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   Chapter 4 No.4

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 12641

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The cornfields had grown to their full height and turned from green to yellow. The stalks, stripped of their tops and blades, were bent by the weight of their ears. There was a whispering of breezes in the sedge-fields, in the long rows of brown-bolled cotton plants, among the fodder-stacks, and in the forest that stretched from the main road up the mountain-side. It was the season in which the rugged landscape appeared most brilliant; when the kalmia bloomed, the gentian, the primrose, the yellow daisy, the woodbine, and the golden-disked aster still lingered in sunny spots. It was the season in which the leaves of the maple were as red as blood.

John Westerfelt was leaving home, to take up his abode in the adjoining county over the mountain. As he sat upon his horse and slowly rode along, one who had known him six months before would scarcely have recognized him, so great had been the change in his appearance. His face was thinner; at the temples his hair had turned slightly gray, and an ineffable expression of restless discontent lay about his eyes. A sum of money had come to him from his father's estate, and with it he had purchased a livery-stable at the village of Cartwright. Ever since Sally Dawson's death, he had wanted an excuse to get away from the spot where the tragedy had occurred, and his leaving his farm to the management of his uncle now caused no particular comment among his neighbors.

Reaching the highest point of the mountain, the village in question lay in the valley below. Here he paused and looked behind him.

"God being my helper, I'm going to try to begin a new life over here," he said, almost aloud. "Surely, I have repented sorely enough, and this is not shirking my just punishment. A man ought to make something of himself, and I never could, in my frame of mind, with that poor, silent old woman constantly before my eyes, and knowing that she will never forgive my offence, and is perhaps constantly praying for some calamity to strike me down."

At the first house in the outskirts of the village he dismounted. A woman hearing his approach announced by a couple of lean dogs, which sprang from under the porch, came to the door. She smiled and spoke, but her voice was drowned in the yelping of the dogs, which were trying to climb over the fence to get at the stranger.

There was something admirable, if slightly discourteous, in the fearless manner in which Westerfelt leaned over the fence and, with the butt of his riding-whip, struck the animals squarely in the face, coolly laughing as he did so.

"You, Tige! you, Pomp!" cried the woman, running to them and picking up sticks and stones and hurling them at the animals, "down thar, I say!"

"They have forgotten me," said Westerfelt, with a laugh, as the dogs retreated behind the house, and he reached over the ramshackle gate to shake hands.

"But I hain't, John," she replied, cordially. "I wasn't lookin' fer you quite so soon, though. I reckon you must 'a' rid purty peert."

"Generally do," he made answer, "though I started early this morning, and lost half an hour at Long's shop, where I got my horse shod."

"Put up yore animal," she said. "That's the stable thar, an' you know better how to feed 'im 'an I do. Luke's gone down to the livery-stable to look atter things fer you, but he'll be back 'fore supper-time."

Westerfelt led his horse into the yard, and to the well near the door.

He pushed the bucket into the opening, and allowed the wooden windlass to fly round of its own accord till the bucket struck the water.

"Thirsty?" she asked. "I'll git the gourd."

He nodded. "And I want to water my horse; every branch and creek is bridged for the last ten miles."

While she was in the house he wound up the bucket, swearing at the horse for continually touching an inquisitive nose to his moving elbow. She returned with a great gourd dipper. He rinsed it out, and, filling it, drank long and deeply. Then he refilled the gourd and offered it to her.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "I forgot my politeness."

"I ain't dry," she said. "I was jest a-lookin' at you, John; you look so much older an' different-like."

"Oh, I reckon I'm all right," he said. "How's Luke?" emptying the bucket into the trough and watching the horse drink.

"As well as common; me an' him wus both bound fer you to git the livery-stable, an' we are glad the trade's closed. It will seem like ol' times to have a body from Fannin over heer. As soon as you writ the price you wus willin' to give in a lumpin' sum, Luke set to scheming. He ain't no fool, if I do say it. Horton an' Webb had the'r eyes on the stable, an' Luke thinks they'd a-raised his bid, but they 'lowed he wus biddin' fur himself, an' knowed he couldn't raise the money. Mis' Thorp wus in heer this mornin', an' she said Jasper Webb swore like rips when the administrator tol' 'im the trade wus closed with Luke as yore agent. You orter do well with the investment; you got it cheap; you know how to keep up stock, an' the hack-line will pay with the mail it carries an' the passenger travel twixt heer an' Darley."

"I'm satisfied," he said, and he took the saddle and bridle from his horse and turned the animal into the little log stable.

"Hain't you goin' to feed 'im?" she asked, hospitably, as he was closing the door; "the's some fodder overhead, an' the corn is in re'ch through the crack above the trough."

"Not yet," he returned; "I fed him some shelled corn at the shop. I'll give him a few ears at supper-time."

The slanting rays of the sun streamed from a saffron sky in the west and blazed in the red, yellow, and pink foliage on the mountain-side. The light brought into clearer outline the brown peaks and beetling crags that rose bleak and bare above the wealth of color, beyond the dark, evergreen stretches of pines and mountain cedars. The gorgeous tail of a peacock spread and gleamed under the cherry-trees in the back yard. A sleek calf was running back and forth in a little lot, and a brindled cow was bellowing mellowly, her head thrown up as she cantered down the road, her heavy bag swinging under her.

At the sight of the woman a flock of ducks, chickens, and geese gathered round her. She shooed the fowls away with her apron. "They want the'r supper," s

he said, as she led her guest back to the front yard. She went to the gate and looked down the road. "I see Luke at the branch," she added, coming back to him; "he'd be on faster ef he knowed you wus heer."

Luke Bradley was about fifty years of age. He had blue eyes, a long body, long arms, and long legs. His hair was reddish brown and his face florid and freckled. He walked with a shambling gait, stooped considerably, and swung his arms. He seldom wore a coat, and on days as mild as this his shirt-sleeves were always rolled up. He presented a striking contrast to John Westerfelt, who, by the people of that remote section, might have been considered something of a swell.

"How are you, ol' hoss?" Bradley laughed, as he swung the sagging gate open and grasped his friend's hand. "Glad to see you; I've done nothin' but fight tongue battles fer you all day. Webb has been cussin' me black an' blue fer biddin' agin 'im fer a stranger, but thar's one consolation-we've got 'im on the hip."

Westerfelt laughed pleasantly as he followed his host into the sitting-room. "Much obliged to you, Luke. I'm glad I took your advice about the investment."

"Me'n Marthy wus both dead set on gettin' you over heer," Luke said, as he placed a chair for Westerfelt in front of the fire. "Both of us 'low a change will do you good."

Mrs. Bradley sat down in a corner and spread out her ample homespun skirt and began to run the hem of her apron through her fat, red fingers.

"Me'n Luke's been talkin' it over," she said, with some embarrassment; "we 'lowed you mought mebby be willin' to put up with us; we've got a spare room, an' you know about how we live. You've lied unmercifully ef you don't like my cookin'," she concluded, with an awkward little laugh.

"I never lie," he retorted, smiling. "It's been a year since I ate at your house, but I can taste your slice-potato pie yet, and your egg-bread and biscuits, ugh!"

She laughed. "You'll stay, then?"

"I'm afraid not. I've packed up some pieces of furniture-a bed and one thing or other-and I calculated that I'd occupy the room over the stable. I'd like to be near my business. I reckon I can get my meals down at the hotel. I'll stay with you to-night, though; the wagon won't come till to-morrow."

"Well, I'm disappointed, shore 'nough," said Mrs. Bradley. "I had clean forgot the room at the stable, an' I ought to 'a' knowed, too, that Saunders' boys bunked thar. Well, I won't raise no objections; Mis' Boyd, a widow woman, is keepin' the hotel now, and folks say she feeds well an' cheap enough. She's from Tennessee, an's got a good-lookin', sprightly daughter. Nobody knows a thing about 'em; they don't talk much about the'rse'ves. They tuk the hotel when Rick Martin sold out last fall, an' they've been thar ever sence."

Supper was served in the room adjoining the kitchen. After it was over, Westerfelt and his host went back to the sitting-room. Alf, a colored farm-hand, was heaping logs on the old-fashioned dog-irons in the wide fireplace, and a mass of fat pine burning under the wood lighted the room with a soft red glow.

Westerfelt looked round him in surprise. While they were at supper the carpet had been taken up, the floor swept clean, and a number of chairs placed against the wall round the room.

"Marthy's doin's," Bradley explained, sheepishly; "don't hold me accountable; she's arranged to give you a shindig to introduce you to the young folks round about."

Just then Mrs. Bradley came in.

"Sweep the hearth, Alf," she said, pointing to a live coal that had popped out on the floor. "Didn't I tell you never to put on them chestnut logs? Do you want to burn the roof over our heads? Give it to me!" She snatched the unwieldy bundle of broomstraw from him. "Go tell Mis' Snow I'm much obleeged fer the cheers, an' ef I need any more I'll send fer um after 'while. Tell 'er ef she don't let Mary an' Ella come I'll never set foot in her house agin."

"What's all this for?" asked Westerfelt.

"You." She slapped him familiarly on the arm. "I'm goin' to give you a mount'in welcome. This settlement is full o' nice gals, an' you hain't the least idee how much excitement thar's been sence the report went out that you are gwine to live amongst us. I'm the most popular woman in Cartwright, jest beca'se I know you. I tell you I've been blowin' yore horn. I've talked a sight about you, an' you must do yore best an' look yore purtiest. Oh, yore clothes is all right!" (seeing that he was looking doubtfully at his boots and trousers). "They hain't a dressy set over heer." Her husband was leaving the room, and she waited till he had closed the door after him. "I want to talk to you like a mother, John," she said, sitting down near him and holding the bundle of broom between her knees. "The truth is, I've had a sight o' worry over you. I often lie awake at night thinkin' about you, an' wonderin' ef yore ma wouldn't blame me ef she wus alive fer not lookin' atter you more. I've heerd what a solitary life you've been livin' sence she died. God knows she wus a big loss, an' it does bring a great change to part with sech a friend, but, from what I heer, you let 'er death bother you most too much. Why, folks tell me you hain't at all like you used to be, an' that you jest stayed at home an' never went about with the young folks any more. You don't look as well as you did the last time I seed you, nuther. I reckon it's yore way o' living but you jest sha'n't do that away over heer. You've got to be natural like other young folks, an' you jest shall, ef I have anything to say in the matter. John, yore mamma was the best friend I ever had, an'-"

She paused. Luke was hallooing to some one down the road, and

Westerfelt heard the rumble of wheels over a distant bridge. Mrs.

Bradley went to the door and went out.

"They are comin', the whole caboodle of 'em!" she cried, excitedly. "I declare, I believe I enjoy a party as much as any gal that ever lived, an' at my age, too-it's shameful. I'd be talked about in some places." She laid her hands on the shoulders of her guest, her face beaming. "Now, ef you want to primp up a little an' bresh that hoss-hair off'n yore pants, go in yore room. It's at the end o' the back porch. Alf's already tuck yore saddle-bags thar."

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