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   Chapter 3 No.3

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 10983

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When Slogan had ridden off through the mild spring sunshine, Westerfelt saddled another horse and rode out of the gate towards the road leading away from the house containing Sally Dawson's remains. He hardly had any definite idea of whither he was going. He had only a vague impression that the movement of a horse under him would to some degree assuage the awful pain at his heart, but he was mistaken; the pangs of self-accusation were as sharp as if he were a justly condemned murderer. His way led past the cross-roads store, which contained the post-office. Two men, a woman, and a child stood huddled together at the door. They were talking about the accident; Westerfelt knew that by their attitudes of awed attention and their occasional glances towards Mrs. Dawson's. He was about to pass by when the storekeeper signalled to him and called out:

"Mail fer you, Mr. Westerfelt; want me to fetch it out?"

Westerfelt nodded, and reined in and waited till the storekeeper came out with a packet. "It must 'a' been drapped in after I closed last night," he said. "Thar wasn't a thing in the box 'fore I went home, an' it was the only one thar when I unlocked this mornin'. Mighty bad news down the creek, ain't it?" he ended. "Powerful hard on the old woman. They say she's mighty nigh distracted."

Making some unintelligible reply, Westerfelt rode on, the packet held tightly in his hand. It was addressed in Sally Dawson's round, girlish handwriting, and he knew it contained his letters, and perhaps-he shuddered at the thought of what else it might contain.

He whipped his horse into a gallop. He wanted to reach a spot where he could open the package unobserved. He met several wagons and a buggy. They contained people who bowed and spoke to him, but he scarcely saw them. At the first path leading from the road into the wood he turned aside, and then opened his package. There were three or four letters and notes he had written the dead girl, and one blotted sheet from her. With a quaking soul he read it. It confirmed him in the fear which had taken hold of him at the first news of the tragedy. The letter ran:

"DEAR JOHN,-I simply cannot stand it any longer. It is now about three in the morning. Some people contend that such acts are done only by crazy folks, but I don't believe I ever was more sensible than I am right now. I am not ashamed to own that I had my heart and soul set on being your wife and making you happy, but now that I know you didn't feel a bit like I did, an' love Lizzie, I jest can't stand it. The pain is awful-awful. I could not meet folks face to face, now that they know the truth. I'd rather die a hundred deaths than see you an' her even once together. I couldn't live long anyway. I'm simply too weak and sick at heart. The hardest thing of all is to remember that you never did care for me all the time I was making such a little fool of myself. I know you never did. Folks said you was changeable, but I never once believed it till last night on the road. I have fixed it so everybody will think my death was accidental. I've been warned time and again about that foot-log, and nobody will suspicion the truth. You must never mention it to a soul. It is my last and only request. It would go harder with mother if she knew that. Good-bye, John. I love you more right now than I ever did, and I don't know as I blame you much or harbor much resentment. I thought I would not say anything more, but I cannot help it. John, Lizzie is not the woman for you. She never will love you deep, or very long. Good-bye.

"SALLY."

Westerfelt put the letter in his pocket and turned his horse into an unfrequented road leading to the mountain and along its side. The air was filled with the subtle fragrance of growing and blooming things. He was as near insanity as a man can well be who still retains his mental equipoise. In this slow manner, his horse picking his way over fallen trees and mountain streams, he traversed several miles, and then, in utter desolation, turned homeward.

It was noon when he came in sight of his house. Peter Slogan had returned the horse, and, with a parcel under his arm, was trudging homeward. All that night Westerfelt lay awake, and the next morning he did not leave his room, ordering the wondering servant not to prepare any breakfast for him. He did not want to show himself on the veranda or in the front yard, thinking some neighbor might stop and want to talk over the tragedy. There were moments during this solitary morning that he wished others knew the secret of Sally Dawson's death. It seemed impossible for him to keep the grewsome truth locked in his breast-it made the happening seem more of a crime. And then an awful thought dawned upon him. Was it not a way God had of punishing him, and would there ever be any end to it?

From his window he had a clear view of Mrs. Dawson's house. There was a group of people in their best clothes on the porch, and considerable activity about the front yard, to the fence of which a goodly number of horses and mules were hitched. The little church, with its gray, weather-beaten spire, could also be seen farther away, on a slight elevation. It had a fence around it, and blended with the whiteness of the fence were a few gravestones.

About eleven o'clock Westerfelt saw a negro boy climb a ladder leaning against the side of the church and creep along the edge of the roof to the open cupola and grasp the clapper of the cast-iro

n bell. Then it began to toll. The boy was an unpractised hand, and the strokes were irregular, sometimes too slow and sometimes too rapid.

It was a signal for the procession to leave the house. Westerfelt's eyes were glued to the one-horse wagon at the gate, for it contained the coffin, and was moving like a thing alive. Behind it walked six men, swinging their hats in their hands. Next followed Slogan's rickety buggy with its threatening wheels, driven by Peter. The bent figure of the widow in black sat beside him. Other vehicles fell in behind, and men, women, and children on foot, carrying wild flowers, dogwood blossoms, pink and white honeysuckle, and bunches of violets, brought up the rear.

Westerfelt was just turning from the window, unable to stand the sight longer, when he saw Abner Lithicum's new road-wagon, with its red wheels and high green bed, in which sat the five women of his family, pause at his gate. Going out on the veranda, Westerfelt saw Abner coming up the walk, cracking his wagon-whip at the stunted rose-bushes.

"Hello!" he cried out; "I 'lowed mebby you hadn't left yet. It 'll be a good half-hour 'fore they all get thar an' settled. The preacher promised me this mornin' he'd wait on me an' my folks. It takes my gals sech a' eternity to fix up when they go anywhar."

"Won't you come in?" asked Westerfelt, coldly, seeing that Lithicum did not seem to be in any hurry to announce the object of his visit.

"Oh no, thanky'," said Lithicum, with a broad grin; "the truth is, I clean forgot my tobacco. I knowed you wasn't a chawin' man, but yore uncle is, an' he mought have left a piece of a plug lyin' round. My old woman tried to git me to use her snuff as a make-shift, but lawsy me! the blamed powdery truck jest washes down my throat like leaves in a mill-race. I never could see how women kin set an' rub an' rub the'r gums with it like they do. I reckon it's jest a sort o' habit."

"I'm sorry," said Westerfelt, "but I don't know where my uncle keeps his tobacco."

"Well, I reckon I'll strike some chawin' man down at the meetin'-house." Lithicum stood, awkwardly cutting the air with his whip. "Railly, thar is one thing more," he said, haltingly. "Lizzie 'lowed, as thar was a' extra seat in our wagon, you might like to come on with us. She said she had some'n' particular to tell you."

"Tell her I am not going," said Westerfelt, sharply. "I am not going."

"Oh, you ain't!" Lithicum looked his surprise both at the decision and at the unaccountable coldness of the young man's manner, which he had not noticed till now. "Well, so long, Mr. Westerfelt, I reckon you know yore own business, but I 'lowed everybody would turn out, through respect to all concerned, if nothin' else."

"I am not going; it is impossible for me to go," answered Westerfelt, and he turned abruptly into the house.

Alone in his room, Westerfelt took Sally Dawson's last letter from his pocket and read it again. Then he lighted a match and started to burn it, but some inward fear seemed to check him, and the match burned down to his rigid fingers and went out. "No," he said, "that would be cowardly. I shall keep it always, to remind me of my hellish mistake. Great God! the idea of my going to her funeral in a red wagon with Lizzie Lithicum-Lizzie Lithicum!"

The next morning, as he was returning from the post-office, Westerfelt met Peter Slogan riding to a field he had rented down the road, and which he was getting ready for cotton-planting. Slogan was astride of his bony horse, which was already clad in shuck collar and clanking harness, and carried on his shoulder a cumbersome plough-stock.

"Well," he smiled, reining in as he caught Westerfelt's eye, "I 'lowed hard work in the sun would do more to git the kinks out'n me after all the trouble at my house than anything else."

"How is Mrs. Dawson?" ventured Westerfelt.

"You'd better ax me how she ain't," retorted Slogan, shrugging his shoulders. "I could tell you a sight easier. She's turned into a regular hell-cat. I thought her an' my wife was bad enough 'fore the trouble, but it's wuss now. The ol' woman has left us."

"Left you?" repeated Westerfelt. "What do you mean?"

"Why, she says she won't sleep an' eat in the same house with my wife, beca'se she give Sally advice, an'-an' one thing or nuther. The ol' woman has bought 'er some second-hand cookin' utensils-a oven an' a skillet an' a cup an' a plate or two, an' has moved 'er bed an' cheer into the Hilgard cabin down below us. She slept thar last night. It looks powerful like she's wrong in the upper-story. At fust she was all yells an' fury, but now she jest sulks an' hain't got one word to say to nobody. I went down thar last night an' tried to call 'er to the door, but she wouldn't stir a peg. As soon as she heerd me at the fence she blowed out 'er light an' wouldn't let on no more'n ef I was a dog a-barkin'. Now, I hold that she hain't got no call to treat me that away. I never tuck no hand in 'er disputes with my wife, an' ef hard things has been said about Sally, why they never come from me. Lord, I've got plenty else to think about besides gals an' women. I think I'm on track o' the skunk 'at stole my axe."

Westerfelt walked on. It was plain to him that none of the neighbors knew the secret of Sally Dawson's death, but he was beginning to think that the mother of the girl might half suspect the truth, and that she was his enemy for life he did not doubt.

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