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A Filial Impulse by Will Nathaniel Harben

 

“Yo' 're purty well fixed, Jim; I wish I had yore business.”

Big Jim Bradley glanced slowly around his store. The heaps of flour-sacks, coffee-bags, sugar-barrels, piles of bacon, crates of hams, kits of mackerel, and the long rows of well-filled shelves brought a flush of satisfaction into his rugged face.

“Hain't no reason to complain, Bob,” he said; “you've been in Georgia, an' you know how blamed hard it is fer a feller to make his salt back thar.”

“Now yo' 're a-talkin'—yo' 're a-sayin' some'n' now!” Bob Lash was sitting on the head of a potato-barrel, eating cheese and crackers, and his spirited words were interspersed with little snowy puffs from the corners of his mouth. “Jim,” he continued, in a muffled tone, as he eased his feet down to the floor, “I'm a-goin' to wash this dry truck down with a glass o' yore cider; I'm about to choke. Thar's yore nickel. You needn't rise; I can wait on myse'f.”

“I'd keep my eye open while he was behind the counter, Jim,” put in Henry Webb, jestingly. “Bob's got a swallow like a mill-race. He may take a notion to drink out of yore half-gallon measure.”

“Had to drink out'n a thimble, or some'n' 'bout the size of it, at yore place when you kept a bar,” gurgled Bob in the cider-glass. “But I hain't nothin' ag'in you; the small doses of the stuff you sold was all that saved my life.”

The flashily dressed young man sitting at Webb's side laughed and slapped him familiarly on the knee. His name was Thornton. He used to mix drinks” for Webb, and had been out of employment ever since his employer's establishment had been closed by the sheriff, a few months before. “One on you, Harry,” he said, laughing again at the comical expression on his friend's face; “you have to get up before day to get the best o' these Georgia mossbacks.”

Webb said nothing; and Bob, blushing triumphantly under Thornton's compliment, and chewing a chip of dried beef that he had found on the counter, came back to his seat on the barrel.

“Well, I reckon I have done middlin' well,” said Jim, bringing the conversation back to his own affairs with as much adroitness as he was capable of exercising. “I didn't have a dollar to my name when I stuck this town, ten year back. I started as a waiter in a restaurant nigh the railroad shops, then run a lemonade-stand at the park, an' by makin' every lick count, I gradually worked up to this shebang.”

Henry Webb seemed to grow serious. He glanced stealthily at Thornton when Jim was not looking, crossed his legs nervously, and said: “Jim, me an' you have been dickerin' long enough; all this roundabout talk don't bring us an inch nearer a trade. Now I'm goin' to make you my last proposition about this stock o' goods. My wife got her money out of her minin' interest to-day, an' wants to put it in some regular business o' this sort. I'm goin' to make you a round bid on the whole thing, lock, stock, and barrel, an', on my honor, it's my last offer. I'll give you ten thousand dollars in cash fer the key to the door.”

Everybody in the group was fully conscious of the vital importance of the words which had just been spoken. Webb, who was a famous poker-player, had never controlled his face and tone better. No one spoke for a moment, but all eyes were fixed expectantly on Bradley. “Huh,” he answered, half under his breath, “I reckon you would!” He tossed his shaggy, iron-gray head and smiled artificially. His face was pale, and his eyes shone with suppressed excitement. It was a better offer than he had expected; in fact, he had not realized before that his stock was convertible into quite so much ready money, and it was hard for him, simple and honest as he was, to keep from showing surprise. “Harry Webb,” he went on, evasively, “do you have any idee what I cleared last year, not countin' bad debts an' expenses? I'm over three thousand ahead, an' prospects fer trade never was better. My books will show you that I am a-givin' it to you straight.”

Webb made no reply. If he had been as sure of his own moral worth as he was of Jim's he would have been a better man. As it was, he only looked significantly at Thornton, who had evidently come prepared to play a part.

“It ain't no business o' mine, fellers, one way or the other,” began Thornton, slightly confused. He cleared his throat and spat on the floor. “But I'll admit I'm kinder anxious to see Harry get into some settled business. You know he's mighty changeable, one day runnin' some fortune-wheel or card-table, an' the next got charge of a side-show, bar, or skating-rink, and never makes much stake at anything. I told his wife to-day that I'd do my best to get you fellers to come to a understanding. That's all the interest I've got in the matter; but I'd bet my last chip you'd have to look a long ways before you could find another buyer with that much ready cash such times as these.”

“Huh, you don't say!” sneered Jim, a cold gleam of indecision and excitement in the glance that he accidentally threw to Bob Lash, who erroneously fancied that his friend wanted him to say something to offset the remarks made by Webb's ally. But diplomacy was not one of the few gifts with which frugal nature had blessed Bob, and when the idea struck him that he ought to speak, he grew very agitated, and almost stabbed a hole in one of his cheeks with the long splinter with which he was picking his teeth.

“The man that gits it has a purty dead- shore thing fer a comfortable income,” he blurted out, incautiously. “I wish I had the money to secure it; I'd plank it down so quick it 'u'd make yore head swim.”

Jim flushed. “Nobody hain't said nothin' 'bout the shebang bein' on the market,” he said, quickly.

Bob saw his mistake too late to rectify it, so he said nothing.

Webb smiled, and rose with an easy assumption of indifference and lighted a fresh cigar over the lamp-chimney. “Tibbs wants to rent me the new store-room joining you, Jim,” he said, rolling his cigar into the corner of his mouth and half closing the eye which was in direct line with the rising smoke. “I kinder thought I'd like them big plate-glass show- windows. Ten thousand dollars in bran-new groceries wouldn't be bad, would they?”

Jim was taken slightly aback, but he recovered himself in an instant. “Not ef they was bought jest right, Harry,” he said, significantly. “A man mought have a purty fair start that way, ef he was experienced; but law me! I'd hate awful to start to lay in a stock frum these cussed drummers; they are wholesale bunco-sharks. An' then, you see, I've been here sence this town fust started, an' I know who will do to credit an' who won't. My blacklist is wuth five thousand to any man in this line. Thar's men in this town that'll pay a gamblin' debt 'thout a bobble, an' cuss like rips at the sight of a grocery bill. But thar ain't no use talkin'; I reckon my business ain't fer sale.”

Webb turned to Thornton and coolly asked for a match; then the entire group was silent till Bob Lash spoke.

“How in the world did you ever happen to come 'way out here, anyway, Jim?” he asked, obtusely believing that Bradley meant exactly what he had said in regard to Webb's proposition, and that for all concerned it would be more agreeable and profitable to talk about something else.

“Got tired an' wanted a change,” grunted Bradley. “I never was treated exactly right by my folks, an' was itchin' awful to make money.”

“What county did you say you was from?”

“Gilmer.”

Webb yawned aloud, puffed at his cigar, and swept the store from end to end with a rather critical, would-be dissatisfied glance.

“I passed through thar goin' from Dalton to Canton,” went on Bob, warming up. “It's a purty country through them mountains. What was you a-follerin' back thar?”

“Farmin' it. Thar was jest three uv us—me an' brother Joe an' mother; but we couldn't git along together.”

“What a pity!” said Bob.

“I al'ays wanted to make money,” went on Jim, “an' atter the old man died I was anxious fer me an' Joe to save up enough to git a farm uv our own; but he tuk to drinkin' an' spreein' round generally, an' was al'ays off jest when the crop needed the most attention. I al'ays was easy irritated, an' never could be satisfied onless I was goin' ahead. Me an' Joe was eternally a-fussin', an' mother allays tuk his part. One night she got rippin' mad, an' 'lowed that she could git along better with 'im ef I wasn't thar to make trouble, an' so I made up my mind to come West. I tol' 'em they was welcome to my intrust in the crap, an that I had had all I could stand up under, an' was goin' off. Mother never even said farewell, an' Joe sorter turned up his nose, an' 'lowed I'd be writin' back an' beggin' fer money to git home on 'fore a month was out. I told mother ef she ever needed help to write, but she never looked up from her spinnin'- wheel, an' from that day to this I hadn't had a scratch of a pen.”

“Shorely you didn't leave a old woman in sech hands as that,” ventured Bob.

The expression on Jim Bradley's face changed. “What was I to do? Ef I'd 'a' stayed that I'd 'a' been a beggar to-day,” he said, argumentatively. “I 'lowed ef I was sech a bother I'd leave 'em; but I'll admit thar are times when I think I may 'a' been a leetle hasty. An' I do hanker atter home folks mighty bad at times, especially when I'm locked up in this lonely store at night, with nothin' but my cat fer company. I've been intendin' to write to mother every day, but some'n' al'ays interferes. I heerd four year ago, accidentally, that they was gittin' 'long tolerable well.”

“It's mighty tough on fellers of our age, Jim, to grow old alone in the world,” sighed Bob, reaching out to the crate for another splinter. “I'd ruther have less money an' more rale home comforts. Kin is a great thing. Brother Sam sent me a pictur' uv his little gal. I wish I had it to show you; she's mighty purty an' smart-lookin'. It made me mighty homesick.'

“I reckon it did,” said Bradley. “I've seed dogs that lived better than I do. D' you fellers ever see whar I bunk?”

“No,” joined in Thornton and Webb, seeing that they were addressed.

“Come into my parlor, then”; and Jim grinned, broadly. He lifted the lamp, and holding it over his head, he led them through some curtains made of cotton bagging into the back room. Empty boxes, hogsheads, crates, bales of hay, heaps of old iron, and every sort of rubbish imaginable covered the floor. A narrow bed stood by a window between a row of dripping syrup-barrels and the greasy wall. “Thar's whar I sleep,” said Jim, pointing to the bed. “It hain't been made up in a coon's age. Sometimes old Injun Mary changes the sheets an' turns the mattress when she happens along, but it hain't often. At home I used to sleep in a big sweet-smellin' bed that was like lyin' down in a pile o' roses.”

“I'd think you'd git tired o' this; I would, by hooky!” declared Bob. “Whar do you git yore grub?”

“Fust one place an' then another; I don't bother much about my eatin'. I have to light out o' bed to wait on the fust one that rattles the doorknob in the mornin', an' am so busy from then on that I cayn't find a minute to git a bite o' breakfast. See my kettle thar? I can make as good a cup o' coffee as the next one. Half a cup o' ground Javy in my coffeepot, with bilin' water poured on, an' then put on the stove to bile ag'in, does the business. Thar's my skillet; a cowboy give it to me. Sometimes I fry a slice o' streak-o'-lean- streak-o'-fat, ur a few cracked eggs, but it hain't half livin'.”

They walked back and sat down in the store again. Bob had a strange, perplexed look on his face. Webb was about to make some reference to his offer, when Bob forestalled him in a rather excited tone.

“Jim, did yore mother live nigh Ellijay?”

“'Bout three miles from town. What in the thunder is the matter? What are you starin' at me that way fer?”

Bob looked down and moved uneasily on the barrel. “I was jest a-wonderin'—my Lord, Jim! thar was a feller shot the day I passed through Ellijay. I cayn't be shore, but it seems to me his name was Joe Bradley. He was a troublesome, rowdyish sort of a feller, an' a man had to shoot 'im in self-defense.”

Jim stared at the speaker helplessly, and then glanced around at Webb and Thornton. His great brown eyes began to dilate, and a sickly pallor came into his face. His breathing fell distinct and harsh on the profound stillness of the room. His mouth dropped open, but he was unable to utter a word.

“He may not a' been yore brother,” added Bob, quickly, and with sympathy. “I'm not plumb shore o' the name, nuther. I was helpin' a man drive a drove of Kentucky hosses through to Gainesville, an' we got thar jest atter the shootin'. I heerd the shots myse'f The coroner held a inquest, an' the dead man's mother was than She looked pitiful; she was mighty gray an' old en' bent over. I was standin' in the edge o' the crowd when some neighbor fotch' 'er up in his wagon, an' we all made room for 'en She had the pity of every blessed man thar. She jest stood 'mongst the rest, lookin' down at the corpse fer some time 'shout sayin' a word to anybody, nur sheddin' a tear. Then she seemed to come to 'erse'f, an' said, jest as ef nothin' oncommon had occurred:'Well, gentlemen, why don't you move 'im under a shelter?' an' with that she squatted down at his head, an' breshed the hair off'n his forehead mighty gentle-like. 'We are a-holdin' uv a inquest, accordin' to law,' a big feller said who was the coroner of the town. 'Law ur no law,' she said, lookin' up at 'im, her eyes flashin' like a tiger-cat's, 'he sha'n't lie here in the br'ilin' sun with no roof over 'im. Thar wasn't no law to keep 'im from bein' murdered right in yore midst.' An' she had her way, you kin bet on that. The men jest lifted 'im up an' toted 'im into the nighest store an' put 'im on a cot. The coroner objected, but them men jest cussed 'im to his face an' pushed him away as ef he was so much trash.”

“Did you take notice o' the body?” gasped Bradley, finding voice finally. “What kind of a lookin' man was he?”

“Ef I remember right, he had sorter reddish hair an' blue eyes, an' was 'bout yore build. He was a good-lookin' man.”

“It was brother Joe,” said Bradley. He was trembling from head to foot and was deathly pale. “Well, go on,” he said, making a mighty effort to appear calm; “what about mother?”

“I don't know anything more,” said Bob. “I left that same day. I heerd some talk about her bein' left destitute, an' ef I ain't mistaken, some said her other son had gone off West an' died out thar, as nobody had heerd from him. That's what made me—” But Bradley interrupted him. He rose, with a dazed look on his face, and went to his desk, a few feet away. He sat on the high stool and leaned his shaggy head on a pile of account-books. An inkstand rolled down to the floor, and a penholder rattled after it, but he did not pick them up. Then everything was still. Thornton reached over and took Webb's cigar to light his own, instead of striking the match he had taken from his pocket. The two men exchanged significant glances, and then looked curiously, almost breathlessly, at the mute figure bowed over the desk. Bradley raised his head. His eyes were bloodshot, and a tangled wisp of his long hair lay across his haggard face.

“How long ago was it, Bob?” he asked, in a deep, husky voice.

“Two year last May.”

“My Lord! she may be dead an' gone by this time, an' I kin never make up fer my neglect!” He left the desk and came back slowly. “Kin you git that money to-night?” he asked, looking down at Webb.

“Yes; by walkin' up home.” Webb tried to subdue the eager light in his eyes, which threatened to betray his intense satisfaction at the sudden change of affairs.

“Well, go git it. I'll pack my satchel while yo' 're gone. I'm goin' to leave you fellers fer good, I reckon. I want to git back home. I wish you luck with the business, Webb. It's a good investment; we mought never have traded ef this hadn't 'a' come up.

Jim Bradley was worn out with the fatigue of his long journey when he alighted from the train in the little town that he had once known so well. The place had changed so much that he hardly knew which way to turn. He went into a store. The merchant was at his desk behind a railing in the rear, and a boy sat in the middle of the floor filling a patent egg-case with fresh eggs. “Come in,” he said, without looking up, and went on with his work. Jim put his oilcloth valise on the floor and sat down in a chair.

“Some'n' I kin do fer you to-day?” asked the boy, rising, and putting the lid on the eggcase.

“No, I b'lieve not to-day, bub,” replied Bradley. “I've jest got off'n the train an' stopped in to ax a few questions. The' used to be a woman livin' on the Starks place ten year ago—a widder woman, Mis' Jason Bradley; kin you tell me whar I'd be likely to find 'er now?”

“I don't know no sech er person,” said the boy; “mebby Mr. Summers kin tell.”

“You mean Joe Bradley's mother,” said the storekeeper, approaching— “the feller that was shot over at Holland's bar?”

“She's the one,” said Jim, breathlessly; “is she still alive?”

“I hadn't heerd nothin' to the contrary, but I don't know jest whar she is now. She was powerful hard up last winter, an' somebody tuk 'er to live with 'em—seems to me it was one o' the Sanders boys.”

A woman entered the door and set her basket on the counter.

“Mis' Wade'll be able to tell you,” continued the merchant, turning to her; “she lives over in that direction.”

“What's that, Mr. Summers?” she asked, carefully untying the cloth that covered some yellow rolls of butter.

“This gentleman was askin' about the widow Bradley, Joe's mother; do you know whar she is?”

“She's livin' with Alf Sanders,” replied the woman; “I seed 'er thar soap-bilin' as I driv by last Tuesday was a week. Are you any kin o' hern?” and she eyed Bradley curiously from head to foot.

He made no reply to her question, though a warm color had suddenly come into his face at the words she had spoken. He took up his valise and looked out at the setting sun.

“How fer is it out thar?” he asked, a tremor in his voice. “I want to see 'er to-night.”

“Three mile, I reckon,” the woman said. “Keep to the big road tel you cross the creek, an' then turn off to the right. You cayn't miss it.”

He thanked her, and trudged on past the other stores and the little white church on the hill, and on into the road that led toward the mountain. Just before entering the woods, he turned and looked back at the village.

“O Lord, I'm glad I ain't too late entirely,” he said; and he took a soiled red handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes. “I don't know what I would 'a' done ef they'd 'a' said she was gone. But I'll never see Joe ag'in, an' that seems quar. Poor boy! me an' him used to be mighty thick when we was little bits o' fellers. I kin remember when he'd 'a' fit a wildcat to help me, an' I got mad at him fer drinkin' when he wasn't able to he'p hisse'f. I'd hold my peace ef it was to do over ag'in.”

Sanders' house was a low, four-roomed log cabin which sat back under some large beechtrees about a hundred yards from the road. Sanders himself sat smoking in the front yard, surrounded by four or five half-clad children and several gaunt hunting-dogs. He was a thin, wiry man, with long brown hair and beard, and dark, suspicious eyes set close together. He did not move or show much concern as Jim Bradley, just at dusk, came wearily up the narrow path from the bars to the door.

“Down, Ski! Down, Brutus!” he called out savagely to his barking dogs, and he silenced their uproar by hurling an ax-helve among them.

“This is whar Alf Sanders lives, I reckon,” said Bradley.

“I'm the feller,” replied Sanders. “Take a cheer; thar's one handy,” and he indicated it with a lazy wave of his pipe.

Jim sat down mutely. Through the open door in one of the rooms he could see the form of a woman moving about in the firelight. He fell to trembling, and forgot that he was under the curious inspection of Sanders and his children. A moment later, however, when the fire blazed up more brightly, he saw that it was not his mother whom he had seen, but a younger woman.

“Yo' 're a stranger about here?” interrogated Sanders, catching his eye.

“Hadn't been in this country fer ten year,” was the laconic reply. “My name's Bradley—Jim Bradley; I've come back to see my mother.”

“My stars! We all 'lowed you was dead an' buried long 'go!” and Sanders dropped his pipe in sheer astonishment. “Well, ef that don't take the rag off'n the bush! Mary! Oh, Mary!”

“What ails you, Alf?” asked a slatternly woman, emerging from the firelight.

“Come out here a minute. This is the old woman's son Jim, back from the West.”

“Yo' 're a-jokin',” she ejaculated, as she came slowly in open-eyed wonder toward the visitor. “Why, who'd 'a' thought—”

“Whar is she?” interrupted Bradley, unceremoniously. “I've come a long ways to see 'er.”

“She's out thar at the cow-lot a-milkin'. She tuk 'er bucket an' the feed fer Brindle jest now.”

His eyes followed hers. Beyond a row of alder-bushes and a little patch of corn he saw the dim outlines of a log stable and lean-to shed surrounded by a snake fence. Away out toward the red-skied west lay green fields and meadows under a canopy of blue smoke, and beyond their limits rose the frowning mountains, upon the sides of which long, sinuous fires were burning.

“I reckon I ort not to run upon her too sudden,” he said, awkwardly, “bein' as she ain't expectin' me, an' hain't no idee I'm alive. Is she well?”

“Toler'ble,” replied Mrs. Sanders, hesitatingly. “She's been complainin' some o' headaches lately, an' her appetite ain't overly good, but she's up an' about, an' will be powerful glad to see you. She talks about you a good deal of late. Jest atter yore brother Joe's death she had 'im on her mind purty constant, but now she al'ays has some'n' to say about Jim—that's yore name, I believe?”

He nodded silently, not taking his eyes from the cow-lot. His valise rolled from his knees down on to the grass, and one of the children restored it to him.

“Yes, that is a fact,” put in Sanders. “She was talkin' last Sunday about her two boys. She al'ays calls you the steady one. You ort to be sorter cautious. Old folks like her sometimes cayn't stand good news any better'n bad.”

“I'll be keerful.” His voice sounded husky and deep. “Does she—“ he went on hesitatingly—“does she work fer you around the place?'“

Sanders crossed his legs and cleared his throat. “That was the understandin' when we agreed to take 'er,” he said, rather consequentially. “She was to make 'erse'f handy whenever she was able. My wife has had a risin' on 'er arm an' couldn't cook, an' we've had five ur six field hands here to the'r meals. The old critter was willin' to do anything to git a place to stay. The' wasn't anywhar else fer 'er to go. She's too old to do much, but she's willin' to put 'er hands to anything. We cayn't complain. She gits peevish now an' then, though, an' 'er eyesight an' memory's a-failin', so that she makes mistakes in the cookin'. T'other day she salted the dough twice an' clean furgot to put in sody.”

“She's gittin' into 'er second childhood,” added Mrs. Sanders, “an' she ain't got our ways in church notions, nuther. She's a Baptist, you know, an' b'lieves in emersion of the entire body an' in close communion an' sech- like, while the last one of us, down to little Sally thar, is Methodists. She goes whar we do to meetin' 'ca'se her church is too fer off an' we use the hosses Sundays.”

Bradley's face was hidden by the dusk and the brim of his slouch hat, and they failed to notice the hot flush that rose into his cheeks. He got up suddenly and put his valise on a chair. “I reckon I mought as well walk out to whar she is,” he said. “She won't be apt to know me. I've turned out a beard an' got gray sence she seed me.”

“I'll go 'long with you.” But Mrs. Sanders touched her husband on the arm as he was rising. “It 'u'd look more decent ef you'd leave 'em to the'rselves, Alf,” she whispered. He sat down without a word, and Bradley walked away in the dusk to meet his mother. There was a blur before the strong man's eyes, and a strange weakness came over him as he leaned against the cow-lot fence and tried to think how he would make himself known to her. Beneath the low shed, a part of the crude stable, he saw the figure of a woman crouched down under a cow. “So, so, Brin'!” she was saying softly. “Cayn't you stan' still a minute? That ain't no way to do. So, so!”

His heart sank. It was her voice, but it was shrill and quivering, and he recognized it only as one does a familiar face under a mask of age. Just then, with a sudden exclamation, she sprang up quickly and placed her pail on the ground out of the cow's reach. He comprehended the situation at a glance. The calf had got through the bars and was sucking its mother.

“Lord, what'll I do?” cried the old woman, in dismay; and catching the calf around the neck, she exerted all her strength to separate it from the cow.

Bradley sprang over the fence and ran to her assistance.

“Le' me git a hold o' the little scamp,” he said, and the next instant he had the sleek little animal up in his strong arms. “Whar do you want 'im put?” he asked, drily, turning to her.

“Outside the lot,” she gasped, so astonished that she could hardly utter a word.

He carried his struggling burden to the fence and dropped it over, and fastened up the bars to keep it out.

“Well, ef that don't beat all!” she laughed in great relief, when he turned back to her. “I am very much obleeged. I 'lowed at fust you was one o' the field hands.” He looked into her wrinkled face closely, but saw no sign of recognition there. She put the corner of her little breakfast-shawl to her poor wrinkled mouth and broke out into a low, childlike laugh. “I cayn't help from being amused at the way you tuk up that calf; I don't know” (and the smile left her face) “what I'd 'a' done ef you hadn't 'a' come along. I never could 'a' turned it out, an' Alf's wife never kin be pacified when sech a thing happens. We don't git enough milk, anyway.”

“Le' me finish milkin',” he said, keeping his face half averted.

She laughed again. “Yo' 're a-jokin' now; I never seed a man milk a cow.”

“I never did nuther tel I went out West,” he replied. “The Yankees out thar showed me how. I'm a old bach', an' used to keep a cow o' my own, an' thar wasn't nobody but me to tend 'er.”

She stood by his side and laughed like a child amused with a new toy when he took her place at the cow, and with the pail between his knees and using both hands, began to milk rapidly.

“I never seed the like,” he heard her muttering over and over to herself. Then he rose and showed her the pail nearly filled. “I reckon that calf 'u'd have a surprise-party ef he was to try on his suckin' business now,” he said. “It serves 'im right fer bein' so rampacious.”

“Law me! I never could git that much,” she said, and she held out her hand for the pail, but he swung it down at his side. “I'll tote it,” he said; “I'm a-goin' back to the house. I reckon I'll put up thar fer the night—that is, ef they'll take me in.”

“I've jest been lookin' at you an' wonderin',” she said, reflectively, after they had passed through the bars. “My hearin' an' eyesight is bad, an' so is my memory of faces, but it seems like I've seed somebody some'r's that favors you mightily.”

He walked on silently. Only the little corn-patch was between them and the group in the yard. He could hear Sanders's drawling voice, and caught a gleam of the kitchen fire through the alder-bushes.

“You better le' me take the bucket,” she said, stopping abruptly and showing some embarrassment. “Yo' 're mighty gentlemanly; but Alf's wife al'ays gits mad when I make at all free with company. The whole family pokes fun at me, an' 'lows I am childish, an' too fond o' talkin'. They expect me jest to keep my mouth shet an' never have a word to say. It cayn't be helped, I reckon, but it's a awful way fer a old body to live.”

“That's a fact!” he blurted out, impulsively, still holding to the pail, on which she had put her hand. “It's the last place on earth fer you.”

“I hadn't had one single day o' enjoyment sence I came here,” she continued, encouraged to talk by his manifest sympathy. “I reckon I ort to be thankful, an' beggars mustn't be choosers, as the feller said; fer no other family in the county would take me in. But it hain't no place fer a old woman that likes peace an' rest at my time o' life. I work hard all day, an' at night I need sound sleep; but they put the children in my bed, an' they keep up a kickin' an' a squirmin' all night. Then, the' ain't no other old women round here, an' I git mighty lonesome. Sometimes I come as nigh as pease givin' up entirely.”

“Thank the Lord, you won't have to stand it any longer!” he exclaimed, hotly.

She started from him in astonishment, and began to study his features. At that juncture two of Sanders's little girls drew near inquisitively. “Here!” and he held the pail out to them. “Take this milk to yore mammy.” One of them, half frightened, took the pail, and both scampered back to the house.

“Yo' 're a curi's sort of a man,” she said, with a serious kind of chuckle, as she drew her shawl up over her white head. “I wouldn't 'a' done that fer a dollar. You skeered Sally out'n a year's growth. I used to have a boy, that went away West ten year ago, who used to fly up like you do, an' you sorter put me in mind of him, you do. He was the best one I had. I could allus count on him fer help. He was as steady-goin' as a clock. He never was heerd from, an' the general belief is that he died out thar.”

There was a moment's pause. He seemed trying to think of some way to reveal his identity. “You ortn't to pay attention to everything you hear,” he ventured, awkwardly. “Who knows? Mebby he's still alive— sech things ain't so almighty oncommon. Seems like I've heerd tell o' a feller named Bradley out thar.”

“I reckon it wasn't Jim,” she sighed. “It was my daily prayer fer a long time that he mought come back, but thar ain't no sech luck fer me. I've done give up. I am a destitute, lonely woman, an' I cayn't stan' all this commotion an' wrangle much longer. Ef I had him to work fer now, I wouldn't keer; I'd wear my fingers to the bone; but fer people that ain't no speck o' kin an' hadn't no appreciation fer what a body does it's different.”

The corners of her mouth were drawn down, and she put her thin hand up to her eyes.

“I don't b'lieve you'd know 'im ef you was to see 'im,” he said, laughing artificially and taking her hand in his.

She started. A shiver ran through her frame, and her fingers clutched his convulsively. “What do you mean?” she gasped. “Oh, my Lord, what does the man mean?”

“The' ain't much doubt in my mind that he's alive an' ort to have a thousand lashes on his bare back fer neglectin' his old mammy,” he said, trying to hide the tremor in his voice.

A startled light of recognition dawned in her eyes and illumined her whole visage. She stared at him with dilating eyes for an instant, and then fell into his arms. “Oh, Jim, I declare I cayn't stan' it! It will kill me! It will kill me!” she cried, putting her arms about his neck and drawing his head down to her.

“I'm as glad as you are, mother,” he replied, tenderly stroking her white hair with his rough hand; “no feller livin' ever wanted to see his mammy wuss.”

Then there seemed nothing further for either of them to say, and so he led her on to the house and to the chair he had left a few moments before.

“I've let the cat out'n the bag,” he said, shamefacedly, answering their glances of inquiry. “I had to mighty nigh tell her point- blank who I was.”

“I never 'lowed I'd see 'im ag'in,” Mrs. Bradley faltered, in a low, tearful tone. “I am that thankful my heavenly Father let me live to this day. I'd suffer it all over an' over again fer this joy.”

Sanders was silent, and his wife; and the children, barelegged and dirty-faced, sat on the grass and mutely watched the bearded stranger and his mother in childish wonder. Bradley said nothing, but he moved his chair nearer to his mother's and put his strong arm around her. Sanders broke the silence.

“What have you been follerin', Bradley?” he asked.

“Sellin' goods.”

“Clerkin' fer somebody?”

“No; had a 'stablishment o' my own.”

“You don't say!” and Sanders looked at Bradley's seedy attire and then at his wife significantly.

“Yes; I made some money out thar. The night 'fore I left, a feller offered me ten thousand dollars in cash fer my stock o' goods, an' I tuk 'im up. I didn't wait to put on my Sunday clothes; these is the things I worked in, handlin' dirty groceries. I hain't the pertic'lar sort. I've got some bonds an' rale estate that kin remain jest as well whar they are at present. I've come back here to stay with mother. I couldn't stand it to be alone much longer, an' I wouldn't ax 'er to move to a new country at 'er age.”

Sanders and his wife stared at him in astonishment. Mrs. Bradley leaned forward and looked intently into his face. She was very pale and quivered with new excitement, but she said nothing.

“My Lord, you've had luck!” exclaimed Sanders, thinking of something to say finally. “What on earth are you gwine to invest in here, ef it hadn't no harm to ax?”

“I 'lowed I'd buy a big plantation. They are a-goin' cheap these times, I reckon. I want a place whar a livin' will come easy, an' whar I kin make mother comfortable. She's too old to have to lay ter hand to a thing, ur be bothered in the least. I want to be nigh some meetin'-house of her persuasion, an' whar she kin 'sociate with other women o' her age. I don't expect to atone fer my neglect, but I intend to try my hand at it fer a change.”

Mrs. Bradley lowered her head to her son's knee, and began to sob softly. Then Mrs. Sanders got up quickly. “I smell my bread a-burnin',” she said. “I'll call y'all in to supper directly. We hain't pretendin' folks, Mr. Bradley, but yo' 're welcome to what we got. You needn't rise, Mrs. Bradley; I kin fix the table.”

 
 
 

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