THE RIVER PROPHET
Raymond S. Spears
Ralph Pallen Coleman
Garden City New York
Doubleday, Page & Company
COPYRIGHT, 1918, 1920, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
THE RIVER PROPHET
THE RIVER PROPHET
Elijah Rasba lived alone in a log cabin on Temple Run. He was a long, lank, blue-eyed young man, with curly brown hair and a pale, almost livid complexion. His eye-brows were heavy and dark brown, and the blue steel of his gaze was fixed unwaveringly upon any object that it distinguished.
Two generations before, Old Abe Rasba had built a church on a little brook, a tributary of Jackson River, away up in the mountains. The church was laid up of flat stones, gathered in fields, from ledges of rock and up the wooded mountain side. It was large enough to hold all the people for miles around, and the roof was supported by massive hewn timbers, and some few attempts had been made to decorate the structure.
Old Abe had called his church "The Temple," had preached from a big hollow oak stump, and laid down the Law of the Bible, which he had memorized by heart, and expounded from experience. Elijah Rasba, grandson of Old Abe, thus came honestly by reverence and religion, but the strange glory which had surrounded the old Temple had departed from the ruin, and of all the congregation, only Elijah remained.
Land-slips had ruined a score of farms cleared on too-steep hills; lightning had destroyed the overshot grist mill, and the two big stones had been cracked in the hot flames; a feud had opened graves before the allotted time of the victims. It seemed to Elijah, sitting there in his cabin, as though damnation had visited the faithful, and that death was the reward of belief.
The ruins of the old Temple stood melancholy where the heavy stone wall, built by a man who believed in broad, firm foundations, had split an avalanche, but without avail, for the walls had given way and let the roof beams drop in. No less certain had been the fate of the congregation; they, too, were scattered or dead. There remained but one dwelling in the little valley, with a lone occupant, who was wrestling with his soul, trying to understand, for he knew in his heart that he must read the truth and discover the meaning of all this trouble, privation, disaster, and death.
He was quite practical about it. He had a field of corn, and a little garden full of truck; over his fireplace hung a 32-20 repeating rifle, and in one corner were a number of steel traps, copper and brass wire for snares, and a home-made mattock with which a rabbit could be extricated from a burrow, or a skunk-skin from its den.
An Almanac, a Bible, and a "Resources of Tennessee" comprised the library on the shelf. The Almanac had come by mail from away off yonder, about a hundred miles, perhaps—anyhow, from New York. The "Resources of Tennessee" had come down with a spring freshet in Jackson River, and was rather stained with mountain clays. The Bible was, of course, an inheritance.
It was a very small article, apparently, to create all the disturbances that seemed to have followed its interpretations there on Temple Run. Elijah would hold it out at arms length and stare at it with those sharp eyes of his, wondering in his soul how it could be that the fate of nations, the future of humanity, the very salvation of every soul rested within the compass of that leather-covered, gilt-edged parcel of thin paper which weighed rather less than half as much as a box of cartridges.
Elijah did not spare himself in the least. He toiled at whatever task appeared for him to do. As he required for his own wants fifty bushels of corn for a year, he planted enough to shuck a hundred bushels. Once, in the fervour of the hope that he was called upon to raise corn for humanity, he raised five hundred bushels, only to give it all away to poor white trash who had not raised enough for themselves.
Again he felt the call to preach, and he went forth with all the eagerness of a man who had at last discovered his life's calling. He went on foot, through storms, over mountains, and into a hundred schoolhouses and churches, showing his little leather-skinned Bible and warning sinners to repent, Christians to keep faith, and Baal to lower his loathly head.
He had returned from his five months' pilgrimage with the feeling that his utmost efforts had been futile, and that for all his good will, it had not been vouchsafed him to leave behind one thought in fertile soil. The matter had been brought home to him by an incident of the last meeting he had addressed, over on Clinch.
In the Painted Church he had volunteered a sermon, and no sermons had been preached there in years. Feuds, inextricably tangled, had involved five different families, and members of all those families were in the church, answering to his challenge.
They sat there with rifles or shotguns between their knees, with their pistols on their hips, and eternal vigilance in their eyes. While listening to his sermon they kept their gaze fastened upon one another, lest an unwary moment bring upon them the alert shot of an enemy.
As he had stood there, gaunt in frame, famished of soul, driven by the torments of an ambition to see the right, to do it, it seemed to him as though the final burden had been heaped upon him, and that he must break under the weight on his mind.
"What can I say to you all?" he burst out with sudden passion. "Theh yo' set with guns in yo' hands an' murder in yo' souls—to listen to the word of God! How do yo' expect the Prince of Peace to come to yo' if yo' set there thataway?"
His indignation rose as he saw them, and his scorn unbridled his tongue, so that in a few minutes the congregation watched one another less, the preacher more, and all settled back, to listen and blink under his accusations and his declarations. It really seemed, for the time, as though he had caught and engaged their attention. But when the sermon ended and he had taken his departure, before he was a hundred yards down the road he heard loud words, angry shouts, and then the scream of a woman.
The next instant there came a salvo of gun and pistol shots and in all directions up and down the cross-roads people fled on horseback. Three men had been killed, five wounded and a dozen become fugitives from justice at the end of the church service.
Elijah Rasba fled homeward, his will and hopes broken, and sank dejectedly into a slough of despondency. All his good intentions, all the inspiration of his endeavour, his very spiritual exaltation had terminated in a tragedy, as inexplicable as it was depressing.
His conscience would neither let him rest nor work. He looked at his Bible, inside and out, the very fibres of his brain struggling by reason, by effort, by main strength, to discover what his duty was. No answer soothed his waking hours or gave him rest from his dreams. On him rested a kind of superstitious scorn and fear, and he began to believe the whisperings of his neighbours which reached his ears. They said:
To his own freighted mind the statement seemed to be true. He did not know what new sin he had committed, nor could he look back on long years of his youth and young manhood and discover any sin which he had not already expiated, over and over again. He had obeyed the scriptural injunctions to the best of his knowledge, and the reward was this daily and nightly torment, the scorn of his fellows, and the questioning of his own soul.
Worst of all, constructively, he had given feud fighters the chance to do murder upon one another. Under the guise of preaching for them for the good of their souls, he had enabled them to meet in antagonism, watch in wrath, and kill without mercy. Too late he realized that he should have foreseen the tragedy, and that he should have provided against it by going first to each faction, preaching to each family, and then, when he had brought them to their knees, united them in the common cause of religion.
"On me is Thy wrath!" he cried out in the anguish of his soul. "Give thy tortured slave something good to do, ere I go down!"
There was no reply, immediate or audible; he was near the limits of his endurance; he drew his arm back to throw the Bible into the flames of his fireplace, but that he could not do. He tossed it upon the shelf, drew his hat down upon his ears and at the approach of night started over the ridges to the Kalbean stillhouse.
He stalked down a ridge into that split-board shack of infamy. He found five or six men in the hot, sour-smelling place. They started to their feet when they saw the mountain preacher among them.
"Gimme some!" he told Old Kalbean. "I'm a fool! I'm damned. I'll go with the rest of ye to Hell! Gimme some!"
"Wha—What?" Old Kalbean choked with horror. "Yo' gwine to drink, Parson?"
"Suttinly!" Rasba cried. "Hit ain' no ust for me to preach! I preach, an' the congregation murders one anotheh! Ef I don't preach, I cayn't live peaceable! They say hit makes a man happy—I ain' be'n happy, not in ten, not in twenty yeahs!"
He caught up the jug that rested on the floor, threw the tin cup to one side, up-ended the receptacle, and the moonshiner and his customers stared.
"Theh!" Rasba grunted, when he had to take the jug down for breath. He reached into his pocket, drew out a silver dollar, and handed it to the amazed mountain man.
"Theh!" he repeated, defiantly. "I've shore gone to Hell, now, an' I don't give a damn, nuther. S'long, boys! D'rectly, yo'l heah me jes' a whoopin', yas suh! Jes' a whoopin'!"
He left them abruptly and he went up into the darkness of the laurels. They heard him crashing away into the night. When he was gone the men looked at one another:
"Yo' 'low he'll bring the revenuers?" one asked, nervously.
"Bring nothin'!" another grinned. "No man eveh lived could drink fifteen big gulps, like he done, an' git furder'n a stuck hog, no, suh!"
They listened for the promised whoops; they strained their ears for the cries of jubilation; but none came.
"Co'rse," the stiller explained, as though an explanation were needed, "Parson Rasba ain' used to hit; he could carry more, an' hit'll take him longer to get lit up. But, law me, when hit begins to act! That's three yeah old, boys, mild, but no mewl yo' eveh saw has the kick that's got, apple an' berry cider, stilled down from the ferment!"
Virtue had not been rewarded. This much was clear and plain to the consciousness of Nelia Carline. Looking at herself in the glass disclosed no special reason why she should be unhappy and suffering. She was a pretty girl; everybody said that, and envy said she was too pretty. It seemed that poor folks had no right to be good-looking, anyhow.
If poor folks weren't good-looking, then wealthy young men, with nothing better to do, wouldn't go around looking among poor folks for pretty girls. Augustus Carline had, apparently, done that. Carline had a fortune that had been increased during three generations, and now he didn't have to work. That was bad in Gage, Illinois. It had never done any one any good, that kind of living. One of the fruits of the matter was when Nelia Crele's pretty face attracted his attention. She lived in a shack up the Bottoms near St. Genevieve, and he tried to flirt with her, but she wouldn't flirt.
In some surprise, startled by his rebuff, he withdrew from the scene with a memory that would not forget. The scene was a wheat field near the Turkey bayou, where he was hunting wild ducks with a shotgun. She had been gathering forty pounds of hickory nuts to eke out a meagre food supply.
Poor she might be; ill clad was her strong young figure; her face showed the strain of years of effort; her eyes had the fire of experience in suffering; and she stood, a supple girl of heightened beauty while the hunter, sure of his welcome, walked up to her, and, as both her hands held the awkward bushel basket, ventured to tickle her under the chin.
She dropped the basket and before it reached the ground she caught the rash youth broad-handed from cheek to back of the ear, and he stumbled over a pile of wheat sheaves and fell headlong. As he had dropped his shotgun, she picked it up and with her thumb on the safety, her finger on the trigger, and her left hand on the breech, showed him how a $125 shotgun looks in the hands of one who could and would use it on any further provocation.
He took his departure, and she carried the gun and hickory nuts home with her. Thus began the inauspicious acquaintance of Nelia Crele and Augustus Carline. The shotgun was very useful to the young woman. She killed gray and fox squirrels, wild turkeys, geese and ducks, several saleable fur-bearers, and other game in her neighbourhood. She told no one how she obtained the weapon, merely saying she had found it; and Augustus Carline did not pass any remarks on the subject.
By and by, however, when the tang of the slap and the passion of the moment had left him, he knew that he had been foolish and cowardly. He had some good parts, and he was sorry that he had been precipitate in his attentions. After that encounter, he found the girls he met at dances lacked a certain appearance, a kindling of the eye, a complexion, and, a figure.
He ventured again into the river bottoms across from St. Genevieve and fortune favoured him while tricking her. He apologized and gave his name.
Nelia was poor, abjectly poor. Her father was no 'count, and her mother was abject in suffering. One brother had gone West, a whisky criminal; a sister had gone wrong, with the inheritance of moral obliquity. Nelia had, somehow, become possessed with a hate and horror of wrong. She had pictured to herself a home, happiness, and a life of plenty, but she held herself at the highest price a woman demands.
That price Augustus Carline was only too willing to pay. He had found a girl of high spirits, of great good looks, of a most amusing quickness of wit and vigour of mentality. He married her, to the scandal of everybody, and carried her from her poverty to the fine old French-days mansion in Gage.
There he installed her with everything he thought she needed, and—pursued his usual futile life. Too late she learned that he was weak, insignificant, and, like her own father, no 'count. Augustus Carline was a brute, a creature of appetites and desires, who by no chance rose to the heights of his wife's mental demands.
Nelia Carline regarded the tragedy of her life with impatience. She studied the looking glass to see wherein she had failed to measure up to her duty; she ransacked her mind, and compared it with all the women she met by virtue of her place as Gus Carline's wife. Those women had not proved to be what she had expected grand dames of society to be.
"I want to talk learning," she told herself, "and they talk hairpins and dirty dishes and Bill-don't-behave!"
Now one of those women, a kind of a grass widow, Mrs. Plosell, had attracted Gus Carline, and when he came home from her house, he was always drunk. When Nelia remonstrated, he was ugly. He had thrown her down and gone back to the grass widow's the night before. Nelia considered that grim fact, and, having made up her mind, acted.
In her years of poverty she had learned many things, and now she put into service certain practical ideas. She had certain rights, under the law, since she had taken the name of Augustus Carline. There were, too, moral rights, and she preferred to exercise her moral rights.
Part of the Carline fortune was in unregistered stocks and bonds, and when Gus Carline returned from the widow's one day he found that Nelia was in great good humour, more attractive than he had ever known her, and so very pleasant during the two days of his headache that he was willing to do anything she asked.
She asked him to have a good time with her, and put down on the table before him a filled punch bowl and two glasses. He had never known the refinements of intoxicating liquors. Now he found them in his own home, and for a while forgot all else.
He sang, danced, laughed and, in due course, signed a number of papers, receipts, bills and checks to settle up some accounts. These were sort of hit-or-miss, between-the-acts affairs, to which he paid little attention.
To Nelia, however, they represented a rite as valid as any solemn court procedure could be, for to her river-trained instinct there was no moral question as to the justice of her claim upon a part of Carline's fortune. Her later experience, her reading, had taught her that society and the law also held with the principle, if not the manner of her primitive method, for obtaining her rights to separate support.
When Carline awakened, Nelia was gone. Nelia had departed that morning, one of the servants said. The girl did not know where she had gone. She had taken a box of books, two trunks, two suitcases and was dressed up, departing in the automobile, which she drove herself.
He had a feeling of alarm, which he banished as unworthy. Finally toward night he went down to the post office where he found several letters. One seared his consciousness;
Don't bother to look for me. I'm gone, and I'm going to stay gone. You have shown yourself to be a mere soak, a creature of appetite and vice, and with no redeeming mental traits whatever. I hate you, and worse yet, I despise you. Get a divorce get another woman—the widow is about your calibre. But, I give you fair warning, leave me alone. I'm sick of men.
Elijah Rasba stalked homeward from the still in the dark, grimly and expectantly erect. Now he was going to have that period of happiness which he knew was the chief reason for people drinking moonshine whiskey. He looked forward to the sensation of exuberant joy very much as a man would look forward to five hours of happiness, to be followed by hanging by the neck, till dead.
The stars were shining, and the over-ridge trail which he followed was familiar enough under his feet, once he had struck into it from the immediate vicinity of the lawbreakers. He saw the bare-limbed oak trees against the sky, and he heard rabbits and other night runners scurrying away in the dead leaves. The stars fluttering in the sky were stern eyes whose gaze he avoided with determined wickedness and unrepentance.
Arriving at his own cabin, he stirred up the big pine-root log, and drew his most comfortable rocking chair up before the leaping flames. He sat there, and waited for the happiness of mind which was the characteristic of his idea of intoxication.
He waited for it, all ready to welcome it. If it had come into his cabin, all dressed up like some image of temptation or allurement, he would not have been in the least surprised. He rather expected a real and tangible manifestation, a vision of delight, clothed in some fair figure. He sat there, rigidly, watching for the least symptom of unholy pleasure. He had no clock by which to tell the time, and his watch was thoroughly unreliable.
Again and again he poked up the fire. He was surprised, at last, to hear a far-away gobble, the welcome of a wild turkey for the first false dawn. By and by he became conscious of the light which was crowding the fire flare into a subordinate place.
Day had arrived, and as yet, the delight which everybody said was in moonshine whiskey had failed to touch him. However, he knew that he was not properly in a receptive mood for happiness. His soul was still stubborn against the allurements of sin. He stirred from his chair, fried a rabbit in a pan, and baked a batch of hot-bread in a dutch oven, brewing strong coffee and bringing out the jug of sorghum molasses.
He ate breakfast. He was conscious of a certain rigidity of action, a certain precision of motion, ascribing them to the stern determination which he had that when he should at last discover the whiskey-happiness in his soul, he would let go with a whoop.
"Some hit makes happy, and some hit makes fightin' mad!" Rasba suddenly thought, with much concern, "S'posen hit'd make me fightin' mad?"
A fluttering trepidation clutched his heart. The bells ringing in his ears fairly clanged the alarm. He hadn't looked for anything else but joy from being drunk, and now suppose he should be stricken with a mad desire to fight—to kill someone!
No deadlier fear ever clutched a man's heart than the one that seized Elijah Rasba. Suppose that when the deferred hilarity arrived, he was made fighting drunk instead of joyous? The thought seized his soul and he looked about himself wondering how he could chain his hands and save his soul from murder, violence, fighting, and similar crimes! No feasible way appeared to his frightened mind.
He dropped on his knees and began to pray for happiness, instead of for violence, when the drink that he had had should seize him in its embrace. He prayed with a voice that roared like thunder and which made the charcoal fall from the log in the fireplace, and which alarmed the jays and inquisitive mockingbirds about the little clearing.
He prayed while his voice grew huskier and huskier, and his head bowed lower and lower as he wrestled with this peril which he had not foreseen. All he asked was that when the moonshine began to operate, it make him laugh instead of mad, but terrible doubts smote him. A glance at his rifle on the wall made him fairly grovel on the floor, and he knew that in his hands the andirons, the axe, the very hot-bread rolling pin would be deadly weapons.
He hoped that he would not be able to shoot straight, but this hope was instantly blasted, for a flock of wild turkeys came down into the cornfield about ninety yards from his cabin, and although he seldom shot anything in his own clearing, he now tried a shot at the turkey gobbler and shot it dead where it strutted. If he should be stricken with anger instead of with joy, no worse man could possibly live! There was no telling what he would do if the liquor would work "wrong" on him. He could kill men at two hundred yards!
He determined that he would see no human beings that day. Few people ever visited him in his cabin, but he took no chances. He crept up the mountain and skulking through the woods found an immense patch of laurels. He crawled into it, and sat down there for hours and hours, so that no one should have an opportunity to speak to him and stir the latent devil of violence.
He returned to his cabin long after dark, and raking some hot coals out of the ashes, whittled splinters and started a blaze. He was assailed by hunger, and he baked corn pones and dry-salted pork, then added a great flapjack of delicious sage sausage to the meal. He brought out cans of fruit, whose juice assuaged his increasing thirst. Having eaten heartily he resumed his vigil before the fireplace, and then he noticed that some one had tied something on the stock of his rifle.
It was a letter which a passer-by had brought up from the Ford Post Office, and when he opened it and looked at the writing, remorse assailed him:
Ever senct you preched here I ben sufrin count of my boy JocK. You know Him for he set right thar, frade of no man, not the Tobblys, nor the Crents. When tha drawed DOWN to shoot, he stud right thar an shot back shoot fer shoot, an now he has goned awa down the Rivehs an I am worited abot his soul because he is a gud boy an neveh was no whars in all his borned days an an i hear now he is gettin bad down thataway on Misipy riveh where thas all Bad Peple an i wisht yud prey fer him so's he wont get bad. Mrs. drones panted church on Clinch.
Rasba read the letter for the words at first. Then he went back after the meaning, and the meaning struck him like a blow in the heart.
"Me pray fo' any man again," he gasped. "Lawse! Lawse!"
He didn't feel fit to pray for himself, let alone for any other sinner, but there came to his memory a picture of Mrs. Drones, a motherly little woman who had taken him home to a dinner at which seven kinds of preserved fruit were on the table, and where the family laughed around the fireplace—only to see Jock a fugitive the next night, and the terrors of a feud war upon them.
"And Jock's getting bad down the Mississippi River!" Rasba repeated to himself, striving to grapple with that fact. He could not think clearly or coherently. The widow's voice, however, was as clearly speaking in his thoughts as though she stood there, instead of merely having written to him. He took to walking up and down the floor, back and forth, on one plank.
He had forgotten that there was such a thing for humans as sleep. The incongruity of his having been wide awake for two days and two nights did not occur to him till suddenly his eyes turned to the bed in the corner of the room and its purpose was recalled to his mind. He blinked at it. His eyes opened with difficulty. He threw chunks on the fire and went toward the bed, but as he stood by it the world grew black before his eyes and clutching about him, he sank to the floor.
Nelia Carline would not return to that miserable little river-bottom cabin where she had grown up in unhappy privation. She had other plans. She drove the little automobile down to Chester, put it in the Star Garage, then walked to the river bank and gave the eddy a critical inspection.
For years she had lived between the floods of the river and the poverty of the uplands. Her life had often crossed that of river people, and although she had never been on the river, she had frequently gone visiting shanty-boaters who had landed in for a night or a week at the bank opposite her own shack home. She knew river men, and she had no illusions about river women. Best of all now, in her great emergency, she knew shanty-boats, and as she gazed at the eddy and saw the fleet of houseboats there her heart leaped exultantly.
No less than a score of boats were landed along the eddy bank, and instantly her eyes fell upon first one and then another that would serve her purpose. She walked down to the uppermost of the boats, and hailed from the bank:
A lank, stoop-shouldered woman emerged from the craft and fixed the well-favoured young woman with keen, bright eyes.
"You-all know if there's a shanty-boat here for sale—cheap?" Nelia asked, without eagerness.
The woman looked at the bank, reflectively.
"I expect," she admitted at last. "This un yaint, but theh's two spo'ts down b'low, that's quittin' the riveh, that blue boat theh, but theh's spo'ts."
"I 'lowed they mout be," Nelia dropped into her childhood vernacular as she looked down the bank, "Likely yo' mout he'p me bargain, er somebody?"
"I 'low I could!" the river woman replied. "Me an' my ole man he'ped a feller up to St. Louis, awhile back, who was green on the river, but he let us kind of p'int out what he'd need fo' a skift trip down this away. Real friendly feller, kind of city-like, an' sort of out'n the country, too. 'Lowed he was a writin' feller, fer magazines an' books an' histries an' them kind of things. Lawsy! He could ask questions, four hundred kinds of questions, an' writin' hit all down into a writin' machine onto paper. We shore told him a heap an' a passel, an' he writes mornin' an' nights. Lots of curius fellers on Ole Mississip'. We'll sort of look aroun'. Co'se, yo' got a man to go 'long?"
"Wha-a-t! Yo' ain' goin' to trip down alone?"
"I might's well."
"But, goodness, gracious sake, you're pretty, pretty as a picture! I 'lowed yo' had a man scoutin' aroun'. Why somethin' mout happen to a lady, if she didn't have a man or know how to take cyar of herse'f."
Nelia shrugged her shoulders. Mrs. Tons, the river woman, gazed for a minute at the pretty, partly averted face. It was almost desperate, quite reckless, and by the expression, the river woman understood. She thought in silence, for a minute, and then looked down the eddy at a boat some distance away.
"Theh's a boat. Like the looks of it?"
"It's a fine boat, I 'low," Nelia said. "Fresh painted."
"Hit's new," the woman said.
"Is it for sale?"
"We'll jes walk down thataway," the river woman suggested. "Two ladies is mostly safe down thisaway."
"My name's Nelia Crele. We used to live up by Gage, on the Bottoms——"
"Sho! Co'se I know Ole Jim Crele, an' his woman. My name's Mrs. Tons. We stopped in thah 'bout six weeks ago. I hearn say yo'd—yo'd married right well!"
"Umph!" Nelia shrugged her shoulders, "Liquor spoils many a home!"
"Yo' maw said he was a drinkin' man, an' I said to myse'f, from my own 'sperience.... Yo' set inside yeah, Nelia. I'll go down theh an' talk myse'f. We come near buyin' that bo't yistehd'y. Leave hit to me!"
Nelia sat down in the shanty-boat, and waited. She had not long to wait. A tall, rather burly man returned with the woman, who introduced the two;
"Mis' Crele, this is Frank Commer. His bo't's fo' sale, an' he'll take $75 cash, for everything, ropes, anchor, stoves, a brass bedstead, an' everything and I said hit's reasonable. Hit's a pine boat, built last fall, and the hull's sound, with oak framing. Co'se, hit's small, 22 foot long an' 7 foot wide, but hit's cheap."
"I'll take it, then," Nelia nodded.
"You can come look it over," the man declared. "Tight hull and tight roof. We built it ourselves. But we're sick of the river, and we'll sell cheap, right here."
The three went down to the boat, and Nelia handed him seventy-five dollars in bills. He and his partner, who came down from the town a few minutes later, packed up their personal property in two trunks. They left the dishes and other outfit, including several blankets.
The four talked as the two packed up. One of them suddenly looked sharply at Nelia:
"You dropping down alone?"
She hesitated, and then laughed:
"It's none of my business," the man said, doubtfully, "but it's a mean old river, some ways. A lady alone might get into trouble. River pirates, you know."
It was a challenge. He was a clear-eyed, honest man, hardly twenty-five years of age, and not an evil type at all. What he had to suggest he did boldly, sure of his right at such a time, under such circumstances, to do. He was entirely likeable. In spite of herself, Nelia wavered for a moment. She knew river people; the woman by her side would have said she would be safer with him than without his protection. There was only one reason why Nelia could not accept that protection.
"I'll have to take care of myself," she shook her head, without rebuke to the youth. "You see, I'm running away from a mean scoundrel."
"Hit's so," the river woman approved, and the men took their departure without further comment.
The two women, disapproving the men's housekeeping, scrubbed the boat and washed all the bedding. Nelia brought down her automobile and the two carried her own outfit on board. Then Nelia took the car back to the garage, and said that she would call for it in the morning.
"All right, Mrs. Carline," the garage man replied, without suspicion.
Back at the landing, Nelia bade the river woman good-bye.
"I got to be going," she said, "likely there'll be a whole pack after me directly——"
"Got a gun?" the woman asked.
"Two," Nelia smiled. "Bill gave me a goose rifle and Frank let me have this—he said it's the Law down Old Mississip'!"
"The Law" was a 32-calibre automatic pistol in perfect condition.
"Them boys thought a heap of yo', gal!" The river woman shook her head. "Frank'd sure made you a good man!"
"Oh, I know it," replied Nelia, "but I'm sick of men—I hate men! I'm going to go droppin' along, same's the rest."
"Don't let go of that pistol. Theh's mean, bad men down thisaway, Nelia!"
Nelia laughed, but harshly. "I don't give a damn for anything now; I tell you that!"
"Don't forget it. Shoot any man that comes."
Nelia, who could row a skiff with any one, set her shanty-boat sweeps on their pins, coiled up the two bow lines by which the boat was moored to the bank, and which the river woman untied, then rowed out of the eddy and into the main current.
"It's good floating right down," Mrs. Tons called after her, "till yo' git to Grand Tower Rock—thirty mile!"
The river rapidly widened below Chester, and the little houseboat swung out into mid-stream. Nelia knew the river a little from having been down on a steamer, and the misery she left behind was in contrast to the sense of freedom and independence which she now had.
Stillness, peace, the sense of vast motion in the river torrent comforted her. The moment of embarking alone on the river had been full of nervous tenseness and anxiety, but now those feelings were left behind and she could breathe deeply and confront the future with a calm spirit. The veil that the blue mist of distance left behind her was penetrable by memory, but the future was hidden from her gaze, as it was hidden from her imagination.
The determination to dwell in the immediate present caught up her soul with its grim, cold bonds, and as the sun was setting against the sky beyond the long, sky-line of limestone ledges, she entered the cabin, and looked about her with a feeling of home such as she had never had before.
"I'll stand at the breech of my rifle, to defend it," she whispered to herself. "Men are mean! I hate men!"
She found a flat book on a shelf which held a half hundred magazines. The book was bound in blue boards, and backed with yellow leather. When she opened it, out of curiosity, she discovered that it was full of maps.
"Those dear boys!" she whispered, almost regretfully. "They left this map book for me, because they knew I'd need it; knew everybody down thisaway needs a map!"
They had done more than that; they had left the equally indispensable "List of Post Lights," and when dusk fell and she saw a pale yellow light revealed against a bank the little book named it "Wilkinson Island." She pulled toward the east bank into the deadwater below Lacours Island, cast over her anchor, and came to rest in the dark of a starless night.
In mid-afternoon, the man who had so desperately and as a last resource tested the efficiency of moonshine whiskey as a palliative for mental misery awaked gradually, in confusion of mind and aching of body. Noises filled his ears, and streaking lights blurred the keenness of his eyes. Reason had but little to do with his first thoughts, and feelings had nearly everything. There did not seem to be any possible atonement for him to make. Too late, as it seemed, he realized the enormity of his offence and the bitterness of inevitable punishment.
There remained but one thing for him to do, and that was go away down the rivers and find the fugitive Jock Drones, whose mother feared for him. No other usefulness of purpose remained in his reach. If he stood up, now, before any congregation, the imps of Satan, the patrons of moonshiners, would leer up at him in his pulpit, reminding him that he, too, was one of them.
He went over to the corner of his cabin, raised some planks there and dug down into the earth till he found a jug. He dragged the jug into the cabin and out of it poured the Rasba patrimony, a hidden treasure of gold, which he put into a leather money belt and strapped on. There was not much in the cabin worth taking away, but he packed that little up and made ready for his departure.
It was but a few miles over to Tug River, and he readily engaged a wagon to carry him that far. On the wooded river bank he built a flatboat with his own hands, and covered one end of it with a poplar-wood cabin, purchased at a near-by sawmill. He floated out of the eddy in his shack-boat and began his journey down the rivers to the Mississippi, where he would perform the one task that remained for him to do in the service of God. He would find Jock, give him his mother's message, and after that expiate his own sins in the deserved misery of an exiled penitent.
Tug River was in flood, a heavy storm having cast nearly two inches of rainfall upon part of the watershed. On the crest of the flood it was fast running and there was no delay, no stopping between dawn and dusk. Standing all day at the sweeps Rasba cleared the shore in sharp bends, avoided the obstacles in mid stream, and outran the wave crests and the racing drift, entering the Big Sandy and emerging into the unimaginable breadths of the Ohio.
He had no time to waste on the Ohio. The object of his search was on the Mississippi, hundreds of miles farther down, and he could not go fast enough to suit him. But at that, pulling nervously at his sweeps and riding down the channel line, he "gain-speeded," till his eyes were smarting with the fury of the changing shores, and his arms were aching with the pulling and pushing of his great oars, and he neither recognized the miles that he floated nor the repeated days that ensued.
Long since he had escaped from his own mountain environment. The trees no longer overhung his course; railroad trains screamed along endless shores, bridges overhung his path like menacing deadfalls, and the rolling thunder of summer storms was mingled with the black smoke of ten thousand undreamed-of industries. The simplicity of the mountain cornfields of his youth had become a mystery of production, of activity, of passing phenomena which he neither knew nor understood. In his thoughts there was but one beacon.
His purpose was to reach the Mississippi, take the young man in hand, and redeem him from the evils into which he had fallen. His object was no more than that, nor any less. From the confusion of his experiences, efforts, and humiliations, he held fast to one fact: the necessity of finding Jock Drones. All things else had melted into that.
The river banks fell apart along his course; the river ridges withdrew to wide distances, even blue at times; mere V-gullies or U-gorges, widened into vast corn fields. A post-office store-house at a rippling ford gave way to smoking cities, rumbling bridges, paved streets, and hurrying throngs. The lone fisherman in an 18-foot dugout had changed insensibly to darting motorboats and to huge, red-wheeled, white-castled monsters, whose passage in the midst of vast waters was attended by the sighs of toiling engines and the tossing of troubled seas.
Except for that one sure demand upon him, Elijah Rasba long since would have been lost in the confusion and doubts of his transition from narrow wooded ridges and trembling streamlets to this succession of visions. But his soul retained its composure, his eyes their quickness to seize the essential detail, and he rode the Tug River freshet into the Ohio flood tide bent upon his mission of redeeming one mountain youth who had strayed down into this far land, of which the shores were washed by the unimaginable sea of a river.
When at the end of a day he arrived in a way-side eddy and moored his poplar-bottom craft against a steep bank and the last twilight had faded from his vision, he would eat some simple thing for supper, and then, by lamp-light, try to read his exotic life into the Bible which accompanied him on his travels. He knew the Book by heart, almost; he knew all the rivers told about in it; he knew the storms of the various biblical seas; he knew the Jordan, in imagination, and the Nile, the Euphrates, the Jabbok, and the Brook of Egypt, but they did not conform in his imagination with this living tide which was carrying him down its course, over shoal, around bend and from vale to vale of a size and grandeur beyond expression.
Elijah was speechless with amazement; the spies who had gone into Canaan, holding their tongues, and befriended by women whose character Elijah Rasba could not identify, were less surprised by the riches which they discovered than Rasba by the panorama which he saw rolled out for his inspection day by day.
Other shanty-boaters were dropping down before the approach of winter. Sometimes one or another would drift near to Rasba's boat and there would be an exchange of commonplaces.
"How fur mout hit be, strangeh?" he would ask each man. "'Low hit's a hundred mile yet to the Mississippi?"
A hundred miles! They could not understand that this term in the mountain man's mind meant "a long ways," if need be a thousand or ten thousand miles. When one answered that the Mississippi was 670 miles, and another said it was a "month's floating," their replies were equally without meaning to his mind. Rasba could not understand them when they talked of reaches, crossings, wing dams, government works, and chutes and islands, but he would not offend any of them by showing that he did not in the least understand what they were talking about. He must never again hurt the feelings of any man or woman, and he must perform the one service which the Deity had left for him to perform.
Little by little he began to understand that he was approaching the Mississippi River. He saw the Cumberland one day, and two hours later, he was witness to the Tennessee, and that long, wonderful bridge which a railroad has flung from shore to shore of the great river. The current carried him down to it, and his face turned up and up till he was swept beneath that monument to man's inspiration and the industry of countless hands.
Rasba had seen cities and railroads and steamboats, but all in a kind of confusion and tumult. They had meant but incidents down the river; this bridge, however, a structure of huge proportions, was clearly one piece, one great idea fixed in steel and stone.
"How big was the man who built that bridge?" he asked himself.
While yet the question echoed in his expanding soul he hailed a passing skiff:
"Strangeh! How fur now is it to the Mississippi River?"
"Theh 'tis!" the man cried, pointing down the current. "Down by that air willer point!"
Those first free days on the Mississippi River revealed to Nelia Crele a woman she had never known before. Daring, fearless, making no reckoning, she despised the past and tripped eagerly into the future. It was no business of any one what she did. She had married a man who had turned out to be a scoundrel, and when fate treated her so, she owed nothing to any one or to anything. Even the fortune which she had easily seized through the alcoholic imbecility of her semblance of a man brought no gratitude to her. The money simply insured her against poverty and her first concern was to put that money where it would be safe from raiders and sure to bring her an income. This, watchfulness and alertness of mind had informed her, was the function of money.
She dropped into Cape Girardeau, and sought a man whom she had met at her husband's house. This was Duneau Menard, who had little interest in the Carlines, but who would be a safe counsellor for Nelia Crele. He greeted her with astonishment, and smiles, and told her what she needed to know.
"I was just thinking of you, Nelia," he said, "Carline's sure raising a ruction trying to find you. He 'lows you are with some man who needs slow killing. He telephoned to me, and he's notified a hundred sheriffs, but, shucks! he's a mean scoundrel, and I'm glad to see yo'."
"I want to have you help me invest some money," she said. "It's mine, and he signed every paper, for me. Here's one of them."
He took the sheet and read:
I want my wife to share up with me all my fortune, and I hereby convey to her stocks, bonds, and cash, according to enclosed signed certificates, etc.
"How come hit?" the man asked.
"He was right friendly, then," she replied, grimly. "For what you-all said about the daughter of my mother I come here to claim your help. You know about money, about interest and dividends. I want it so I can have money, regular, like Gus did——"
"I shall be glad to fix that," he said, wiping his glasses. "What you wish is a diversified set of investments. How much is there?"
She stacked up before him wads, rolls, briquettes, and bundles. He counted it, slip by slip and when he had completed the tally and reckoned some figures on the back of an envelope, he nodded his approval.
"I expect that this will bring you around twelve or fifteen hundred dollars a year, safe, and a leetle besides, on speculation."
"That'll do," she said, approvingly.
No one in town connected her with the sensation up around Gage. She was just one of those shanty-boat girls who come down the Mississippi every once in a while, especially below St. Louis. In a hundred cities and towns people were looking for Mrs. Augustus Carline, supposed to be cutting a dashing figure, and probably in company with a certain Dick Asunder, who had been seen in Chester, with his big black automobile on the same day that Mrs. Carline abandoned her husband's automobile there.
Of course, the shanty-boaters did not tell, if they knew; the River tells no tales. Certainly, of all the women in the world this casual visitor at Attorney Menard's need not attract attention. Menard always did have strange clients, and it was nothing new to see a shanty-boat land in and some man or woman walk up to his corner office and sit down to tell him in legal confidences things more interesting to know than any one not of his curiosity and sympathy would ever dream.
Attorney Menard kept faith with river wastrels, floating nomads who are akin to gypsies, but who are of all bloods—tramps of the running floods. He listened to narratives stranger than any other attorney; in his safe he had documents of interest to sweethearts and wives, to husbands and sons, to fugitives and hunters. Letters came to him from all parts of the great basin, giving him directions, or notifying him of the termination of lives whose passing had a significance or a meaning.
Nelia's mother knew him, and Nelia herself recalled his good-humoured smile, his weathered face, his appeal to a girl for her confidence, and the certainty that her confidence would be respected. She had gone to him as naturally as she would have gone to a decent father or a wise mother. She took from him his neatly written receipt, but with the feeling that it was superfluous. In a little while she returned to the shanty-boat and dropped out of the eddy on her way down the river. She floated under the big Thebes Bridge, and landed against the west bank before dark, there to have the luck to shoot a wild goose. The maps showed that she was approaching the Lower Mississippi.
When she had left Cape Girardeau, she had noticed a little brick-red shanty-boat which landed in just below her own. Without looking up, she discovered that a man leaned against the roof of his low cabin whose eyes did not cease to watch her every motion while she cast off, coiled her ropes, and leaned to the light sweeps.
When she was a safe distance down the river, she ventured to look up stream, and saw that the little red shanty-boat had left its mooring, and that the man was coming down the current astern of her. It was a free river; any one could go whither he pleased, but the certainty that she had attracted the man's attention revealed to her the necessity of considering her position there alone and dependent on her own resources.
She remembered the two market hunters, and their warnings. The man astern was a patient, lurking, menacing brute, who might suspect her of having property enough to make a river piracy worth while; or he might have other designs, since she was unfortunately good-looking and attractive. Night would surely be his opportunity and the test of her soul.
She could have landed at Commerce, where there were several shanty-boats and temporary safety; she could have floated on down at night and slipped into the shore in the dark, her lights out; she could have tried flight down the river hoping to lose the brick-red boat; she decided against all these.
Boldly she pulled into an eddy just before sunset, and had made fast to a snag and a live root when the little boat came dropping down in the edge of the current hardly forty feet distant, with the man leaning on his sweeps, watching her every motion, especially fastening his gaze upon her trim figure.
As he came opposite she turned and faced him; her jaws set.
"Hello, girlie!" he called, leaning upon his sweeps to carry his skiff-like boat into the same eddy.
On the instant she snatched the automatic pistol from her bosom and, dropping the muzzle, fired. The man stumbled back with a cry. He stood grabbing at his shoulder, his florid face turning white, his eyes starting with terror and pain. She saw him reel and fall through the open hatch of his cabin and his boat go drifting on into the crossing below. It occurred to her numbed brain that she was delivered from that peril, but as dusk fell she hated the misery of her loneliness.
The Ohio had the Mississippi eddied. The rains that had fallen over the valleys of Kentucky and southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois had brought a tide down the big branch and as there was not much water running out of the Missouri and Upper Mississippi, the flood had backed up the Mississippi for a little while, stopping the current almost dead.
Elijah Rasba, running full tilt in the mid Ohio current, looked ahead that afternoon, and he had a full view of the thing to which he had come, seeking the wandering son of Mrs. Drones.
He arrived at the moment when the Mississippi, having been banked up long enough, began to feel the restraint of the Ohio and resent it. The gathered waters moved down against the Ohio flood and pressed them back against the Kentucky side. Once more the Mississippi River resumed its sway. On the loosed waters was a little cigar-box of a shanty-boat, and Rasba rowed toward it across the saucer-like sucks and depressions where the two currents of different speeds dragged by each other.
He pulled alongside, hailed, and, for answer, heard a groan, a weak cry:
He carried a line across to the stranger's deck and made it fast. Then he saw, stretched upon the floor, a stricken man, from whose side a pool of blood had run. Working rapidly, Elijah discovered the wound and as gunshot injuries were only too familiar in his mountain experience he well knew what he should do. Examination showed that it was a painful and dangerous shoulder shot. He cleared away the stains, washed the hole, plucked the threads of cloth out of it, turned the man on his face and, with two quick slashes of a razor, cut out the missile which had done the injury.
Healing liniment, the inevitable concoction of a mountaineer's cabin, soothed while it dressed the wound. Pads of cotton, and a bandage supplied the final need, and Rasba stretched his patient upon the cabin-boat bunk, then looked out upon the world to which he had drifted.
It was still a vast river, coming from the unknown and departing into the unknown. He knew it must be the Mississippi, but he acknowledged it with difficulty.
He did not ask the man about the bullet. Born and bred in the mountains, he knew that that would be an unpardonable breach of etiquette. But the wounded man was uneasy, and when he was eased of his pain, he began to talk:
"I wa'nt doin' nothing!" he explained, "I were jes' drappin' down, up above Buffalo Island, an' b'low Commerce, an' a lady shot me—bang! Ho law! She jes' shot me thataway. No 'count for hit at all."
"A lady you knowed?" Rasba asked.
"No suh! But she's onto the riveh, into a shanty-boat, purty, too, an' jes' drappin' down, like she wa'nt goin' no wheres, an' like she mout of be'n jes' moseyin'. I jes 'lowed I'd drap in, an' say howdy like, an' she drawed down an' shot—bang!"
"Was she frightened?"
"Hit were a lonesome reach, along of Powerses Island," the man admitted, whining and reluctant. "She didn't own that there riveh. Hain't a man no right to land in anywheres? She shot me jes' like I was a dawg, an' she hadn't no feelin's nohow. Jes' like a dawg!"
"Did you know her?"
"No, suh. We'd be'n drappin' down, an' drappin' down—come down below Chester, an' sometimes she'd be ahead, an' sometimes me, an' how'd I know she wouldn't be friendly? Ain't riveh women always friendly? An' theh she ups an' shoots me like a dawg. She's mean, that woman, mean an' pretty, too, like some women is!"
Rasba wondered. He had been long enough on the Ohio to get the feeling of a great river. He saw the specious pleading of the wounded wretch, and his quick imagination pictured the woman alone in a vast, wild wood, at the edge of that running mile-wide flood.
"Of co'rse!" he said, half aloud, "of co'rse!"
"Co'rse what?" the man demanded, querulously.
"Co'rse she shot," Rasba answered, tartly. "Sometimes a lady jes' naturaly has to shoot, fearin' of men."
Rasba landed the two boats in at the foot of a sandbar, and made them fast to old stakes driven into the top of the low reef. He brought his patient some hot soup, and after they had eaten supper, he sat down to talk to him, keeping the man company in his pain, and leading him on to talk about the river, and the river people.
In that first adventure at the Ohio's forks Rasba had discovered his own misconceptions, and the truth of the Mississippi had been partly revealed to him. What the Tug was to the Big Sandy, what the Big Sandy was to the Ohio, the Ohio was to the Mississippi. What he had looked to as the end was but the beginning, and Rasba was lost in the immensity of the river that was a mile wide, thousands of miles long, and unlike anything the mountain preacher had ever dreamed of. If this was the Mississippi, what must the Jordan be?
"My name's Prebol," the man said, "Jest Prebol. I live on Old Mississip'! I live anywhere, down by N'Orleans, Vicksburg—everywhere! I'm a grafter, I am—"
"A grafter?" Rasba repeated the strange word.
"Yas, suh, cyards, an' tradin' slum, barberin' mebby, an' mebby some otheh things. I can sell patent medicine to a doctor, I can! I clean cisterns, an' anything."
"You gamble?" Rasba demanded, grasping one fact.
"Sho!" Prebol grinned. "Who all mout yo' be?"
"Elijah Rasba," was the reply. "I am seeking a soul lost from the sheepfold of God. I ask but the strength to find him."
"A parson?" Prebol asked, doubtfully, his eyes resting a little in their uneasy flickerings. "One of them missionaries?"
"No, suh." Rasba shook his head, humbly. "Jes' a mountang parson, lookin' for one po'r man, low enough fo' me to he'p, maybe."
Prebol made no reply or comment. His mind was grappling with a fact and a condition. He could not tell what he thought. He remembered with some worriment, that he had cursed under the pain of the dressing of the wound. He knew that it never brought any man good luck to swear within ear-range of any parson.
He could think of nothing to do, just then, so he pretended weariness, which was not all pretense, at that. Rasba left him to go to sleep on his cot, and went over to his own boat, where, after an audible session on his knees, he went to bed, and fell into a sound and dreamless sleep.
In the morning, when the parson awakened, his first thought was of his patient, and he started out to look after the man. He looked at the face of the sandbar reef against which the little red shanty-boat had been moored. The boat was gone!
Rasba, studying the hard sand, soon found the prints of bare feet, and he knew that Prebol had taken his departure precipitately, but the reason why was not so apparent to the man who had read many a wild turkey track, deer runway, and trails of other game.
From sun-up till nearly noon, while he made and ate his breakfast, and while he turned to the Scriptures for some hint as to this river man's mind, his thoughts turned again and again to the pictures which Prebol's tales, boastings, whinings, and condition had inspired.
He felt his own isolation, strangeness, and ignorance. He could not understand the man who had fled from assistance and succour; at the same time the liveliness of his fancy reverted again and again to the woman living alone in such a desolation, shooting whoever menaced.
That type was not new to him. Up in his own country he had known of women who had stood at their rifles, returning shot for shot of feud raiders. The pathetic courage of the woman who had shot Prebol appealed to him.
The wounded man, wicked beyond measure, and the woman assailed, he realized, were like hundreds of other men and women whose shanty-boats he had seen down the Ohio River, and which lurked in bends and reaches on both sides of the Mississippi.
"Give thyself no rest!" he read, and he obeyed. He believed that he had a black sin to expiate, and he dared not begin what his soul was hungering to do, because knowing wickedness, he had deliberately sinned.
Alternately, he read his Bible and prayed. Late in the day he dropped out of the eddy and floated on down.
"I 'low I can keep on huntin' for Jock Drones," he told himself. "I shore can do that, yes, indeed!"
Having rid herself of the leering river rat, Nelia Crele trembled for a time in weak dismay, the reaction from her tense and fiery determination to protect herself at all costs. But she quickly gathered her strength and, having brewed a pot of strong coffee, thrown together a light supper, and settled back in her small, but ample, rocking chair, she reviewed the incidents of her adventure; the flight from her worthless husband and her assumption of the right to protect herself.
After all, shooting a man was less than running away from her husband. She could regard the matter with a rather calm spirit and even a laughing scorn of the man who had thought to impose himself on her, against her own will.
"That's it!" she said, half aloud, "I needn't to allow any man to be mean to me!"
She had given her future but little thought; now she wondered, and she pondered. She was free, she was independent, and she was assured of her living. She had even been more shrewd than old Attorney Menard had suspected; the money she had left with him was hardly half of her resources. She had another plan, by which she would escape the remote possibility of Menard's proving faithless to his trust, as attorneys with his opportunities sometimes have proved.
Nelia Crele could not possibly be regarded as an ordinary woman, as a mere commonplace, shack-bred, pretty girl. Down through the years had come a strain of effectiveness which she inherited in its full strength; she was as inexplicable as Abraham Lincoln. Her stress of mind relieved, she regarded the shooting of the man with increasing satisfaction, since by such things a woman could be assured of respect.
Gaiety had never been a part of her childhood or girlhood; she had withstood the insidious attacks and menaces that threatened her down to the day when Gus Carline had come to her. Courted by him, married, and then living in the clammy splendour of the house of a back-country rich man, she had found no happiness, but merely a kind of animal comfort. She had had the Carline library to read, and she had brought with her the handy pocket volumes which had been her own and her delight. She was glad of the foresight which enabled her to put into a set of book shelves the companions which had, alone, been her comfort and inspiration during the few years of her wedded misery.
Now, on the Mississippi, in the shanty-boat, she need consult only her own fancy and whim. Mistress of her own affairs, as she supposed, she could read or she could think.
"I do what I please!" she thought, a little defiantly. "It's nobody's business what I do now; what'd Mrs. Plosell care what people said about her? I'll read, if I want to, and I'll flirt if I want to—and I'll do anything I want to——"
She reckoned without the Mississippi. Everybody does, at first. Her money was but a means to an end. She knew its use, its value, and the perfect freedom which it gave her; its protection was not underestimated.
At the same time, sloth was no sin of hers. Living on the river insured physical activity; her books insured her mental engagement.
She had lived so many years in combat with grim necessity that the lesson of thrift of all her resources had been brought home to her. Having been waylaid by circumstance so often, she took grim care now to count the costs, and to insure her getting what she was seeking. The trouble was she could not disassociate her feelings from her ideas. They were inextricably interwoven. The brief years of her wedlock had been in one way a disillusionment, in another a revelation.
She had found her own hunger for learning, her own strength and weakness, and while she had lost to the Widow Plosell, she had clearly seen that it was not her fault but Gus Carline's meagreness of mind and shallowness of soul. Instead of losing her confidence, she had found her own ability.
For hours she debated there by her pretty lamp, with the curtains down, and the comforting and reassuring weight of the automatic pistol in her lap. She knew that she must never have that weapon at arm's length from her, but as she remembered where it had come from she wondered to think that she had so easily refused the suggestion of Frank, the market hunter.
"It's all right, though," she shrugged her shoulders, "I can take care of myself, and being alone, I can think things out!"
In mid-morning she cut loose from the bank and floated away down stream. The river was very wide, and covered with crossing-ripples. She looked down what the map showed was the chute of Hacker Tow Head, and then the current carried her almost to the bank at the head of Buffalo Island.
Here there was a stretch of caving bank; the earth, undercut by the river current, was lumping off in chunks and slices. Her boat bobbed and danced in the waves from the cave-ins, and the rocking pleased her fancy.
The names along this bit of river awakened her interest; Blackbird Island was clearly described: Buffalo Island harked back many years into tradition; Dogtooth Island was a matter of river shape; but Saladin, Tow Head and Orient Field stirred her imagination, for they might reveal the scene of steamboat disasters or some surveyor's memory of the Arabian Nights. Below Dogtooth Island, under Brooks Point, were a number of golden sandbars and farther down, in the lower curve of the famous S-bends she read the name "Greenleaf," which was pretty and picturesque.
She was living! Every minute called upon some resource of her brain. She had read in old books things which gave even the name Cairo, at the foot of the long, last reach of the Upper Mississippi, a significance of far lands and Egyptian mysteries. Gratefully she understood that the Mississippi was summoning ideals which ought to have been called upon long since when in the longings of her girlhood she had been circumspect and patient, keeping her soul satisfied with dreams of fairies playing among the petals of hill-side flowers, or gnomes wandering among the stalks of toll-yielding cornfields.
Mature, now; fearless—and, as the word romped through her mind in all its changes, free—free!—she played with her thoughts. But below Greenleaf Bend, as another day was lost in waning evening, she early sought a sandbar mooring at the foot of Missouri Sister Island, where there were two other shanty-boats, one of them with two children on the sand. She need not dread a boat where children were found. Possibly she would be able to talk to another woman, which would be a welcome change, having had so much of her own thoughts!
This other woman was Mrs. Disbon, out of the Missouri. She and her husband had been five years coming down from the Yellowstone, and they had fished, trapped, and enjoyed themselves in their 35-foot cabin-boat home. Of course, taking care of two children on a shanty-boat was a good deal of work and some worry, for one or the other was always falling overboard, but since they had learned to swim it hadn't been so bad, and they could take care of themselves.
"You all alone?" Mrs. Disbon asked.
"I'm alone," Nelia admitted, having told her name as Nelia Crele.
"Well, I don't know as I blame you," Mrs. Disbon declared, looking at her husband doubtfully. "Seems to me that on the average, men are more of a nuisance than they're worth. It's which and t'other about them. I see you've had experience?"
Nelia looked down at her wedding ring.
"Yes, I've had experience," she nodded.
"Going clear down?"
"Why, I hadn't thought much about it."
"The Lower River's pretty bad." Disbon looked up from cleaning his repeating shotgun. "My first trip was out of the Ohio and down to N'Orleans. I wouldn't recommend to no woman that she go down thataway, not alone. Theh's junker-pirates use up from N'Orleans, and, course, there's always more or less meanness below Cairo. Above St. Louis it ain't so bad, but mean men draps down from Little Klondike."
"I haven't made up my mind," Nelia said, adding, with a touch of bitterness, "I don't reckon it makes so much difference!"
"Lots that comes down feel thataway," Mrs. Disbon nodded, with sympathy, "Seems like some has more'n their share, and some considerable less!"
Nelia remained there three days, for there was good company, and a two-day rain had set in between midnight and dawn on the following morning. There was no hurry, and she was going nowhere. She had the whole family over to supper the second night, and she ate two meals or so with them.
The other shanty-boat, about a hundred yards down stream, was an old man's. He had a soldier's pension, and he lived in serene restfulness, reading General Grant's memoirs, and poring over the documents of the Rebellion, discovering points of military interest and renewing his own memories of his part in thirty-odd battles with Grant before Vicksburg and down the line with the Army of the Potomac.
Nelia could have remained there indefinitely, but restlessness was in her mind, as long as she had so much money on board her little shanty-boat. Disbon knew so many tales of river piracy that she saw the wisdom of settling her possessions, either at Cairo or Memphis, whichever should prove best.
Landing against the bank just above the ferry, she walked over to Cairo and sought for a man who had hired her father to help him hunt for wild turkeys. He was a banker, and would certainly be the right kind of a man to help her, if he would.
"Mr. Brankeau," she addressed him in his office, "I don't know if you remember me, but you came hunting to the River Bottoms below St. Genevieve, one time, and you and Father went over into Missouri, hunting turkeys."
"Remember you?" he exclaimed. "Why—you—of course! Mrs. Carline—Nelia Crele!"
She met his questioning gaze unflinchingly.
"I know I can trust you," she said, simply. "If you'd known Gus Carline!"
"I knew his father," Brankeau said. "I reckon as faithless a scoundrel as ever lived. Old man Carline left his first wife and two babies up in Indiana—I know all about that family! I saw by the newspapers——"
"I want some railroad stocks, so I can have interest on my money," she said by way of nature of her presence there. "When we separated, he let me have this paper, showing he wanted me to share his fortune——"
"He was white as that?" Brankeau exclaimed, astonished at the paper Carline had signed.
"He was that white," she replied, her eyes narrowing. Brankeau from the wideness of his experience, laughed. She, an instant later, laughed, too.
"So you settled the question between you?" he suggested, "I thought from the newspapers he hadn't suspicioned—this paper—um-m!"
"It's not a forgery, Mr. Brankeau," she assured him. "He was one of those gay sports, you know, and, for a change, he sported around with me, once. I came away between days. You know his failing."
"Several of them, especially drink," the man nodded "It's in cash?"
"Every dollar, taken through his own banks, on his own orders."
"And you want?"
"Railroads, and some good industrial or two. Here's the amount——"
She handed him a neatly written note. He took out a little green covered book, showing lists of stocks, range of prices, condition of companies, and, together, they made out a list. When they had finished it, he read it into the telephone.
Within an hour the stocks had been purchased, and a week later, he handed her the certificates. She rented a safe deposit box and put them into it, subject only to her own use and purposes.
"Thank you, Mr. Brankeau," she said, and turned to leave.
"Where are you stopping?" he asked.
"I'm a shanty-boater."
"You mean it? Not alone?"
"Yes," she admitted.
"I wish I were twenty years younger," he mourned.
"Do you, why?" she looked at him, and, turning, fled.
He caught up his top-coat and hat, but he went to the Ohio River, instead of to the Mississippi, where Nelia stood doubtfully staring down at her boat from the top of the big city levee.
At last, she cast off her lines and dropped on down into The Forks.
She sat on the bow deck of her boat, looking at the place where the pale, greenish Ohio waters mingled with the tawny Missouri flood.
A gleam of gold drew her attention, as she glanced downward and she was startled to see her wedding ring, with its guard ring, still on her left hand; it had never been off since the day her husband placed it there.
For a minute she looked at it, and then deliberately, with sustained calmness, removed the thin guard, and slipped the ring from its place. She put it upon the same finger of her right hand, where it was snug and the guard was not necessary.
A whisper, that became a rumour, which became a report, reached Gage and found the ears of Augustus Carline, whose wife had disappeared sometime previously. After two wild days of drinking Carline suddenly sobered up when the fact became assured that Nelia had gone and really meant to remain away, perhaps forever.
The thing that startled him into certainty was the paper which he found signed by himself, at the bank. He had forgotten all about signing the papers that night when Nelia had shown herself to be the gayest sport of them all. Now he found that he had signed away his stocks and bonds, and that he had given over his cash account.
The amount was startling enough, but it did not include his real estate, of which about two thirds of his fortune had been composed. If it had been all stocks and bonds, he thought he would have been left with nothing. He considered himself at once fortunate and unlucky.
"I never knew the old girl was as lively as that!" he told himself, and having tasted a feast, he could not regard the Widow Plosell as more than a lunch, and a light lunch, at that.
Nelia had been easily traced to Chester. Beyond Chester the trail seemed to indicate that Dick Asunder had eloped with her, but ten days later Asunder returned home with a bride whom he had married in St. Louis.
Beyond Chester Nelia had left no trace, and there was nothing even to indicate whether she had taken the river steamer, the railroad train, or gone into flight with someone who was unknown and unsuspected. When Carline, sobered and regretful, began to make searching inquiries, he learned that there were a score, or half a hundred men for whom Old Crele had acted as a hunter's and fisher's guide. These sportsmen had come from far and wide during many years, and both Crele and her wistful mother admitted that many of them had shown signs of interest and even indications of affection for the girl as a child and as a pretty maid, daughter of a poor old ne'er-do-well.
"But she was good," Carline cried. "Didn't she tell you she was going—or where she'd go?"
"Never a word!" the two denied.
"But where would she go?" the frantic husband demanded. "Did she never talk about going anywhere?"
"Well-l," Old Crele meditated, "peahs like she used to go down an' watch Ole Mississip' a heap. What'd she use to say, Old Woman? I disremember, I 'clar I do."
"Why, she was always wishing she knowed where all that river come from an' where all it'd be goin' to," Mrs. Crele at last recollected.
"But she wouldn't dare—She wouldn't go alone?" Carline choked.
"Prob'ly not, a gal favoured like her," Old Crele admitted, without shame. "I 'low if she was a-picking, she'd 'a' had the pick."
Cold rage alternated with hot fear in the mind of Gus Carline. If she had gone alone, he might yet overtake her; on the other hand, if she had gone with some man, he was in honour bound to kill that man. He was sensitive, now, on points of honour. The Widow Plosell, having succeeded in creating a favourable condition, from her viewpoint, sought to take advantage of it. She was, however, obliged to go seeking her recent admirer, only to discover that he blamed her—as men do—for his trouble. She consulted a lawyer to see if she could not obtain financial redress for her unhappy position, only to learn of her own financial danger should Mrs. Carline determine upon legal revenge.
Carline, between trying to convince himself that he was the victim of fate and the innocent sufferer from a domestic tragedy brought upon himself by events over which he had no control, fell to hating liquor as the chief cause of his discomfiture.
Then a whisper that became a rumour, which at last seemed to be a fact, said that Nelia Carline was somewhere down Old Mississip'. Someone who knew her by sight was reported to have seen her in Cape Girardeau, and the husband raced down there in his automobile to see if he could not learn something about the missing woman, whose absence now proved what a place she had filled in his heart.
There was no doubt of it. Nelia had been there, but no one had happened to think to tell Carline about it. She had landed in a pretty shanty-boat, the wharf-master said, and had pulled out just before a river man in a brick-red cabin-boat of small size had left the eddy. The river man had dropped in just behind her, and, according to the wharf-master:
"I shore kept my eyes on that man, for he was a riveh rat!"
The thought was sickening to Carline. His wife floating down the river with a river rat close behind presented but two explanations: she was being followed for crime, or the two were just flirting on the river, together.
He bought a pretty 28-foot motorboat, 22-inch draft with a 7-foot beam and a raised deck cabin. Having stocked up with supplies, he started down the Ohio to find his woman.
He could not tell what his intention was, not even to himself; his mind, long weakened and depraved by liquor, lacked clarity of thought and distinctiveness of purpose. One hour he raged with anger, and murder blackened his heart; another minute, his shattered nerves left him in a panic of fears and remorse, and he hoped for nothing better than to beg his wife and sweetheart for forgiveness. At all times dread of what he might find at the end of the trail tormented him from terror to despair.
His anguish overcame all his other sensations. It even overcame his lust for liquor. He grew sturdier under his affliction, so that when he arrived at Cairo, and swung his craft smartly up to the wharf-boat, his eyes were clear and his skin was honestly coloured by sunshine and pure winds. Here fortune favoured him with more news of his wife. The engineer of the Cairo-Missouri ferryboat had seen a young and pretty woman moored at the bank some distance from the landing. She had remained there upward of a week, having no visitors, and making daily visits over the levee into the little city.
"One day she stood there, I bet half an hour, looking back, like she was waiting," the engineer said. "I seen her onto the levee top. Then she come down, jumped aboard with her lines, an' pulled out to go on trippin' down. I wondered then wouldn't some man be following of her."
When Carline passed below the sandbar point, at which the Ohio and Mississippi mingle their waters, and the human flotsam from ten thousand towns is caught by swirling eddies, he found himself subdued by a shadow that fell athwart his course, dulling the fire of his own spirit with a doubt and an awe which he had never before known.
His wife had gone past the Jumping Off Place; he had heard a thousand jests about that fork of the rivers, without comprehending its deeper meaning, till in his own experience he, too, was flung down the tide by forces now beyond his control, though he himself had set them in motion. His suffering was no less acute, his mind was no less active, but it dawned slowly on him that, after all, the acute pain which was in his heart was no greater than the sorrow, the suffering, the poisoned deliriums of the thousands who had given themselves to this mighty flood, which was so vast and powerful that it dwarfed the senses of mortals to a feeling of the proper proportion of their affairs in the workings of the universe.
Insensibly, but surely, his pride began to fade and his selfishness began to give way to better understanding and kindlier counsels. That much the River Spirit had done for him. He would not give up the search, but rather would he increase its thoroughness, and redouble his efforts. But he would never again be quite without sympathy, quite without understanding of sensations and experiences which were not of his own heart and soul.
The river was a mile wide; its current surged from the deeps; it flowed down the bend and along the reach with a noiselessness, a resistlessness, a magnitude that seemed to carry him out of his whole previous existence—and so it did carry him. Still human, still finite, prone to error and lack of comprehension, nevertheless Augustus Carline entered for the moment upon a new life recklessly and willingly.
For a minute Elijah Rasba, as the Mississippi revealed itself to him, contemplated a greater field for service than he had ever dreamed of. Then, humbled in his pride at the thought of great success, he felt that it could not be; for such an opportunity an Apostle was needed, and Rasba's cheeks warmed with shame at the realization of the vanity in his momentary thought.
He was grateful for the privilege of seeing the panorama that unrolled and unfolded before his eyes with the same slow dignity with which the great storm clouds boiled up from the long backs of the mountains of his own homeland. He missed the elevations, the clustered wildernesses, and ledges of stone against a limited sky, but in their places he saw the pale heavens in a dome that was uninterrupted from horizon to horizon. There seemed to be hardly any earth commensurate with the sky, and the river seemed to be flowing between bounds so low and insignificant that he felt as though it might break through one side or the other and fall into the chaos beyond the brim of the world.
Instinctively he removed his hat in this Cathedral. Familiar from childhood with mountains and deep valleys, the sense of power and motion in the river appealed to him as the ocean might have done. He looked about him with curiosity and inquiry. He felt as though there must be some special meaning for him in that immediate moment, and it was a long time before he could quite believe that this thing which he witnessed had continued far back beyond the memory of men, and would continue into the unquestionable future.
He floated down stream from bend to bend, carried along as easily as in the full run of time. He looked over vast reaches, and hardly recognized other houseboats, tucked in holes along the banks, as craft like his own. The clusters of houses on points of low ridges did net strike him as veritable villages, but places akin to those of fairyland.
All the rest of the day he dropped on down, not knowing which side he should land against, and filled with doubts as to where his duty lay. Once he caught up his big oars and began to row toward a number of little shanty-boats moored against a sandbar, close down to a wooded bank, only to find that the river current carried him away despite his most muscular endeavours, so he accepted it as a sign that he should not land there.
For a time Rasba thought that perhaps he had better just let the river carry him whither it would, but upon reflection he remembered what an old raftsman, who had run strands of logs down Clinch and Holston, told him about the nature of rivers:
"Come a falling tide, an' she drags along the banks and all that's afloat keeps in the middle; but come a fresh an' a risin' tide, an' the hoist of the water is in the mid-stream, and what's runnin' rolls off to one side or the other, an' jams up into the drift piles."
The philosophy of that was, for this occasion, that if Old Mississip' was falling, Elijah Rasba might never get ashore, not in all the rest of his born days, unless he stirred his boots. So catching up his sweep handles he began to push a long stroke toward the west bank, and his boat began to move on the river surface. Under the two corners of his square bow appeared little swirls and tiny ripples as he approached the bank and drifted down in the edge of the current looking for a place to land.
Before he knew it, a big patch of woods grew up behind him, and when he felt the current under the boat slacken he discovered that he had run out of the Mississippi River and was in a narrow waterway no larger than Tug Fork.
"Where all mout I be?" he gasped, in wonderment.
He saw three houseboats just below him, moored against a sandbar, with hoop nets drying near by, blue smoke curling out of tin pipes, and two or three people standing by to look at the stranger.
He rowed ashore and carried out a big roped stone, which he used as anchor; then he walked down the bar toward the man who watched his approach with interest.
"I am Elijah Rasba," he greeted him. "I come down out of Tug River; I am looking for Jock Drones; he's down thisaway, somewheres; can yo' all tell me whichaway is the Mississippi River?"
"I don't know him," the fisherman shook his head. "But this yeah is Wolf Island Chute; the current caught you off of Columbus bluffs, and you drifted in yeah; jes' keep a-floatin' an' d'rectly you'll see Old Mississip' down thataway."
"It's near night," Rasba remarked, looking at the sun through the trees. "I'm a stranger down thisaway; mout I get to stay theh?"
"Yo' can land anywhere's," the man said. "No man can stop you all!"
"But a woman mout!" Rasba exclaimed, with sudden humour. "Yistehd'y evenin', up yonway, by the Ohio River, I found a man shot through into his shanty-boat. He said he 'lowed to land along of the same eddy with a woman, an' she shot him almost daid!"
"Ho law!" the fisherman cried, and another man and three or four women drew near to hear the rest of the narrative. "How come hit?"
Rasba stood there talking to them, a speaker to an audience. He told of his floating down into the Mississippi, and of his surprise at finding the river so large, so without end. He said he kind of wanted to ask the way of a shanty-boat, for a poor sinner must needs inquire of those he finds in the wilderness, and he heard a groan and a weak cry for help.
"I cyard for him, and he thanked me kindly; he said a woman had shot him when he was trying to be friendly; a pretty woman, young and alone. Co'rse, I washed his wound and I linimented it, and I cut the bullet out of his back; law me, but that man swore! Come night, an' he heard say I was a parson, he apologized because he cursed, and this mo'nin' he'd done lit out, yas, suh! Neveh no good-bye. Scairt, likely, hearin' me pray theh because I needed he'p, an' 'count of me being glad of the chanct to he'p any man in trouble."
"Sho! Who all mout that man be, Parson?"
"He said his name were Jest Prebol——"
"Ho law! Somebody done plugged Jest Prebol!" one of the women cried out, laughing. "That scoundrel's be'n layin' off to git shot this long time, an' so he's got hit. I bet he won't think he's so winnin' of purty women no more! He's bad, that man, gamblin' an' shootin' craps an' workin' the banks. Served him right, yes, indeedy. But he'd shore hate to know a parson hearn him cussin' an' swearin' around. Hit don't bring a gambler any luck, bein' heard swearin', no."
"Nor if any one else hears him; not if he thinks swearin' in hisn's heart!" Rasba shook his head gravely. "How come hit yo' know that man?"
"He's used down this riveh ten-fifteen years; besides, he married my sister what's Mrs. Dollis now. Hit were a long time ago, though, 'fore anybody knowed he wa'n't no good. I bet we hearn yo' was comin', Parson. Whiskey Williams said they was a Hallelujah Singer comin' down the Ohio—said he could hear him a mile. I bet yo' sing out loud sometimes?"
"Hit's so," Rasba admitted. "I sung right smart comin' down the Ohio. Seems like I jest wanted to sing, like birds in the posey time."
"Prebol shore should git to a doctor, shot up thataway. He didn't say which lady shot him, Parson?" a woman asked.
"No; jes' a lady into an eddy into a lonesome bend." Rasba shook his head. "A purty woman, livin' alone on this riveh. Do many do that?"
"Riveh ladies all do, sometimes. I tripped from Cairo to Vicksburg into a skift once," a tall, angular woman said. "My man that use to be had stoled the shanty-boat what I'd bought an' paid for with my own money. I went up the bank at Columbus Hickories, gettin' nuts; I come back, an' my boat was gone. Wa'n't I tearin' an' rearin'! Well, I hoofed hit down to Columbus, an' I bought me a skift, count of me always havin' some money saved up."
"I bet Vicksburg's a hundred mile!" Rasba mused.
"A hundred mile!" the woman said with a guffaw. "Hit's six hundred an' sixty-three miles from Cairo to Vicksburg, yes, indeed. A hundred mile! I made hit in ten days, stoppin' along. I ketched it theh."
"You found yo' man?"
"Shucks! Hit wa'n't the man I wanted, hit were my boat—a nice, reg'lar pine an' oak-frame boat. I bet me I chucked him ovehbo'd, an' towed back up to Memphis. Hit were a good $300 bo't, sports built, an' hits on the riveh yet—Dart Mitto's got hit, junkin'. You'll see him down by Arkansaw Old Mouth if yo's trippin' right down."
"I expect to," Rasba replied, doubtfully. Never in his life before had he talked in terms of hundreds of miles, cities, and far rivers,
"Yo'll know that boat; he's went an' painted hit a sickly yeller, like a railroad station. I hate yeller! Gimme a nice light blue or a right bright green."
"Hyar comes anotheh bo't!" one of the men remarked, and all turned to look up the chute, where a little cabin-boat had drifted into sight.
No one was on deck, and it was apparent that the Columbus banks had shunted the craft clear across the river and down the chute, just as Rasba himself had been carried. The shadow of the trees on the west side of the chute fell across the boat and immediately brought the tripper out of the cabin.
A shadow is a warning on wide rivers. It tells of the nearness of a bank, or towhead, or even of a steamboat. In mid-stream there is little need for apprehension, but when the current carries one down into a caving bend and close to overhanging trees or along the edges of short, boiling eddies, it is time to get out and look for snags and jeopardies.
Seeing the group of people on the sandbar, the journeyer, who was a woman, took the sweeps of her boat and began to work over to them.
"Hit handles nice, that bo't!" one of the fishermen said. "Pulls jes' like a skift. Wonder who that woman is?"
"I've seen her some'rs," the powerful, angular woman, Mrs. Cooke, said after a time. "Them's swell clothes she's got on. She's all alone, too, an' what a lady travels alone down yeah for I don't know. She's purty enough to have a husband, I bet, if she wants one."
"Looks like one of them Pittsburgh er Cincinnati women," Jim Caope declared.
"No." Mrs. Caope shook her head. "She's off'n the riveh. Leastwise, she handles that bo't reg'lar. I cayn't git to see her face, but I seen her some'rs, I bet. I can tell a man by hisns walk half a mile."
In surprise she stared at the boat as it came nearer, and then walked down to the edge of the bar to greet the newcomer.
"Why, I jes' knowed I'd seen yo' somers! How's yer maw?" she greeted. "Ho law! An' yo's come tripping down Ole Mississip'! I 'clare, now, I'd seen yo', an' I knowed hit, an' hyar yo' be, Nelia Crele. Did yo' git shut of that up-the-bank feller yo' married, Nelia?"
"I'm alone," the girl laughed, her gaze turning to look at the others, who stood watching.
"If yo' git a good man," Mrs. Caope philosophized, "hang on to him. Don't let him git away. But if yo' git somebody that's shif'less an' no 'count, chuck him ovehbo'd. That's what I b'lieve in. Well, I declare! Hand me that line an' I'll tie yo' to them stakes. Betteh throw the stern anchor over, fo' this yeah's a shallows, an' the riveh's eddyin', an' if hit don't go up hit'll go down, an'——"
"Theh's a head rise coming out the Ohio," someone said. "Yo' won't need no anchor over the stern!"
"Sho! I'm glad to see yo'!" Mrs. Caope cried, wrapping her arms around the young woman as she stepped down to the sand, and kissing her. "How is yo' maw?"
"Very well, indeed!" Nelia laughed, clinging to the big river woman's hand. "I'm so glad to find someone I know!"
"You'll know us all d'rectly. Hyar's my man, Mr. Caope—real nice feller, too, if I do say hit—an' hyar's Mrs. Dobstan an' her two darters, an' this is Mr. Falteau, who's French and married May, there, an' this feller—say, mister, what is yo' name?"
"Rasba, Elijah Rasba."
"Mr. Rasba, he's a parson, out'n the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy, comin' down. Miss Nelia Crele, suh. I disremember the name of that feller yo' married, Nelia."
"It doesn't matter," Nelia turned to the mountain man, her face flushing. "A preacher down this river?"
"I'm looking for a man," Rasba replied, gazing at her, "the son of a widow woman, and she's afraid for him. She's afraid he'll go wrong."
"And you came clear down here to look for him—a thousand, two thousand miles?" she continued, quickly.
"I had nothing else to do—but that!" he shook his head. "You see, missy, I'm a sinner myse'f!"
He turned and walked away with bowed head. They all watched him with quick comprehension and real sympathy.
Jest Prebol, sore and sick with his bullet wound, but more alarmed on account of having sworn so much while a parson was dressing his injury, could not sleep, and as he thought it over he determined at last to cut loose and drop on down the river and land in somewhere among friends, or where he could find a doctor. But the practised hand of Rasba had apparently left little to do, and it was superstitious dread that worried Prebol.
So the river rat crept out on the sandbar, cast off the lines, and with a pole in one hand, succeeded in pushing out into the eddy where the shanty-boat drifted into the main current. Prebol, faint and weary with his exertions, fell upon his bunk. There in anguish, delirious at intervals, and weak with misery, he floated down reach, crossing, and bend, without light or signal. In olden days that would have been suicide. Now the river was deserted and no steamers passed him up or down. His cabin-boat, but a rectangular shade amidst the river shadows, drifted like a leaf or chip, with no sound except when a coiling jet from the bottom suckled around the corners or rippled along the sides.
The current carried him nearly six miles an hour, but two or three times his boat ran out of the channel and circled around in an eddy, and then dropped on down again. Morning found him in mid-stream, between two wooded banks, as wild as primeval wilderness, apparently. The sun, which rose in a white mist, struck through at last, and the soft light poured in first on one side then on the other as the boat swirled around. Once the squirrels barking in near-by trees awakened the man's dim consciousness, but a few minutes later he was in mid-stream, making a crossing where the river was miles wide.
He passed Hickman just before dawn, and toward noon he dropped by New Madrid, and the slumping of high, caving banks pounded in his ears down three miles of changing channel. Then the boat crossed to the other side and he lay there with eyes seared and staring. He discovered a grave stone poised upon the river bank, but he could not tell whether it was fancy or fact that the ominous thing bent toward him and fell with a splash into the river, while a wave tossed his boat on its way. He heard a quavering whine that grew louder until it became a shriek, and then fell away into silence, but his senses were slow in connecting it with one of the Tiptonville cotton gins. He heard a voice, curiously human, and having forgotten the old hay-burner river ferry, worried to think that he should imagine someone was driving a mule team on the Mississippi. For a long time he was in acute terror, because he thought he was blind, and could not see, but to his amazed relief he saw a river light and knew that another night had fallen upon him, so he went to sleep once more.
Voices awakened him. He opened his eyes, and the surroundings were familiar. He smelled iodine, and saw a man looking over a doctor's case. Leaning against the wall of the cabin-boat was a tall, slender young man with arms folded.
"How's he comin' Doc'?" the young man was saying.
"He'll be all right. How long has he been this way?"
"Don't know, Doc; he come down the riveh an' drifted into this eddy. I see his lips movin', so I jes' towed 'im in an' sent fo' yo'!"
"Just as well, for that wound sure needed dressing. I 'low a horse doctor fixed hit first time," the physician declared. "He'll need some care now, but he's comin' along."
"Oh, we'll look afteh him, Doc! Friend of ourn."
"I'll come in to-morrow. It's written down what to do, and about that medicine. You can read?"
"Howdy," Prebol muttered, feebly.
"He's a comin' back, Doc!" the young man cried, starting up with interest.
"Well, old sport, looks like you'd got mussed up some?" the doctor inquired.
"Yas, suh," Prebol grinned, feebly, his senses curiously clear. "Hit don't pay none to mind a lady's business fo' her, no suh!"
"A lady shot you, eh?"
"Yas, suh," Prebol grinned. "'Peahs like I be'n floatin' about two mile high like a flock o' ducks. Where all mout I be?"
"Little Prairie Bend."
"Into that bar eddy theh?"
"Yas, suh—the short eddy."
"Much obliged, Doc. Co'se I'll pay yo'——"
"Your friend's paid!"
"Yas, suh," Prebol whispered, sleepily, tired by the exertion and excitement.
"Sleep'll do him good," the doctor said, and returned to his little motorboat.
The young man went on board his own boat which was moored just below Prebol's. As he entered the cabin, a burly, whiskered man looked up and said:
"How's he coming, Slip?"
"Doc says he's all right. Jest said a woman shot him for tryin' to mind her business, kind-a laughed about hit."
"Theh! I always knowed a man that'd chase women the way he done'd git what's comin'. A woman'll make trouble quicker'n anything else on Gawd's earth, she will."
"Sho! Buck, yo's soured!"
"Hit's so 'bout them women!" Buck protested.
"If a man'd mind his business, an' not try to mind their business, women'd be plumb amusin'," Slip laughed.