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
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
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
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
“What county did you say you was from?”
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,”
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
“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'
“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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
“Come out here a minute. This is the old woman's son Jim, back from
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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.
“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.”