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   Chapter 31 KILLED AT THE FORD.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 22813

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


JO ERRING and his wife had been separated a year and a half, during which time I saw Jo frequently, but never his wife, for I had grown to accept her husband's opinion that she was glad to be rid of him. I was often at the mill, and he often came to town, when I saw that he was growing gradually more desperate and wretched, and uneasy in his manner, but I was not prepared for the announcement which Damon Barker made to me by letter one day that he had secured a divorce from his wife, and that the case was more serious than I supposed. On investigating the matter I found that the divorce had been granted a few months before, on the ground of desertion, and so quietly was it done that but few knew of it. Jo had probably attended to the details on his visits to the town, and as it was a clear case the application was quietly granted by the judge in chambers, who happened to be familiar with all the circumstances.

I shall always believe that the unhappy man made the application in desperation, hoping it would bring his affairs to a crisis, but as Mateel never appeared to answer, he concluded she was satisfied with his course, which made him more sullen and resentful.

The Shepherds were seldom seen since the difficulty, and it was thought that they were proud and haughty, so that but few went to their house, and these Mateel always avoided. Occasionally the minister was seen working about his place, but he never left it, and it was believed by a great many that he received financial help from Clinton Bragg.

Within a year Clinton Bragg had greatly improved. He no longer patronized his bottle, and he dressed better than before, and his temper was visibly better. Although I knew this, I did not particularly remark it or his visits to the Shepherds', for he had been a frequent visitor there from the time he came to the country, which I had always regarded simply as an annoyance to Jo; therefore my surprise may be imagined when I received a note from Barker one morning, at the hands of Big Adam, stating that Bragg and Mateel were to be married that evening. I had not seen Jo since learning of the divorce, and at once resolved to go to the mill. Knowing Bragg's malicious nature, I was certain that he would drive by the ford on his return to Twin Mounds with Mateel, and I hoped that in some way I should be able to prevent Jo's seeing them. I cannot remember now whether I thought a sight of them would cause him a burst of grief or anger, but I was sure I could be of use to him in some way, and at once determined to leave for Fairview and spend the night at the mill.

The pity and friendliness I had formerly entertained for Mateel vanished with the messenger who brought me the letter announcing her contemplated marriage to Clinton Bragg, though my first feeling was of horror and indignation at a step which seemed so indelicate and cruel. I think that during that day I hated her more than I had ever hated Bragg, for I could make nothing out of it further than that she desired the ruin and disgrace of Jo. I even brought to mind incidents familiar to me to prove that she was malicious, cunning, and deceitful, and upbraided myself that I had not warned Jo of it long ago.

I intended to drive over early in the afternoon, but customers came in to detain me, and it was late before I left the office to get ready. I had walked about like a man in an uncomfortable dream all day and could do nothing, for the more closely I applied myself to whatever I was about, the less I accomplished. Tiresome men I did not care to see, but whom I could not very well avoid, came in one after another, and I became so nervous at their appearance as to be almost helpless. When at last I started for the house, a thousand voices seemed to be urging me to hurry, and I ran like a madman to complete my simple preparations for the trip. Once on the road, I lashed the horses into a run, but in spite of this I seemed to make only slow progress, like a man in a troubled dream pursued by devils. It became so dark when I was half way that in the creek valleys I was compelled to get out and lead the horses, and when I was yet a long way from Fairview, the dull tolling of the great bell in the steeple of the church startled me.

It was a wild night in April, with a storm threatening, and the hawks and owls flew almost in my face in their hurry to find shelter. A single black cloud, which was gathering in the south when I started, had overspread the heavens, resulting in almost inky darkness, and gusts of wind came dashing upon me with such sudden fury, following a dead calm, that the horses tried to take the bits in their teeth and run away from it.

The bell continued to toll at intervals, not distinctly, but only as you remember noises after a stormy night, and once I thought I heard a great number of strokes in quick succession, as though an alarm were being sounded. By this time I was travelling on a high divide where I knew the road to be safe, and urging the horses again into quicker speed, they ran as if they, too, had heard the alarm from the bell. If I was frightened at the fearful speed I was travelling, I thought of the howling winds behind me, which seemed to be always overtaking and passing me to make mischief beyond; as I passed the occasional houses I saw the people, attracted by the noise of my wheels, run to the windows, and, flattening their faces against the panes, peer out into the night. I wondered why they did not come out and follow me, and, half convinced that they would, I determined to beat them to the mill and lashed the horses into greater speed.

When at last I arrived at the mill everything seemed so quiet and safe that I was ashamed of my alarm, and after hitching the horses at the gate I walked up to the house, trying to recover my composure. The house dog, which I had known all his life, dashed at me in the greatest fury when I came up to the door, and his old companion, the house cat, screamed out on seeing me, and dashed away as if pursued. Everything was wrong, and there were wild cries and alarms in the wind, which was now blowing furiously.

A light burned in the front room, and a fire in the grate, but going in I found the room empty. Even the fire dashed at me with puffs of smoke, and the lamp burned low without cause. I found the room in the greatest confusion, and Jo's bed, which had been brought down from the upper part of the house, was in disorder, as though it had been lately used. I went into all the other rooms, calling the name of Jo, but I found them dark and silent. I walked out into the yard and called him, but the dog dashed at me again as though I were a robber, and would not recognize my voice. The water pouring over the dam, which had lulled me to sleep a hundred times, roared to-night, and I will swear that the wind was sobbing at every door and window when I returned to the house. Ill at ease I went to the door and called again, but the wind took up the sound of my voice and hurried off with it into the darkness of the woods.

Hoping that Jo would soon return I sat down by the open fire, but I saw such faces in it that they made me shudder, and I tried to listen for his approaching footsteps, but the wind had turned into a fierce cry of agony or vengeance, I could not tell which, and I could hear nothing else. Impatiently taking up a book I thought to read, but the first lines were of murder and of blood, and I threw it down, cursing the dog, the book, and the storm. Occasionally the rain came dashing down on the roof, preceded by great drops which seemed to me like tears shed by a pitying heaven, and then the rain ceased again, as if the elements were not yet ready for a bad night.

While trying to decide whether to go out and hunt for Jo, or wait quietly for his return, the door suddenly burst open, and my uncle came in, carrying Mateel in his arms, as easily as though she were a child. Going straight to the bed, without looking to the right or to the left, and apparently without seeing me, he gently laid her down, and, falling on his knees, passionately kissed the pale face. As he kneeled over her, he sobbed and cried aloud, as he had done on the night she went away, but, recollecting himself, he roughly wiped away his tears, and tenderly contemplated the insensible woman before him, for she seemed to be in a faint. I thought that could the devils he told about as haunting the cave fully realize his abject wretchedness, they would have been awed into respectful silence, and allowed the tender symphony to find its way to his bleeding heart.

He was in such excitement that I was almost afraid to speak to him, for his eyes were wild and fierce, his hair dishevelled like a madman's, and his clothing in such disorder that I thought he had been long out in the storm. As he turned and saw me, he cried out fiercely:-

"She belongs to me, and I have protected her honor! The dog whose ambition it was to disgrace me through her weakness is dead!"

He was a giant in physical stature, and every muscle quivered with excitement. I thought that had he been called upon to rescue his wife from a dozen men in his present state, he would have undertaken and accomplished it, and I shuddered to think what had befallen the one man against him. I had never noticed it there before, but the tolling of the great bell at Fairview could be distinctly heard.

When I stood up and looked at Mateel, I drew back in horror at the change in her appearance. Her form was wasted and thin, and her face so pale that I feared she was dead. Instead of wearing a bridal dress, her apparel was of black material, which made her look more ghastly.

"Oh! Jo," I said, "what have you done?"

"This," he answered, looking first at Mateel's motionless form on the bed, and then coming toward me. "This: I picked up Clinton Bragg from his seat beside Mateel as they came through the woods by the ford, and strangled him as I would strangle a dog. I held him out at arm's length until he was limp and dead, and threw his carcass into the brush. Then, taking Mateel in my arms, I lashed the devilish horse until he ran away through the timber, when I waded the creek, and came here!"

It was a short but terrible story, and his tragic telling of it so impressed me that I almost cheered him, knowing the wrong he had suffered.

Mateel still lay quietly on the bed, occasionally moaning, and Jo went to her again, and lovingly caressed her, as he might have done had she been his lawful wife in temporary distress, and I thought his manner was softened by contemplating her misery, for when he spoke again it was half in apology.

"I have always feared this, and although I have done an awful thing, I could not do less." He walked toward me and stood by my side. "Bragg pursued me with relentless hate, and he is as much to blame as I am. They might have known I would not submit to this cruelty; it was more than I could bear, and I could not help doing what I did."

I had been oppressed for a long time with a vague fear, though I was never clear as to what it was, that something dreadful would come of the separation, and as I sat there, looking from the helpless woman lying on the bed to the wretched man walking the floor, I almost concluded that the murder of Clinton Bragg was the result I had expected.

"There i

s so much wickedness in my heart to-night that I am proud of what I have done," Jo said, stopping in his walk, as though he had been thinking it over and had come to that conclusion. "I cannot regret it; the murder of that man has given me the only relief I have known in three years, and I feel like calling at the houses of honest people, and crying, 'A man who deserved death is dead!' Even the wind was crying fiercely for revenge when he was seated beside my wife intent on his unnatural and fiendish purpose, but it is quiet now, and sobbing in pity for me. I never insulted my manhood nor mankind by trying to curb my fierce passion when I heard he intended to pass my house with Mateel. I resolved to murder him, and all honest men will say I could have done nothing less!"

He began pacing up and down the room again, at one moment a fierce demon, and at another a man softened by tears, and I saw by his manner that he realized that Mateel must not remain there, for he went over to her side, and fondly kissed her, as if for the last time. Perhaps he thought when he took her in his arms in the woods that his troubles would end after crossing the stream and entering his own door, and that they would live in peace thereafter, but he realized now that his action had only tightened the coils of misfortune about him.

"She would despise me for this deed if she knew it," he said. "I have killed her husband, and she does not belong here. Take her to her mother before she wakens and reproaches me, and then come back to me."

Realizing the force of the suggestion, I answered that my team was hitched in front of the house, and without further words he picked Mateel up, and carried her out. Although able to sit up, she did not seem to be conscious of what had happened, but sat moaning and crying beside me when I drove away, leaving Jo standing at the gate.

The night was very dark, but the wind had gone down, and I was only able to find my way by the frequent flashes of livid lightning. After I passed the ford, and entered the woods, in spite of myself I began to watch the road-side for the body of the dead man, hoping that he was only stunned, and had crawled away. I had stopped for the lightning to flash again to show me the road through the trees, and when it came I saw Bragg prostrate beside me, so close to the road that I feared the horses had trampled upon him. In the instant I saw that he was lying on his back; his arms thrown out on either side, and that his face was white in death. In looking at him I had neglected to observe the road, and sat there waiting for another flash. With it came the rain, and seeing my way I started the impatient horses at a brisk trot.

When I stopped in front of Mr. Shepherd's house, I saw that a light still burned within, and, hurriedly securing the horses, I took Mateel in my arms, and rapped at the door. Mr. Shepherd came in answer to it, bearing a light in his hand, and, seeing me with my strange burden, staggered back in alarm.

"There has been an accident," I said, "but your daughter is not hurt; only frightened, and in a faint."

He took his child tenderly in his arms, and with the assistance of his wife tried to revive her.

"I must hurry away," I said, dreading to tell them all. "You will hear further news to-morrow."

Neither of them said a word, but I believed they knew what the accident was, for they acted as though they had been waiting for it, and were not surprised that their unhappy child had been returned to them alone.

The lightning by this time came in such rapidly following flashes that I had no difficulty in driving at a smart gait, and when I approached the ford my eyes were again drawn against my will to the prostrate form under the trees. It had not been disturbed, and I hurried past it, and into the house, where Jo was sitting by the fire with his hat on, ready to go out. He looked up when I came in, but made no inquiries, and, buttoning his coat, said he was ready to go. In response to my curious look he replied:-

"There is but one thing to do; to notify the officers, and finish this night's work in jail. I have thoroughly considered the matter while you were away, and that is my decision. When I heard that this marriage was to take place, I resolved to do what I have done to-night, and arranged my business for it by leasing the mill. The man who is to operate it is my present assistant, and all the necessary arrangements have been made; I only hope now that I shall be disposed of as soon as possible. I do not regret what I have done, now that it is done, and the most pleasant moment of my life was when I clutched the throat of the man who has been relentlessly pursuing me for five years. He could not be induced to give up his design, and I could do nothing else than murder him. I have only lived for the past few months to guard Mateel against him, and now that she is no longer in danger, I am ready for the worst. When I looked into her face to-night, it startled me to see how she has failed since we separated. I shall always feel grateful to her that she was not dressed as a bride, but in mournful black. Always delicate, she is but a shadow now, and the marriage of Bragg to a woman who is but a puny invalid convinces me that he, at least, brought it about to revenge himself on me. He brought on the quarrel; I hope he is satisfied. I am sure only Mateel's weakness is to blame for her part in the affair, for marriage in her condition was mockery."

He appeared more contented and easy than he had been since the separation, like a man who had accomplished an object that had been his ambition for a long time, and sat down again, quite at ease, when he saw I was not yet ready to go, but was trying to dry my wet garments at the fire. I even thought he felt in good spirits, for he straightened himself in such a manner as to be comfortable in his chair, and beat a merry tattoo with the fingers of his hand which rested on the table.

When at last I was ready to start to town with him-I had never thought of opposing him, he seemed so satisfied with the course he had marked out-he collected a few articles which he said might be of use to him during his imprisonment, and, making them into a bundle, extinguished the light, and followed me, after locking the door and handing me the key.

"I shall never see the place again, of course, nor do I want to see it," he said. "I have had a hard time of it here, from first to last, and for all my work I get nothing but a ride to jail to be locked up for murder. A splendid fellow, I, that could work to no better purpose. I thought once I was something of a genius, and rather a remarkable fellow, but like all other fools I am found out. There is one satisfaction in it all; I was not all my life finding out my mistake. I am now but twenty-six; I have known greater fools than I am, at seventy. I am glad there is a storm; I like to be out in it."

On the way he kept talking in a half-boisterous manner, though I could detect a mournful strain through it all. Once he wondered if there was a possibility that Bragg had only been stunned, and, stopping the horses, wanted to go back to see. But after thinking about it awhile, he said:-

"No danger of that. He fell out of my grasp as limp as a rag. I held him at arm's length to represent a gibbet, and my fingers were the rope, for the brute deserved hanging. I was determined that he should die a dishonorable death as well as I. When he is found, there will be marks about his throat as though he had been hanged; his tongue will protrude from his mouth, and his eyes start from their sockets, as they say men look who have been hanged. My only regret is that there was not a crowd present to witness his dog's death. But the crowd will gather around him to-morrow, and be horrified at his appearance."

Several times he described with pleasure the horrible tragedy in the woods near the ford, hoarsely laughing as he told how Bragg had writhed and struggled in his grasp, and once he asked me to feel the bunch of muscle on the strong arm which had righted his wrong. He told how he had skulked under the trees waiting for their approach, dodging from one to another when he saw them in the road; how he had hidden behind a tree until they were beside him; how Bragg had trembled in fear when he felt his fingers about his throat; how fast and furious the vicious horse ran crashing through the underbrush when he lashed him with a keen hickory withe cut for the purpose, and how he almost shouted in exultation when he had Mateel in his arms. He recited all the sickening particulars with so much pleasure that I feared he was out of his head, and occupied myself in mentally making notes of what he said to prove that he was not responsible for his act. At another time he cried out impatiently:-

"Why don't you applaud what I have done? You have not said a word all evening, though you usually cry, 'Brave Jo!' when I have accomplished a purpose, but you seem ashamed of me now."

"Oh, Jo," I replied, "you have done an awful thing, and while I know you were wronged by Bragg, I shudder to think of the consequences. I cannot approve of this act, Jo, the first one you ever did at which I could not cry, 'Brave Jo!'"

"Can you, my only friend, wish that Bragg were alive again?" he answered, "and asleep in the arms of Mateel, with me alone in my unhappy home? Surely it is better as it is; I should have killed myself if I had not killed Bragg, and you must say-you cannot help it-that he deserved death as much as I. He deserved it more, for he is the cause of it all; but we shall both give up our lives in the tragedy. I took no more from him than the law will take from me, and although he is to blame he makes no greater sacrifice than I do. I would not be unjust to a dog; I have not been unjust to him. If there can be pity in such a business, I am more deserving of it than he."

I did not dare to express my real sentiments for fear of encouraging him, as I felt he had fairly expressed it when he said he could do nothing else than murder Clinton Bragg. He had pursued him for years in the face of repeated warnings, and knowing Jo's desperation, his action in inducing Mateel to take the step at a time when she was weak and sick could have been nothing else than wickedness and villainy. But I said as little as possible during the drive, and occupied myself in devising plans for his escape. I believed that Bragg's unpopularity would be of benefit in the trial, as well as all the circumstances of the case, and felt certain that the people would generally be in sympathy with Jo.

When we arrived in the town it was as still as the country we had just left, and rattling loudly at the sheriff's door, whose residence was in the upper part of the jail, the officer soon appeared, and hearing with surprise our mission, he locked me up with Jo at my own request, as I desired to spend the night with him. A few moments later his establishment was astir, and in half an hour we heard a posse start off in a wagon, which rattled and jolted in a frightful manner, to bring in the body. The news seemed to spread rapidly, for by climbing up at the grated window I saw lights in several directions where there were none before, and two or three curious people had already appeared in the yard.

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