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   Chapter 14 No.14

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 21301

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The dawn was breaking when Harriet Floyd stole up to her room under the slant of the roof. She had no idea of trying to sleep. She sat down on the side of the bed, shivering with cold. Through the small-paned dormer window the gray light fell, bringing into vague relief the different objects in the room. Down in the back yard the chickens were flapping their wings and crowing lustily. Through the dingy glass she could see the cow-lot, the sagging roof of the wagon-shed, the barn, the ricks of hay, and the bare branches of the apple-trees still holding a few late apples. Her shoes were wet with dew and her dress and shawl hung limply about her.

There was a sudden step in the hall; a hand touched the latch; the door opened cautiously.

"Harriet!"

"Yes, mother."

Mrs. Floyd glided across the floor, sat down on the bed by her daughter, and stared at her in wonder.

"Where on earth have you been? I have been watching for you all night.

Oh, my child, what is the matter? What has gone wrong?"

"I have been out trying to save Mr. Westerfelt. Toot led the Regulators down an' they took him out. I warned him, but he would not go in time and they took him to the mountain."

"Good Heavens! what did they intend to do with him?"

"Most of them meant only to frighten him and to whip him, but Toot

Wambush will kill him if he gets a chance."

"I don't believe they'll harm him," said Mrs. Floyd, consolingly. "Anyway, we can't do anything; get in bed and let me cover you up; you are damp to the skin and all of a quiver; you'll catch your death sitting here."

Mrs. Floyd put her hand round Harriet, but she sprang up and pulled down a heavy cloak from a hook on the wall.

"I did not come here to go to bed!" she cried. She put the garment on and strode past her mother to the window. Mrs. Floyd followed her movements with an anxious glance. At the window Harriet turned and stamped her foot. "Do you think I'm going to bed when I don't know-oh, my God, I can't bear it! I can't bear it!" She suddenly approached her bewildered mother, put her hands on her shoulders, and turned her face to the light. "You hear me, mother? As God in Heaven is my witness, if a hair of that man's head is harmed to-night, I'll kill Toot Wambush on sight. I'll kill him, if I hang for it! I swear it before God! Do you hear? I swear it-no power on earth shall stop me! I'll do it!"

Her body swayed. She made a step towards the door and sank down in a swoon. Mrs. Floyd sprang for a pitcher of water and sprinkled her face. The girl revived a little, and her mother raised her in her arms, put her on the bed, and drew the covers over her. Harriet closed her eyes drowsily. She did not seem wholly conscious. Mrs. Floyd went down-stairs and lighted a fire in the kitchen stove, and put on some water to heat. Then she went to the cook's room off the back porch and shook the door.

"Get up quick, Em', Harriet is sick!" she cried; then she ran up to her own room, opposite Harriet's, and finished dressing herself. As she was crossing the hall she saw a man on horseback in the street. She went out on the veranda and called to him. At first she did not recognize him, but when he came nearer she saw that it was Washburn.

"Are you going to help Mr. Westerfelt?" she asked, in a low tone, as she leaned over the railing.

"I've done all that kin be done," he said. "I've been round among the

citizens. They all say we'd be fools to try to do anything, Mrs.

Floyd. Some are skeerd to death, an' others pretend they don't think

Mr. Westerfelt's in danger."

She did not answer, fearing her voice would rouse Harriet, and after he had ridden away, she went back to the girl's room. Harriet was asleep, so she left her. A few hours later the barkeeper's wife came into the kitchen and told Mrs. Floyd the latest news. She dropped the pan she was cleaning and eagerly ran up to Harriet.

The noise of the opening door roused the girl. She sat up, stared in a dazed way at her mother an instant, then threw off the coverings and sprang out of bed.

"I've been asleep; Mr. Westerfelt! Oh, mother, why did you let me-"

"He's all right!" interrupted Mrs. Floyd. "They didn't touch a hair of his head." Harriet stared open-mouthed.

"He's back safe and sound," went on Mrs. Floyd; "he proved himself innocent and they let 'im go."

"Oh, mother, mother!" Harriet put her arms round the old woman's neck and clung to her. "Thank God! Oh, mother, thank God-thank God!" Then she sat down in a chair and began hastily to put on her shoes.

"What are you going to do?"

"Going to see him."

"Not now; why-"

"I will see him. Let me alone; don't try to stop me!"

"You surely would not go to the stable! He-"

"I'd go anywhere to see him. I don't care what people say; I'm going to see him."

As Harriet bent to fasten her shoes, Mrs. Floyd touched her.

"Daughter, are you engaged to Mr. Westerfelt?"

Harriet did not look up. She still bent over her shoes, but the strings lay motionless in her fingers.

"No, he intimated he couldn't marry me, on-on account of my misfortune. Oh, don't let's talk about it. He and I understand each other. He loves me, but we're not engaged."

Mrs. Floyd leaned against the mantel-piece. Her face had become hard and stern. Harriet started to leave the room, but Mrs. Floyd suddenly stepped between her and the door.

"He intimated that that would keep him from marrying you? My

Lord-the coward!"

"Mother, don't-don't say that!"

"I thought he was a man! Why, he is lower than a brute."

Harriet disengaged herself from her mother's grasp, and passed on to the door. She turned on the threshold.

"I have no time to quarrel with you about him," she said, with a sigh; "you can have your opinion, nothing on earth will change mine. He loves me. I am going to see him now, and nothing you can say or do will prevent me."

Her shoes rattled loosely on the bare floor and on the stairs as she went down to the street.

During the night the sycamore-trees had strewn the ground with half-green, half-yellow leaves, and the tops of the fences were white with frost. Martin Worthy was taking down the shutters at the store and calling through the window to his wife, who was unscrewing them on the inside. A farmer had left his team in front of the bar, and she saw him taking his morning drink at the counter and heard Buck Hillhouse giving him an exaggerated report of the visit of the Whitecaps. The eastern sky was yellowing, and a peak of the tallest mountain cut a brown gash in the coming sunlight. At the fence in front of Bufford Webb's cottage a cow stood lowing for admittance, and a milking-pail hung on the gate.

As Harriet passed, Mrs. Webb came out with a bucket of "slop" for the pig in a pen near the fence. She rested it on the top rail to speak to Harriet, but the hungry animal made such a noise that she hastened first to empty the vessel into the trough.

"Good-morning," she said, going quickly to the gate and wiping her hands on her apron; "did you-uns heer the racket last night?"

"Yes," answered Harriet.

"I didn't sleep a wink. We could see 'em frum the kitchen winder.

It's a outrage, but I'm glad they did no rail harm."

The girl passed on. She found Washburn in front of the stable oiling a buggy. He had placed a notched plank under an axle and was rapidly twirling a wheel.

"Where is Mr. Westerfelt?" she asked.

He raised his eyes to the window in the attic. "Up thar lyin' down.

He's not in bed. He jest threw hisself down without undressing."

"Is he asleep?"

"I don't know, Miss Harriet, but I think not."

"Did they hurt him last night, Mr. Washburn?"

"Why, no, Miss Harriet, not a single bit."

She caught her breath in relief. "I thought maybe they had, and that he was not going to acknowledge it. Are-are you sure?"

"As sure as I could be of anything, Miss Harriet; I believe he is a truthful man, an' he told me they didn't lay the weight of a finger on 'im. You kin go up an' ax 'im. He ain't asleep; he looked too worried to sleep when he got back. He walked the floor the balance o' the night. Seems to me he's been through with enough to lay out six common men."

Harriet did not answer. She turned into the office and went up the stairs to Westerfelt's room. Round her was a dark, partially floored space containing hay, fodder, boxes of shelled corn, piles of corn in the husk, and bales of cotton-seed meal. She rapped on the door-facing, and, as she received no response, she called out:

"Mr. Westerfelt, come out a minute."

She heard him rise from his bed, and in a moment he stood in the doorway.

"Oh, it's you!" he cried, in a glad voice. "I was afraid you were not well. I-"

"I am all right," she assured him. "But I simply couldn't rest till I saw you with my own eyes. When I heard they let you off I was afraid it was a false report. Sometimes, when those men do a bad thing they try to cover it up. Oh, Mr. Westerfelt, I am so-so miserable!"

He caught her hands and tried to draw her into his room out of the draught which came up the stairs, but she would not go farther than the door.

"No, I must hurry back home" she said. "Mother did not want me to come anyway; she didn't think it looked right, but I was so-so worried."

"I understand." He was feasting his eyes on hers; it was as if their hunger could never be appeased. "Oh, I'm so glad you come I've had you on my mind-"

But she interrupted him suddenly. Looking round at the bleak room and its scant furniture, she said: "I-I thought may be I could persuade you now to come back to your room at the hotel, where mother and I could wait on you. You do not look as well as you did, Mr. Westerfelt."

He smiled and shook his head.

"It's mighty good of you to ask me," he returned, "but this is good enough for me, and I don't want to be such a bother. The Lord knows I was enough trouble when I was there."

A look of sharp pain came upon her sensitive face for an instant, then she said; "I wish you wouldn't talk that way; you weren't one bit of trouble."

He looked away from her. He was, indeed, not at his best. His beard had grown out on his usually clean-shaven face and his cheeks looked sallow and sunken. He was tingling all over with a raging desire to throw his arms about her and tell her how he loved her and longed to make her his wife, but suddenly a mind-picture of Toot Wambush rose before him. He saw her deliberately lying to the officers to save him from arrest, and-worse than all-he saw her in the arms of the outlaw's father sobbing o

ut a confession of her love. He told himself then, almost in abject terror of some punishment held over him by God Himself, that Mrs. Dawson's prayers would be answered-if-if he gave way. "No," he commanded himself, "I shall stand firm. She's not for me, though she may love me-though she does love me now and would wipe out the past with her life. A woman as changeable as that would change again." Then a jealous rage flared up within him, and he laid a threatening hand on either of her shoulders and glared into her eyes.

"I told you last night I'd never bring up a certain subject again, but-"

"Then you'd better not," she said, so firmly, so vindictively, that his tongue was stilled. "I came here out of kindness; don't you dare-don't you insult me again, Mr. Westerfelt."

"Oh, do forgive me! I-" But she had shaken off his hands and moved nearer the stairway.

"You made a promise last night," she reminded him, "and I did not dream you had so little respect for me as to break it so soon."

He moved towards her, his hands outstretched imploringly, but a sound from below checked him. Some one was speaking to Washburn in the office. Then footsteps were heard on the stairs, and Mrs. Bradley, followed by Luke, waddled laboriously up the steps. She was wiping her eyes, which were red from weeping. She glanced in cold surprise at Harriet, and passing her with only a nod, went to Westerfelt and threw her arms around his neck. Then with her head on his breast she burst into fresh tears.

"You pore, motherless, unprotected boy," she sobbed. "I can't bear it a bit longer. Me 'n' Luke wus the cause o' yore comin' to this oncivilized place anyway, an' you've been treated wuss 'an a dog. Ef Luke had one speck o' manhood left in him, he'd-"

Bradley advanced from the door, and drew his wife away from Westerfelt.

"Don't act so daddratted foolish," he said. "No harm hain't been done yet-no serious harm." Still holding her hand, he turned to Westerfelt; "They've tried to do you dirt, John, I know, but them boys will be the best friends on earth to you now. Ef you ever want to run fer office all you got to do is to announce yorese'f. Old Hunter wus down at Bill Stone's this mornin' as we passed buyin' his fine hoss to replace yore'n."

"I reckon they've run Toot Wambush clean off," put in Mrs. Bradley, looking significantly at Harriet. She expected the girl to reply, but Harriet only avoided her glance. Mrs. Bradley rubbed her eyes again, put her handkerchief into her pocket, and critically surveyed the damp, bedraggled dress of the girl.

"It's mighty good of you to come down to see 'im all by yourself so early," she said; "some gals wouldn't do sech a thing. The report is out that you notified John of what the band intended to do."

Harriet nodded, and looked as if she wanted to get away.

"It wus mighty good of you, especially as you an' Toot are sech firm friends," went on Mrs. Bradley; "but it's a pity you wusn't a little sooner with yore information."

"She told me in plenty of time," corrected Westerfelt. "It was my fault that I didn't get away. I didn't go when Miss Harriet told me to."

His reply did not please Mrs. Bradley, as she showed by her next remark. "I'd think you'd be afeerd o' makin' Toot madder at you 'n he already is," she said to Harriet.

The girl did not look at her. She was watching Westerfelt, who had suddenly moved to the bed and sat down. When she spoke she directed her explanation to Bradley rather than to his wife.

"Mother and I thought Mr. Westerfelt ought not to stay here alone, and that we'd get him to come over to the room he had in the hotel; so we-"

"You an' yore mother hain't knowed 'im sence he wus knee-high like me an' Luke has," jealously retorted Mrs. Bradley. "I reckon it's time we wus givin' the boy a little attention. We've got the buggy down thar waitin', John, an' a hot breakfast ready at home. I won't stand no refusal. You jest got to come with us; you needn't make no excuse."

"I'm not sick," answered Westerfelt, with a faint smile. He glanced at Harriet. With an unsteady step she was moving away. He wanted to call to her, but the presence of the others sealed his lips. She turned out into the semi-darkness of the loft, and then they heard her descending the stairs.

The sun was rising as she went back to the hotel. No one was in the parlor. She entered it and closed the door after her. She drew up the window-shade and looked down the street till she saw Mrs. Bradley and Westerfelt pass in a buggy. Then she went into the dining-room, where a servant was laying a cloth on a long table, took down a stack of plates from a shelf, and began to put them in their places.

When breakfast was over that morning Westerfelt went back to the stable. While sitting in the office. Long Jim Hunter came to the door leading a fine bay horse, a horse that Westerfelt recognized at a glance as one he had seen and admired before.

"Oh, Mr. Westerfelt," he called out over Washburn's shoulder, who had gone to him. "I wish you'd step heer a minute. I know you don't do the rough work round heer, but I like to have my dealings with the head of a shebang. Wash, heer, never did have much more sense 'n a chinch, nohow."

"What can I do for you, Mr. Hunter?" asked the man addressed, coming out.

There was a decidedly sheepish look in the old man's face, and he swung the halter of the horse awkwardly to and fro.

"Well, you see, it's jest this way, Westerfelt," he began, with an effort. "I've bought this blamed hoss frum Bill Stone an' I want to leave 'im heer with you. I want you to put 'im through any sort o' work you see fit; he's too blam' fat an' frisky anyhow."

Westerfelt comprehended the whole situation, but he did not want to accept the horse. "Why, Mr. Hunter, really-" he began.

"Oh, we'll take yore hoss," laughed Washburn. "We kin take the kinks out'n his mane an' tail an' make 'im wish he never wus born. Oh, Lordy, yes, we want 'im, an' ef you've got a good saddle an' bridle ur a buggy hustle 'em around."

"Well, you'd better 'tend to 'im." Hunter tossed the halter to Washburn. "I'll be blamed ef I want 'im." And he turned and without another word walked away.

"It's wuth three o' the one they shot," was Washburn's laconic observation. He looked the animal over admiringly and slapped him so vigorously under the belly that the horse grunted and humped his back.

Cartwright, like nearly every other Georgian village, had its lawyer. Bascom Bates was a young man of not more than thirty, but he was accounted shrewd by many older legal heads, who had been said to have advised him to move to a larger place. When business did not come to his office, Bates sometimes went after it. If a woman lost a husband in a railway wreck or was knocked off the track where he had no right to be, Bates called as early as possible and offered to direct a suit against the corporation for damages at half the usual price-that is, as Bill Stone once put it, the widow got half and Bates half, which nobody seemed to think exorbitant, because it cost a lawyer a good deal to get his education, and court convened but twice a year. He was among the first to call on Westerfelt that morning, and with a mysterious nod and crooking of his fingers in the air he induced the young man to follow him into one of the vacant stalls in the back part of the long building.

"Thar's something that has jest struck me, Westerfelt," he began, in the low voice of an electioneering candidate, and he possessed himself of one of Westerfelt's lapels and began to rub his thick, red fingers over it. "I wouldn't have you mention me in the matter, for really I hain't got a thing ag'in any of these mountain men, but I thought I'd say to you as a friend that this is a damageable case. Them men could be handled for what they done last night, and made to sweat for it-sweat hard cash, as the feller said."

Westerfelt stared at him in surprise.

"Oh," he said, "I never thought of that. I-"

"Well, there ain't no harm in looking at the thing from all sides," broke in the lawyer, as deliberately as his professional eagerness would permit. "A good price could be made out of the ring-leaders anyway. Old Jim Hunter's got two hundred acres o' bottom land as black as that back yard out thar, an' it's well stocked, an' I know all the rest o' the gang an' their ability to plank up. Maybe it wouldn't even get as far as court. Them fellers would pay up rather than be published all over creation as-"

Westerfelt drew back, smiling. He did not really dislike Bates, and he attributed his present proposition to the desire to advance in his profession, but he was far from falling into the present proposal.

"I haven't the slightest intention of prosecuting, Mr. Bates," he declared, firmly. "In fact, nothing could persuade me to take a single step in that direction."

The face of the lawyer fell.

"Oh, that's the way you feel. Well," scratching his chin, "I don't know as it makes much difference one way or the other, but I hope, Mr. Westerfelt, that you won't mention what I said. These fellers are the very devil about boycottin' people."

"It shall go no further," answered Westerfelt, and together they walked to the front. A few minutes after Bates had gone across the street to his office, old Hunter slouched into the stable and stood before Westerfelt. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder in Bates's direction and grinned uneasily. Then he spat, and delivered himself of this:

"I'll bet I kin make a powerful good guess at what that feller wanted to see you about."

Westerfelt smiled good-naturedly. He felt irresistibly drawn towards the old man.

"Do you think you could, Mr. Hunter?"

"I'd bet a ten-acre lot agin a ginger-cake. An' I'll bet some'n else; I'll bet ten dollars 'gin a nickel that Cap. Westerfelt's boy ain't a-gwine to harbor no ill-will agin one o' his daddy's old friends that wus actin' the damn fool 'fore he knowed who he wus monkeyin' with."

"You'd win on that bet, Mr. Hunter," and Westerfelt gave the old man his hand.

Hunter's shook as with palsy as he grasped and held it. Tears rose in his eyes. "Lord, Lord A'mighty!" he said, "when I reecolect that the young chap 'at stood up thar so spunky all by hisse'f last night, in that moonlight an' sassed all of us to our teeth was Cap. Westerfelt's boy-by God, I jest want some hound dog to come an' take my place on God's earth-so I do. I want some able-bodied cornfield nigger to wear a hickory-withe out on my bare back." Then he dropped Westerfelt's hand and strode away.

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