E-text prepared by Al Haines
WILL N. HARBEN
New York and London Harper & Brothers Publishers 1901 Copyright, 1901, by Harper & Brothers. All rights reserved.
They had had a quilting at the house of the two sisters that day. Six or seven women of the neighborhood, of middle age or older, had been in to sew on the glaring, varicolored square. All day long they had thrust their needles up and down and gossiped in their slow, insinuating way, pausing only at noon to move their chairs to the dinner-table, where they sat with the same set curves to their backs.
The sun had gone down behind the mountain and the workers had departed, some traversing the fields and others disappearing by invisible paths in the near-by wood. The two sisters had taken the finished quilt from its wooden frame, and were carefully ironing out the wrinkles preparatory to adding it to the useless stack of its kind in the corner of the room.
"I believe, as I'm alive, that it's the purtiest one yet," remarked Mrs. Slogan. "Leastwise, I hain't seed narry one to beat it. Folks talks mightily about Mis' Lithicum's last one, but I never did have any use fer yaller buff, spliced in with indigo an' deep red. I wisht they was goin' to have the Fair this year; ef I didn't send this un I'm a liar."
Mrs. Slogan was a childless married woman of past sixty. Her sister, Mrs. Dawson, had the softer face of the two, which, perhaps, was due to her having suffered much and to the companionship of a daughter whom she loved. She was shorter than her sister by several inches, and had a small, wrinkled face, thin, gray hair, and a decided stoop. Some people said she had acquired the stoop in bending so constantly over her husband's bed during his last protracted illness. Others affirmed that her sister was slowly nagging the life out of her, and simply because she had been blessed with that which had been denied her—a daughter. Be this as it may, everybody who knew Mrs. Slogan knew that she never lost an opportunity to find fault with the girl, who was considered quite pretty and had really a gentle, lovable disposition.
"Whar's Sally?" asked Mrs. Slogan, when she had laid the quilt away.
"I don't know whar she is," answered Mrs. Dawson. "I reckon she'll be in directly."
"I'll be bound you don't know whar she is," retorted the other, with asperity; "you never keep a eye on 'er. Ef you'd a-watched 'er better an' kept 'er more at home thar never would 'a' been the talk that's now goin' about an' makin' you an' her the laughin'-stock of the settlement. I told you all along that John Westerfelt never had marryin' in the back o' his head, an' only come to see her beca'se she was sech a fool about 'im."
"I seed 'er down the meadow branch just now," broke in her husband, who sat smoking his clay pipe on the door-step. "She was hard at it, pickin' flowers as usual. I swear I never seed the like. That gal certainly takes the rag off'n the bush. I believe she'd let 'possum an' taters git cold to pick a daisy. But what's the talk?" he ended, as he turned his head and looked at his wife, who really was the source of all his information.
"Why," replied Mrs. Slogan, with undisguised satisfaction in her tone, "Mis' Simpkins says Westerfelt is goin' with Ab Lithicum's daughter Lizzie."
"Well," said Slogan, with a short, gurgling laugh, "what's wrong with that? A feller as well fixed as Westerfelt is ort to be allowed to look around a little, as folks say in town when they are a-tradin'. Lord, sometimes I lie awake at night thinkin' what a good time I mought 'a' had an' what I mought 'a' run across ef I hadn't been in sech a blamed fool hurry! Lawsy me, I seed a deef an' dumb woman in town t'other day, and, for a wonder, she wasn't married, nur never had been! I jest looked at that woman an' my mouth fairly watered."
"Yo're a born fool," snorted Mrs. Slogan.
"What's that got to do with John Wester—"
"Sh—" broke in Mrs. Dawson. "I heer Sally a-comin'."
"But I want 'er to heer me," cried the woman appealed to, just as the subject of the conversation entered the room from the passage which connected the two parts of the house. "It'll do 'er good, I hope, to know folks think she has made sech a goose of 'erse'f."
"What have I done now, Aunt Clarissa?" sighed the frail-looking girl, as she took off her sun-bonnet and stood in the centre of the room, holding a bunch of wild flowers and delicate maiden-hair fern leaves in her hand.
"Why, John Westerfelt has done you exactly as he has many a other gal," was the bolt the woman hurled. "He's settin' up to Lizzie Lithicum like a house afire. I don't know but I'm glad of it, too, fer I've told you time an' time agin that he didn't care a hill o' beans fer no gal, but was out o' sight out o' mind with one as soon as another un struck his fancy."
Sally became deathly pale as she turned to the bed in one of the corners of the room and laid her flowers down. She was silent for several minutes. All the others were watching her. Even her mother seemed to have resigned her to the rude method of awakening which suited her sister's heartless mood. At first it looked as if Sally were going to ignore the thrust, but they soon discovered their mistake, for she suddenly turned upon them with a look on her rigid face they had never seen there before. It was as if youth had gone from it, leaving only its ashes.
"I don't believe one word of it," she said, firmly. "I don't believe it. I wouldn't believe it was anything but your mean meddling if you swore it."
"Did you ever!" gasped Mrs. Slogan; "after all the advice I've give the foolish girl!"
"Well, I reckon that's beca'se you don't want to believe it, Sally," said Slogan, without any intention of abetting his wife. "I don't want to take sides in yore disputes, but Westerfelt certainly is settin' square up to Ab's daughter. I seed 'em takin' a ride in his new hug-me-tight buggy yesterday. She's been off to Cartersville, you know, an' has come back with dead loads o' finery. They say she's l'arned to play 'Dixie' on a pyanner an' reads a new novel every week. Ab's awfully tickled about it. Down at the store t'other day, when Westerfelt rid by on his prancin' hoss, Clem Dill said: 'Ab, I reckon it won't be long 'fore you move over on yore son-in-law's big farm,' an' Ab laughed so hard he let the tobacco juice run down on his shirt.
"'Liz 'll manage his case,' sez he. 'Westerfelt may fly around the whole caboodle of 'em, but when Liz gits 'er head set she cuts a wide swathe an' never strikes a snag ur stump, an' cleans out the fence-corners as smooth as a parlor floor.'"
Sally bent down over her uncle; her face was slowly hardening into conviction. When she spoke her voice had lost its ring of defiance and got its strength of utterance only from sheer despair.
"You saw them in his new buggy, Uncle Peter," she asked, "taking a ride—are you sure?"
Peter Slogan dropped his eyes; he seemed to realize the force of the blow he had helped to deal, and made no answer.
Mrs. Slogan laughed out triumphantly as she stooped to put her smoothing-iron down on the hearth.
"Ride together!" she exclaimed. "As ef that was all! Why, he's been goin' thar twice an' three times a week regular. Jest as he begun taperin' off with you he tapered on with her. I don't reckon you hardly remember when he come heer last, do you? Ab Lithicum's as big a fool as yore mother was in not callin' a halt. Jest let a man have a little property, an' be a peg or two higher as to family connections, an' he kin ride dry-shod over a whole community. He's goin' thar to-night. Mis' Simpkins was at Lithicum's when a nigger fetched the note. Lizzie was axin' 'er what to put on. She's got a sight o' duds. They say it's jest old dresses that her cousins in town got tired o' wearin', but they are ahead o' anything in the finery line out heer."
A look of wretched conviction stamped itself on the girl's delicate features. Slowly she turned to pick up her flowers, and went with them to the mantel-piece. There was an empty vase half filled with water, and into it she tried to place the stems, but they seemed hard to manage in her quivering fingers, and she finally took the flowers to her own room across the passage. They heard the sagging door scrape the floor as she closed it after her.
"Now, I reckon you two are satisfied," said Mrs. Dawson, bitterly. "Narry one of you hain't one bit o' feelin' ur pity."
Mrs. Slogan shrugged her shoulders, and Peter looked up regretfully, and then with downcast eyes continued to pull silently at his pipe.
"I jest did what I ort to 'a' done," said Mrs. Slogan. "She ort to know the truth, an' I tol' 'er."
"You could 'a' gone about it in a more human way," sighed Mrs. Dawson. "The Lord knows the child's had enough to worry 'er, anyway. She's been troubled fer the last week about him not comin' like he used to, an' she'd a-knowed the truth soon enough."
An hour later supper was served, and though her aunt called to her that it was on the table, Sally Dawson did not appear, so the meal passed in unusual silence. The Slogans ate with their habitual zest, but the little bent widow only munched a piece of bread and daintily sipped her cup of buttermilk.
Presently they heard the rasping sound of Sally's door as it was drawn open, and then they saw her go through the passage and step down into the yard. Rising quickly, Mrs. Dawson went to the door and looked out. She descried her daughter making her way hastily towards the gate.
"Sally!" cried out the old woman, her thin voice cracking on its too high key, "Sally, wait thar fer me! Stop, I say!"
The girl turned and waited for her mother to approach through the half-darkness, her face averted towards the road.
"Sally, whar have you started?"
The girl did not move as she answered:
"Nowhere, mother; I—"
The old woman put out her bony hand and laid it on the girl's arm. "Sally, you are not a-tellin' me the truth. You are a-goin' to try to see John Westerfelt."
"Well, what if I am, mother?"
"I don't believe I'd go, darlin'. I'd be above lettin' any triflin' man know I was that bad off—I railly would try to have a little more pride."
Sally Dawson turned her head, and her eyes bore down desperately on the small face before her.
"Mother," she said, "you don't know what you'd do if you was in my place."
"I reckon not, darlin', but—"
"Mother, I'll die if I don't know the truth. Once he told me if I ever heard one word against him to come to him with it, and I said I would. Maybe Aunt Clarissa is right about Lizzie an' him, but I've got to get it straight from him. He went to town to-day, and always drives along the road about this time."
"Then I'll go out thar with you, Sally, if you will do sech a thing."
"No, you won't, mother. Nobody has any right to hear what I've got to say to him."
The old woman raised the corner of her gingham apron to her eyes as if some inward emotion had prompted tears, but the fountains of grief were dry.
"Oh, Sally," she whimpered, "I'm so miserable! I'll never forgive yore aunt fer devilin' you so much, right now when you are troubled. I'll tell you what me 'n' you'll do; we'll git us a house an' move away from 'er."
"I don't care what she says—if it's true," replied Sally. "If—if John Westerfelt has fooled me, I wouldn't care if it was printed in every paper in the State. If he don't love me, I won't care for nothin'. Mother, you know he made me think he loved—wanted me, at least—that was all I could make out of it."
"I was a leetle afeerd all along," admitted Mrs. Dawson. "I was afeerd, though I couldn't let on at the time. Folks said he was powerful changeable. You see, he has treated other gals the same way. Sally, you must be brave, an' not let on. Why, thar was Mattie Logan—jest look at her. Folks said she was a rantin' fool about 'im, but when he quit goin' thar she tuck up with Clem Dill, an' now she's a happy wife an' mother."
Sally turned towards the gate. "What's that to me?" she said, fiercely. "I'm not her, and she's not me. Stay here, mother. I'll be back soon."
"Well, I'm goin' to set right thar on that log outside the gate, an' not budge one inch till you come back, Sally. If you wait too long, though, I'll come after you. Oh, Sally, I'm awful afeerd—I don't know what at, but I'm afeerd."
Together the two passed through the gate, and then, leaving her mother at the log, Sally hastened through the darkness towards the main road, several hundred yards away. Mrs. Dawson sat down and folded her hands tightly in her lap and waited. After a few minutes she heard the heat of a horse's hoofs on the clay road, and when it ceased she knew her child was demanding and learning her fate. Fifteen minutes passed. The beat of hoofs was resumed, and soon afterwards Sally Dawson came slowly through the darkness, her dress dragging over the dewy grass. She seemed to have forgotten that her mother was waiting for her, and was about to pass on to the house, when Mrs. Dawson spoke up.
"Heer I am, Sally; what did he say?"
The girl sat down on the log beside her mother. There was a desperate glare in her eyes that had never been in eyes more youthful. Her lips were drawn tight, her small hands clinched.
"It's every bit true," she said, under her breath. "He's goin' with Lizzie, regular. He admitted he had an engagement with her tonight. Mother, it's all up with me. He's jest tired of me. I don't deserve any pity for bein' such a fool, but it's awful—awful—awful!"
Mrs. Dawson caught her breath suddenly, so sharp was her own pain, but she still strove to console her daughter.
"He's railly not wuth thinkin' about, darlin'; do—do try to forget 'im. It may look like a body never could git over a thing like that, but I reckon a pusson kin manage to sort o' bear it better, after awhile, than they kin right at the start. Sally, I'm goin' to tell you a secret. I'd 'a' told you before this but I 'lowed you was too young to heer the like. It's about me 'n' yore pa—some'n' you never dreamt could 'a' happened. Mebby it 'll give you courage, fer if a old woman like me kin put up with sech humiliation, shorely a young one kin. Sally, do you remember, when you was a leetle, tiny girl, that thar was a Mis' Talley, a tall, slim, yaller-headed woman, who come out from town to board one summer over at Hill's? Well, she never had nothin' much to occupy 'er mind with durin' the day, an' she used to take 'er fancy-work an' set in the shady holler at the gum spring, whar yore pa went to water his hoss. Of course, she never keerd a cent fer him, but I reckon to pass the time away she got to makin' eyes at him. Anyway, it driv' 'im plumb crazy. I never knowed about it till the summer was mighty nigh over, an' I wouldn't 'a' diskivered it then if I hadn't 'a' noticed that he had made powerful little headway ploughin' in the field whar he claimed to be at work. She wasn't a bad woman. I give 'er credit fer that, an' I reckon she never talked to 'im many times, an' never thought of him except to laugh at him after she went back home, but he never quit thinkin' about her. She had 'er picture printed in a paper along with some other church-women in town, an' somehow he got a-hold of it an' cut it out. He used to keep it hid in a ol' Testament, in a holler tree behind the cow-lot, an' used to slip out an' look at it when he 'lowed he wasn't watched. Sally, I never once mentioned it to him. I seed what had been done couldn't be undone, but the Lord on High knows well enough how I suffered. Sally, maybe it's the Lord's will fer you to lose this feller now when you are young an' able to fight agin it, so you won't suffer the awful humiliation at a time o' life when a body ort to be easy. Sally, are you a-listenin' to me?"
"Yes, mother. I heard every word you said about pa an' the woman. I heard that, and I heard them frogs down there croaking, too, and the chickens fluttering on their roosts. I heard his horse still a-trotting. Mother, he was whistling when he drove up just now—whistling!"
The two stared into each other's eyes for a moment, then the old woman went on:
"It'll go powerful hard with you now, but you'd better have it over with when you're young 'an to suffer when you're a weak old woman like me. Ol' age cayn't stand such things so well. No, I never once mentioned the woman to yore pa. I knowed it would jest make him resort to lyin', an' at the bottom he was a good, pious man. He jest couldn't quit thinkin' o' that yaller-headed woman an' her blue eyes an' shiny store shoes. I jest pitied 'im like he was a baby. It went on till he got sick, an' many an' many a day he'd lie thar helpless an' look out towards the cow-lot, wistful like, an' I knowed he was thinkin' o' that pictur'. He was lookin' that way when he drawed his last breath. It may 'a' been jest a notion o' mine, fer some said he was unconscious all that day, but it looked that away to me. I nussed him through his sickness as well as I could, an' attended to every wish he had till he passed away. Now, you know some'n' else, Sally. You know why I never put up no rock at his grave. The neighbors has had a lots to say about that one thing—most of 'em sayin' I was too stingy to pay fer it, but it wasn't that, darlin'. It was jest beca'se I had too much woman pride. When I promised the Lord to love an' obey, it was not expected that I'd put up a rock over another woman's man if he was dead. Sally, you are a sight more fortunate than you think you are."
Sally rose, the steely look was still in her eyes, her face was like finely polished granite. Mrs. Dawson got up anxiously, and together they passed through the gate. They could see the red fire of Peter Slogan's pipe, and the vague form of his wife standing over him.
"Now, darlin'—" began Mrs. Dawson, but Sally checked her.
"Don't talk to me any more, mother," she said, impatiently. "I want to be quiet and think—oh, my God, have mercy on me!"
Mrs. Dawson said nothing more, and with a sinking heart she saw the stricken child of her breast walk on into her room and close the door.
"Whar's she been?" asked Mrs. Slogan, aggressively.
"She went to git out o' re'ch o' yore tongue," said the widow, desperately.
To this apt retort Mrs. Slogan could not reply, but it evoked an amused laugh from her appreciative husband.
"Well, Sally didn't shorely try to do that afoot, did she?" he gurgled. "Looks like she'd 'a' tuck a train ef sech was her intention."
Mrs. Dawson passed into the house and through the dining-room into her own small apartment and closed the door. She lighted a tallow-dip and placed it on the old-fashioned bureau, from which the mahogany veneering had been peeling for years. Her coarse shoes rang harshly on the smooth, bare floor. She sank into a stiff, hand-made chair and sat staring into vacancy. The bend of her back had never been more pronounced.
"The idee," she muttered, "o' my goin' over my trouble as ef that amounted to a hill o' beans ur would be a bit o' comfort! My God, ef some'n' ain't done to relieve Sally I'll go stark crazy, an'—an'—I could kill 'im in cold blood, freely, so I could. Oh, my pore, helpless baby! it seems like she never did have any rail friend but me."
She rose and crept to the window, parted the calico curtains, and peered across the passage at her daughter's door. There was a narrow pencil of light beneath it. "She's readin' his letters over," said the old woman, "ur mebby she's prayin'. That's railly what I ort to be a-doin' instead o' standin' heer tryin' to work out what's impossible fer any mortal. I reckon ef a body jest would have enough faith—but I did have faith till—till it quit doin' me a particle o' good. Yes, I ort to be a-prayin', and I'll do it—funny I never thought o' that sooner. Ef God fetched a rain, like they claim he did t'other day, shorely he'll do a little some'n' in a case like this un."
She blew out the tallow-dip and knelt down in the darkness, and interlaced her bony fingers.
"Lord God Almighty, King of Hosts—my Blessed Redeemer," she began, "you know how I have suffered an' why I never could put no grave-rock over my husband's remains; you know how I have writhed an' twisted under that scourge, but I kin bear that now, an' more an' more of it, but I jest cayn't have my pore little baby go through the same, an' wuss. It don't look like it's fair—no way a body kin look at it, for shorely one affliction of that sort in a family is enough, in all reason. I stood mine, bein' a ol' woman, but Sally, she'll jest pine away an' die, fer she had all her heart set on that one man. Oh, God Almighty, my Redeemer, you that forgive the dyin' thief an' begged fer help in yore own agony, let this cup pass. Huh! I'd ruther have 'em stick a speer through my side time an' time agin 'an have it go on with Sally like it is. You'd better do what I ask, fer it's makin' a reg'lar devil out o' me. I feel it comin' on, an' I won't be fit fer no place but hell fire. I jest cayn't see no sense, jestice, nur reason in my pore little child lyin' in her bed an' twistin' with sech trouble. You, or some power above or below, tuck Jasper frum me an' left that yaller-haired sting fer me to brood over day an' night, but the same ur wuss mustn't come to Sally, kase she don't deserve it—she's helpless! Oh, Lord, have mercy—have mercy—mercy—mercy!"
She rose to her feet, and without undressing threw herself on the bed. She could hear Slogan and his wife, now barefooted, thumping about in the next room. Far away against the mountain-side she heard a hunter calling to his dogs and blowing a horn.
John Westerfelt lived on his own farm in the big two-storied frame house which had been built by his grandfather, and which came to him at the death of his father and mother. The place was managed for him by a maternal uncle, whose wife and daughter kept the house in order. But all three of them had gone away on a short visit, leaving only the old negro woman, who was the cook and servant about the house, to attend to his wants.
The morning following his meeting with Sally Dawson on the road near her house, Westerfelt arose with a general feeling of dissatisfaction with himself. He had not slept well. Several times through the night he awoke from unpleasant dreams, in which he always saw Sally Dawson's eyes raised to his through the darkness, and heard her spiritless voice as she bade him good-bye, and with bowed head moved away, after promising to return his letters the next day.
He was a handsome specimen of physical manhood. His face was dark and of the poetic, sensitive type; his eyes were brown, his hair was almost black, and thick, and long enough to touch his collar. His shoulders were broad, and his limbs muscular and well shaped. He wore tight-fitting top-boots, which he had drawn over his trousers to the knee. His face was clean-shaven, and but for his tanned skin and general air of the better-class planter, he might have passed for an actor, poet, or artist. He was just the type of Southerner who, with a little more ambition, and close application to books, might have become a leading lawyer and risen finally to a seat in Congress. But John Westerfelt had never been made to see the necessity of exertion on his part. Things had come easily ever since he could remember, and his wants were simple, and, in his own way, he enjoyed life, suffering sharply at times, as he did this morning, over his mistakes, for at heart he was not bad.
"Poor little girl," he said, as he went out on the front veranda to wait for his breakfast. "It was just blind thoughtlessness. I really never dreamt she was feeling that way. I've just got to make it lighter for her. To begin with, I'll never put my foot inside of Lithicum's gate, and I'll go over there this morning and try to make her see what a worthless scamp I really am. I wonder if I couldn't marry her—but, no, that wouldn't be right to her nor to me, for a man hasn't the moral right to marry a woman he doesn't really love, even if she thinks he is the only man on earth. I wonder if I really told her I loved her?" Here Westerfelt shuddered, and felt a flush of shame steal over his face. "Yes, I have—I have," he muttered, "and I reckon I really did fancy I cared for her at the time. Yes, I have been a contemptible coward; for my own idle enjoyment I have allowed her to go on counting on me until the thought of my going to see Lizzie Lithicum nearly kills her. Well, by George! I can cut that off, and I shall, too."
Just then, in looking across the meadow lying between his house and the main road, he saw the short form of Peter Slogan approaching.
"He's coming here," thought Westerfelt. "She has asked him to bring the letters, even before breakfast. That's the little woman's way of showing her pride. What a contemptible scoundrel I am!"
But as he continued to watch the approaching figure he was surprised to note that Slogan was displaying more energy than usual. The little, short man was taking long steps, and now and then jumping over an obstacle instead of going around it. And when he had reached the gate he leaned on it and stared straight at Westerfelt, as if he had lost his power of speech. Then it was that Westerfelt remarked that Slogan's face looked troubled, and that a general air of agitation rested on him.
"I wish you'd step out, if you please, John," he said, after a moment, "I've been walkin' so blamed fast I've mighty nigh lost my breath. I'm blowin' like a stump-suckin' hoss."
Westerfelt went to him.
"What is the matter, Slogan?" he questioned, in a tone of concern.
"We've had big trouble over our way," panted Slogan. "Sally fell off'n the foot-log into the creek this mornin' an' was drowned."
"Drowned! You don't mean that, Slogan!" cried Westerfelt, in horror; "surely there is some mistake!"
"No; she's as dead as a mackerel," Slogan answered. "She wasn't diskivered tell she'd been under water fer a good half-hour. She started, as usual, about daybreak, over to her cousin, Molly Dugan's, fer a bucket o' fresh milk, an' we never missed 'er until it was time she was back, an' then we went all the way to Dugan's before we found out she hadn't been thar at all. Then her ma tuck up a quar notion, an' helt to it like a leech fer a long time. My hoss had got out o' the stable an' strayed off some'rs in the woods, an' Sally's mother firmly believed the gal had run off. I don't know why she 'lowed Sally would do sech a thing, but she did, and jest paced up an' down the yard yellin' an' takin' on an' beggin' us to go fetch her back, so that none of us at the house thought o' draggin' the hole at the foot-log. But Bill Dugan did, an' soon come with the news whar she was at. Then her ma jest had a spasm. I railly believe on my soul she cussed God an' all futurity. She raved till she was black in the face."
"Then there is—is no doubt about it?" gasped Westerfelt. "She is dead?"
"Of course she's dead," answered Slogan; "an' bein' as my hoss ain't to be had, I 'lowed I'd try to borrow one o' yore'n to go order the coffin." Slogan here displayed a piece of twine which he had wound into a coil. "I've got the exact length o' the body. I 'lowed that would be the best way. I reckon they kin tell me at the store how much play a corpse ort to have at each end. I've noticed that coffins always look longer, a sight, than the pusson ever did that was to occupy 'em, but I thought ef I tuck the exact measure—"
"Here's the stable key," interrupted Westerfelt, with a shudder. "Take any horse you want. You'll find saddles and bridles in the shed."
Slogan turned away, and Westerfelt walked back to the veranda. "My God!" he groaned; "why don't I know it was accident? If it was not, then may the Lord have mercy on my soul!"
He went into his room and threw himself on his bed and stared fixedly at the ceiling, a thousand conflicting thoughts crowding upon him. Presently he heard Slogan talking to the horse in the yard, and went out just as he was mounting.
"I wisht you'd hand me a switch, John," he said. "I don't want to be all day goin' an' comin'. I'll be blamed ef I ain't afeerd them two ol' cats 'll be a-fightin' an' scratchin' 'fore I get back. They had a time of it while the gal was alive, an' I reckon thar 'll be no peace at all now."
"Does Mrs. Dawson blame anybody—or—or—?" Westerfelt paused as if he hardly knew how to finish.
"Oh, I reckon the ol' woman does feel a leetle hard at us—my wife in particular, an'—an' some o' the rest, I reckon. You see, thar was a lot said at the quiltin' yesterday about Lizzie Lithicum a-cuttin' of Sally out, an' one thing or other, an' a mother's calculated to feel bitter about sech talk, especially when her only child is laid out as cold an' stiff as a poker."
Again Westerfelt shuddered; his face was ghastly; his mouth was drawn and his lips quivered; there was a desperate, appealing, shifting of his eyes.
"I reckon Mrs. Dawson feels hurt at me," he said, tentatively.
Slogan hesitated a moment before speaking.
"Well," he said, as if he felt some sort of apology should come from him, "maybe she does—a little, John, but the Lord knows you cayn't expect much else at sech a time, an' when she's under sech a strain."
"Did she mention any names?" questioned the young man, desperately; and while he waited for Slogan to speak a look of inexpressible agony lay in his eyes.
"I never was much of a hand to tote tales," said Slogan, "but I may as well give you a little bit of advice as to how you ort to act with the ol' woman while she is so wrought up. I wouldn't run up agin 'er right now ef I was you. She's tuck a funny sort o' notion that she don't want you at the funeral or the buryin'. She told me three times, as I was startin' off, to tell you not to come to the church nur to the grave. She was clean out o' her senses, an' under ordinary circumstances I'd say not to pay a bit of attention to 'er, but she's so upset she might liter'ly pounce on you like a wild-cat at the meetin'-house."
"Tell her, for me, that I shall respect her wish," said Westerfelt. "I shall not be there, Slogan. If she will let you do so, tell her I am sorry her daughter is—dead."
"All right, John, I'll do what I can to pacify 'er," promised Peter, as he took the switch Westerfelt handed him and started away.
When Slogan had ridden off through the mild spring sunshine, Westerfelt saddled another horse and rode out of the gate towards the road leading away from the house containing Sally Dawson's remains. He hardly had any definite idea of whither he was going. He had only a vague impression that the movement of a horse under him would to some degree assuage the awful pain at his heart, but he was mistaken; the pangs of self-accusation were as sharp as if he were a justly condemned murderer. His way led past the cross-roads store, which contained the post-office. Two men, a woman, and a child stood huddled together at the door. They were talking about the accident; Westerfelt knew that by their attitudes of awed attention and their occasional glances towards Mrs. Dawson's. He was about to pass by when the storekeeper signalled to him and called out:
"Mail fer you, Mr. Westerfelt; want me to fetch it out?"
Westerfelt nodded, and reined in and waited till the storekeeper came out with a packet. "It must 'a' been drapped in after I closed last night," he said. "Thar wasn't a thing in the box 'fore I went home, an' it was the only one thar when I unlocked this mornin'. Mighty bad news down the creek, ain't it?" he ended. "Powerful hard on the old woman. They say she's mighty nigh distracted."
Making some unintelligible reply, Westerfelt rode on, the packet held tightly in his hand. It was addressed in Sally Dawson's round, girlish handwriting, and he knew it contained his letters, and perhaps—he shuddered at the thought of what else it might contain.
He whipped his horse into a gallop. He wanted to reach a spot where he could open the package unobserved. He met several wagons and a buggy. They contained people who bowed and spoke to him, but he scarcely saw them. At the first path leading from the road into the wood he turned aside, and then opened his package. There were three or four letters and notes he had written the dead girl, and one blotted sheet from her. With a quaking soul he read it. It confirmed him in the fear which had taken hold of him at the first news of the tragedy. The letter ran:
"DEAR JOHN,—I simply cannot stand it any longer. It is now about three in the morning. Some people contend that such acts are done only by crazy folks, but I don't believe I ever was more sensible than I am right now. I am not ashamed to own that I had my heart and soul set on being your wife and making you happy, but now that I know you didn't feel a bit like I did, an' love Lizzie, I jest can't stand it. The pain is awful—awful. I could not meet folks face to face, now that they know the truth. I'd rather die a hundred deaths than see you an' her even once together. I couldn't live long anyway. I'm simply too weak and sick at heart. The hardest thing of all is to remember that you never did care for me all the time I was making such a little fool of myself. I know you never did. Folks said you was changeable, but I never once believed it till last night on the road. I have fixed it so everybody will think my death was accidental. I've been warned time and again about that foot-log, and nobody will suspicion the truth. You must never mention it to a soul. It is my last and only request. It would go harder with mother if she knew that. Good-bye, John. I love you more right now than I ever did, and I don't know as I blame you much or harbor much resentment. I thought I would not say anything more, but I cannot help it. John, Lizzie is not the woman for you. She never will love you deep, or very long. Good-bye.
Westerfelt put the letter in his pocket and turned his horse into an unfrequented road leading to the mountain and along its side. The air was filled with the subtle fragrance of growing and blooming things. He was as near insanity as a man can well be who still retains his mental equipoise. In this slow manner, his horse picking his way over fallen trees and mountain streams, he traversed several miles, and then, in utter desolation, turned homeward.
It was noon when he came in sight of his house. Peter Slogan had returned the horse, and, with a parcel under his arm, was trudging homeward. All that night Westerfelt lay awake, and the next morning he did not leave his room, ordering the wondering servant not to prepare any breakfast for him. He did not want to show himself on the veranda or in the front yard, thinking some neighbor might stop and want to talk over the tragedy. There were moments during this solitary morning that he wished others knew the secret of Sally Dawson's death. It seemed impossible for him to keep the grewsome truth locked in his breast—it made the happening seem more of a crime. And then an awful thought dawned upon him. Was it not a way God had of punishing him, and would there ever be any end to it?
From his window he had a clear view of Mrs. Dawson's house. There was a group of people in their best clothes on the porch, and considerable activity about the front yard, to the fence of which a goodly number of horses and mules were hitched. The little church, with its gray, weather-beaten spire, could also be seen farther away, on a slight elevation. It had a fence around it, and blended with the whiteness of the fence were a few gravestones.
About eleven o'clock Westerfelt saw a negro boy climb a ladder leaning against the side of the church and creep along the edge of the roof to the open cupola and grasp the clapper of the cast-iron bell. Then it began to toll. The boy was an unpractised hand, and the strokes were irregular, sometimes too slow and sometimes too rapid.
It was a signal for the procession to leave the house. Westerfelt's eyes were glued to the one-horse wagon at the gate, for it contained the coffin, and was moving like a thing alive. Behind it walked six men, swinging their hats in their hands. Next followed Slogan's rickety buggy with its threatening wheels, driven by Peter. The bent figure of the widow in black sat beside him. Other vehicles fell in behind, and men, women, and children on foot, carrying wild flowers, dogwood blossoms, pink and white honeysuckle, and bunches of violets, brought up the rear.
Westerfelt was just turning from the window, unable to stand the sight longer, when he saw Abner Lithicum's new road-wagon, with its red wheels and high green bed, in which sat the five women of his family, pause at his gate. Going out on the veranda, Westerfelt saw Abner coming up the walk, cracking his wagon-whip at the stunted rose-bushes.
"Hello!" he cried out; "I 'lowed mebby you hadn't left yet. It 'll be a good half-hour 'fore they all get thar an' settled. The preacher promised me this mornin' he'd wait on me an' my folks. It takes my gals sech a' eternity to fix up when they go anywhar."
"Won't you come in?" asked Westerfelt, coldly, seeing that Lithicum did not seem to be in any hurry to announce the object of his visit.
"Oh no, thanky'," said Lithicum, with a broad grin; "the truth is, I clean forgot my tobacco. I knowed you wasn't a chawin' man, but yore uncle is, an' he mought have left a piece of a plug lyin' round. My old woman tried to git me to use her snuff as a make-shift, but lawsy me! the blamed powdery truck jest washes down my throat like leaves in a mill-race. I never could see how women kin set an' rub an' rub the'r gums with it like they do. I reckon it's jest a sort o' habit."
"I'm sorry," said Westerfelt, "but I don't know where my uncle keeps his tobacco."
"Well, I reckon I'll strike some chawin' man down at the meetin'-house." Lithicum stood, awkwardly cutting the air with his whip. "Railly, thar is one thing more," he said, haltingly. "Lizzie 'lowed, as thar was a' extra seat in our wagon, you might like to come on with us. She said she had some'n' particular to tell you."
"Tell her I am not going," said Westerfelt, sharply. "I am not going."
"Oh, you ain't!" Lithicum looked his surprise both at the decision and at the unaccountable coldness of the young man's manner, which he had not noticed till now. "Well, so long, Mr. Westerfelt, I reckon you know yore own business, but I 'lowed everybody would turn out, through respect to all concerned, if nothin' else."
"I am not going; it is impossible for me to go," answered Westerfelt, and he turned abruptly into the house.
Alone in his room, Westerfelt took Sally Dawson's last letter from his pocket and read it again. Then he lighted a match and started to burn it, but some inward fear seemed to check him, and the match burned down to his rigid fingers and went out. "No," he said, "that would be cowardly. I shall keep it always, to remind me of my hellish mistake. Great God! the idea of my going to her funeral in a red wagon with Lizzie Lithicum—Lizzie Lithicum!"
The next morning, as he was returning from the post-office, Westerfelt met Peter Slogan riding to a field he had rented down the road, and which he was getting ready for cotton-planting. Slogan was astride of his bony horse, which was already clad in shuck collar and clanking harness, and carried on his shoulder a cumbersome plough-stock.
"Well," he smiled, reining in as he caught Westerfelt's eye, "I 'lowed hard work in the sun would do more to git the kinks out'n me after all the trouble at my house than anything else."
"How is Mrs. Dawson?" ventured Westerfelt.
"You'd better ax me how she ain't," retorted Slogan, shrugging his shoulders. "I could tell you a sight easier. She's turned into a regular hell-cat. I thought her an' my wife was bad enough 'fore the trouble, but it's wuss now. The ol' woman has left us."
"Left you?" repeated Westerfelt. "What do you mean?"
"Why, she says she won't sleep an' eat in the same house with my wife, beca'se she give Sally advice, an'—an' one thing or nuther. The ol' woman has bought 'er some second-hand cookin' utensils—a oven an' a skillet an' a cup an' a plate or two, an' has moved 'er bed an' cheer into the Hilgard cabin down below us. She slept thar last night. It looks powerful like she's wrong in the upper-story. At fust she was all yells an' fury, but now she jest sulks an' hain't got one word to say to nobody. I went down thar last night an' tried to call 'er to the door, but she wouldn't stir a peg. As soon as she heerd me at the fence she blowed out 'er light an' wouldn't let on no more'n ef I was a dog a-barkin'. Now, I hold that she hain't got no call to treat me that away. I never tuck no hand in 'er disputes with my wife, an' ef hard things has been said about Sally, why they never come from me. Lord, I've got plenty else to think about besides gals an' women. I think I'm on track o' the skunk 'at stole my axe."
Westerfelt walked on. It was plain to him that none of the neighbors knew the secret of Sally Dawson's death, but he was beginning to think that the mother of the girl might half suspect the truth, and that she was his enemy for life he did not doubt.
The cornfields had grown to their full height and turned from green to yellow. The stalks, stripped of their tops and blades, were bent by the weight of their ears. There was a whispering of breezes in the sedge-fields, in the long rows of brown-bolled cotton plants, among the fodder-stacks, and in the forest that stretched from the main road up the mountain-side. It was the season in which the rugged landscape appeared most brilliant; when the kalmia bloomed, the gentian, the primrose, the yellow daisy, the woodbine, and the golden-disked aster still lingered in sunny spots. It was the season in which the leaves of the maple were as red as blood.
John Westerfelt was leaving home, to take up his abode in the adjoining county over the mountain. As he sat upon his horse and slowly rode along, one who had known him six months before would scarcely have recognized him, so great had been the change in his appearance. His face was thinner; at the temples his hair had turned slightly gray, and an ineffable expression of restless discontent lay about his eyes. A sum of money had come to him from his father's estate, and with it he had purchased a livery-stable at the village of Cartwright. Ever since Sally Dawson's death, he had wanted an excuse to get away from the spot where the tragedy had occurred, and his leaving his farm to the management of his uncle now caused no particular comment among his neighbors.
Reaching the highest point of the mountain, the village in question lay in the valley below. Here he paused and looked behind him.
"God being my helper, I'm going to try to begin a new life over here," he said, almost aloud. "Surely, I have repented sorely enough, and this is not shirking my just punishment. A man ought to make something of himself, and I never could, in my frame of mind, with that poor, silent old woman constantly before my eyes, and knowing that she will never forgive my offence, and is perhaps constantly praying for some calamity to strike me down."
At the first house in the outskirts of the village he dismounted. A woman hearing his approach announced by a couple of lean dogs, which sprang from under the porch, came to the door. She smiled and spoke, but her voice was drowned in the yelping of the dogs, which were trying to climb over the fence to get at the stranger.
There was something admirable, if slightly discourteous, in the fearless manner in which Westerfelt leaned over the fence and, with the butt of his riding-whip, struck the animals squarely in the face, coolly laughing as he did so.
"You, Tige! you, Pomp!" cried the woman, running to them and picking up sticks and stones and hurling them at the animals, "down thar, I say!"
"They have forgotten me," said Westerfelt, with a laugh, as the dogs retreated behind the house, and he reached over the ramshackle gate to shake hands.
"But I hain't, John," she replied, cordially. "I wasn't lookin' fer you quite so soon, though. I reckon you must 'a' rid purty peert."
"Generally do," he made answer, "though I started early this morning, and lost half an hour at Long's shop, where I got my horse shod."
"Put up yore animal," she said. "That's the stable thar, an' you know better how to feed 'im 'an I do. Luke's gone down to the livery-stable to look atter things fer you, but he'll be back 'fore supper-time."
Westerfelt led his horse into the yard, and to the well near the door.
He pushed the bucket into the opening, and allowed the wooden windlass to fly round of its own accord till the bucket struck the water.
"Thirsty?" she asked. "I'll git the gourd."
He nodded. "And I want to water my horse; every branch and creek is bridged for the last ten miles."
While she was in the house he wound up the bucket, swearing at the horse for continually touching an inquisitive nose to his moving elbow. She returned with a great gourd dipper. He rinsed it out, and, filling it, drank long and deeply. Then he refilled the gourd and offered it to her.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "I forgot my politeness."
"I ain't dry," she said. "I was jest a-lookin' at you, John; you look so much older an' different-like."
"Oh, I reckon I'm all right," he said. "How's Luke?" emptying the bucket into the trough and watching the horse drink.
"As well as common; me an' him wus both bound fer you to git the livery-stable, an' we are glad the trade's closed. It will seem like ol' times to have a body from Fannin over heer. As soon as you writ the price you wus willin' to give in a lumpin' sum, Luke set to scheming. He ain't no fool, if I do say it. Horton an' Webb had the'r eyes on the stable, an' Luke thinks they'd a-raised his bid, but they 'lowed he wus biddin' fur himself, an' knowed he couldn't raise the money. Mis' Thorp wus in heer this mornin', an' she said Jasper Webb swore like rips when the administrator tol' 'im the trade wus closed with Luke as yore agent. You orter do well with the investment; you got it cheap; you know how to keep up stock, an' the hack-line will pay with the mail it carries an' the passenger travel twixt heer an' Darley."
"I'm satisfied," he said, and he took the saddle and bridle from his horse and turned the animal into the little log stable.
"Hain't you goin' to feed 'im?" she asked, hospitably, as he was closing the door; "the's some fodder overhead, an' the corn is in re'ch through the crack above the trough."
"Not yet," he returned; "I fed him some shelled corn at the shop. I'll give him a few ears at supper-time."
The slanting rays of the sun streamed from a saffron sky in the west and blazed in the red, yellow, and pink foliage on the mountain-side. The light brought into clearer outline the brown peaks and beetling crags that rose bleak and bare above the wealth of color, beyond the dark, evergreen stretches of pines and mountain cedars. The gorgeous tail of a peacock spread and gleamed under the cherry-trees in the back yard. A sleek calf was running back and forth in a little lot, and a brindled cow was bellowing mellowly, her head thrown up as she cantered down the road, her heavy bag swinging under her.
At the sight of the woman a flock of ducks, chickens, and geese gathered round her. She shooed the fowls away with her apron. "They want the'r supper," she said, as she led her guest back to the front yard. She went to the gate and looked down the road. "I see Luke at the branch," she added, coming back to him; "he'd be on faster ef he knowed you wus heer."
Luke Bradley was about fifty years of age. He had blue eyes, a long body, long arms, and long legs. His hair was reddish brown and his face florid and freckled. He walked with a shambling gait, stooped considerably, and swung his arms. He seldom wore a coat, and on days as mild as this his shirt-sleeves were always rolled up. He presented a striking contrast to John Westerfelt, who, by the people of that remote section, might have been considered something of a swell.
"How are you, ol' hoss?" Bradley laughed, as he swung the sagging gate open and grasped his friend's hand. "Glad to see you; I've done nothin' but fight tongue battles fer you all day. Webb has been cussin' me black an' blue fer biddin' agin 'im fer a stranger, but thar's one consolation—we've got 'im on the hip."
Westerfelt laughed pleasantly as he followed his host into the sitting-room. "Much obliged to you, Luke. I'm glad I took your advice about the investment."
"Me'n Marthy wus both dead set on gettin' you over heer," Luke said, as he placed a chair for Westerfelt in front of the fire. "Both of us 'low a change will do you good."
Mrs. Bradley sat down in a corner and spread out her ample homespun skirt and began to run the hem of her apron through her fat, red fingers.
"Me'n Luke's been talkin' it over," she said, with some embarrassment; "we 'lowed you mought mebby be willin' to put up with us; we've got a spare room, an' you know about how we live. You've lied unmercifully ef you don't like my cookin'," she concluded, with an awkward little laugh.
"I never lie," he retorted, smiling. "It's been a year since I ate at your house, but I can taste your slice-potato pie yet, and your egg-bread and biscuits, ugh!"
She laughed. "You'll stay, then?"
"I'm afraid not. I've packed up some pieces of furniture—a bed and one thing or other—and I calculated that I'd occupy the room over the stable. I'd like to be near my business. I reckon I can get my meals down at the hotel. I'll stay with you to-night, though; the wagon won't come till to-morrow."
"Well, I'm disappointed, shore 'nough," said Mrs. Bradley. "I had clean forgot the room at the stable, an' I ought to 'a' knowed, too, that Saunders' boys bunked thar. Well, I won't raise no objections; Mis' Boyd, a widow woman, is keepin' the hotel now, and folks say she feeds well an' cheap enough. She's from Tennessee, an's got a good-lookin', sprightly daughter. Nobody knows a thing about 'em; they don't talk much about the'rse'ves. They tuk the hotel when Rick Martin sold out last fall, an' they've been thar ever sence."
Supper was served in the room adjoining the kitchen. After it was over, Westerfelt and his host went back to the sitting-room. Alf, a colored farm-hand, was heaping logs on the old-fashioned dog-irons in the wide fireplace, and a mass of fat pine burning under the wood lighted the room with a soft red glow.
Westerfelt looked round him in surprise. While they were at supper the carpet had been taken up, the floor swept clean, and a number of chairs placed against the wall round the room.
"Marthy's doin's," Bradley explained, sheepishly; "don't hold me accountable; she's arranged to give you a shindig to introduce you to the young folks round about."
Just then Mrs. Bradley came in.
"Sweep the hearth, Alf," she said, pointing to a live coal that had popped out on the floor. "Didn't I tell you never to put on them chestnut logs? Do you want to burn the roof over our heads? Give it to me!" She snatched the unwieldy bundle of broomstraw from him. "Go tell Mis' Snow I'm much obleeged fer the cheers, an' ef I need any more I'll send fer um after 'while. Tell 'er ef she don't let Mary an' Ella come I'll never set foot in her house agin."
"What's all this for?" asked Westerfelt.
"You." She slapped him familiarly on the arm. "I'm goin' to give you a mount'in welcome. This settlement is full o' nice gals, an' you hain't the least idee how much excitement thar's been sence the report went out that you are gwine to live amongst us. I'm the most popular woman in Cartwright, jest beca'se I know you. I tell you I've been blowin' yore horn. I've talked a sight about you, an' you must do yore best an' look yore purtiest. Oh, yore clothes is all right!" (seeing that he was looking doubtfully at his boots and trousers). "They hain't a dressy set over heer." Her husband was leaving the room, and she waited till he had closed the door after him. "I want to talk to you like a mother, John," she said, sitting down near him and holding the bundle of broom between her knees. "The truth is, I've had a sight o' worry over you. I often lie awake at night thinkin' about you, an' wonderin' ef yore ma wouldn't blame me ef she wus alive fer not lookin' atter you more. I've heerd what a solitary life you've been livin' sence she died. God knows she wus a big loss, an' it does bring a great change to part with sech a friend, but, from what I heer, you let 'er death bother you most too much. Why, folks tell me you hain't at all like you used to be, an' that you jest stayed at home an' never went about with the young folks any more. You don't look as well as you did the last time I seed you, nuther. I reckon it's yore way o' living but you jest sha'n't do that away over heer. You've got to be natural like other young folks, an' you jest shall, ef I have anything to say in the matter. John, yore mamma was the best friend I ever had, an'—"
She paused. Luke was hallooing to some one down the road, and Westerfelt heard the rumble of wheels over a distant bridge. Mrs. Bradley went to the door and went out.
"They are comin', the whole caboodle of 'em!" she cried, excitedly. "I declare, I believe I enjoy a party as much as any gal that ever lived, an' at my age, too—it's shameful. I'd be talked about in some places." She laid her hands on the shoulders of her guest, her face beaming. "Now, ef you want to primp up a little an' bresh that hoss-hair off'n yore pants, go in yore room. It's at the end o' the back porch. Alf's already tuck yore saddle-bags thar."
His room was a small one. It had a sloping ceiling, and a little six-paned window. A small, oblong stove stood far enough back in the capacious fireplace to allow its single joint of pipe to stand upright in the chimney. There was a high-posted bed, a wash-stand, a mirror, and a split-bottomed chair.
He sat down in the chair, rested his elbows on his knees, and leaned forward. Despite his determination to begin life anew, he was thinking of Sally Dawson's death and burial—the old woman who was leading the life of a recluse, and hating all her kind, him in particular. He put his hand in his coat-pocket and drew out a thick envelope containing the dead girl's letter, and read it as he had done almost every day since it came to him. It was part of the punishment he was inflicting on himself. He had been tempted a thousand times to destroy the letter, but had never done so. He forgot that a gay party of young people were assembling in the next room; he was oblivious of the noise of moving chairs, the creaking floor, loud laughter, and the hum of voices. Fate had set him aside from the rest of the world, he told himself; he was living two lives, one in the present, the other in the past.
Westerfelt was suddenly reminded of where he was by the sound of some one tuning a fiddle in the sitting-room. He put the letter into his pocket, rose, and brushed his hair before the mirror. There was a clatter of heavy boots in the entry opposite his door; four or five young men had come out to wash their hands in the pans on the long shelf; they were passing jokes, laughing loudly, and playfully striking at one another. Two of them clinched arms and began to wrestle. Westerfelt heard them panting and grunting as they swayed back and forth, till the struggle was ended by one of them shoving the other violently against the wall; Westerfelt opened the door. A stout, muscular young giant was pinning a small man to the weather-boarding and making a pretence at choking him.
"Lord, H'ram, stop!" gasped the victim; "yore sp'ilin' my necktie an' collar."
"'Gin the rules to wear 'em," was the laughing reply. "Heer, Joe, you sprinkle 'im while I hold 'im!"
This command was about to be obeyed, when Mrs. Bradley suddenly appeared.
"Boys, boys, behave!" she cried, and as the wrestlers separated she continued, apologetically, "I clean forgot thar wusn't a sign of a towel on the roller; I wonder what you intended to wipe on; here, take this one, an' hang it up when you're through." Then she turned to Westerfelt's door and looked into his room.
"Are you ready, young man?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied, coming out.
"Gentlemen," she said, "quit thar a minute! This is John Westerfelt, my old friend. Mind you look atter yore intrusts. The boys over in Fannin know how to please the gals. Ef you don't watch sharp he'll cut you every one out."
The two men holding the towel between them gave him their moist hands, and those at the basins nodded. Mrs. Bradley drew him into the sitting-room. The buzz of conversation ceased as she introduced him. They all rose, bowed, and sat down again, but no one spoke. He tried to detain his hostess, but she would not stay.
"I've got to look atter the rest," she said. "You must talk to some o' these folks. They didn't come here jest to look at you. Here, Jennie Wynn, turn yore face round, an' give Frank a chance to talk to Lou." She whisked off into another room, and Westerfelt found himself facing a blushing maiden with a round face, dark hair and eyes.
"Excuse my back," she said over her shoulder to Frank Hansard.
"It hain't as purty as yore face, ef you have got on a new dress," he replied, laughing.
"Hush, Frank; hain't you got no manners?" She meant that he was showing discourtesy by continuing to talk to her when she had just been introduced to a stranger.
"You ought not to be hard on him," said Westerfelt; "he must have meant what he said."
"You are jest like all the rest, I reckon," she said; "men think girls don't care for nothin' but sweet talk."
Just then the old negro fiddler moved into the chimney-corner and raked his violin with his bow. Jennie Wynn knew that he was about to ask the couples to take their places for the first dance. She did not want Westerfelt to feel obliged to ask her to be his partner, so she pretended to be interested in the talk of a couple on her left.
"Do they dance the lancers?" asked Westerfelt.
"No, jest the reg'lar square dance. Only one or two know the lancers, an' they make a botch of it whenever they try to teach the rest. Uncle Mack cayn't play the music for it, anyway, though he swears he can."
She glanced across the room at a pretty little girl with short curly hair, slender body, and small feet, and added, significantly, "Sarah Wambush is our brag dancer."
He understood what she meant. "Too short for a fellow as tall as I am, though," he said.
"Git yo' pahtners fer de quadrille!" cried the fiddler, in a sing-song voice, quite in harmony with his music. Westerfelt did not want to dance. He had ridden hard that day, and was tired and miserable, but he saw no way of escape. The party had been given in his honor, and he must show appreciation of it.
"Will you dance it with me?" he asked the girl at his side. "I am not a good dancer, and I am stiff from riding to-day."
"Old Mack will soon take that out of you," she laughed, as she gladly nodded her acceptance. She put out her hand to his. "Quick!" she cried; "let's git that place near the door—it's head, and we can be opposite Sarah and Nelse Baker." He followed her across the room. He felt as undignified as if he were romping with a child. The room was not large enough for two sets, so only one of four couples was formed. Old Mack noticed that three couples were left sitting, and cried out, autocratically, "Double on de sides!" Two couples sprang eagerly forward and took places, leaving one couple alone in a corner. The girl remaining with her partner attracted Westerfelt's attention. She had rich brown hair, deep gray eyes, a small, well-shaped mouth, and a rather sad but decidedly pretty face. There was something very graceful and attractive in the general contour of her body—her small waist, her broad shoulders and rounding chest, her well-formed head, and the artistic arrangement of her abundant hair. There was something, too, in the tasteful simplicity of her gray tailor-made gown that reminded Westerfelt of the dress of young ladies he had seen on short visits to the larger towns in the State.
Her companion was the most conspicuous person in the room. He was above medium height, and had a splendid physique—broad shoulders, muscular limbs, light brown eyes, short brown beard, and long curling hair. He wore a navy-blue sack-coat, large checked trousers tucked in the tops of his boots, a gray woollen shirt, and a broad leather belt. He was the only man in the room who had not taken off his hat. It was very broad, the brim was pinned up on one side by a little brass ornament, and he wore it on the back of his head.
Westerfelt caught the eye of his partner, and asked: "Who is the fellow with the hat on?"
"Don't you know him?" she asked, in surprise. "Why, that's Toot Wambush, Sarah's brother."
"Why don't he take off his hat?"
"For want of better sense, I reckon." Then she laughed, impulsively. "I'll tell you why he always keeps it on in the house. He was at a party over at Sand Bank last spring, an'—"
"Han's to yo' pahtners!" cried out Uncle Mack, as he drew his bow across three or four strings at once, producing a harmony of bass, alto, and treble sounds. "Salute de lady on yo' right!"
The bridge of the fiddle had fallen. Everybody laughed over Uncle Mack's discomfiture, as he rubbed the rosin out of his eyes and grunted, half amused, half vexed at the accident. He held the violin between his knees and proceeded to adjust the bridge.
"You were telling me why that fellow keeps on his hat," Westerfelt reminded his partner.
"Oh yes!" laughed the girl, "that's so. Toot's never satisfied if he ain't in a row o' some sort. He will always manage to pick a quarrel out of something. He's mighty troublesome, especially when he's drinkin'. He was pretty full over there that night, an' kept dancin' with his hat on. Mis' Lumpkin, who give the dance, asked 'im quietly to take it off an' behave like a gentleman. That made 'im mad, an' he swore he'd die first. Then some o' the boys tuk Mis' Lumpkin's part, an' tol' 'im the hat would come off ur he'd go out. It 'ud be a treat to see Toot Wambush mad if you could feel sure you wouldn't get hit. He clamped his hands together behind 'im an' yelled to Uncle Mack to stop fiddlin'; then he 'lowed ef any man thar tried to oust 'im he'd put windows in 'im. Frank Hansard, Lum Evans, and Andy Treadwell made signs at one another an' closed in on 'im. They didn't fully realize who they had to deal with, though. I hain't got much use for Toot, but he'll fight a circular saw bare-handed. He backed into a corner over a pile o' split pine-knots an' grabbed one that Thad Muntford declared wuz shaped like the jaw-bone o' Samson's ass. It had a long handle an' weighed about fifteen pounds. On my word, it seemed to me he slugged Frank and Andy at exactly the same time. You could 'a' heerd the'r skulls pop to the gate. They both fell kerflop in front of 'im. That left jest Lum Evans facin' 'im 'thout a thing in his hands. He dodged Toot's pine-knot when he swung it at 'im an' then Toot laughed an' thowed it down and shook his fists at 'im, an' tol' 'im to come on for a fair fisticuff. Jest then Frank come to an' started to rise, but Toot sent 'im back with a kick in the face, an' helt 'im down with 'is boot on 'is neck. Andy backed out of the door, an' then Toot ordered Uncle Mack to play, an' tried to get the girls to dance with 'im, but nobody would, so he danced by 'isse'f, while Doc White an' Mis' Lumpkin worked on the wounded men in the next room. Since then Toot has al'ays wore his hat at dances. He swore he never would go to one unless he did."
Westerfelt laughed. "Who's the young lady?" he asked.
"Harriet Floyd. Her mother keeps the hotel. They 'ain't been here so mighty long; they're Tennessee folks."
"Don't know. He's 'er very shadder. I reckon she likes that sort of a man; she's peculiar, anyway."
"How do you mean?"
"I don't know, but she is." Jennie shrugged her shoulders. "She don't git on with us. In a crowd o' girls she never has much to say; it always seemed to me she was afraid somebody would find out some'n' about 'er. She never mentions Tennessee. But she's a great favorite with all the boys. They'd be a string o' 'em round 'er now, but they don't want to make Toot mad."
"Right han' ter yo' pahtners," called out Uncle Mack, rapping on the back of his fiddle with his bow. "Salute yo' pahtners; balance all!" and the dance began. "Swing corners! Fust fo' for'ards, en back agin!"
"Faster, Unc' Mack!" cried Sarah Wambush, as she swung past the old negro. "That hain't the right time!"
"Wait till he gets limbered up," cried Frank Hansard across to her. "He hain't drawed a bow in two weeks, an' has been ploughin' a two-hoss turnover."
Louder and louder grew the music and the clatter of shoes and boots. The air was filled with dust; old Mack's fiddle could hardly be heard above his shouts and the laughter of the dancers. Luke and Mrs. Bradley stood in the open door leading to the kitchen, both smiling. Mrs. Bradley seemed pleased with the ease with which Westerfelt appeared to be adapting himself to the company.
"Git the straws, Luke!" urged Frank Hansard, as the "grand chain" brought him near Bradley. "Give it to us lively."
"I can't beat straws," said Luke.
Hearing this, old Mack uttered a contradictory guffaw, and shook his gray wool in high amusement.
"Go on, Luke," said his wife, as she pushed him towards the fiddler; "you kin, you know you kin."
Luke edged round between the dancers and the fire, and took two smooth sour-wood sticks from Mack's coat-pocket. The old negro laughed and sang all the louder as he held his head to one side and Luke began to thrum the strings in time to the music.
"Whoo-ee!" shouted Frank, and the dance waxed faster and more noisy, till the exhausted fiddler brought it to an end by crying out:
"Seat yo' pahtners."
Jennie sat down in a row of girls against the wall, and Mrs. Bradley came to Westerfelt.
"You must stir round," she said; "I want you to git acquainted. Come over here an' talk to Sarah Wambush." He followed her across the room. Sarah was seated next to Harriet Floyd. As he sat down near Sarah, he fancied that Harriet, whose profile was towards him, gave him a glance out of the corner of her eye, but she turned her head and continued talking to Toot Wambush. There was something he liked in the ease of her position as she sat, balling her handkerchief in a hand hidden half in the pocket of her jacket. He thought her easily the prettiest girl in the room, and he vaguely resented the fact that she was receiving marked attention from a man of Wambush's character.
He wanted to knock the fellow's hat off, and tell him that a new man had come into the settlement who could not, and would not, stand such nonsense in the presence of ladies.
He listened to Sarah's prattle with only half an ear, adding a word now and then to keep her tongue going, till another dance was called. Nelse Baker asked Sarah to be his partner, and she rose. Finding himself alone, Westerfelt got up. As he did so, he caught another glance from the corner of Harriet Floyd's eye, but she looked away quickly. She thought he was going to ask her to dance with him when he turned towards her, but he had decided to invite a little plain girl who sat next the wall, hemmed in by the crossed legs of Wambush. The girl flushed over the unexpected attention and rose at once.
"That couple don't seem to be dancing," Westerfelt remarked, with a glance at Wambush and Harriet, as he and his partner took a place in front of the fire.
"No," she answered. "Toot sorter sprained his foot at a log-rollin' to-day."
"And she won't dance without him, is that it?"
"She would, but none o' the boys won't ask her when Toot's on hand."
"Ah, I see—engaged?"
"No. I reckon not; but Toot sorter lays claim to 'er though."
"And she don't object?"
She looked up and laughed. "It don't look much like it, does it?"
"I don't know; I never saw them together before."
"Oh, I see; well, he's her regular stand-by; he takes 'er to all the frolics, an' the picnics, an' to meetin'. He lives out at his father's, a mile or so from town, but he gets meals mighty often at the hotel."
As the dance began Westerfelt glanced again at Harriet Floyd. He could not explain the interest he had in her. She was looking straight into his eyes, as if she had divined that he was talking about her. He was almost certain that she colored slightly as she glanced on to Mrs. Bradley.
Mrs. Bradley smiled and moved towards her, between the wall and the flying heels of the revolving circle. Westerfelt, in turning his "lady on the right," came near them as Mrs. Bradley was saying:
"I want you to get acquainted with my Fannin young man, Harriet. He's mighty nice."
At that moment Harriet caught Westerfelt's eye again, and knew that he had heard the remark.
She nodded, and said, evasively, "You are having a nice dance, Mrs. Bradley; they all seem to be enjoying it very much."
Westerfelt had not heard her voice before, and he liked it. He noticed that she did not leave off her final g's, and that she spoke more clearly and correctly than the others. He concluded that she must have received a better education than the average young lady in that section. The dance was nearly ended when Westerfelt saw Wambush bend over and whisper something to her. She nodded, drew her white shawl round her shoulders, rose, and followed him out through the kitchen.
"Gone to try the moonlight," remarked the little gossip at Westerfelt's side, with a knowing smile.
"All promenade!" shouted the fiddler, the dance being over. The couples went outside. They passed Wambush and Harriet on the porch, leaning against the banisters in the moonlight. Her head was covered with her shawl, and her companion was very near her.
"Never mind; we won't bother you," called out Sarah Wambush, who, with Nelson Baker, led the promenaders. "We're goin' down the walk; you needn't run off on our account."
All the others laughed, and Sarah, thinking she had said something bright, added: "Harriet's got a bad cold, an' Buddy's sprained his foot; they're takin' the'r medicine."
This evoked another laugh, but neither Wambush nor his companion heeded it. Westerfelt observed that they turned their backs to the promenaders and seemed to be talking earnestly.
"It's cool out here," said Westerfelt's partner as they were returning from the walk under the arbor of grape-vines. "They are all goin' inside."
At about twelve o'clock the guests began to leave. Harriet Floyd, followed by Wambush, came in hurriedly after most of the others had gone. Westerfelt was near Mrs. Bradley when she came to say good-night. He heard her say she had enjoyed herself very much, but she spoke hurriedly, as if she did not want to be the last to leave. Westerfelt watched them go through the gate, but he turned away when Wambush put his arm round her waist and lifted her lightly into his buggy.
He was sure he would never like the fellow.
Just before Westerfelt went to bed, Bradley looked into his room.
"I 'lowed I'd better take a peep at that stove o' yore'n, an' see that thar ain't any danger o' fire while we are asleep," he said. "How'd you make out to-night?"
"I 'lowed you wus gittin' on well enough—talked to most all the gals, I reckon."
"All but one, I think—that Miss Floyd."
"Ah, Toot's gal; mortgaged property, I reckon, or soon will be; she's as purty as red shoes, though, an' as peert as a cricket."
Westerfelt sat down on the side of his bed and drew off his boots.
"What sort of a man is he, Luke?"
"Bad—bad; no wuss in seven States."
"Yes; an' whiskey an' moonshinin' an' what not; ain't but one good p'int in 'im, an' that hain't wuth much in time o' peace. I reckon ef yo're through with it, I'd better take yore candle; sometimes I have to strike a light 'fore day."
"All right." Westerfelt got into the bed and drew the covers up to his chin. There was a thumping on the floor beneath the house.
"It's the dogs," explained Luke, at the door. "They are a-flirtin' the'r tails about. They'll settle down terrectly. What time do you want to rise in the mornin'?"
"When you do. I'm no hand to lie in bed."
"You'll have to crawl out with the chickens then."
Bradley turned at the door. "What is it, John?"
"I don't like Wambush's looks."
Bradley laughed, with his hand over his mouth. "Nobody else does to hurt."
"Do you think he would trifle with the affections of a young girl?"
"Would he?" Again Bradley laughed.
"Well, I reckon he would; he is a bad man, I tell you. We'd never 'low him to enter our house, ef we could help it, but he'd raise the very devil ef he was slighted. We'd never heer the end of it. Ef we'd left 'im out to-night I'd 'a' had 'im to fight out thar in the front yard while the party was goin' on. I wouldn't mind it much, but my wife never wanted me in a row."
"This girl he was with to-night, has she father or brothers?"
"No, the's jest her an' 'er mother."
"Isn't it pretty risky for her to go with him so much?"
"Oh, I reckon she kin take care o' herse'f; she has that look to me; besides, she's been warned; my wife an' among 'em has talked to her plenty o' times. I reckon she knows what he is well enough. Do you know I had my eye on you an' her to-night?"
"What do you mean, Luke?" Westerfelt managed to avoid meeting the eye of his host as he put the question. He could not remember ever having waited for a reply with more concern.
"Oh, I don't know," smiled Bradley, knowingly; "but somehow you an' her seemed to me to be head an' shoulders above the rest o' that silly crowd. The idee just popped into my head that you'd make a spankin' team, an' then ag'in" (Bradley laughed) "I tuck notice that you never went up to 'er an' talked to her free-like, as you did to most o' the rest, an' I remembered I wus jest that big a fool when I fust met Marthy. But you wus a-watchin' of her, though. I'll bet ef you looked at 'er once you did forty times. As for her, I happen to know some'n funny. You see, I heerd her an' Wambush a-talkin' on the back porch when I went out thar to draw up a bucket o' water. The rope had got tangled somehow, an' I had to fix it, an' while I was doin' of it I couldn't help heerin' what they said, beca'se Toot wus as mad as a wet hen, an' didn't keer a dern who heerd 'im."
"Mad—at her?" ejaculated Westerfelt.
"Yes; it seemed that he had bantered her to say what she thought about you, an' she'd up an' told him you wus about the best-lookin' man she'd ever seed, an' that you looked like a born gentleman, an' one thing anuther. I couldn't heer all that passed betwixt 'em, but he wus as nigh a' explosion as I ever seed 'im git without goin' off. You'd better look out. He won't do to meddle with. He's a bad egg—an' tricky."
When Bradley had gone, leaving his guest in the dark, Westerfelt found himself unable to sleep for thinking of what Luke had said.
"I wonder, really," he mused, "why I didn't talk to her as I did to the others, for I certainly wanted to bad enough."
Westerfelt's room at the stable was at the head of a flight of steps leading up from the office. It had only a single window, but it commanded a partial view of several roads leading into the village, and a sparse row of houses on the opposite side of the street. In front of the stable stood a blacksmith shop, and next to it, on the right, the only store in the village. The store building had two rooms, the front being used for dry-goods, groceries, and country produce, the one in the rear as the residence of the storekeeper. Next to the store, in a sort of lean-to, whitewashed shed with green shutters, was a bar-room. Farther on in this row, opposite the jail of the place, and partially hidden by the thinning foliage of sycamore, chestnut, and mulberry trees, was the hotel. It was the only two-storied building in the village. It had dormer windows in the roof and a long veranda in front.
Somehow this building interested Westerfelt more than any of the others. He told himself it was because he intended to get his meals there. Finally he decided, as he was not to dine that day with the Bradleys, that he ought to go over at once and speak to the landlady about his board. As he arranged his cravat before the little walnut-framed mirror, which the stable-boys in placing his furniture had hung on the wall, together with a hairbrush and a comb tied to strings, he wondered, with no little pleasurable excitement, if Harriet Floyd had anything to do with the management of the house, and if he would be apt to meet her that morning.
Descending to the office on his way out, he found a young man writing at a desk. It was William Washburn, the book-keeper for the former owners of the livery-stable, whom Westerfelt had retained on Bradley's recommendation. Washburn was copying accounts from a ledger on to sheets of paper.
"How are they running?" asked Westerfelt, looking over the young man's shoulder.
"Lots of 'em hain't wuth the paper they are on," replied Washburn. "The old firm knowed everybody in creation, an' never could refuse a soul. When you bought the accounts you didn't buy gold dollars."
"I know that, but Bradley said he thought I might collect a good many of them."
"Oh yes; maybe a half, or tharabouts."
"Well," said Westerfelt, indifferently, "we'll do the best we can."
"Thar's a big un that's no good." Washburn pointed to an account he had just copied.
"Who's it on?"
"Seventy-eight dollars an' fifty cents. It's been runnin' on fer two yeer, an' thar hain't a single credit on it. He never was knowed to pay a cent to nobody."
"Don't let anything out to him till the account is paid."
Washburn looked up with a dubious smile. "He'll raise a' awful row. He never wants to go anywhar tell he's drinkin', an' then he's as ill as a snake an' will fight at the drop of a hat. Nobody in Cartwright dares to refuse 'im credit."
"I will, if he doesn't pay up."
"D' y' ever see 'im?"
"Yes, last night."
"I'd be cautious if I wus you; he's a dangerous man, an' takes offence at the slightest thing."
"If he gets mad at me for refusing to let him drive my horses when he owes a bill like that, and won't pay it, he can do so. I obey the law myself, and I will not let drunkards run my business to suit themselves."
"He's talking 'bout goin' out to his father's this morning, an' wants to drive the same rig he had last night."
"I did not know he had my turnout last night."
"Yes, you wusn't heer, an' I knowed he'd make trouble if I refused him."
"That's all right, but don't let him get in any deeper till the old debt is settled. I'm going over to the hotel a minute."
It was a warm day for October, and the veranda of the hotel was crowded with loungers, homely men in jeans, slouched hats, and coarse brogans. Some of them sat on the benches, supported by the square columns, at the end of the veranda; a few had tilted their chairs against the wall, and others stood in groups and talked county politics.
They all eyed Westerfelt curiously, and some of them nodded and said "Howdy do" as he passed. He entered the parlor on the right of the long hall which ran through the centre of the main wing. A slovenly negro girl was sweeping the hearth. She leaned her broom against the cottage organ and went to call her mistress.
A sombre rag carpet was on the floor, and a rug made of brilliant red and blue scraps of silk lay in front of the fire. On a centre-table, covered with a red flannel cloth, stood a china vase, filled with colored leaves and grasses, and lying near it was a plush photograph album. The rest of the furniture consisted of an ancient hair-cloth sofa, an old rocking-chair, the arms of which had been tied on with twine, and a sewing-machine. The windows had cheap lace curtains, stiff enough to stand alone, and green shades with tinselled decorations. The plastered walls were whitewashed and the ceiling was faded sky-blue.
He heard a door close somewhere in the rear, and then with a light step Harriet Floyd entered.
"Good-morning," she said, slightly embarrassed. "Mother was busy, and so she asked me to come in."
"I believe we were introduced, in a general way, last night," he said. "I hope you remember."
"Oh yes, indeed," she made answer.
He thought she was even prettier in the daylight in her simple calico dress and white apron than she had appeared the evening before, and he was conscious that the sharp realization of this fact was causing him to pause unnecessarily long before speaking in his turn. But he simply could not help it; he experienced a subtle pleasure he could not explain in watching her warm, slightly flushed face. Her eyes held a wonderful charm for him. There seemed to be a strange union of forces between her long lashes and the pupils of her eyes, the like of which he believed he had never met before.
"I've come to see if I can get my meals here," he said. "It is near my place of business, and I've heard a lot of good things about your mother's table."
"We always have plenty of room," she answered, simply. "Mother will be glad to have you. Won't you take a seat?" She sat down on the sofa and he took a chair opposite her.
"I suppose you enjoyed the party last night," he said, tentatively.
He fancied she raised her brows a little and glanced at him rather steadily, but she looked down when she replied.
"Yes; Mrs. Bradley always gives us a good time."
"But you were not dancing."
"No, I don't care much for it, and Toot—Mr. Wambush—had sprained his foot and said he'd rather not dance."
"That was very kind of you. Not many girls would be so considerate of a fellow's feelings."
She looked down at a brindled cat that came into the room and rubbed its side against her skirt.
"I don't think girls care enough about the feelings of men," she answered, after a little pause. "If they would treat them nicer they would be better."
"You think women can reform men then?"
"Yes, I do; though a man that drinks is mighty hard to manage. Sometimes they can't help it, and they drink more when women show that they have lost confidence in them."
He liked what she had said, notwithstanding its being an indirect defence of Wambush, but was prevented from answering by hearing his name angrily called in the street. This was followed by heavy footsteps on the veranda.
"Whar is that d——d livery man?" The voice was now in the hall.
"It's Toot Wambush!" cried the girl, rising quickly and turning to the door. "I am afraid he—" Just then the young ruffian entered. His red face and unsteady walk showed that he had been drinking.
"Say, Miss Harriet, have you seed—oh, heer you are!"—he broke off as he noticed Westerfelt. "You are the one man in the United Kingdom that I want to see jest at this present moment. Bill Washburn 'lowed he had orders from you not to let me have anything out'n yore shebang; is that so?"
"I'd rather not talk business here," replied Westerfelt. He rose and coolly looked Wambush in the face. "If you say so, we'll walk across to the stable."
"No," sneered Wambush, "this heer's good enough fur me; I hain't got no secrets frum them mount'in men out thar nur this young lady. I jest want ter know now—right now, by Glory! ef you ever give sech orders."
"Do you think this is a proper place to settle such a matter?" calmly asked Westerfelt.
"D——d you; you are a coward; you are afeerd to say so!"
Harriet Floyd, with a white, startled face, tried to slip between the two men, but Wambush roughly pushed her aside.
"You are afeerd!" he repeated, shaking his fist in Westerfelt's face.
"No, I'm not," replied Westerfelt. The corners of his mouth were drawn down and his chin was puckered. "I have fought some in my life, and sometimes I get as mad as the next one, but I still try to be decent before ladies. This is no place to settle a difficulty."
"Will you do it outside, then?" sneered Wambush.
Westerfelt hesitated, and looked at the crowd that filled the door and stood peering in at the window. Mrs. Floyd was running up and down in the hall, excitedly calling for Harriet, but the crowd was too anxious to hear Westerfelt's reply to notice her.
"If nothing else will suit you, yes," answered Westerfelt, calmly. "I don't think human beings ought to spill blood over a matter of business, and I don't like to fight a man that's drinking, but since you have behaved so in this lady's presence, I'm really kinder in the notion."
"Come on, then," blustered Wambush. "I'm either yore meat or you are mine." He turned to the door and pushed the crowd before him as he stamped out of the hall into the street.
Harriet ran between Westerfelt and the door. She put her hands on his shoulders and looked at him beseechingly. "Don't go out there," she pleaded; "stay here and let him cool off; he is drinking! He's a dangerous man."
He took her hands and held them for an instant and then dropped them. "I'm afraid he's been humored too much," he smiled. "I'd never have any respect for myself if I was to back down now. I've known his kind to be cured by a good, sound thrashing, when nothing else would do any good."
She raised her hands again, but he avoided her gently and went out into the street. Wambush stood on the sidewalk a few yards from the door, one booted foot on the curbstone, the other on the ground. He had thrown his broad-brimmed hat on the ground, and tossed his long hair back over his shoulders. His left hand rested on his raised knee, his right was in the pocket of his short coat.
"Come on, if you ain't too weak-kneed," he jeered, as Westerfelt appeared on the veranda.
Westerfelt advanced towards Wambush, but when he was within a few feet of him, Wambush suddenly drew a revolver, cocked it, and deliberately raised it. Westerfelt stopped and looked straight into Wambush's eyes.
"I'm unarmed," said he; "I never carry a pistol; is that the way you do your fighting?"
"That's yore lookout, not mine, d——n you!"
Just then Luke Bradley ran up the sidewalk and out on the veranda near Westerfelt. He had a warning on his lips, but seeing the critical situation he said nothing. A white, tigerish look came into the face of Westerfelt. The cords of his neck tightened as he leaned slowly towards Wambush. He was about to spring.
"Don't be a fool, John," cautioned Bradley. "Be ashamed o' yorese'f, Toot! Drap that gun, an' fight like a man ur not at all!"
Wambush's eye ran along the revolver, following every movement of Westerfelt's with the caution of a panther watching dangerous prey.
"One more inch and you are a dead man!" he said, slowly.
Mrs. Floyd, who was on the veranda, cried out and threw her arms round Harriet, who seemed ready to run between the two men. No one quite saw how it happened, but Westerfelt suddenly bent near the earth and sprang forward. Wambush's revolver went off over his head, and before he could cock it again, Westerfelt, with a swift sweep of his arm, had sent it spinning through a window-pane in the hotel.
"Ah!" escaped somebody's lips in the silent crowd, and the two men, closely on the alert, faced each other.
"Part 'em, men; what are you about?" cried Mrs. Floyd.
"Yes, part 'em," laughed a man on the edge of the crowd; "somebody 'll get his beauty spiled; Toot kin claw like a pant'er; I don't know what t'other man kin do, but he looks game."
"No, let 'em fight it out fa'r an' squar'," suggested red-faced Buck Hillhouse, the bar-keeper, in the autocratic tone he used in conducting cock-fights in his back yard.
The blood had left Westerfelt's face. Wambush's eyes gleamed desperately; disarmed, he looked less a man than an infuriated beast. Westerfelt was waiting for him to make the attack, but, unlike his antagonist, was growing calmer every second. All at once Wambush sent his right arm towards Westerfelt's face so quickly that the spectators scarcely saw it leave his side, but it was not quicker than Westerfelt's left, which skilfully parried the thrust. Then, before Toot could shield himself, Westerfelt struck him with the force of a battering-ram squarely in the mouth.
Wambush whined in pain, spat blood from gashed lips, and shook his head like a lion wounded in the mouth. He ran backward a few feet to recover himself, and then, with a mad cry, rushed at Westerfelt and caught him by the throat. Westerfelt tried to shake him off, but he was unsuccessful. He attempted to strike him in the face, but Wambush either dodged the thrusts or caught them in his thick hair. It seemed that Westerfelt's only chance now was to throw his assailant down, but his strength had left him, Wambush's claws had sunk into his neck like prongs of steel. He could not breathe.
"Hit 'im in the bread-basket, John!" cried Luke Bradley.
It was a happy suggestion. Westerfelt struck Wambush in the stomach. With a gasp and an oath, Wambush doubled up and released Westerfelt's throat. The two men now clinched breast to breast, and, with arms round each other's bodies, each began to try to throw the other down. They swung back and forth and from side to side, but they were well mated.
Westerfelt suddenly threw his left leg behind Wambush's heels and began to force him backward. In an instant Wambush would have gone down, but seeing his danger he wriggled out of Westerfelt's grasp, drew something from his coat pocket, and sprang towards him.
"Knife! knife! knife!" cried Luke Bradley in alarm. "Part 'em!"
"Yes, part 'em!" echoed the bar-keeper with an oath, as if the edge of his pleasure had been taken off by the more serious turn of affairs. Several men ran towards Wambush, but they were not quick enough. He had stabbed Westerfelt once in the breast and drawn back his arm for another thrust, when Luke Bradley caught his wrist. Wambush struck at Bradley with his left hand, but the bar-keeper caught it, and between him and Bradley, Wambush was overpowered.
"The sheriff's coming!" a voice exclaimed, as a big man rode up quickly and dismounted.
"Hello!" he cried, "I summon you, Buck Hillhouse, and Luke Bradley, in the name o' the law to 'rest Wambush. Take that knife from 'im!"
"Arrest the devil!" came from Wambush's bloody lips. He made a violent effort to free himself, but the two men held him.
"I'll he'p yer, whether you deputize me or not!" grunted Bradley, as he hung to the hand which still held the knife, "I'll he'p yer cut 'is d——d throat, the cowardly whelp!"
"I've got nothin' 'gin nuther party," said the bar-keeper, "but I reckon I'll have to obey the law."
"He's attempted deliberate murder on a unarmed man," Bradley informed the sheriff; "fust with a gun an' then with a knife. Ef you don't jail 'im, Bale Warlick, you'll never hold office in Cohutta Valley agin."
The sheriff stepped up to Wambush.
"Drap that knife!" he ordered. "Drap it!"
"Go to h——!" Toot ceased his struggling and glared defiantly into the face of the sheriff.
"Drap that knife!" The sheriff was becoming angered. He grasped Wambush's hand and tried to take the knife away, but Toot's fingers were like coils of wire.
"I'll see you damned fust!" grunted Wambush, and, powerless to do anything else, he spat in the sheriff's face.
"d——n you, I'll kill you!" roared Warlick, and he struck Wambush on the jaw. Wambush tried to kick him in the stomach, but Bradley prevented it by jerking him backward. It now became a struggle between three men and one, and that one really seemed equal in strength to the other three.
"Drap the knife!" yelled Warlick again, and he drew a big revolver, and with the butt of it began to hammer Toot's clinched fingers. As he did this, Bradley and Hillhouse drew Wambush backward and down to the ground.
"I'll pay you for this, Bale Warlick," he groaned in pain, but he still held to the knife.
"Let go that knife," thundered the sheriff. "Let it a-loose, I tell you, or I'll mash your skull!"
"Not while I hold 'im, Bale," said the bar-keeper, sullenly. "Law or no law, I won't he'p beat no man 'at's down!"
"Let go that knife!" The sheriff spoke the last word almost in a scream, and he beat Wambush's knuckles so furiously that the knife fell to the ground.
He then pinned Toot's legs to the earth with his knees, and held the knife up to a man in the crowd.
"Keep it jest like it is fur evidence," he panted. "Don't shet it up or tetch the blade."
Disarmed, Wambush seemed suddenly overcome with fear. He allowed the sheriff to jerk him to his feet, and walked passively between the three men across the street to the stone jail.