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The Tender Link by Will Nathaniel Harben

I

Several customers were gathered in Mark Wyndham's store at the cross-roads. They were rough farmers, wearing jean clothing, slouch hats, and coarse, dusty brogans.

A stranger, a man of quite a different type, came in and sat down near the side door. At first the crowd gazed at him curiously, but after a while he seemed to pass out of their minds. When he had waited on all his customers, Mark approached the stranger.

“By hockey!” he exclaimed, pausing in astonishment, and then extending his hand, “as the Lord is my Maker, it's Luke King! Who'd ever expect to see you turn up?”

“Yes; Luke King it will have to be, since you, like all the rest, won't call me by my right name.”

Mark laughed apologetically. “Oh, I forgot you never could bear to be called by yore step-daddy's name; but you wuz raised up with the King layout, an' Laramore is not a easy word to handle. Well, I reckon you are follerin' what you started—writin' books?”

“Yes.”

“I 'lowed you'd stick to it. I never seed a feller study harder an' want to do a thing as bad.”

Lucian Laramore smiled. “Did any one here ever find out that I had adopted that profession?”

“Not a soul, Luke. I never let on to anybody that I knowed it, an' the folks round heer don't read much. They mought 'a' suspected some'n' ef Luke King had been signed to yore books and stories, but nobody ever called you by yore right name. What on earth ever made you come home?”

“It was my mother that brought me here, Mark—not the others,” said Laramore. “If a man is a man, no sort of fame or prosperity can make him forget his mother. I planned to come back several times, but something always prevented it. However, when you wrote me that the last time you saw her she was not looking well, I decided to come at once.”

Mark was critically surveying his old friend from head to foot while he was speaking. Laramore smiled, and added, “You are wondering why I am so plainly dressed, Mark; you needn't deny it.”

Mark flushed when he replied: “Well, I did 'low you fellers 'ud put on more style 'n we- uns down here.”

“It's an old suit I have worn out hunting in Canada. I put it on because I intended to do a good deal of walking; and then, to tell the truth, I thought it would look better for me to go back very simply dressed.”

“That's a fact, now I think of it; well, I wish you luck over thar. Goin' ter foot it over?”

“Yes; it is only three miles, and I have plenty of time.”

But the walk was longer than Laramore thought it would be, and he was hot, damp with perspiration, and covered with dust when he reached the four-roomed cabin among the stunted pines and wild cedars.

Old Sam King sat out in front of the door. He wore no shoes nor coat, and his hickory shirt and jean trousers had been patched many times. His hair was long, sun-burned, and tangled, and the corrugated skin of his cheek and neck was covered with straggling hairs. As the stranger came in view from behind the pine-pole pig-pen, the old man uttered a grunt of surprise that brought to the door two young women in homespun dresses, and a tall, lank young man in his shirt-sleeves.

“I suppose you don't remember me,” said Laramore, and he put his satchel on a washbench by a tub and a piggin of lye soap.

“Well, I reckon nobody in this shack is gwine to 'spute with you,” rumbled the old man, as with his chin in his hand, he lazily looked at the face before him.

“I might not have known you either if I had not been told that you lived here. I am the fellow you used to call Luke King.”

“By Jacks!” After that ejaculation the old man and the others stared speechlessly.

“Yes, that's who I am,” continued Laramore. “How do you do, Jake?” (to the lank young man in the door). “We might as well shake hands. You girls have grown into women since I left. I've stayed away a long time, and been nearly all over the world, but I've always wanted to get back. Where is mother?”

Neither of the girls could summon up the courage to answer, and they seemed under stress of great embarrassment.

“She is porely,” said the old man, inhospitably keeping his seat. “She's had a hurtin' in 'er side from usin' that thar battlin'-stick too much on dirty clothes, an' her cold has settled on 'er chest. Mary, go tell yore maw Luke's got back. Huh, we all 'lowed you wuz dead 'cept her. She al'ays contended you wuz alive som'ers. How's times been a-servin' uv you?”

“Pretty well.” Laramore put his satchel on the ground and sat down wearily on the bench by the tub.

“Things is awful slow heer. Whar have you been hangin' out?”

“Nowhere in particular—that is, I have lived in a good many places.”

“Huh! 'bout as I expected; an' I reckon you hain't got nothin' at all ter show fer it 'cept what you've got on yore back.”

“That's about all.”

“What you been a-follerin'?”

Laramore colored sensitively.

“Writing for papers and magazines.”

“I 'lowed you mought go at some'n' o' that sort; you used to try mighty hard to write a good hand; you never would work. Married?”

“No.”

“Hain't able to support a woman I reckon. Well, you showed a great lot of good sense thar; a feller can sorter manage to shift fer hisse'f ef he hadn't hampered by a pack o' children an' er sick woman.”

At that juncture Mary returned. She flushed as she caught Laramore's expectant glance. She spoke to her father.

“Maw said tell 'im ter come in thar.”

Laramore went into the front room and turned into a small apartment adjoining. It was windowless and dark, the only light filtering through the front room. On a low, narrow bed beneath a ladder leading to a trap-door above, lay a woman.

“Here I am, Luke,” she cried out, excitedly. “Don't stumble over that pan o' water! I've been taking a mustard footbath to try an' git my blood warm. La, me! How you did take me by surprise! I've prayed for little else in many er yeer, an' I was jest about ter give it up.”

His foot touched a three-legged stool, and he drew it to the head of her bed and sat down. He took one of her hard, thin hands and bent over her. Should he kiss her? She had not taught him to do so when he was a child, and he had never kissed her in his life, but he had seen the world and grown wiser. He turned her face toward him and pressed his lips to hers. She was much surprised, and drew herself from him and wiped her mouth with a corner of the sheet, but he knew she was pleased

“Why, Luke, what on earth do you mean? Have you gone plumb crazy?” she said, quickly.

“I wanted to kiss you, that's all,” he said, awkwardly. They were both silent for a moment, then she spoke, tremblingly: “You al'ays was womanish an' tender-like; it don't do a body any harm; none o' the rest ain't that way. But, my stars! I cayn't tell a bit how you look in this pitch dark. Mary! oh, Mary!”

Laramore released his mother's hand, and sat up erect as the girl came to the door.

“What you want, maw?”

“I cayn't see my hand 'fore me; I wish you'd fetch a light heer. You'll find a piece o' candle in the clock; I hid it there to keep Jake from usin' it in his lantern.”

The girl lit the bit of tallow-dip, and fastened it in the neck of a bottle. She brought it in, stood it on a box filled with cotton-seed and ears of corn, and shambled out. Laramore's heart sank as he looked around him. The room was nothing but a lean-to shed walled with upright slabs and floored with puncheons. The bedstead was a crude wooden frame supported by perpendicular saplings fastened to floor and rafters. The cracks in the wall were filled with mud, rags, and newspapers. Bunches of dried herbs hung above his head, and piles of old clothing and agricultural implements lay about indiscriminately. Disturbed by the light, a hen flew from her nest behind a dismantled loom, and with a loud cackling went out at the door.

The old woman gazed at him eagerly. “You hain't altered so overly much,” she observed, “'cept yore skin looks mighty white, and yore hands feel soft.”

Then she lowered her voice into a whisper, and glanced furtively toward the door. “You I favor yore father—I don't mean Sam, but Mr. Laramore. Yore as like as two peas. He helt his head that away, an' had yore way o' bein' gentle with womenfolks. You've got his high temper, too. La, me! that last night you was at home, an' Sam cussed you, an' kicked yore books into the fire, I didn't sleep a wink. I thought you'd gone off to borrow a gun. It was almost a relief to know you'd left, kase I seed you an' Sam couldn't git along. Yore father was a different sort of a man, Luke; he loved books an' study, like you. He had good blood in 'im; his father was a teacher an' a circuit-rider. I don't know why I married Sam, 'less it was kase I was young an' helpless, an' you was a baby.”

There was a low whimper in her voice, and the lines about her mouth tightened. Laramore's breast heaved, and he suddenly put out his hand and began to stroke her thin, gray hair. A strange, restful feeling stole over him. The spell was on her, too; she closed her eyes, and a blissful smile lighted her wan face. Then her lips began to quiver, and she turned her face from him.

“I'm er simpleton,” she sobbed, “but I cayn't he'p it. Nobody hadn't petted me nur tuk on over me a bit sence yore paw died. I never treated you right, nuther, Luke; I ort never to 'a' let Sam run over you like he did.”

“Never mind that,” Laramore replied, tenderly; “but you must not lie here in this dingy hole; you need medicine and good food.”

“I'm gwine ter git up,” she answered. “I'm not sick; I jest laid down ter rest. I must git the house straight. Mary and Jane hain't no hands at housework 'thout I stand over 'em, and Jake an' his paw is continually a-fussin'. I feel stronger already; ef you'll go in t'other room I'll rise. They'll never fix you nothin' ter eat, nur nowhar to sleep. I reckon you'll have to lie with Jake, like you useter, tel I can fix better. Things in a awful mess sence I got porely.”

He went into the front room. The old man had brought his satchel in. He had opened it in a chair, and was coolly examining the contents in the firelight. Jake and the two girls stood looking on. Laramore stared at the old man, but the latter did not seem at all abashed. Finally he closed the satchel and put it on the floor.

In a few minutes Mrs. King came in. She blew out the candle, and as she crossed to the mantelpiece she carefully extinguished the smoking wick. The change in her was more noticeable to her son than it had been a few minutes before. She looked very frail and white in her faded black cotton gown. Her shoes were worn and her bare feet showed through the holes.

“Mary,” she asked, “have you put on the supper?”

“Yes'm; but it hain't tuk up yit.” The girl went into the next room, which was used for kitchen and dining-room in one, and her mother followed her. In a few minutes the old woman came to the door.

“Walk out, all of you,” she said, wearily. “Luke, you'll have to put up with what is set before you; hog-meat is mighty sca'ce this yeer. Just at fattenin' time our hogs tuk the cholera an' six was found dead in one day. Meat is fetchin' fifteen cents a pound in town.”

II

After supper Laramore left his mother and sisters removing the dishes from the table and went out. He did not want to be left alone ith his stepfather.

He crossed the little brook that ran behind the cabin, and leaned against the rail fence which surrounded the pine-pole corn-crib. He could easily leave them in their poverty and ignorance, and return to the great intellectual world from which he had come—the world which understood and honored him; but, after all, could he do it now that he had seen his mother?

The cabin door shone out a square of red light against the blackness of the hill and the silent pines beyond. He heard Jake whistling a tune he had whistled long ago when they had worked in the fields together, and the creaking of the puncheon floor as the family moved about within.

A figure appeared in the door. It was his mother, and she was coming out to search for him.

“Here I am, mother,” he said, as she advanced through the darkness; “look out and don't get your feet wet!”

She chuckled childishly as she stepped across the brook on the stones. When she reached him she put her hand on his arm and laughed: “La, me, boy, a little wet won't hurt me—I'm used to it; I've milked the cows in that thar lot when the mire was shoe-mouth deep. I 'lowed I'd find you heer some'rs. You used to be a mighty hand to sneak off from the rest, an' you hain't got over it. But you have changed. You don't talk our way exactly, an' I reckon that's what aggravates Sam. He was goin' on jest now about yore bein' stuck up in yore talk an' eatin'.”

He looked past her at the full moon which was rising above the trees.

“Mother,” said he, abruptly, and he put his arm around her neck, and his eyes filled—“mother, I don't see how I can stay here long. Your health is bad and you are not comfortable; the others are strong and can stand it, but you can't. Come away with me, for a while anyway. I'll put you under a doctor and make you comfortable.”

She looked up into his eyes steadily for a moment, then she slapped him playfully on the breast and drew away from him. “How foolish you talk!” she laughed; “why, you know I couldn't leave Sam an' the children. He'd go stark crazy 'thout me round, an' they'd be 'thout advice an' counsel. La, me! What makes you think I ain't comfortable? This house is a sight better'n the last one we had, an' dryer, an' a heap warmer inside. Hard times is likely to come anywhar an' any time. It strikes rich en' pore alike. Thar's 'Squire Loften offerin' his big riverbottom plantation an' the best new house in the county at a awful sacrifice, kase he is obliged to raise money to pay out'n debt. He offers it fer ten thousand dollars, ant it's wuth every dollar of twenty. Now, ef we-all jest had sech a place as that we'd ax nobody any odds. Sam an' Jake are hard workers, but they've had 'nough bad luck to dishearten anybody.”

“Ten thousand dollars!” Laramore's heart bounded suddenly. It was exactly the amount he had in a Boston bank—all that he had ever been able to save. He had calculated on investing it with some literary friends in a magazine of which he was to be the editor.

“Do you think they could manage the place successfully, mother?” he asked, after a moment.

“Why, you know they could,” she returned. “A body could make a livin' on that land and never half try. 'Squire Loften spent his money like water, an' let a gang o' triflin' darkies eat 'im up alive.”

“I remember the farm and the old house very well,” he said, reflectively.

“They turned that into a barn,” she ran on, enthusiastically. “The new house is jest splendid—green blinds to the winders, an' cyarpets on the floors, a spring-house, an' a windmill to keep the house an' barn in water.”

“We'd better go in,” he said, abruptly; “you'll catch cold out here in the dew.”

She laughed childishly as she walked back to the cabin by his side. A thick smoke and an unpleasant odor met them at the door.

“It's Sam a-burnin' rags to oust the mosquitoes, so he kin sleep,” she explained; “they are wuss this yeer 'an I ever seed 'em. Jake an' the gals grease the'r faces with lamp-oil when they have any, but I jest kiver up my head with a rag an' never know they are about. I reckon we'd better go to bed. Jake has fixed him a bed up in the loft, so you kin sleep by yorese'f. He's been jowerin' at his paw ever sence supper fer treatin' you so bad.”

The next morning, after breakfast, Jake threw a bag of shelled corn on the bare back of his old bay mare and started to mill down the valley, and his father shouldered an ax and went up on the hill to cut wood.

“Whar are you gwine?” asked Mrs. King, following Laramore to the door.

“I thought I would walk over to the Loften place and see the improvements. I used to hunt over that land.”

“Well, be shore to git back by dinner, whatever you do. Me an' Jane caught a hen on the roost last night, an' I'm gwine to make you a chicken pie, kase you used to love 'em so much.”

Half a mile up the road, which ran along the side of the hill, he came into view of the rich, level lands of the Loften plantation. He stood in the shade of a tall poplar and looked thoughtfully at the lush green meadows, the well-tilled fields of corn, cotton, and sorghum, and the large two-storied house with its dormer windows, tall, fluted columns, and broad verandas—at the numerous outhouses, barns, and stables, and the white-graveled drives and walks from the house to the road. Then he turned and looked back at the cabin—the home of his mother.

It was hardly discernible in the gray morning mist that hung over the little vale in which it stood. He saw Jake, far away, riding along, in and out among the sassafras and sumac bushes that bordered a worn-out wheatfield, his long legs dangling at the sides of the mare. There was a bent figure in the woodyard picking up chips; it was his mother or one of the girls.

“Poor souls!” he exclaimed; ” they have been in a dreary treadmill all their lives, and have never known the joy of one gratified ambition. If only I could conquer my own selfish desires I could give them comforts they never dreamed of possessing—a taste of happiness. It would take my last dollar, and Chamberlain and Gilraith would never understand. They would look elsewhere for capital and for an editor, and it would be like them to say they could get along without my contributions.”

It was dusk when he returned to the cabin. Jake sat on his bag of meal in the door. Old Sam had taken off his shoes, and sat out under a persimmon tree “coolin' off,” and yelling angrily at his wife to “hurry up supper.”

When she heard that Laramore had returned she came to the door. “We didn't know what had become of you,” she said, as she emerged from the cabin.

“I got interested in the Loften farm, and before I realized it the sun was down; I am sorry.”

“Oh, it don't matter; I saved yore piece o' pie, an' I'm just warmin' it over. I bet you didn't get a single bite o' dinner.”

“Yes, I did; but I am ready for supper.”

As they were rising from the table Laramore said: “I have got something to say to you all.”

They dragged their chairs back to the front room and sat down with awkward ceremony. They stared at him in open-mouthed wonder as he placed his chair in front of them. Old Sam seemed embarrassed by the formality of the proceedings, and endeavored to relieve himself by assuming indifference. He coughed conspicuously and hitched his chair back till it leaned against the door-jamb.

There was a tremor in Laramore's voice, and all the time he was speaking he did not look up from the floor.

“Since I went away from you,” he began, “I have studied hard and applied myself to a profession, and though I have wandered about a good deal I have managed to save a little money. I am not rich, but I am worth more than you think I am. You have never had any luck, and you have worked hard, and deserve more than has fallen to your lot. You never could make anything on this poor land. The Loften property is worth twice what he asked for it. I happened to have the money to spare and bought it. I have the deed for it.”

There was a profound silence in the room. The occupants of the row of chairs stared at him with widened eyes, mute and motionless. A sudden breeze came in at the door and turned the flame of the candle on the mantel toward the wall, and caused black ropes of smoke from the pine-knots in the chimney to curl out into the room like pyrotechnic snakes. Mrs. King bent forward and looked into Laramore's face and smiled and winked, then she glanced at the serious faces of the others and broke out into a childish laugh of genuine merriment.

“La, me! Ef you-uns ain't settin' thar and swallowin' down every word that boy says jest ez ef it was so much law and gospel!”

But none of them entered into her mood; indeed, they gave her not so much as a glance. Without replying, Laramore arose and took the candle from the mantelpiece. He stood it on the table and laid a folded paper beside it. “There's the deed,” he said. “It is made out to my mother to hold as long as she lives, and to fall eventually to her daughters and her son Jake.”

He left the paper on the table and went back to his chair. An awkward silence ensued. It was broken by old Sam. He coughed and threw his tobacco-quid out at the door, and smiling to hide his agitation he went to the table. His back was to them, and his face went out of view when he bent to hold the paper in the light.

“That's what it is, by Jacks!” he blurted out. “Thar's no shenanigan about it. The Loften place is Mariar Habersham King's ef I kin read writin'.”

With a great clatter of shoes and chairs they rose and gathered around him, leaving their benefactor submerged in their shadow. Each took the paper and examined it silently, and then they slowly dispersed, leaving the document on the table. Sam King started aimlessly toward the kitchen, but finally turned to the front door, where he stood irresolute, staring out at the road. Mrs. King looked at Laramore helplessly and went out into the kitchen, and exchanging glances, the two girls followed her. Jake noticed that the wind was blowing the paper from the table, and he rescued it and silently offered it to his half-brother.

Laramore motioned it from him. “Give it to mother,” he said. “She'll take care of it. By the way, Loften will get out at once. The price paid includes the crops, and they are in very good condition.”

He had Jake's bed to himself again that night. For hours he lay awake listening to the drone of excited conversation from the family which had gathered under the trees in front of the cabin. About eleven o'clock some one came softly into his room. The moon had risen and its beams fell in at the open door. It was his mother, and she was moving toward his bed with cat-like caution.

“Is that you, mother?” he asked.

For an instant she was so much startled at finding him awake that she could not reply.

“Oh, I tried not to wake you,” she stammered. “I just wanted to make shore yore bed was comfortable.”

“It is all right. I wasn't asleep, anyway.”

He could feel her trembling as she sat down on the edge of his bed.

“Seems like you couldn't sleep, nuther,” she said. “Thar hain't a shut eye in this cabin. They've all laid down, an' laid down an' got up ergin, over an' over.” She laughed softly and twisted her hands nervously in her lap. “We are all that excited we don't know which way to turn. Why, Luke, it'll be the talk o' the county! Sech luck hain't fell to any family as pore as we are sence I can remember. La, me! It 'ud make you split yore sides a-laughin' jest to set out thar an' listen to all the plans they are makin'. But Sam has the least of all to say; an', Luke, I'm sorter sorry fer 'im. He feels bad about the way he has al'ays treated you. He's too back'ard an' shamefaced to ax yore pardon, an' he begged me jest now to do it fer 'im the fust time I got a chance. He's a good man, Luke, but he's gittin' old, an' has been hounded to death by debt an' ill-luck.”

“I know it; he is all right,” replied Laramore, tremulously. “Tell him I have not the slightest ill-will against him, and that I hope he will get along better now.”

“You talk like you don't intend to stay.”

“No; I shall have to return North pretty soon—that is, after I see you moved into your new home. I can do better up there; you know I was not cut out for a farmer.”

“I reckon you know best 'bout your own arrangements, but I hate to have you go ag'in. I'd like to have all my children with me ef I could.”

“I'll come back every now and then; I won't stay away so long next time.”

She went out to tell her husband what he had said and to let her son sleep, but Laramore slept little. All night, at intervals, the buzz of low voices and sudden outbursts of merriment reached him.

His mother stole softly into his room. This time it was to bring a shawl, which she cautiously spread over him, for the air had grown cold. She thought him asleep, but as she was turning away he caught her hand, and drew her down and kissed her.

“Why, Luke!” she exclaimed; “don't be foolish. Why, what's got in— ?” But her voice had grown husky and her words died away in an irrepressible sob of happiness. She did not stir for an instant; then impulsively she put her arms around his neck and kissed him. And he felt that her face was damp.

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index