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,
“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
“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
“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
The old maid stared at him, a half-amused smile playing over her
“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
“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
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
“He's a-courtin' of 'er like a broom-sedge field afire,” added the
“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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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,
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
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
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
“I wouldn't be much surprised,” was the answer. “It's Jeff
“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
“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
“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
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
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,
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.”
“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
Mrs. Wakeman drew herself erect and crumpled the paper in her bony
“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
“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
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
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.”