess it's all right."
Isom sat a good while, fingering his stiff beard. He gave no surface indication of the thoughts which were working within him, for he was unlike those sentimental, plump, thin-skinned people who cannot conceal their emotions from the world. Isom might have been dreaming of gain, or he might have been contemplating the day of loss and panic, for all that his face revealed. Sun and shadow alike passed over it, as rain and blast and summer sun pass over and beat upon a stone, leaving no mark behind save in that slow and painful wear which one must live a century to note. He looked up at his wife at length, his hand still in his beard, and studied her silently.
"I'm not a hard man, Ollie, like some people give me the name of being," he complained, with more gentleness in his voice than she had heard since he was courting her. He still studied her, as if he expected her to uphold common report and protest that he was hard and cruel-driving in his way. She said nothing; Isom proceeded to give himself the good rating which the world denied.
"I'm not half as mean as some envious people would make out, if they could find anybody to take stock in what they say. If I'm not as honey-mouthed as some, that's because I've got more sense than to diddle-daddle my time away in words when there's so much to do. I'll show you that I'm as kind at heart, Ollie, as any man in this county, if you'll stand by me and do your part of what's to be done without black looks and grumbles and growls.
"I'm a good many years older than you, and maybe I'm not as light-footed and light-headed as you'd like a husband to be, but I've got weight to me where it counts. I could buy out two-thirds of the young fellers in this county, Ollie, all in a bunch."
"Yes, Isom, I guess you could," she allowed, a weary drag in her voice.
"I'll put a woman in to do the work here in the fall, when I make a turn of my crops and money comes a little freer than it does right now," he promised. "Interest on my loans is behind in a good many cases, and there's no use crowdin' 'em to pay till they sell their wheat and hogs. If I had the ready money in hand to pay wages, Ollie, I'd put a nigger woman in here tomorrow and leave you nothing to do but oversee. You'll have a fine easy time of it this fall, Ollie, when I turn my crops."
Ollie drained the dishpan and wrung out the cloths. These she hung on a line to dry. Isom watched her with approval, pleased to see her so housewifely and neat.
"Ollie, you've come on wonderful since I married you," said he. "When you come here—do you recollect?—you couldn't hardly make a mess of biscuits that was fit to eat, and you knew next to nothing about milk and butter for all that you was brought up on a farm."
"Well, I've learned my lesson," said she, with a bitterness which passed over Isom's head.
Her back was turned to him, she was reaching to hang a utensil on the wall, so high above her head that she stood on tiptoe. Isom was not insensible to the pretty lines of her back, the curve of her plump hips, the whiteness of her naked arms. He smiled.
"Well, it's worth money to you to know all these things," said he, "and I don't know but it's just as well for you to go on and do the work this summer for the benefit of what's to be got out of it; you'll be all the better able to oversee a nigger woman when I put one in, and all the better qualified to take things into your own hands when I'm done and in the grave. For I'll have to go, in fifteen or twenty years more," he sighed.
Ollie made no reply. She was standing with her back still turned toward him, stripping down her sleeves. But the sigh which she gave breath to sounded loud in Isom's ears.
Perhaps he thought she was contemplating with concern the day when he must give over his strivings and hoardings, and leave her widowed and alone. That may have moved him to his next excess of generosity.
"I'm going to let Joe help you around the house a good deal, Ollie," said he. "He'll make it a lot easier for you this summer. He'll carry the swill down to the hogs, and water 'em, and take care of the calves. That'll save you a good many steps in the course of the day."
Ollie maintained her ungrateful silence. She had heard promises before, and she had come to that point of hopelessness where she no longer seemed to care. Isom was accustomed to her silences, also; it appeared to make little difference to him whether she spoke or held her peace.
He sat there reflectively a little while; then got up, stretching his arms, yawning with a noise like a dog.
"Guess I'll go to bed," said he.
He looked for a splinter on a stick of stove-wood, which he lit at the stove and carried to his lamp. At the door he paused, turned, and looked at Ollie, his hand, hovering like a grub curved beside the chimney, shading the light from his eyes.
"So he brought a Bible, did he?"
"Well, he's welcome to it," said Isom. "I don't care what anybody that works for me reads—just so long as he works!"
Isom's jubilation over his bondboy set his young wife's curiosity astir. She had not noted any romantic or noble parts about the youth in the casual, uninterested view which she had given him that day. To her then he had appeared only a sprangling, long-bodied, long-legged, bony-shouldered, unformed lad whose hollow frame indicated a great capacity for food. Her only thought in connection with him had been that it meant another mouth to dole Isom's slender allowance out to, more scheming on her part to make the rations go round. It meant another one to wash for, another bed to make.
She had thought of those things wearily that morning when she heard the new voice at the kitchen door, and she had gone there for a moment to look him over; for strange faces, even those of loutish farm-hands, were refreshing in her isolated life. She had not heard what the lad was saying to Isom, for the kitchen was large and the stove far away from the door, but she had the passing thought that there was a good deal of earnestness or passion in the harangue for a farm-hand to be laying on his early morning talk.
When she found the Bible lying there on top of Joe's hickory shirt, she had concluded that he had been talking religion. She hoped that he would not preach at his meals. The only religion that Ollie knew anything of, and not much of that, was a glum and melancholy kind, with frenzied shoutings of the preacher in it, and portentous shaking of the beard in the shudderful pictures of the anguish of unrepentant death. So she hoped that he would not preach at his meals, for the house was sad enough, and terrible and gloomily hopeless enough, without the kind of religion that made the night deeper and the day longer in its dread.
Now Isom's talk about the lad's blood, and his expression of high confidence in his fealty, gave her a pleasant topic of speculation. Did good blood make men different from those who came of mongrel strain, in other points than that of endurance alone? Did it give men nobility and sympathy and loftiness, or was it something prized by those who hired them, as Isom seemed to value it in Joe, because it lent strength to the arms?
Ollie sat on the kitchen steps and turned all this over in her thoughts after Isom had gone to bed.
Perhaps in the new bondboy, who had come there to serve with her, she would find one with whom she might talk and sometimes ease her heart. She hoped that it might be so, for she needed chatter and laughter and the common sympathies of youth, as a caged bird requires the seed of its wild life. There was hope in the new farm-hand which swept into her heart like a refreshing breeze. She would look him over and sound him when he worked, choring between kitchen and barn.
Ollie had been a poor man's child. Isom had chosen her as he would have selected a breeding-cow, because nature, in addition to giving her a form of singular grace and beauty, had combined therein the utilitarian indications of ability to plentifully reproduce her kind. Isom wanted her because she was alert and quick of foot, and strong to bear the burdens of motherhood; for even in the shadow of his decline he still held to the hope of his youth—that he might leave a son behind him to guard his acres and bring down his name.
Ollie was no deeper than her opportunities of life had made her. She had no qualities of self-development, and while she had graduated from a high school and still had the ornate diploma among her simple treasures, learning had passed through her pretty ears like water through a funnel. It had swirled and choked there a little while, just long enough for her to make her "points" required for passing, then it had sped on and left her unencumbered and free.
Her mother had always held Ollie's beauty a greater asset than mental graces, and this early appraisement of it at its trading value had made Ollie a bit vain and ambitious to mate above her family. Isom Chase had held out to her all the allurements of which she had dreamed, and she had married him for his money. She had as well taken a stone to her soft bosom in the hope of warming it into yielding a flower.
Isom was up at four o'clock next morning. A few minutes after him Ollie stumbled down the stairs, heavy with the pain of broken sleep. Joe was snoring above-stairs; the sound penetrated to the kitchen down the doorless casement.
"Listen to that feller sawin' gourds!" said Isom crabbedly.
The gloom of night was still in the kitchen; in the corner where the stove stood it was so dark that Ollie had to grope her way, yawning heavily, feeling that she would willingly trade the last year of her life for one more hour of sleep that moist spring morning.
Isom mounted the kitchen stairs and roused Joe, lumbering down again straightway and stringing the milk-pails on his arms without waiting to see the result of his summons.
"Send him on down to the barn when he's ready," directed Isom, jangling away in the pale light of early day.
Ollie fumbled around in her dark corner for kindling, and started a fire in the kitchen stove with a great rattling of lids. Perhaps there was more alarm than necessary in this primitive and homely task, sounded with the friendly intention of carrying a warning to Joe, who was making no move to obey his master's call.
Ollie went softly to the staircase and listened. Joe's snore was rumbling again, as if he traveled a heavy road in the land of dreams. She did not feel that she could go and shake him out of his sleep and warn him of the penalty of such remission, but she called softly from where she stood:
"Joe! You must get up, Joe!"
But her voice was not loud enough to wake a bird. Joe slept on, like a heavy-headed boor, and she went back to the stove to put the kettle on to boil. The issue of his recalcitration must be left between him and Isom. If he had good blood in him, perhaps he would fight when Isom lifted his hand and beat him out of his sleep, she reflected, hoping simply that it would turn out that way.
Isom came back to the house in frothing wrath a quarter of an hour later. There was no need to ask about Joe, for the bound boy's nostrils sounded his own betrayal.
Isom did not look at Ollie as he took the steep stairs four treads at a step. In a moment she heard the sleeper's bed squeaking in its rickety old joints as her husband shook him and cut short his snore in the middle of a long flourish.
"Turn out of here!" shouted Isom in his most terrible voice—which was to Ollie's ears indeed a dreadful sound—"turn out and git into your duds!"
Ollie heard the old bed give an extra loud groan, as if the sleeper had drawn himself up in it with suddenness; following that came the quick scuffling of bare feet on the floor.
"Don't you touch me! Don't you lay hands on me!" she heard the bound boy warn, his voice still husky with sleep.
"I'll skin you alive!" threatened Isom. "You've come here to work, not to trifle your days away sleepin'. A good dose of strap-oil's what you need, and I'm the man to give it to you, too!"
Isom's foot was heavy on the floor over her head, moving about as if in search of something to use in the flagellation. Ollie stood with hands to her tumultuous bosom, pity welling in her heart for the lad who was to feel the vigor of Isom's unsparing arm.
There was a lighter step upon the floor, moving across the room like a sudden wind. The bound boy's voice sounded again, clear now and steady, near the top of the stairs where Isom stood.
"Put that down! Put that down, I tell you!" he commanded. "I warned you never to lift your hand against me. If you hit me with that I'll kill you in your tracks!"
Ollie's heart leaped at the words; hot blood came into her face with a surge. She clasped her hands to her breast in new fervor, and lifted her face as one speeding a thankful prayer. She had heard Isom Chase threatened and defied in his own house, and the knowledge that one lived with the courage to do what she had longed to do, lifted her heart and made it glad.
She heard Isom growl something in his throat, muffled and low, which she could not separate into words.
"Well, then, I'll let it pass—this time," said Joe. "But don't you ever do it any more. I'm a heavy sleeper sometimes, and this is an hour or two earlier than I am used to getting up; but if you'll call me loud enough, and talk like you were calling a man and not a dog, you'll have no trouble with me. Now get out of here!"
Ollie could have shouted in the triumph of that moment. She shared the bound boy's victory and exulted in his high independence. Isom had swallowed it like a coward; now he was coming down the stairs, snarling in his beard, but his knotted fist had not enforced discipline; his coarse, distorted foot had not been lifted against his new slave. She felt that the dawn was breaking over that house, that one had come into it who would ease her of its terrors.
Joe came along after Isom in a little while, slipping his suspenders over his lank shoulders as he went out of the kitchen door. He did not turn to Ollie with the morning's greetings, but held his face from her and hurried on, she thought, as if ashamed.
Ollie ran to the door on her nimble toes, the dawn of a smile on her face, now rosy with its new light, and looked after him as he hurried away in the brightening day. She stood with her hands clasped in attitude of pleasure, again lifting her face as if to speed a prayer.
"Oh, thank God for a man!" said she.
Isom was in a crabbed way at breakfast, sulky and silent. But his evil humor did not appear to weigh with any shadow of trouble on Joe, who ate what was set before him like a hungry horse and looked around for more.
Ollie's interest in Joe was acutely sharpened by the incident of rising. There must be something uncommon, indeed, in a lad of Joe's years, she thought, to enable him to meet and pass off such a serious thing in that untroubled way. As she served the table, there being griddle-cakes of cornmeal that morning to flank the one egg and fragments of rusty bacon each, she studied the boy's face carefully. She noted the high, clear forehead, the large nose, the fineness of the heavy, black hair which lay shaggy upon his temples. She studied the long hands, the grave line of his mouth, and caught a quick glimpse now and then of his large, serious gray eyes.
Here was an uncommon boy, with the man in him half showing; Isom was right about that. Let it be blood or what it might, she liked him. Hope of the cheer that he surely would bring into that dark house quickened her cheek to a color which had grown strange to it in those heavy months.
Joe's efforts in the field must have been highly satisfactory to Isom that forenoon, for the master of the house came to the table at dinner-time in quite a lively mood. The morning's unpleasantness seemed to have been forgotten. Ollie noticed her husband more than once during the meal measuring Joe's capabilities for future strength with calculating, satisfied eyes. She sat at the table with them, taking minute note of Joe at closer range, studying him curiously, awed a little by the austerity of his young face, and the melancholy of his eyes, in which there seemed to lie the concentrated sorrow of many forebears who had suffered and died with burdens upon their hearts.
"Couldn't you manage to pick us a mess of dandelion for supper, Ollie?" asked Isom. "I notice it's comin' up thick in the yard."
"I might, if I could find the time," said Ollie.
"Oh, I guess you'll have time enough," said Isom, severely.
Her face grew pale; she lowered her head as if to hide her fear from Joe.
"Cook it with a jowl," ordered Isom; "they go fine together, and it's good for the blood."
Joe was beginning to yearn forward to Sunday, when he could go home to his mother for a satisfying meal, of which he was sharply feeling the need. It was a mystery to him how Isom kept up on that fare, so scant and unsatisfying, but he reasoned that it must be on account of there being so little of him but gristle and bone.
Joe looked ahead now to the term of his bondage under Isom; the prospect gave him an uneasy concern. He was afraid that the hard fare and harder work would result in stunting his growth, like a young tree that has come to a period of drought green and promising, and stands checked and blighted, never again to regain the hardy qualities which it needs to raise it up into the beauty of maturity.
The work gave him little concern; he knew that he could live and put on strength through that if he had the proper food. So there would have to be a change in the fare, concluded Joe, as he sat there while Isom discussed the merits of dandelion and jowl. It would have to come very early in his term of servitude, too. The law protected the bondman in that, no matter how far it disregarded his rights and human necessities in other ways. So thinking, he pushed away from the table and left the room.
Isom drank a glass of water, smacked his dry lips over its excellencies, the greatest of them in his mind being its cheapness, and followed it by another.
"Thank the Lord for water, anyhow!" said he.
"Yes, there's plenty of that," said Ollie meaningly.
Isom was as thick-skinned as he was sapless. Believing that his penurious code was just, and his frugality the first virtue of his life, he was not ashamed of his table, and the outcast scraps upon it. But he looked at his young wife with a sharp drawing down of his spiked brows as he lingered there a moment, his cracked brown hands on the edge of the table, which he had clutched as he pushed his chair back. He seemed about to speak a rebuke for her extravagance of desire. The frown on his face foreshadowed it, but presently it lifted, and he nodded shrewdly after Joe.
"Give him a couple of eggs mornings after this," said he, "they've fell off to next to nothing in price, anyhow. And eat one yourself once in a while, Ollie. I ain't one of these men that believe a woman don't need the same fare as a man, once on a while, anyhow."
His generous outburst did not appear to move his wife's gratitude. She did not thank him by word or sign. Isom drank another glass of water, rubbed his mustache and beard back from his lips in quick, grinding twists of his doubled hand.
"The pie-plant's comin' out fast," said he, "and I suppose we might as well eat it—nothing else but humans will eat it—for there's no sale for it over in town. Seems like everybody's got a patch of it nowadays.
"Well, it's fillin', as the old woman said when she swallowed her thimble, and that boy Joe he's going to be a drain on me to feed, I can see that now. I'll have to fill him up on something or other, and I guess pie-plant's about as good as anything. It's cheap."
"Yes, but it takes sugar," ventured Ollie, rolling some crumbs between her fingers.
"You can use them molasses in the blue barrel," instructed Isom.
"It's about gone," said she.
"Well, put some water in the barrel and slosh it around—it'll come out sweet enough for a mess or two."
Isom got up from the table as he gave these economic directions, and stood a moment looking down at his wife.
"Don't you worry over feedin' that feller, Ollie," he advised. "I'll manage that. I aim to keep him stout—I never saw a stouter feller for his age than Joe—for I'm goin' to git a pile of work out of him the next two years. I saw you lookin' him over this morning," said he, approvingly, as he might have sanctioned her criticism of a new horse, "and I could see you was lightin' on his points. Don't you think he's all I said he was?"
"Yes," she answered, a look of abstraction in her eyes, her fingers busy with the crumbs on the cloth, "all you said of him—and more!"
THE SPARK IN THE CLOD
It did not cost Isom so many pangs to minister to the gross appetite of his bound boy as the spring weeks marched into summer, for gooseberries followed rhubarb, then came green peas and potatoes from the garden that Ollie had planted and tilled under her husband's orders.
Along in early summer the wormy codlings which fell from the apple-trees had to be gathered up and fed to the hogs by Ollie, and it was such a season of blighted fruit that the beasts could not eat them all. So there was apple sauce, sweetened with molasses from the new barrel that Isom broached.
If it had not been so niggardly unnecessary, the faculty that Isom had for turning the waste ends of the farm into profit would have been admirable. But the suffering attendant upon this economy fell only upon the human creatures around him. Isom's beasts wallowed in plenty and grew fat in the liberality of his hand. For himself, it looked as if he had the ability to extract his living from the bare surface of a rock.
All of this green truck was filling, as Isom had said, but far from satisfying to a lad in the process of building on such generous plans as Joe. Isom knew that too much skim-milk would make a pot-bellied calf, but he was too stubborn in his rule of life to admit the cause when he saw that Joe began to lag at his work, and grow surly and sour.
Isom came in for quick and startling enlightenment in the middle of a lurid July morning, while he and Joe were at work with one-horse cultivators, "laying by" the corn. Joe threw his plow down in the furrow, cast the lines from his shoulders, and declared that he was starving. He vowed that he would not cultivate another row unless assured, then and there, that Isom would make an immediate enlargement in the bill-of-fare.
Isom stood beside the handles of his own cultivator, there being the space of ten rows between him and Joe, and took the lines from around his shoulders, with the deliberate, stern movement of a man who is preparing for a fight.
"What do you mean by this kind of capers?" he demanded.
"I mean that you can't go on starving me like you've been doing, and that's all there is to it!" said Joe. "The law don't give you the right to do that."
"Law! Well, I'll law you," said Isom, coming forward, his hard body crouched a little, his lean and guttered neck stretched as if he gathered himself for a run and jump at the fence. "I'll feed you what comes to my hand to feed you, you onery whelp! You're workin' for me, you belong to me!"
"I'm working for mother—I told you that before," said Joe. "I don't owe you anything, Isom, and you've got to feed me better, or I'll walk away and leave you, that's what I'll do!"
"Yes, I see you walkin' away!" said Isom, plucking at his already turned-up sleeve. "I'm goin' to give you a tannin' right now, and one you'll not forget to your dyin' day!"
At that moment Isom doubtless intended to carry out his threat. Here was a piece of his own property, as much his property as his own wedded wife, defying him, facing him with extravagant demands, threatening to stop work unless more bountifully fed! Truly, it was a state of insurrection such as no upright citizen like Isom Chase could allow to go by unreproved and unquieted by castigation of his hand.
"You'd better stop where you are," advised Joe.
He reached down and righted his plow. Isom could see the straining of the leaders in his lean wrist as he stood gripping the handle, and the thought passed through him that Joe intended to wrench it off and use it as a weapon against him.
Isom had come but a few steps from his plow. He stopped, looking down at the furrow as if struggling to hold himself within bounds. Still looking at the earth, he went back to his implement.
"I'll put you where the dogs won't bite you if you ever threaten my life ag'in!" said he.
"I didn't threaten your life, Isom, I didn't say a word," said Joe.
"A motion's a threat," said Isom.
"But I'll tell you now," said Joe, quietly, lowering his voice and leaning forward a little, "you'd better think a long time before you ever start to lay hands on me again, Isom. This is twice. The next time——"
Joe set his plow in the furrow with a push that sent the swingle-tree knocking against the horse's heels. The animal started out of the doze into which it had fallen while the quarrel went on. Joe grinned, thinking how even Isom's dumb creatures took every advantage of him that opportunity offered. But he left his warning unfinished as for words.
There was no need to say more, for Isom was cowed. He was quaking down to the tap-root of his salt-hardened soul, but he tried to put a different face on it as he took up his plow.
"I don't want to cripple you, and lay you up," he said. "If I was to begin on you once I don't know where I'd leave off. Git back to your work, and don't give me any more of your sass!"
"I'll go back to work when you give me your word that I'm to have meat and eggs, butter and milk, and plenty of it," said Joe.
"I orto tie you up to a tree and lash you!" said Isom, jerking angrily at his horse. "I don't know what ever made me pity your mother and keep her out of the poorhouse by takin' in a loafer like you!"
"Well, if you're sick of the bargain go and tell mother. Maybe she is, too," Joe suggested.
"No, you'll not git out of it now, you'll stick right here and put in your time, after all the trouble and expense I've been put to teachin' you what little you know about farmin'," Isom declared.
He took up his plow and jerked his horse around into the row. Joe stood watching him, with folded arms, plainly with no intention of following. Isom looked back over his shoulder.
"Git to work!" he yelled.
"You didn't promise me what I asked," said Joe, quietly.
"No, and that ain't all!" returned Isom.
The tall corn swallowed Isom and his horse as the sea swallowed Pharaoh and his host. When he returned to the end of the field where the rebellion had broken out, he found Joe sitting on the beam of his plow and the well-pleased horse asleep in the sun.
Isom said nothing, but plunged away into the tall corn. When he came back next time Joe was unhitching his horse.
"Now, look a-here, Joe," Isom began, in quite a changed tone, "don't you fly up and leave an old man in the lurch that way."
"You know what I said," Joe told him.
"I'll give in to you, Joe; I'll give you everything you ask for, and more," yielded Isom, seeing that Joe intended to leave. "I'll put it in writing if you want me to Joe—I'll do anything to keep you, son. You're the only man I ever had on this place I wouldn't rather see goin' than comin'."
Isom's word was satisfactory to Joe, and he returned to work.
That turned out a day to be remembered in the household of Isom Chase. If he had come into the kitchen at noon with all the hoarded savings of his years and thrown them down before her eyes, Ollie could not have been more surprised and mystified than she was when he appeared from the smokehouse carrying a large ham.
After his crafty way in a tight pinch Isom turned necessity into profit by making out that the act was free and voluntary, with the pleasure and comfort of his pretty little wife underlying and prompting it all. He grinned as if he would break his beard when he put the ham down on the table and cut it in two at the middle joint as deftly as a butcher.
"I've been savin' that ham up for you, Ollie. I think it's just about right now," said he.
"That was nice of you, Isom," said she, moved out of her settled taciturnity by his little show of thought for her, "I've been just dying for a piece of ham!"
"Well, fry us a big skilletful of it, and some eggs along with it, and fetch up a crock of sweet milk, and stir it up cream and all," directed Isom.
Poor Ollie, overwhelmed by the suddenness and freedom of this generosity, stood staring at him, her eyes round, her lips open. Isom could not have studied a more astounding surprise. If he had hung diamonds on her neck, rubies on her wrists, and garnets in her hair, she could quicker have found her tongue.
"It's all right, Ollie, it's all right," said Isom pettishly. "We're going to have these things from now on. Might as well eat 'em, and git some of the good of what we produce, as let them city people fatten off 'em."
Isom went out with that, and Ollie attacked the ham with the butcher knife in a most savage and barbarous fashion.
Isom's old wife must have shifted in her grave at sight of the prodigal repast which Ollie soon spread on the kitchen table. Granting, of course, that people in their graves are cognizant of such things, which, according to this old standard of comparison in human amazement, they must be.
But whether the old wife turned over or lay quiescent in the place where they put her when they folded her tired old hands upon her shrunken breast, it is indisputable that the new one eased the pangs of many a hungry day in that bountiful meal. And Joe's face glowed from the fires of it, and his eyes sparkled in the satisfaction of his long-abused stomach.
Next day a more startling thing happened. Twice each week there passed through the country, from farm to farm, a butcher's wagon from Shelbyville, the county-seat, a few miles away. Isom Chase never had been a customer of the fresh meat purveyor, and the traveling merchant, knowing from the old man's notoriety that he never could expect him to become one, did not waste time in stopping at his house. His surprise was almost apoplectic when Isom stopped him and bought a soup-bone, and it almost became fatal when the order was made a standing one. It was such a remarkable event that the meat man told about it at every stop. It went round the country like the news of a wedding or a death.
Isom seemed to be satisfied with the new dietary regulations, for hams were cheap that summer, anyhow, and the season was late. Besides that, the more that Joe ate the harder he worked. It seemed a kind of spontaneous effort on the lad's part, as if it was necessary to burn up the energy in surplus of the demand of his growing bone and muscle.
Ollie had picked up and brightened under the influence of ham and milk also, although it was all a foolish yielding to appetite, as Isom very well knew. He had beaten that weakness in himself to death with the club of abstinence; for himself he could live happily on what he had been accustomed to eating for thirty years and more. But as long as the investment of ham and milk paid interest in kitchen as well as field, Isom was grudgingly willing to see them consumed.
Ollie's brightening was only physical. In her heart she was as gloomily hopeless as before. After his first flash of fire she had not found much comfort or hope of comradeship in the boy, Joe Newbolt. He was so respectful in her presence, and so bashful, it seemed, that it almost made her uncomfortable to have him around.
Man that he was in stature, he appeared no more than a timid boy in understanding, and her little advances of friendliness, her little appeals for sympathy, all glanced from the unconscious armor of his youthful innocence and reserve. She was forced to put him down after many weeks as merely stupid, and she sighed when she saw the hope of comradeship in her hard lot fade out and give way to a feeling bordering upon contempt.
On Sunday evenings, after he came back from visiting his mother, Ollie frequently saw Joe reading the little brown Bible which he had carried with him when he came. She had taken it up one day while making Joe's bed. It brought back to her the recollection of her Sunday-school days, when she was all giggles and frills; but there was no association of religious training to respond to its appeal. She wondered what Joe saw in it as she put it back on the box beside his bed.
It chanced that she met Joe the next morning after she had made that short incursion between the brown covers of his book, as she was returning from the well and he was setting out for the hog-lot between two pails of sour swill. He stood out of the path to let her pass without stepping into the long, dewy grass. She put her bucket down with a gasp of weariness, and looked up into his eyes with a smile.
The buckets were heavy in Joe's hands; he stood them down, meeting her friendly advances with one of his rare smiles, which came as seldom to his face, thought she, as a hummingbird to the honeysuckle on the kitchen porch.
"Whew, this is going to be a scorcher!" said she.
"I believe it is," he agreed.
From the opposite sides of the path their eyes met. Both smiled again, and felt better for it.
"My, but you're a mighty religious boy, aren't you?" she asked suddenly.
"Religious?" said he, looking at her in serious surprise.
She nodded girlishly. The sun, long slanting through the cherry-trees, fell on her hair, loosely gathered up after her sleep, one free strand on her cheek.
"No, I'm not religious."
"Well, you read the Bible all the time."
"Oh, well!" said he, stooping as if to lift his pails.
"Why?" she wanted to know.
Joe straightened his long back without his pails. Beyond the orchard the hogs were clamoring shrilly for their morning draught; from the barn there came the sound of Isom's voice, speaking harshly to the beasts.
"Well, because I like it, for one thing," said he, "and because it's the only book I've got here, for another."
"My, I think it's awful slow!" said she.
"Do you?" he inquired, as if interested in her likes and dislikes at last.
"I'd think you'd like other books better—detective stories and that kind," she ventured. "Didn't you ever read any other book?"
"Some few," he replied, a reflection as of amusement in his eyes, which she thought made them look old and understanding and wise. "But I've always read the Bible. It's one of the books that never seems to get old to you."
"Did you ever read True as Steel?"
"No, I never did."
"Or Tempest and Sunshine?"
He shook his head.
"Oh-h," said she, fairly lifting herself by the long breath which she drew, like the inhalation of a pleasant recollection, "you don't know what you've missed! They are lovely!"
"Well, maybe I'd like them, too."
He stooped again, and this time came up with his pails.
"I'm glad you're not religious, anyhow," she sighed, as if heaving a trouble off her heart.
"Are you?" he asked, turning to her wonderingly.
"Yes; religious people are so glum," she explained. "I never saw one of them laugh."
"There are some that way," said Joe. "They seem to be afraid they'll go to hell if they let the Almighty hear them laugh. Mother used to be that way when she first got her religion, but she's outgrowing it now."
"The preachers used to scare me to death," she declared. "If I could hear some comfortable religion I might take up with it, but it seems to me that everybody's so sad after they get it. I don't know why."
Joe put down the pails again. Early as the day was, it was hot, and he was sweating. He pushed his hat back from his forehead. It was like lifting a shadow from his serious young face. She smiled.
"A person generally gets the kind of religion that he hears preached," said he, "and most of it you hear is kind of heavy, like bread without rising. I've never seen a laughing preacher yet."
"There must be some, though," she reflected.
"I hope so," said Joe.
"I'm glad you're not full of that kind of religion," said she. "For a long time I thought you were."
"You did? Why?"
"Oh, because—" said she.
Her cheek was toward him; he saw that it was red, like the first tint of a cherry. She snatched up her bucket then and sped along the path.
Joe walked on a little way, stopped, turned, and looked after her. He saw the flick of her skirt as her nimble heels flew up the three steps of the kitchen porch, and he wondered why she was glad that he was not religious, and why she had gone away like that, so fast. The pigs were clamoring, shriller, louder. It was no hour for a youth who had not yet wetted his feet in manhood's stream to stand looking after a pair of heels and try to figure out a thing like that.