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By the Way by Mary E. Bamford

 

Cliffs by the blue bay held many fossil shells. Children sometimes strayed here and there with hammers, pounding out fossils from fallen pieces of the cliffs. On the extent of sands that bordered the cliffs and stretched up the coast between them and the breakers, old stumps that had been months before brought in by the waves lay half buried from sight. A short distance farther up the coast, the sands went a greater way inland, forming a nook where driftwood and stumps had accumulated. On the sand in this nook stood a horse and an old wagon. Beyond a large log, a little fire of driftwood had been started, and a woman was endeavoring to fry some fish in a spider. Two children had partly unharnessed the horse, and were giving him some dry grass.

From afar, a woman and a girl who had been taking a walk on a road high up on the cliffs, looked curiously down at the persons in the sandy nook.

"I wonder who they are, and what they are traveling that way for?" said the girl to her mother.

"It's the same wagon that was on, the sands last night, I suppose," returned her mother." The milk boy said he saw a wagon drive on the beach about dark. I wonder if they stayed up here all night? Suppose we walk down, Addie, and talk with that woman."

"I'm afraid she won't want to see us," objected the daughter. "If they had wanted to see anybody, they'd have stopped at the settlement."

Notwithstanding this objection, the mother began to descend the path toward the sands at the bottom of the cliffs. Both Mrs. Weeks and her daughter Addie were somewhat breathless by the time they had pushed their way through the heavy white sand to the spot where the stranger, was cooking. The spider contained only a few very small fish.

"Good-morning," said Mrs. Weeks, pleasantly.

The brown-faced woman who held the spider lifted her eyes and nodded.

"Have you been fishing?" asked Mrs. Weeks.

"We didn't have much luck," murmured the other woman. "Maybe we didn't fish in the best place. Tillie was wanting fish."

The younger of the two children colored and hung her head at this reference to her. The other smiled shyly.

"We have some fresh rock cod up at our house. My brother catches fresh fish for us every day," said Addie to the older little girl. "Don't you want to walk back with me, and, get some of the fish for your mother?"

The child nodded. "We're not beggars, Miss. You must not rob yourself of your own fish," remonstrated, the child's mother; but Addie assured the woman that fish were so plentiful in the settlement that neighbors often gave part of the results of a catch to some one else.

The girl went away over the cliffs with the child. Mrs. Weeks sat down on a log. When Addie and the little girl came back with the fish and some milk, Mrs. Weeks rose and went home with her daughter.

"The woman's husband is dead, and she's driving north with her children," Mrs. Weeks told Addie. "She has an idea she can get work in some cannery up the coast. I told her there were some unoccupied tents in our settlement, and I wished she and the children would come and sleep in the tents, while she's here. But she won't come. I was sorry they slept on the beach last night, but she says they are used to sleeping in the wagon, and it is warm weather, you know."

The wagon did not drive on that day, though the woman and the children kept away from the little summer settlement.

It was the custom of the people of this small settlement to go down on the beach, after dark at evening, and have a camp-fire. Some old stump would be lit, and the, people would, sit, on, logs or on the sand about the fire, and talk and sing. The last thing, every night, hymns were sung.

To-night, Addie and her, mother went down to the beach as usual. After sitting by the fire awhile, Addie rose and wandered up the beach, as persons sometimes did, to watch the waves. At a distance from the camp-fire, where the darkness, covered the beach, Addie turned to go back. She was startled by a movement in the darkness.

"Don't be afraid," said the voice of the woman who, with her children, had spent that day in the nook farther up the beach. "The little girls were asleep, and I came here to listen to the folks sing. That's the reason I haven't driven on to-day, because I hoped the folks would sing again to-night, the way they did last night. I haven't heard hymn-singing for years, before. I've lived in mining and such places. I want to ask you a question."

The woman paused.

"Do you suppose my baby's at the River?" she went on.

Addie hardly comprehended the woman's meaning.

"What river?" asked the girl.

"The River they sang about last night," explained the woman.

She motioned toward the group at the distant camp-fire, and Addie remembered that on the previous evening the people had sung:

"Shall we gather at the river?"

"I haven't heard that sung before for years and years," the woman continued. "We used to sing it when I was a little girl at home in the East, but I've mostly forgot such things. Mining camps and a drunk husband make you forget. There never was a church anywhere we lived, and Sam got drunk Sundays. And then he died. I don't suppose Sam got to the River. I don't know. I wish he did. But if my baby's got there, I want to go to the River."

The woman began to sob.

"I never told you about my baby." she faltered." He was a dreadful nice little-"

"Good-morning!" said Mrs. Weeks pleasantly.

baby. I've got some of his things in a little box in the wagon. He died after his father did. I wouldn't feel acquainted with the saints that the folks sang gather at the River; but I'd feel acquainted with my baby. He's there, isn't he?"

"Yes," said Addie softly, "your baby's by the River, and you can go there, too."

The woman tried to control her sobs and listen, while Addie told in as simple language as she could the way to peace.

"It's just coming to Christ, just as we are, and asking him to make us his," finished the girl. "He's promised to forgive, if we're in earnest about asking."

Addie waited a moment.

"Maybe you'd be willing to come to the camp-fire with me," suggested Addie. "Those people are only, some of our neighbors. They like these open-air meetings. Perhaps they'd make the way clearer to you."

"No," said the woman hastily. "No, I'm not fit for such folks, but would you mind doing one thing for me? Will you go back and just sit down, careless like, on one of the logs there by the fire, as if you'd got back from going down to see the breakers roll in, the way some of the folks do? And don't let anybody know you've seen me at all! Don't say one word about me, but when they get through singing some hymn, won't you just start them singing, 'Shall we gather at the River'? I want to hear it once again, but don't let them know they're singing it for me! Will you manage it the way I want?"

"Yes," promised Addie.

The girl went back and sat down on a log beside the fire, with the other people. The fire was beginning to burn low, and the girl was fearful lest at the end of the hymn that was being sung, some one should make a move to go back to the encampment. As soon as she could Addie began:

"Shall we gather at the river?"

The other voices took up the hymn. No one noticed that Addie's voice soon faltered and was still.

"Shall we gather at the river, Where bright angel-feet have trod: With its crystal tide forever Flowing by the throne of God?"

The words rang, out clear and sweet, and then the joyful assurance broke forth:

"Yes, we'll gather at the river, The beautiful, the beautiful river. Gather with the saints at the river That flows by the throne of God."

The words of stanza after stanza floated out into the darkness of the cliffs and upper sands with a distinctness that the loud waves did not overcome. There was no form or, motion visible in all the night that hid the shoreward side of the beach.

The next morning Addle went from the settlement, to carry the woman and her children some milk. When the girl reached the nook, she found it empty. She ran upon the bluffs, and looked northward, but there was neither horse nor wagon visible. The mother, and children had evidently resumed their journey very early, and the turns of the country roads had hidden the travelers. They had vanished forever.

"God guide them to the River!" whispered Addie.