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   Chapter 10 No.10

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 13157

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"By George!" exclaimed Bradley, as they drove away, "you certainly lit on your feet when you struck that house. It looks like it 'ud pay you to git stabbed every day in the week; it's paid the community, the Lord knows, fer it is shet of the biggest dare-devil that wus ever in it. The ol' lady seems to have about as bad a case on you as the gal. I've been thar a time or two to ax about you, an' I never seed the like o' stirrin' round fixin' things they 'lowed would suit yore taste."

"They have been mighty good to me, indeed," answered the young man, simply. "I don't think I could have had such thoughtful attention, even at home."

"I don't like fer anything to puzzle me," said Luke, with a little laugh, "an' I'll swear Miss Harriet's a riddle. I would a-swore on the stand a week ago that she wus as big a fool about Wambush as a woman kin git to be, but now-well, I reckon she's jest like the rest. Let the feller they keer fer git a black eye an' have bad luck, an' they'll sidle up to the fust good-lookin' cuss they come across. A man that reads novels to git his marryin' knowledge frum is in pore business; besides the book hain't writ that could explain a woman unless it is the Great Book, an' it wouldn't fit no woman o' this day an' time."

"You think, then, Luke," said Westerfelt, "that a good woman-a real good woman-could love twice in-in a short space of time?"

"Gewhillikins! What a question; they kin love a hundred times before you kin say Jack Robinson with yore mouth open. When you git married, John, you must make up your mind that yo're marryin' fer some'n else besides dern foolishness. The Bible says the prime intention of the business wus to increase an' multiply; ef you an' yore wife ever git to multiplyin', you an' her won't find much time to suck thumbs an' talk love an' pick flowers an' press 'em in books an' the like. Folks may say what they damn please about women lovin' the most; it's the feller mighty nigh ever' whack that acts the fool. I was plumb crazy about Marthy, an' used to be afeerd she wus so fur gone on me that she wouldn't take a sufficient supply o' victuals to keep up 'er strength. That wus when I was courtin' of 'er an' losin' sleep, an' one thing or other. After we wus married, though, me an' 'er mother come to words one day about a shoat pig she claimed had her mark on its yeer an' was penned up with mine, an' she up an' told me out o' spite that the very night before me 'n' Marthy got married, Ward Billingsley wus thar at the house tryin' to get 'er to run off with him, an' that Marthy come as nigh as pease a-doin' of it. Her maw said she'd a-gone as shore as preachin' ef she'd a-had a dress fitten to take the trip on the train in. I reckon it wus every word the truth, fer to this day Marthy won't deny it; but it don't make a bit of difference to me now. Marthy would a-done as well by Ward as she did by me, I reckon. When women once git married they come down to hard-pan like a kickin' mule when it gits broke to traces."

Westerfelt drew the blankets closer about him. The road had taken a sharp turn round the side of a little hill, and the breeze from the wide reach of level valley lands was keen and piercing. Bradley's volubility jarred on him. It brought an obnoxious person back, and roughly, into the warm memory of Harriet Floyd's presence, and gentle, selfless tenderness. He ground his teeth in agony. He had just been debating in his mind the possibility of his being, in consideration of his own mistakes, able to take the girl, in her new love, into his heart and hold her there forever, but if she loved Wambush, as, of course, she once did, might she not later love some other man-or might she not even think-remember-Wambush?

"Great God!" He uttered the words aloud, and Bradley turned upon him in surprise.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing," said Westerfelt; "my wound twinged just a little, that is all."

"I was driving too fast over these rocks anyway," said Bradley, solicitously.

The horse stopped at a clear mountain stream that leaped in a succession of waterfalls down the sheer hill-side into the valley. Bradley got out to loosen the bridle to allow the animal to drink, and stood with one foot on the shore and the other on a brown stone in the water. Try as he would, Westerfelt could not banish Harriet from his mind. Her sweet personality seemed to be trying to defend itself against the unworthy thoughts which fought for supremacy in his mind. He thought of her wonderful care of him in his illness; her unfailing tenderness and sympathy when he was suffering; her tears-yes, he was sure he had detected tears in her eyes one day when the doctor was giving him unusual pain in dressing his wound. Ah, how sweet that was to remember! and yet the same creature had loved a man no higher than Wambush; had even sobbed out a confession of her love in the arms of his father. Such was the woman, but he loved her with the first real love of his life.

The next day but one, Westerfelt, feeling sufficiently strong, was driven by Washburn down to the livery-stable, where he sat in the warm sunshine against the side of the house. While sitting there watching the roads which led down to the village from the mountains, he was surprised to see Peter Slogan ride up on his bony bay horse and alight.

"Howdy' do, John?" he said. "I wus jest passin' on my way home an' thought I'd halt an' ax about that cut o' yore'n."

"Oh, I'm doing pretty well, Peter," answered Westerfelt, as he extended his hand without rising. "But I didn't know that you ever got this far from home."

"Hain't once before, since I went to fight the Yanks," grinned Slogan. "Seems to me I've rid four hundred an' forty-two miles on that churndasher thar. My legs is one solid sore streak from my heels up, an' now it's beginnin' to attact my spine-bone. I'm too ol' an' stiff to bear down right in the stirrups, I reckon."

"What has brought you over here?" asked Westerfelt, with a smile.

Slogan took out his clay pipe with its cane stem and knocked it on the heel of his boot, then he put it into his mouth and blew through it till the liquid nicotine cracked audibly. "I've been huntin'," he said, dryly. "In my day an' time I've been on all sorts o' hunts, from bear an' deer down to yaller-hammers, but I waited till I wus in my sixty-fifth year-goin' on sixty-six-'fore I started out huntin' fer a dad-blasted woman."

"A woman!" exclaimed the listener.

"You could guess who it wus ef you'd make a stab ur two at it," Slogan made answer, as he

scratched a match and began to smoke. "Day before yesterday Clariss' went out in the yard to rake up a apron o' chips, an' happened to take notice that thar wusn't a sign o' smoke comin' out o' the old woman's chimney. It was cold enough to freeze hard boiled eggs, an' she 'lowed some'n had gone wrong down at the cabin, so she run in whar I wus, skeerd into kinniptions. 'Mr. Slogan,' sez she, 'I believe sister's friz in 'er bed, ur dropped off sudden, fer as shore as yore a-smokin' in that cheer, thar ain't a speck o' fire in 'er chimney.' Well, I wus in my stockin' feet, like I ginerally am when I want to take it easy before a fire on a cold day, an' I slid my feet into my shoes as quick as I could an' went out an' took a look. Shore enough, thar wusn't a bit o' smoke about the cabin. So I tol' Clariss' to run down an' see what wus wrong, but she wouldn't budge out o' her tracks. You see, she ain't never felt right about the way she used to do the old woman, an' I reckon she wus afeerd her dead body would do a sight more accusin'-I dunno, she wouldn't go a step fer some reason ur other, but she stood thar twistin' 'er hands an' cryin' an' beggin' me to do her duty. I tol' 'er the last time I wus thar the ol' huzzy wouldn't so much as notice me, an' that I'd had 'nough trouble lookin' atter my own pore kin without galivantin' about atter my kin by a' unfortunate marriage, but nothin' would do 'er but fer me to go, so I did, an' found the old woman had run clean off. Well, when I told Clariss' that, she mighty nigh had a fit. She swore she had driv her sister desperate by her conduct in the past an' that 'er body would be found as stiff as a bar o' iron in the woods some'rs whar she wus tryin' to keep warm. So the long an' short of it wus that me 'n' my hoss had to start out."

"And you have found her?" asked the young man, now thoroughly concerned.

"You bet I did, after scourin' the entire face of creation. I traced 'er frum one old acquaintance to another, till last night I run up on 'er over at Bill Wyman's, ten miles down the valley. It was ten o'clock when I got thar, an' as cold as a cake o' ice in the small o' yore back. I called Bill out in his shift on the porch. I was mighty nigh friz, an' I reckon he soon got that away, fer he kept dancin' about fust on one foot an' then on another, while we talked. He admitted she wus thar, but he wouldn't let me stay all night, although I offered to plank down the usual price fer man an' beast. She'd been talkin' to him, I could see that, fer he up an' said some'n about folks bein' churched in his settlement fer the mistreatment o' widows, but he'd admit, he said, that he wusn't posted on the manners an' customs uv all the places over beyant the mount'in; he reckoned the nigher people got to the railroad the furder they wus from the cross. I tried to reason with 'im, but he said ef I wanted to argue my case, I'd better come round in the summer.

"Thar wusn't any other house nigher'n six miles, an' so I made me a fire in a little cove by the road, an' set over it an' thought, mostly about women, all night. I've heerd preachers say a man oughtn't to think too much about women anyway, but I reckon I backslid last night, fer I thought hard about mighty nigh ever' woman I ever seed or heerd of."

"How has Mrs. Dawson been getting on since I left?" ventured Westerfelt.

"Just about as bad as she knowed how, I reckon, John. After you left, she seemed to take 'er spite out on Lizzie Lithicum. Liz never could pass anywhar nigh 'er without havin' the old cat laugh out loud at 'er. Liz has been goin' with that cock-eyed Joe Webb a good deal-you know he's jest about the porest ketch anywhars about, an' that seemed to tickle Mis' Dawson mightily. I reckon somebody told 'er some'n Liz said away back when you fust started to fly around 'er. I axed Clem Dill ef he knowed anything about it, an' Clem 'lowed Liz had kind o' made fun o' Sally about you gittin' tired uv 'er, an' one thing ur other. I dunno; I cayn't keep up with sech things. I jest try to find 'em out once in awhile because Clariss' is sech a hand to want to know. When she gits to rantin' about anythin' I've done-ur hain't done-all I got to do to shet 'er up is to start to tell 'er some'n somebody's has said about somebody else, an' she gits 'er cheer. So I try to keep a stock o' things on hand. Clem Dill's afeerd o' Mis' Dawson now. I was in the store one day about a week ago, an' she come in to swap a pair o' wool socks she had knit fer coffee, an' Clem 'lowed, jest to pass the time, while he wus at the scales, he'd ax 'er what ailed her an' Lizzie, anyway. But I reckon Clem has quit axin' fool questions, fer she turned on 'im like a tiger-cat. Sez she:

"'Liz Lithicum dared to say my child made a fool o' herse'f about John Westerfelt. That's exactly what Liz an' other folks sez about yore wife. I don't see what right you have to ax me sech a question.' Well, sir, Clem was so much set back 'at he couldn't hardly speak, an' he spilled a scoop o' coffee on the counter 'fore he could get it into the old woman's poke. After she had gone out, laughin' in her sneakin' way, Clem come back whar I wus at by the stove an' set down an' spit about two dozen times. Arter 'while he axed me ef I'd ever heerd the talk about his wife, an' I eased him all I could, but, lawsy me, you ort ter see 'im hop up an' bow an' scrape when old Sue comes in the store now. Clem ain't a jealous man-I reckon he's been married too long for that. In my courtin' days I used to be jealous actually of Clariss's own daddy, but now I make a habit o' invitin' the preacher to our house every third Sunday so I kin git a decent meal an' set an' smoke in the kitchen. John, you don't seem to be any nigher marryin' now than you wus awhile back."

Westerfelt smiled, but made no reply.

"Well, you'd better keep on a-thinkin' it over," counselled Slogan, as he took the saddle and blanket from his horse and examined a rubbed spot on the animal's back; "thar's a heap more fun marryin' in a body's mind than before a preacher; the law don't allow a feller but one sort of a wife, but a single man kin live alone, an' fancy he's got any kind he wants, an' then she won't be eternally a-yellin' to 'im to fetch in fire-wood. A young feller kin make a woman a sight more perfect than the Creator ever did, an' He's had a sight o' practice. I reckon the Lord made 'em like they are to keep men humble and contrite an' to show up to advantage His best work on t'other shore. But so long, John, I must be goin'."

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