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   Chapter 16 No.16

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 17879

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


As the old woman entered the hotel she saw no one. Looking into the parlor, and seeing it empty, she went down the hall to the rear of the house. The door of the dining-room was open. Mrs. Floyd was there arranging some jars of preserves in the cupboard, and turned at the sound of the slip-shod feet.

"Good-morning," Mrs. Floyd said; "won't you have a seat?"

Mrs. Dawson put her shawl and carpetbag on a chair. "I want to put up heer to-night," she said. "I never put up at a tavern in my life, an' I'm a sorter green hand at it. I reckon you could tell that by lookin' at me."

"We are pretty full," said Mrs. Floyd; "but we will manage to make a place for you somehow. My daughter will show you a room. Oh, Harriet!"

"Yes, mother." Harriet came in from the kitchen. She had overheard the conversation. Mrs. Dawson eyed her critically and slowly from head to foot.

"This lady wants to stop with us," said Mrs. Floyd; "show her to the little room upstairs."

Harriet took the carpet-bag. "Do you want to go up now?"

"I reckon I mought as well."

Harriet preceded her to a little room at the head of the stairs. The girl was drawing up the window-shade to let light into the room when the old woman spoke. "You are the gal that nussed John Westerfelt through his spell, I reckon," she said.

Harriet turned to her in surprise. "Yes, he was with us," she replied.

"Do you know him?"

"A sight better 'n you do, I'm a-thinkin'," Mrs. Dawson seated herself, took off her bonnet, and began nervously folding it on her knee. "But not better 'n you will, ef you don't mind what yo're about."

Harriet flushed in mingled embarrassment and anger. Without replying, she started to leave the room, but Mrs. Dawson caught the skirt of her dress and detained her.

"You don't know who I am. I had a daughter-"

"I know all about it." Harriet jerked her skirt from the old woman's hand and looked angrily into her face. "She drowned herself because he didn't love her. I do know who you are; you are a devil disguised as a woman! He may have caused your daughter's death, but he did not do it intentionally, but you-you would murder him in cold blood if you could. You have come all the way over here to drive him to desperation. You-you are a bad woman. I mean it!"

For a moment Mrs. Dawson was thrown entirely off her guard by the unexpected attack. She rose and stretched out a quivering hand for her carpet-bag, which she had put on the bed. She shifted it excitedly from one hand to the other, and looked towards the door.

"Yo're jest one more uv his fool victims, I kin see that," she gasped.

"He's the deepest, blackest scoundrel on the face of the earth!"

Harriet's eyes flashed. "He's the best man I ever saw, and has had more to put up with. You've come over here to persecute him; but you sha'n't stay in this house. Get right out; we don't want you!"

"Why, Harriet, what on earth do you mean?" exclaimed Mrs. Floyd, suddenly entering the room.

Harriet pointed at Mrs. Dawson. "This woman has come over here to worry the life out of Mr. Westerfelt because he didn't marry her daughter. She wrote threatening letters to him while he was at death's door, and is doing her best now to drive him crazy. She sha'n't stay under this roof while I am here. You know I mean exactly what I say, mother. She goes or I do. Take your choice!"

"Mr. Westerfelt has had a lot of trouble," began Mrs. Floyd, wondering what it could all be about; "everybody here is in sympathy with him. We are all liable to mistakes; surely you can pardon him if-"

"Not while I'm above ground," shrieked the old woman. She dropped her bag, then picked it up awkwardly, and started to leave by a door which opened into another room. She burst into hysterical weeping when Mrs. Floyd caught her arm to detain her. "Not while I'm alive an' have my senses," she went on, in sobs and piping tones. "I'll hound him to his grave. I wouldn't stay heer over night to save my life. I'd ruther sleep in a hay-stack ur in a barn-loft."

Harriet turned her white, rigid face to the window, and stood between the parted curtains as still as a statue. Mrs. Floyd tried again to detain the old woman, but she flounced out of the room and thumped down-stairs.

The next morning a young girl came into the village by one of the mountain roads. Her face was sad and troubled, and she looked as if she had walked a long distance. She was poorly dressed, and her shoes were coarse and coated with dust, but her face was pretty and sweet.

In front of the meeting-house she stopped and sat down on a log near the road-side. When people passed she would draw her sun-bonnet over her face and turn her head from them. Suddenly she rose and trudged on to the post-office.

It was a busy day at Cartwright, and the little porch was filled with loungers. Old Jim Hunter was there with his long-barrelled rifle and a snarling opossum, the tail of which was held between the prongs of a split stick. When the animal showed a disposition to bite anybody, or crawl away, he subdued it instantly by turning the stick and twisting its tail. Joe Longfield had come with a basket of eggs packed in cotton-seed to exchange for their value in coffee, and the two wags were entertaining the crowd with jokes at the expense of each other.

As the girl passed into the store Martin Worthy was weighing a pail of butter for a countryman in a slouch hat and a suit of brown jeans. She returned his nod and went to the little pen in the corner in which the mail was kept.

"I cayn't 'low you but ten cents a pound for yore butter," Worthy said to the man. "Yore women folks never will work the water out, an' it's al'ays puffy an' white. Town people don't want sech truck. It has to be firm and yaller. Look what the Beeson gals fetch once a week. I gladly pay 'em fifteen fer it." He uncovered a pile of firm golden balls and struck them with his paddle. "Any woman can make sech butter ef they won't feed the cows cotton-seed an' will take 'nough trouble."

When the man had joined the group outside, Worthy came from behind the counter into the pen, wiping his hands on a sheet of brown paper.

"I don't think thar's a thing fer any o' yore folks, Miss Hettie," he said to the girl, "but I'll look jest to satisfy you." He took a bundle of letters from a pigeon-hole and ran them hurriedly through his hands. "Not a thing," he concluded, putting the letters back; "jest as I thought."

She paused for a moment as if about to ask a question. She put a thin hand on the cover of a sugar-barrel, and looked at him timidly from the depths of her bonnet as he came out of the pen, but she said nothing. As she started to go, her skirt caught on a sliver of the barrel, and, as she stooped to unfasten it, she almost fell forward. But she recovered herself and went out of the door towards the hitching-rack in front, paused, and looked back at the road over which she had come.

"Don't seem to know exactly whar she does want to go," remarked Jim Hunter, breaking the silence which had followed her departure from the store. "Who is she, anyway?"

"Oz Fergerson's daughter Hettie," replied Worthy, leaning against the door-jamb. "She don't look overly well; I reckon that's why she quit workin' at the hotel. She's dyin' to git a letter from some'rs; she comes reg'lar every day an' goes away powerfully disappointed."

"Never seed her before as I know of," said Longfield, handing Worthy his basket of eggs.

The girl suddenly turned down the sidewalk. She passed Mrs. Webb's cottage and the bar and went into the hotel. Mrs. Floyd met her at the door.

"Mis' Floyd, I want to see Harriet," she said.

"She's up-stairs," replied Mrs. Floyd. "I'll call her; but you'd better go in to the fire."

The girl shook her head and muttered something Mrs. Floyd could not understand, so she left her in the hall.

Mrs. Floyd found Harriet in her room. "Hettie Fergerson is down-stairs and wants to see you," she said. "She still acts very strange. I asked her to go into the parlor, but she wouldn't."

"How do you do, Hettie?" said Harriet, as she came down the steps.

"Come into the parlor; you look cold."

The girl hesitated, but finally followed Harriet into the warm room. They sat down before the fire, and there was an awkward silence for several minutes, then the visitor suddenly pushed back her bonnet and said, in a hard, desperate tone:

"Where is Toot Wambush, Harriet?"

Harriet looked at her in surprise for an instant, then she answered:

"Why, Hettie, how could I know? Nobody in Cartwright does now, I reckon."

"I thought you might." Both girls were silent for a moment, then the visitor looked apprehensively over her shoulder at the door. "Is yore ma coming in here?"

"No; she's busy in the kitchen; do you want to see her?"

"No." The girl spoke quickly and moved uneasily.

"You came to see

me?"

"I come to see _some_body-oh, Harriet, I'm so miserable! You didn't suspicion it, Harriet, but I'm afraid that man has made a plumb fool of me. I haven't slept hardly one wink since they driv' 'im off. I-" She put her hand to her eyes, and as she paused Harriet thought she was crying, but a moment later, when she removed her hand, her eyes were dry.

"Why did you come to-to see me, Hettie?" questioned Harriet.

"Because," was the slow-coming reply, "I thought maybe he had wrote back to you."

"He has never written to me, Hettie-never a line."

The face of the girl brightened. "Then you ain't engaged to him, are you, Harriet?"

"The idea! of course not."

"Oh, I'm mighty glad of that," exclaimed the visitor. "You see, I'm such a fool about him I got jealous. Oh, Harriet, there ain't no use in me tryin' to deceive myself; I know he would marry you at the drop of a hat if you'd have him. I know that, and still I am crazy about him. I ain't much to blame, Harriet, if I am foolish. He made me so, an' 'most any pore, lonely girl like I am would care for a good-looking man like he is. Oh, Harriet, it is awfully humiliating to have to think it, but I believe the reason he treats me like he does is that I showed him too plainly how much I loved him."

"I did not suspect till the other day," said Harriet, to avoid that point, "that he was paying you any particular attention. Mother told me he often drove you out home."

"Oh, la, that ain't a circumstance, Harriet! He used to come out home mighty nigh every day or night. Pa an' ma think he is a regular prince. You know he swore pa out of a big whiskey scrape in Atlanta, and since then pa and him has been mighty thick. They thought all along that Toot wanted to marry me, and it made 'em mighty proud, and then it began to look like he was settin' up to you. That's why I quit staying here, Harriet. I couldn't be around you so much and know-or think, as I did, that he was beginning to love you."

"I don't think," protested Harriet, "that he was ever deeply interested in me. You must not think that. In fact, I believe now, Hettie, that you and he will be happily married some day-if he ever gets out of his trouble."

Hettie drew in her breath quickly and held it, raising a glad glance to the speaker's face.

"Why do you think so, Harriet?-oh, you are just saying this to make me feel better."

Harriet deliberated for a moment, then she said: "He was here the night they run him off-the night they all took Mr. Westerfelt out. Mother and I had a long talk with him. Mother talked straight to him about flirting with you, and told him what a good, nice girl you were, and-"

"Oh, did she, Harriet? I could hug her for it!"

"Yes, and he talked real nice about you, too, and admitted he had acted wrong. Hettie, I believe in time that he'll come back and ask you to marry him. I believe that in the bottom of my heart."

The countenance of the visitor was now aglow with hope.

"Maybe he will-maybe he will," she said. "I was afraid I let him see too plain that I was a fool about him, but some men like that, I reckon; he always seemed to come oftener. Harriet, one thing has worried the life nearly out of me. I heard Frank Hansard say a young man never would think as much of a girl after she let him kiss her. I'm no hypocrite-I'm anything else; but as much as I'd love to have a young man I cared for kiss me, I'd die in my tracks before I'd let 'im put his arm around me if I thought it would make 'im think less of me. Do you reckon" (she was avoiding Harriet's eyes)-"do you think that would make any difference with Toot-I mean, with any young man?"

Harriet smiled in spite of the look of gravity in Hettie's eyes.

"Some men might be that way," she finally said, consolingly-she was thinking of the innate coarseness of Hettie's lover-"but I don't think Mr. Wambush is. That was one of the first things my mother ever taught me. She told me she'd learned it by experience when she was a girl. I don't pretend to be better than other girls, but I've always made men keep their distance."

Hettie shrugged her shoulders, as if to throw off some unpleasant idea.

"Oh, I don't care. I'd do it over again. Lord, I couldn't help it. I love him so, and he is so sweet and good when he tries to be. He thinks I'm all right, too, in some ways. He says I'm just the girl to marry a dare-devil like he is. Did you ever know it was me that helped get him away from the revenue men the night he had a barrel o' whiskey on his wagon?" Hettie laughed impulsively, and her graceful little body shook all over.

"Mother thought you had a hand in it," answered Harriet, with an appreciative smile.

"It was fun," giggled Hettie. "Toot drove nipitytuck down the street from the Hawkbill as fast as he could lick it, and them a-gallopin' after 'im. I had been on the front porch talkin' to his father, who was anxious about 'im and wanted to see 'im. Toot pulled up at the side gate an' said: 'No use, Het, damn it; I can't make it, and they'll know my horse and wagon an' prove it on me.' Then I thought what to do; the men wasn't in sight back there in the woods. Quicker 'n lightnin', I made Toot push the whiskey across the porch into the kitchen an' shet the door, an' when the revenue men stopped at the gate Toot was settin' up as cool as a cucumber in his wagon talkin' to me over the fence. I think he was asking me to get in the wagon and go out home with him. I never seed-saw 'im so scared, though, in my life; but la me! it was fun to me, an' I had more lies on my tongue 'n a dog has fleas.

"'Did you have a barrel on that wagon a minute ago?' one of the two men asked.

"'What'n the hell are you talkin' about?' asked Toot. 'I haven't seed-seen no barrel.'" Hettie was trying to speak correctly, but the spirit of the narrative ran away with her meagre ideas of grammar.

"'Oh,' said I, 'you've got the wrong sow by the ear; a wagon went whizzin' by here a minute ago like it was shot out of a gun.'

"'Which way?' the officer asked, rippin' out an oath that 'u'd a-took the prize at a cussin'-bee.

"I pointed down the road and said: 'I hear it a-clatterin' now,' and off they galloped. Well, Toot soon loaded the whiskey again and drove off up the mountain, but he's laughed about that a hundred times and told the moonshiners about it. Whenever I meet one in the road-I know the last one of 'em-they ask me if I've seen a whiskey wagon anywheres about. Harriet," she added, more soberly, "you've give me a sight of comfort. Now tell me about you-know-who. Toot told me the last time he was at our house that he knowed you were gone on that new feller. I'm sorry they fit, but he had no business refusin' to credit Toot. Nobody else ever did the like, and it was calculated to rile him, especially when he was full an' loaded for bear, as folks say. How are you and him makin' out, Harriet?"

Harriet's face had taken on a sober look, and she hesitated before replying; finally she said:

"There is nothing between us, Hettie, and I'd rather not talk about him."

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" the other exclaimed. "He is such a good-looking man, and so many thought you and him would come to a understanding. They say a girl gets a mighty good whack at a man when he is laid up flat of his back. I never have tried it, but it looks reasonable."

Then Hettie rose. "I'm goin' to stay to dinner with you all," she said, "and I'm going out now to help yore ma. Pore woman, she looked dead tired jest now!"

A few minutes later Mrs. Floyd came to Harriet, who was still seated in the parlor, an expression of deep thought on her face.

"Harriet," said the old lady, wiping her damp hands on her apron, "Hettie has gone to work washing dishes in there like a house a-fire. I declare she's a big help; as soon as she comes about I feel rested, for I know she won't leave a thing undone. What have you been saying to her? I never saw her so cheerful. She's been runnin' on in the kitchen like a fifteen-year-old child. I declare I can't keep from liking her. You must a-told her some'n about Toot Wambush."

"I did," admitted Harriet. "Mother, I've been standing in her way. I believe he likes her, and will marry her now that I have given him his last answer."

"Do you really, daughter?"

"Yes, I think he will-I'm almost sure of it, and I just had to tell her so, she looked so down-hearted."

Mrs. Floyd laid her hand on Harriet's head and smiled.

"You deserve to be happy, too, daughter, and somehow I feel like you are going to be. Mr. Westerfelt is nobody's fool; he knows you're sweet and good, and-"

"I don't want to talk about him, mother," Harriet said, firmly, as she rose. "I think we ought to keep Hettie a few days; she'd like to be near the post-office, I know."

"Well, the Lord knows I'm willing," consented Mrs. Floyd, as she followed her daughter to the kitchen.

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