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   Chapter 18 No.18

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 15262

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Westerfelt went back to the stable and ordered Jake to get out his horse and buggy. Washburn watched him over the back of the mule he was hitching to a spring wagon and smiled. "Got it in the neck that pop!" he murmured. "I knowed Bates wusn't a-buyin' a new whip an' lap-robe fer nothin'. I'll bet my life Mr. Westerfelt 'll lose that gal, an', by George, he ort to! He don't seem to know his own mind."

Just then Bascom Bates whirled by on his way to the hotel. There was something glaringly incongruous between his glistening silk hat and the long-haired "plough horse" and rickety buggy he was driving. The silk hat was a sort of badge of office; lawyers wore them, as a rule, and he was the only lawyer at Cartwright. He had bought his silk hat on the day of his admission to the bar, and had worn it regularly on dry Sundays ever since. It would have suited anybody else better than it did him. He was not at all good-looking. His hair was stiff and rather red, his eyes were pale blue, his face was freckled, and the skin of his neck had a way of folding itself unattractively. He wore thick cow-leather shoes, which he never blacked, but greased frequently, and that made them catch and hold the dust. He never considered himself carefully dressed unless all the buttons of his vest were unfastened, except one at the top and one at the bottom. The gap between the two buttons was considered quite a touch of rural style. He held the reins, but a little negro boy sat on the seat beside him. He was taking the boy to hold his horse while he went into the hotel after Harriet. That, too, was considered quite the proper thing-a custom which had come down from slavery days-and as there was a scarcity of black boys in the village, Bates had brought his all the way from his father's plantation. The boy was expected to walk back home after the couple got started, but Bates intended to give him something for his trouble, and the distinction of holding Mr. Bates's horse in town was something the boy never expected to forget.

Bates had been a common farm-boy before he studied law, and the handles of ploughs, axes, and grubbing-hoes had enlarged the joints of his fingers and hardened his palms. He had studied at night, earned a reputation as an off-hand speaker hard to be downed in debating societies, made a few speeches on the stump for willing gubernatorial candidates, and was now looked upon as a possible Democratic nominee for the Legislature. Most young lawyers in that part of the State were called "Colonel," and Bates had been addressed by the title once or twice.

Westerfelt pretended not to see him as he passed, but he urged Jake to hurry up and get out his horse and buggy. He had a strange idea that it would humiliate him in Harriet's eyes to be seen by her as she passed with a man he now regarded as a rival. He would have given much to have had any sort of companion with him. Jake had some difficulty in backing the horse into the shafts, and before Westerfelt could get started, he saw Harriet come out on the veranda and follow Bates to his buggy. However, Westerfelt managed to get started before they did, and drove on without looking back. Knowing that Bates was fond of fast driving, and fearing that he might overtake him, Westerfelt drove rapidly. The fires of jealousy were raging within him. He told himself that it would be a long time before he would ask her again to go with him anywhere, and during that drive he almost convinced himself that he could give her up without much regret. He was sure Bates wanted to marry her. Such a stolid, matter-of-fact man would never visit a girl with less serious intentions. Bates, of course, was ignorant of the girl's early love for Wambush. He wondered if she would ever confess to the lawyer as she had to him. He thought it unlikely; for he had found it out and mentioned it to her first, and, besides, her experience with him had taught her discretion. Westerfelt would have been more generous in his estimation of her character had he been less jealous, and less angered by the disappointment of not being her escort. People driving slow teams looked at him curiously as he dashed past them. He had but one desire at that moment, and that was not to face Harriet and Bates together.

The road, near the camp-ground, went through a dense wood, and was so narrow that vehicles could not pass one another on it. In the narrowest part of this road Westerfelt was forced to stop. A wagon filled with women and children, and driven by old John Wambush, had halted in front of him.

"What's the matter?" Westerfelt called out to the old man, who had got down beside his horses and was peering at the motionless line of vehicles ahead.

"A hack's broke down," the old fellow replied. "Nobody hurt, it seems, but the banks on both sides is so steep that they cayn't cleer the road. We'll have to take our time. I'd jest about as soon set heer in my wagon as to listen to them long-winded preachers, anyway."

Westerfelt heard the beat of hoofs behind him. He was sure Bates and Harriet were approaching, but he dared not look around. Through the trees came the sound of singing from the camp-ground. The horse behind got nearer and nearer, till it stopped with its nose in the back part of Westerfelt's buggy, Westerfelt did not turn his head. He leaned over the dash-board and impatiently called out to old Wambush:

"How long are they going to keep us?"

"Tell kingdom come ur Gabriel blows his horn," laughed the old man, and all his family and the neighbors who were sharing the hospitality of his wagon joined in the laugh. It was a thing the old man would have said to anybody else and in the same tone, but it irritated Westerfelt. The silence of the couple behind convinced him that it was Bates and Harriet, for men in love do not talk much. Mrs. Wambush turned her head and took off her gingham bonnet to get a good look at the man her son had tried twice to kill. Her features were so much like Toot's that Westerfelt, who had never seen her before, thought he had discovered the fountain-head of the young outlaw's villany. He glanced aside, but she continued to stare at him fixedly.

"How are you comin' on?" she asked him, slapping a little girl in a blue homespun dress who was about to fall out of the wagon.

"Pretty well, thank you," replied Westerfelt, coldly. He had detected a suggestion of a sneer about the old woman's lips.

"Cuts is a bad thing," she went on. "I reckon yore doctor bill run up to some more'n you'd 'a' lost that day by jest lettin' my boy have some'n to ride out home in."

"Dry up!" thundered old Wambush. He climbed back into his chair and glared at her. "Ef you dare open yore mouth agin, I'll make you git right out an' make tracks fer home." The old woman jerked on her bonnet and turned her face towards the horses. Old Wambush looked over his shoulder at Westerfelt, a sheepish look on his face.

"Don't pay no 'tention to her," he apologized; "she's had the very old scratch in 'er ever since Toot was run off; I don't harbor no ill-will, but women ain't got no reason nohow. They never seem to know when peace is declared. It's the women that's keepin' up all the strife twixt North and South right now. Them that shouldered muskets an' fit an' lived on hard-tack don't want no more uv it."

Westerfelt said nothing.

"Hello thar!" The voice was from the buggy behind. Westerfelt turned.

It was Frank Hansard with Jennie Wynn.

"Hello!" replied Westerfelt, greatly relieved,

"Whyn't you git down an' fight it out while we're waitin'?" jested Frank, in a

low voice. "Anything 'u'd be better'n this; but I'll tell you, she's a regular wild-cat, if you don't know it."

Westerfelt smiled, but made no response. Beyond Hansard's buggy was another, and in it sat Harriet and Bates; there was no mistaking the old-fashioned silk hat and Harriet's gray dress. It seemed to Westerfelt that the blood in his veins stopped at the sight of the couple sitting so close together.

"Can you see who's behind us?" asked Jennie, mischievously. "It's undoubtedly a case; they've been connoodlin' all the way an' didn't even have the politeness to speak to us as we passed 'em in the big road."

Westerfelt pretended not to hear. Old Wambush's wagon had started. The camp-ground was soon reached. As Westerfelt was hitching his horse to a tree, he could not help seeing Bates and Harriet in the bushes not far away. Bates was taking his horse out of the shafts and looping up the traces, and she stood looking on. Westerfelt knew that Jake or Washburn would attend to his horse, so he walked on to the spot where the service was to be held.

The camp-ground was in a level grove of pine-trees, between two steep hills. A space had been cleared in the centre of the grove and a long shed built. It was open at the sides and at one end, and filled with benches without backs. Straw was strewn in the aisles and between the benches. There was a platform at the closed end of the shed, and on it sat a number of preachers and elders of the church.

The crowd was large. Westerfelt stood for a moment in the phalanx of men surrounding the shed, and surreptitiously eyed Bates and Harriet. Her back was towards him as she stood, her cloak on her arm, still politely watching her escort's movements. She looked so pretty, and there was such appealing grace in her posture. He saw Bates join her and take her arm, and then he watched them no longer. He knew they were coming, and he went in at the end of the shed and found a seat near the centre on the left. He saw Luke Bradley drive up and help his wife and Mrs. Dawson to alight, then Frank Hansard and Jennie Wynn came in and sat on the bench just behind him. Jennie was laughing in her handkerchief.

"There is old Mis' Henshaw," she whispered to Frank; "she's the'r regular stan'-by at shouting. When they begin to call up mourners she commences to clap 'er hands an' shout, then the rest get over their bashfulness an' the fun begins. We may see a lot of excitement if the town-people don't come and freeze 'em out with their finery an' stiff ways."

"You ort ter go up yorese'f, Jen," replied Frank; "you need it ef anybody does."

"I went up once," she laughed; "but Mary Trumbull pinched me an' tol' me to look at ol' Mis' Warlick's dress, right in front of us. It had split wide open between the shoulders an' all down the back. I thought I'd die laughin'. They all believed I was cryin', and I got hugged by a whole string of exhorters."

"We'd better lie low," cautioned Frank; "last year, these camp-ground folks had some town-people indicted for disturbin' public worship, an' they had a lots o' trouble at court. They say they've determined to break up the fun that goes on here."

Westerfelt saw Luke Bradley and his party come in and sit down near the centre of the shed. He caught Mrs. Dawson's glance, but she quickly looked away. She had not forgiven him; that fact lay embedded in the sallow hardness of her face.

A moment later he forgot that Mrs. Dawson was in existence, for Harriet and Bates were coming in. Bates still clutched her arm and carried her cloak thrown over his shoulder. Westerfelt looked straight ahead at the platform, but he heard their feet rustling in the straw, and knew that they had sat down on the bench behind Hansard and Jennie. He overheard Bates, who could not possibly speak in a whisper, ask her in a mumbling bass voice if she wanted her cloak, and he saw the shadows of the couple on the ground as she stood up and allowed him to help her put it on.

Gradually the shed had filled to overflowing. A white-haired preacher raised the tune of a familiar hymn, and the principal service of the day began.

After the sermon was over, the congregation rose to get their lunch-baskets, which had been left in their vehicles.

"Mighty poky business so far," Westerfelt heard Jennie Wynn say, as she and Hansard went out ahead of him; "wait until after dinner, they'll get limbered up by that time."

Westerfelt hoped Harriet and Bates would leave as soon as the others did, but he saw them standing between the benches as if waiting for some one. He looked straight ahead of him as he approached them, and was about to pass without looking in the direction, when Bates caught his arm and detained him.

"Miss Harriet wants to see you," he said, with a grin; "you wouldn't be in such a hurry if you knew what for."

"I want you to come to dinner with us," Harriet said, tremulously, leaning forward. "Jennie Wynn and I are going to put our baskets together, and Hyram Longtree and Sue Kirby are coming."

"I thank you," he said, "but I reckon I'll have to eat with Mrs. Bradley." He might have accepted the invitation if Bates had not been grinning so complacently and looking at Harriet with such a large air of ownership.

"Oh, come on," urged Bates. "You get Bradley hash every day; there is some'n good in our basket; I could smell it all the way out here."

"I wish you would come," urged Harriet. "Mrs. Bradley will let you off."

There was something in her look and tone that convinced him that she had detected his jealousy and was sympathizing with him, and that in itself angered him.

"No, I thank you, not to-day," he said, coldly; "how did you like the preacher?"

"Very well," she replied, her face falling. "I have heard him before."

He had brought it on himself, but he was stung to the quick when she touched Bates's arm, smiled indifferently, and said: "I see Sue and Hyram out there waiting for us; we'd better go."

As Westerfelt walked on, overwhelmed with jealous rage, he heard her in

the same tone ask Jennie Wynn to send Frank after her basket.

Westerfelt edged his way through the crowd to Mrs. Bradley and Mrs.

Dawson.

"Why," said Mrs. Bradley, "I 'lowed you'd go off an' eat with some o' yore young friends. But we are glad you come."

"I never go back on home folks," he said, making an effort to speak lightly.

"Well, I fetched enough fer a dozen field-hands," laughed Mrs. Bradley. "Two young preachers have promised to eat with me; that's all I've axed. Luke, you go bring Brother Jones an' his friend, an' wait fer us out at the wagon."

"Why cayn't we fetch the dinner in heer an' not have to sit on the damp ground?" suggested Bradley.

"Beca'se, gumption! they won't have us greasin' up the benches that folks set on in the'r best duds," she retorted. "Besides, the pine straw will keep us off'n the ground, ef you ain't too lazy to rake it up."

Just then Harriet and her friends passed, and Westerfelt saw the girl looking inquiringly at Mrs. Dawson. He heard the old woman grunt contemptuously, and saw her toss her head and fiercely eye Harriet from head to foot as she went down the aisle.

Westerfelt shuddered. He wondered if the old woman could possibly know of Harriet's past connection with Wambush and her girlish infatuation. He turned away with Luke to get the basket. Bradley was saying something about a suitable place to spread the lunch, but Westerfelt did not listen. He could think of nothing but the strange, defiant look in Mrs. Dawson's eyes as they fell on the girl he loved.

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