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The Case of Eliza Bleylock by Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell

 

CAPTAIN JAMES PETERS, riding home from a raid into the moonshine counties, stopped at Jared's store and asked for a drink. A jug was taken from the shelf, and a finger's-length of clear yellow whiskey poured out.

“No moonshine in this sto', you see, captain,” remarked Mr. Jared.

“Humph!” and the captain's keen eyes glanced toward the loungers in and about the store. “Reckon if I took a notion I could unearth some moonshine, an' spot some moonshiners not fur off.”

“Captain, you mustn't be so suspicious.”

“Suspicious? Reckon I shouldn't earn my pay 'f I wuzn't. S'picion 's mighty good thing for a man-hunter. My game's shy. But I've my eye on mo' than knows of me. Some folks 'll find thar b'ilers smashed when they dunno I'm aroun'.”

Silence. Some of the young men shrugged their shoulders. One drawled out at last that he “didn't know as anybody keered three-jumps of a louse fur Jim Peters or his threatenin's.”

“Come, come,” said a cunning-looking old man; “don't let's have no words. We're all peaceful folks, captain, in this here settlement— powerful peaceful. Ter be sho', we don't like nobody a-foolin' round our business. We come from Car'liny more'n a hundred ye'rs ago, an' here we've lived peaceful an' orderly ever sence—a-livin' an' a-dyin' an' a-marryin' an' a-breedin'—”

“An' a-learnin' th' use of th' shot-gun,” interposed Dick Oscar, quietly.

“I'm a Tennessee man myself,” said Captain Peters, “an' I ruther think I know how t' use a shot-gun. An' I've got a rifle—that's a sixteen-shooter.”

There was a general movement of interest.

“Let's have a look at it, captain.”

“It don't go out o' my hand. But you can look much 's you please. Ain't she a beauty, now?”

They crowded around, patting and praising the gun as if it were human. And there was a general murmur of assent when old man Welch exclaimed, “Ain't it a pity, boys, ter see sech a rifle as that thronged away on a damned Gov'ment officer?”

Captain Peters only laughed. He was very good-humored, this mountain terror, except when, as they would say, his blood was up. Then it was as safe to meet a starving tiger.

“Seems to me 's if the captain has somethin' on his mind,” remarked Mrs. Riggs that same evening.

The Riggses lived at Bloomington, and the captain and his family were paying them a visit, preparatory to settling in the same place. Mrs. Riggs was a bustling young woman, “born in quite another part of the State,” as she would tell you, with an air; “no mopin' mountain blood in me.” She was the third wife of her husband—a sanctimonious old chap, with his long white beard, the ends of which he used to assist meditation, as a cow chews its cud.

“James Riggs,” his wife had said when he courted her, “it's my opinion you talked them two previous women to death; but if you get me, mark one thing—you'll get your match.” And he did.

The Riggses were extremely sensible of the honor of having Captain Peters in their house. Dom Pedro and Cetywayo rolled into one could not have been watched with more solicitude. Had not his name been in every paper in the Union, and his portrait in a New York journal? That the eyes of the nation were fixed upon him Peters himself did not doubt; and it was asserted through the country that he was in close correspondence with the President.

“Jim's been a-broodin',” said Mrs. Peters—a moon-faced woman with dull blue eyes—“ever sence he went inter this business. I've wished time 'n' ag'in he'd stuck to blacksmithin', for I've suffered a thousan' deaths with him off a-hangarin' * over the mountains.”

“He wuz called of the Lord,” said Mr. Riggs, “and his hand must not be stayed. The inikity of man shell be put down in the land.”

“Ye—es,” drawled the captain, “I'm a-goin' to bust up the 'stillin' business in Tennessee. But I'm plagued about them Bleylock boys. I can't ketch 'em nohow.”

A knock at the door, and a young fellow came in and shook hands eagerly with the captain. His name was Maddox.


* Wandering. Captain Peters had picked him up in Nashville, and employed him “on trial.”

“I wuz jest a-speakin' of the Bleylocks,” he said. “I'm pretty sure they've got a still somewhar. They look me in the eye too powerful innocent to be all right. Now, I've got a notion—” Maddox drew himself up, alert, watchful as a listening sentinel. “What can't be done one way must be done another,” said Captain Peters, slowly.

“And rightly you speak,” said Mr. Riggs, as he spat out his beard; “it's the Lord's work, an' be done it must, with every wepping known to man.”

“I knew it!—I knew it, captain!” cried Mrs. Riggs. “I knew you had somethin' on your mind. You're a-schemin' somethin' great. I see it in your eye.”

It remained in the captain's eye, as far as Mrs. Riggs was concerned, for the captain took Mr. Maddox out-of-doors, where they talked in whispers, and Mrs. Riggs berated her lord for having driven them away with his tongue.

A few days later a peddler stopped at Bleylock's and asked for a drink of water. Old Mother Bleylock sent Eliza to the spring for a fresh bucketful; and the peddler, after refreshing himself, opened his pack.

“ 'Pears 's if we oughtn't ter trouble you,” she said, “ 'cause we can't buy a pin's wuth.”

“Jest for the pleasure, ma'am,” said the gallant peddler.

The pack was opened, and three pairs of eyes grew big with delight.

“ 'F you'll wait till par comes I'll make him buy me that collar,” said Janey, the younger of the Bleylock girls.

“P'raps Dick Oscar 'd buy you a present 'f he wuz here, suggested Eliza.

“If 'tain't makin' too free, I'd like to say I admire Dick Oscar's taste,” said the peddler, with an admiring glance.

Janey responded with, “Oh! you hush!” and a toss of her head; and old Mother Bleylock said, “The boys most generully always paid Janey a good deal 'f attention.”

She possessed a bold prettiness, this mountain pink. Brown-skinned, black-eyed, red-lipped, and a way of dropping her head on her swelling neck, and looking mutiny from under her heavy brows. Eliza was a thin slip of a girl, with a demure but vacant look in her blue eyes, and a shy, nervous manner.

“I'll tell you the truth, ma'am,” remarked the peddler to the mother: “you could take these girls o' yours to Nashville, an' people in th' streets would follow them for their good looks. An' that's Heaven's own truth. All yo' family, these two?”

“Lor! no; I've got three boys.”

“All at home farmin', I s'pose?”

“Yaas.”

“Long road to take their crops to market.”

“I ain't never heerd no complaint.”

“Now, 'bout these goods o' mine,” said the peddler; ” 'f you could put me up for a few days, we might make a trade. I'm 's tired 's a lame horse, and wouldn't want nothin' better'n to rest right here.”

“I'd like nothin' better'n to take you. But th' ain't no use sayin' a word till par gits home. He ain't no hand fur strangers.”

“Well, I won't be a stranger longer'n I can help,” said the agreeable peddler. “My name's Pond—Marcus Pond—Nashville boy; but a rollin' stone, you know. I've peddled books an' sewin'-machines, an' no end of a lot of traps ginerally. Fond o' travel, you see; but jest 's steady as old Time. Never drink when I travel; promised my mother I wouldn't.”

“ 'Tis a good thing,” said Mother Bleylock, with energy. “I do despise to see a fuddled man. Whiskey ain't fit fur nothin' but ter fatten hogs on.”

Father Bleylock came home, and, beyond a stare and a silent nod, took little notice of the peddler. He was a tall man, thin, taciturn, and yellow, and with a neck so small that his head presented the appearance of being stuck on with a pin.

He lighted his pipe, and after a soothing interval of smoking, “Peddler 'd like to stop over a period,” said his wife.

Puff, puff. “Don't see no objection.” Puff, puff.

And a gentle hilarity agitated the bosoms that yearned over the peddler's pack.

Mr. Pond, as he had promised, soon ceased to be a stranger. The old man discoursed on the grievances of taxes, and the old woman, after the manner of mothers, talked about her daughters.

“My gals is eddicated,” she would say—“been over t' Cookville months an' months a-schoolin'. But, lor! thar's some folks you can't weed the badness out'n, an' Janey's a spitfire, she is. Seems 's if Dick Oscar wants to have her, but he acts kinder curious about it— blow hot, blow cold. Dunno. Now, Lizy is different. Can't tell why, less'n 'tis that I went to camp-meetin' an' perfessed a while befo' she wuz born. Somehow she's always been delicater an' quieter like 'n any of my childern.”

The Bleylock boys, easy, rollicking fellows, treated the peddler very much as if he had been a harmless though unnecessary cat about the house, and were surprised when Dick Oscar, dropping in one evening, informed them that they were all a pack of fools for “takin' in a stranger so free and easy.”

“Why, I ain't paid no more attention to th' man 'n if he'd a-been a preacher,” said Sam Bleylock; “seems 's if th' ain't no harm t' him.”

“He's a very God-fearin' man,” said Eliza, softly, “an' a powerful reader o' the Bible.”

“ 'F you'll take my say so, you'll git quit of him,” said Dick Oscar.

“He's got such beautiful taste!” said Mother Bleylock. “It's as good 's goin' to th' city to look at his things.”

“I see he's been a-dressin' you up,” said Oscar, with a sneer at the new ribbons the girls wore round their necks.

Janey sprung up. Her face reddened. In an instant she had torn off the ribbon and stamped her foot on it. “That's how much I care for him an' his ribbins!” she cried.

“Don't fly quite off the handle,” said Mr. Oscar, coolly. Evidently he shared her mother's opinion that Miss Janey was a spitfire.

Poor Janey! She had hoped to please her lover by her scorn of the peddler's gift, but she was coming to the conclusion that he was a hard man to please. She was a passionate young animal, and she had thrown herself into his arms with a readiness that robbed herself of her graces. He liked to sting and stroke her alternately, and was about as unsatisfactory a lover as Janey could have found on the Cumberland. But she liked him, saw with his eyes, thought with his thoughts. Naturally she turned against the peddler, and from this time set herself to watch him.

That harmless young man in the mean time was doing what he could. He wandered about the country selling such little things as the people could buy, “pumping” the Bleylock boys, and making love to the Bleylock girls. The pumping process was rewarded with about as much success as would attend fishing for a soul through the eye of a skeleton. In the love-making there was more hope.

Janey was accessible to flattery, and encouraged him with little looks of fire. But there was something in her eyes he did not trust, and he was a wary man, the peddler. Besides, she slapped his face when he tried to kiss her. But he soon grew to believe that Eliza—simple, unsuspicious, serious—would be as clay in his hands.

Chance favored Miss Janey. She was bathing, one warm day, in the creek that ran out from the spring, when she saw Eliza and the peddler coming, like Jack and Jill, to fetch a pail of water. Being naked, Janey could not get away; but she slid along to a cool inlet overhung with tree branches, and so hidden, waited for them to do their errand. Of course they stopped to talk.

“That pink ribbon becomes your black hair mightily,” said the peddler.

Eliza blushed. “We're just country girls, you know, Mr. Pond; we don't have many pretty things. Seems 's if the boys don't have any money left after buyin' the sugar an flour an' molasses an' things.”

“Meat, I s'pose?” said the practical peddler.

“No; we raise our own meat. Par has a powerful lot o' hogs.”

“So!”

“But I expect you don't take much interest in country life, Mr. Pond?”

“Why, my dear”—and Mr. Pond slipped his arm around Eliza—“I'd like the best in the world to settle down in a country just like this. A fellow gets tired trampin' around. But I'd want two things to make me happy.”

Eliza looked at him with happy confidence.

“First, a little wife 'at wuz gentle in her ways, an' a good, religious girl, an' one with black hair, to set off the pink ribbons I'd buy for her, an' a fleet foot, and a red mouth.”

Here Mr. Pond came to a full stop with a kiss.

“And the other thing?” with a bright blush.

The peddler grew practical again. “Well, it's nothin' more'n some way to make a livin'. Now, say I married a sweet girl up the Cumberland, and made a little crop. It's too far to git it to market. I might turn it into whiskey, but lately Gov'ment's turned meddler, an' is a-breakin' stills right an' left through the country.”

“They do hide 'em sometimes,” said Eliza, in a half-whisper, “so's a blood-hound could hardly scent 'em. An' a very good business it is, an' the hogs live on the mash.”

“Do you know of any such stills, my little darlin'?”

But she drew back a little. “Ef I do know of any,” she said, “I've promised not to tell of 'em.”

“Not to the man as is goin' to be your husband?”

“Not to him until he is my husband.” And blushing, but resolute, Eliza filled her pail and started for the house.

Under the water Janey clinched her hands. “Dick was right,” she thought; “and I see his game. He's a spy, and Eliza's a fool.”

She knew that she had heard enough to justify her lover in his suspicions, enough to put them all on their guard. A passionate exultation fired her blood as she thought of the service she should render Dick Oscar, his praise, the reward of his rude kisses.

But, alas for Janey! something had ruffled her sweetheart's temper when next they met. Before she could approach the subject of which she was full stinging words had passed between them.

“Dick,” said Janey, hoarsely, “d'ye mean that you're goin' back from your word—that you ain't agoin' to marry me?”

“Marry hell!” said Mr. Oscar. And he walked off.

“I want to speak t' you,” said Janey that night to the peddler. “Can you git up in th' morning befo' th' folks is stirrin'?”

“Of course I can, when it's to meet a gal like you.”

Privately he wondered at her pallor and lurid eyes.

Morning came. As the stars were drowsily getting out of the sun's way Janey and the peddler met by the spring.

“You needn't lie to me,” said she, harshly. “I've found you out. You're up the Cumberland spyin' for wild-cat stills. I'll take you to one.”

“But, my dear, is this a trap? I'm nothin' but a poor harmless peddler.”

“Come, then, my harmless peddler,” said the girl, with a sneer, “an' I'll show you somethin' t' make your mouth water.”

She struck through the woods, and he followed, alternately blessing and wondering at his luck. What thread led her he knew not. Fallen logs lay in the way, thickets opposed, foliage dense as the massed green in Dewing's “Morning” hid all signs of path, but on she went, easily, as if she were illustrating the first line of prepositions in Lindley— above, around, amidst, athwart obstacles of every kind. And finally, girdled and guarded by trees and rocks, was the hidden still, where the “dull, cold ear of”—corn was changed into the flowing moonshine that maketh glad the heart of man.

The peddler could hardly keep back a shout. He had won his spurs. It was a much larger concern than he had expected. Some hogs were rooting about the sodden earth. The monotonous dripping of water mingled with the grunts of these poetic animals.

Janey leaned against a rock, breathing heavily. The peddler thought he would about as soon touch a wild-cat as to speak to her. Nevertheless he did.

“B'long t' your folks?” he said.

“ 'T b'longs to Dick Oscar, an' you know it!” said the girl, fiercely. “Now I'm goin' back home.”

“You don't know of any more such,” said the insatiate peddler, “lyin' 'round loose up here?—pearls among swine, so to speak.”

“I've done enough. An', look here, keep your tongue

between yo' teeth. Tell that I fetched you here, an' you won't see many more sun-ups with them spyin' eyes.”

Mr. Pond was a tolerable woodsman, and he led Captain Peters and his scouts to the mountain-still without trouble. They were all there—the Bleylock boys, the father, and young Oscar. They were hard at work, and, surprised, were handcuffed without the firing of a gun.

Who so crestfallen as the toiling, moiling moonshiners? Who so jubilant as the long-whiskered captain? He would have sung a paean had he known how. As it was, he chewed a great deal of tobacco, and unbuttoned his flannel shirt for expansion.

The prisoners were halted at the Bleylock cabin for baggage and good-byes. They were to be taken to the penitentiary, and would need a change of socks.

Mrs. Bleylock and Eliza wept and moaned their fate; but Janey was still, brown lids veiling the dull fire of her eyes.

“Janey, my girl,” said Oscar, drawing her apart, “I spoke up rough to you t' other day. But don't you mind it. 'Twarn't nuthin' but jealousy.”

Her eyes softened. Mountain pinks, as well as some fine ladies, consider jealousy as a tribute to their charms.

“Perhaps I'll never come back,” said he.

She seized him by the arm.

“Dick, what can they do t' you?”

“Dunno. Most likely I'll kill somebody tryin' to git away, and be strung.”

Janey burst into tears.

“Shouldn't wonder 'f you married one o' the Jareds,” he said, piling on the gloom.

“Dick Oscar, I promised to marry you, an' I don't go back from my word.”

“No, an' I don't!” cried Dick. “There ain't as pretty a shaped girl as you on the Cumberland; an' if ever I do git back—”

He whispered the rest in Janey's ear, and she clung to him, blushing a deep, deep rose.

“ 'S jest one thing I want to know,” said old Bleylock, as they tramped to Nashville: “how 'd you find us?”

The captain laughed.

“Been entertainin' a peddler, haven't you? Which one o' your gals 'd he make up to?”

Father and brothers swore. Dick Oscar nodded to his discernment, with human triumph.

A few days later a young girl walked into Nashville who had never been in a city before. She asked but one question—the way to the Governor's house. That accessible mansion was readily found; doors were swinging open; and, announced by a sleepy darkey, Janey Bleylock stood in the Governor's presence.

With a fine and courteous manner that gentleman listened, struck by her figure, her full voice, and passionate eyes. He promised to use his influence with the President to procure a pardon for Dick Oscar, and Janey was allowed to go to the prison with the cheering news.

The mountain girl was heard of in high circles. Hearts beat warmly in lovely Southern bosoms, and they made a heroine of Janey.

“Why don't you marry here?” said a beautiful enthusiast, who had called to see Janey, and kissed her, “because she knew so well how to love.” “Marry here, and I'll give you a wedding dress.”

“So we will,” said Dick Oscar, when he was out of prison.

And Janey went home a wife, as if the stars had been diamonds, and strung like a larkspur chain for her neck—father, brothers, husband, sheltering her in their love.

Mrs. Bleylock and Eliza ran to meet them. Eliza thought perhaps some one else would come with them. Had not her lover left her with a kiss and a promise to come back with a gold ring?

The pink ribbon was round her neck. Her lips were parted in a happy, vacant smile.

The old chap whose head looked as if it were stuck on with a pin was in advance. He thrust out his arm as Eliza drew near. “Don't you speak to me!”

“Pappy!”

“Damn your tattlin' tongue! Keep away from my hands!”

The smile had gone; the vacant look spread over the face that turned helplessly to her brothers.

“You ought to be whipped like a nigger!” said Sam Bleylock. “What you tell that peddler 'bout Oscar's still for? Might 'a known he wuz foolin' you.”

“I didn't tell where the still wuz.”

“Hoh! you lie too.” And her father, passing by, struck her with the back of his hand.

“Shame on you, pappy!” and Janey ran to her sister, over whose lips blood was pouring.

Her husband drew Janey away. “Don's touch her,” he said, with a look of disgust; “she ain't fit.”

A wild, terrified look swept over Janey's face. Should she grasp at the wind blowing in the tree-tops above her? She caught Dick Oscar's arm, holding it fiercely. Here was something to clasp, to cling to. Her soul shrivelled in her ardent body.

Afterward Eliza Bleylock seemed to wither away. She repeated her denial of having been a traitor, but no one ever believed her. She worked hard, and was used roughly. She had never been strong. Sometimes she stole away and nursed


Janey's baby, that seemed to love her; but never when Dick Oscar was at home.

One day, sitting by the spring alone, too weak since a long while to work, she leaned her head against a tree, and, with one moan, too faint to startle the singing birds, she died.

Her mother and Janey dressed her cleanly, and tied about her neck a pink ribbon that they found in her Bible. And she was buried, with very little said about it, in the valley.

 
 
 

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