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A-Playin' of Old Sledge at the Settlemint by Charles Egbert Craddock

 

“I HEV hearn tell ez how them thar boys rides thar horses over hyar ter the Settlemint nigh on ter every night in the week ter play kyerds, —'Old Sledge' they calls it; an' thar goin's-on air jes' scandalous,— jes' a-drinkin' of applejack, an' a-bettin' of thar money.”

It was a lonely place: a sheer precipice on one side of the road that curved to its verge; on the other, an ascent so abrupt that the tall stems of the pines seemed laid upon the ground as they were marshaled in serried columns up the slope. No broad landscape was to be seen from this great projecting ledge of the mountain; the valley was merely a little basin, walled in on every side by the meeting ranges that rose so high as to intercept all distant prospect, and narrow the world to the contracted area bounded by the sharp lines of their wooded summits, cut hard and clear against the blue sky. But for the road, it would have seemed impossible that these wild steeps should be the chosen haunt of aught save deer, or bear, or fox; and certainly the instinct of the eagle built that eyrie called the Settlement, still higher, far above the towering pine forest. It might be accounted a tribute to the enterprise of Old Sledge that mountain barriers proved neither let nor hindrance, and here in the fastnesses was held that vivacious sway, potent alike to fascinate and to scandalize.

In the middle of the stony road stood a group of roughly clad mountaineers, each in an attitude of sluggish disinclination to the allotted task of mending the highway, leaning lazily upon a grubbing-hoe or sorry spade,—except, indeed, the overseer, who was upheld by the single crowbar furnished by the county, the only sound implement in use among the party. The provident dispensation of the law, leaving the care of the road to the tender mercies of its able-bodied neighbors over eighteen and under forty-five years of age, was a godsend to the Settlement and to the inhabitants of the tributary region, in that even if it failed of the immediate design of securing a tolerable passway through the woods, it served the far more important purpose of drawing together the diversely scattered settlers, and affording them unwonted conversational facilities. These meetings were well attended, although their results were often sadly inadequate. To-day the usual complement of laborers was on hand, except the three boys whose scandalous susceptibility to the mingled charms of Old Sledge and apple-jack had occasioned comment.

“They'll hev ter be fined, ef they don't take keer an' come an' work,” remarked the overseer of the road, one Tobe Rains, who reveled in a little brief authority.

“From what I hev hearn tell 'bout thar goin's- on, none of 'em is a-goin' ter hev nuthin' ter pay fines with, when they gits done with thar foolin' an' sech,” said Abner Blake, a man of weight and importance, and the eldest of the party.

It did not seem to occur to any of the group that the losses among the three card-players served to enrich one of the number, and that the deplorable wholesale insolvency shadowed forth was not likely to ensue in substance. Perhaps their fatuity in this regard arose from the fact that fining the derelict was not an actuality, although sometimes of avail as a threat.

“An' we hev ter leave everythink whar it fell down, an' come hyar ter do thar work fur 'em,—a-fixin' up of this hyar road fur them ter travel,” exclaimed Tobe Rains, attempting to chafe himself into a rage. “It's got ter quit,—that's what I say; this hyar way of doin' hev got ter quit.” By way of lending verisimilitude to the industrial figure of rhetoric, he lifted his hammer and dealt an ineffectual blow at a large bowlder. Then he picked up his crowbar, and, leaning heavily on the implement, resigned himself to the piquant interest of gossip. “An' thar's that Josiah Tait,” he continued, “a settled married man, a-behavin' no better 'n them fool boys. He hain't struck a lick of work fur nigh on ter a month,—'ceptin' a-goin' huntin' with the t'others, every wunst in a while. He hev jes' pulled through at the little eend of the horn. I never sot much store by him, nohow, though when he war married ter Melindy Price, nigh 'bout a year ago, the folks all 'lowed ez she war a-doin' mighty well ter git him, ez he war toler'ble well off through his folks all bein' dead but him, an' he hed what he hed his own self.”

“I would'nt let my darter marry no man ez plays kyerds,” said a very young fellow, with great decision of manner, “no matter what he hed, nor how he hed it.”

As the lady referred to was only two weeks old, and this solicitude concerning her matrimonial disposition was somewhat premature, there was a good-natured guffaw at the young fellow's expense.

“An' now,” Tobe Rains resumed, “ef Josiah keeps on the way he hev started, he hain't a-goin' ter hev no more 'n the t'other boys round the mounting,—mebbe not ez much,—an' Melindy Price hed better hev a-tuken somebody what owned less but hed a harder grip.”

A long silence fell upon the party. Three of the twenty men assembled, in dearth of anything else to do, took heart of grace and fell to work; fifteen leaned upon their hoes in a variety of postures, all equally expressive of sloth, and with slow eyes followed the graceful sweep of a hawk, drifting on the wind, without a motion of its wings, across the blue sky to the opposite range. Two, one of whom was the overseer, searched their pockets for a plug of tobacco, and when it was found its possessor gave to him that lacked. At length, Abner Blake, who furnished all the items of news, and led the conversation, removed his eyes from the flight of the hawk, as the bird was absorbed in the variegated October foliage of the opposite mountain, and reopened the discussion. At the first word the three who were working paused in attentive quietude; the fifteen changed their position to one still more restful; the overseer sat down on a bowlder by the roadside, and placed his contemplative elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands.

“I hev hearn tell,” said Abner Blake, with the pleasing consciousness of absorbing the attention of the company, and being able to meet high expectations, “ez how Josiah hev los' that thar brindled heifer ter Budd Wray, an' the main heft of his crap of corn. But mebbe he'll take a turn now an' win 'em back agin.”

“'T ain't likely,” remarked Tobe Rains.

“No, 't ain't,” coincided the virtuous fifteen.

The industrious three, who might have done better in better company, went to work again for the space of a few minutes; but the next inarticulate gurgle, preliminary always to Blake's speech,—a sort of rising-bell to ring up somnolent attention,—brought them once more to a stand-still.

“An' cornsiderin' ez how Budd Wray,—he it war ez won 'em; I seen the heifer along o' the cow ter his house yestiddy evenin', ez I war a-comin' from a-huntin' yander ter the sulphur spring,—an' cornsiderin' ez he is nuthin' but a single man, an' hain't got no wife, it do look mighty graspin' ter be a-takin' from a man ez hev got a wife an' a houseful of his wife's kinsfolks ter look arter. Mighty graspin', it 'pears like ter me.”

“I s'pose,” said one of the three workers suggestively,—“I s'pose ez how Budd won it fair. 'T warn't no onderhand job, war it?”

There was a portentous silence. The flight of the hawk, again floating above the mountains, now in the shadow of the resting clouds, now in the still sunshine, was the only motion in the landscspe. The sudden bark of a fox in the woods near at hand smote the air shrilly.

“That thar ain't fur me ter say,” Blake replied at last, with significant emphasis.

The suspicion fell upon the party like a revelation, with an auxiliary sense of surprise that it had not been earlier presented, so patent was the possibility.

Still that instinct of justice latent in the human heart kept the pause unbroken for a while. Then Blake, whose information on most points at issue entitled him to special consideration, proceeded to give his opinion on the subject: “I'm a perfessin' member of the church, an' I dunno one o' them thar kyerds from the t'other; an' what is more, I ain't a-wantin' ter know. I hev seen 'em a-playin' wunst, an' I hearn 'em a-talkin' that thar foolishness 'bout 'n 'high' an' low,' an' sech,—they'll all be low enough 'fore long. But what I say is, I dunno how come Josiah Tait, what's always been a peart, smart boy, an' his dad afore him always war a thrivin' man, an' Budd Wray war never nobody nor nuthin',—he war always mighty no-'count, him an' all his folks,—an' what I dunno is, how come he kin git the upper hand of Josiah Tait at these hyar kyerds, an' can't git it no other way. Ef he keeps on a-playin' of Old Sledge hyar at the Settlemint, he'll be wuth ez much ez anybody on the mounting what's done been a-workin' all thar days, an' hed a toler'ble start ter begin with. It don't look fair an' sensible ter me.”

“'Pears like ter me,” said the very young fellow, father of the very young daughter, “ef a man is old enough ter git married, he is old enough to take keer of hisself. I kin make out no good reason why Josiah Tait oughter be pertected agin Budd Wray. 'Pears ter me ef one of 'em kin larn ter play Old Sledge, the t'other kin. An' Josiah hev got toler'ble good sense.”

“That's how come all ye young muskrats dunno nuthin',” retorted Blake in some heat. “Jes' let one of you-uns git turned twenty year old, an' ye think ye air ez wise an' ez settled as ef ye war sixty, an' ye can't l'arn nuthin' more.”

“All the same, I don't see ez Josiah Tait needs a dry-nuss ter keep off Wray an' sech critters,” was the response. And here this controversy ended.

“Somehow,” said Tobe Rains, reflectively, “it don't look likely ter me ez he an' Josiah Tait hev enny call ter be sech frien'ly folks. I hev hearn ez how Budd Wray war a-follerin' round Melindy Price afore she war married, an' she liked him fustrate till Josiah tuk ter comin' bout 'n the Serub-Oak Ridge, whar she lived in them days. That thar ain't the stuff ter make frien's out 'n. Thar is some sort 'n cur'ous doin's a-goin' on 'bout'n these hyar frien'ly kyerds.”

“I knowed that thar 'bout 'n his a-follerin' round Melindy afore she war married. I 'lowed one time ez Melindy hed a mind ter marry Wray stiddier Josiah,” said the young father, shaken in his partisanship. “An' it always 'peared like ter me ez it war mighty comical ez he an' Josiah tuk ter playin' of Old Sledge an' sech tergether.”

These questions were not easy of solution. Many speculations were preferred concerning the suspicious circumstance of Budd Wray's singular proficiency in playing Old Sledge; but beyond disparaging innuendo and covert insinuation conjecture could not go. Everything was left doubtful, and so was the road.

It was hardly four o'clock:, but the languid work had ceased and the little band was dispersing. Some had far to go through the deep woods to their homes, and those who lived closer at hand were not disposed to atone for their comrades' defection by prolonging their stay. The echoes for a lone time vibrated among the lonely heights with the metallic sound of their horses' hoofs, every moment becoming fainter, until at last all was hushed. Dusky shadows, which seemed to be exhaled from the ground, rose higher and higher up the mountain side from the reservoir of gloom that lay in the valley. The sky was a lustrous contrast to the darkling earth. The sun still lingered, large and red, above the western summits; the clouds about it were gorgeous in borrowed color; even those hovering in the east had caught the reflection of the sunset splendor, and among their gold and crimson flakes swung the silver globe of the hunter's moon. Now and then, at long intervals, the bark of the fox quivered on the air; once the laurel stirred with a faint rustle, and a deer stood in the midst of the ill-mended road, catching upon his spreading antlers the mingled light of sun and moon. For a moment he was motionless, his hoof uplifted; the next, with an elastic spring, as of a creature without weight, he was flying up the steep slope and disappearing amid the slumberous shades of the dark pines. A sudden sound comes from far along the curves of the road,—a sound foreign to woods and stream and sky; again, and yet again, growing constantly more distinct, the striking of iron against stone, the quick, regular beat of a horse's tread, and an equestrian figure, facing the moon and with the sun at his back rides between the steep ascent and the precipice on his way to the Settlement and the enticements of Old Sledge.

He was not the conventional type of the roistering blade. There was an expression of settled melancholy on his face very usual with these mountaineers, reflected, perhaps, from the indefinable tinge of sadness that rests upon the Alleghany wilds, that hovers about the purpling mountain-tops, that broods over the silent woods, that sounds in the voice of the singing waters. Nor was he like the prosperous “perfessin' member” of the card-playing culte. His listless manner was that of stolidity, not of a studied calm; his brown jeans suit was old and worn and patched; his hat, which had seen many a drenching winter rain and scorching summer sun, had acquired sundry drooping curves undreamed of in its maker's philosophy. He rode a wiry gray mare without a saddle, and carried a heavy rifle. He was perhaps twenty-three years of age, a man of great strength and stature, and there were lines about his lips and chin which indicated a corresponding development of a firm will and tenacity of purpose. His slow brown eyes were fixed upon the horizon as he went around the ledge, and notwithstanding the languid monotony of the expression of his face he seemed absorbed in some definite train of thought, rather than lost in the vague, hazy reverie which the habitual mental atmosphere of the quiescent mountaineer. The mare, left to herself, traveled along the rocky way in a debonair fashion implying a familiarity with worse roads, and soon was around the curve and beginning the sharp ascent which led to the Settlement. There was a rickety bridge to cross, that spanned a deep, narrow stream, which caught among its dark pools now a long, slender, polished lance of sunlight, and now a dart from the moon. As the rider went on upward the woods were dense as ever; no glimpse yet of the signet of civilization set upon the wilderness and called the Settlement. By the time he had reached the summit the last red rays of the day were fading from the, tops of the trees, but the moon, full and high in the eastern heavens, shed so refulgent a light that it might be questioned whether the sun rose on a brighter world than that which he had left. A short distance along level ground, a turn to the right, and here, on the highest elevation of the range, was perched the little town. There was a clearing of ten acres, a blacksmith's shop, four log huts facing indiscriminately in any direction, a small store of one story and one room, and a new frame courthouse, whitewashed and inclosed by a plank fence. In the last session of the legislature, the Settlement had been made the county-seat of a new county; the additional honor of a name had been conferred upon it, but as yet it was known among the population of the mountain by its time-honored and accustomed title.

Wray dismounted in front of the store, hitched the mare to a laurel bush, and, entering, discovered his two boon companions drearily waiting, and shuffling the cards again and again to while away the time. An inverted splint-basket served as table; a tallow dip, a great extravagance in these parts, blinked on the head of a barrel near by, and gave a most flickering and ineffectual light, but the steady radiance of the moon poured in a wide, white flood through the open door, and kindly supplied all deficiencies. The two young mountaineers were of the usual sad- eyed type, and the impending festivities might have seemed to those of a wider range of experience than the Settlement could furnish to be clouded with a funereal aspect. Before the fire, burning low and sullenly in the deep chimney, were sitting two elderly men, who looked with disfavor upon Wray as he came in and placed his gun with a clatter in the corner.

“Ye war a long time a-gittin' hyar, Budd,” said one of the card-shufflers in a gentle voice, with curiously low-spirited cadences. He spoke slowly, too, and with a slight difficulty, as if he seldom had occasion to express himself in words and his organs were out of practice. He was the proprietor of the store, one Tom Scruggs, and this speech was by way of doing the honors. The other looked up with recognizing eyes, but said nothing.

“I war hendered some,” replied Wray, seating himself in a rush-bottomed chair, and drawing close to the inverted basket. “Ez I war a-comin' along, 'bout haffen mile an' better from our house,—'t war nigh on ter three o'clock, I reckon—I seen the bigges', fattes' buck I hev seen this year a-bouncin' through the laurel, an' I shot him. An' I hed to kerry him 'long home, 'kase suthin' mought hev got him ef I hed a-left him thar. An' it hendered me some.”

“An' we hev ter sit hyar a-wastin' away an' a-waitin' while ye goes a-huntin' of deer,” said Josiah Tait, angrily, and speaking for the first time. “I could hev gone an' shot twenty deer ef I would hev tuk the time. Ye said ez how ye war a-goin' ter be hyar an hour by sun, an' jes' look a-yander,” pointing to the lustrous disc of the moon.

“That thar moon war high enough 'fore the sun war a-settin',” returned Wray. “Ef ye air in sech a hurry, why'nt yer cut them thar kyerds fur deal, an' stop that thar jowin' o' yourn. I hev hed ez much of that ez I am a-goin' ter swallow.”

“I'll put it down ye with the ramrod o' that thar gun o' mine, ef ye don't take keer how ye talk,” retorted the choleric Tait; “an' ef that don't set easy on yer stomach, I'll see how ye'll digest a bullet.”

“I'm a-waitin' fur yer ramrod,” said Wray. “Jes' try that fust, an' see how it works.”

The melancholy-voiced store-keeper interrupted these amenities, not for the sake of peace,—white-winged angel,—but in the interests of Old Sledge. “Ef I hed a-knowed ez how ye two boys war a-goin' ter take ter quarrelin' an' a-fightin' round hyar, a-stiddier playin' of kyerds sensible-like, I would'nt hev shet up shop so quick. I hed a good many little turns of work ter do, what I hev lef' ter play kyerds. An' ye two mought jow tergether some other day, it 'pears like ter me. Ye air a-wastin' more time a-jowin', Josiah, than Budd tuk up in comin' an' deer-huntin' tergether. Ye hev cut the lowest in the pack, so deal the kyerds, or give 'em ter them ez will.”

The suggestion to resign the deal touched Josiah in a tender spot. He protested that he was only too willing to play,—that was all he wanted. “But ter be kep' a-waitin' hyar while Budd comes a-snakin' through the woods, an' a-stoppin' ter shoot wild varmints an' sech, an' then a-goin' home ter kerry 'em, an' then a-snakin' agin through the woods, an' a-gittin' hyar nigh on ter night-time,—that's what riles me.”

“Waal, go 'long, now!” exclaimed Wray, fairly roused out of his imperturbability. “Deal them kyerds, an' stop a-talkin'. That thar tongue o' yourn will git cut out some o' these hyar days. It jes' goes like a grist-mill, an' it's enough ter make a man deef fur life.”

Thus exhorted, Josiah dealt. In receiving their hands the players looked searchingly at every card, as if in doubtful recognition of an old acquaintance; but before the game was fairly begun another interruption occurred. One of the elderly men beside the fire rose and advanced upon the party.

“Thar is a word ez we hev laid off ter ax ye, Budd Wray, which will be axed twict,—wunst right hyar, an' wunst at the Jedgmint Day. War it ye ez interjuced this hyar coal o' fire from hell, that ye call Old Sledge, up hyar ter the Settlemint?”

The querist was a gaunt, forlorn-looking man, stoop-shouldered, and slow in his movements There was, however, a distinct intimation of power in his lean, sinewy figure, and his face bore the scarlet scar of a wound torn by a furious fang, which, though healed long ago, was an ever-present reminder of a fierce encounter with a wild beast, in which he had come off victorious. The tones of his voice and the drift and rhetoric of his speech bespoke the loan of the circuit- rider.

The card-players looked up, less in surprise than exasperation, and Josiah Tait, fretfully anticipating Wray, spoke in reply: “No, he never. I fotched this hyar coal o' fire myself, an' ef ye don't look out an' stand back out'n the way it'll flare up an' singe ye. I larnt how ter play when I went down yander ter the Cross Roads, an' I brung it ter the Settlemint myself.”

There was a mingled glow of the pride of the innovator and the disdainful superiority of the iconoclast kindling within Josiah Tait as he claimed the patent for Old Sledge. The catechistic terrors of the Last Day had less reality for him than the present honor and glory appertaining to the traveled importer of a new game. The Judgment Day seemed imminent over his dodging head only when beholding the masterly scene-painting of the circuit-rider, and the fire and brimstone out of sight were out of mind.

“But ef ye air a-thinkin' of callin' me ter 'count fur sech,” said Wray, nodding at the cards, “I'll hev ye ter know ez I kin stand up ter anything I does. I hev got no call ter be ashamed of myself, an' I ain't afeard o' nuthin' an' nobody.”

“Ye gin me ter onderstand, then, ez Josiah l'arned ye ter play?” asked the self-constituted grand inquisitor. “How come, then, Budd Wray, ez ye wins all the truck from Josiah, ef ye air jes' a-l'arnin'?”

There was an angry exclamation from Josiah, and Wray laughed out triumphantly. The walls caught the infrequent mirthful sound, and reverberated with a hollow repetition. From the dark forest just beyond the moon-flooded clearing the echo rang out. There was a subtle, weird influence in those exultant tones, rising and falling by fitful starts in that tangled, wooded desert; now loud and close at hand, now the faintest whisper of a sound. The men all turned their slow eyes toward the sombre shadows, so black beneath the silver moon, and then looked at each other.

“It's 'bout time fur me ter be a-startin',” said the old hunter. “Whenever I hear them critters a-laffin' that thar way in them woods I puts out fur home an' bars up the door, fur I hev hearn tell ez how the sperits air a-prowlin' round then, an' some mischief is a-happenin'.”

“'T ain't nuthin' but Budd Wray a-laffin',” said the store-keeper reassuringly. “I hev hearn them thar rocks an' things a-answerin' back every minute in the day, when anybody hollers right loud.”

“They don't laff, though, like they war a-laffin' jes' a while ago.”

“No, they don't,” admitted the store-keeper reluctantly; “but mebbe it air 'kase thar is nobody round hyar ez hev got much call ter laff.”

He was unaware of the lurking melancholy in this speech, and it passed unnoticed by the others.

“It's this hyar a-foolin' along of Old Sledge an' sech ez calls the sperits up,” said the old hunter. “An' ef ye knows what air good fur ye, ye'll light out from hyar an' go home. They air a-laffin' yit ”— He interrupted himself and glanced out of the door.

The faintest staccato laugh thrilled from among the leaves. And then all was silent,—not even the bark of a dog nor a tremulous whisper of the night-wind.

The other elderly man, who had not yet spoken, rose from his seat by the fire. “I'm a-goin', too,” he said. “I kem hyar ter the Settlemint,” he added, turning upon the gamblers, “'kase I hev been called ter warn ye o' the wickedness o' yer ways, ez Jonah afore me war tole ter go up ter Nineveh ter warn the folks thar.”

“Things turns out powerful cur'ous wunst in a while,” retorted Wray. “He war swallowed by a whale arterward.”

“'Kase he would'nt do ez he war tole; but even thar Providence pertected him. He kem out 'n the whale agin, what nobody kin do ez gits swallowed in the pit. They hev ter stay.”

“It hain't me ez keeps up this hyar game,” said Wray sullenly, but stung to a slight repentance by this allusion to the pit. “It air Josiah hyar ez is a-aimin' ter win back the truck he hev los'; an' so air Tom, hyar. I hev hed toler'ble luck along o' this Old Sledge, but they know, an' they hev got ter stand up ter it, ez I never axed none of 'em ter play. Ef they scorches tharselves with this hyar coal o' fire from hell, ez ye calls it, Josiah brung it, an' it air Tom an' him a-blowin' on it ez hev kep' it a-light.”

“I ain't a-goin' ter quit,” said Josiah Tait angrily, the loser's desperate eagerness pulsing hot and quick through his veins,—“I ain't a-goin' ter quit till I gits back that thar brindled heifer an' that thar gray mare out yander, what Budd air a-ridin', an' them thar two wagonloads o' corn.”

“We hev said our say, an' we air a-goin',” remarked one of the unheeded counselors.

“An' play on of yer kyerds!” cried Josiah to the others, in a louder, shriller voice than was his wont, as the two elderly men stepped out of the door. The woods caught the sound and gave it back in a higher key.

“S'pose we stops fur ter-night,” suggested the store-keeper; “them thar rocks do sound sort'n cur'ous now.”

“I ain't a-goin' ter stop fur nuthin' an' nobody!” exclaimed Josiah, in a tremor of keen anxiety to be at the sport. “Dad-burn the sperits! Let 'em come in, an' I'll deal 'em a hand. Thar! that trick is mine. Play ter this hyar queen o' trumps.”

The royal lady was recklessly thrown upon the basket, with all her foes in ambush. Somehow, they did not present themselves. Tom was destitute, and Budd followed with the seven. Josiah again pocketed the trick with unction. This trifling success went disproportionately far in calming his agitation, and for a time be played more heedfully. Tom Scruggs's caution made ample amends for his lack of experience. So slow was he, and so much time did he require for consideration, that more than once he roused his companions to wrath. The anxieties with which he was beset preponderated over the pleasure afforded by the sport, and the winning back of a half-bushel measure, which he had placed in jeopardy and lost, so satisfied this prudent soul that he announced at the end of the game that he would play no more for this evening. The others were welcome, though, to continue if they liked, and he would sit by and look on. He snuffed the blinking tallow dip, and reseated himself, an eager spectator of the play that followed.

Wray was a cool hand. Despite the awkward, unaccustomed clutch upon the cards and the doubtful recognition he bestowed on each as it fell upon the basket, he displayed an imperturbability and nerve that usually come only of long practice, and a singular pertinacity in pursuing the line of tactics he had marked out,—lying in wait and pouncing unerringly upon his prey in the nick of time. The brindled heifer's mother followed her offspring into his ownership; a yoke of oxen, a clay-bank filly, ten hogs,—every moment he was growing richer. But his success did not for an instant shake his stolid calm, quicken his blood, nor relax his vigilant attention; his exultation was held well in hand under the domination of a strong will and a settled purpose. Josiah Tait became almost maddened by these heavy losses; his hands trembled, his eager exclamations were incoherent, his dull eyes blazed at fever heat, and ever and anon the echo of his shrill, raised voice rang back from the untiring rocks.

The single spectator of the game now and then, in the intervals of shuffling and dealing the cards, glanced over his shoulder at the dark trees whence the hidden mimic of the woods, with some strong suggestion of sinister intent, repeated the agitated tones. There was a silver line all along the summit of the foliage, along the roofs of the houses and the topmost rails of the fences; a sense of freshness and dew pervaded the air, and the grass was all a-sparkle. The shadows of the laurel about the door were beginning to fall on the step, every leaf distinctly defined in the moon's magical tracery. He knew without looking up that she had passed the meridian, and was swinging down the western sky.

“Boys,” he said, in a husky undertone,—he dared not speak aloud, for the mocker in the woods,—“boys, I reckon its 'bout time we war a-quittin' o' this hyar a-playin' of Old Sledge; it's midnight an' past, an' Budd hev toler'ble fur ter go.”

The tallow dip, that had long been flickering near its end, suddenly went out, and the party suffered a partial eclipse. Josiah Tait dragged the inverted basket closer to the door and into the full brilliance of the moon, declaring that neither Wray nor he should leave the house till he had retrieved his misfortunes or lost everything in the effort. The host, feeling that even hospitality has its limits, did not offer to light another expensive candle, but threw a quantity of pine-knots on the smouldering coals; presently a white blaze was streaming up the chimney, and in the mingled light of fire and moon the game went on.

“Ye oughter take keer, Josiah,” remonstrated the sad-voiced store-keeper, as a deep groan and a deep curse emphasized the result of high, jack, and game for Wray, and low alone for Tait. “An' it's 'bout time ter quit.”

“Dad-burn the luck!” exclaimed Josiah, in a hard, strained voice, “I ain't a-goin' ter leave this hyar spot till I hev won back them thar critters o' mine what he hev tuk. An' I kin do it,—I kin do it in one more game. I'll bet—I'll bet”—he paused in bewildered excitement; he had already lost to Wray everything available as a stake. There was a sudden unaccountable gleam of malice on the lucky winner's face; the quick glance flashed in the moonlight into the distended hot eyes of his antagonist. Wray laughed silently, and began to push his chair away from the basket.

“Stop! stop!” cried Josiah, hoarsely. “I hev got a house,—a house an' fifty acres, nigh about. I'll bet the house an' land agin what ye hev won from me,—them two cows, an' the brindled heifer, an' the gray mare, an' the claybank filly, an' them ten hogs, an' the yoke o' steers, an' the wagon, an' the corn,—them two loads o' corn: that will 'bout make it even, won't it?” He leaned forward eagerly as he asked the question.

“Look a-hyar, Josiah,” exclaimed the storekeeper, aghast, “this hyar is a-goin' too fur! Hain't ye los' enough a'ready but ye must be at puttin' up the house what shelters ye? Look at me, now: I ain't done los' nothin' but the half-bushel measure, an' I hev got it back agin. An' it air a blessin' that I hev got it agin, for 't would hev been mighty ill-convenient round hyar 'thout it.”

“Will ye take it?” said Josiah, almost pleadingly, persistently addressing himself to Wray, regardless of the remonstrant host. “Will ye put up the critters agin the house an' land?”

Wray made a feint of hesitating. Then he signified his willingness by seating himself and beginning to deal the cards, saying before he looked at his hand, “That thar house an' land o' yourn agin the truck ez I hev won from ye?”

“Oh, Lord, boys, this must be sinful!” remonstrated the proprietor of the cherished half- bushel measure, appalled by the magnitude of the interests involved.

“Hold yer jaw! hold yer jaw!” said Josiah Tait. “I kin hardly make out one kyerd from another while ye 're a-preachin' away, same ez the rider! I done tole ye, Budd,” turning again to Wray, “I'll put up the house an' land again the truck. I'll git a deed writ fur ye in the mornin', ef ye win it,” he added, hastily, thinking he detected uncertainty still lurking in the expression of Wray's face. “The court air a-goin' ter sit hyar ter-morrer, an' the lawyers from the valley towns will be hyar toler'ble soon, I reckon. An' I'll git ye a deed writ fust thing in the mornin'.”

“Ye hearn him say it?” said Wray, turning to Tom Scruggs.

“I hearn him,” was the reply.

And the game went on.

“I beg,” said Josiah, piteously, after carefully surveying his hand.

“I ain't a-goin' ter deal ye nare 'nother kyerd,” said Wray. “Ye kin take a pint fust.”

The point was scored by the faithful looker- on in Josiah's favor. High, low, and game were made by Wray, jack being in the pack. Thus the score was three to one. In the next deal, the trump, a spade, was allowed by Wray to stand. He led the king. “I'm low, anyhow,” said Josiah, in momentary exultation, as he played the deuce to it. Wray next led the ace whisking for the jack, and caught it.

“Dad-burn the rotten luck!” cried Josiah.

With the advantage of high and jack a foregone conclusion, Wray began to play warily for game. But despite his caution he lost the next trick. Josiah was in doubt how to follow up this advantage; after an anxious interval of cogitation he said “I b'lieve I'll throw away fur a while,” and laid that safe card, the five of diamonds, upon the basket. “Tom,” he added, “put on some more o' them knots. I kin hardly tell what I'm a-doin' of. I hev got the shakes, an' somehow 'nother my eyes is cranky, and wobble so ez I can't see.”

The white sheets of flame went whizzing merrily up the chimney, and the clear light fell full upon the basket as Wray laid upon the five the ten of diamonds.

“Lord! Josiah!” exclaimed Tom Scruggs, becoming wild, and even more ill judged than usual, beginning to feel as if he were assisting at his friend's obsequies, and to have a more decided conviction that this way of coming by house and land and cattle and goods was sinful. “Lord! Josiah! that thar kyerd he's done saved'll count him ten fur game. Ye had better hev played that thar queen o' di'monds, an' dragged it out 'n him.”

“Good Lord in heaven!” shrieked Josiah, in a frenzy at this unwarrantable disclosure.

“Lord in heaven!” rang loud from the depths of the dark woods. “Heaven!” softly vibrated the distant heights. The crags close at hand clanged back the sound, and the air was filled with repetitions of the word, growing fainter and fainter, till they might have seemed the echo of a whisper.

The men neither heard nor heeded. Tom Scruggs, although appreciating the depth of the infamy into which he had unwittingly plunged, was fully resolved to stand stoutly upon the defensive,—he even extended his hand to take down his gun, which was laid across a couple of nails on the wall.

“Hold on, Josiah,—hold on!” cried Wray, as Tait drew his knife. “Tom never went fur ter tell, an' I'll give ye a ten ter make it fair. Thar's the ten o' hearts; an' a ten is the mos' ez that thar critter of a queen could hev made out ter hev tuk, anyhow.”

Josiah hesitated.

“That thar is the mos' ez she could hev done,” said the store-keeper, smoothing over the results of his carelessness. “The jacks don't count but fur one apiece, so that thar ten is the mos' ez she could hev made out ter git, even ef I hed'nt a-forgot an' tole Budd she war in yer hand.”

Josiah was mollified by this very equitable proposal, and resuming his chair he went on with the play. The ten of hearts which he had thus secured was, however, of no great avail in counting for game. Wray had already high and jack, and game was added to these. The score therefore stood six to two in his favor.

The perennial faith of the gambler in the next turn of the wheel was strong in Josiah Tait. Despite his long run of bad luck, he was still animated by the feverish delusion that the gracious moment was surely close at hand when success would smile upon him. Wray, it was true, needed to score only one point to turn him out of house and land, homeless and penniless. He was confident it would never be scored. If he could make the four chances he would be even with his antagonist, and then he could win back in single point all that he had lost. His face wore a haggard, eager expectation, and the agitation of the moment thrilled through every nerve. He watched with fiery eyes the dealing of the cards, and after hastily scrutinizing his hand he glanced with keen interest to see the trump turned. It was a knave, counting one for the dealer. There was a moment of intense silence; he seemed petrified as his eyes met the triumphant gaze of his opponent. The next instant he was at Wray's throat.

The shadows of the swaying figures reeled across the floor, marring the exquisite arabesque of moonshine and laurel leaves,—quick, hard panting, a deep oath, and spasmodic efforts on the part of each to draw a sharp knife prevented by the strong intertwining arms of the other.

The store-keeper, at a safe distance, remonstrated with both, to no purpose, and as the struggle could end only in freeing a murderous hand he rushed into the clearing, shouting the magical word “Fight!” with all the strength of his lungs. There was no immediate response, save that the affrighted rocks rang with the frenzied cry, and the motionless woods and the white moonlight seemed pervaded with myriads of strange, uncanny voices. Then a cautious shutter of a glassless window was opened, and through the narrow chink there fell a bar of red light, on which was clearly defined an inquiring head, like an inquisitively expressive silhouette. “They air a-fightin' yander ter the store, whar they air a-playin' of Old Sledge,” said the master of the shanty, for the enlightenment of the curious within. And then he closed the shutter, and like the law-abiding citizen that he was betook himself to his broken rest. This was the only expression of interest elicited.

A dreadful anxiety was astir in the storekeepers thoughts. One of the men would certainly be killed; but he cared not so much for the shedding of blood in the abstract as that the deed should be committed on his premises at the dead of night; and there might be such a concatenation of circumstances, through the malefactor's willful perversion of the facts, that suspicion would fall upon him. The first circuit court ever held in the new county would be in session to-morrow; and the terrors of the law, deadly to an unaccustomed mind, were close upon him. Finding no help from without, he rushed back into the store, determined to make one more appeal to the belligerents. “Budd,” he cried, “I'll holp ye ter hold Josiah, ef ye'll promise ye won't tech him ter hurt. He air crazed, through a-losin' of his truck. Say ye won't tech him ter hurt, an' I'll holp ye ter hold him.”

Josiah succumbed to their united efforts, and presently made no further show of resistance, but sank, still panting, into one of the chairs beside the inverted basket, and gazed blankly, with the eyes of a despairing, hunted creature, out at the sheen of the moonlight.

“I ain't a-wantin' ter hurt nobody,” said Wray, in a surly tone. “I never axed him ter play kyerds, nor ter bet, nor nuthin'. He l'arned me hisself, an' ef I hed los' stiddier of him he would be a-thinkin' now ez it's all right.”

“I'm a-goin' ter stand up ter what I done said, though,” Josiah declared brokenly. “Ye need'nt be afeard ez how I ain't a-goin' ter make my words true. Ef ye comes hyar at noon termorrer, ye'll git that thar deed, an' ye kin take the house an' land ez I an' my folks hev hed nigh on ter a hundred year. I ain't a-goin' ter fail o' my word, though.”

He rose suddenly, and stepped out of the door. His footfalls sounded with a sullen thud in the utter quietude of the place; a long shadow thrown by the sinking moon dogged him noiselessly as he went, until he plunged into the depths of the woods, and their gloom absorbed both him and his silent pursuer.

A dank, sunless morning dawned upon the house in which Josiah Tait and his fathers had lived for nearly a hundred years: it was a humble log cabin nestled in the dense forest, about four miles from the Settlement. Fifty cleared acres, in an irregular shape, lay behind it; the cornstalks, sole remnant of the crop lost at Old Sledge, were still standing, their sickly yellow tint blanched by contrast with the dark brown of the tall weeds in a neighboring field, that had grown up after the harvested wheat, and flourished in the summer sun, and died under the first fall of the frost. A heavy moisture lay upon them at noon, this dreary autumnal day; a wet cloud hung in the tree-tops; here and there, among its gray vapors, a scarlet bough flamed with sharply accented intensity. There was no far-reaching perspective in the long aisles of the woods; the all-pervading mist had enwrapped the world, and here, close at hand, were bronze-green trees, and there spectre-like outlines of boles and branches, dimly seen in the haze, and beyond an opaque, colorless curtain. From the chimney of the house the smoke rose slowly; the doors were closed, and not a creature was visible save ten hogs prowling about in front of the dwelling among the fallen acorns, pausing and looking up with that odd, porcine expression of mingled impudence and malignity as Budd Wray appeared suddenly in the mist and made his way to the cabin.

He knocked; there was a low-toned response. After hesitating a moment, he lifted the latch and went in. He was evidently unexpected; the two occupants of the room looked at him with startled eyes, in which, however, the momentary surprise was presently merged in an expression of bitter dislike. The elder, a faded, careworn woman of fifty, turned back without a word to her employment of washing clothes. The younger, a pretty girl of eighteen, looked hard at him with fast-filling blue eyes, and rising from her low chair beside the fire said, in a voice broken by grief and resentment, “Ef this hyar house air yourn, Budd Wray, I wants ter git out 'n it.”

“I hev come hyar ter tell ye a word,” said Budd Wray, meeting her tearful glance with a stern stolidity. He flung himself into a chair, and fixing his moody eyes on the fire went on: “A word ez I hev been a-aimin' an' a-contrivin' ter tell ye ever sence ye war married ter Josiah Tait, an' afore that,—ever sence ye tuk back the word ez ye hed gin me afore ye ever seen him, 'kase o' his hevin' a house, an' critters, an' sech like. He hain't got none now,—none of 'em. I hev been a-layin' off ter bring him ter this pass fur a long time, 'count of the scandalous way ye done treated me a year ago las' June. He hain't got no house, nor no critters, nor nuthin'. I done it, an' I come hyar with the deed in my pocket ter tell ye what I done it fur.”

Her tears flowed afresh, and she looked appealingly at him. He did not remove his indignant eyes from the blaze, stealing timidly up the smoky chimney. “I never hed nuthin' much,” he continued, “an' I never said I hed nuthin' much, like Josiah; but I thought ez how ye an' me might make out toler'ble well bein' ez we sot consider'ble store by each other in them days, afore he ever tuk ter comin' a-huntin' yander ter Scrub-Oak Ridge, whar ye war a-livin' then. I don't keer nuthin' 'bout 'n it now, 'ceptin' it riles me, an' I war bound ter spite ye fur it. I don't keer nuthin' more 'bout ye now than fur one o' them thar dead leaves. I want ye ter know I jes' done it ter spite ye,— ye is the one. I hain't got no grudge agin Josiah ter talk about. He done like any other man would.”

The color flared into the drooping face, and there was a flash in the weeping blue eyes.

“I s'pose I hed a right ter make a ch'ice,” she said, angrily, stung by these taunts.

“Jes' so,” responded Wray, coolly; “ye hed a right ter make a ch'ice atwixt two men, but no gal hev got a right ter put a man on one eend o' the beam, an' a lot o' senseless critters an' house an' land on the t'other. Ye never keered nuthin' fur me nor Josiah nuther, ef the truth war knowed; ye war all tuk up with the house an' land an' critters. An' they hev done left' ye, what nare one o' the men would hev done.”

The girl burst into convulsive sobs, but the sight of her distress had no softening influence upon Wray. “I hev done it ter pay ye back fur what ye hev done ter me, an' I reckon ye'll 'low now ez we air toler'ble even. Ye tuk all I keered fur away from me, an' now I hev tuk all ye keer fur away from ye. An' I'm a-goin' now yander ter the Settlemint ter hev this hyar deed recorded on the book ter the court-house, like Lawyer Green tole me ter do right straight. I laid off, though, ter come hyar fust, an' tell ye what I hev been aimin' ter be able ter tell ye fur a year an' better. An' now I'm a-goin' ter git this hyar deed recorded.”

He replaced the sheet of scrawled legal-cap in his pocket, and rose to go; then turned, and, leaning heavily on the back of his chair, looked at her with lowering eyes.

“Ye 're a pore little critter,” he said, with scathing contempt. “I dunno what ails Josiah nor me nuther ter hev sot our hearts on sech a little stalk o' cheat.”

He went out into the enveloping mountain mist with the sound of her weeping ringing in his ears. His eyes were hot, and his angry heart was heavy. He had schemed and waited for his revenge with persistent patience. Fortune had favored him, but now that it hid fully come, strangely enough it failed to satisfy him. The deed in his breast-pocket weighed like a stone, and as he rode on through the clouds that lay upon the mountain top, the sense of its pressure became almost unendurable. And yet, with a perplexing contrariety of emotion, he felt more bitterly toward her than ever, and experienced a delight almost savage in holding the possessions for which she had been so willing to resign him. “Jes' kicked me out 'n the way like I war nuthin' more'n that thar branch o' pisen-oak, fur a passel o' cattle an' sech like critters, an' a house an' land,—'kase I don't count Josiah in. 'T war the house an' land an' sech she war a-studyin' 'bout.” And every moment the weight of the deed grew heavier. He took scant notice of external objects as he went, keeping mechanically along the path, closed in twenty yards ahead of him by the opaque curtain of mist. The trees at the greatest distance visible stood shadow-like and colorless in their curious, unreal atmosphere; but now and then the faintest flake of a pale rose tint would appear in the pearly haze, deepening and deepening, till at the vanishing point of the perspective a gorgeous scarlet-oak tree would rise, red enough to make a respectable appearance on the planet Mars. There was an audible stir breaking upon the silence of the solemn woods, the leaves were rustling together, and drops of moisture began to patter down upon the ground. The perspective grew gradually longer and longer, as the rising wind cleared the forest aisles; and when he reached the road that ran between the precipice and the steep ascent above, the clouds were falling apart, the mist had broken into thousands of fleecy white wreaths, clinging to the fantastically tinted foliage, and the sunlight was striking deep into the valley. The woods about the Settlement were all aglow with color, and sparkling with the tremulous drops that shimmered in the sun.

There was an unwonted air of animation and activity pervading the place. To the courthouse fence were hitched several lean, forlorn horses, with shabby old saddles, or sometimes merely blankets; two or three wagons were standing among the stumps in the clearing. The door of the store was occupied by a coterie of mountaineers, talking with unusual vivacity of the most startling event that had agitated the whole country-side for a score of years,—the winning of Josiah Tait's house and land at Old Sledge. The same subject was rife among the choice spirits congregated in tie courthouse yard and about the portal of that temple of justice, and Wray's approach was watched with the keenest interest.

He dismounted, and walked slowly to the door, paused, and turning as with a sudden thought threw himself hastily upon his horse; he dashed across the clearing, galloped heedlessly down the long, steep slope, and the astounded loiterers heard the thunder of the hoofs as they beat at a break-neck speed upon the frail, rotten timbers of the bridge below.

Josiah Tait had put his troubles in to soak at the still-house, and this circumstance did not; tend to improve the cheerfulness of his little home when he returned in the afternoon. The few necessities left to the victims of Old Sledge had been packed together, and were in readiness to be transported with him, his wife, and mother-in-law to Melinda's old home on Scrub Oak Ridge, when her brother should drive his wagon over for them the next morning.

They never knew how to account for it. While the forlorn family were sitting before the smoking fire, as the day waned, the door was suddenly burst open, and Budd Wray strode in impetuously A brilliant flame shot up the chimney, and the deed which Josiah Tait had that day executed was a cinder among the logs. He went as he came, and the mystery was never explained.

There was, however, “a sayin' goin' 'bout the mounting ez how Josiah an' Melindy jes' 'ticed him, somehow 'nother, ter thar house, an' held him, an' tuk the deed away from him tergether. An' they made him send back the critters art the corn what he done won away from 'em.” This version came to his ears, and was never denied. He was more ashamed of relenting in his vengeance than of the wild legend that he had been worsted in a tussle with Melinda and Josiah.

And since the night of Budd Wray's barren success the playing of Old Sledge has become a lost art at the Settlement.

 
 
 

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