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   Chapter 12 No.12

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 15258

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Westerfelt knew he could not sleep, and, seeing the moonlight shining through his window, he decided to take a walk. He went below. Washburn sat in a little circle of candle-light mending a piece of harness.

"Has the hack come in yet?" asked Westerfelt, remembering that he had paid little attention to business that day.

"Yes," answered Washburn; "it's down at the store unloadin' the mail."

"I thought I heard it turn the corner. Any passengers?"

"No; Buck said a family, one woman and five children, wus ready to start by the Cohutta road to Royleston, but the report about the Whitecaps t'other night skeerd 'em out of it, so they went by train to Wilks, an' through that way. This outlawin' will ruin the country ef it hain't stopped; nobody'll want to settle heer."

"I'll be back soon," said Westerfelt, and he went out.

The November air was dry and keen as he walked briskly towards the mountains. The road ran through groves of stunted persimmon and sassafras bushes, across swift-bounding mountain streams, and under natural arbors of wild grapes and muscadine vines. In a few minutes Westerfelt reached the meeting-house on a little rise near the roadside.

It had never been painted, but age and the weather had given it the usual grayish color. Behind it, enclosed by a rail fence, was the graveyard. The mounds had sunk, the stones leaned earthward, and the decaying trellises had been pulled down by the vines which clambered over them.

It was a strange thing for Westerfelt to do, but, seeing the door open, he went into the church. Two windows on each side let in the moonlight. The benches were unpainted, and many of them had no backs.

Westerfelt stood before the little pulpit for a moment and then turned away. Outside, the road gleamed in the moonlight as it stretched on to the village. A glimpse of the graveyard through the window made him shudder. It reminded him of a grave he had never seen save in his mind. It was past midnight. He would go back to his bed, though he felt no inclination to sleep.

As he approached the stable, walking in the shadow of the trees on the side of the street, he saw a woman come out of the blacksmith's shop opposite the stable. For a moment she paused, her face raised towards the window of his room, and then retreated into the shop.

It was Harriet Floyd. He stepped behind a tree and watched the door of the shop. In a moment she reappeared and looked up towards his window again. He thought she might be waiting to see him, so he moved out into the moonlight and advanced towards her.

"Oh, it's you!" she exclaimed, excitedly. "I've been waiting to see you. I-I must tell you something, but it won't do to stand here; somebody will see us. Can't we?-come in the shop a minute."

Without speaking, and full of wonder, he followed her into the dark building. She led him past piles of old iron, wagon-tires, ploughshares, tubs of black water, anvils, and sledges to the forge and bellows at the back of the shop. She waited for a moment for him to speak, but he only looked at her questioningly, having almost steeled his heart against her.

"I come to warn you," she began, awkwardly, her eyes raised to his. "Toot Wambush has prejudiced the Whitecaps against you. He has convinced them that you reported the moonshiners. They are coming to-night to take you out. The others don't mean to kill you; they say it's just to whip you, and tar and feather you, and drive you out of the place, but he-Toot Wambush-will kill you if he can. He would not let you get away alive. He has promised the others not to use violence, but he will; he hates you, and he wants revenge. He'll do it and make the others share the responsibility with him-that's his plan."

He put his hand on the bellows-pole; the great leather bag rattled and gasped, and a puff of ashes rose from the forge.

"How do you happen to know this?" he asked, coldly. She shrank from him, and stared at him in silence.

"How do you know it?" he repeated, his tone growing fierce.

She drew the shawl with which she had covered her head more closely about her shoulders.

"Toot hinted at it himself," she said, slowly.

"When?"

"About an hour ago."

"You met him?"

"Yes."

"Are you a member of his gang?"

"Mr. Westerfelt," shrinking from him, "do-do you mean to insult me?"

"Would he have told you if he had thought you would give him away?"

"I reckon not-why, no."

"Then he considers you in sympathy with his murderous plans."

"I don't know, but I want you to keep out of his way. You must-oh, Mr. Westerfelt, you must go! Don't stand here; they are coming down the Hawkbill road directly. You could ride off towards Dartsmouth and easily get away, if you will hurry."

"I see," he answered, with a steady stare of condemnation; "you want to keep him from committing another crime-a more serious one."

She looked at him an instant as if puzzled, and then said:

"I want to keep him from killing you."

"Do you think he would take advantage of a helpless man?"

"I know it, Mr. Westerfelt; oh, I know he would!"

"Then you acknowledge he is a coward, and yet you-my God, what sort of a creature are you?"

She continued to stare at him wonderingly, as if half afraid. She moved suddenly into a moonbeam that streamed through a broken shingle in the roof. Her face was like white marble. In its terrified lines and angles he read nothing but the imprint of past weakness where he should have seen only pleading purity-the purity of a child cowed and awed by the object of a love so powerful, so self-sacrificing that she made no attempt to understand it. She had always felt her inferiority to others, and now that she loved her ideal of superiority she seemed to expect ill-treatment-even contempt-at his hands.

He looked away from her. The begrimed handle of the bellows creaked and swung as he leaned on it. He turned suddenly and impulsively grasped her hands.

"You are a good girl," he cried; "you have been the best friend I ever had. If I don't treat you better, it is on account of my awful nature. I can't control it when I think of that villain."

"He has treated you very badly," she said, slowly, in a voice that faltered.

"Where did you meet him and when?" he asked, under his breath. "God knows I thought you were done with him."

"He came right to the house just after dark," returned Harriet.

"Mother let him come in; she wanted to talk to him."

"Did he come to get you to go away with him, Harriet?"

"Yes, Mr. Westerfelt."

"And why didn't you go?"

"Oh, how can you ask such a question," she asked, "when you know-" She broke off suddenly, and then, seeing that he was silent, she added: "Mr. Westerfelt, sometimes I am afraid, really afraid, your sickness has affected your mind, you speak so strange and harsh to me. Surely I do not deserve such cruelty. I am just a woman, and a weak one at that; a woman driven nearly crazy through troubling about you." She raised a corner of her shawl to her eyes.

He saw her shoulders rise with a sob, then he caught her hands. "Don't-don't cry, little girl. I'd give my life to help you. Oh yes, do let me hold your hands, just this once; it won't make any difference."

She did not attempt to withdraw her hands from his passionate, reckless clasp, and, now more trustingly, raised her eyes to his.

"Sometimes I think you really love me," she faltered. "You have made me think so several times."

"I'm not ashamed of it," he said. "I've had fancies for women, but I have never felt this way before. It seems to me if I was to

live a thousand years I'd never, never feel that you was like other women. Maybe you love me real deep, and maybe you just fancy me, but I'll never want any other human being like I want you. I have been a bad man-a careless, thoughtless man. Ever since I was a boy I have played with love. I was playing with fire-the fire of hell, Harriet-and I got burnt. In consequence of what I've done I suffer as no mortal ever suffered. Repentance brings contentment to some men, but they are not built like me. I don't do anything from morning to night but brood and brood over my past life."

"I thought you had had some trouble," she returned, sympathetically.

"Why did you think so?" he asked.

"You talked when you were out of your head. That's why I first took pity on you. I never saw a man suffer in mind as you did. You rolled and tumbled the first two or three nights and begged for forgiveness; often you spoke so loud I was afraid others in the house would hear."

He opened his palms before her. "These hands are soaked in human blood-innocent human blood," he said, tragically. "I don't deny it; if it would do a particle of good I'd tell every soul on earth. I won a good girl's love, and when I got tired of her and left her she killed herself to escape the misery I put her in. I was unworthy of her, but she didn't know it, or want to know it. Nobody knows she took her own life except me and her mother, and it has ruined her life-taken away her only comfort in old age and made her my mortal enemy. She never gives me a minute's rest-she reminds me constantly that I'll never get forgiveness and never be happily married, and she is right-I never shall. My wicked nature demands too much of a woman. I can love, and do love, with all my soul, but my pride cannot be subdued. I-"

"I understand, Mr. Westerfelt" she broke in, quickly. "Don't bring up that subject again. What you said when I last saw you was enough. It almost kept me from coming to-night, but it was my duty; but you do not have to say any more about that." She took a step backward and stood staring at him in mute misery. She had never felt that she was worthy of him, in a way, but his cold reference-as she understood it-to her misfortune released a spring of resentment she hardly knew was wound in her breast.

"Forgive me," he pleaded, trying to regain her hands. "I'll never mention it again. I promise you that-never again."

"It's all right," she answered, softening under his passionate gaze.

"But it would be kind of you to avoid mentioning what I cannot help."

He was about to reply, but there was a sound of barking dogs from the mountain. "Go quick!" She caught her breath. "Don't wait! That may be them now. Don't let them kill you."

He did not stir. "You'd better go home," he said, calmly. "I don't care a straw what becomes of me. I've had enough of the whole business. I have got as much right to live as anybody else, and I will not be driven from pillar to post by a gang of outlaws, headed by a coward." He drew a revolver, and, half cocking it, carelessly twirled the cylinder with his thumb. "I've got five thirty-two-caliber shots here, and I think I can put some of them where they ought to go."

She pushed the revolver down with her hand. "No, no!" she cried, "you must not be reckless."

"I am a pretty good shot," he went on, bitterly, "and Toot Wambush shall be my first target, if I can pick him out. Then the rest may do what they like with me. You go home. It will do you no good to be seen with me."

She caught his arm. "If you don't go, I'll stay right here with you.

Hush! Listen! What was-? Great Heavens, they are coming. Go! Go!"

She glided swiftly to the door, and he followed her. Coming along the Hawkbill road, about an eighth of a mile distant, they saw a body of horsemen, their heads and shoulders dressed in white. His revolver slipped from his fingers and rang on a fallen anvil. He picked it up mechanically, still staring into the moonlight. Again he wondered if he were afraid, as he was that night at the hotel.

"Run! get out a horse," she cried. "Mr. Washburn is there; he will help you! Go quick, for God's sake! I shall kill myself if they harm you." He stared at her an instant, then he put his revolver into his belt.

"All right, then, to oblige you; but you must hurry home!" He hastened across the street and rapped on the office door.

"Who's thar?" called out Washburn from his bed.

"Me-Westerfelt."

There was a sound of bare feet on the floor inside and the door opened.

"What's up?" asked Washburn, sleepily.

"I want my horse; there's a gang of Whitecaps coming down the Hawkbill, and it looks like they are after me."

"My God!" Washburn began fumbling along the wall. "Where's the matches? Here's one!" He scratched it and lighted his lantern. "I'll git yore hoss. Stand heer, Mr. Westerfelt, an' ef I ain't quick enough make a dash on foot fer that strip o' woods over thar in the field. The fences would keep 'em from followin', an' you might dodge 'em."

When Washburn had gone into the stable, Westerfelt looked towards Harriet. She had walked only a few yards down the street and stood under the trees. He stepped out into the moonlight and signalled her to go on, but she refused to move. He heard Washburn swearing inside the stable, and asked what the matter was.

"I've got the bridles all tangled to hell," he answered.

"Hurry; anything will do!"

The Whitecaps had left the mountain-side and were now in sight on the level road. A minute more and Westerfelt would be a captive. He might get across the street unnoticed and hide himself in the blacksmith's shop, but they would be sure to look for him there. If he tried to go through the fields they would see him and shoot him down like a rabbit.

"Heer you are; which door, back or front?" cried Washburn.

"Front, quick! I've got to run for it! I'm a good mind to stand and make a fight of it."

"Oh no; hell, no! Mr. Westerfelt."

Washburn slid the big door open and kicked the horse in the stomach as he led him out.

"Git up, quick! They are at the branch. Blast it, they heerd the door-they've broke into a gallop!"

As Westerfelt put his foot into the stirrup he saw Harriet Floyd glide out of sight into the blacksmith's shop. She had determined not to desert him. As he sprang up, the girth snapped, and the saddle and blanket fell under his feet.

"God, they are on us!" gasped Washburn. One of the gang raised a shout, and they came on with increased speed.

"Up! Up!" cried Washburn, kicking the saddle out of his way. "Quick! What's the matter?" Westerfelt felt a twinge in his old wound as he tried to mount. Washburn caught one of his legs and lifted him on his horse.

Westerfelt spurred the horse furiously, but the animal plunged, stumbled, and came to his knees-the bridle-rein had caught his foot. The foremost of the gang was now within twenty yards of him.

"Halt thar!" he yelled.

Westerfelt drew his horse up and continued to lash him with his bridle-rein.

"Shoot his hoss, but don't tetch him!" was the next command.

Several revolvers went off. Westerfelt's horse swayed at the rump and then ran sideways across the street and fell against a rail fence. Westerfelt alighted on his feet. He turned and drew his revolver, but just then his horse rolled over against his legs and knocked the weapon from his hand. It struck the belly of the horse and bounded into the middle of the street.

"Ha, we've got ye!" jeered the leader, as he and two or three others covered Westerfelt with their revolvers.

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