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   Chapter 5 No.5

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 21853

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


His room was a small one. It had a sloping ceiling, and a little six-paned window. A small, oblong stove stood far enough back in the capacious fireplace to allow its single joint of pipe to stand upright in the chimney. There was a high-posted bed, a wash-stand, a mirror, and a split-bottomed chair.

He sat down in the chair, rested his elbows on his knees, and leaned forward. Despite his determination to begin life anew, he was thinking of Sally Dawson's death and burial-the old woman who was leading the life of a recluse, and hating all her kind, him in particular. He put his hand in his coat-pocket and drew out a thick envelope containing the dead girl's letter, and read it as he had done almost every day since it came to him. It was part of the punishment he was inflicting on himself. He had been tempted a thousand times to destroy the letter, but had never done so. He forgot that a gay party of young people were assembling in the next room; he was oblivious of the noise of moving chairs, the creaking floor, loud laughter, and the hum of voices. Fate had set him aside from the rest of the world, he told himself; he was living two lives, one in the present, the other in the past.

Westerfelt was suddenly reminded of where he was by the sound of some one tuning a fiddle in the sitting-room. He put the letter into his pocket, rose, and brushed his hair before the mirror. There was a clatter of heavy boots in the entry opposite his door; four or five young men had come out to wash their hands in the pans on the long shelf; they were passing jokes, laughing loudly, and playfully striking at one another. Two of them clinched arms and began to wrestle. Westerfelt heard them panting and grunting as they swayed back and forth, till the struggle was ended by one of them shoving the other violently against the wall; Westerfelt opened the door. A stout, muscular young giant was pinning a small man to the weather-boarding and making a pretence at choking him.

"Lord, H'ram, stop!" gasped the victim; "yore sp'ilin' my necktie an' collar."

"'Gin the rules to wear 'em," was the laughing reply. "Heer, Joe, you sprinkle 'im while I hold 'im!"

This command was about to be obeyed, when Mrs. Bradley suddenly appeared.

"Boys, boys, behave!" she cried, and as the wrestlers separated she continued, apologetically, "I clean forgot thar wusn't a sign of a towel on the roller; I wonder what you intended to wipe on; here, take this one, an' hang it up when you're through." Then she turned to Westerfelt's door and looked into his room.

"Are you ready, young man?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied, coming out.

"Gentlemen," she said, "quit thar a minute! This is John Westerfelt, my old friend. Mind you look atter yore intrusts. The boys over in Fannin know how to please the gals. Ef you don't watch sharp he'll cut you every one out."

The two men holding the towel between them gave him their moist hands, and those at the basins nodded. Mrs. Bradley drew him into the sitting-room. The buzz of conversation ceased as she introduced him. They all rose, bowed, and sat down again, but no one spoke. He tried to detain his hostess, but she would not stay.

"I've got to look atter the rest," she said. "You must talk to some o' these folks. They didn't come here jest to look at you. Here, Jennie Wynn, turn yore face round, an' give Frank a chance to talk to Lou." She whisked off into another room, and Westerfelt found himself facing a blushing maiden with a round face, dark hair and eyes.

"Excuse my back," she said over her shoulder to Frank Hansard.

"It hain't as purty as yore face, ef you have got on a new dress," he replied, laughing.

"Hush, Frank; hain't you got no manners?" She meant that he was showing discourtesy by continuing to talk to her when she had just been introduced to a stranger.

"You ought not to be hard on him," said Westerfelt; "he must have meant what he said."

"You are jest like all the rest, I reckon," she said; "men think girls don't care for nothin' but sweet talk."

Just then the old negro fiddler moved into the chimney-corner and raked his violin with his bow. Jennie Wynn knew that he was about to ask the couples to take their places for the first dance. She did not want Westerfelt to feel obliged to ask her to be his partner, so she pretended to be interested in the talk of a couple on her left.

"Do they dance the lancers?" asked Westerfelt.

"No, jest the reg'lar square dance. Only one or two know the lancers, an' they make a botch of it whenever they try to teach the rest. Uncle Mack cayn't play the music for it, anyway, though he swears he can."

She glanced across the room at a pretty little girl with short curly hair, slender body, and small feet, and added, significantly, "Sarah Wambush is our brag dancer."

He understood what she meant. "Too short for a fellow as tall as I am, though," he said.

"Git yo' pahtners fer de quadrille!" cried the fiddler, in a sing-song voice, quite in harmony with his music. Westerfelt did not want to dance. He had ridden hard that day, and was tired and miserable, but he saw no way of escape. The party had been given in his honor, and he must show appreciation of it.

"Will you dance it with me?" he asked the girl at his side. "I am not a good dancer, and I am stiff from riding to-day."

"Old Mack will soon take that out of you," she laughed, as she gladly nodded her acceptance. She put out her hand to his. "Quick!" she cried; "let's git that place near the door-it's head, and we can be opposite Sarah and Nelse Baker." He followed her across the room. He felt as undignified as if he were romping with a child. The room was not large enough for two sets, so only one of four couples was formed. Old Mack noticed that three couples were left sitting, and cried out, autocratically, "Double on de sides!" Two couples sprang eagerly forward and took places, leaving one couple alone in a corner. The girl remaining with her partner attracted Westerfelt's attention. She had rich brown hair, deep gray eyes, a small, well-shaped mouth, and a rather sad but decidedly pretty face. There was something very graceful and attractive in the general contour of her body-her small waist, her broad shoulders and rounding chest, her well-formed head, and the artistic arrangement of her abundant hair. There was something, too, in the tasteful simplicity of her gray tailor-made gown that reminded Westerfelt of the dress of young ladies he had seen on short visits to the larger towns in the State.

Her companion was the most conspicuous person in the room. He was above medium height, and had a splendid physique-broad shoulders, muscular limbs, light brown eyes, short brown beard, and long curling hair. He wore a navy-blue sack-coat, large checked trousers tucked in the tops of his boots, a gray woollen shirt, and a broad leather belt. He was the only man in the room who had not taken off his hat. It was very broad, the brim was pinned up on one side by a little brass ornament, and he wore it on the back of his head.

Westerfelt caught the eye of his partner, and asked: "Who is the fellow with the hat on?"

"Don't you know him?" she asked, in surprise. "Why, that's Toot

Wambush, Sarah's brother."

"Why don't he take off his hat?"

"For want of better sense, I reckon." Then she laughed, impulsively. "I'll tell you why he always keeps it on in the house. He was at a party over at Sand Bank last spring, an'-"

"Han's to yo' pahtners!" cried out Uncle Mack, as he drew his bow across three or four strings at once, producing a harmony of bass, alto, and treble sounds. "Salute de lady on yo' right!"

Whack!

The bridge of the fiddle had fallen. Everybody laughed over Uncle Mack's discomfiture, as he rubbed the rosin out of his eyes and grunted, half amused, half vexed at the accident. He held the violin between his knees and proceeded to adjust the bridge.

"You were telling me why that fellow keeps on his hat," Westerfelt reminded his partner.

"Oh yes!" laughed the girl, "that's so. Toot's never satisfied if he ain't in a row o' some sort. He will always manage to pick a quarrel out of something. He's mighty troublesome, especially when he's drinkin'. He was pretty full over there that night, an' kept dancin' with his hat on. Mis' Lumpkin, who give the dance, asked 'im quietly to take it off an' behave like a gentleman. That made 'im mad, an' he swore he'd die first. Then some o' the boys tuk Mis' Lumpkin's part, an' tol' 'im the hat would come off ur he'd go out. It 'ud be a treat to see Toot Wambush mad if you could feel sure you wouldn't get hit. He clamped his hands together behind 'im an' yelled to Uncle Mack to stop fiddlin'; then he 'lowed ef any man thar tried to oust 'im he'd put windows in 'im. Frank Hansard, Lum Evans, and Andy Treadwell made signs at one another an' closed in on 'im. They didn't fully realize who they had to deal with, though. I hain't got much use for Toot, but he'll fight a circular saw bare-handed. He backed into a corner over a pile o' split pine-knots an' grabbed one that Thad Muntford declared wuz shaped like the jaw-bone o' Samson's ass. It had a long handle an' weighed about fifteen pounds. On my word, it seemed to me he slugged Frank and Andy at exactly the same time. You could 'a' heerd the'r skulls pop to the gate. They both fell kerflop in front of 'im. That left jest Lum Evans facin' 'im 'thout a thing in his hands. He dodged Toot's pine-knot when he swung it at 'im an' then Toot laughed an' thowed it down and shook his fists at 'im, an' tol' 'im to come on for a fair fisticuff. Jest then Frank come to an' started to rise, but Toot sent 'im back with a kick in the face, an' helt 'im down with 'is boot on 'is neck. Andy backed out of the door, an' then Toot ordered Uncle Mack to play, an' tried to get the girls to dance with 'im, but nobody would, so he danced by 'isse'f, while Doc White an' Mis' Lumpkin worked on the wounded men in the next room. Since then Toot has al'ays wore his hat at dances. He swore he never would go to one unless he did."

Westerfelt laughed. "Who's the young lady?" he asked.

"Harriet Floyd. Her mother keeps the hotel. They 'ain't been here so mighty long; they're Tennessee folks."

"Sweethearts?"

"Don't know. He's 'er very shadder. I reckon she likes that sort of a man; she's peculiar, anyway."

"How do you mean?"

"I don't know, but she is." Jennie shrugged her shoulders. "She don't git on with us. In a crowd o' girls she never has much to say; it always seemed to me she was afraid somebody would find out some'n' about 'er. She never mentions Tennessee. But she's a great favorite with all the boys. They'd be a string o' 'em round 'er now, but they don't want to make Toot mad."

"Right han' ter yo' pahtners," called out Uncle Mack, rapping on the back of his fiddl

e with his bow. "Salute yo' pahtners; balance all!" and the dance began. "Swing corners! Fust fo' for'ards, en back agin!"

"Faster, Unc' Mack!" cried Sarah Wambush, as she swung past the old negro. "That hain't the right time!"

"Wait till he gets limbered up," cried Frank Hansard across to her. "He hain't drawed a bow in two weeks, an' has been ploughin' a two-hoss turnover."

Louder and louder grew the music and the clatter of shoes and boots. The air was filled with dust; old Mack's fiddle could hardly be heard above his shouts and the laughter of the dancers. Luke and Mrs. Bradley stood in the open door leading to the kitchen, both smiling. Mrs. Bradley seemed pleased with the ease with which Westerfelt appeared to be adapting himself to the company.

"Git the straws, Luke!" urged Frank Hansard, as the "grand chain" brought him near Bradley. "Give it to us lively."

"I can't beat straws," said Luke.

Hearing this, old Mack uttered a contradictory guffaw, and shook his gray wool in high amusement.

"Go on, Luke," said his wife, as she pushed him towards the fiddler; "you kin, you know you kin."

Luke edged round between the dancers and the fire, and took two smooth sour-wood sticks from Mack's coat-pocket. The old negro laughed and sang all the louder as he held his head to one side and Luke began to thrum the strings in time to the music.

"Whoo-ee!" shouted Frank, and the dance waxed faster and more noisy, till the exhausted fiddler brought it to an end by crying out:

"Seat yo' pahtners."

Jennie sat down in a row of girls against the wall, and Mrs. Bradley came to Westerfelt.

"You must stir round," she said; "I want you to git acquainted. Come over here an' talk to Sarah Wambush." He followed her across the room. Sarah was seated next to Harriet Floyd. As he sat down near Sarah, he fancied that Harriet, whose profile was towards him, gave him a glance out of the corner of her eye, but she turned her head and continued talking to Toot Wambush. There was something he liked in the ease of her position as she sat, balling her handkerchief in a hand hidden half in the pocket of her jacket. He thought her easily the prettiest girl in the room, and he vaguely resented the fact that she was receiving marked attention from a man of Wambush's character.

He wanted to knock the fellow's hat off, and tell him that a new man had come into the settlement who could not, and would not, stand such nonsense in the presence of ladies.

He listened to Sarah's prattle with only half an ear, adding a word now and then to keep her tongue going, till another dance was called. Nelse Baker asked Sarah to be his partner, and she rose. Finding himself alone, Westerfelt got up. As he did so, he caught another glance from the corner of Harriet Floyd's eye, but she looked away quickly. She thought he was going to ask her to dance with him when he turned towards her, but he had decided to invite a little plain girl who sat next the wall, hemmed in by the crossed legs of Wambush. The girl flushed over the unexpected attention and rose at once.

"That couple don't seem to be dancing," Westerfelt remarked, with a glance at Wambush and Harriet, as he and his partner took a place in front of the fire.

"No," she answered. "Toot sorter sprained his foot at a log-rollin' to-day."

"And she won't dance without him, is that it?"

"She would, but none o' the boys won't ask her when Toot's on hand."

"Ah, I see-engaged?"

"No. I reckon not; but Toot sorter lays claim to 'er though."

"And she don't object?"

She looked up and laughed. "It don't look much like it, does it?"

"I don't know; I never saw them together before."

"Oh, I see; well, he's her regular stand-by; he takes 'er to all the frolics, an' the picnics, an' to meetin'. He lives out at his father's, a mile or so from town, but he gets meals mighty often at the hotel."

As the dance began Westerfelt glanced again at Harriet Floyd. He could not explain the interest he had in her. She was looking straight into his eyes, as if she had divined that he was talking about her. He was almost certain that she colored slightly as she glanced on to Mrs. Bradley.

Mrs. Bradley smiled and moved towards her, between the wall and the flying heels of the revolving circle. Westerfelt, in turning his "lady on the right," came near them as Mrs. Bradley was saying:

"I want you to get acquainted with my Fannin young man, Harriet. He's mighty nice."

At that moment Harriet caught Westerfelt's eye again, and knew that he had heard the remark.

She nodded, and said, evasively, "You are having a nice dance, Mrs.

Bradley; they all seem to be enjoying it very much."

Westerfelt had not heard her voice before, and he liked it. He noticed that she did not leave off her final g's, and that she spoke more clearly and correctly than the others. He concluded that she must have received a better education than the average young lady in that section. The dance was nearly ended when Westerfelt saw Wambush bend over and whisper something to her. She nodded, drew her white shawl round her shoulders, rose, and followed him out through the kitchen.

"Gone to try the moonlight," remarked the little gossip at Westerfelt's side, with a knowing smile.

"All promenade!" shouted the fiddler, the dance being over. The couples went outside. They passed Wambush and Harriet on the porch, leaning against the banisters in the moonlight. Her head was covered with her shawl, and her companion was very near her.

"Never mind; we won't bother you," called out Sarah Wambush, who, with Nelson Baker, led the promenaders. "We're goin' down the walk; you needn't run off on our account."

All the others laughed, and Sarah, thinking she had said something bright, added: "Harriet's got a bad cold, an' Buddy's sprained his foot; they're takin' the'r medicine."

This evoked another laugh, but neither Wambush nor his companion heeded it. Westerfelt observed that they turned their backs to the promenaders and seemed to be talking earnestly.

"It's cool out here," said Westerfelt's partner as they were returning from the walk under the arbor of grape-vines. "They are all goin' inside."

At about twelve o'clock the guests began to leave. Harriet Floyd, followed by Wambush, came in hurriedly after most of the others had gone. Westerfelt was near Mrs. Bradley when she came to say good-night. He heard her say she had enjoyed herself very much, but she spoke hurriedly, as if she did not want to be the last to leave. Westerfelt watched them go through the gate, but he turned away when Wambush put his arm round her waist and lifted her lightly into his buggy.

He was sure he would never like the fellow.

Just before Westerfelt went to bed, Bradley looked into his room.

"I 'lowed I'd better take a peep at that stove o' yore'n, an' see that thar ain't any danger o' fire while we are asleep," he said. "How'd you make out to-night?"

"First rate."

"I 'lowed you wus gittin' on well enough-talked to most all the gals,

I reckon."

"All but one, I think-that Miss Floyd."

"Ah, Toot's gal; mortgaged property, I reckon, or soon will be; she's as purty as red shoes, though, an' as peert as a cricket."

Westerfelt sat down on the side of his bed and drew off his boots.

"What sort of a man is he, Luke?"

"Bad-bad; no wuss in seven States."

"Fighting man?"

"Yes; an' whiskey an' moonshinin' an' what not; ain't but one good p'int in 'im, an' that hain't wuth much in time o' peace. I reckon ef yo're through with it, I'd better take yore candle; sometimes I have to strike a light 'fore day."

"All right." Westerfelt got into the bed and drew the covers up to his chin. There was a thumping on the floor beneath the house.

"It's the dogs," explained Luke, at the door. "They are a-flirtin' the'r tails about. They'll settle down terrectly. What time do you want to rise in the mornin'?"

"When you do. I'm no hand to lie in bed."

"You'll have to crawl out with the chickens then."

"Luke!"

Bradley turned at the door. "What is it, John?"

"I don't like Wambush's looks."

Bradley laughed, with his hand over his mouth. "Nobody else does to hurt."

"Do you think he would trifle with the affections of a young girl?"

"Would he?" Again Bradley laughed.

"Well, I reckon he would; he is a bad man, I tell you. We'd never 'low him to enter our house, ef we could help it, but he'd raise the very devil ef he was slighted. We'd never heer the end of it. Ef we'd left 'im out to-night I'd 'a' had 'im to fight out thar in the front yard while the party was goin' on. I wouldn't mind it much, but my wife never wanted me in a row."

"This girl he was with to-night, has she father or brothers?"

"No, the's jest her an' 'er mother."

"Isn't it pretty risky for her to go with him so much?"

"Oh, I reckon she kin take care o' herse'f; she has that look to me; besides, she's been warned; my wife an' among 'em has talked to her plenty o' times. I reckon she knows what he is well enough. Do you know I had my eye on you an' her to-night?"

"What do you mean, Luke?" Westerfelt managed to avoid meeting the eye of his host as he put the question. He could not remember ever having waited for a reply with more concern.

"Oh, I don't know," smiled Bradley, knowingly; "but somehow you an' her seemed to me to be head an' shoulders above the rest o' that silly crowd. The idee just popped into my head that you'd make a spankin' team, an' then ag'in" (Bradley laughed) "I tuck notice that you never went up to 'er an' talked to her free-like, as you did to most o' the rest, an' I remembered I wus jest that big a fool when I fust met Marthy. But you wus a-watchin' of her, though. I'll bet ef you looked at 'er once you did forty times. As for her, I happen to know some'n funny. You see, I heerd her an' Wambush a-talkin' on the back porch when I went out thar to draw up a bucket o' water. The rope had got tangled somehow, an' I had to fix it, an' while I was doin' of it I couldn't help heerin' what they said, beca'se Toot wus as mad as a wet hen, an' didn't keer a dern who heerd 'im."

"Mad-at her?" ejaculated Westerfelt.

"Yes; it seemed that he had bantered her to say what she thought about you, an' she'd up an' told him you wus about the best-lookin' man she'd ever seed, an' that you looked like a born gentleman, an' one thing anuther. I couldn't heer all that passed betwixt 'em, but he wus as nigh a' explosion as I ever seed 'im git without goin' off. You'd better look out. He won't do to meddle with. He's a bad egg-an' tricky."

When Bradley had gone, leaving his guest in the dark, Westerfelt found himself unable to sleep for thinking of what Luke had said.

"I wonder, really," he mused, "why I didn't talk to her as I did to the others, for I certainly wanted to bad enough."

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