EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index

 
 
 

The Convict's Return by Will Nathaniel Harben

 

The pedestrian trudged down the tortuous declivitous road of the mountain amidst the splendor of autumn-tinted leafage and occasional dashes of rhododendron flowers. Now and then he would stop and deeply breathe in the crisp air, as if it were a palpable substance which was pleasing to his palate. At such moments, when the interstices of trunks and bowlders would permit, his eyes, large with weariness, would rest on a certain farmhouse in the valley below.

“It's identical the same,” he said, when he had completed the descent of the mountain and was drawing near to it. “As fer as I can make out, it hain't altered one bit sence the day they tuk me away. Ef ever'thing seems purtier now, it may be beca'se it's in the fall of the year an' the maple-trees an' the laurel look so fancy.”

Approaching the barn, the only appurtenance to the four-roomed house, farther on by a hundred yards, he leaned on the rail fence and looked over into the barnyard at the screw of blue smoke which was rising from a fire under a huge iron boiler.

“Marty's killin' hogs,” he said, reflectively. “I mought 'a' picked a better day fer gittin' back; she never was knowed to be in a good humor durin' hog-killin'.”

He half climbed, half vaulted over the fence, and approached the woman, who was bowed over an improvised table of undressed planks on which were heaped the dismembered sides, shoulders, and hams of pork. His heart was in his mouth, owing to the carking doubt as to his welcome which had been oozing into the joy of freedom ever since he began his homeward journey. But it was not his wife who looked up as his step rustled the corn-husks near her, but her unmarried sister, Lucinda Dykes.

“Well, I never!” she ejaculated. “It's Dick Wakeman, as I am alive!” She wiped her hand on her apron and gave it to him, limp and cold. “We all heerd you was pardoned out, but none of us 'lowed you'd make so straight fer home.”

His features shrank, as if battered by the blow she had unwittingly dealt him.

“I say!” he grunted, “Whar else in the name o' common sense would a feller go? A body that's been penned up in the penitentiary fer four years don't keer to be rosin' time monkeyin' round amongst plumb strangers, when his own folks—when he hain't laid eyes on his—”

But, after all, good reasons for his haste in returning could not be found outside of a certain sentimentality which lay deep beneath Wakeman's rugged exterior, and to which no one had ever heard him refer.

“Shorely,” said the old maid, taking a wrong grasp of the situation —“shorely you knowed, Dick, that Marty has got 'er divorce?”

“Oh, yes. Bad news takes a bee-line shoot fer its mark. I heerd the court had granted 'er a release, but that don't matter. A lawyer down thar told me that it all could be fixed up now I'm out. Ef I'd 'at been at home, Marty never would 'a' made sech a goose of 'erse'f. How much did the divorce set 'er back?”

“About a hundred dollars,” answered Lucinda.

“Money liter'ly throwed away, “ said the convict, with irrepressible indignation. “Marty never did quite sech a silly thing while I was at home.”

The old maid stared at him, a half-amused smile playing over her thin face.

“But it was her money,” she said, argumentatively. “She owned the farm an' every stick an' head o' stock on it when you an' 'er got married.”

“You needn't tell me that,” said Wakeman, sharply. “I know that; but that ain't no reason fer 'er to throw 'er money away gittin' a divorce.”

Lucinda filled her hand with salt and began to sprinkle it on a side of meat. “Law me,” she tittered, “I'll bet you hain't heerd about Marty an' Jeff Goardley.”

“Yes, I have. Meddlin' busybodies has writ me about that, too,” said Wakeman, sitting down on the hopper of a corn-sheller and idly swinging his foot.

“He's a-courtin' of 'er like a broom-sedge field afire,” added the sister, tentatively.

“She's got too much sense to marry 'im after 'er promises to me,” said the convict, firmly.

“She lets 'im come reg'lar ev'ry Tuesday night.”

Wakeman was not ready with a reply, and Lucinda began to salt another piece of pork.

“Ev'ry Tuesday night, rain or shine,” she said.

The words released Wakeman's tongue.

“Huh, he's the most triflin' fop in the county.”

“Looks like some o' the neighbors is powerful bent on the match,” continued Lucinda, her tone betraying her own lack of sympathy for the thing in question. “Marty was a-standin' over thar at the fence jest 'fore you come an' whirled all of a sudden an' went up to the house. She said she was afeered her cracklin's would burn, but I'll bet she seed you down the road. I never have been able to make 'er out. She ain't once mentioned yore name sence you went off. Dick, I'm one that don't, nur never did, believe you meant to steal Williams's hoss, kase you was too drunk to know what you was a-doin', but Marty never says whether she does ur doesn't. The day the news come back that you was sentenced I ketched 'er in the back room a-cryin' as ef 'er heart would break, but that night 'Lonzo Spann come in an' said that you had let it out in the court-room that you'd be glad even to go to the penitentiary to git a rest from Marty's tongue, an'—”

“Lucinda, as thar's a God on high, them words never passed my lips,” the convict interrupted.

“I 'lowed not,” the old maid returned. “But it has got to be a sort of standin' joke ag'in Marty, an' she heers it ev'ry now an' then. But I'm yore friend, Dick. I've had respect fer you ever sence I noticed how you suffered when Annie got sick an' died. Thar ain't many men that has sech feelin' fer their dead children.”

Wakeman's face softened.

“I was jest a-wonderin', comin' on, ef—ef anybody has been a-lookin' after the grave sence I went off. The boys in the penitentiary used to mention the'r dead once in a while, an' I'd always tell 'em about my grave. Pris'ners, Lucinda, git to relyin' on the company o' the'r dead about as much as the'r livin' folks. In the four years that I was in confinement not one friend o' mine ever come to ax how I was gittin' on.”

“Marty has been a-lookin' after the grave,” said Lucinda, in the suppressed tone peculiar to people who desire to disown deep emotion. She turned her face toward the house. “I wish you wouldn't talk about yore bein' neglected down thar, Dick. The Lord knows I've laid awake many an' many a cold night a-wonderin' ef they give you-uns enough cover, an' ef they tuk them cold chains off'n you at night. An' I reckon Marty did, too, fer she used to roll an' tumble as ef 'er mind wasn't at ease.”

Wakeman took off his coat and rolled up his shirt-sleeves.

“I'm itchin' to set in to farm-work ag'in,” he said. “Let me salt fer you, an' you run up thar an' tell 'er I'm back. Maybe she'll come down heer.”

Lucinda gave him her place at the table, a troubled expression taking hold of her features.

“The great drawback is Jeff Goardley,” she said. “It really does look like him an' Marty will come to a understandin'. I don't know railly but what she may have promised him; he has seemed mighty confident heer lately.”

Wakeman shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. He filled his hands with the salt from a pail and began to rub it on the pork.

Lingeringly the woman left him and turned up the slight incline toward the house. His eyes did not follow her. He was scrutinizing the pile of pork she had salted.

“Goodness gracious!” he grunted. “Lucindy has wasted fifteen pound o' salt. Ef I'd 'a' done that Marty'd 'a' tuk the top o' my head off. I wonder ef Marty could 'a' got careless sence she's had all the work to look after.”

He had salted the last piece of meat when, looking up, he saw Lucinda standing near him.

“She wouldn't come a step,” she announced, with some awkwardness of delivery. “When I told 'er you wuz down heer she jest come to the door an' looked down at you a-workin' an' grunted an' went back to 'er cracklin's. But that's Marty.”

The convict dipped his hands into a tub of hot water and wiped them on an empty saltbag.

“I wonder,” he began, “ef I'd better—” But he proceeded no further.

“I think I would,” said the angular mind- reader, sympathetically.

“Well, you come on up thar, too,” Wakeman proposed. “I've always noticed that when you are about handy she never has as much to say as she does commonly.”

“I'll have to go,” said Lucinda. “Ef Marty gits to talkin' to you she'll let the cracklin's burn, an' then—then she'd marry Goardley out o' pure spite.”

As the pair reached the steps of the back porch the convict caught a glimpse of a gingham skirt within, and its stiff flounce as it vanished behind the half-closed door-shutter suddenly flung an aspect of seriousness into his countenance. He paused, his foot on the lowest step, and peered into the sitting-room. Seeing it empty, he smiled.

“I'll go in thar an' take a cheer. Tell 'er I want to see 'er.”

His air of returning self-confidence provoked a faint laugh from his well-wisher.

“Yo' 're a case,” she said, nodding her consent to his request. “You are different frum 'most anybody else. Somehow I can't think about you ever havin' been jailed fer hoss- stealin'.”

“It all depends on a body's feelin's,” the convict returned. “Down thar in the penitentiary we had a little gang of us that knowed we wuz innocent of wrong intentions, an' we kinder flocked together. All the rest sorter looked up to us an' believed we wuz all right. It was a comfort. I'll step in an' git it over.”

He walked as erectly as an Indian up the steps and into the sitting-room. To his surprise Mrs. Wakeman started to enter the room from the adjoining kitchen, and seeing him, turned and began to beat a hasty retreat.

“Hold on thar, Marty,” he called out, in the old tone which had formerly made strangers suppose that the farm and all pertaining to it had been his when he married her.

She paused in the doorway, white and sullen.

“Ain't you a-goin' to tell a feller howdy an' shake hands?” he asked, with considerable self-possession.

“What 'ud I do that fur?”

“Beca'se I'm home ag'in,” he said.

“Huh, nobody hain't missed you.” The words followed a forced shrug.

“I know a sight better'n that, Marty,” he said. “I know a woman that 'ud take a duck fit jest when I was gone to drive the cows home an' got delayed a little, would fret consider'ble durin' four years of sech a— a trip as I've had. Set down here an' let's have a talk.”

“I've got my work to do,” she returned, after half a minute of speechlessness, her helpless anger standing between her and satisfactory expression.

“Oh, all right!” he exclaimed. “I ain't no hand to waste time durin' work hours with dillydallyin'. Any other time'll do me jest as well. I 'lowed maybe it would suit you better to have it over with. I must git out the boss an' wagon an' haul that hog-meat up to the smokehouse. Whar's Cato? I'll bet that triflin' nigger has give you the slip ag'in this hog-killin', like he always did.”

Mrs. Wakeman stared at the speaker in a sort of thwarted, defiant way without deigning to reply; her sneer was the only thing about her bearing which seemed at all expressive of the vast contempt for him that she really did not feel. She felt that her silence was cowardly, her failure to assert her rights as a divorced woman an admission that she was glad of his return.

At this critical juncture Lucinda Dykes sauntered into the room and leaned against the dingy, once sky-blue wall. Her air of interested amusement over the matrimonial predicament had left her. It had dawned upon her, now that her sister had taken refuge in obstinate silence, that a vast responsibility rested on her as intermediary.

“Cato went with some more niggers to a shindig over at Squire Camp's yesterday an' hain't showed up sence,” she explained. “Ef I was you-uns —ef I was Marty, I mean—I'd turn 'im off fer good an' all. Dick, sence you went off me nur Marty hain't been able to do a thing with 'im.”

The convict grunted. It was as if he had succeeded in rolling the last four years from his memory as completely as if they had never passed.

“Jest wait till I see the black scamp,” he growled. “I reckon I'll have to do every lick of the work myself.” With that Wakeman turned into the entry and thence went to the stable-yard near by.

“He hain't altered a smidgin',” Lucinda commented. “It may be kase he has on the identical same clothes; he's been a-wearin striped ones down thar, you know, an' they laid away his old ones. To save me I can't realize that he's been off even a week.” The old maid snickered softly. “He's the only one that could ever manage you, Marty. Now Jeff Goardley would let you have yore own way, but Dick's a caution! It's always been a question with me as to whether a woman would ruther lead a man ur be led.”

There was a white stare in Mrs Wakeman's eyes which indicated that she was pondering the man's chief aggression rather than heeding her sister's nagging remarks. The sudden appearance of the convict's head and shoulders above a near-at-hand window-sill rendered a reply unnecessary. His face was flushed.

“Can you-uns tell me whar under the sun the halter is?” he broke forth, in a turbulent tone. “I tuk the trouble to put a iron hook up in the shed-room jest fer that halted, an' now somebody has tore down the hook an' I can't find hair nur hide o' the halter.”

Mrs. Wakeman tried to sneer again as she turned aside, and the gaunt intermediary, spurred on to her duty, approached the window.

“The blacksmith tuk that hook to mend the harrow with,” she said, with a warning glance at Marty. “You'll find the halter on the joist above the hoss-trough. Ef I was you, on this rust day, I'd try to—“ But Wakeman had dropped out of sight, and muttering unintelligible sounds indicative of discomfiture, was striding toward the stable.

All the rest of that afternoon the convict toiled in the smoke-house, hanging the meat on hooks along the joists over a slow, partly smothered fire of chips and pieces of bark. When the work was finished his eyes were red from smoke and brine. He stabled the horse and fed him, and then, realizing that he had nothing more to do, he felt hungry. He wanted to go into the sitting-room and sit down in his old place in the chimney-corner, but a growing appreciation of the extreme delicacy of the situation had taken hold of him. He wandered about the stable-yard in a desultory way, going to the pig-pen, now empty and blood-stained, and to the well-filled corn-crib, but these objects had little claim on his interest. The evening shadows had begun to stalk like dank amphibious monsters over the carpet of turf along the creek-banks, and pencils of light were streaming out of the windows of the family-room. Suddenly his eyes took in the woodpile; he went to it, and picking up the ax, began to cut wood. He was tired, but he felt that he would rather be seen occupied than remaining outside without a visible excuse for so doing. In a few minutes he was joined by Lucinda.

“Dick,” she intoned, “you've worked enough, the Lord Almighty knows. Come in the house an' rest 'fore supper; it's mighty nigh ready.”

He avoided her glance, and shamefacedly touched a big log he had just cut into the proper length for the fireplace.

“Cato, the triflin' scamp, hain't cut you-uns a single backlog,” he said, in a tone that she had never heard from him.

“We hadn't had a decent one sence you went off, Brother Richard,” she returned. “An' a fire's no fire without a backlog.”

Their eyes met. She saw that he was deeply stirred by her tenderness, and that opened the floodgates of her sympathy. She began to rub her eyes.

“Oh, Dick, I'm so miser'ble; ef you an' Marty don't quit actin' like you are I don't know what I will do.”

She saw him make a motion as if he had swallowed something; then he stooped and shouldered the heavy backlog and some smaller sticks.

“I'll give you-uns one more backlog to set by, anyhow,” he said, huskily.

She preceded him into the sitting-room and stood over him while he raked out the hot coals and deposited the log against the back part of the fireplace. Then she turned into the kitchen and approached her sister, who was frying meat in an iron pan on the coals.

“Marty,” she said, unsteadily, “ef you begin on Dick I'll go off fer good. I can't stand that.”

Mrs. Wakeman folded her stern lips, as if to keep them under check, and shrugged her shoulders. That was all the response she made.

Lucinda turned back into the sitting-room, where the dining-table stood. To-night she put three plates on the white cloth; one of them had been Dick's for years. She put it at the end of the table where he had sat when he was the head of the house. As she did so she caught his shifting glance and smiled.

“I want to make you feel as ef nothin' in the world had happened, Dick,” she said. “I've been a-fixin' you a bed in the company- room, but you jest must be sensible about that.”

“Law! anything will suit me, “ he began. But the entrance of Marty interrupted his remark.

She put the bread, the coffee, the meat, and the gravy on the table, and sat down in her place without a word. Lucinda glanced at Wakeman.

“Come on, Dick,” she called out. “I'll bet yo' 're hungry as a bear.”

He drew out the chair that had been placed for him and sat down. Now an awkward situation presented itself. In the absence of a man Marty always asked the blessing. Lucinda wondered what would take place; one thing she knew well, and that was that Marty was too punctilious in religious matters to touch a bite of food before grace had been said by some one. But just then she noticed something about Wakeman that sent a little thrill of horror through her. Evidently his long life in prison had caused him to retrograde into utter forgetfulness of the existence of table etiquette, for he had drawn the great dish of fried meat toward him and was critically eying the various parts as he slowly turned it round.

“What a fool I am,” he said, the delightful savor of the meat rendering him momentarily oblivious of his former wife's forbidding aspect. “I laid aside the lights o' that littlest shote an' firmly intended to ax you to fry 'em fer me, but—”

Lucinda's stare convinced him that something had gone wrong.

“Marty's waitin' fer somebody to ax the blessin',” she explained.

“Blessin'? Good gracious!” he grunted, his effusiveness dried up. “That went clean out'n my mind. But a body that's tuk his meals on a tin plate in a row o' fellers waitin' fer the'r turn four years hand-runnin', ain't expected to—”

He went no further, seeming to realize that the picture he was drawing was tending to widen the distance between him and the uncompromising figure opposite him. He folded his hands so that his arms formed a frame for his plate, and said in a mellow bass voice:

“Good Lord, make us duly thankful fer the bounteous repast that Thy angels has seed fit to spread before us to-night. Cause each of us to inculcate sech a frame of mind as will not let us harbor ill will ag'in our neighbors, an' finally, when this shadowy abode is dispersed by the light of Thy glory, receive us all into Thy grace. This we beg in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”

He ended in some confusion. A red spot hovered over each of his cheek-bones. “I clean forgot that part about good crops an' fair weather,” he said to Lucinda. “But you see it's been four yeer sence I said it over, an' a man o' my age ought n't to be expected to know a thing like a younger person.”

“Help yorese'f to the meat an' pass the dish to Marty” replied Miss Dykes. “Ef I was you, I'd not be continually a-bringin' up things about the last four yeer.”

He made a hurried but bounteous choice of the parts of meat on the dish, and then gave it over into the outstretched hands of Lucinda. Marty was pouring out the coffee. She passed the old-fashioned mustache-cup to her sister, and that lady transferred it to Wakeman. He sipped from it lingeringly.

“My Lord!” he cried, impulsively. “I tell you the God's truth; sech good coffee as this hadn't been in a mile o' my lips sence I went— sence I was heer,” he corrected, as Lucinda's warning stare bore down on him.

After that the meal proceeded in silence. When he had finished, Dick went back to his chair in the chimney-corner near the battered woodbox. After putting away the dishes and removing the cloth from the table, Lucinda came and sat down near him. Mrs. Wakeman, casting occasional furtive glances toward the front door, appropriated her share of the general silence in a seat where the firelight faded. Richard wore an unsettled air, as if getting into old harness came as awkward as putting on the new had come when he married, years before. After a few minutes he became a little drowsy, and began to act naturally, as if by force of returning habit. He unlaced his shoes, took them off, rubbed the bottoms of his feet, thrust those members toward the fire, and worked his toes. He also took a chew of tobacco. Profound silence was in the room; the thoughts of three minds percolated through it. Marty picked up the Christian Advocate and pretended to read, but she dropped it in her lap and cast another look toward the door.

The rustling of the paper attracted Richard's gaze.

“Is she expectin'—is anybody a-comin'?” He directed the question to Lucinda.

“I wouldn't be much surprised,” was the answer. “It's Jeff Goardley's night.”

“You don't say!” Each of the words had a separate little jerk, and the questioning stare of the convict's eyes pierced the space intervening between him and his divorced wife. He spat into the fire, wiped his mouth with an unsteady hand, and caught his breath.

Silence again. Lucinda broke it.

“You hadn't never told us how you happened to git yore pardon,” she ventured.

“By a streak o' luck,” Wakeman said, the languid largeness of his eyes showing that he was still struggling against the inclination to sleep. “T'other day the governor sent word to our superintendent that he was comin' to see fer hisself how we was treated. The minute I heerd it, I said to myself, I did, 'Wakeman, you must have a talk with that man,' So the mornin' he got thar we wus all give a sort of vacation an' stood up in rows—like fer inspection. When I seed 'im a-comin' towards me I jest gazed at 'im with all my might an' he got to lookin' at me. When he got nigh me he stopped short an' said:

“'Looky' heer, my man,' said he; 'yore face seems mighty familiar to me. Have I ever seed you before?'

“'Not unless you remember me a-throwin' up my hat in front o' the stan' an' yellin' when you wus stump-speakin' in Murray jest 'fore yore 'lection,' said I.

“Then he laughed kinder good-natured like, an' said: 'I'm sorry to see a voter o' mine in a fix like yo'r'n. What can I do fer you?'

“'I want to have a talk with you, yore Honor, an' that bad,' said I.

“'I am at yore disposal,' said he. 'That's what I'm heer fer. I'll ax the superintendent to call you in a moment. What is yore name?'“

'Richard Wakeman, yore Honor,' said I.

“'An' one o' the best men we ever had,' said the superintendent.

“Well, they passed on, an' in a few minutes I was ordered to come to the superintendent's office, an' thar I found the governor tilted back smokin' a fine cigar.

“'You wanted to have some'n' to say to me Wakeman?' said he.

“I eased my ball an' chain down on the skin of a big-eyed varmint o' some sort, an' stood up straight.

“'I did, yore Honor, an' that bad,' said I.

“'What is it?' said he.

“'I want to put my case before you, yore Honor,' said I. 'An' I'm not a-goin' to begin, as every convict does, by sayin' he ain't guilty, fer I know you've heerd that tale tell yo' 're heartily sick of it.'

“'But are you guilty?' said the governor. 'I have seed men sent up fer crimes they never committed.'

“'Yore Honor,' said I, 'I didn't no more intend to steal that boss o' Pike Williams's than you did—not a bit. Gittin' on a spree about once a year is my main fault, an' it was Christmas, an' all of us was full o' devilment. It was at the Springplace bar, an' Alf Moreland struck me a whack across the face with his whip, an' bein' astraddle of a fine nag he made off. Pike's nag was hitched at the rack nigh me, an', without hardly knowin' what I was doin', I jumped on it an' spurred off after Alf. I run 'im nip an' tuck fer about seven mile, an' then me an' him rid on fer more whisky down the valley. The next day I was arrested, so drunk they had to haul me to jail in a wagon. They tried me before a jury o' men that never did like me, an' I got five yeer.'

“When I stopped thar to draw a fresh breath the governor axed, 'Is that what you wanted to say, Wakeman?'

“'Not a word of it, yore Honor,' said I. 'I jest wanted to put a straight question to you about the law. Ef you knowed that a man was a-sufferin' a sight more on account of imprisonment than his sentence called fer, would that be right?'

“The governor studied a minute, then he kinder smiled at the superintendent, an' said:

“'That's a question fer the conscience. Ef a man is imprisoned fer a crime, an' jail life breaks his health down, an' is killin' 'im, then he ort to be pardoned out.'

“Then I had 'im right whar I wanted 'im, an' I up an' told 'im that I had a wife that was all the world to me, an' that durin' my term mischievous folks had lied ag'in me an' persuaded 'er to git a divorce, an' that a oily- tongued scamp was a-tryin' to marry 'er fer what little land she had. I reminded 'im that I was put in fer stealin', an that I had worked four yeer o' my sentence, an' that it looked like a good deal o' punishment fer jest one spree, but that I wouldn't complain, bein' as I was cured of the liquor habit an' never intended to put the neck of a bottle to my mouth ag'in, but that I did kinder want to hurry back home fore too much damage was done.

“Well, I'm not lyin' when I say the governor's eyes was wet. All of a sudden he heft out his hen' to me an' said:

“'I feel shore you never intended to steal that boss, Wakeman.'

“'My wife never has believed it fer one instant,' said the superintendent. 'An' it takes a woman to ferret out guilt.'

“The governor tuk a sheet o' paper an' a pen an' said:

“'Wakeman, I'm a-goin' to pardon you, an' what's more, I inten' to send a statement to all the newspapers that I'm convinced you are a wronged man. I've done wuss than you was accused of in my young days, an' had the cheek to run fer the office of governor.'

“Then the superintendent's wife come in an' stood up thar an' cried, an' axed to be allowed to unlock my manacles. She got out my old suit— this un heer—an' breshed it 'erself, an' kept on a-cryin' an' a-laughin' at the same time The last words that she said to me was:

“'Wakeman, go home an' make up with yore wife; she won't turn ag'in you when you git back to the old place whar you an' her has lived together so long, an' whar yore child's grave is.'“

The speaker paused. For a man so coarse in appearance, his tone had grown remarkably tender. Lucinda was staring wide-eyed, with a fixed aspect of features, as if she were half frightened at the unwonted commotion within herself and the danger of its appearing on the surface. Finally she took refuge in the act of raising her apron to her eyes.

Mrs. Wakeman had excellent command over herself, drawing upon a vast fund of offended pride, the interest of which had compounded within the last four years. Just at this crisis the steady beat of a horse's hoofs broke into the hushed stillness of the room. Lucinda lowered her apron with wrists that seemed jointless bone, and stared at her sister.

“Are you a-goin' to let that feller stick his head inside that door to-night?”

The question was ill-timed, for it produced only a haughty, contemptuous shrug in the woman from whom it rebounded. Wakeman did not take his eyes from the fire. They heard the gate-latch click, and then a heavy- booted and spurred foot fell on the entry step. The next instant the door was unceremoniously opened and a tall, lank mountaineer entered. He was at the fag-end of bachelorhood, had sharp, thin features, a small mustache dyed black, and reddish locks which were long and curling. He wore a heavy gray shawl over his shoulders. At first he did not see Wakeman, for his eyes had found employment in trying to discover why Marty had not risen as he came in. He glanced inquiringly at Lucinda, and then he recognized Richard.

“My Lord!” he muttered. “I had no idee you—I 'lowed you—”

“I didn't nuther,” Richard sneered, the red firelight revealing strange flashes in his eyes.

For some instants the visitor stood on the hearth awkwardly disrobing his sinewy hands. Finally, unheeding Lucinda's admonitory glances toward the door, and the prayerful current from her eyes to his, he sat down near Marty. Ten minutes by the clock on the mantelpiece passed, in which time nothing was heard except the lowing of the cattle in the cow-lot and the sizzling of the coals when Richard spat. At last a portion of Wakeman's wandering self-confidence resettled upon him, and it became him well. He crossed his legs easily, dropped his quid of tobacco into the fire, and with a determined gaze began to prod his squirming rival.

“Lookye heer,” he said, suddenly. “What did you come heer fur, anyhow?”

Goardley leaned forward and spat between his linked hands. He accomplished it with no slight effort, for the inactivity of his mouth, which was not chewing anything, had produced a hot dryness.

“I don't know,” he managed to say. “I jest thought I'd come around.”

“Ride?”

“Yes, hoss-back.”

“Do you know whar you hitched?”

Goardley hesitated and glanced helplessly at Marty, who, stern-faced, inflexible, was looking at the paper in her lap.

“I hitched under the cherry-tree out thar,” he answered, with scarcely a touch of self- confidence in his tone.

“Well, go unhitch an' git astraddle of yore animal.”

Goardley blinked, but did not rise.

“I didn't have the least idee you had got free, Dick, an'—”

“Well, you know it now, so git out to that hoss, ur by all that's holy—”

Mrs. Wakeman drew herself erect and crumpled the paper in her bony hand.

“This is my house,” she said, “an' I ain't no married woman.”

The white fixity of Goardley's countenance relaxed in a slow grin. An automatic affair it was, but as he took in the situation it was a recognition of the aid which had arrived at the last minute.

Wakeman stood up in his stockinged feet. He was still unruffled. “That's a fact; the place is her'n,” he admitted. “But I'll tell you one article that ain't. It's that thar shootin'-iron on them deer-horns up thar, an' ef you don't git out'n heer forthwith it'll make the fust hole in meat that it's made in four yeer. Maybe me'n Marty ain't man an' wife, but when we wuz married the preacher said, 'What the Lord has j'ined together let no man put asunder,' an' I ain't a-goin' to set still an' see a dirty, oily-tongued scamp like you try to undo the Lord's work. You know the way out, an' I was too late fer hog-killin'. I went into the penitentiary fer jest one spree, but I'll go in fer manslaughter next time an' serve my term more cheerful—I mought say with Christian fortitude.”

Cowardice produced the dominant expression in Goardley's face. He rose and backed from the room. The convict thumped across the resounding floor to the door and looked out after the departing man.

“Run like a sheered dog,” he laughed, impulsively, as he turned back into the room. And then he waxed serious as he entered the atmosphere circling about Marty, who, with a stormy brow, sat immovable, her eyes downcast.

“I couldn't help it, to save me,” he began, apologetically, to her profile. “But I reckon you an' me can manage to git along like we used to, an' I never would 'a' had any respect fer myself ef I had a-let that scamp set heer an' think he was a-courtin' of you right before my eyes.”

Marty made no reply. A flush of suppressed emotion had risen in her cheeks and was taking on a deeper tinge. Richard grunted, stepped half-way back to his chimney-corner, and looked at her again. Seeing her eyes still averted, he grunted aloud, and went to his chair and sat down. Several minutes passed. Then Lucinda's prayerful eyes saw his hand, now quivering, reach behind him and draw his shoes in front of him. He put them on, but did not tie the strings.

“Somehow,” he said, rising, “somehow, now that I come to think of it, I don't feel exactly right—exactly as I used to—an' I reckon, maybe, I ort to go some'rs else. I reckon, as you said jest now, that in the eyes o' some folks you ain't no married woman, an' I have been makin' purty free fer a jail-bird. Old Uncle Billy Hodkins won't set his dogs on me, an' I'll go over thar tonight. After that the Lord only knows whar I will head fer. Uncle Billy never did believe I was guilty; he's writ me that a dozen times.”

As he moved toward the door, in a clattering, slipshod fashion, Lucinda fixed Marty with a fierce stare.

“Are you a-goin' to set thar an' let Dick leave us fer good?” she hurled at her fiercely.

Marty made no reply save that which was embodied in a would-be defiant shrug, but the flow of blood had receded from her face.

“Ef you do, you ain't no Christian woman, that's all,” was Lucinda's half-sobbing, half- shrieked accusation. “Yo' 're a purty thing to set up an' drink the sacrament with a heart in you that the Old Nick's fire couldn't melt.”

The convict smiled back at his defender from the threshold; then they heard him cross the entry and step down on the gravel walk. He had passed the bars and was turning up the side of a little hill, on the brow of which a few gravestones shimmered in the moonlight, when he heard his name called from the entry. It was Lucinda's voice; she came to him, her hair flying in the wind.

“I 'lowed,” he said, sheepishly, as she paused to catch her breath, “I jest 'lowed I'd go up thar an' see ef the water had been washin' out round Annie's grave. The last time I looked at it the foot-rock was a little sagged to one side.”

“Come back in the house, Dick,” cried the old maid. “Marty has completely broke down. She's cryin' like a baby. She has been actin' stubborn beca'se she was proud an' afeerd folks would think she was a fool about you. As soon as I told 'er you didn't say that about bein' willin' to go to jail to git out'n reach o' 'er tongue, she axed me to run after you. She's consented to make it up ef we will send over fer the justice an' have the marryin' done to-night.”

“Are you a-tellin' me the truth, Lucinda?”

“As the Lord is my witness.”

He stared at the farmhouse a moment; then he said:

“Well, you an' her git everything ready, an' I'll git Squire Dow an' the license. I'll be back as soon as I kin.”

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index