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   Chapter 13 No.13

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 19678

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The gang formed a semi-circle round Westerfelt and his horse. In their white caps and sheets they appeared ghostly and hideous, as they looked down at him through the eye-holes of their masks. One of them held a coil of new rope and tantalizingly swung it back and forth before his face.

"You must go with us up the Hawkbill fer a little moonlight picnic," he jeered. "We've picked out a tree up thar that leans spank over a cliff five hundred feet from the bottom. Ef the rope broke, ur yore noggin slipped through the noose, you'd never know how come you so."

"He's got to have some'n to ride," suggested another muffled voice; "we have done his horse up."

"Well, he's got a-plenty, an' he won't need 'em atter our ja'nt," jested the man with the rope. "You uns back thar, that hain't doin' nothin' but lookin' purty, go in the stable and trot out some'n fer 'im to ride; doggoned ef I want 'im straddled behind me. His ha'nt 'ud ride with me every time I passed over the Hawkbill."

"Bill Washburn's in thar," said a man in the edge of the crowd. "I seed 'im run in as we rid up."

The leader, who sat on a restive horse near Westerfelt, called out:

"Hello in thar, Bill Washburn; git out some'n to put yore man on.

Hurry up, ur we'll take you along to see the fun."

Washburn opened the office door and came out slowly.

"What do you say, Mr. Westerfelt? It's yore property. I won't move a peg agin the man that I work fer ef eve'y dam Whitecap in Christendom orders it."

"Care_ful_, care_ful_, young man; none o' your lip!" said the leader, half admiringly.

"Give 'em the lot!" It was the first time Westerfelt had spoken.

Washburn made no reply, but went slowly back into the stable.

Westerfelt's dying horse raised his head and groaned. A man near the animal dismounted and drew his revolver.

"What d' you say?" said he to Westerfelt. "Hadn't I better put 'im out o' his misery?"

"I'd be much obliged if you would." Westerfelt turned his face away. There was a moment's pause. The man waited for the horse's head to become still. Then he fired.

"Thanks," said Westerfelt. He looked round at the crowd, wondering which of the men could be Toot Wambush. He had an idea that he had not yet spoken, and was not among those nearest to him. Through the open door he could see Washburn's lantern moving about in the stable.

"Hurry up in thar," cried a tall figure. "Do you think we're gwine to-" He began to cough.

"How do you like to chaw cotton, Number Six?" a man near him asked.

"The blamed lint gits down my throat," was the reply. "I'd ruther be knowed by my voice'n to choke to death on sech truck."

From far and near on all sides came the dismal barking of dogs, but the villagers, if they suspected what was being enacted, dared not show their faces. Washburn led a horse through the crowd and gave the bridle to Westerfelt. He hesitated, as if about to speak, and then silently withdrew. Westerfelt mounted. The leader gave the order, and the gang moved back towards the mountain. Two horsemen went before Westerfelt and two fell behind. As they passed the shop, dimly he saw the form of a woman lying on the ground just out of the moonlight that fell in at the door. Harriet had swooned. When they had gone past the shop, Westerfelt reined in his horse and called over his shoulder to Washburn, who stood in front of the stable. He would not leave her lying there if he could help it, and yet he did not want Wambush to know she had warned him. The gang stopped, and Washburn came to them.

"Any directions you want to give?" he asked of Westerfelt.

"I saw you looking for the account-book," answered Westerfelt, staring significantly into his eyes. "I was in the blacksmith's shop to-day and left it on the forge."

Washburn stared blankly at him for an instant, then he said, slowly,

"All right."

"You'd better get it to-night," added Westerfelt.

"All right, sir. I'll attend to everything."

"Cool as a cucumber," laughed a man. "Next thing you know he'll give orders 'bout whar he wants to be buried, an' what to have cut on his grave-rock."

The whole gang laughed at this witticism, and started on again. When they had gone about a hundred yards Westerfelt glanced back. He saw Washburn cross the road and enter the blacksmith's shop, and the next instant the shop was hidden by a sudden turn in the road. They passed the meeting-house and began to ascend the mountain. Here and there along the dark range shone the red fires of chestnut harvesters. The blue smoke hung among the pines, and the air was filled with the odor of burning leaves. They passed a camp-a white-covered wagon, filled with bags of chestnuts, two mules tethered to saplings, and three or four forms in dusky blankets lying round a log fire. As the weird procession passed, the mules drew back on their halters and threw their ears forward, but the bodies at the fire did not stir.

In about twenty minutes the band reached a plateau covered with a matting of heather. They went across it to the edge of a high precipice. It was as perpendicular as a wall. Below lay the valley, its forests of pines and cedars looking like a black lake in the clear moonlight.

"Git down, men, an' let's 'tend to business an' go back home," commanded the leader. "I have a hankerin' atter a hot breakfast."

Everybody alighted except Westerfelt. The leader touched him with his whip. "Will you git down, or do you want to be drug off like a saddle?"

"May I ask what you intend to do with me?" asked Westerfelt, indifferently.

The leader laughed. "Put some turkey red calico stripes on that broad back o' yorn, an' rub in some salt and pepper to cuore it up. We are a-gwine to l'arn you that new settlers cayn't run this community an' coolly turn the bluecoats agin us mount'in folks."

Westerfelt looked down on the masks upturned to him. Only one of the band showed a revolver. Westerfelt believed him to be Toot Wambush. He had not spoken a word, but was one of the two that had ridden close behind him up the mountain. One of the white figures unstrapped a pillow from the back part of his saddle. He held it between his knees and gashed it with a knife.

"By hunkey! they're white uns," he grunted, as he took out a handful. "I 'lowed they wus mixed; ef my ole woman knowed I'd tuck a poke uv 'er best goose feathers ter dab on a man she'd get a divorce."

Two or three laughed behind their masks. Another laugh went round as a short figure returned from the bushes with a bucket of tar which had been left near the road-side.

"Heer's yore gumstickum." He dipped a paddle in it and flourished it before Westerfelt, who was still on his horse. "Say, mister, you don't seem inclined to say anything fer yorese'f; the last man we dressed out fer his weddin' begged like a whipped child, an' made no end o' promises uv good behavior."

Westerfelt got down from his horse. "I'm completely in your power," he replied. "I won't beg any man nor gang of men living to give me my rights. I suppose I am accused of having reported those fellows to the revenue men. I have simply to say that it is a lie!"

"Uh, uh!" said the leader; "_care_ful! _care_ful! Don't be reckless.

We uns ain't the lyin' sort."

"I say it's a lie!" Westerfelt stared straight into the mask of Toot Wambush. The wearer of it started and half raised his revolver, but quickly concealed it under the sheet that hung below his waist. Everybody was silent, as if they expected a reply from Wambush, but he made none.

"Them pore Cohutta men lyin' in the Atlanta jail said so, anyway," returned the leader. "They ain't heer to speak fer the'rse'ves; it's a easy thing to give them the lie behind the'r backs."

"They were mistaken, that's all," said Westerfelt. "Nobody but the revenue men themselves could tell the whole truth about it. I did pass the wagon-"

"An' eavedropped on our two men. Oh, we know you did, kase they heerd a sound, an' then as you didn't come for'ard, they 'lowed they had made a mistake, but when you finally did pass they knowed it wus you, an' that you'd been listenin'."

"That's the truth," admitted Westerfelt. "I had been warned that it would be dangerous for me to go about in the mountains alone. I heard the men talking, and stopped to find out who they were. I did not want to run into an ambush. As soon as I found out who they were I spoke to them and passed."

"At the stable, though, young man," reminded the leader-"at the stable, when the bluecoats fetched the prisoners an' the plunder in, they told you that they'd found them right whar you said they wus."

"You bet he did. What's the use a-jabberin' any longer?" The voice was unmistakably Wambush's, and his angry tones seemed to fire the impatience of the others. Westerfelt started to speak, but his words were drowned in a tumult of voices.

"Go ahead!" cried several.

"Go ahead! Are you gwine to hold a court an' try 'im by law?" asked

Wambush, hotly. "I 'lowed that point was done settled."

Westerfelt calmly folded his arms. "I've no more to say. I see I'm not going to be heard. You are a gang of cold-blooded murderers."

The words seemed to anger the leader.

"Shuck off that coat an' shirt!" was his order.

Westerfelt did not move. "I'm glad to say I'm not afraid of you," he said. "If you have got human hearts in you, though, you'll kill me, and not let me live after the degradation you are going to inflict. I know who's led you to this. It is a cowardly dog who never had a thing against me till I refused to let him have credit at my stable, when he owes an account that's been running for two years. He tried to kill me with a pistol and a knife when I was unarmed. He failed, and had to get you to help him. You are not a bit better than he is. I'm n

o coward. I've got fighting blood in me. Some of you'd acknowledge it if I was to tell you who my father was. I have reason to believe there are men here to-night who fought side by side with him in the war, and were with him when he was shot down tryin' to hold up the flag at the battle of Chickamauga. One of the dirty cowards he once carried off the field when the whelp could hardly walk with a bullet in his leg!"

"What company wus that?" came from the edge of the crowd. The voice was quivering.

"Forty-second Georgia."

For a moment no one spoke, then the same voice asked:

"Who wus your pa, young man?"

"Captain Alfred Stone Westerfelt, under Colonel Mills."

The tall slender figure of the questioner leaned forward breathlessly and then pushed into the ring. Without a word he stood near Westerfelt, unpinned the sheet that was round him, and slowly took off his mask. Then he put a long forefinger into his mouth, pried a wad of cotton out of each cheek, and threw them on the ground.

It was old Jim Hunter. He cleared his throat, spat twice, wiped his mouth with his hand, and slowly swept the circle with his eyes.

"I'm the feller he toted out," he said. He cleared his throat again, and went on:

"Boys, if thar's to be any whippin', ur tarrin' an' featherin' in this case, I'm agin it tooth an' toe-nail. Cap Westerfelt's boy sha'n't have a hair o' his head fetched on sech flimsy evi_dence_ as we've had while I'm alive. You kin think what you please o' me. I've got too much faith in the Westerfelt stock to believe that a branch of it 'u'd spy ur sneak. This is Jim Hunter a-talkin'."

Two others pushed forward, taking off their sheets and masks. They were Joe Longfield and Weston Burks.

"We are t'other two," said Longfield, dryly. "The Yanks killed off too blame many o' that breed o' men fer us to begin to abuse one at this late day. Ef Westerfelt's harmed, it will be over my dead body, an' I bet I'm as hard to kill as a eel."

"Joe's a-talkin' fer me," said Burks, simply, and he put his hand on his revolver.

"We've been too hasty," began Jim Hunter again. "We've 'lowed Toot to inflame our minds agin this man, an' now I'll bet my hat he's innocent. I'd resk a hoss on it."

"Thar's a gal in it, I'm a-thinkin'," opined Weston Burks, dryly.

"Men," cried the leader, "thar's a serious disagreement; we've always listened to Jim Hunter; what must we do about the matter under dispute?"

"Send the man back to town," cried a voice in the edge of the crowd. "He's the right sort to the marrow; I'll give 'im my paw an' wish 'im well."

"That's the ticket!" chimed in the man with the rope, as he tossed it over the horn of his saddle.

"I 'low myself we've been a leetle bit hasty," admitted the leader.

"Put down that gun! Drap it!" cried Jim Hunter, turning suddenly on Toot Wambush. "Ef you dare to cock a gun in this crowd, you'll never live to hear it bang!"

Wambush started to raise his revolver again, but Hunter knocked it from his hand. Wambush stooped to pick it up, but the old man kicked it out of his reach.

"You don't work that trick on this party," he said, hotly.

"I wasn't tryin' to draw it," muttered Wambush.

"You lie!" Then Hunter turned to the leader: "What d'ye think ortter be done with a man like that? Ef I hadn't a-been so quick he'd a shot Westerfelt, an' before the law we'd all a-been accomplices in murderin' a innocent man."

"I move we give the whelp six hours to git out'n the county," said Joe

Longfield. "You all know I've been agin Toot."

"That would be too merciful," said Burks.

"Boys," the leader cried, "Wambush has broke a rule in tryin' this thing on us. You've heerd the motion; is thar a second?"

"I second it," said Jim Hunter.

"It's been moved and seconded that Wambush be 'lowed six hours to git clean out o' the county; all in favor say yes."

There was almost a general roar.

"All opposed say no."

No one spoke for a moment, then Wambush muttered something, but no one understood what it was. He turned his horse round and started to mount. He had his left foot in the stirrup, and had grasped the mane of the animal with his right hand, when the leader yelled:

"Hold on thar! Not so quick, sonny. We don't let nobody as sneakin' as you are ride off with a gun in his hip pocket. S'arch 'im, boys; he's jest the sort to fire back on us an' make a dash fer it."

Hunter and Burks closed in on him. Wambush drew back and put his hand behind him.

"Damn you! don't you touch me!" he threatened.

The two men sprang at him like tigers and grasped his arms. Wambush struggled and kicked, but they held him.

"Wait thar a minute," cried the leader; "he don't know when to let well enough alone. You white sperits out thar with the tar an' feathers come for'ard. Wambush ain't satisfied with the garb he's got on."

A general laugh went round. With an oath Wambush threw his revolver on the ground and then his knife. This done, Hunter and Burks allowed him to mount.

"Don't let him go yet," commanded the leader; "look in his saddle-bags."

Wambush's horse suddenly snorted, kicked up his heels, and tried to plunge forward, but Burks clung to the reins and held him.

"He dug his spur into his hoss on this side like thunder," said a man in the crowd. "It's a wonder he didn't rip 'im open."

"S'arch them bags," ordered the leader, "an' ef he makes anuther budge before it's done, or opens his mouth fer a whisper, drag 'im right down an' give 'im 'is deserts."

Wambush offered no further resistance. Hunter fumbled in the bags. He held up a quart flask of corn whiskey over his head, shook it in the moonlight, and then restored it. "I hain't the heart to deprive 'im of that," he said, as he walked round the horse; "he won't find any better in his travels." On the other side he found a forty-four-caliber revolver.

"That 'u'd be a ugly customer to meet on a dark road," he said, holding it up for the others to see. "By hunky! it 'u'd dig a tunnel through a rock mountain. Say, Westerfelt, ef he'd 'a' got a whack at yer with this yore fragments 'u'd never a-come together on the day o' jedgment."

Westerfelt made no reply.

"Now, let 'im go," said the leader. "Ef he dares to be seed anywhar in the Cohutta section six hours frum now he knows what will come uv 'im. We refuse to shelter 'im any longer, an' the officers of the law will take 'im in tow."

The ring of men and horses opened for Wambush to pass out. He said nothing, and did not turn his head as he rode down the mountain into the mysterious haze that hung over the valley.

"What do you say, boys?" proposed Jim Hunter to Longfield and Burks.

"Let's ride down the road a piece with Westerfelt."

"All right," both of them said. There was a general scramble of the band to get mounted. Westerfelt got on his horse and started back towards the village, accompanied by the three men. When they had ridden about a hundred yards, Westerfelt said:

"I'm taking you out of your way, gentlemen, and I think I'd rather go alone."

"Well, all right," said Hunter; "but you've got to take my gun. That whelp would resk his salvation to get even with you."

"I know it," said Westerfelt, putting the revolver into his pocket; "but he'll not try it to-night."

"No, I think he's gone fer good," said Longfield. "I guess he'll make fer Texas."

At a point where two roads crossed a few yards ahead of them, Westerfelt parted with the three men. They went back up the mountain, and he rode slowly homeward.

When he was in sight of the stable, he saw Washburn coming towards him on horseback.

"Hello! Did they hurt you, Mr. Westerfelt?" he asked.

"They never touched me."

"My Lord! how was that?"

"I told them I had nothing to do with the arrest; three of them were old friends of my father's, and they believed me. Did you find her-did you find Miss Harriet?"

"Yes; I couldn't make out what you meant 'bout the account-book at first, but I went over to the shop as soon as you all left. She wus lyin' thar on the ground in a dead faint. It took hard work to bring her to."

"You took her home?"

"Not right away; I couldn't do a thing with 'er. She acted like a crazy woman. She screamed an' raged an' tore about an' begged fer a hoss to ride atter you all. She wasn't in no fix to go; she didn't know what she wus about, an' that scamp would a-shot 'er. I believe on my soul he would."

They had reached the stable and dismounted, but neither moved to go in.

"I reckon you ought to know the truth, Washburn, since you saw her there so late at night," said Westerfelt, hesitatingly. "The fact is, she came to warn me. I suppose she knew Wambush would try to kill me, and she didn't want to-"

"She don't keer a snap for Wambush, ef that's what you mean," said Washburn, when he saw that Westerfelt was going no farther. "I know it's been the talk, an' she no doubt did like him a little at one time, but the' ain't but one man livin' she keers fer now. It ain't none o' my business-I'm no hand to meddle, but I know women! She kep' cryin' an' sayin' that they'd murder you, an' ef they did she'd kill Toot Wambush ur die in the attempt. I'm tellin' you a straight tale."

Westerfelt sat down in a chair at the side of the door. Washburn led the horse into the stable and put him into a stall. Then he came back. Westerfelt's hands were over his face, but he took them down when he heard Washburn's step.

"Did-did she hurt herself when she fell?" he asked.

"No, she's all right." Washburn hesitated a moment, then he added: "Mr. Westerfelt, you ought to go up to yore room an' try to rest some; this night's been purty rough on you atter bein' down in bed so long."

Westerfelt rose silently and went through the office and up the stairs.

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