The Riddle Of The Rocks
by Charles Egbert Craddock
THE RIDDLE OF THE ROCKS
By Charles Egbert Craddock
Upon the steep slope of a certain bald among the Great Smoky
Mountains there lie, just at the verge of the strange stunted woods
from which the treeless dome emerges to touch the clouds, two great
tilted blocks of sandstone. They are of marked regularity of shape, as
square as if hewn with a chisel. Both are splintered and fissured; one
is broken in twain. No other rock is near. The earth in which they are
embedded is the rich black soil not unfrequently found upon the
summits. Nevertheless no great significance might seem to attach to
their isolationan outcropping of ledges, perhaps; a fracture of the
freeze; a trace of ancient denudation by the waters of the spring in
the gap, flowing now down the trough of the gorge in a silvery braid of
currents, and with a murmur that is earnest of a song.
It may have been some distortion of the story heard only from the
lips of the circuit rider, some fantasy of tradition invested with the
urgency of fact, but Roger Purdee could not remember the time when he
did not believe that these were the stone tables of the Law that Moses
flung down from the mountain-top in his wrath. In the dense ignorance
of the mountaineer, and his secluded life, he knew of no foreign
countries, no land holier than the land of his home. There was no
incongruity to his mind that it should have been in the solemn silence
and austere solitude of the bald, in the magnificent ascendency of
the Great Smoky, that the law-giver had met the Lord and spoken with
Him. Often as he lay at length on the strange barren place, veiled with
the clouds that frequented it, a sudden sunburst in their midst would
suggest anew what supernal splendors had once been here vouchsafed to
the faltering eye of man. The illusion had come to be very dear to him;
in this insistent localization of his faith it was all very near. And
so he would go down to the slope below, among the weird, stunted trees,
and look once more upon the broken tables, and ponder upon the strange
signs written by time thereon. The insistent fall of the rain, the
incisive blasts of the wind, coming again and again, though the
centuries went, were registered here in mystic runes. The surface had
weathered to a whitish-gray, but still in tiny depressions its pristine
dark color showed in rugose characters. A splintered fissure held
delicate fucoid impressions in fine script full of meaning. A series of
worm-holes traced erratic hieroglyphics across a scaling corner; all
the varied texts were illuminated by quartzose particles glittering in
the sun, and here and there fine green grains of glauconite. He knew no
names like these, and naught of meteorological potency. He had studied
no other rock. His casual notice had been arrested nowhere by similar
signs. Under the influence of his ignorant superstition, his cherished
illusion, the lonely wilderness, what wonder that, as he pondered upon
the rocks, strange mysteries seemed revealed to him? He found
significance in these cabalistic scripturesnay, he read inspired
words! With the ramrod of his gun he sought to follow the fine tracings
of the letters writ by the finger of the Lord on the stone tables that
Moses flung down from the mountain-top in his wrath.
With a devout thankfulness Purdee realized that he owned the land
where they lay. It was worth, perhaps, a few cents an acre; it was
utterly untillable, almost inaccessible, and his gratulation owed its
fervor only to its spiritual values. He was an idle and shiftless
fellow, and had known no glow of acquisition, no other pride of
possession. He herded cattle much of the time in the summer, and he
hunted in the winterwolves chiefly, their hair being long and finer
at this season, and the smaller furry gentry; for he dealt in peltry.
And so, despite the vastness of the mountain wilds, he often came and
knelt beside the rocks with his rifle in his hand, and sought anew to
decipher the mystic legends. His face, bending over the tables of the
Law with the earnest research of a student, with the chastened
subduement of devotion, with all the calm sentiments of reverie, Jacked
something of its normal aspect. When a sudden stir of the leaves or the
breaking of a twig recalled him to the world, and he would lift his
head, it might hardly seem the same face, so heavy was the lower jaw,
so insistent and coercive his eye. But if he took off his hat to place
therein his cotton bandana handkerchief or (if he were in luck and
burdened with game) the scalp of a wild-catvaluable for the bounty
offered by the Statehe showed a broad, massive forehead that added
the complement of expression, and suggested a doubt if it were ferocity
his countenance bespoke or force. His long black hair hung to his
shoulders, and he wore a tangled black beard; his deep-set dark blue
eyes were kindled with the fires of imagination. He was tall, and of a
commanding presence but for his stoop and his slouch. His garments
seemed a trifle less well ordered than those of his class, and bore
here and there the traces of the blood of beasts; on his trousers were
grass stains deeply grounded, for he knelt often to get a shot, and in
meditation beside the rocks. He spent little time otherwise upon his
knees, and perhaps it was some intuition of this fact that roused the
wrath of certain brethren of the camp-meeting when he suddenly appeared
among them, arrogating to himself peculiar spiritual experiences,
proclaiming that his mind had been opened to strange lore, repeating
thrilling, quickening words that he declared he had read on the dead
rocks whereon were graven the commandments of the Lord. The tumultuous
tide of his rude eloquence, his wild imagery, his ecstasy of faith,
rolled over the assembly and awoke it anew to enthusiasms. Much that he
said was accepted by the more intelligent ministers who led the meeting
as figurative, as the finer fervors of truth, and they felt the
responsive glow of emotion and quiver of sympathy. He intended it in
its simple, literal significance. And to the more local members of the
congregation the fact was patent. Sech a pack o' lies hev seldom been
tole in the hearin' o' Almighty Gawd, said Job Grinnell, a few days
after the breaking up of camp. He was rehearsing the proceedings at the
meeting partly for the joy of hearing himself talk, and partly at the
instance of his wife, who had been prevented from attending by the
inopportune illness of one of the children. Ez I loant my ear ter the
words o' that thar brazen buzzard I eyed him constant. Fur I looked ter
see the jedgmint o' the Lord descend upon him like S'phira an' An'ias.
Who! asked his wife, pausing in her task of picking up
chips. He had spoken of them so familiarly that one might imagine they
lived close by in the cove.
An'ias an' S'phirathem in the Bible ez war streck by lightnin'
fur lyin', he explained.
I 'member her, she said. S'phia, I calls her.
Waal, A'gusta, S'phira do me jes ez well, he said, with the
momentary sulkiness of one corrected. Thar war a man along, though.
An' 'pears ter me thar war powerful leetle jestice in thar takin' off,
ef Roger Purdee be 'lowed ter stan' up thar in the face o' the meetin'
an' lie so ez no yearthly critter in the worl' could b'lieve
him'ceptin' Brother Jacob Page, ez 'peared plumb out'n his head with
religion, an' got ter shoutin' when this Purdee tuk ter tellin' the law
he read on them rocksMoses' tables, folks calls 'emup yander in the
He nodded upward toward the great looming range above them. His
house was on a spur of the mountain, overshadowed by it; shielded. It
was to him the Almoner of Fate. One by one it doled out the days,
dawning from its summit; and thence, too, came the darkness and the
glooms of night. One by one it liberated from the enmeshments of its
tangled wooded heights the constellations to gladden the eye and lure
the fancy. Its largess of silver torrents flung down its slopes made
fertile the little fields, and bestowed a lilting song on the silence,
and took a turn at the mill-wheel, and did not disdain the thirst of
the humble cattle. It gave pasturage in summer, and shelter from the
winds of the winter. It was the assertive feature of his life; he could
hardly have imagined existence without the mounting.
Tole what he read on them rocksyes, sir, ez glib ez swallerin' a
persimmon. 'Twarn't the reg'lar ten comman'mentssome cur'ous new
textsjes a-rollin' 'em out ez sanctified ez ef he hed been called ter
preach the gospel! An' thar war Brother Eden Bates a-answerin' 'Amen'
ter every one. An' Brother Jacob Page: 'Glory, brother! Ye hev received
the outpourin' of the Sperit! Shake hands, brother!' An' sech ez that.
Ter hev hearn the commotion they raised about that thar derned lyin'
sinner ye'd hev 'lowed the meetin' war held ter glorify him stiddier
Job Grinnell himself was a most notorious Christian. Renown,
however, with him could never be a superfluity, or even a sufficiency,
and he grudged the fame that these strange spiritual utterances were
acquiring. He had long enjoyed the distinction of being considered a
miraculous convert; his rescue from the wily enticements of Satan had
been celebrated with much shaking and clapping of hands, and cries of
Glory, and muscular ecstasy.
His religious experiences thenceforth, his vacillations of hope and
despair, had been often elaborated amongst the brethren. But his was a
conventional soul; its expression was in the formulae and platitudes of
the camp-meeting. They sank into oblivion in the excitement attendant
upon Purdee's wild utterances from the mystic script of the rocks.
As Grinnell talked, he often paused in his work to imitate the
gesticulatory enthusiasms of the saints at the camp-meeting. He was a
thickset fellow of only medium height, and was called, somewhat
invidiously, a chunky man. His face was broad, prosaic, good-natured,
incapable of any fine gradations of expression. It indicated an
elementary rage or a sluggish placidity. He had a ragged beard of a
reddish hue, and hair a shade lighter. He wore blue jeans trousers and
an unbleached cotton shirt, and the whole system depended on one
suspender. He was engaged in skimming a great kettle of boiling sorghum
with a perforated gourd, which caught the scum and strained the liquor.
The process was primitive; instead of the usual sorghum boiler and
furnace, the kettle was propped upon stones laid together so as to
concentrate the heat of the fire. His wife was continually feeding the
flames with chips which she brought in her apron from the wood-pile.
Her countenance was half hidden in her faded pink sun-bonnet, which,
however, did not obscure an expression responsive to that on the man's
face. She did not grudge Purdee the salvation he had found; she only
grudged him the prestige he had derived from its unique method.
Why can't the critter elude Satan with less n'ise? she asked,
Edzackly, her husband chimed in.
Now and then both turned a supervisory glance at the sorghum mill
down the slope at some little distance, and close to the river. It had
been a long day for the old white mare, still trudging round and round
the mill; perhaps a long day as well for the two half-grown boys, one
of whom fed the machine, thrusting into it a stalk at a time, while the
other brought in his arms fresh supplies from the great pile of sorghum
cane hard by.
All the door-yard of the little log cabin was bedaubed with the scum
of the sorghum which Job Grinnell flung from his perforated gourd upon
the ground. The idle dogsand there were manywould find, when at
last disposed to move, a clog upon their nimble feet. They often sat
down with a wrinkling of brows and a puzzled expression of muzzle to
investigate their gelatinous paws with their tongues, not without
certain indications of pleasure, for the sorghum was very sweet; some
of them, that had acquired the taste for it from imitating the
children, openly begged.
One, a gaunt hound, hardly seemed so idle; he had a purpose in life,
if it might not be called a profession. He lay at length, his paws
stretched out before him, his head upon them; his big brown eyes were
closed only at intervals; ever and again they opened watchfully at the
movement of a small child, ten months old, perhaps, dressed in pink
calico, who sat in the shadow formed by the protruding clay and stick
chimney, and played by bouncing up and down and waving her fat hands,
which seemed a perpetual joy and delight of possession to her. Take her
altogether, she was a person of prepossessing appearance, despite her
frank display of toothless gums, and around her wide mouth the unseemly
traces of sorghum. She had the plumpest graces of dimples in every
direction, big blue eyes with long lashes, the whitest possible skin,
and an extraordinary pair of pink feet, which she rubbed together in
moments of joy as if she had mistaken them for her hands. Although she
sputtered a good deal, she had a charming, unaffected laugh, with the
giggle attachment natural to the young of her sex.
Suddenly there sounded an echo of it, as it werea shrill, nervous
little whinny; the boys whirled round to see whence it came. The
persistent rasping noise of the sorghum mill and the bubbling of the
caldron had prevented them from hearing an approach. There, quite close
at hand, peering through the rails of the fence, was a little girl of
seven or eight years of age.
I wanter kem in an' see you-uns's baby! she exclaimed, in a high,
shrill voice. I want to pat it on the head.
She was a forlorn little specimen, very thin and sharp-featured. Her
homespun dress was short enough to show how fragile were the long lean
legs that supported her. The curtain of her sun-bonnet, which was
evidently made for a much larger person, hung down nearly to the hem of
her skirt; as she turned and glanced anxiously down the road, evidently
suspecting a pursuer, she looked like an erratic sun-bonnet out for a
stroll on a pair of borrowed legs.
[Illustration: She smiled upon the baby 331]
She turned again suddenly and applied her thin, freckled little face
to the crack between the rails. She smiled upon the baby, who smiled in
response, and gave a little bounce that might be accounted a courtesy.
The younger of the boys left the cane pile and ran up to his brother at
the mill, which was close to the fence. Don't ye let her do it, he
said, venomously. That thar gal is one of the Purdee fambly. I know
her. Don't let her in. And he ran back to the cane.
Grinnell had seemed pleased by this homage at the shrine of the
family idol; but at the very mention of the Purdee fambly his face
hardened, an angry light sprang into his eyes, and his gesture in
skimming with the perforated gourd the scum from the boiling sorghum
was as energetic as if with the action he were dashing the Purdee
fambly from off the face of the earth. It was an ancient feud; his
grandfather and some contemporary Purdee had fallen out about the
ownership of certain vagrant cattle; there had been blows and
bloodshed; other members of the connection had been dragged into the
controversy; summary reprisals were followed by counter-reprisals.
Barns were mysteriously fired, hen-roosts robbed, horses unaccountably
lamed, sheep feloniously sheared by unknown parties; the feeling
widened and deepened, and had been handed down to the present
generation with now and then a fresh provocation, on the part of one or
the other, to renew and continue the rankling old grudges.
And here stood the hereditary enemy, wanting to pat their baby on
Naw, sir, ye won't! exclaimed the boy at the mill, greatly
incensed at the boldness of this proposition, glaring at the lean,
tender, wistful little face between the rails of the fence.
But the baby, who had not sense enough to know anything about
hereditary enemies, bounced and laughed and gurgled and sputtered with
glee, and waved her hands, and had never looked fatter or more
I jes wanter pat it wunst, sighed the hereditary enemy, with a
lithe writhing of her thin little anatomy in the anguish of denial
Naw, sir! exclaimed the youthful Grinnell, more insistently than
before. He did not continue, for suddenly there came running down the
road a boy of his own size, out of breath, and red and angrythe
pursuer, evidently, that the hereditary enemy had feared, for she
crouched up against the fence with a whimper.
Kem along away from thar, ye miser'ble little stack o' bones! he
cried, seizing his sister by one hand and giving her a jerka-foolin'
round them Grinnells' fence an' a-hankerin' arter thar old baby!
He felt that the pride of the Purdee family was involved in this
admission of envy.
I jes wanter pat it on the head wunst, she sighed.
Waal, ye won't now, said the Grinnell boys in chorus.
The Purdee grasp was gentler on the little girl's arm. This was due
not to fraternal feeling so much as to loyalty to the clan; stack o'
bones though she was, they were Purdee bones.
Kem along, Ab Purdee exhorted her. A baby ain't nuthin' extry,
nohowhe glanced scoffingly at the infantile Grinnell. The mountings
air fairly a-roamin' with 'em.
We-uns 'ain't got none at our house, whined the sun-bonnet,
droopingly, moving off slowly on its legs, which, indeed, seemed
borrowed, so unsteady, and loath to go they were.
The Grinnell boys laughed aloud, jeeringly and ostentatiously, and
the Purdee blood was moved to retort: We-uns don't want none sech ez
that. Nary tooth in her head!
And indeed the widely stretched babbling lips displayed a vast
vacuity of gum.
Job Grinnell, who had listened with an attentive ear to the talk of
the children, had nevertheless continued his constant skimming of the
scum. Now he rose from his bent posture, tossed the scum upon the
ground, and with the perforated gourd in his hand turned and looked at
his wife. Augusta had dropped her apron and chips, and stood with
folded arms across her breast, her face wearing an expression of
The Grinnell boys were humbled and abashed. The wicked scion of the
Purdee house, joying to note how true his shaft had sped, was again
fitting his bow.
An' ez bald-headed ez the mounting.
The baby had a big precedent, but although no peculiar shame
attaches to the bare pinnacle of the summit, shedespite the
difference in size and agewas expected to show up more fully
furnished, and in keeping with the rule of humanity and the gentilities
No teeth, no hair, no sign of any: the fact that she was so backward
was a sore point with all the family. Job Grinnell suddenly dropped the
perforated gourd, and started down toward the fence. The acrimony of
the old feud was as a trait bred in the bone. Such hatred as was
inherent in him was evoked by his religious jealousies, and the pious
sense that he was following the traditions of his elders and upholding
the family honor blended in gentlest satisfaction with his personal
animosity toward Roger Purdee as he noticed the boy edging off from the
fence to a safe distance. He eyed him derisively for a moment.
Kin ye kerry a message straight? The boy looked up with an
expression of sullen acquiescence, but said nothing. Ax yer dadan'ye
kin tell him the word kems from mewhether he hev read sech ez this on
the lawgiver's stone tables yander in the mounting: 'An' ye shall claim
sech ez be yourn, an' yer neighbor's belongings shall ye in no wise
boastfully medjure fur yourn, nor look upon it fur covet-iousness, nor
yit git up a big name in the kentry fur ownin' sech ez be another's.'
He laughed silentlya twinkling, wrinkling demonstration over all
his broad facea laugh that was younger than the man, and would have
befitted a square-faced boy.
The youthful Purdee, expectant of a cuffing, stood his ground more
doubtfully still under the insidious thrusts of this strange weapon,
sarcasm. He knew that they were intended to hurt; he was wounded
primarily in the intention, but the exact lesion he could not locate.
He could meet a threat with a bold face, and return a blow with the
best. But he was mortified in this failure of understanding, and
perplexity cowed him as contention could not. He hung his head with its
sullen questioning eyes, and he found great solace in a jagged bit of
cloth on the torn bosom of his shirt, which he could turn in his
Whar be yer dad? Grinnell asked.
Up yander in the mounting, replied the subdued Purdee.
A-readin' of mighty s'prisin' matter writ on the rocks o' the
yearth! exclaimed Grinnell, with a laugh. Waal, jes keep that sayin'
o' mine in yer head, an' tell him when he kems home. An' look a-hyar,
ef enny mo' o' his stray shoats kem about hyar, I'll snip thar ears an'
gin 'em my mark.
The youth of the Purdee clan meditated on this for a moment. He
could not remember that they had missed any shoats. Then the full
meaning of the phrase dawned upon himit was he and the wiry little
sister thus demeaned with a porcine appellation, and whose ears were
threatened. He looked up at the fence, the little low house, the barn
close by, the sorghum mill, the drying leaves of tobacco on the
scaffold, the saltatory baby; his eyes filled with helpless tears, that
could not conceal the burning hatred he was born to bear them all. He
was hot and cold by turns; he stood staring, silent and defiant,
motionless, sullen. He heard the melodic measure of the river, with its
crystalline, keen vibrations against the rocks; the munching teeth of
the old mareallowed to come to a stand-still that the noise of the
sorghum mill might not impinge upon the privileges of the quarrel; and
the high, ecstatic whinny of the little sister waiting on the opposite
bank of the river, having crossed the foot-bridge. There the Grinnell
baby had chanced to spy her, and had bounced and grinned and sputtered
affably. It was she who had made all the trouble yearning after the
He would not stay, however, to be ignominiously beaten, for Grinnell
had turned away, and was looking about the ground as if in search of a
thick stick. He accounted himself no craven, thus numerically at a
disadvantage, to turn shortly about, take his way down the rocky slope,
cross the footbridge, jerk the little girl by one hand and lead her
whimpering off, while the round-eyed Grinnell baby stared gravely after
her with inconceivable emotions. These presently resulted in rendering
her cross; she whined a little and rubbed her eyes, and, smarting from
her own ill-treatment of them, gave a sharp yelp of dismay. The old dog
arose and went and sat close by her, eying her solemnly and wagging his
tail, as if begging her to observe how content he was. His dignity was
somewhat impaired by sudden abrupt snaps at flies, which caused her to
wink, stare, and be silent in astonishment.
Waal, Job Grinnell, exclaimed Augusta, as her husband came back
and took the perforated gourd from her handfor she had been skimming
the sorghum in his absenceye air the longest-tongued man, ter be so
short-legged, I ever see!
He looked a trifle discomfited. He had deported himself with
unwonted decision, conscious that Augusta was looking on, and in truth
somewhat supported by the expectation of her approval.
What ails ye ter say words ye can't abide byye 'low ye 'pear so
graceful on the back track? she asked.
He bent over the sorghum, silently skimming. His composure was
somewhat ruffled, and in throwing away the scum his gesture was of
negligent and discursive aim; the boiling fluid bespattered the foot of
one of the omnipresent dogs, whose shrieks rent the sky and whose
activity on three legs amazed the earth. He ran yelping to Mrs.
Grinnell, nearly overturning her in his turbulent demand for sympathy;
then scampered across to the boys, who readily enough stopped their
work to examine the wounded member and condole with its wheezing
What ye mean, A'gusta? Grinnell said at length. Kase I 'lowed I'd
cut thar ears? I ain't foolin', Kem meddlin' about remarkin' on our
chill'n agin, I'll show 'em.
Augusta looked at him in exasperation. I ain't keerin' ef all the
Purdees war deef, she remarked, inhumanly, but what war them words ye
sent fur a message ter Purdee?'bout pridin' on what ain't theirn.
Grinnell in his turn looked at herbut dubiously, However much a
man is under the domination of his wife, he is seldom wholly frank. It
is in this wise that his individuality is preserved to him. I war jes
wantin' ter know ef them words war on the rocks, he said with a
disingenuousness worthy of a higher culture.
She received this with distrust. I kin tell ye nowthey ain't,
she said, discriminatingly; Pur-dee's words don't sound like them.
Waal, now, what's the differ? he demanded, with an indignation
natural enough to aspiring humanity detecting a slur upon one's
Waal she paused as she knelt down to feed the fire, holding-the
fragrant chips in her hand; the flame flickered out and lighted up her
reflective eyes while she endeavored to express the distinction she
felt: Purdee's words don't sound ter me like the words of a man sech
ez men be.
Grinnell wrinkled his brows, trying to follow her here.
They sound ter me like the words spoke in a dreamthe pernouncings
of a vision. Mrs. Grinnell fancied that she too had a gift of Biblical
phraseology. They sound ter me like things I hearn whenst I war
a-hungered arter righteousness an' seekin' religion, an' bided alone in
the wilderness a-waitin' o' the Sperit.
'Gusta! suddenly exclaimed her husband, with the cadence of amazed
conviction, ye b'lieve the lie o' that critter, an' that he reads the
words o' the Lord on the rock!
She looked up a little startled. She had been unconscious of the
circuitous approaches of credence, and shared his astonishment in the
Waal, sir! he said, more hurt and cast down than one would have
deemed possible. I'm willin' ter hev it so. I'm jes nuthin' but a
sinner an' a fool, ripenin' fur damnation, an' he air a saint o' the
Now such sayings as this were frequent upon Job Grinnell's tongue.
He did not believe them; their utility was in their challenge to
contradiction. Thus they often promoted an increased cordiality of the
domestic relations and an accession of self-esteem.
Augusta, however, was tired; the boiling sorghum and the September
sun were debilitating in their effects. There was something in the
scene with the youthful Purdee that grated upon her half-developed
sensibilities. The baby was whimpering outright, and the cow was lowing
at the bars. She gave her irritation the luxury of withholding the
salve to Grinnell's wounded vanity. She said nothing. The tribute to
Purdee went for what it was worth, and he was forced to swallow the
humble-pie he had taken into his mouth, albeit it stuck in his throat.
A shadow seemed to have fallen into the moral atmosphere as the
gentle dusk came early on. One had a sense as if bereft, remembering
that so short a time ago at this hour the sun was still high, and that
the full-pulsed summer day throbbed to a climax of color and bloom and
redundant life. Now, the scent of harvests was on the air; in the
stubble of the sorghum patch she saw a quail's brood more than
half-grown, now afoot, and again taking to wing with a loud whirring
sound. The perfume of ripening muscadines came from the bank of the
river. The papaws hung globular among the leaves of the bushes, and the
persimmons were reddening.
The vermilion sun was low in the sky above the purpling mountains;
the stream had changed from a crystalline brown to red, to gold, and
now it was beginning to be purple and silver. And this reminded her
that the full-moon was up, and she turned to look at itso pearly and
luminous above the jagged ridge-pole of the dark little house on the
rise. The sky about it was blue, refining into an exquisitely delicate
and ethereal neutrality near the horizon. The baby had fallen asleep,
with its bald head on the old dog's shoulder.
After the supper was over, the sorghum fire still burned beneath the
great kettle, for the syrup was not yet made, and sorghum-boiling is an
industry that cannot be intermitted. The fire in the midst of the
gentle shadow and sheen of the night had a certain profane, discordant
effect. Pete's ill-defined figure slouching over it while he skimmed
the syrup was grimly suggestive of the distillations of strange elixirs
and unhallowed liquors, and his simple face, lighted by a sudden
darting red flame, had unrecognizable significance and was of sinister
intent. For Pete was detailed to attend to the boiling; the grinding
was done, and the old white mare stood still in the midst of the
sorghum stubble and the moonlight, as motionless and white as if she
were carved in marble. Job Grinnell sat and smoked on the porch.
Presently he got up suddenly, knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and
looked at it carefully before he stuck it into his pocket. He went,
without a word, down the rocky slope, past the old drowsing mare, and
across the foot-bridge. Two or three of the dogs, watching him as he
reappeared on the opposite bank, affected a mistake in identity. They
growled, then barked outright, and at last ran down and climbed the
fence and bounded about it, baying the vista where he had vanished,
until the sleepy old mare turned her head and gazed in mild surprise at
Augusta sat alone on the step of the porch.
She had various regrets in her mind, incipient even before he had
quite gone, and now defining themselves momently with added poignancy.
A woman who, in her retirement at home, charges herself with the
control of a man's conduct abroad, is never likely to be devoid of
speculation upon probable disasters to ensue upon any abatement of the
activities of her discretion. She was sorry that she had allowed so
trifling a matter to mar the serenity of the family; her conscience
upbraided her that she had not besought him to avoid the blacksmith's
shop, where certain men of the neighborhood were wont to congregate and
drink deep into the night. Above all, her mind went back to the
enigmatical message, and she wondered that she could have been so
forgetful as to fail to urge him to forbear angering Purdee, for this
would have a cumulative effect upon all the rancors of the old
quarrels, and inaugurate perhaps a new series of reprisals.
I ain't afeard o' no Purdee ez ever stepped, she said to herself,
defining her position. But I'm fur peace. An' ef the Purdees will
leave we-uns be, I ain't a-goin' ter meddle along o' them.
She remembered an old barn-burning, in the days when she and her
husband were newly married, at his father's house. She looked up at the
barn hard by, on a line with the dwelling, with that tenderness which
one feels for a thing, not because of its value, but for the sake of
possession, for the kinship with the objects that belong to the home. A
cat was sitting high in a crevice in the logs where the daubing had
fallen out; the moon glittered in its great yellow eyes. A frog was
leaping along the open space about the rude step at Augusta's feet. A
clump of mullein leaves, silvered by the light, spangled by the dew,
hid him presently. What an elusive glistening gauze hung over the
valley far below, where the sense of distance was limited by the sense
of sight!for it was here only that the night, though so brilliant,
must attest the incomparable lucidity of daylight. She could not even
distinguish, amidst those soft sheens of the moon and the dew, the
Lombardy poplar that grew above the door of old Squire Grove's house
down in the cove; in the daytime it was visible like a tiny finger
pointing upward. How drowsy was the sound of the katydid, now
loudening, now falling, now fainting away! And the tree-toad shrilled
in the dog-wood tree. The frogs, too, by the river in iterative fugue
sent forth a song as suggestive of the margins as the scent of the
fern, and the mint, and the fragrant weeds.
A convulsive start! She did not know that she slept until she was
again awake. The moon had travelled many a mile along the highways of
the skies. It hung over the purple mountains, over the farthest valley.
The cicada had grown dumb. The stars were few and faint. The air was
She started to her feet; her garments were heavy with dew. The fire
beneath the sorghum kettle had died to a coal, flaring or fading as the
faint fluctuations of the wind might will. Near it Pete slumbered where
he too had sat down to rest. And JobJob had never returned.
[Illustration: The Blacksmith's Shop 345]
He had found it a lightsome enough scene at the blacksmith's shop,
where it was understood that the neighboring politicians collogued at
times, or brethren in the church discussed matters of discipline or
more spiritual affairs. In which of these interests a certain corpulent
jug was most active it would be difficult perhaps to accurately judge.
The great barn-like doors were flung wide open, and there was a group
of men half within the shelter and half without; the shoeing-stool, a
broken plough, an empty keg, a log, and a rickety chair sufficed to
seat the company. The moonlight falling into the door showed the great
slouching, darkling figures, the anvil, the fire of the forge (a dim
ashy coal), and the shadowy hood merging indistinguishably into the
deep duskiness of the interior. In contrast, the scene glimpsed through
the low window at the back of the shop had a certain vivid illuminated
effect. A spider web, revealing its geometric perfection, hung half
across one corner of the rude casement; the moonbeams without were
individualized in fine filar delicacy, like the ravellings of a silver
skein. The boughs of a tree which grew on a slope close below almost
touched the lintel; the leaves seemed a translucent green; a bird slept
on a twig, its head beneath its wing.
Back of the cabin, which was situated on a limited terrace, the
great altitudes of the mountain rose into the infinity of the night.
The drawling conversation was beset, as it were, by faint fleckings
of sound, lightly drawn from a crazy old fiddle under the chin of a
gaunt, yellow-haired young giant, one Ephraim Blinks, who lolled on a
log, and who by these vague harmonies unconsciously gave to the talk of
his comrades a certain theatrical effect.
Grinnell slouched up and sat down among them, responding with a nod
to the unceremonious Hy're, Job? of the blacksmith, who seemed thus
to do the abbreviated honors of the occasion. The others did not so
formally notice his coming.
The subject of conversation was the same that had pervaded his own
thoughts. He was irritated to observe how Purdee had usurped public
attention, and yet he himself listened with keenest interest.
Waal, said the ponderous blacksmith, I kin onderstan' mighty well
ez Moses would hev been mighty mad ter see them folks a-worshippin' o'
a calfsenseless critters they be! 'Twarn't no use flingin' down them
rocks, though, an' gittin' 'em bruk. Sandstone ain't like metal; ye
can't heat it an' draw it down an' weld it agin.
His round black head shone in the moonlight, glistening because of
his habit of plunging it, by way of making his toilet, into the barrel
of water where he tempered his steel. He crossed his huge folded bare
arms over his breast, and leaned back against the door on two legs of
the rickety chair.
Naw, sir, another chimed in. He mought hev knowed he'd jes hev
ter go ter quarryin' agin.
They air always a-crackin' up them folks in the Bible ez sech
powerful wise men, said another, whose untrained mind evidently held
the germs of advanced thinking. 'Pears ter me ez some of 'em conducted
tharselves ez foolish ez enny folks I knowthis hyar very Moses one o'
'em. Throwin' down them rocks 'minds me o' old man Pinner's tantrums.
Sher'ff kem ter his house 'bout a jedgmint debt, an' levied on his
craps. An' arter he war gone old man tuk a axe an' gashed bodaciously
inter the loom an' hacked it up. Ez ef that war goin' ter do enny good!
His wife war the mos' outed woman I ever see. They 'ain't got nare
nother loom nuther, an' hain't hearn no advices from the Lord.
The violinist paused in his playing. They 'lowed Moses war a meek
man too, he said. He killed a man with a brick-badge an' buried him
in the sand. Mighty meek wayswith a satirical grimace.
The others, divining that this was urged in justification and
precedent for devious modern ways that were not meek, did not pursue
this branch of the subject.
S'prised me some, remarked the advanced thinker, ter hear ez them
tables o' stone war up on the bald o' the mounting thar. I hed drawed
the idee ez 'twar in some other kentry somewharI dunno He stopped
blankly. He could not formulate his geographical ignorance. An' I
never knowed, he resumed, presently, ez thar war enough gold in
Tennessee ter make a gold calf; they fund gold hyar, but 'twar mighty
Mebbe 'twar a mighty leetle calf, suggested the blacksmith.
Mebbe so, assented the other.
Mebbe 'twar a silver one, speculated a third; plenty o' silver
they 'low thar air in the mountings.
The violinist spoke up suddenly. Git one o' them Injuns over yander
ter Quallatown right seasonable drunk, an' he'll tell ye a power o'
places whar the old folks said thar war silver. He bowed his chin once
more upon the instrument, and again the slow drawling conversation
proceeded to soft music.
Ef ye'll b'lieve me, said the advanced thinker, I never war so
conflusticated in my life ez I war when he stood up in meetin' an' told
'bout'n the tables of the law bein' on the bald! I 'lowed 'twar
somewhar 'mongst some sort'n people named 'Gyptians.
Mebbe some o' them Injuns air named 'Gyptians', suggested Spears,
Naw, sir, spoke up the fiddler, who had been to Quallatown, and
was the ethnographic authority of the meeting. Tennessee Injuns be
named Cher'-kee, an' Chick'saw, an' Creeks.
There was a silence. The moonlight sifted through the dark little
shanty of a shop; the fretting and foaming of a mountain stream arose
from far down the steep slope, where there was a series of cascades, a
fine water-power, utilized by a mill. The sudden raucous note of a
night-hawk jarred upon the air, and a shadow on silent wings sped past.
The road was dusty in front of the shop, and for a space there was no
shade. Into the full radiance of the moonlight a rabbit bounded along,
rising erect with a most human look of affright in its great shining
eyes as it tremulously gazed at the motionless figures. It too was
motionless for a moment. The young musician made a lunge at it with his
bow; it sprang away with a violent startits elongated grotesque
shadow bounding kangaroo-like beside itinto the soft gloom of the
bushes. There was no other traveller along the road, and the talk was
renewed without further interruption. Waal, sir, ef'twarn't fur the
testimony o' the words he reads ez air graven on them rocks, I
couldn't-git my cornsent ter b'lieve ez Moses ever war in Tennessee,
said the advanced thinker. I ain't onder-takin' ter say what State he
settled in, but I 'lowed 'twarn't hyar. It mus' hev been, though,
'count o' the scripture on them broken tables.
I never knowed a meetin' woke ter sech a pint o' holiness. The
saints jes rampaged around till it fairly sounded like the cavortin's
o' the ungodly, a retrospective voice chimed in.
I raised thirty-two hyme chunes, said the musician, who had a
great gift in quiring, and was the famed possessor of a robust tenor
voice. A leetle mo' gloryin' aroun' an' I'd hev kem ter the eend o' my
row, an' hev hed ter begin over agin. He spoke with acrimony,
reviewing the jeopardy in which his repertoire had been placed.
Waal, said the blacksmith, passing his hand over his black head,
as sleek and shining as a beaver's, I'm a-goin' up ter the bald o' the
mounting some day soon, ef so be I kin make out ter shoe that mare o'
minefor the blacksmith's mount was always barefootI'm afeard ter
trest her unshod on them slippery slopes; I want ter read some o' them
sayin's on the stone tables myself. I likes ter git a tex' or the eend
o' a hyme set a-goin' in my headseems somehow ter teach itself ter
the anvil, an' then it jes says it back an' forth all day. Yestiddy I
never seen its beat'ChristwarborninBethlehem.' The anvil jes
rang with that ez ef the actial metal hed the gift o' prayer an'
Waal, sir, exclaimed Job Grinnell, who had been having frequent
colloquies aside with the companionable jug, ye mought jes ez well
save yer shoes an' let yer mare go barefoot. Thar ain't nare sign o' a
word writ on them rocks.
They all sat staring at him. Even the singing, long-drawn vibrations
of the violin were still.
By Hokey! exclaimed the young musician, I'll take Purdee's word
ez soon ez yourn.
The whiskey which Grinnell had drunk had rendered him more plastic
still to jealousy. The day was not so long past when Purdee's oath
would have been esteemed a poor dependence against the word of so
zealous a brother as hea pillar in the church, a shining light of the
congregation. He noted the significant fact that it behooved him to
justify himself; it irked him that this was exacted as a tribute to
Purdee's newly acquired sanctity.
Purdee's jes a-lyin' an' a-foolin' ye, he declared. Ever been up
on the bald?
They had lived in its shadow all their lives.
Even by the circuitous mountain ways it was not more than five miles
from where they sat. But none had chanced to have a call to go, and it
was to them as a foreign land to be explored.
Waal, I hev, time an' agin, said Grinnell. I dunno who gin them
rocks the name of Moses' tables o' the Law. Moses must hev hed a
powerful block an' tackle ter lift sech tremenjious rocks. I hev known
'em named sech fur many a year. But I seen 'em not three weeks ago, an'
thar ain't nare word writ on 'em. Thar's the mounting; thar's the
rocks; ye kin go an' stare-gaze 'em an' sati'fy yerse'fs.
Whether it were by reason of the cumulative influences of the
continual references to the jug, or of that sense of reviviscence, that
more alert energy, which the cool Southern nights always impart after
the sultry summer days, the suggestion that they should go now and
solve the mystery, and meet the dawn upon the summit of the bald, found
instant acceptance, which it might not have secured in the stolid
The moon, splendid, a lustrous white encircled by a great halo of
translucent green, swung high above the duskily purple mountains. Below
in the valleys its progress was followed by an opalescent gossamer
presence that was like the overflowing fulness, the surplusage, of
light rather than mist. The shadows of the great trees were interlaced
with dazzling silver gleams. The night was almost as bright as the day,
but cool and dank, full of sylvan fragrance and restful silence and a
The blacksmith carried his rifle, for wolves were often abroad in
the wilderness. Two or three others were similarly armed; the advanced
thinker had a hunting-knife, Job Grinnell a pistol that went by the
name of shootin'-iron. The musician carried no weapon. I ain't
'feared o' no wolf, he said; I'll play 'em a chune. He went on in
the vanguard, his tousled yellow hair idealized with many a shimmer in
the moonlight as it hung curling down on his blue jeans coat, his cheek
laid softly on the violin, the bow glancing back and forth as if strung
with moonbeams as he played. The men woke the solemn silences with
their loud mirthful voices; they startled precipitate echoes; they fell
into disputes and wrangled loudly, and would have turned back if sure
of the way home, but Job Grinnell led steadily on, and they were fain
to follow. They lagged to look at a spot where some man, unheeded even
by tradition, had dug his heart's grave in a vain search for precious
metal. A deep excavation in the midst of the wilderness told the story;
how long ago it was might be guessed from the age of a stalwart oak
that had sunk roots into its depths; the shadows were heavy about it; a
sense of despair brooded in the loneliness. And so up and up the
endless ascent; sometimes great chasms were at one side, stretching
further and further, and crowding the narrow paththe herder's
trailagainst the sheer ascent, till it seemed that the treacherous
mountains were yawning to engulf them. The air was growing colder, but
was exquisitely clear and exhilarating; the great dewy ferns flung
silvery fronds athwart the way; vines in stupendous lengths swung from
the tops of gigantic trees to the roots. Hark! among them birds chirp;
a matutinal impulse seems astir in the woods; the moon is undimmed; the
stars faint only because of her splendors; but one can feel that the
earth has roused itself to a sense of a new day. And there, with such
feathery flashes of white foam, such brilliant straight lengths of
translucent water, such a leaping grace of impetuous motion, the
currents of the mountain stream, like the arrows of Diana, shoot down
the slopes. And now a vague mist is among the trees, and when it clears
away they seem shrunken, as under a spell, to half their size. They
grow smaller and smaller still, oak and chestnut and beech, but dwarfed
and gnarled like some old orchard. And suddenly they cease, and the
vast grassy dome uprises against the sky, in which the moon is paling
into a dull similitude of itself; no longer wondrous, transcendent, but
like some lily of opaque whiteness, fair and fading. Beneath is a
purple, deeply serious, and sombre earth, to which mists minister,
silent and solemn; myriads of mountains loom on every hand; the
half-seen mysteries of the river, which, charged with the red clay of
its banks, is of a tawny color, gleams as it winds in and out among the
white vapors that reach in fantastic forms from heaven above to the
valley below. There is a certain relief in the mistit veils the
infinities of the scene, on which the mind can lay but a trembling
Folks tell all sort'n cur'ous tales 'bout'n this hyar spot, said
Job Grinnell, his square face, his red hair hanging about his ears, and
his ragged red beard visible in the dull light of the coming day.
I hev hearn folks 'low ez a pa'tridge up hyar will look ez big ez a
Dominicky rooster. An' ef ye listens ye kin hear words from somewhar.
An' sometimes in the cattle-herdin' season the beastises will kem an'
crowd tergether, an' stan' on the bald in the moonlight all night.
I dunno, said the advanced thinker, ez I be s'prised enny ef
Purdee, ez be huntin' up hyar so constant, hev got sorter teched in the
head, ter take up sech a cur'ous notion 'bout'n them rocks.
He glanced along the slope at the spot, visible now, where Moses
flung the stone tables and they broke in twain. And there, standing
beside them, was a man of great height, dressed in blue jeans, his
broad-brimmed hat pushed from his brow, and his meditative dark eyes
fixed upon the rocks; a deer, all gray and antlered, lay dead at his
feet, and his rifle rested on the ground as he leaned on the muzzle.
A glance was interchanged between the others. Their intention, the
promptings of curiosity, had flagged during the long tramp and the
gradual waning of the influence of the jug. The coincidence of meeting
Purdee here revived their interest. Grinnell, remembering the ancient
feud, held back, being unlikely to elicit Purdee's views in the face of
their contradiction. The blacksmith and the young fiddler took their
way down toward him.
He looked up with a start, seeing them at some little distance. His
full, contemplative eyes rested upon them for a moment almost devoid of
questioning. It was not the face of a man who finds himself confronted
with the discovery of his duplicity and his hypocrisy. There was a
strange doubt stirring in the blacksmith's heart As he approached he
looked upon the storied cocks with a sort of solemn awe, as if they had
indeed been given by the hand of the Lord to his servant, who broke
them here in his wrath. He knew that the step of the musician slackened
as he followed. What holy mysteries were they not rushing in upon? He
spoke in a bated voice.
Roger, he said, we'uns hearn ye tell 'bout the scriptures graven
on these hyar tables ez Moses flung down, an' we'uns 'lowed we'uns
would kem an' read some fur ourselves.
[Illustration: Tables of the Law 347]
Purdee did not speak nor hesitate; he moved aside that the
blacksmith might stand where he had beenas it were at the foot of the
But what transcendent glories thronged the heavenswhat august
splendors of dawn! Had the sun ever before risen like this, with the
sky an emblazonment of red, of gold, of darting gleams of light; with
the mountains most royally purple or most radiantly blue; with the
prismatic mists in flight; with the slow climax of the dazzling sphere
ascending to dominate it all?
The blacksmith knelt down to read. The musician, his silent violin
under his chin, leaned over his comrade's shoulder. The hunter stood
Alas! the corrugations of time; the fissile results of the frost;
the wavering line of ripple-marks of Seas that shall ebb no more;
growth of lichen; an army of ants in full march; a passion-flower
trailing from a crevice, its purple blooms lying upon the gray stone
near where it is stamped with the fossil imprint of a sea-weed, faded
long ago and forgotten. Or is it, alas! for the eyes that can see only
The blacksmith looked up with a twinkling leer; the violinist
recovered his full height, and drew the bow dashingly across the
strings; then let his arm fall.
Roger, the blacksmith said, dad-burned ef I kin read ennything
The young musician looked over his brawny shoulder in silence.
Whar d'ye make out enny letters, Roger? persisted Spears.
Purdee leaned over and eagerly pointed with his ramrod to a curious
corrugation of the surface of the rock. Again the blacksmith bent down;
the musician craned forward, his yellow hair hanging about his bronzed
I hev been toler'ble well acquainted with the alphabit, said
Spears, fur goin' on thirty year an' better, an' I'll swar ter Heaven
thar ain't nare sign of a letter thar.
Purdee stared at him in wild-eyed amazement for a moment. Then he
flung himself upon his knees beside the great rock, and guiding his
ramrod over the surface, he exclaimed, Hyar, Spears; right hyar!
The blacksmith was all incredulous as he lent himself to a new
posture, and leaned forward to look with the languid indulgence of one
who will not again entertain doubt.
Nare A, nor B, nor C, nor none o' the fambly, he declared. These
hyar rocks ain't no Moses' tables sure enough; Moses never war in
Tennessee. They be jes like enny other rock, an' thar ain't a word o'
writin' on 'em.
He looked up with a curious questioning at Pur-dee's facea strange
face for a man detected in a falsehood, a trick. The deep-set eyes were
wide as if straining for perception denied them. Despite the chill,
rare air, great drops had started on his brow, and were falling upon
his beard, and upon his hands. These strong hands were quivering; they
hovered above the signs on the rocks. The mystic letters, the inspired
words, where were they? Grope as he might, he could not find them.
Alas! doubt and denial had climbed the mountainthe awful limitations
of the more finite human creatureand his inspiration and the finer
enthusiasms of the truth were dead.
Dead with a throe that was almost like a literal death. Thison
this he had lived; the ether of ecstasy was the breath of his life. He
clutched at the stained red handkerchief knotted about his throat as if
he were suffocating; he tore it open as he swayed backward on his
knees. He did not hearor he did not heedthe laugh among the little
crowd on the baldsatirical, rallying, zestful. He was deaf to the
strains of the violin, jeeringly and jerkingly playing a foolish tune.
It was growing fainter, for they had all turned about to betake
themselves once more to the world below. He could have seen, had he
cared to see, their bearded grinning faces peering through the stunted
trees, as descending they came near the spot where he had lavished the
spiritual graces of his feeling, his enthusiasm, his devotion, his
earnest reaching for something higher, for something holy, which had
refreshed his famished soul; had given to its dumbness words; had
erased the values of the years, of the nations; had made him friends
with Moses on the bald; had revealed to him the finger of the Lord on
He took no heed of his gestures, of which, indeed, he was
unconscious. They were fine dramatically, and of great power, as he
alternately rose to his full height, beating his breast in despair, and
again sank upon his knees, with a pondering brow and a searching eye,
and a hovering, trembling hand, striving to find the clew he had lost.
They might have impressed a more appreciative audience, but not one
more entertained than the cluster of men who looked and paused and
leered in amusement at one another, and thrust out satirical tongues.
Long after they had disappeared, the strains of the violin could be
heard, filling the solemn, stricken, strangely stunted woods with a
grotesquely merry presence, hilarious and jeering.
Purdee found it possible to survive the destruction of illusions.
Most of us do. It wrought in him, however, the saturnine changes
natural upon the relinquishment of a dear and dead fantasy. This
ethereal entity is a more essential component of happiness than one
might imagine from the extreme tenuity of the conditions of its
existence. Purdee's fantasy may have been a poor thing, but, although
he could calmly enough close its eyes, and straighten its limbs, and
bury it decently from out the offended view of fact, he felt that he
should mourn it in his heart as long as he should live. And he was
There is a certain stage in every sorrow when it rejects sympathy.
Purdee, always taciturn, grave, uncommunicative, was, invested with an
austere aloofness, and was hardly to be approached as he sat, silent
and absent, brooding over the fire at his own home. When roused by some
circumstance of the domestic routine, and it became apparent that his
mood was not sullenness or anger, but simple and complete introversion,
it added a dignity and suggested a remoteness that were yet less
reassuring. His son, who stood in awe of himnot because of paternal
severity, but because no boy could refrain from a worshipping respect
for so miraculous a shot, a woodsman so subtly equipped with all
elusive sylvan instincts and knowledgeforbore to break upon his
meditations by the delivery of Grinnel's message. Nevertheless the
consciousness of withholding it weighed heavily upon him. He only
pretermitted it for a time, until a more receptive state of mind should
warrant it. Day by day, however, he looked with eagerness when he came
into the cabin in the evening to ascertain if his father were still
seated in the chimney-corner silently smoking his pipe. Purdee had
seldom remained at home so long at a time, and the boy had a daily fear
that the gun on the primitive rack of deer antlers would be missing,
and word left in the family that he had taken the trail up the
mountain, and would return 'cord-in' ter luck with the varmints. And
thus Job Grinnell's enigmatical message, that had the ring of defiance,
might remain indefinitely postponed.
Abner had not realized how long a time it had been delayed, until
one evening at the wood-pile, in tossing off a great stick to hew into
lengths for the chimney-place, he noticed that thin ice had formed in
the moss and the dank cool shadows of the interstices. I tell ye now,
winter air a-comm', he observed. He stood leaning on his axe-handle
and looking down upon the scene so far below; for Pur-dee's house was
perched half-way up on the mountain-side, and he could see over the
world how it fared as the sun went down. Far away upon the levels of
the valley of East Tennessee a golden haze glittered resplendent, lying
close upon an irradiated earth, and ever brightening toward the
horizon, and it seemed as if the sun in sinking might hope to fall in
fairer spheres than the skies he had left, for they were of a dun-color
and an opaque consistency. Only one horizontal rift gave glimpses of a
dazzling ochreous tint of indescribable brilliancy, from the focus of
which the divergent light was shed upon the western limits of the land.
Chilhowee, near at hand, was dark enougha purplish garnet hue; but
the scarlet of the sour-wood gleamed in the cove; the hickory still
flared gallantly yellow; the receding ranges to the north and south
were blue and more faintly azure. The little log cabin stood with small
fields about it, for Purdee barely subsisted on the fruits of the soil,
and did not seek to profit. It had only one room, with a loft above;
the barn was a makeshift of poles, badly chinked, and showing through
the crevices what scanty store there was of corn and pumpkins. A
black-and-white work-ox, that had evidently no deficiency of ribs,
stood outside of the fence and gazed, a forlorn Tantalus, at these
unattainable dainties; now and then a muttered low escaped his lips.
Nobody noticed him or sympathized with him, except perhaps the little
girl, who had come out in her sun-bonnet to help her brother bring in
the fuel. He gruffly accepted her company, a little ashamed of her
because she was a girl; since, however, there was no other boy by to
laugh, he permitted her the delusion that she was of assistance.
As he paused to rest he reiterated, Winter air a-comin', I tell
D'ye reckon, Ab, she asked, in her high, thin little voice, her
hands full of chips and the basket at her feet, ez Grinnell's baby
knows Chris'mus air a-comin'?
He glowered at her as he leaned on the axe. I reckon Grinnell's old
baby dunno B from Bull-foot, he declared, gruffly.
The recollection of the message came over him. He had a pang of
regret, remembering all the old grudges against the Grinnells. They
were re-enforced by this irrepressible yearning after their baby, this
admission that they had aught which was not essentially despicable.
Nevertheless, he suddenly saw a reason for the Grinnell baby's
existence; he loaded up both arms with the sticks of wood, and,
followed by the peripatetic sun-bonnet, conscientiously weighed down
with one billet, he strode into the house, and let his burden fall with
a mighty clatter in the corner of the chimney. The sun-bonnet staggered
up and threw her stick on the top of the pile of wood.
Purdee, sitting silently smoking, glanced up at the noise. Abner
took advantage of the momentary notice to claim, too, the attention of
his mother. I wish ye'd make Eunice quit talkin' 'bout the Grinnells'
old baby, like she war actially dementeduglies' bald-headed,
slab-sided, slobbery old baby I ever seenare tooth in its head! I do
despise them Grinnells.
As he anticipated, his father spoke suddenly: Ye jes keep away from
thar, he said, sternly. I trest them folks no furder 'n a
I ain't consortin' along o' 'em, declared the boy. But I
actially hed ter take Eunice by the scalp o' her head an' lug her off
one day when she hung on thar fence a-stare-gazin' Grinnell's baby like
'twar fatten ter eat.
The child's mother, a cadaverous, pale woman, was listlessly
stringing the warping-bars with hanks of variegated yarn. The
grandmother, who conserved a much more active and youthful interest in
life, took down a brown gourd used as a scrap-basket that was on a
protruding lath of the clay-and-stick chimney, and hunted among the
scraps of homespun and bits of yarn stowed within it. The room was much
like the gourd in its aged brown tint; its indigenous aspect, as if it
had not been made with hands, but was some spontaneous production of
the soil; with its bits of bright colorthe peppers hanging from the
rafters, the rainbow-hued yarn festooning the warping-bars, the red
coals of the fire, the blue and yellow ware ranged on the shelf, the
brown puncheon floor and walls and ceiling and chimneyit might have
seemed the interior of a similar gourd of gigantic proportions. She
dressed a twig from the pile of wood in a gay scrap of cloth, casting
glances the while at the little girl, and handed it to her.
I hain't never seen ez good a baby ez this, she said, with the
convincing coercive mendacity of a grandmother.
The little girl accepted it humbly; it was a good baby doubtless of
its sort, but it was not alive, which could not be denied of the
Grinnell baby, Grinnell though it was.
An' Job Grinnell he kem down ter the fence, an' 'lowed he'd slit
our ears, an' named us shoats, continued her brother. Purdee lifted
his head. An' sent a word ter dad, said the boy, tremulously.
[Illustration: What word did he send ter me? 367]
What word did he send terme? cried Purdee.
The boy quailed to tell him. He tole me ter ax ye ef ye ever read
sech ez this on Moses' tables in the mountings' An' ye shell claim
sech ez be yer own, an' yer neighbors' belongings shell ye in no wise
boastfully medjure fur yourn, nor look upon it fur covetiousness, nor
yit git a big name up in the kentry fur ownin' sech ez be another's,'
faltered the sturdy Abner.
The next moment he felt an infinite relief. He suddenly recognized
the fact that he had been chiefly restrained from repeating the words
by an unrealized terror lest they prove truelest something his father
claimed was not his, indeed.
But the expression of anger on Purdee's face was merged first in
blank astonishment, then in perplexed cogitation, then in renewed and
The wife turned from the warping-bars with a vague stare of
surprise, one hand poised uncertainly upon a peg of the frame, the
other holding a hank of spun truck. The grandmother looked over her
spectacles with eyes sharp enough to seem subsidized to see through the
In the name o' reason and religion, Roger Purdee, she adjured him,
what air that thar perverted Philistine talkin' 'bout?
It air more'n I kin jedge of, said Purdee, still vainly
He sat for a time silent, his dark eyes bent on the fire, his broad,
high forehead covered by his hat pulled down over it, his long,
tangled, dark locks hanging on his collar.
Suddenly he rose, took down his gun, and started toward the door.
Roger, cried his wife, shrilly, I'd leave the critter be. Lord
knows thar's been enough blood spilt an' good shelter burned along o'
them Purdees' an' Grinnells' quar'ls in times gone. Laws-a-massy!she
wrung her hands, all hampered though they were in the spun truck
I'd ruther be a sheep 'thout a soul, an' live in peace.
A sca'ce ch'ice, commented her mother. Sheep's got ter be
butchered. I'd ruther be the butcher, myselfhealthier.
Purdee was gone. He had glanced absently at his wife as if he hardly
heard. He waited till she paused; then, without answer, he stepped
hastily out of the door and walked away.
The cronies at the blacksmith's shop latterly gathered within the
great flaring door, for the frost lay on the dead leaves without, the
stars scintillated with chill suggestions, and the wind was abroad on
nights like these. On shrill pipes it played; so weird, so wild, so
prophetic were its tones that it found only a shrinking in the heart of
him whose ear it constrained to listen. The sound of the torrent far
below was accelerated to an agitated, tumultuous plaint, all unknown
when its pulses were bated by summer languors. The moon was in the
turmoil of the clouds, which, routed in some wild combat with the
winds, were streaming westward.
And although the rigors of the winter were in abeyance, and the late
purple aster called the Christmas-flower bloomed in the sheltered grass
at the door, the forge fire, flaring or dully glowing, overhung with
its dusky hood, was a friendly thing to see, and in its vague
illumination the rude interior of the shantythe walls, the implements
of the trade, the bearded faces grouped about, the shadowy figures
seated on whatever might serve, a block of wood, the shoeing-stool, a
plough, or perched on the anvilbecame visible to Roger Purdee from
far down the road as he approached. Even the head of a horse could be
seen thrust in at the window, while the brute, hitched outside,
beguiled the dreary waiting by watching with a luminous, intelligent
eye the gossips within, as if he understood the drawling colloquy. They
were suffering some dearth of timely topics, supplying the deficiency
with reminiscences more or less stale, and had expected no such
sensation as they experienced when a long shadow fell athwart the
doorway,the broad aperture glimmering a silvery gray contrasted with
the brown duskiness of the interior and the purple darkness of the
distance; the forge fire showed Purdee's tall figure leaning on the
doorframe, and lighted up his serious face beneath his great
broad-brimmed hat, his intent, earnest eyes, his tangled black beard
and locks. He gave no greeting, and silence fell upon them as his
searching gaze scanned them one by one.
Whar's Job Grinnell? he demanded, abruptly.
There was a shuffling of feet, as if those members most experienced
relief from the constraint that silence had imposed upon the party. A
vibration from the violina sigh as if the instrument had been
suddenly moved rather than a touch upon the stringsintimated that the
young musician was astir. But it was Spears, the blacksmith, who spoke.
Kem in, Roger, he called out, cordially, as he rose, his massive
figure and his sleek head showing in the dull red light on the other
side of the anvil, his bare arms folded across his chest. Naw, Job
ain't hyar; hain't been hyar for a right smart while.
There was a suggestion of disappointment in the attitude of the
motionless figure at the door. The deeply earnest, pondering face,
visible albeit the red light from the forge-fire was so dull, was
keenly watched. For the inquiry was fraught with peculiar meaning to
those cognizant of the long and bitter feud.
I ax, said Purdee, presently, kase Grinnell sent me a mighty
cur'ous word the t'other day. He lifted his head. Hev enny o' you-uns
hearn him 'low lately ez I claim ennything ez ain't mine?
There was silence for a moment. Then the forge was suddenly
throbbing with the zigzagging of the bow of the violin jauntily
dandering along the strings. His keen sensibility apprehended the
sudden jocosity as a jeer, but before he could say aught the blacksmith
had undertaken to reply.
Waal, Purdee, ef ye hedn't axed me, I warn't layin' off ter say
nuthin 'bout'n it. 'Tain't no con-sarn o' mine ez I knows on. But sence
ye hev axed me, I hold my jaw fur the fear o' no man. The words
ain't writ ez I be feared ter pernounce. An' ez all the kentry hev
hearn 'bout'n it 'ceptin' you-uns, I dunno ez I hev enny call ter hold
my jaw. The Lord 'ain't set no seal on my lips ez I knows on.
Naw, sir! said Purdee, his great eyes glooming through the dusk
and flashing with impatience. He 'ain't set no seal on yer lips, ter
jedge by the way ye wallop yer tongue about inside o' 'em with fool
words. Whyn't ye bite off what ye air tryin' ter chaw?
Waal, then, said the admonished orator, bluntly, Grinnell 'lows
ye don't own that thar lan' around them rocks on the bald, no more'n ye
read enny writin' on 'em.
Not them rocks! cried Purdee, standing suddenly erectthe tables
o' the Law, writ with the finger o' the Lordan' Moses flung 'em down
thar an' bruk 'em. All the kentry knows they air Moses' tables. An' the
groun' whar they lie air mine.
'Tain't, Grinnell say 'tain't.
Naw, sir, chimed in the young musician, his violin silent. Job
Grinnell declars he owns it hisself, an' ef he war willin' ter stan'
the expense he'd set up his rights, but the lan' ain't wuth it. He
'lows his line runs spang over them rocks, an' a heap furder.
Purdee was silent; one or two of the gossips laughed jeeringly; he
had been proved a liar once. It was well that he did not deny; he was
put to open shame among them.
An' Grinnell say, continued Blinks, ez ye hev gone an' tole big
tales 'mongst the brethren fur ownin' sech ez ain't yourn, an' readin'
of s'prisin' sayin's on the rocks.
He bent his head to a series of laughing harmonics, and when he
raised it, hearing no retort, the silvery gray square of the door was
empty. He saw the moon glimmer on the clumps of grass outside where the
Christmas flower bloomed.
The group sat staring in amaze; the blacksmith strode to the door
and looked out, himself a massive, dark silhouette upon the shimmering
neutrality of the background. There was no figure in sight; no faint
foot-fall was audible, no rustle of the sere leaves; only the voice of
the mountain torrent, far below, challenged the stillness with its
He looked back for a moment, with a vague, strange doubt if he had
seen aught, heard aught, in the scene just past. Hain't Purdee been
hyar? he asked, passing his hand across his eyes. The sense of having
dreamed was so strong upon him that he stretched his arms and yawned.
The gleaming teeth of the grouped shadows demonstrated the merriment
evoked by the query. The chuckle was arrested midway.
Ye 'pear ter 'low ez suthin' hev happened ter Purdee, an' that thar
war his harnt, suggested one.
The bold young musician laid down his violin suddenly. The
instrument struck upon a keg of nails, and gave out an abrupt,
discordant jangle, startling to the nerves. Shet up, ye durned
squeech-owl! he exclaimed, irritably. Then, lowering his voice, he
asked: Didn't they 'low down yander in the Cove ez Widder Peters, the
day her husband war killed by the landslide up in the mounting, heard a
hoe a-scrapin' mightily on the gravel in the gyarden-spot, an' went ter
the door, an' seen him thar a-workin', an' axed him when he kem home?
An' he never lifted his head, but hoed on. An' she went down thar
'mongst the corn, an' she couldn't find nobody. An' jes then the John's
boys rid up an' 'lowed ez Jim Peters war dead, an' hed been fund in the
mounting, an' they war a-fetchin' of him then.
The horse's head within the window nodded violently among the
shadows, and the stones rolled beneath his hoof as he pawed the ground.
Mis' Peters she knowed suthin' were a-goin' ter happen when she
seen that harnt a-hoein'.
I reckon she did, said the blacksmith, stretching himself, his
nerves still under the delusion of recent awakening. Jim never hoed
none when he war alive. She mought hev knowed he war dead ef she seen
Waal, sir, exclaimed the violinist, I'm a-goin' up yander ter
Purdee's ter-morrer ter find out what he died of, an' when.
That he was alive was proved the next day, to the astonishment of
the smith and his friends. The forge was the voting-place of the
district, and there, while the fire was flaring, the bellows blowing,
the anvil ringing, the echo vibrating, now loud, now faint, with the
antiphonal chant of the hammer and the sledge, a notice was posted to
inform the adjacent owners that Roger Purdee's land, held under an
original grant from the State, would be processioned according to law
some twenty days after date, and the boundaries thereof defined and
established. The fac-simile of the notice, too, was posted on the
court-house door in the county town twenty miles away, for there were
those who journeyed so far to see it.
I wonder, said the blacksmith, as he stood in the unfamiliar
street and gazed at it, his big arms, usually bare, now hampered with
his coat sleeves and folded upon his chestI wonder ef he footed it
all the way ter town at the gait he tuk when he lit out from the
It was a momentous day when the county surveyor planted his
Jacob's-staff upon the State line on the summit of the bald. His sworn
chain-bearers, two tall young fellows clad in jeans, with broad-brimmed
wool hats, their heavy boots drawn high over their trousers, stood
ready and waiting, with the sticks and clanking chain, on the margin of
the ice-cold spring gushing out on this bleak height, and signifying
more than a fountain in the wilderness, since it served to define the
southeast corner of Purdee's land. The two enemies were perceptibly
conscious of each other. Grinnell's broad face and small eyes laden
with fat lids were persistently averted. Purdee often glanced toward
him gloweringly, his head held, nevertheless, a little askance, as if
he rejected the very sight. There was the fire of a desperate intention
in his eyes. Looking at his face, shaded by his broad-brimmed hat, one
could hardly have doubted now whether it expressed most ferocity or
force. His breath came quickthe bated breath of a man who watches and
waits for a supreme moment. His blue jeans coat was buttoned close
about his sun-burned throat, where the stained red handkerchief was
knotted. He wore a belt with his powder-horn and bullet-pouch, and
carried his rifle on his shoulder; the hand that held it trembled, and
he tried to quell the quiver. I'll prove it fust, an' kill him
arterwardkill him arterward, he muttered.
In the other hand he held a yellowed old paper. Now and then he bent
his earnest dark eyes upon the grant, made many a year ago by the State
of Tennessee to his grandfather; for there had been no subsequent
The blacksmith had come begirt with his leather apron, his
shirt-sleeves rolled up, and with his hammer in his hand, an
inopportune customer having jeopardized his chance of sharing in the
sensation of the day. The other neighbors all wore their coats closely
buttoned. Blinks carried his violin hung upon his back; the sharp
timbre of the wind, cutting through the leafless boughs of the stunted
woods, had a kindred fibrous resonance. Clouds hung low far beneath
them; here and there, as they looked, the trees on the slopes showed
above and again below the masses of clinging vapors. Sometimes close at
hand a peak would reveal itself, asserting the solemn vicinage of the
place, then draw its veil slowly about it, and stand invisible and in
austere silence. The surveyor, a stalwart figure, his closely buttoned
coat giving him a military aspect, looked disconsolately downward.
I hoped I'd die before this, he remarked. I'm equal to getting
over anything in nature that's flat or oblique, but the vertical beats
He bent to take sight for a moment, the group silently watching him.
Suddenly he came to the perpendicular, and strode off down the rugged
slope over gullies and bowlders, through rills and briery tangles, his
eyes distended and eager as if he were led into the sylvan depths by
the lure of a vision. The chain-bearers followed, continually bending
and rising, the recurrent genuflections resembling the fervors of some
religious rite. The chain rustled sibilantly among the dead leaves, and
was ever and anon drawn out to its extremest length. Then the dull
clank of the links was silent.
Stick! called out the young mountaineer in the rear.
Stuck! responded his comrade ahead.
And once more the writhing and jingling among the withered leaves.
The surveyor strode on, turning his face neither to the right nor to
the left, with his Jacob's-staff held upright before him. The other men
trooped along scatteringly, dodging under the low boughs of the stunted
trees. They pressed hastily together when the great square
rocksMoses' tables of the Lawcame into view, lying where it was
said the man of God flung them upon the sere slope below, both
splintered and fissured, and one broken in twain. The surveyor was
bearing straight down upon them. The men running on either side could
not determine whether the line would fall within the spot or just
beyond. They broke into wild exclamations.
Ye may hammer me out ez flat ez a skene, cried the blacksmith, ef
I don't b'lieve ez Purdee hev got 'em.
Naw, sir, naw! cried another fervent amateur; thar's the north. I
jes now viewed Grinnell's dad's deed; the line undertakes ter run with
Pur-dee's line; he hev got seven hunderd poles ter the north; ef they
air a-goin' ter the north, them tables o' the Law air Grinnell's.
A wild chorus ensued.
Naw! Yes! Thar they go! A-bear-in' off that-a-way! Beats my
time! as they stumbled and scuttled alongside the acolytes of the
Compass, who bowed down and rose up at every length of the chain.
Suddenly a cry from the chain-bearers.
The surveyor stopped to register the out. It was a moment of
thrilling suspense; the rocks lay only a few chains further; Grinnell,
into whose confidence doubt had begun to be instilled, said to himself,
all a-tremble, that he would hardly have staked his veracity, his
standing with the brethren, if he had realized that it was so close a
matter as this. He had long known that his father owned the greater
part of the unproductive wilderness lying between the two ravines; the
land was almost worthless by reason of the steep slants which rendered
it utterly untillable. He was sure that by the terms of his deed, which
his father had from its vendor, Squire Bates, his line included the
Moses' tables on which Purdee had built so fallacious a repute of
holiness. He looked once more at the paperthence from Crystal Spring
with Purdee's line north seven hundred poles to a stake in the middle
of the river.
Purdee too was all a-quiver with eagerness. He had not beheld those
rocks since that terrible day when all the fine values of his gifted
vision had been withdrawn from him, and he could read no more with eyes
blinded by the limitations of what other men could seethe infinitely
petty purlieus of the average sense. He had a vague idea that should
they say this was his land where those strange rocks lay, he would see
again, he would read undreamed-of words, writ with a pen of fire. He
started toward them, and then with a conscious effort he held back.
The surveyor took no heed of the sentiments involved in
processioning Purdee's land. He stood leaning on his Jacob's-staff, as
interesting to him as Moses' rocks, and in his view infinitely more
useful, and wiped his brow, and looked about, and yawned. To him it was
merely the surveying for a foolish cause of a very impracticable and
steep tract of land, and the only reason it should be countenanced by
heaven or earth was the fees involved. And this was what he saw at the
end of Purdee's line.
Suddenly he took up his Jacob's-staff and marched on with a long
stride, bearing straight down upon the rocks. The whole cortège
started anewthe genuflecting chain-bearers, the dodging, scrambling,
running spectators. On one of the strange stunted leafless trees a
colony of vagrant crows had perched, eerie enough to seem the denizens
of those weird forests; they broke into raucous laughterHaw! haw!
haw!rising to a wild commotion of harsh, derisive discord as the men
once more gave vent to loud, excited cries. For the surveyor, stalking
ahead, had passed beyond the great tables of the Law; the chain-bearers
were drawing Purdee's line on the other side of them, and they had
fallen, if ever they fell here from Moses' hand and broke in twain,
upon Purdee's land, granted to his ancestor by the State of Tennessee.
He could not speak for joy, for pride. His dark eyes were illumined
by a glancing, amber light. He took off his hat and smoothed with his
rough hand his long black hair, falling from his massive forehead. He
leaned against one of the stunted oaks, shouldering his rifle that he
had loaded for Grinnellhe could hardly believe this, although he
remembered it. He did not want to shoot Grinnell; he would not waste
the good lead!
And indeed Grinnell had much ado to defend himself against the
sneers and rebukes with which the party beguiled the way through the
wintry woods. Ter go a-claimin' another man's land, an' put him ter
the expense o' processionin' it, an' git his line run! exclaimed the
blacksmith, indignantly. An' ye 'ain't got nare sign o' a show at
I dunno how this hyar line air a-runnin', declared Grinnell,
sorely beset. I don't b'lieve it air a-runnin' north.
The surveyor was hard by. He had planted his staff again, and was
once more taking his bearings. He looked up for a second.
Northwest, he said.
Grinnell stared for a moment; then strode up to the surveyor, and
pointed with his stubby finger at a word on his deed.
The official looked with interest at it; he held up suddenly
Purdee's grant and read aloud, From Crystal Spring seven hundred poles
northwest to a stake in the middle of the river.
He examined, too, the original plat of survey which he had taken to
guide him, and also the plat made when Squire Bates sold to Grinnell's
father; northwest they all agreed. There was evidently a
clerical error on the part of the scrivener who had written Grinnell's
In a moment the harassed man saw that through the processioning of
Purdee's land he had lost heavily in the extent of his supposed
possessions. He it was who had claimed what was rightfully another's.
And because of the charge Purdee was the richer by a huge slice of
mountain landhow large he could not say, as he ruefully followed the
line of survey.
But for this discovery the interest of processioning Purdee's land
would have subsided with the determination of the ownership of the
limited environment of the stone tables of the Law. Now, as they
followed the ever-diverging line to the northwest, the group was
pervaded by a subdued and tremulous excitement, in which even the
surveyor shared. Two or three whispered apart now and then, and
Grinnell, struggling to suppress his dismay, was keenly conscious of
the glances that sought him again and again in the effort to judge how
he was taking it. Only Purdee himself was withdrawn from the interest
that swayed them all. He had loitered at first, dallying with a
temptation to slip silently from the party and retrace his way to the
tables and ascertain, perchance, if some vestige of that mystic
scripture might not reveal itself to him anew, or if it had been only
some morbid fancy, some futile influence of solitude, some fevered
condition of the blood or the brain, that had traced on the stone those
gracious words, the mere echo of whichhis stuttered, vague
recollectionshad roused the camp-meeting to fervid enthusiasms
undreamed of before. And then he put from him the projectsome other
time, perhaps, for doubts lurked in his heart, hesitation chilled his
resolvesome other time, when his companions and their prosaic
influence were all far away. He was roused abruptly, as he stalked
along, to the perception of the deepening excitement among them. They
had emerged from the dense growths of the mountain to the lower slope,
where pastures and fieldswhence the grain had been harvestedand a
garden and a dwelling, with barns and fences, lay before them all. And
as Purdee stopped and stared, the realization of a certain significant
fact struck him so suddenly that it seemed to take his breath away.
That divergent line stretching to the northwest had left within his
boundaries the land on which his enemy had built his home.
He looked; then he smote his thigh and laughed aloud.
The rocks on the river-bank caught the sound, and echoed it again
and again, till the air seemed full of derisive voices. Under their
stings of jeering clamor, and under the anguish of the calamity which
his reeling senses could scarcely measure, Job Grinnell's composure
suddenly gave way. He threw up his arms and called upon Heaven; he
turned and glared furiously at his enemy. Then, as Purdee's laughter
still jarred the air, he drew a shooting-iron from his pocket. The
blacksmith closed with him, struggling to disarm him. The weapon was
discharged in the turmoil, the ball glancing away in the first quiver
of sunshine that had reached the earth to-day, and falling spent across
Grinnell wrested himself from the restraining grasp, and rushed down
the slope to his gate to hide himself from the gaze of the worldhis
world, that little group. Then remembering that it was no longer his
gate, he turned from it in an agony of loathing. And knowing that earth
held no shelter for him but the sufferance of another man's roof, he
plunged into the leafless woods as if he heavily dragged himself by a
power which warred within him with other strong motives, and
disappeared among the myriads of holly bushes all aglow with their red
The spectators still followed the surveyor and his Jacob's-staff,
but Purdee lingered. He walked around the fence with a fierce, gloating
eye, a panther-like, loping tread, as a beast might patrol a fold
before he plunders it. All the venom of the old feud had risen to the
opportunity. Here was his enemy at his mercy. He knew that it was less
than seven years since the enclosures had been made, acres and acres of
tillable land cleared, the houses builtall achieved which converted
the worthlessness of a wilderness into the sterling values of a farm.
Hehe, Roger Purdeewas a rich man for the mountings, joining his
little to this competence. All the cruelties, all the insults, all the
traditions of the old vendetta came thronging into his mind, as
distinctly presented as if they were a series of hideous pictures; for
he was not used to think in detail, but in the full portrayal of
The Purdee wrongs were all avenged. This result was so complete, so
baffling, so ruinous temporally, so humiliating spiritually! It was the
fullest replication of revenge for all that had challenged it.
How Uncle Ezra would hev rej'iced ter hev lived ter see this day!
he thought, with a pious regret that the dead might not know.
The next moment his attention was suddenly attracted by a movement
in the door-yard. A woman had been hanging out clothes to dry, and she
turned to go in, without seeing the striding figure patrolling the
enclosure. A babya small bundle of a red dresswas seated on the
pile of sorghum-cane where the mill had worked in the autumn; the
stalks were broken, and flimsy with frost and decay, and washed by the
rains to a pallid hue, yet more marked in contrast with the brown
ground. The baby's dress made a bright bit of color amidst the dreary
tones. As Purdee caught sight of it he remembered that this was
Grinnell's old baby, who had been the cause of the renewal of the
ancient quarrel, which had resulted so benignantly for him. I owe you
a good turn, sis, he murmured, satirically, glaring at the child as
the unconscious mother lifted her to go in the house. The baby, looking
over the maternal shoulder, encountered the stern eyes staring at her.
She stared gravely too. Then with a bounce and a gurgle she beamed upon
him from out the retirement of her flapping sun-bonnet; she smiled
radiantly, and finally laughed outright, and waved her hands and again
bounced beguilingly, and thus toothlessly coquetting, disappeared
within the door.
Before Purdee reached home, flakes of snow, the first of the season,
were whirling through the gray dusk noiselessly, ceaselessly, always
falling, yet never seeming to fall, rather to restlessly pervade the
air with a vacillating alienation from all the laws of gravitation.
Elusive fascinations of thought were liberated with the shining
crystalline aerial pulsation; some mysterious attraction dwelt down
long vistas amongst the bare trees; their fine fibrous grace of branch
and twig was accented by the snow, which lay upon them with exquisite
lightness, despite the aggregated bulk, not the densely packed effect
which the boughs would show to-morrow. The crags were crowned; their
grim faces looked frowningly out like a warrior's from beneath a
wreath. Nowhere could the brown ground be seen; already the pine boughs
bent, the needles failing to pierce the drifts. On the banks of the
stream, on the slopes of the mountain, in wildest jungles, in the
niches and crevices of bare cliffs, the holly-berries glowed red in the
midst of the ever-green snow-laden leaves and ice-barbed twigs. When
his house at last came into view, the roof was deeply covered; the
dizzying whirl had followed every line of the rail-fence; scurrying
away along the furthest zigzags there was a vanishing glimpse of a
squirrel; the boles of the trees were embedded in drifts; the chickens
had gone to roost; the sheep were huddling in the broad door of the
rude stable; he saw their heads lifted against the dark background
within, where the ox was vaguely glimpsed. He caught their mild glance
despite the snow that in-starred with its ever-shifting crystals the
dark space of the aperture, and intervened as a veil. They suddenly
reminded him of the seasonthat it was Christmas Eve; of the sheep
which so many years ago beheld the angel of the Lord and the glory of
the great light that shone about the shepherds abiding in the fields.
Did they follow, he wondered, the shepherds who went to seek for
Christ? Ah, as he paused meditatively beside the rail-fencewhat
matter how long ago it was, how far away!he saw those sheep lying
about the fields under the vast midnight sky. They lift their sleepy
heads. Dawn? not yet, surely; and they lay them down again. And one
must bleat aloud, turning to see the quickening sky; and one, woolly,
white, white as snow, with eyes illumined by the heralding heavens,
struggles to its feet, and another, and the flock is astir; and the
shepherds, drowsing doubtless, are awakened to good tidings of great
What a night that was!this nightChristmas Eve. He wondered he
had not thought of it before. And the light still shines, and the angel
waits, and the eternal hosts proclaim peace on earth, good-will toward
men, and summon us all to go and follow the shepherds and seewhat? A
little child cradled in a manger. The mountaineer, leaning on his gun
by the rail-fence, looked through the driving snow with the lights of
divination kindling in his eyes, seeing it all, feeling its meaning as
never before. Christ came thus, he knew, for a purpose. He could have
come in the chariots of the sun or on the wings of the wind. But He was
cradled as a little child, that men might revere humanity for the sake
of Him who had graced it; that they, thinking on Him, might be good to
one another and to all little children.
As he burst into the door of his house the elations of his high
religious mood were rudely dispelled by shrill cries of congratulation
from his wife and her mother. For the news had preceded him. Ephraim
Blinks with his fiddle had stopped there on his way to play at some
neighboring merry-making, and had acquainted them with the result of
processioning Purdee's land.
We'll go down thar an' live! cried his wife, with a gush of joyful
tears. Arter all our scratch-in' along like ten-toed chickens all this
time, we'll hev comfort an' plenty! We'll live in Grinnell's good
house! But ter think o' our trials, an' how pore we hev been!
This air the Purdees' day! cried the grandmother, her face flushed
with the semblance of youth. Arter all ez hev kem an' gone, the
jedg-mint o' the Lord hev descended on Grinnell, an' he air cast out.
An' his fields, an' house, an' bin, an' barn, air Purdee's!
The fire flared and faded; shadows of the night gloomed thick in the
roomthis night of nights that bestowed so much, that imposed so much
on man and on his fellow-man!
Ain't the Grinnell baby got no home? whimpered the
The mountaineer remembered the Lord of heaven and earth cradled, a
little Child, in the manger. He remembered, too, the humble child
smiling its guileless good-will at the fence. He broke out suddenly.
How kem the fields Purdee's, he cried, leaning his back against
the door and striking the puncheon floor with the butt of the gun till
it rang again and again, or the house, or the bin, or the barn? Did he
plant 'em? Did he build 'em? Who made 'em his'n?
The law! exclaimed both women in a breath.
Thar ain't no law in heaven or yearth ez kin gin an' honest man
what ain't his'n by rights, he declared.
An insistent feminine clamor arose, protesting the sovereign power
of the law. He quaked for a moment; dominant though he was in his own
house, he could not face them, but he could flee. He suddenly stepped
out of the door, and when they opened it and looked after him in the
snowy dusk and the whitened woods, he was gone.
And popular opinion coincided with them when it became known that he
had formally relinquished his right to that portion of the land
improved by Grinnell. He said to the old squire who drew up the
quit-claim deed, which he executed that Christmas Eve, that he was not
willing to profit by his enemy's mistake, and thus the consideration
expressed in the conveyance was the value of the land, considered not
as a farm, but as so many acres of wilderness before an axe was laid to
the trunk of a tree or the soil upturned by a plough. It was the
minimum of value, and Grinnell came cheaply off.
The blacksmith, the mountain fiddler, and the advanced thinker, who
had been active in the survey, balked of the expected excitement
attendant upon the ousting of Grinnell, and some sensational
culmination of the ancient feud, were not in sympathy with the pacific
result, and spoke as if they had given themselves to unrequited labors.
Thar ain't no way o' settlin' what that thar critter Purdee owns
'ceptin' ez consarns Moses' tables o' the Law. He clings ter them,
they said, in conclave about the forge fire when the big doors were
closed and the snow, banking up the crevices, kept out the wind. There
ain't no use in percessionin' Purdee's land.
And indeed Purdee's possessions were wider far than even that
divergent line which the county surveyor ran out might seem to warrant;
for on the mountain-tops largest realms of solemn thought were open to
him. He levied tribute upon the liberties of an enthused imagination.
He exulted in the freedom of the expanding spaces of a spiritual
perception of the spiritual things. When the snow slipped away from the
tables of the Law, the man who had read strange scripture engraven
thereon took his way one day, doubtful, but faltering with hope, up and
up to the vast dome of the mountain, and knelt beside the rocks to see
if perchance he might trace anew those mystic runes which he once had
some fine instinct to decipher. And as he pondered long he found, or
thought he found, here a familiar character, and there a slowly
developing word, and anondid he see it aright?a phrase; and
suddenly it was discovered to him that, whether their origin were a
sacred mystery or the fantastic scroll-work of time as the rock
weathered, high thoughts, evoking thrilling emotions, bear scant import
to one who apprehends only in mental acceptance. And he realised that
the multiform texts which he had read in the fine and curious script
were but paraphrases of the simple mandate to be good to one another
for the sake of that holy Child cradled in manger, and to all little