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   Chapter 17 No.17

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 18003

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Sue Dawson leaned on the front gate at the Bradleys'.

"Hello! Hello! Hello! in thar!" she cried, in a shrill, piping voice. No one replied. "I'm a good mind to go in anyway," she thought. "I reckon they hain't got no bitin' dog." She raised the iron ring from the post and drew the sagging gate through the grooves worn in the pebbly ground and entered the yard. The front and back doors were open, and she could see a portion of the back yard through the hall.

No one seemed to be in the house. A young chicken had hopped up the back steps, crossed the entry, and was stalking about in the hall chirping hollowly, as if bewildered by its surroundings. Across the rear door a sudden gust of wind blew a wisp of smoke, and then it occurred to Mrs. Dawson that some one might be in the back yard. She drove the chicken before her as she stalked through the hall.

Martha Bradley was making soap. With her back to the house, she was stirring a boiling mixture of grease and lye in a large wash-pot. Under the eaves of the kitchen stood an ash-hopper, from the bottom of which trickled a tiny amber stream.

"Howdy, Marthy?" said Mrs. Dawson, behind Mrs. Bradley's back. "It was so still in the house, I 'lowed you wus all dead an' buried."

Mrs. Bradley turned and dropped her paddle. "Why, ef it hain't Mis'

Dawson, as I'm alive! Whar on earth are you bound fer?"

"Jest come over fer a day ur so," was the reply. "I thought some o' stoppin' at the hotel, but, on second thought, I 'lowed you an' Luke mought think strange ef I did, so heer I am."

"I've al'ays got room fer a old neighbor, an' you'd a-been lonely at the hotel. I'm glad you come, but-" Mrs. Bradley took up her paddle and began to stir the contents of the pot. "I reckon, I ortter tell you, plain, Mis' Dawson, that John Westerfelt is stayin' with us. We've got plenty o' room fer you both, but I thought it mought not be exactly agreeable fer you."

A spiteful fire kindled in Mrs. Dawson's eyes. "It mought upset him a little speck, Marthy, but I hain't done nothin' to be ashamed uv myse'f."

Mrs. Bradley went to the ash-hopper and filled a dipper with lye and poured it into the pot. Then she wiped her hands on her apron. "John Westerfelt's had enough trouble to kill a ordinary man, Mis' Dawson," she said, "an' I'm his friend to the backbone; ef you've got any ill-will agin 'im, don't mention it to me. Besides, now would be a good time fer you to show Christian forbearance. He's been thoughtless, but heer lately he is a changed man, an' I believe he's tryin' his level best to do right in God's sight. He's had a peck o' trouble in one way or another over heer, but, in addition to that, I'm mistaken ef he don't suffer in secret day and night."

"You don't say," cried Mrs. Dawson, eagerly. "I 'lowed he wus cuttin' a wide swath over heer."

"Never was a bigger mistake. He don't visit a single gal in the place. He neglects his business, an' spends most o' his time in the woods pretendin' to hunt, but he seldom fetches back a thing, and you know he used to be the best shot at the beef matches. Luke thinks his mind is turned a little bit. Luke happened to go 'long the Shader Rock road t'other day an' seed John lyin' flat o' his back in the woods. He passed 'im twice inside of a hour, an' he hadn't moved a peg. No healthy minded man don't carry on that way, Mis' Dawson."

"Hain't he a-settin' up to that hotel gal?" Mrs. Bradley turned towards the house with her guest. "No, he hain't," she answered. "She nussed him when he wus down, an'-well, maybe she does kinder fancy him a little-any natcherl girl would-I don't say she does nor doesn't, but he hain't been to see 'er, to my knowledge, a single time, nur has never tuk her out to any o' the parties. No, thar's nothin' twixt 'em; she tried to git 'im to come stay at the hotel when he wus sick atter the Whitecap outrage, an' I thought she acted a little for'ard then, but he refused an' come to us instead."

"You don't say so; why, I heerd-"

"A body kin always heer more about a thing fur off than right whar it happens," concluded Mrs. Bradley. They were now in the sitting-room, and Mrs. Dawson took off her bonnet and shawl. Mrs. Bradley put some pieces of pine under the smouldering logs in the fireplace and swept the hearth.

That night when Westerfelt came home supper was on the table. He was surprised to see the visitor, but she did not notice him and he said nothing to her. The meal passed awkwardly. Luke made an effort to keep up the conversation with her by asking about his friends in her neighborhood, but her replies were in a low tone and short, and he finally gave up the attempt.

Westerfelt rose from the table before any of the others and left the house. As he turned from the gate to go to the stable, he looked through the window and saw Mrs. Dawson move her chair to the fire. He paused and leaned against the fence. The firelight shone in the old woman's face; it was sad and careworn. Somehow she reminded him of his mother, as she had looked a short time before she died. He started on slowly, but came back again to the same spot. Luke wiped his mouth on the corner of the table-cloth, rose from the table, and went out at the back door. Westerfelt heard his merry whistle at the barn. Mrs. Bradley filled a large pan with dishes and took them into the kitchen. Mrs. Dawson bent over the fire. Something in the curve of her back and the trembling way she held her hands to the blaze made him think again of his mother. He hesitated a moment, then, lifting the ring from the post, he pushed the gate open and went round the house and into the kitchen.

In a corner dimly lighted by a tallow-dip, and surrounded by pans, pots, and cooking utensils, Mrs. Bradley stood washing dishes. She turned when he entered.

"Why," she exclaimed, "I-I thought you'd gone; what are you comin' in the back way fer?"

"I've got something to say to-to her," he said, in a low tone. "I thought I'd ask you to stay out here for a minute-I won't be long."

She said nothing for a moment, but looked at him strangely, as she slowly dried her hands on a dish-towel. Then she burst out impulsively:

"John Westerfelt, ef Luke wusn't so particular 'bout my conduct with men, I'd kiss you smack dab in the mouth an' hug you; no wonder women make fools of the'rse'ves about you. Ef anybody ever dares agin to say anything agin yore character to me, I'll-"

She choked up, turned to the corner, and dived into her dishpan, and he saw only her back. He went into the next room. Mrs. Dawson's dull glance was fixed on the coals under the logs. She started when she looked up and saw him behind her, and shrank from him in a pitiful blending of fright and questioning astonishment as he drew a chair near to hers and sat down.

"What do you want, man?" she asked, looking towards the kitchen door, as if she hoped Mrs. Bradley would appear.

"I want to talk to you, Mrs. Dawson," he said. "I don't want you to hate me any longer. I am awfully sorry for you; I did you a big injury, but I didn't do it on purpose. I did not dream it would end like it did. I have suffered over it night and day. It will stick to me the rest of my life."

The old woman was rapidly regaining her self-possession and with it her hatred of him; her eyes flashed in the firelight. The sad expression he had surprised on her face was gone.

"She's in 'er grave," she snarled. "Give 'er back an' I'll git down on my knees to you, as much as I hate you!"

"You know I'm helpless to undo what's been done," he said, regretfully.

"Well, take yorese'f out'n my sight then. You've made a' ol' woman perfectly miserable; go on an' marry, an' be happy, ef you kin."

"I never expect to be that. I've repented of my conduct a thousand times. I have suffered as much as God ought to make a man suffer for a wrong deed."

"Not as much as me, an' I hain't guilty o' no crime nuther."

"I've humbly begged your forgiveness. I can do no more." He rose slowly, despondently.

"Git out'n my sight, you vagabond!" Mrs. Dawson's voice rose till the last word ended in a shriek.

Footsteps were heard in the kitchen, the door opened, and Mrs. Bradley strode in, her face aflame. Westerfelt stepped towards her and put his hands on her shoulders.

"Don't say anything," he said; "for God's sake, pity her."

"I cayn't stand it," she blurted out, half crying; "she's gwine entirely too fur!" She pushed his hands down and stood glaring at Mrs. Dawson.

"Look a heer, Sue Dawson," she said, getting her breath fast, "yo're a older woman an' me, an' I've got due respect fer age an' a gray head, but John Westerfelt is my friend, an' is a-visitin' of me 'n' Luke at present. You are welcome in my house ef you'll behave yorese'f decent, but you cayn't come under my roof to goad him to desperation. Now I've said my say. Thar's the door ef you dare open yore mouth agin. Thar ain't a speck o' Christian sperit in you. I'm ash

amed to call you neighbor."

With an expression of mingled anger and fear in her face, Mrs. Dawson looked at her hostess, and without a word rose stiffly and went to the bed, on which lay her shawl, carpet-bag, and bonnet. Her face was to the wall as she drew her bonnet on and began to tie the strings.

"I'll go out the back way," whispered Westerfelt to Mrs. Bradley; "for

God's sake, don't let her go!"

"All right," promised Mrs. Bradley; "go on. I'll make 'er stay, I reckon, but she's as stubborn as a mule."

He went through the kitchen, round the house, and out at the gate. He stopped, leaned against the fence, and watched the two women through the window. Mrs. Dawson had put on her shawl. She held her bag in front of her, and stood in the centre of the room. Mrs. Bradley leaned against the mantel-piece. Their lips moved, and Mrs. Dawson was gesticulating furiously, but he could not hear their voices. Suddenly Mrs. Bradley took the bag from the old woman and put it on the bed. Then she untied Mrs. Dawson's bonnet-strings, took off the bonnet and shawl, and drew her back to the fire. They stood talking for a moment, then sat down together. Mrs. Bradley, holding the shawl and bonnet in her lap, put her arm round the old woman. Mrs. Dawson began fumbling in the pocket of her dress. She got out her handkerchief and held it to her face, then Mrs. Bradley began to wipe her own eyes on the corner of her apron.

"My God!" groaned Westerfelt, as he turned away, "this is more than I can bear!"

The next day was Sunday. It was as bright and balmy as spring. Westerfelt slept late. When he went in to breakfast Mrs. Bradley told him that Mrs. Dawson was out at the barn with Luke. They all intended to go to camp-meeting that day, she said. A revival had been going on at the meeting-house for the past week, and the congregation had increased so much that the little building would no longer hold the people. It had, therefore, been announced that the Sunday service would be held at Stone Hill Camp-ground, two miles from the village on the most picturesque of the Cohutta Valley roads.

As Westerfelt went down to the stable after breakfast he saw wagons, hacks, and old-fashioned carriages standing at nearly every gate on the street. Washburn and a colored boy, Jake, were at the stable busy washing and oiling the wheels of vehicles and currying horses.

"I wus jest about to send up to you," was Washburn's greeting. "Turnouts are at a premium to-day. I didn't know whether to let out yore own hoss an' buggy or not; two or three fellers that want to take the'r girls are offerin' any price fer some'n to ride in."

"I am going myself."

"Hossback ur buggy?"

"Buggy." Westerfelt turned suddenly and walked back towards the hotel. He had decided to invite Harriet Floyd to go to camp-meeting with him, let the consequences be what they might. He wanted to see her, and nothing should prevent it-not even Mrs. Dawson's presence in the village nor her threats.

As Westerfelt walked away Washburn said to himself; "It u'd be tough on 'im ef Bascom Bates is ahead of 'im, after all his hangin' back. By George! I can't imagine who else Bates could 'a' intended to ask; he's give up goin' to Hansard's. I'll bet my hat Bates means business with Miss Harriet."

Westerfelt walked into the parlor of the hotel. A colored girl was sweeping the carpet and went out to tell Harriet that he wished to see her. Harriet didn't keep him waiting long. On rising she had dressed for church. She wore a pretty gray gown with a graceful bow of ribbon at her throat, and carried her cloak on her arm. She put it on the sofa as she entered. She was agitated, and he felt her hand quiver when he took it.

"I came to ask you to drive to the camp-ground with me," he said, as her hand slid out of his; "will you go?"

"Why-why," she stammered, "I-I-promised to go with Mr. Bates; I'm very sorry; if I had known-"

He glanced through the open door; his face had suddenly grown cold, hard, and suspicious. He was jealous even of a man she had never been with before. She sank into a chair and looked up at him helplessly, appealingly. She knew he was jealous, and in that proof of his love her heart went out to him.

"Oh, it don't matter," he said, quickly. "I'm going to drive out myself anyway, and I thought if you had nobody to take you, you might like to go 'long."

"He asked me yesterday," she faltered. Her voice was full of startled concern. "I'd rather go with you, you know I had. I have never gone with him anywhere. We are almost strangers. I-I would hardly know how to talk to him."

She knew it was not with his natural voice that Westerfelt answered. "Well," he said, coldly, "you can't go with two fellows, and he got to you first. I reckon Bates knows the roads; you'd better take the river-bottom route. Washburn says the other is not as good as it might be. Good-bye."

He had reached the veranda when she called him back. As he re-entered the room she rose and stepped towards him.

"Are you mad with me, Mr. Westerfelt?"

He was ashamed of himself, but he could not conquer his horrible humor. "Not in the least; I don't blame you." His tone was still cold and his glance averted. She put her handkerchief to her face in vexation, but removed it quickly as she caught his glance.

"I'll not go; I'll stay at home," she affirmed.

"No, go; you'd never hear the end of it if you were to slight Bates."

"Shall I see you out there?"

"I reckon not," he laughed, harshly. "I never want anybody bothering me when I take a girl anywhere, and I try to obey the Golden Rule with other men. You belong to Bates to-day." He left the room. She heard him stride across the veranda and walk hurriedly away. She went to the window and tried to catch another glimpse of him, but he was out of sight. She turned into the next room. Her mother was there packing some table linen into the bottom of a wardrobe.

"Mother," the girl faltered, "Mr. Westerfelt asked me just now to go to the camp-ground with him."

Mrs. Floyd let a table-cloth which she was folding hang down in front of her for a moment as she looked at Harriet. "Well, you told him you was going with Bascom Bates, didn't you?"

"Yes, of course, but-"

"Well, what of it? I wish you'd just look what a mess the rats have gone and made of this linen. They've been trying to gnaw the starch out of it, and have cut holes in nearly every piece."

"He looked mad, mother; he pretended he didn't care, but I never saw such a look on anybody's face. Oh, mother-"

"Harriet!" Mrs. Floyd looked straight into the girl's eyes as she closed the wardrobe door and turned the key. "Looky' here, I'm older than you, and I know men a sight better. Mr. Westerfelt is a nice man and a good enough catch, but he's got plenty of faults. You've just got to listen to reason. Some men will despise a girl quicker for letting themselves be run over than anything else, and he's one of that sort. He has deliberately insulted you by throwing up a delicate matter to you, which God knows you couldn't help, and now-well, he's a purty thing to dictate to you who you go with-"

"Mother, something was wrong with his mind when he said that," interrupted Harriet. "He's just gettin' well, that's all. Oh, mother, he loves me-I know he does-I know it! I'll bet he hardly remembers what he said. And now this old Bascom Bates has come between us."

Mrs. Floyd was moved, in spite of her desire to hold her ground.

"Yes," she admitted, "I think he acts like he loves you, and after staying away so long, his wanting to go with you to-day looks powerful like he has come to his senses at last. But you will spoil it all if you slight another respectable man to please him. That's the long and short of it. Now, you take my advice and give him as good as he sends every time, and a little more to boot. It's a woman's right."

"Mother, you don't know Mr. Westerfelt; he-"

"La! yes, I do; they are every one p'int-blank alike. They want what they can't get, and what other men have, a sight more than what is in easy reach. If you've got any gumption, you'll make him think you are having a mighty good time with Bascom Bates to-day. If Bascom keeps coming to see you it will make him think all the more of you, too. Bates belongs to mighty nigh as good stock as he does anyway, and folks say he is the sharpest trader and note-shaver in the county. Ef you don't encourage him to come regular I shall do it for you. And if I ever get a chance I'll throw out a hint to Westerfelt that you have a little leaning towards the law anyway."

"I don't want you to do that, mother," objected Harriet, quite seriously.

Mrs. Floyd laughed slyly as she turned away. "You leave them two Jakes to me. I feel like I was a girl again. We used to have lots o' fun with Mr. Floyd, me 'n' mother did. Did I ever tell you the time me'n' her-" But Harriet, with a preoccupied air, had turned away.

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