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   Chapter 15 No.15

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 6263

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Westerfelt accepted the urgent invitation of the Bradleys to live in their house awhile. For the first week his wound gave him pain and his appetite failed him, which was due as much, perhaps, to mental as bodily trouble, for Harriet Floyd was on his mind constantly. Thoroughly disgusted with himself for having in the past treated the hearts of women lightly, he now drew the rein of honor tightly when he thought of his position and hers. He told himself he would never go to see her again till he had made up his mind to forget her love for Wambush and every rasping fact pertaining to it, and honorably ask her to be his wife. There were moments in which he wondered if she were not, on her part, trying to forget him, and occasionally, when his spirits sank lowest, he actually harbored the fear that her affection might already have returned to Wambush. He recalled something he had once heard that a woman would love a man who was unfortunate more surely than one who was not, and this thought almost drove him mad with jealousy, for was she not likely, through pity, to send her heart after the exile? Now and then, in passing the hotel, he caught a glimpse of Harriet on the veranda or at the window, but she always turned away, as if she wished to avoid meeting him, and this pained him, too, for she had become his very life, and such cold encounters were like permanent steps towards losing her forever, which, somehow, had never quite shaped itself into a possibility in his mind.

It was a warm day in the middle of November, Westerfelt and Washburn stood at the stable waiting for the hack, which, once a day, brought the mail and passengers from Darley. It had come down the winding red clay road and stopped at the hotel before going on to the stable.

"I see a woman on the back seat," remarked Washburn. "Wonder why she didn't git out at the hotel."

In a moment the hack was in front of the stable, and Budd Ridly, the driver, had sprung down and was helping a woman out on the opposite side. When she had secured her shawl and little carpet-bag, she walked round the hack and came towards Westerfelt.

It was Sue Dawson. She wore the same black cotton bonnet and gown, now faded and soiled, that she had worn at her daughter's funeral.

"Howdy' do?" she said, giving him the ends of her fingers, and resting her carpet-bag on her hip. "I 'lowed you'd be glad to see me." There was a malicious gleam in her little blue eyes, and her withered face was hard and pale and full of desperate purpose.

"How do you do?" he replied.

She smiled as she slowly scrutinized him.

"Well, you don't look as if you wus livin' on a bed of ease exactly," she said, in a tone of satisfaction; "you've been handled purty rough, I reckon, fer a dandified feller like you, but-" She stopped suddenly and glanced at Washburn, who was staring at her in surprise, then went on: "Budd Ridly couldn't change a five-dollar bill, an' he 'lowed I might settle my fare with the proprietor uv the shebang. Don't blame Budd; I tol' 'im I wus well acquainted with the new stableman; an' I am, I reckon, ef _any_body is. I had

business over heer," she went on, as she got out her old-fashioned pocket-book and fumbled it with trembling fingers. "I couldn't attend to it by writin'; some'n's gone wrong with the mails; it looks like I cayn't git no answers to the letters I write."

Washburn took the money and went into the office for the change.

"I didn't see what good it would do to write, Mrs. Dawson," said Westerfelt; "maybe it was wrong for me not to, but I've had a lot to bear; and you-"

"That you have," she interrupted, her face hardening, as she looked across the ploughed fields, bordered by strips of yellow broom-sedge, towards the pine forests in the west. "You wus cut bad, I heer, an' laid up fer a week ur so, an' then the skeer them Whitecaps give you on top of it must a' been awful to a proud sperit like yore'n; but even sech as that will wear off in time. But nothin' human, John Westerfelt-nothin' human kin fetch back the dead. Sally's place is unoccupied. I'm doin' her work every day, an' her dressin' an' pore little Sunday fixin's is all still a-hangin' on the wall. She wus the only gal-"

Washburn came back with the change. The old woman's thin hands quivered as she took the coin and slowly counted the pieces into her pocket-book, Washburn suspected from the expression of Westerfelt's face that the conversation was of a private nature, so he went out to the hack to help Budd unharness the horses.

"No," went on the old woman, sternly, "you've brought about a pile o' misery in yore life, John Westerfelt, an' you hain't a-gwine to throw it off like a ol' coat, an' dance an' make merry. You may try that game; but yore day is over; you already bear the mark of it in yore face an' sunk cheeks. You've got another gal on yore string by this time, too."

"You are mistaken, Mrs. Dawson."

"How about the one at the hotel that nussed you through yore sick spell?"

"There is nothing between us." He hesitated, then added: "Nothing at all, nor there never will be."

"You say thar hain't, but that don't prove it. I want to lay eyes on her; I can tell ef you have been up to yore old tricks when I see 'er. Ef she's got a purty face you have."

He made no reply.

She hitched her burden up on her left hip and curved her body to the right. "I'm a-gwine to put up thar, an' I'll see. The Bradleys 'll think quar ef I don't put up with them, I reckon; but I'm gwine to try hotellin' fer once. Right now it's in my line uv business. Good-mornin'; I don't owe you anything-nothin' in the money way, I mean. Ah! you think I'm a devil, I reckon; well, you made me what I am. I'm yore work, John Westerfelt!"

He stood in the stable door and watched the little bent figure walk away. He saw her pass the cottages, the store, the bar, and enter the hotel; then he went through the stable into the back yard and stood against the wall in the warm sunlight. He didn't want Washburn to come to him just then with any questions about business. A sudden, startling fear had come to him. He was going to lose Harriet now, and through Mrs. Dawson, and it would be the just consequences of his early indiscretion.

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