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   Chapter 8 No.8

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 16696

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When Harriet returned she found Westerfelt lying face downward on the floor. In his fall he had unconsciously clutched and torn down the curtain, and like a shroud it lay over him. She was trying to raise him, when the door opened and her mother appeared.

"What's the matter, Harriet?"

"He has fainted-I don't know, he may be dead. Look, mother!"

Mrs. Floyd raised Westerfelt's head and turned his face upward.

"No, he's still breathing." She opened his shirt hastily. "His wound has not broken; we must get him to bed again. How did he happen to be here?"

"He got up as soon as the Whitecaps came; I couldn't persuade him to go back."

"We must carry him to the bed," said Mrs. Floyd. As they started to raise him, Westerfelt opened his eyes, took a long breath, and sat up. Without a word he rose to his feet, and between them was supported back to his bed.

"His feet are like ice," said Mrs. Floyd, as she tucked the blankets round him. "Why did you let him stand there?"

"It wasn't her fault, Mrs. Floyd," explained Westerfelt, with chattering teeth. "I knew they meant trouble, and thought I ought to be ready."

"You ought to have stayed in bed." Her eyes followed Harriet to the fireplace. "No, daughter," she said, "go lie down; I'll stay here."

"I'd rather neither of you would sit up on my account," protested Westerfelt; "I'm all right; I'll sleep like a log till breakfast. I don't want to be such a bother."

"You ain't a bit of trouble," replied Mrs. Floyd, in a tone that was almost tender. "We are only glad to be able to help. When I saw that cowardly scamp draw his pistol and knife on you, I could 'a' killed him. I've often told Harriet-"

"Mother, Mr. Westerfelt doesn't care to hear anything about him." Harriet turned from the fire and abruptly left the room. Mrs. Floyd did not finish what she had started to say. Westerfelt looked at her questioningly and then closed his eyes. She went to the fireplace and laid a stick of wood across the andirons, and then sat down and hooded her head with a shawl.

When Westerfelt awoke it was early dawn. The outlines of the room and the different objects in it were indistinct. At the foot of his bed he noticed something which resembled a heap of clothing on a chair. He looked at it steadily, wondering if it could be part of the strange dreams which had beset him in sleep. As the room gradually became lighter, he saw that it was a woman. Mrs. Floyd, he thought-but no, the figure was slighter. It was Harriet. She had taken her mother's place just before daybreak. Her head hung down, but she was not asleep. Presently she looked up, and catching his eyes, rose and came to him.

"How do you feel now?" She touched his forehead with her soft, cool hand.

"I'm all right; I'll be up to breakfast."

"No, you won't; you must not; it would kill you."

"Pshaw! That pin-scratch?" He playfully struck his breast near the wound. "He'd have to cut deeper and rip wider to do me up."

She stifled a cry and caught his hand.

"You must not be so foolish." She started to turn away, but his fingers closed over hers.

"I'm sorry. I'll mind what you say, because you've been so good to me. It seems mighty queer-Toot Wambush's girl takin' care of the very man he tried to wipe off of the face of creation. No wonder he-"

She twisted her hand from his clasp. "Why do you say I'm his girl?"

"Because they all do, I reckon; ain't you? Last night I heard him ask you to follow him."

"You never heard me say I would, did you?"

"No, but-"

"Well, then!" She went to the fireplace. He could not see her, but heard her stirring the fire with a poker, and wondered if her movement was that of anger or agitation, For several minutes neither of them spoke; then she came to him suddenly.

"I forgot," she said; "here's a newspaper and a letter. Will Washburn left them for you." She gave them to him and went to the window and raised the shade, flooding the room with the soft yellowing light from the east. Then she resumed her seat at the fire.

He opened his letter. The handwriting was very crude, and he did not remember having seen it before. Looking at the bottom of the last page, he saw that it was signed by Sue Dawson-Sally Dawson's mother. It was not dated, and began without heading of any kind. It ran thus:

"So you left this place fur new pastures. But I Will be sworn you went off cause you could not see the sun ashinin on my Childs grave nor meet her old broke down mother face to face. I have wanted to meet you ever since she died, but I helt in. The reason I sent you word not to come to the Funeral was cause I knowed ef I saw you thar I would jump right up before the people and drag you with yore yaller Pumpkin face full of gilt right up to her Box an make you look at yore work. It was not out of respect fur yore feelings that I did not, nuther, fur I dont respect you as much as I do a decent egg-suckin dog, but I was afraid folks would suspicion the pore Child's secret, the secret that me an you an nobody else knows, that she took her own life to git out of the misery you put her in. She did not want them to know, an they shall not; besides, thar are Folks in this cussed Settlement mean enough to begrudge her the grave Lot she has becase of what she was driv to.

"Thar is one thing I want you to stop. I dont want you to hire Peter Slogan with Blood money, nur nobody else, to haul wood fur me. I knowed you did send a load, fur he is too lazy to think of anybody but hisself without thar was money in it. I accused him of it after I had toted the last Stick back to yore land whar he got it. He tried to deny it, but I saw the lie in his face an shamed it. Dont you bother about me. I will live a powerful sight longer than you want me to before I am through with You. You will never forgit how Sally died, ef you did not look at her pore little face in death nur help the neighbors fill her grave up.

"John Westerfelt, you killed my Child as deliberately as ef you had choked the life out of her with yore Bare hands. You hung after her night and Day, even after she had been cautioned that you was fickle, an then when you got her whole soul an hart you deliberately left her an begun flyin around Liz Lithicum. I know yore sort. It is the runnin after a thing that amuses you, an as soon as you get it you turn agin it an spurn it under foot an laugh at it when it strugles in pain. Lawsy me. God Almighty dont inflict good men with that Disease, but you will have it nawin at yore Hart tel you run across some huzzy that will rule you her way. Beware, John Westerfelt, you will want to marry before long; you are a lonely, selfish Man, an you will want a wife an childern to keep you company an make you forget yore evil ways, but it is my constant prayer that you will never git one that loves you. I am prayin for that very thing and I believe it will come. John Westerfelt, I am yore Enemy-I am that ef it drags me into the Scorchin flames of hell.

"SUE DAWSON."

He refolded the letter, put it with quivering fingers back into its envelope, and then opened the newspaper and held it before his eyes. There was a clatter of dishes and pans in the back part of the house. A negro woman was out in the wood-yard, picking up chips and singing a low camp-meeting hymn. Now and then some one would tramp over the resounding floor, through the hall to the dining-room.

Harriet went to the door and closed it. Then she turned to him. The paper had slipped from his fingers and lay across his breast.

"What shall I get for your breakfast?" she asked. She moved round on the other side of the bed, wondering if it was the yellow morning light or his physical weakness that gave his face such a depressed, ghastly look.

"What did you say?" He stared at her absently.

"What would you like for breakfast?"

He looked towards his coat that hung on the foot of his bed.

"Don't bother about me; I'm going to get up."

"No, you must not." She caught his wrist. "Look how you are quivering; you ought not to have tried to read."

He raised the paper again, but it shook so that its rustling might have been heard across the room. She took it from him, and laid it on a chair by the bed. She looked away; the corners of his mouth were drawn down piteously and his lips wer

e twitching.

"Please hand me my coat," he said.

"You are not going to get up?" She sat down on the bed and put her hand on his brow. Her face was soft and pleading. It held a sweetness, a womanly strength he longed to lean upon.

He caught her hand and held it nervously.

"I don't believe I've got a single friend on earth," he said. "I don't deserve any; I'm a bad man."

"Don't talk that way," she replied. There was something in his plaintive tone that seemed to touch her deeply, for she took his hand in both of hers and pressed it.

"I don't want to die, for your sake," he said, "for if I was to go under, it would be awkward for your-your friend. He might really have to swing for it."

She released his hand suddenly, a pained look in her face. "Did you want to put your letter in your coat pocket?" she asked.

"Yes."

She took the coat from a chair, gave it to him, and then went back to the fireplace. He thrust his hand into the pocket and took out Sally Dawson's last letter, and put it and her mother's into the same envelope. As he was putting them away he found in the same pocket a folded sheet of paper. He opened it. It was a letter from John Wambush to his son Toot. Then Westerfelt remembered the paper Harriet had picked up and given him in the street after the fight. Hardly knowing why he did so, he read it. It was as follows:

"DEAR TOOT,-Me an yore mother is miserable about you. We have prayed for yore reform day and night, but the Lord seems to have turned a deef ear to our petitions. We hardly ever see you now an we are afraid you are goin to git into serious trouble. We want you to give up moonshinin, quit drinkin an settle down. We both think if you would jest git you a good wife you would act better. I wish you would go an marry that girl at the hotel-you know who I mean. I am as sorry for her as I ever was for anybody, for she dont think you love her much. She told me all about it the night the revenue men give you sech a close shave. I was standin on the hotel porch when you driv the wagon up with the whiskey barrel on it an I heerd them a-lopin along the road after you. I thought it was all up with you for I knowed they could go faster than you. Then I seed her run out on the back porch an help you roll the whiskey in the kitchen an close the door. An when the officers com up you was a-settin on the empty wagon talkin to her as if nothin had happened. I heard all the lies she told em about seein another wagon go whizzin down the road an I thought it was a great pity for her to do it, but she was doin it for a man she loved an I wouldent hold that agin her. A woman that loves as hard as she does would do a sight wuss than that if it was necessary. After you loaded the whiskey back on the wagon and got away to the woods, I went round an told her what I had seed an she bust out cryin an throwed her arms round my neck an said she loved you better than she did her own life an that she never would love any other man as long as breeth was in her body. Son, that night she come as nigh beggin me to git you to marry her as a proud girl could, an when I left I promised her I would talk to you about it. She's a good girl, Toot, and it would make a man of you to marry her. I like her mighty well an so does yore mother. Please do come out home soon. It looks like a pity for you to be away so much when it worries yore ma like it does.

"Yore affectionate father,

"JOHN WAMBUSH."

Westerfelt folded the letter deliberately, and then in a sudden spasm of jealous despair he crumpled it in his hand. He turned his head on the side and pressed down his pillow that he might see Harriet as she sat by the fire. The red firelight shone in her face. She looked tired and troubled.

"Poor girl!" he murmured. "Poor girl! Oh, God, have mercy on me! She loves him-she loves him!"

She looked up and caught his eyes. "Did you want anything?" she asked.

He gave the letter to her. "Burn it, please. I wish I had not read it."

She took it to the fire. The light of the blazing paper flashed on the walls, and then went out.

He remained so silent that she thought he was sleeping, but when she rose to leave the room she caught his glance, so full of dumb misery that her heart sank. She went to her mother in the kitchen. Mrs. Floyd was polishing a pile of knives and forks, and did not look up until Harriet spoke.

"Mother," she said, "I am afraid something has gone wrong with Mr.

Westerfelt."

"What do you mean?" asked the old lady in alarm.

"I don't know, but he got a letter this morning, and after he read it he seemed changed and out of heart. He gave it to me to burn, and I never saw such a desperate look on a human face. I know it was the letter, because before he read it he was so-so different."

"Well," said Mrs. Floyd, "it may be only some business matter that's troubling him. Men have all sorts of things to worry about. As for me, I've made a discovery, Harriet, at least I think I have."

"Why, mother!"

Mrs. Floyd put the knives and forks into the knife-box.

"Hettie Fergusson was here just now," she said.

"This early!" exclaimed Harriet, incredulously. "Why, mother, where did she spend the night?"

"At home; that's the curious part about it; she has walked all that three miles since daylight, if she didn't get up before and start through the dark. I never could understand that girl. All the time she was working here she puzzled me. She was so absent-minded, and would jump and scream almost when the door would open. I am glad we didn't need her help any longer. Sometimes I wish she had never come to the hotel."

Harriet stared wonderingly at her mother; then she said:

"Did she want to help us again?"

Mrs. Floyd laughed significantly.

"That's what she pretended she wanted, but she didn't have no more idea of working here than I have of flying through the air at this minute. Harriet, she is dead crazy in love with Toot Wambush. That is the truth about it."

"Why, mother, I can't believe it!" cried Harriet, her brow wrinkling in perplexity. "He hardly ever went with her or talked to her."

"He took her out home with him in a buggy six or seven times to my knowledge," declared Mrs. Floyd, "and there's no telling how often he saw her at home. He is awfully thick with her father. I never was fooled in a woman; she is in love with him, and right now she is worried to death about him. She couldn't hide her anxiety, and asked a good many round-about questions about where he was gone to, and if we knew whether the sheriff was hunting for him now, and if we thought Mr. Westerfelt would prosecute him."

Harriet laughed. "Well, I never dreamt there was a thing between those two. When he asked her to go with him in his buggy out home, I thought it was because she lived on the road to his father's, and that he just did it to accommodate her, and-"

"Oh, I've no doubt that is what he did it for, darling, but she was falling in love with him all the time, and now that he is in trouble, she can't hide it. Do you know her conduct this morning has set me to thinking? The night you and I spent over at Joe Long's I heard Wambush came very near being arrested with a barrel of whiskey he was taking to town, and that he managed to throw the officers off his track while he was talking to Hettie in our back yard. Do you know it ain't a bit unlikely that she helped him play that trick somehow? They say he was laughing down at the store after that about how he gave them the slip. I'll bet she helped him."

"If she is in love with him she did, I reckon," returned Harriet, wisely. "I wish he was in love with her. He is getting entirely too troublesome."

"He'll never care a snap for her as long as you are alive," retorted the old lady. "I'm sorry now that I ever let you go with him so much. He seems to be getting more and more determined to make you marry him whether or no. He is jealous of Mr. Westerfelt." Mrs. Floyd lowered her voice. "If he hadn't been, he wouldn't have fought him as he did. That is at the bottom of it, daughter, and now that he is a regular outlaw I am awfully uneasy. If I ever get a chance, I'm going to convince him that it is useless for him to worry you as he does. I'd rather see you in your grave than married to a man like that."

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