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   Chapter 2 No.2

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 8783

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

John Westerfelt lived on his own farm in the big two-storied frame house which had been built by his grandfather, and which came to him at the death of his father and mother. The place was managed for him by a maternal uncle, whose wife and daughter kept the house in order. But all three of them had gone away on a short visit, leaving only the old negro woman, who was the cook and servant about the house, to attend to his wants.

The morning following his meeting with Sally Dawson on the road near her house, Westerfelt arose with a general feeling of dissatisfaction with himself. He had not slept well. Several times through the night he awoke from unpleasant dreams, in which he always saw Sally Dawson's eyes raised to his through the darkness, and heard her spiritless voice as she bade him good-bye, and with bowed head moved away, after promising to return his letters the next day.

He was a handsome specimen of physical manhood. His face was dark and of the poetic, sensitive type; his eyes were brown, his hair was almost black, and thick, and long enough to touch his collar. His shoulders were broad, and his limbs muscular and well shaped. He wore tight-fitting top-boots, which he had drawn over his trousers to the knee. His face was clean-shaven, and but for his tanned skin and general air of the better-class planter, he might have passed for an actor, poet, or artist. He was just the type of Southerner who, with a little more ambition, and close application to books, might have become a leading lawyer and risen finally to a seat in Congress. But John Westerfelt had never been made to see the necessity of exertion on his part. Things had come easily ever since he could remember, and his wants were simple, and, in his own way, he enjoyed life, suffering sharply at times, as he did this morning, over his mistakes, for at heart he was not bad.

"Poor little girl," he said, as he went out on the front veranda to wait for his breakfast. "It was just blind thoughtlessness. I really never dreamt she was feeling that way. I've just got to make it lighter for her. To begin with, I'll never put my foot inside of Lithicum's gate, and I'll go over there this morning and try to make her see what a worthless scamp I really am. I wonder if I couldn't marry her-but, no, that wouldn't be right to her nor to me, for a man hasn't the moral right to marry a woman he doesn't really love, even if she thinks he is the only man on earth. I wonder if I really told her I loved her?" Here Westerfelt shuddered, and felt a flush of shame steal over his face. "Yes, I have-I have," he muttered, "and I reckon I really did fancy I cared for her at the time. Yes, I have been a contemptible coward; for my own idle enjoyment I have allowed her to go on counting on me until the thought of my going to see Lizzie Lithicum nearly kills her. Well, by George! I can cut that off, and I shall, too."

Just then, in looking across the meadow lying between his house and the main road, he saw the short form of Peter Slogan approaching.

"He's coming here," thought Westerfelt. "She has asked him to bring the letters, even before breakfast. That's the little woman's way of showing her pride. What a contemptible scoundrel I am!"

But as he continued to watch the approaching figure he was surprised to note that Slogan was displaying more energy than usual. The little, short man was taking long steps, and now and then jumping over an obstacle instead of going around it. And when he had reached the gate he leaned on it and stared straight at Westerfelt, as if he had lost his power of speech. Then it was that Westerfelt remarked that Slogan's face looked troubled, and that a general air of agitation rested on him.

"I wish you'd step out, if you please, John," he said, after a moment, "I've been walkin' so blamed fast I've mighty nigh lost my breath. I'm blowin' like a stump-suckin' hoss."

Westerfelt went to him.

"What is the matter, Slogan?" he questioned, in a tone of concern.

"We've had big trouble over our way," panted Slogan. "Sally fell off'n the foot-log into the creek this mornin' an' was drowned."

"Drowned! You don't mean that, Slogan!" cried Westerfelt, in horror; "surely there is some mistake!"

"No; she's as dead as a mackerel," Slogan answered. "She wasn't diskivered tell she'd been under water fer a good half-hour. She st

arted, as usual, about daybreak, over to her cousin, Molly Dugan's, fer a bucket o' fresh milk, an' we never missed 'er until it was time she was back, an' then we went all the way to Dugan's before we found out she hadn't been thar at all. Then her ma tuck up a quar notion, an' helt to it like a leech fer a long time. My hoss had got out o' the stable an' strayed off some'rs in the woods, an' Sally's mother firmly believed the gal had run off. I don't know why she 'lowed Sally would do sech a thing, but she did, and jest paced up an' down the yard yellin' an' takin' on an' beggin' us to go fetch her back, so that none of us at the house thought o' draggin' the hole at the foot-log. But Bill Dugan did, an' soon come with the news whar she was at. Then her ma jest had a spasm. I railly believe on my soul she cussed God an' all futurity. She raved till she was black in the face."

"Then there is-is no doubt about it?" gasped Westerfelt. "She is dead?"

"Of course she's dead," answered Slogan; "an' bein' as my hoss ain't to be had, I 'lowed I'd try to borrow one o' yore'n to go order the coffin." Slogan here displayed a piece of twine which he had wound into a coil. "I've got the exact length o' the body. I 'lowed that would be the best way. I reckon they kin tell me at the store how much play a corpse ort to have at each end. I've noticed that coffins always look longer, a sight, than the pusson ever did that was to occupy 'em, but I thought ef I tuck the exact measure-"

"Here's the stable key," interrupted Westerfelt, with a shudder. "Take any horse you want. You'll find saddles and bridles in the shed."

Slogan turned away, and Westerfelt walked back to the veranda. "My God!" he groaned; "why don't I know it was accident? If it was not, then may the Lord have mercy on my soul!"

He went into his room and threw himself on his bed and stared fixedly at the ceiling, a thousand conflicting thoughts crowding upon him. Presently he heard Slogan talking to the horse in the yard, and went out just as he was mounting.

"I wisht you'd hand me a switch, John," he said. "I don't want to be all day goin' an' comin'. I'll be blamed ef I ain't afeerd them two ol' cats 'll be a-fightin' an' scratchin' 'fore I get back. They had a time of it while the gal was alive, an' I reckon thar 'll be no peace at all now."

"Does Mrs. Dawson blame anybody-or-or-?" Westerfelt paused as if he hardly knew how to finish.

"Oh, I reckon the ol' woman does feel a leetle hard at us-my wife in particular, an'-an' some o' the rest, I reckon. You see, thar was a lot said at the quiltin' yesterday about Lizzie Lithicum a-cuttin' of Sally out, an' one thing or other, an' a mother's calculated to feel bitter about sech talk, especially when her only child is laid out as cold an' stiff as a poker."

Again Westerfelt shuddered; his face was ghastly; his mouth was drawn and his lips quivered; there was a desperate, appealing, shifting of his eyes.

"I reckon Mrs. Dawson feels hurt at me," he said, tentatively.

Slogan hesitated a moment before speaking.

"Well," he said, as if he felt some sort of apology should come from him, "maybe she does-a little, John, but the Lord knows you cayn't expect much else at sech a time, an' when she's under sech a strain."

"Did she mention any names?" questioned the young man, desperately; and while he waited for Slogan to speak a look of inexpressible agony lay in his eyes.

"I never was much of a hand to tote tales," said Slogan, "but I may as well give you a little bit of advice as to how you ort to act with the ol' woman while she is so wrought up. I wouldn't run up agin 'er right now ef I was you. She's tuck a funny sort o' notion that she don't want you at the funeral or the buryin'. She told me three times, as I was startin' off, to tell you not to come to the church nur to the grave. She was clean out o' her senses, an' under ordinary circumstances I'd say not to pay a bit of attention to 'er, but she's so upset she might liter'ly pounce on you like a wild-cat at the meetin'-house."

"Tell her, for me, that I shall respect her wish," said Westerfelt. "I shall not be there, Slogan. If she will let you do so, tell her I am sorry her daughter is-dead."

"All right, John, I'll do what I can to pacify 'er," promised Peter, as he took the switch Westerfelt handed him and started away.

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