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Title: Dixie Hart
Author: Harben, Will N. (William Nathaniel), 1858-1919
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Dixie Hart" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                         DIXIE HART

                    _By_ WILL N. HARBEN

Author of "The Redemption of Kenneth Galt," "Gilbert Neal,"
             "Abner Daniel," "Pole Baker," etc.

                       [Illustration]

                     WITH FRONTISPIECE
                     A. L. BURT COMPANY
                    PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
        Published by arrangement with Harper & Brothers
             Copyright, 1910, by HARPER & BROTHERS

       *       *       *       *       *

                 TO THE MEMORY OF THE LATE
                 RICHARD WATSON GILDER, WHOSE
                 KINDLY APPRECIATION OF THE
                 CHARACTER OF "DIXIE HART" WAS MY
                 INSPIRATION IN WRITING THIS BOOK

       *       *       *       *       *



                         DIXIE HART



CHAPTER I


In a blaze of splendor the morning sun broke over the mountain, throwing
its scraggy brown bowlders, spruce-pines, thorn-bushes, and tangled
vines into impenetrable shadow. Massed at the base and along the rocky
sides were mists as dense as clouds, through the filmy upper edges of
which the yellow light shone as through a mighty prism, dancing on the
dew-coated corn-blades, cotton-plants, and already drinking from the
fresh-ploughed, mellow soil of the farm-lands which fell away in gentle
undulations to the confines of the village hard by.

"A fellow couldn't ask for a prettier day than this, no matter how
greedy he was," Alfred Henley mused as he stood in the doorway of his
barn and heard the gnawing of the horses he had just fed in the stalls
behind him. A hundred yards distant, on the main-travelled road which
ran into the village of Chester, only half a mile away, stood his house,
the eight rooms of which were divided into two equal parts by an open
veranda, in which there was a shelf for water-pails, tin wash-basins,
and a towel on a clumsy roller. A slender woman, with harsh, sharp
features, older-looking than her thirty years would have justified, and
a stiff figure disguised by few attempts at adornment, was sweeping the
veranda floor, and in chairs propped back against the weather-boarding
sat an old man and an old woman in the plainest of mountain attire.

For a moment Henley's eyes rested on the group, and he sighed deeply.
"Yes, she's my wife," he said. "I owe her every duty, and, before God,
I'll stick to my vows and do what's right by her, come what may! She was
the only woman I thought I wanted, or ever could want. They say every
cloud has a silvery lining, but my cloud was made out of lead--and not
rubbed bright at that. I reckon, if the truth must be told, that the
whole mistake was of my own making. Whatever the Creator does for good
or ill, He don't seem to bother about hitching folks together; He leaves
that job to the fools that are roped in. Well, I'm going to stick to the
helm and guide my boat the best I can. I made my bed, and I'm as good a
sleeper as the average."

Here the attention of the man, who was tall, strong, good-looking, and
about thirty-five years of age, was attracted by the dull blows of an
axe falling on wood, and, looking over the rail-fence into the yard of
an adjoining farm-house, a diminutive affair of only four rooms and a
box-like porch, he saw an attractive figure. It was that of a graceful
young woman about twenty-two years of age. Her hair, which was a rich
golden brown, and had a tendency to curl, was unbound, and as she raised
and lowered her bare arms it swung to and fro on her shapely shoulders.

"Poor thing!" the observer exclaimed. "Here I am complaining, and just
look at her! A stout, able-bodied man that will grumble over a mistake
or two with a sight like that before his eyes ain't worth the powder and
lead that it would take to kill him. Look what she's took on her young
shoulders, and goes about with a constant smile and song on her red
lips. Yes, Dixie Hart shall be the medicine I'll take for my disease.
Whenever I feel like kicking over the traces I'll look in her direction.
I'd jump this fence and chop that wood for her now if I could do it
without old Wrinkle making comment."

Her work finished, the girl turned and saw him. She flushed a shade
deeper than was due to her exercise, and with the axe in hand she came
to him. Her large hazel eyes held a mystic charm behind the long lashes
which seemed actually to melt into the soft pinkness of her skin.

"Good-morning, Alfred," she greeted him, her lips curling in a smile. "I
know this ain't where you sell goods, but I thought it might save me a
trip to town to ask you if you keep axes at your store. This old plug of
a thing is about as sharp as a sledgehammer."

"I've got a few poked away behind the counters somewhere," he laughed,
as he always did over her droll and original speech, "but the handles
ain't in them, and that is a job for a blacksmith, if they are ever made
to hold. Let me see that thing." He took the axe from her, and ran his
thumb along the blunt and gapped edge. "Look here, Dixie," he said, "I
thought you was too sensible a farmer to discard good tools. This axe is
an old-timer; you don't find such good-tempered steel in the axes made
to sell these days, with their lying red and blue labels pasted on 'em.
Give this one a good grinding and it will chop all the wood you'll ever
want to cut. Let me have it this morning. I've got a grindstone at the
store, and I'll make Pomp put a barber's edge on it."

"Of course you'll let me pay--"

"Pay nothing!" he broke in. "That nigger is taking the dry rot; he's
asleep under the counter half the time. The idea of you delving in the
hot sun with a tool that won't cut mud! You oughtn't to chop wood,
nohow. You ain't built for it. Your place is in the parlor of some rich
man's house, leaning back in a rocking-chair, with a good carpet under
foot."

"That's the song mother and Aunt Mandy sing from morning to night," the
girl smiled, showing her perfect teeth. "They want me to quit work, and
get some man to tote my load. I reckon if the average young fellow out
looking for a wife could see behind the hedge he'd think twice before he
jumped into the thorns."

Henley laughed again, his eyes resting admiringly on her animated face.
"I reckon the gals wouldn't primp so much either if they could see the
insides of their prize-packages," he returned. "I reckon neither side is
as wise while courting is going on as they are after the knot is tied.
Folks hereabouts certainly have plenty to say about me and my venture."

There was a frank admission of the truth of his remark in the girl's
reply. "Well, if I was you, I wouldn't let anything they say bother me,"
she said, sympathetically. "Mean people will say mean things; but you've
got friends that stick to you powerful close. I've heard many a one say
that in taking your wife's father-and mother-in-law to live with you,
and treating them as nice as you have, you are doing what not one man in
ten thousand would do."

"I don't deserve any credit for that--not one bit," the young man
declared. "I'm not going to pass as better than I am, Dixie; I'm just
human, neither better nor worse than the average. I reckon you've heard
about how I happened to get married?"

"Not from _you_, Alfred," the girl answered, in a kindly tone. "I have
often wondered if the busybodies got it straight. I've heard that you
used to go to see your wife before she married the first time."

"Yes, me and Dick Wrinkle was both after her in a neck-and-neck race,
taking her to parties, corn-shuckings, and anything that was got up.
Hettie never was, you know, exactly pretty, but she had a sort o' queer,
say-little way about her that caught my eye. I was a gawky boy, as
green as a gourd, and never had been about with women. Dick was just the
opposite: he was a reckless, splurging chap that dressed as fine as a
fiddle, wasn't afraid to talk, joke, and carry on, and he could dance to
a queen's taste; so he naturally had all the gals after him. I was
afraid he was going to cut me out, and I was fool enough to--well, I
used to hope, when I'd see him so popular in company, that he'd make
another choice. And he might--he might have done it--for he was the most
wishy-washy chap that ever cocked his eye at a woman; he might, I say,
if me an' him hadn't had a regular knock-down-and-drag-out row. He was
drinking once, and said more than I could stand about a hoss trade I'd
made with a cousin o' his, and it ended in blows. The crowd parted us,
and he went one way and me another; but after that he hated me like a
rattlesnake, and he told her not to let me come there again. He might
not have made that demand if he had thought it over, for it sorter give
'er a stick to poke 'im with. She used to say nice things about me to
egg him on, and he often went with her for no other reason than to keep
me away. Well, you can see how it was. She wanted to beat the other
gals, and he wanted to outdo me, and, in the wrangle, they got married
one day all of a sudden."

"And you felt bad, I reckon," Dixie Hart said, sympathetically.

"I wanted to die," Henley answered, grimly. "I cursed man and God. That
gal was my life. I was as blind as a bat in daytime."

"Then I've heard," the girl pursued, "that he neglected her and finally
went off West with Hank Bradley, and almost quit writing to her."

"Yes," Henley nodded, "and she moped about home as pale as a dead
person, and never seemed interested in anything that was going on. All
that didn't do me any good, I'm here to tell you. Her trouble become
mine. I toted it night and day. I wasn't fit for work. I was as nigh
crazy as a man could well be out of an asylum."

"Then the news come back that he was dead?" The girl leaned on the fence
and looked down.

"Yes; Hank Bradley come home, and told how Dick was blowed away in the
awful tornado that destroyed that new town in Oklahoma. Hank had helped
hunt for his body; but it never could be identified among the hundreds
that was picked up, and so his remains never was brought home. That one
fact nearly killed Hettie. I'm talking plain, Dixie, but me and you are
good, true friends, and I want you, anyway, to understand my fix. I used
to watch her taking walks all by herself in the woods, always in her
thick, black veil, and bowed over like, as if she was under a heavy
load. I reckon no woman the Lord ever constructed is quite as attractive
to the eye uncovered as she is partly hid, for we are always hunting for
perfection, and so nothing under the sun seemed to me to be so good and
pure and desirable as Hettie did. I even gloried in the attention she
paid his mammy and daddy. I thought it was fine and noble, and that it
gave the lie to the charge that women are changeable. I don't want you
to think that I rate her any lower now, either, Dixie, for I don't.
She's a sight better woman than I am a man, and I certainly dogged the
life out of her till she agreed to marry me. She told me fair and square
at the start that she'd always love him, and I told her that it wouldn't
matter a bit. It hurts my pride a little now, but that ain't her
lookout. Folks say she's odd and peculiar, and that may be so, too, but
she was that way all along, and it's a waste of time to criticise
anybody for what they can't help."

"I've always liked her," the girl said. "She certainly attends to her
own business, and that is more than I can say for my chief enemy, Carrie
Wade. Alfred, that girl hates the ground I walk on, and yet she keeps
coming to see me. She has me on her visiting list so she can devil me.
She has no work to do at home, and so she comes over to nag me. She
never has a beau or gets a thing to wear without trotting over to tell
me about it or flaunt it in my face. She even makes fun of me for having
to work in the field, and is actually insulting sometimes. I'd shut the
door in her face, but it would only please her to think she'd made me
mad."

"She's more anxious to get attention from men than any woman I ever laid
eyes on," Henley declared, resentfully. "When drummers come to sell me
goods, she scents 'em a mile down the road, and is in the store
pretending to want to buy some knickknack or other before they open
their samples. I oughtn't to talk agin a lady, Dixie, but she lays
herself open to it, and is so much like a man in some things that I
forget what's due her as a woman. She has such a sneering way, too. That
reminds me. I heard her mention my name when I passed you and her at the
spring the other day. I couldn't hear what she said, but from the way
she snickered I knew she was poking fun. I caught this much: she said
that I was the only man on earth who was fool enough to do something or
other. I couldn't hear what it was, and I didn't care much, but--"
Henley broke off, and for a moment his eyes rested on the averted face
of his companion.

"I don't carry tales," Dixie finally said, with a touch of
embarrassment, "but I've a good mind to tell you exactly what she said,
Alfred, so that you won't think it is worse than it really was. It
wasn't such an awful thing, and she was laughing more at her own
smartness than at you. She said--she said you was the only man under the
sun who had gone so far as to adopt a step-father-in-law. Now, that
wasn't so terrible, was it?"

A sickly smile struggled for existence on the face of the storekeeper,
and his color rose. "Well, that was a new way to put it, anyway," he
said. "I think I could laugh hearty at that joke if it was on some other
fellow, and I'm glad you told me what it was. I didn't know but what she
was saying something even nastier than that."

"She really said some _nice_ things," Dixie went on, diplomatically.
"She said it was good of you to give a home to the Wrinkles, and--"

"As I said just now, I won't take credit for that," Henley broke in; "in
fact, I'd have refused if I could have done it. It come as a surprise,
and it almost knocked me silly. I'd counted on Hettie doing a good many
odd things, but I never expected that. So when she come home from the
camp-meeting, where there had been such a big religious upheaval, and
said she'd met the old man and woman there, and that they both looked so
lonely and peaked and ill-fed that she felt like she was acting
unfaithful to Dick's memory in living in one county and them in
another--well, that's the way it happened. I confess I never thought the
pair looked so bad when they come over, for they was awful cheerful, and
seemed to 'a' been fed on the fat of the land. Hettie told me afterward
that she'd been sending 'em all her spare change, so that was explained.
You'd never know the old woman was about unless you stumbled over her in
the dark, for she is as quiet as a mouse, and never says a thing nor
listens to anybody but him. He's all right. The old man's all right. I
really think I'd miss 'im if he was to leave. I never like to encourage
him too much, but I often laugh at the jokes he plays on folks. People
poke fun at me for having him around, but he drives off the blues
sometimes. He showed me what to expect from him the first day he got
here. He come down to the store, and walked in and looked around till he
saw the tobacco-boxes behind the counter, and he went to 'em and pulled
a plug off of each one, and smelt of 'em and looked at 'em in the light.
Then he took the best one and sidled over to me. He run his hand down
in his pocket, and I thought he was going to pay me for it, but he was
just hunting for his knife. He grinned as he clipped a corner off the
plug, and stuck it betwixt his short teeth. 'You'll find that I'm a
great chawer and smoker, Alf,' he said. Then he axed me if I had such a
thing as a empty dry-goods box about, and when I pointed to some in the
back-yard that I was saving to put seed-corn in, he said he'd take one
and wanted me to have the horses and wagon sent over for a pig they had
left. 'I wouldn't send for it,' he said, 'but it has got to be a sort of
pet. Its pen used to be right at our window, an' me an' the old lady
miss its squealing, especially in the morning. It is as good as an
alarm-clock.'"

The girl wiped a smile from her merry mouth. "Excuse me, Alfred," she
said, "but it does seem powerful funny. It must be the way you tell it."

"I'm glad it's funny to _somebody_, and you are more than excusable," he
said, dryly. "If I could get as good a joke as that on an enemy of mine
I'd never kill 'im in a duel; I'd keep him alive to laugh at."

"You didn't say whether Mr. Wrinkle paid for the tobacco or not," Dixie
reminded him, expectantly.

"Well, I'll tell you now that he didn't," was the answer, "nor for a
pocketful of red stick-candy which he took from a jar. He said it was
for his wife's sweet tooth; but if she got any of it she met him on the
road home, for he was chucking it in at a great rate as he walked away."

They both glanced toward Henley's house. They saw the subject of their
remarks emerge from the kitchen door, and hang his slouch hat on a nail
on the veranda, and reach for the dinner-horn.

"He's going to blow for me," Henley smiled, as the spluttering blast
from the horn rang out and reverberated from the mountain-side.
"Breakfast is ready. He eats like a horse at all times, and is as hardy
as a mountain-goat. I'm going to call him 'Kind Words.'"

"Kind Words"? Dixie looked up inquiringly and smiled. "That's as odd as
Carrie's 'stepfather-in-law.' Why are you going to call him that?"

"Because," and Henley glanced back as he was moving away, "the
Sunday-school hymn says, 'Kind words can never die,' and I know old
Wrinkle won't."



CHAPTER II


As Henley, the axe in hand, approached the house, his stepfather-in-law,
with considerable clatter, was hanging the horn on its nail.

"I noticed you was talkin' to Dixie Hart at the fence," he said, as he
discarded his quid of tobacco and stroked his grizzled chin, on which a
week-old beard grew. "Well, if I wasn't no older'n you are, an' was as
good-lookin', which maybe I ain't, I'd chin 'er over the fence mornin',
noon, and night--married or unmarried. Man laws was made to keep us
straight, I reckon; but when the Lord Himself lived on earth they wasn't
quite as bindin' as folks try to make 'em now. A feller, in that day an'
time, could be introduced to a new wife every mornin' at breakfast, if
he could afford to keep a drove of 'em, and still be looked up to as a
wise man and a prophet."

"Dixie was talking about buying a new axe," Henley answered, "but I told
her this one was good enough, and that I'd make Pomp grind it."

"She's as purty as red shoes," old Jason said. "And if she hain't had a
load to bear, no female ever toted one. Talk about justice! Why, Alf,
that gal hain't had a thimbleful sence she was a baby. She has set out
to make a livin' fer a mammy that can't hardly see where she's walkin',
and an aunt that is mighty nigh tied in a knot with rheumatism, and she
is doin' it--bless yore life!--better'n many a man could in the same
plight. Folks say she's already paid old Welborne half on that farm,
and that before long she'll own it, lock, stock, and barrel. As you may
'a' noticed, I sometimes poke jabs of fun at women, but I never do at
her. Somehow I jest can't. I was a-settin' right back of Carrie Wade an'
some more frisky gals at meetin' last Sunday when Dixie come in an' tuck
a seat on the bench ahead of 'em. I don't let women bother me, one way
or another, but I got rippin' mad at that gang. They was makin' sport of
her. One of 'em re'ched over an' felt of the ribbon on the pore gal's
hat, and then they stuffed the'r handkerchiefs in the'r mouths and come
nigh bustin' with giggles. Them sort think they are the whole show, with
their white hands, smellin'-stuff, and the'r eyes on every man that
passes, while a gal like Dixie Hart is overlooked. I've stood thar at
the gate and watched her out in her corn or cotton in the br'ilin' sun
with her hoe goin' up and down as regular as the tick of a clock, while
the other gals was whiskin' by in some drummer's dinky-top buggy or
takin' a snooze flat o' the'r backs in a cool room."

"Is breakfast ready?" Henley asked, with an appreciative nod in
recognition of remarks he did not wish to prolong, as he leaned the axe
against the front gate and ascended the steps.

"Sech as it is," the old man answered, taking another tack. "When me an'
Jane decided to come here to reside, Hettie was goin' to do wonders in
the cookin' line. She was particular to ax just what our favorite dishes
was, and you may remember how she spread herse'f the fust three days
after we was installed. It was like a camp-meetin'. You couldn't think
of a single article that she didn't have ready, in some shape or other.
But after 'while hot things quit comin' and cold uns appeared that had a
familiar look, and now me and you and all of us set down to the same old
seven and six. Well, my jaw teeth ain't as good as they used to be, and
I make out by soakin' my bread-crust in my coffee. Hettie says she's
goin' to have me an' Jane both fitted out with store sets. Folks that
have tried 'em say they beat the old sort all holler--that you kin crack
hickory-nuts if you have both upper and lower and git a fair clamp on
'em and use yore muscles."

Henley turned into the big dining-room, where his "stepmother-in-law," a
diminutive woman, sat at the foot of the oblong table dressed in faded
black, even to the poke sunbonnet which, worn indoors and out,
completely hid her wrinkled face. Mrs. Henley, as he seated himself on
the side of the board opposite Wrinkle, came from the adjoining kitchen
carrying a steaming pot of coffee, which she put by her plate at the
head of the table, and sat down stiffly. The smooth floor of the room
was bare save for a few rugs made of varicolored rags. The walls had a
few cheap pictures on them--brilliant old-fashioned prints in mahogany
frames, and some enlarged photographs in tawdry gilt. The wide hearth of
a deep chimney was whitewashed, as was also the exposed brickwork up to
a crude mantelpiece on which towered a Colonial clock with wooden
wheels, ornamental dial, ponderous weights, and a painted glass door.

Mrs. Henley had not always been so unattractive; her dark eyes were good
and her face held the glow of fine health. She had added to the severity
of her sharp features by the too-elderly manner in which she parted her
hair exactly in the centre of her high brow and brushed it sharply
backward to a scant knot behind. She wore constantly an expression of
one who was well aware of the fact that vast and vague duties to the
dead as well as to the living rested on her and which should be
performed at any cost. She was not usually talkative, and she had few
observations to make this morning. As she nibbled the hot biscuit, upon
which she had daintily spread a bit of butter, she allowed her glance to
rove perfunctorily over the three plates beyond her own. She asked
Wrinkle if his coffee was strong enough, and the gap in the black bonnet
if the mush was too lumpy. From the bonnet came a mumbling content with
the yellow mass into which cream was being slowly stirred with a
quivering hand. Wrinkle seemed more ready in the use of his tongue.

"I hain't got no complaint to make," he said. "Especially sence Alf said
t'other day at the store that coffee was on the rise. I was curious to
see how this batch would sample out. I reckon when the market takes a
jump storekeepers has to take a lower grade to keep customers satisfied
with the price. But it won't work ef they are as good a judge of the
stuff as I am. I parched this lot myself and picked out heaps o' rotten
grains."

"They wasn't rotten," Henley explained, authoritatively. "They was
water-stained by a wet crop-year, that's all. You was throwing away good
coffee."

"Good or not, the chickens wouldn't eat it," argued the tangled head. "I
know, fer I watched 'em. They was hangin' round the kitchen-door and
would run every time I throwed out a handful, but they didn't swallow
'em any more'n they would so many buckshot. But prices nor nothin' else
will ever git right, if I am any judge, till we git free silver. I tell
you, Alf, that man Bryant is the biggest gun, by all odds, that ever
belched fire in the defence of a helpless nation, and when them dratted
Yankees tricked 'im out of the Presidency they put the ball an' chain o'
slavery on every citizen of this fair land. Bryant told 'em that sixteen
to one would do the work, and what did they say? Huh, they said he was a
fool and didn't know how to figure. I tell you if he was a fool, Solomon
was a idiot. Who was the'r brag man up in Yankeedom?--why, Abe
Lincoln--an' what did he ever do but set back in the White House and
tell smutty jokes, while the rest o' the country was walkin' on its
uppers, eatin' hardtack, sweatin' blood, an' spittin' out minnie-balls.
_That_ man"--Wrinkle swallowed as he pointed the prongs of his fork at
the crayon portrait of Henley's predecessor, which, with shaggy mustache
and partially bald pate, in a new oaken frame, hung near the
clock--"that man was a Bryant supporter from the minute the
sixteen-to-one proposition electrocuted the world to the day of his
death."

"Electro_fied_," corrected Mrs. Henley. "You oughtn't to use words out
of the common. People don't understand them hereabouts."

"Well, they ought to grow up to it," Wrinkle grunted in his cup. "I read
more'n they do, I reckon, an' sometimes a word tickles me till I git it
out."

Henley ate his breakfast in silence. He was known to be a good talker
himself, but he seldom indulged the tendency when Wrinkle was present.
The meal over, he took his hat and went out. The road passing the
farm-house led straight into the main street of the village, and along
it he strode in the soothing, crisp air. His store stood on the square
which encompassed the stone court-house. The store was a plain wooden
building which had never been painted, but had received from time and
the weather a gray, fuzzy coat which answered every purpose. It was
about eighty feet long by thirty in width, and had a porch in front,
which was reached from the sidewalk by a few steps. Ascending to the
door, Henley unlocked it and proceeded from the rather dark interior to
unscrew the faded green window-shutters. These thrown back on the
outside, the light filled the long room, displaying two rows of counters
and shelving. The right-hand side was devoted to dry goods and notions,
the left to groceries, hardware, and crockery. Henley went on to the
rear, where, by lifting a massive wooden bar from iron sockets, he
opened a door in one side of the house. Next he took up a water-pail
from an inverted soap-box, and, emptying the contents, he went to the
well in the adjoining yard, a fenced enclosure which contained a
conglomerate mass of old junk, broken-down wagons, buggies, agricultural
implements, and other odds and ends which the merchant had bought very
low or taken in some sort of exchange for new wares whereby they had
cost him practically nothing. Returning with the water, he had just
seated himself at his desk in the rear when his clerk, James Cahews,
entered at the front, busied himself putting out some samples of
hardware on the porch, and then came back to his employer. He was tall,
well built, had very blue eyes, yellow hair, and a sweeping mustache
which was well curled at the ends. He was without a coat and wore a blue
cravat and a shirt of fancy cotton which matched none too well.

"You beat me to the tank again, Alf," was his jovial greeting. "I would
have got here sooner, but I stopped to drive Mrs. Hayward's cow in for
her. The blamed huzzy took a notion to prance about over the
school-house lot, and the old lady is too near-sighted to see which way
to turn and was afraid she'd get hooked."

"No hurry, no hurry," Henley said, as the other took up a battered tin
sprinkling-pot and, filling it from the pail, began to dampen and sweep
the floor, after which he lazily wiped the counters with a soiled towel.

"Pomp will be here after a while," the clerk said, pausing near where
Henley sat, his glance thoughtfully on the sunlit ground in the yard. "I
come by his cabin. He said he had to run for some medicine for his wife,
and I told him I'd sweep out for him. Them dern niggers had rather take
medicine than eat ice-cream at a festival. I don't know that it's
anybody else's business," he went on, after he had stood the broom in a
corner and was wiping the top of Henley's desk, "but thar is
considerable talk going around that you intend to take a trip to Texas."

"I'm thinking seriously of it," Henley admitted. "I've heard of a deal
or two in land out there that I want to get a finger in. You know, Jim,
that I don't really make my best trades here in this shack; nothing
worth while seems to come this way. I reckon it's because this country
is old and settled. In a new, undeveloped section like that out there
big things is continually happening. The general impression is that a
trading-man can make more amongst ignorant folks than amongst keen
traffickers, but it is a mistake. Folks that ain't born with the flea of
speculation wigglin' in their brain-pans won't never let loose of
nothing. It is the feller that is eternally on the lookout for
opportunities that will sell the shirt off his back to raise money when
he thinks he sees an opening. Then there ain't no fun nor Christianity
in making money out of a fool. I want to know that a feller is up to
snuff and fairly in the game, and then I'll swat 'im if it is in my
power. It's been the ambition of my life to get the best of old Welborne
across the street there. He's made his pile off of widows and orphans,
and if I ever get him under my thumb I'll crack every bone in his hide."

"Traders that have the knack of it like you have, Alf, are simply born
that way," Cahews smiled. "I never had any turn of that sort. I can talk
an old woman into buyin' a dress pattern off of a shelf-worn bolt of
linsey, or a pair of shoes too tight for her, but this way you have of
buying a feller's wagon that breaks down in the road and having it
patched up by a blacksmith that owes you money, and selling the wagon
for more than it cost new--well, as I say, I don't know how to do it."

"I believe myself, as you say, that the trading turn is born in a
feller," Henley laughed, reminiscently. "I know I was swapping knives
'sight unseen' when I was wearing petticoats. I had a stock of old ones
and I kept the jaws of 'em rubbed up bright. My daddy used to whip me
for it. He was one of the best men, Jim, that ever wore shoe-leather,
and he never could stand to see one neighbor get the best of another. He
was dead agin all the deals I made when I was growing up, but I learnt
him the trick and showed him the beauty of it before I was twenty."

"You say you did?" Cahews sat down and eyed his employer eagerly.

"Yes, it come about through my fust hoss-trade," Henley smiled. "It was
this way. Pa was on the lookout for a hoss to do field-work, and he let
everybody know he had the money, and a good many came his way. He wasn't
any judge of hoss-flesh, and a gypsy, passing along, stuck him--burned
the old chap clean to the bone. It was a flea-bitten hoss that was as
round and slick as a ball of butter, and as active under the gypsy's
lash and spur as a frisky young colt. The gypsy said he had paid two
hundred for him, but, as he was anxious to get to his sick wife in
Atlanta, he would make it a hundred and fifty and be thankful that he'd
made one man happy. The old man was his meat. He told him he only had a
hundred and twenty-five, and--well, the gypsy was a smooth article. He
wanted to get his eye on the cash. He said a whole lot about havin' had
counterfeit money paid to him, an' that he had to be careful, and with
that Pa went to the house and got the money and spread it out before the
skunk to prove that it was all right. And in that way the chap got his
hands on it. He shed some tears as he put it into his pocket. Pa said he
kissed the hoss square betwixt the eyes and rubbed him on the nose and
went away with his head hanging down."

"I catch on," the clerk broke in, deeply interested; "it was stolen
property, and your Pa had to give 'im up."

"No, the titles was all right," Henley answered, dryly. "The time come
when Pa would have greeted any claimant with open arms. The hoss had the
disease traders call 'big shoulders.' I was a mile or two off when the
calamity fell, but somebody told me Pa'd bought a hoss, and I come home
as fast as I could. I found Ma and Pa out in the stable-yard, and he was
fairly chattering over his wonderful bargain, and what a kind heart the
gypsy had. Pa saw me and grinned from ear to ear.

"'Say, Alf,' he said, 'you are always making your brags about knowing
hoss-flesh; what do you think of this prince of the turf?'

"I walked round in front of the animal to size him up, and my heart sunk
'way down in my boots. 'Pa,' I said, 'it looks to me like he's got "big
shoulders."'

"'Big nothing!' Pa said; but when he stood in front and took a squint I
saw him turn pale. 'Big shoulders, a dog's hind-foot!' he grunted, and
he was so mad at me that he could hardly talk. He put the hoss in a
stall and jowered at me all that evening, and at the supper-table he
clean forgot to ask the blessing. The more he feared I was right the
worse he got, till Ma had to call him to order by putting the family
Bible in his lap and making him read and pray. I couldn't help laughing,
as serious as it was; for while we was on our knees the thought struck
me that he ought to ask the Lord to bless that gypsy and restore his
wife to health. Well, I was right. Early the next morning, after a good
night's rest and plenty of water and feed, we found the hoss lying down.
He'd get up and go about a little whenever we'd prod 'im, but he'd lie
down whenever our backs was turned."

"I've seen hosses like that," Cahews remarked, "and they might as well
be shot."

"That's exactly what Pa decided to do, after two weeks' nursing and
cajoling," Henley laughed. "He come in to the breakfast-table one
morning with his rifle in his clutch, a sort of resigned look in his
eyes.

"'What are you going to do, Pa?' I asked him.

"'Why, I see that danged thing has got on one of his lively spells,' he
said, 'and I'm going to shoot him while he's at his best. If there is
any hoss-heaven, he'd make a better appearance like he is now than at
any other time. I've had my fill. The sight of that hoss peeping out
betwixt the bars every day at meal-time and lying on a bed of ease the
rest of the day is driving me crazy. He'll be on his way in a few
minutes if I can shoot straight.'

"'No, don't kill 'im,' I said, my trading blood up. 'Let me ride 'im to
town while he's lively and maybe I can git rid of him. I might get a few
dollars for his hide, and that would be better than having to dig a hole
to put 'im in.'

"'No, don't kill 'im here,' Ma said, for she had a tender heart--God
bless her memory--and so the old man hung his gun up on the rack and
went to eating, almost too mad to swallow. Well, after the meal was over
I saddled the hoss and rid into town at a purty lively gait. It was
really astonishing what a decent trot the thing could take at times. You
see, I'd heard that Tobe Wilks, a big hardware man at Carlton, who had a
plantation in the country, was looking for a hoss, and I thought I'd see
what he'd say to mine. I was jest a boy, but I'd hung around
hoss-swappers enough to know that it never was a good idea to be the
first to propose a trade, and so I hitched at the post in front of
Wilks's store and went in. I bought a pound of tenpenny nails, that I
thought would come in handy in patching fences at home, and while the
clerk was weighing 'em up I saw Tobe leave his chair behind a counter
and go out and walk around the hoss. Finally he come to me and said,
said he:

"'Alf, does your Pa want to sell that stack of bones out there?'

"'He don't,' says I, 'fer the hoss is mine; he gave 'im to me.'

"'Oh, that's it!' said Wilks; 'well, do _you_ want to sell him?'

"'Well, I ain't itchin' fer a trade,' I says, and I paid no more
attention to Wilks, pretending to be looking at some ploughshares in a
pile on the floor, till he come at me again.

"'But you _would_ sell him, wouldn't you?' he asked.

"'Well,' I said, slowlike, as if I had some difficulty in recalling
exactly what we'd been talking about, 'I had sorter thought that a good
mule would do the work I have to do better than a hoss.'

"'What would you take for him?' Wilks come at me again, and he looked
kinder anxious. 'I want a hoss to send out to my plantation. They are
needing one about like yours.'

"'It will take a hundred and fifty of any man's money to buy him,' I
says. 'Friend nor foe don't get him for a cent less.'

"Well, we went out to the hoss, and Wilks got astraddle of him, and,
sir, he took him round the square in the purtiest rack you ever saw
shuffle under a saddle. I saw Wilks thought I was his game, for his eyes
was dancing as he lit and hitched.

"'How would a hundred and forty strike you, cash down?' he said.

"'I'm needing the other ten,' I said. 'I'm a one-price man. I know what
I've got in that hoss' (and you bet I did), 'and you can take him or
leave him. I didn't start the talk, nohow.'

"'Well, we won't fight over the ten,' he said, 'but here is one
trouble, Alf. You are under age, and I don't often trade with minors. I
don't know how your daddy may look at it, and I'm going to make this
deal before witnesses so there won't be any trouble later.'

"'You'll not have any trouble with Pa,' says I. 'I'll guarantee that.'

"Well, Wilks called up two of his clerks to see the money handed to me,
and with the wad of bills in my pocket I lit out for home. But the
nearer I got to the house the more I got afraid Pa wouldn't endorse what
I'd done, and so I felt sorter funny when him and Ma met me at the gate,
their eyes wide open in curiosity to know what I'd done.

"'Well, what did you do with the hoss?' Pa wanted to know.

"'I sold him,' says I. 'I let him go to Tobe Wilks for cash.'

"'Cash the devil,' says Pa. 'How much?'

"I drawed out my roll and fluttered the bills in the wind. 'A hundred
and fifty,' I said. 'If I'd asked less he'd have been suspicious and
backed out.'

"Well, sir, Pa was plumb flabbergasted. He leaned against the gate-post
and puffed for air, and Ma was the same way. But he wouldn't touch the
money. 'It's plain open-and-shut stealing,' he said, when he riz to the
surface, 'and we are simply going to hitch a hoss to the buggy and take
the money back.'

"Well, it looked like it was no go. I argued and produced evidence till
I was black in the face, but Pa just kept saying he wouldn't sanction no
such deal, and Ma she agreed with him. So you bet I felt like a whipped
school-boy as me and him set side by side and drove into town. He was
bewailing all the way that he'd fetched into the world an only son that
was no better than a hog-thief in principle, an', if I didn't change, me
'n him would have to part.

"When we got to the square I saw Tobe Wilks standing in the door of the
store, and I saw that he was mad. At first I thought he'd found out
about the hoss, but I saw it wasn't that as soon as he reached the
buggy.

"'Now, I'll tell you right now,' he said to Pa, when the old man drawed
the roll out and started to hand it to him over my legs. 'You sha'n't
come here and try to back down in a fair trade like that. I made it
before witnesses, and your boy said he had your consent. I've sent the
hoss out home, and I don't do business that way.' Pa tried to get in a
word, but Tobe 'ud cut him short as soon as he opened his mouth, so the
old man couldn't do anything but wave the money at him.

"'If you get the hoss you'll do it by law,' Tobe went on, fairly
frothing at the mouth, 'and I'll put your boy in the pen for selling
stolen property. You can't browbeat me, you old hog.'

"'Old hog!' I heard Pa grunt in his beard, and he stuffed the roll down
in his pants pocket. Now Pa wouldn't take advantage of his worst enemy
in a trade, but he'd fight a bosom friend if he was insulted. And before
I could bat my eyes he had lit out of the buggy, and him and Wilks was
engaged in a scrap that'ud make two wildcats go off and take lessons.
The town marshal run up and parted them by the aid of bystanders, and
some of 'em persuaded me to drive Pa home. He was a good, holy man, but
he cussed all the way, and ended by saying that Wilks never should see
hair nor hide of that money. And he never offered it back again,
neither, and him and Wilks never spoke for two years. Pa bought a fine
Kentucky mare with the money, and used to chuckle every time she'd pass
him. He got so he thought hoss-trading wasn't the worst crime on earth."

"And what became of the hoss?" the listener asked.

"I never knew," Henley answered; "men don't advertise such things when
they go against them. But one day, during election, Tobe asked me to
cast a vote for his son, and I promised to do it, and we got kinder
friendly. As he was leaving me he turned back and laid his hand on my
shoulder and said, 'Alf, I've wondered many a time what in the name of
common-sense your Pa wanted with that hoss.'

"'So have I,' said I, and he went one way and me another."

Pomp, the negro porter, was entering the door, and with a laugh Cahews
turned to meet him.



CHAPTER III


The gray light of early dawn had taken on a faint tint of yellow, and
the profound stillness of the air, the vast quietude of the mountain
foliage and drooping corn-blades gave warning of the fierce heat that
was to follow.

Dixie Hart turned her head drowsily on her pillow and opened her eyes
and closed them again. "Oh, I could sleep, sleep, sleep till doomsday,"
she said to herself. "I wish I didn't have to get up. I'd like to take
one day off. I could lie here flat on my back till night. But, old girl,
you've got to be up an' doing."

She heard the clucking and scratching of her hens, the chirping of the
tiny chickens, and the lusty crowing of her roosters in their answering
calls to neighboring fowls, the neighing of her horse in the stable, the
mooing of her cow in the barn-yard.

"They are all begging me to hurry," she mused. "They don't want to
sleep; they've had their fill through the night, while I had to be up.
Well, repining don't make good dining, and here goes."

She dressed herself, went out on the little kitchen porch, bathed in
fresh, cool well-water, and, with a coarse towel which hung from a nail
on the door-jamb, she rubbed her face, arms, and neck till they glowed
like the reddening skies.

"My two women, as sound as they pretend to sleep, are crazy for their
coffee," she smiled, "but they've got to wait, like people at a circus
do, till the animals are fed. The older folks get, the earlier they go
to bed and the earlier they rise. Heaven only knows where it will end.
If mine could get their suppers early enough they would say good-night
at sundown and good-morning when it was so dark you couldn't see 'em in
their night-clothes."

"Dixie, is that you, darling?" It was Mrs. Hart's voice, and it came
from the open window of a tiny room with a sloping roof which jutted out
from the end of the kitchen.

"Yes'm. What is it, mother?"

"Nothing." A thin hand drew a white curtain aside, and a pale, wrinkled
face, surrounded by dishevelled iron-gray hair, appeared above the
window-sill. "I just wanted to know if you was up. I heard you through
the night. Your aunt was suffering, wasn't she?"

"Yes, she couldn't sleep," Dixie replied, as she spread the damp towel
out on the shelf where the coming sun's rays would dry it. "She says she
sat too long at the spring yesterday. I got up and rubbed her arms and
chest twice with the new liniment. It smells like it's got laudanum in
it; but it didn't deaden her pain."

"I'd 'a' got up myself," Mrs. Hart said, in her plaintive tone, "but I
can't see good enough to help."

"It's well you didn't," Dixie said, lightly, "for you'd just have made
double trouble. I'd have laid down my patient and let her grin and bear
her pain while I was trotting you back to bed and making you lie there.
Don't you ever get up and go stumbling about in the dark while I'm
attending to anything like that."

"I think I'll get up and make the coffee while you are feeding," Mrs.
Hart said. "Mandy nearly dies waiting for it to come after she wakes
up."

"That's right, lay it on her," Dixie laughed, impulsively. "You are
getting like a ripe old toper who is always begging whiskey for
somebody else. You let that coffee-pot alone. The last time you tried
your hand at it you put in a double quantity of corn-meal and couldn't
understand why it didn't have a familiar smell as it was boiling."

"I believe a body does become a slave to the habit," the old woman
agreed. "The other day you was over at Carlton, and left enough already
made for dinner, I accidentally spilled it, and me and Mandy went nearly
crazy. It was one of her bad days, and she couldn't get up, and I
couldn't find the coffee."

"I remember," Dixie answered, "and you both swigged so much at supper to
make up for it that you wanted to talk all night. Oh, you two are a
funny lot! But you've got to wait this time, sure. I'm going to feed
these things and stop their noise."

She had reference to half a hundred fowls, young and old, that were
squawking loudly and fluttering on the steps and even the porch floor.
She disappeared in the kitchen and returned in a moment with a dish-pan
half filled with corn-meal, and into this she poured a quantity of
water, and with her hand stirred the mass into a thick mush. This she
began to throw here and there over the yard like a sower of grain till
the voices of the fowls had ceased and they had fled from the porch.
Then she took up a pail of swill in the kitchen and bore it down to a
pen containing a couple of fat pigs and emptied it into their wooden
trough. Going into a little corn-crib adjoining the stable and
wagon-shed, she brought out a bucketful of wheat-bran and fed it to the
cow, which stood trying to lick the back of a sleek young calf over the
low fence in another lot. "I'll milk you after breakfast," she said, as
she stroked the cow's back. "The calf will have to wait; I can't attend
to all humanity and the brute creation at the same time. You'll feel
more like suckling the frisky thing, anyway, after you've filled your
insides."

The sun was above the horizon when she had breakfast on the table in the
little kitchen. She stood in the space between the cooking-stove and the
table and attended to the wants of the half-blind woman and the all but
helpless aunt. The biscuits she had baked were light and brown as
autumnal leaves, the eggs fried with bacon in thin lean-and-fat slices
would have tempted the palate of a confirmed invalid. The aroma of the
coffee floated like a delectable substance through the still air.

"It's going to be awfully hot to-day," Mrs. Wartrace, the widowed aunt,
remarked. "I hope you are not going to hoe in the sun this morning."

"Huh!" Dixie sniffed, as she sat down at the end of the table and began
to butter a hot biscuit, "and let the crab-grass and pussley weeds
literally choke out the best stand of cotton I ever laid my eyes on. No,
siree, not me. I'd hire hands, but all the niggers have gone to town
where there are more back-doors to live at; no, there is nothing for me
to do but to look out for number one. See here, you two women don't seem
to be able to look ahead. I've paid for half of this farm in the last
three years, and in two more I'll own it. It is a good thing as it
stands, but when I'm plumb out of debt we'll take it easy and set back
in the shade once in a while. Alf Henley is a keen trader and knows what
values are, and he told me not long ago that he believed a railroad
would head for Chester some day, and, if it comes, my land would sell
for town lots. Let's let well enough alone and be thankful for the
blessings we've got. That's right, Aunt Mandy, drain it to the dregs and
I'll fill it again. I knew I'd hit it exactly right this morning by the
color of it."

Breakfast was over, and Dixie, aided by the fumbling hands of her
mother, was washing and drying the few dishes and putting them away in
the safe with perforated tin doors, which was the chief piece of
furniture in the room, when the front gate opened and closed with a
metallic click of the latch, and a visitor hurried along the little
gravelled walk to the front porch.

"It is that meddlesome Carrie Wade," Mrs. Wartrace looked into the
kitchen to say. "She's got on a new muslin, and has come over to show
it, even as early as this."

"I'm not going to stand at the door and knock like a stranger," the
visitor cried out, as she entered the little front hallway and rustled
back to the kitchen. "Hello, Dix; Martha Sims and me are invited to
spend the day over at Treadwell's. You know the new lumber-camp is
there, and there's some dandy fellows working at it. They are going to
give a dance, an' told us to send Ned Jones over with his fiddle. Oh, we
are going to have a rattling time. We agreed to get up early. It seems
funny, don't it? It's been many a day since I saw the sun rise."

The speaker was a tall blonde about Dixie's age. She was thin, inclined
to paleness, and had a nervous look.

Dixie was drying her hands on a dishcloth, and she turned upon the
visitor, surveying her carefully from her rather worn shoes to the newer
dress and gaudily flowered hat with its tinsel ornaments and flowing
pink ribbons. She knew full well that her neighbor had come for the sole
purpose of showing her finery, and was secretly gloating over her
misfortune in having to remain behind, and yet she allowed this
knowledge in no way to affect her demeanor.

"You'll have a glorious time," Dixie said. "It's going to be a fine day
for a picnic and dance."

"How do you like my dress?" Miss Wade asked, turning round for the
inspection.

"It's very pretty, and pink suits you," Dixie answered, touching one of
the folds of the skirt.

"It's entirely too long in front," Mrs. Hart said, as she bent forward
and squinted sidewise with quite a visible sneer. "You'd look powerful
funny walking along kicking up the skirt behind. With a veil on nobody
could tell whether you was going or coming. Take my word for it--that
stuff'll fade, even in the sun. You won't get more than one or two
wearings out of it."

"Oh, do you think so?" The blond face fell. "I was a little afraid of
that myself, and maybe you are right about the fit behind, too."

"Mother doesn't know what she's talking about," Dixie said, with a
reproachful glance at her parent, who frowningly hovered on the verge of
another criticism. "It is the way you've put the flounce on, Carrie,
that makes it look that way in front. Wait, let me pin it up."

"Pin it up, I say!" Mrs. Hart sniffed. "You'll never get it to look
decent that way. Nothing but making the whole thing plumb over will do
any good. You ought to have got you a new sash to go with the muslin;
weak-eyed as I am, I can see the dirty, faded edges agin the new cloth.
The two don't go together. In war-times it was considered excusable to
botch things that way, but not in this day and time when all
_industrious_ folks can get what's needed."

Dixie looked up regretfully, and a flush of embarrassment climbed into
her fine face as her mother, accompanied by her silent sister, swept
stiffly from the room.

When Carrie Wade had left, after her by no means triumphant call, Dixie
went to her mother, who stood in the yard under an apple-tree, still
with a frown on her really gentle face.

"You oughtn't to have said all that, mother," Dixie said, as she leaned
on the smooth handle of the hoe she was going to take to the field.
"After all, she was in _our_ house."

"And come in it like a yellow-fanged snake with its forked tongue fairly
dripping with poison," was the ready retort. "She come to gloat over
you as she always has since the day you cut her out of that young man.
She knowed you were going to work at home to-day, and she had the
littleness to traipse over here to try to make you feel like you was
missing something awful grand. If I hadn't left the kitchen I wouldn't
have stopped with what I said about her flimsy dress. I'd have told her
that if she'd stay at home more, and keep the holes in her stockings
darned, and her underclothes cleaner, she'd stand a better chance roping
in some fool man. I'm plain and outspoken, and I resent sneaking hints
and false grins as quick as I do slaps. I'm tired o' you doing the way
you are, anyhow. I want you to be like the rest of the girls. What do we
care about owning this farm. Her daddy can't buy a knitting-needle on
time, and yet they live as well as anybody else, and she thinks she is a
grade higher than the rest of us."

"Don't you let it bother you, Muttie," Dixie said, tenderly; indeed, she
was always moved by a demonstration of her mother's love, and her eyes
were moist as she put a caressing hand on the gray locks of the little
woman. "We are going to see it through. When the farm is plumb paid for
we'll make Carrie so sick with our fine doings she'll wish she was
dead."

"It is mighty hard," the old lips quivered, and the gaunt, blue-veined
hand was raised to the dim eyes. "I can't stand to see that girl going
to places you can't go to. I simply can't, that's all."

"I could have gone, mother," Dixie remarked. "I didn't tell her, for I
knew exactly what she would say, but Hank Bradley met me on the way home
yesterday and offered to drive me over there. He says he knows all the
lumber crowd well."

"Hank Bradley--did he want to take you?" cried Mrs. Hart, "and you
wouldn't go?"

"I couldn't, mother. You know every girl that has ever kept company
with him has been talked about. I don't like him. I can't stand him.
He's a bad man, mother--a gambler, a drunkard, and an idler. He doesn't
care for the characters he has ruined. He's fast running through the
money his mother left him; he's no good."

"I don't know that you did exactly right," Mrs. Hart said, with the
indecision and bad logic into which her ill-fortune sometimes drew her.
"I know what he is well enough, but you are able to take care of
yourself, and you lose so many chances by being so particular. He knows
your true worth, and I've knowed men even as bad as he is to be reformed
by loving a good girl."

"I ain't in the reforming business," Dixie laughed. "I'd rather fight
crab-grass and pussley weeds, and I'm off now. You go back in the house
and set down and don't talk about the picnic. I sha'n't even think about
it. I never bother about anything when I get warmed up."

Without a word further the two parted. Mrs. Hart stood on the little
porch, and Dixie crossed the stretch of green meadow-land and climbed
over the rail-fence of her cotton-field. The long rows of succulent
plants, as high as the girl's knees, seemed breathing, conscious things
to which she was giving relief as she smoothly cut away the tenaciously
encroaching weeds and deep-rooted grass, the heaviest bunches of which
she took up and threshed against the hoe-handle and left in the sun to
die lest they be revived by some shower which would beat their roots
into the mellow soil again. The sun rose higher and higher till it was
poised almost directly over her head, and its rays beat more fiercely
down upon her. The almost breathless air was as hot as a gust from the
open door of a furnace. Her hands, in her heavy, knitted yarn gloves,
were moist and red.

In the distance, and nearer to the village, rose the white, pretentious
house of old Silas Welborne, the money-lender and the uncle of Hank
Bradley, to whom she owed the remaining payment on her land. Almost day
and night it stood before her as a mute reminder of her difficult
undertaking. This morning, in the golden light, against the mountain
background, it seemed an inspiration, as a flag of peace might appear to
a tired soldier. Hank Bradley was the orphaned son of old Welborne's
sister, and he lived in his uncle's home in lieu of any other that was
available. He had made trips to the West and had remained away for
indefinite periods, the last being the time he had come home with the
carelessly announced death of his companion, Dick Wrinkle. The uncle and
nephew were an incongruous pair: old Welborne, with his miserly grasp on
the vitals of half the county, and the devil-may-care Bradley, whose
wild ways made him the constant talk of the community. Old Silas gave no
thought to the fellow's reform. As the administrator of his sister's
estate, he doled out honestly enough the various sums in rents,
dividends, and interest to which the young man was entitled after his
liberal fees as administrator had been deducted, and even smiled when
told of Bradley's reckless and almost criminal escapades. Henley had
once remarked in his keenly observant way that Welborne, being the next
of kin, would be glad to hear that his nephew had died with his boots on
in some one of the lynching affairs to which Bradley was suspected of
being a party.

Dixie had reached the farthest end of one of her longest cotton-rows,
and was turning to work homeward on another, when the branches of the
bushes of a near-by coppice parted and Bradley, with a fowling-piece on
his arm, appeared.

"Good gracious, you _are_ a queer girl!" he laughed, as he advanced to
the low fence and climbed to a seat upon it. "Working here like a
corn-field nigger in sun hot enough to bake a potato, when you could
have been gliding through the shade behind my horse--to say nothing of
the picnic and dance when we got there."

She pushed back the hood of her bonnet and smiled faintly.

"Driving and dancing ain't paying debts," she said, "and there is no
other time to do this work. You know your uncle well enough to
understand what he expects of folks unlucky enough to be on his books."

"That's another thing I can't understand," the young man said, bracing
his heels on one of the rails, and, with his gun across his lap, he
began to twist his stiff brown mustache, while his dark eyes rested with
growing warmth on her trim figure. "What in the name of common-sense do
you want to own land for?"

"What does a body want to _breathe_ for?" Dixie asked him, sharply, "or
own the duds on your back, or the grub you eat? Why, it is simply to be
independent. I wouldn't quake and shiver every time that old man meets
me if I wasn't in his clutch. I ain't afraid of anybody else, but I am
of him, and why? Because he's got me where he can do as he likes with
me. The last time I went to explain why I couldn't meet the payments
exactly to the day, he growled like a bear, and said if I didn't look
sharp he'd sell the roof over my head."

"Well, we needn't talk about him," the handsome daredevil said. "What I
want to know is why you'd rather hoe cotton in weather like this than go
with me to a jolly picnic. Why, Dixie, you don't begin to know your
power; you could do as you like in this world, if you only would. You
are the best-looking girl in the county, and you grow prettier every
day. The blood of life is in your veins; you haven't got the sickly,
palish look that the girls have who stay indoors half the time. You've
got a clear eye, a good figure, and a complexion that society women
would give big money for."

"You needn't begin all that again." The girl lowered her head and half
raised her hoe to strike at a weed near a stalk of cotton. "I know what
I am well enough. I was born with a load on me, and I'm going to tote it
till I get to a dumping-place. My good looks won't set the world on
fire."

"Well, they have set _me_ on fire," Bradley laughed, significantly. He
lowered his feet to the ground on her side of the fence and leaned his
gun against it. "Say, this sun will actually blister us; let's go down
to the spring."

"No spring for me to-day," she said, grimly. "I see Aunt Mandy on the
back porch now. She'll hang out a towel in a minute. That's the signal
that it is half-past eleven by the clock. I've got to go cook dinner."

"Well, I'll walk over with you."

"No, you mustn't."

"Why?"

"Because I'd rather you wouldn't--that's all."

"I declare I believe you mean that, and I won't push myself on you,
Dixie. You know how I feel about you, and you oughtn't to be so
dadblasted rough with a fellow. I think about you night and day. I
didn't come out to shoot anything this morning. I simply couldn't get
over the way you turned me down yesterday. I lay awake last night
thinking about it, and so I waited for you this morning. I stayed in the
bushes over there watching till you hoed up here. I don't believe I'll
ever get over feeling that way, and I am not going to give up. I'm going
to keep hoping."

"There goes my towel!" Dixie said, as she laid her hoe across her
shoulder. "I must go. Don't follow me, Hank. I don't want her, or
anybody else, to see me out here with you."

"Then come out to the fence this evening, after supper, won't you, just
a minute?"

"No, I can't--I never leave the house after dark. They need me at home."

"Blast them, what have they got to do with you? You are already a slave
to them. Well, good-bye. You'll change your mind some day."

He held out his hand with a smile, but she refused to take it.

"You won't even shake hands. Why, what is the matter with you? I can see
that you are mad at me by the twitching of--Do you know, Dixie, you have
the most maddening mouth and lips that a woman ever owned? Say, shake
just once to show that we are friends."

"I won't. I did it once and you held me and tried to kiss me. I'll tell
you now in dead earnest, Hank, you must never try that sort of a thing
again. I mean it, as God is my judge, I do."

"I never will while you hold a hoe in your grip," he jested, with a
thwarted smile, as she turned from him.

He stepped back to his gun and stood watching her as she plodded
homeward. "I can't help it," he said, a dark, desperate look on his
face. "I simply can't quit thinking about her. I've got staying
qualities, and no man ever gained his point that paid the slightest
attention to a woman's moods. Right now she may be wishing she'd gone to
the picnic."



CHAPTER IV


"Jim, how's your courting getting on?" Henley asked his clerk, half
teasingly, one sultry afternoon, as the two were finishing a game of
checkers on a board from which the squares were almost obliterated by
the constant sliding of the black and white pants-buttons which were
used for checkers.

"Don't ask me, Alf," Cahews answered, with a sickly smile. "I'm afraid
she's too much for me. We ain't a bit nigher the altar than we was a
year ago when I begun. Sometimes I think she is willing, and then ag'in
I don't."

"I kinder thought you looked worried the last time you took her to
ride," said Henley, sympathetically. "I felt sorry for you. She looked
mighty chipper in her finery as you whisked by, but you was down in the
mouth. Looked like you was on duty, and that was all."

"Somehow I don't much blame her," Cahews sighed, "but it looks to me
like she is having too good a time running here and there to want to
settle down. Sometimes I git blue and think she is just holding me as a
safe thing to land on while she looks the field over. I have to stay
here and attend to business and see her gallivanting in her ruffles and
flounces with every drummer and lightning-rod agent that comes along."

"Maybe you ought to sorter lay down the law, at least on that particular
point," Henley submitted, delicately. "I've heard my step-daddy-in-law
say that a woman was born to be commanded, and when they ain't they hop
to t'other extreme and just loll about in their abuse of a feller's
good-nature. I don't know--that's the old man's view. You might give out
a decided order or two, Jim, and see how--"

"Not to a woman you are tryin' to marry," said the clerk, quite firmly.
"Sech a thing might be done to an army of soldiers or a red-handed mob
at a lynchin'-bee, but not to a gal that makes you feel like you are
sinking down in a mire whenever she looks you in the eyes. No, Alf, not
to a gal as purty and sweet as a bunch of roses, and that knows it, and
is in the habit o' being told of it as regular as eatin' and sleepin'. A
gal like that sort o' feels 'er oats, as the feller said. She knows
she's the stuff, and she loves to be told of it as much as a cat loves
to sleep in the sun."

"Well, I'll be dadblamed if I'd tag after her without _some_ substantial
hope," Henley opined, wisely. "Life is long and life is earnest, and
beauty is only skin deep, anyways. It seems to me--_now_, at least--that
if I was out on the hunt for a helpmeet I'd look to the _solid_
qualities in a woman just as I would in a man I wanted to work with. I'd
study her character, her pluck under trying circumstances, her industry,
and her all-round good-nature. The shape and face and furbelows,
eyebrows and color of bangs, would be the last consideration."

"I never hear that from any but married men," Jim said. "They sing that
song till they bury their wives, and then they turn to boys again and
pick the youngest and prettiest they can lay their hands on."

"I was just thinking, Jim"--Henley seemed unwilling to combat the last
assertion. His eyes rested thoughtfully on a sunny spot before the open
door--"you see, I've got a little neighbor that--"

"I know--Dixie Hart! I know who you mean," the clerk broke in. "She's
all wool and a yard wide, but I never run across her till after I'd got
in with old man Hardcastle's daughter. I wouldn't talk to just any stray
person this away, Alf, but me and you was boys together, and you've
always been my friend. She's got me, Alf--I don't exactly know how--but
she could crook her little finger at me and I'd make for her side--yes,
sir, I would, through flame and smoke, if the world was coming to an
end."

The talk had grown serious; there was a moist gleam in Cahew's blue
eyes, and he snuffed as if he had a cold. Henley was glad of the
interruption brought about by the arrival of a stranger who entered the
front door and came back to them with swift, steady strides. He was fat,
middle-aged, short, had a round, smooth face, and in removing his straw
hat to fan his pink brow he disclosed a very bald head.

"I don't know whether you gentlemen are in need of anything in my line,"
he said, as he drew a big book of illustrations from beneath his arm and
opened it on Henley's desk. "But I was givin' yore town and vicinity the
one and only chance of its life to git the only true and artistic thing
in marble. I'm agent for the Adamantyne Tombstone Company, of Tennessee.
We own the only quarry of snow-white, non-grit, pristyne Parian rock on
this side of the blue ocean, and we have in our employ the best and most
world-renowned chisel-artists that ever breathed the spark of life into
inanimate matter. Now, just set where you are, gentlemen--don't
move--and I'll show you a beauty--a tombstone that will make a man want
to die--if he's able to pay the price."

He held his book of illustrations open before Henley, whose eyes were
twinkling mischievously as they rested on his clerk.

"I'm not in the market," he said, without a smile. "I wouldn't buy any
but a second-handed one, and then it would have to be so cheap that a
dead man would kick it off of his grave in disgust. You've got in the
wrong box. If you'll look about amongst the junk I've got in my
back-yard you may find one or two lying about."

"I see you've got a streak of fun in you," the agent said,
good-naturedly, and at this instant old Jason Wrinkle entered and
sauntered back to the group. He seemed to recognize the stranger, for
the two exchanged nods of greeting. "I'm still at it, you see," the
salesman said. "I'm going to give all a chance. How about you, sir?" and
he turned to Cahews. "I may find you serious, if this man ain't. Death
is beautiful when it is properly looked at and provided for."

"I don't need anything in that line," Cahews said, with a flush.

"You _might_, Jim," Henley broke in, with a grin, "if you don't git
cured of that complaint you was telling me about just now," and Henley
winked almost imperceptibly to any one not familiar with the tricks of
his face. He bent his head and smiled behind his broad hand. "I'll tell
you, sir," he went on to the salesman, after another sly wink at Cahews,
"none of us here happen to want anything in your line, but there is a
rich old codger across the way--Mr. Silas Welborne--who will trade if
you'll stick to him long enough. He's got dead kin with no sort o' tags
on 'em. You might have to talk to him all the evening, and even follow
him home, but you'll sell him if you understand your business. He's
powerful soft-hearted, for one thing, and if you'll tell him a tale or
two in the eloquent tongue you was rolling off just now he'll place a
dandy order. I'll give you that as a pointer."

"Well, I'm much obliged to you, sir, and thank you kindly," the agent
said, as he closed his book. "I'll look him up. I'm doing a big
business here. Your people don't seem to have had a chance to invest in
my line in no telling how long. Good-day."

"Good-day," Henley echoed, and he endeavored to hide the mischievous
smile that was playing about his mouth. In a chuckling undertone he said
to Wrinkle and Cahews: "I'd give a pretty to see this oily-tongued chap
holding down that crusty old miser. A tombstone is the last thing on
earth that Welborne would want to think about or talk about. I'd love to
be there and see 'em meet."

Cahews laughed and sauntered toward the front, and old Wrinkle sat down
in the chair just vacated and tilted it back against the door-jamb.

"That is a sorter good joke," he said, his small eyes on Henley,
"considering the man you mean it for, but as I stood thar hearin' you
concoct it I couldn't help thinking if you knowed what a joke this
self-same peddler had got off on you you'd not be exactly in the mood
for fun--at least not in the grave-rock line."

"What joke are you talking about?" Henley asked, incredulously, his face
falling into seriousness. "I have never laid eyes on this chap before."

"I reckon not, but you'll know him the next time you see him; I'll be
bound you do, even if you are a mile down the road an' he's round the
bend with his back turned to you. The truth is, I just followed him down
here to see who he'd strike next. He's been to our house, Alf. He slid
in there just after you come off, and set on the porch and begun his
palaver. He has a different way with women than he has with men. He
seems to know that women are soft on some lines, and chiefly on
preachin' and buryin'. He'd picked up a list of folks round about here
that had lost kin, and he had me and Jane down on it on account of Dick.
Now, it seems that when he gits to a place he goes to the graveyard and
looks for stones to tally with his dead list, and when he don't find any
he makes a note of it; so, you see, havin' Dick's name down, an' not
knowin' the full particulars, he hunted us up, thinkin' we was
unsupplied in his line. So, you see, that's why he made sech a leech of
hisse'f on our porch."

"Huh, I see," Henley frowned--"I see."

"I can't begin to describe all the chap done or said," Wrinkle resumed.
"He riz and walked and ranted, an' prayed an' sung an' mighty nigh
called up mourners. I thought them two women would bust out cryin' once
or twice, but they belt in tiptop through the hottest of the wrangle.
Then I thought I'd put a stop to it, and I up and told him, I did, that
he'd made a mistake, an' that we didn't need a thing of the sort--that
Dick's body never was recovered, and so on. Then what do you think? The
skunk was actually flabbergasted, and didn't know what to say. But he
was game, and knowed thar was some way out of his trouble. He said,
'Wait a minute--don't bother me!' an' he shet his eyes tight, an' set
thar with his head hangin' down for fully five minutes. Then he looked
up an' said, 'I was jest tryin' to recall the good lady's name that had
the same trouble, pine blank, as your'n, but it slips me somehow.' An'
with that he said it was the custom all over civilized Christendom, in
such cases as our'n, to erect a suitable monument jest the same, havin'
a plot the right length an' width set aside, with both head and foot
rock, and, if a sermon hadn't been preached already, one ought to be on
the day the stone was put in place an' consecrated. I 'lowed sure them
women would see how plumb silly it was, but they listened like they was
gittin' the only directions to the Golden Shore, and begun to look at
the pictures in his book like they thought the skunk was savin' 'em from
death, destruction, an' disgrace."

"You don't mean to tell me they actually went and ordered--" Henley
began, but his voice trailed away into indistinctness. He could only
stare at his tormentor hopelessly.

"Only a little one fur five hundred dollars," Wrinkle said, with evident
enjoyment. "They had a lots o' trouble pickin' out the design amongst
all the doves, broke-off pillars, seraphims, an' angels, but they
finally got what they wanted. Not a tear was shed, if you'd stood off a
few feet, out o' earshot, you couldn't 'a' told but what they was
pickin' out a pattern fer a weddin'-dress or buyin' tickets fer a
side-show. After they got under headway I couldn't say anything--they
had sech a solemn way about it, and then I couldn't help but be fair and
think if I'd been in Dick's place they would have gone through exactly
the same antics, an' been jest as liberal in showing due respect. Hettie
says it is all to come out of her own money that she had when she
married you. She was particular to mention the fact, and I think that
showed a sensible streak, for a fool would know you oughtn't to be
expected to stand sech expense, and so long after you took her, and that
being a thing that would naturally belong to her past career, too. After
the agent had gone off I set thar, an' Hettie told me what she was goin'
to do. She don't intend to spare expense to do the thing plumb right.
She's goin' to send away off for a high-priced reverential orator to
give the discourse, an' intends to have evergreens hung all over the
church. I don't know whether she designs to have all the business houses
in Chester closed that day, but she'd naturally expect you and Jim to
shet up an' take it in."

"So this is the joke you said that man had got off on me, is it?" Henley
snapped out, irritably.

"Well, I reckon it mought not appear exactly in the same light to you,
Alf," answered Wrinkle, "as it would to somebody who'd be more inclined
to laugh over a thing of the sort. You was gettin' off what you called
a good one on old Tight-fist just now by puttin' this chap on his track,
and I reckon you'd have no call to git mad if Welborne made it tit for
tat an' fired back at you. You wouldn't be justified in killin' 'im, you
know, if he was to take a notion to send you a big bouquet o' flowers
out o' his gyarden all tied up in black ribbon with a cyard sayin' he's
sorry to hear of the sad loss in yore family, an'--"

"Ah, you make me sick, with your eternal chatter!" Henley burst out,
angrily. "I don't care what them two silly women do. I'll not be here to
witness such tomfoolery. I'm going to Texas, to be away several months."

"So I've heard," Wrinkle said, a trifle more mildly, "but you'll be
missin' some'n out o' the general run, if I'm any judge. Thar may have
been sech a thing sence the flood as a married woman callin' out all
hands to solemnize her first husband's demise while she's still wearin'
the weddin'-clothes bought by her second, but it's a new _wrinkle_ on
me, an' I hain't makin' what you mought call a pun, nuther."

Abruptly leaving the old man, Henley joined his clerk at the front.

"I get so mad at that old chap sometimes I could kick him," he said, in
an angry undertone. "Nothing under the sun is sacred to him."

"He's gettin' old and childish," Cahews answered. "I sorter love to hear
'im chatter. Some o' the things he says about folks and their
peculiarities sound powerful funny."

"Well, they don't to me," burst from Henley, "and I'll tell you another
thing, Jim--enough of a thing is a plenty, and while I'm away--" but
Wrinkle had approached, and, passing behind the counter, he was
tiptoeing that he might reach a candy-jar on the top shelf.

"Looks like I'm about yore only candy customer, Jim," he said to
Cahews. "Thar hain't been a stick took out o' this jar sence I was here
Monday. I laid one crossways on top just to see. I'd order a fresh lot
if I was you. This is gettin' dry and crumbly. I can suck wind through a
stick the same as a pipe-stem."



CHAPTER V


One clear, warm morning a week later Henley stood in the little porch in
front of his store and glanced up the street which gave into the road
that led on to his farm. In the store Cahews was nailing the top slats
on a coop of scrambling, squawking chickens, and with a pot of lampblack
and brush was marking it for shipment to Atlanta. In a cloud of dust in
the rear, Pomp, the negro porter and all-round servant on Henley's farm,
was turning the handle of a clattering machine for the separation of
chaff from grain. And while his eyes were resting on the road the
storekeeper saw a horse and wagon come around a bend and slowly advance
toward him. The horse was a poor beast of great age, and the wagon was
none the better for wear. It had lost all its original paint, the
woodwork was cracked by the weather and the sun. Its four wheels ran
unevenly; some of the spokes were missing, and its bolts and rods of
iron rattled in holes worn too large.

"By Gum, it's Dixie Hart, and she's fetching in a load of produce,"
Henley muttered; then he called out to Cahews: "Say, Jim, get through
there and stop that nigger's clatter. We are going to have a visitor.
The fairest of the fair will be here in a minute."

Henley stepped down to the edge of the sidewalk and bowed and smiled to
her as she drew rein. In her new straw hat and clean, well-ironed
gingham she looked decidedly well. She was radiantly bright, and smiled
merrily as she extended her hand and shook his over the rickety
fore-wheel as she leaned forward from the dilapidated, sagging seat, the
springs of which rested on the sides of the wagon-bed.

"I told you I'd be in," she laughed, "and, if the market is off to-day,
back I go to my shanty. Nothing but the best prices catch me."

"About as favorable now as any time," he said. "What does your load
consist of?" he ran on, jovially, as he glanced behind her at the bags,
boxes, coops, pails, and jars.

"Odds and ends," she laughed. "I've got to make a payment to old
Welborne on my debt. You and Jim had better give me tiptop bids all
through or I'll peddle the truck from door to door and steal your trade
right from under your noses."

Henley smiled good-humoredly as he walked round the wagon opening boxes
and bags and making notes with a pencil on a scrap of paper. Then he
told her what he would pay for each item.

"Is that as good as you can do?" It was a question she always asked, and
she did so now more from habit than for any intention of disagreeing
with him.

"That's the top-notch, Dixie," he said. "We couldn't do that, but we've
got customers that simply won't eat butter and eggs that don't have your
brand on 'em."

"I believe you," she said, laconically. "I've met 'em myself. They pass
by the house from Carlton sometimes in their fine rigs and ask me why I
don't start a milk-and-butter farm. I may do it if I ever get out of
debt. I've got sense enough to know it would pay, and pay big,
considering that there ain't no such business established. Well, Alfred,
I'll take your offer. I don't like to dicker with first one store and
then another, and I know you've been straight with me in all my
dealings. I'll trade out part of the amount. I've got a few tricks to
buy in your line."

"Well, alight and come in and set down," he said. "Jim and Pomp will
unload and weigh and measure. I'll make Pomp mind your hoss."

"Oh, old Bob will stand all right!" she laughed, as she put her gloved
hand on Henley's shoulder and sprang lightly to the ground. "He's moved
all he wants to to-day. It would take a switch-engine to budge him an
inch. See 'im nod? He knows what we are talking about."

Henley led her through the long room to his desk in the rear, and gave
her a seat near the open door as the clerk and the porter went out to
the wagon. She took off her hat and pushed back her luxuriant hair with
her fingers.

"You go on with your work," she said; "don't mind me."

He applied himself to some writing he had to do till Cahews came with a
slip of paper on which he had noted the weights, quantities, and values
of the things she had brought, and with a polite bow he handed it to
her.

"Look it over, Dixie," Henley jested. "Old man Hardcastle's daughter has
rubbed a rabbit-foot on Jim so that he can hardly add two and two.
Besides, he is always rattled when he's waiting on a pretty girl."

"Well, he won't rattle any more than a green gourd round me, if that's
the case," Dixie said, as she began to run over the figures, her lips
moving as she counted on her fingers. "I know in reason it's correct,"
she said, extending the slip to Cahews. "No, wait a minute," drawing it
back and looking at it again. "If I'm not powerfully mistaken, Jim, you
are swindling yourself out of twenty cents on the string-beans. There
was one peck instead of two."

"I told you Jim was rattled," Henley continued to jest. "But I won't
discharge 'im. I'd pardon him if he was to set the store afire, under
the circumstances. I've seen him wash his hands in the kerosene tank and
wipe 'em on his clothes just after Julia Hardcastle driv' by in a
hug-me-tight buggy with a drummer."

"Well, I wouldn't blame him much," Dixie smiled in her sympathy for the
embarrassed clerk. "She is nice and pretty, and one town-girl that isn't
stuck up. I like her. She wants to have a good time; she likes attention
and good clothes, and I'm sure I'd be just like her if I had half the
chance. She called to see me the other day, and Ma and Aunt Mandy fell
in love with her. They think she has lots of common-sense, and they
know. I had another call. Carrie Wade waited till she saw me go to the
field to work, then she come over and asked if I was at the house. Ma
told her where I was, and she come over the clods grumbling like a
spoilt baby about getting dust on her shoes. What do you reckon she
wanted?"

"I can't imagine," Henley answered, as Cahews, flushing with delight
over the compliment to the maid of his choice, moved away.

"She come to cut at me," Dixie said, as she took the pile of silver into
her hand which Henley was extending. "As she stood there between the
corn-rows holding up her skirt she said she was going over to the
lumber-camp again with Martha Sims to another big all-day blow-out. She
said she was to start early and had so much fixing to do that she
wondered if I'd spare the time to wash and iron a muslin dress for her.
She said she'd pay well for it, because my things always looked so
nice."

"Impudent thing!" Henley said; "she ought to have, knowed better than
that."

"She _did_ know better, and that's exactly why she said it. She intended
to let me know where she was going, thinking it would break my heart.
She admits she is bent on getting married, and says she knows I'll live
and die an old maid. She hates me, Alfred; with all her soul she hates
me. She will never rest satisfied till she sees me plumb down and out.
It all started through no fault of mine, too. You remember that young
preacher, Mr. Wrenn, that boarded about in the families three years ago.
Well, she made a dead set at him. She literally tagged after him
everywhere he went till folks here in Chester was laughing about it and
calling her his little dog Fido. They say he got so he'd run and hide
every time she'd turn a corner. Well, he stayed at our house two weeks,
and, of course, we all tried to make him as comfortable as we could. I
give you my word that I never was alone with the fellow more than five
minutes in all the time he was there, but I'll admit he hung around
considerable--that is, with us all."

"I remember the fellow," Henley said, deeply interested. "I had a talk
with your Pa about him not a month before he died. Your Pa said he
couldn't see why you was so offish. The fellow made no beans about how
he felt, and when the report went out that you had turned him down folks
wondered powerful, for all the girls was setting their caps for him."

"I was too young to have good sense, I reckon," the girl said, shrugging
her shoulders. "Pa was alive, and we did not want for anything. I never
dreamt I'd have such a load on me as I've got now. Then I had a foolish
notion about love, anyway. I'd been reading novels, and got an idea in
my silly head that when a girl met the right person she went through
some sort of dazzling regeneration; and as I didn't feel anyways
peculiar when Mr. Wrenn was about I thought I ought to wait, and I told
him so. I'll never forget that young man's face. I've thought of it
thousands of times, and been sorry."

"And Carrie Wade found out about it?" Henley was leading her along
gently and sympathetically.

"Why, he told her himself--told her to her face in a crowd of young
folks at Sunday-school the next day, and the worst part of it was
somebody in the bunch that didn't like Carrie joked her about it. The
whole thing has gone out o' folks' minds by this time, I reckon; but
Carrie never laid it aside. It rankled and still rankles. She gloats
over my hardships and makes a point of flaunting her good luck in my
face, and is eternally telling me of her chances to get married. She's
half crazy on the subject, and thinks every one else is like her. I know
one thing, Alfred Henley, when I do slip off the coil of single
blessedness she'll be madder than a wet hen without shelter on a cold
December day. And she won't have long to wait neither--there! I've gone
and let the cat out of the bag, but I don't care. I'd trust a friend
like you with my life. You talk pretty free to me, and I can to you."

"You don't--you can't mean to--to say that you have got some 'n of the
sort in view, Dixie?"

"Well, you just lie low and watch," she laughed, significantly. "I let
one chance pass me, and I don't intend to be such a fool again. I can
use a stout, willing, and able-bodied man in my line of business. I've
got two old women to support and a big debt to pay, and I'm about to the
limit of my endurance. I might have put it off, but I'm itching to see
my prime enemy's face when I march him out to meeting. It's all on the
quiet, and is going to be a big surprise. I never let my folks on to it
till just the other day. That reminds me. I want one of your blank
envelopes. I've written to him, and I'm clean out of envelopes and want
to mail the letter before I go home."

She flushed slightly, and her long lashes rested on her pink cheeks as
she drew a folded paper from her pocket and held it in her lap with the
money he had given her.

"You don't mean it!" Henley cried in astonishment. "Why, you take my
breath away; but, of course, I'm glad. I certainly can congratulate the
lucky fellow."

"Ask 'im whether it would be in order before you do." She reached for
his pen and dipped it, and began to address the envelope as it lay on
her knee.

"And that letter is to him, you say?" Henley said, wonderingly.

"Well, it ain't to no _girl_," Dixie smiled, with an arch, upward
glance. "Stamps and paper cost too much such times as these to waste 'em
on women."

"I'm curious to know what sort o' chap you've decided on," said Henley.
"What does he look like?"

"He's a pig in a poke." She had finished writing and was drawing the
gummed flap of the envelope across her smiling lips. "I never laid eyes
on 'im in my life. What do you think of that? But that part must never
get out. I want Carrie and all the rest to--to think, you see, that I
got acquainted with him in--in the regular way. She never would get
through talking if she knew the full truth, and that is nobody's
business but his and mine. You may think I am a born fool, Alfred, but
for the past six months I've been corresponding with a fellow in
Florida. But he's all right. Don't you worry; he's _safe_, and that is a
lot to say in this day of trickery and strife. It all come about by
accident. I've got a cousin--Tobe Chasteen--working down there in an
orange-grove, and now and then he writes me a letter. Well, in one he
wrote that a nice fellow down there wanted to write to some girl up in
Georgia, and asked me if I'd answer. So, just for fun, and to kill time,
I agreed, and so it started. He writes a good, flowing hand, and has
plenty to say, and I got interested in the whole thing. He sent his
picture, and wanted one of me. So I put on my best outfit and had a
tintype struck off under that tent on the square and sent it to him. It
was a frightful daub, I tell you; but he liked it, or said he did; he
said it was fine, and if the goods come up to the sample that was all he
could ask. I've got his in my pocket. I don't tote it about all the
time, but it happened to be in the pocket of this dress. My two women
want it to stay in the clock, so they can get it out and peep at it when
I'm in the field. They are more crazy about him than I am. They sneak
and read my letters, and ask ten thousand questions about him. There are
some of his long epistles that I wouldn't show 'em for money--they are
so silly. At first we just wrote about what was going on, but he kept
edging closer and closer, and I never, in so many words, told him to let
up. Once he drew a round ring in the middle of a blank page and asked
under it if I couldn't guess what was in the middle of it. I looked
close and could see a greasy splotch when it was held sidewise in the
light. That kinder disgusted me, and I drew a ring in my answer, and
told him there wasn't anything in mine, and never would be. He must have
liked what I said, for he wrote back that it was cute, and that he'd bet
I was one girl that never had been kissed. Well, he can think that, too,
if he wants to. It won't do him any harm. I say all this was going on,
but I never dreamt of closing the deal till I got in this present
money-tight. You see, I wrote him about my financial trouble, and he
said he had saved up some money and that he could wipe out all my
obligations, and that me and him together would make a fine team on the
farm. He wrote so kind, too, about Ma and Aunt Mandy, and said he'd
always want 'em with us. You see, I felt grateful, and, considering
everything, I think I acted wise--don't you?"

Henley half nodded, and tried to meet her frankness with a smile that
was free from doubt. At this juncture Pomp came back with a telegram. It
was an order from an Atlanta hotel for a quantity of eggs and butter.
Henley read it and handed it back. "Tell Jim to quote the lowest cash
prices," he said, absent-mindedly.

"But it's a order, suh," said the negro.

"Oh yes; I see it is. Well, ship it; it's all right."

"Would you like to see his picture?" Dixie asked. She had taken the
crude tintype from her pocket and held it in her lap.

"Yes, I would," Henley replied, and he took the picture and looked at
it. He didn't like it. A keen, quick reader of men's faces, he saw what
had escaped her less experienced eye. There was something that bespoke
prodigious vanity and lack of principle in the low brow, over which the
coarse, black hair was plastered down so smoothly; in the heavy,
carefully waxed, curled, and perhaps dyed mustache; in the small,
conscious eyes, set close together; in the grossly sensuous mouth, from
which a weak chin receded.

"He ain't as purty as he thinks he is by a long shot," Dixie remarked,
rather lamely, for she was slightly chilled by Henley's failure to
comment favorably on the picture, "but he has a good heart. He is a
church member in fair standing, and has a Bible class of young ladies in
Sunday-school, and was once proposed for superintendent, and lost out
because he was unmarried and too young. Oh, I've thought it all over.
I'm not jumping without looking for a spot to light on. I thought I
could carry my load through, but I had to give in. I can't perform
miracles, Alfred; I'm just clay, and the wrong gender of that. If I
could keep temptation out of my way I might keep on, but I can't run
against Carrie Wade's sneers. I'd rather strut by her house with a
husband that was able to take me in out of the wet than anything else I
know of, and I want to rest. I want to sleep one night without dreaming
of old Welborne's flabby jaws, blinking eyes, and harsh voice snarling
at me. Folks may say such an arrangement ain't customary--that it is
out of the common--but it seems to me that everything about me is out of
the common, anyway, and why shouldn't this fall in line? Customs are
just what the most folks want to do. Custom don't look after the under
dog in the pack. But when right is on a body's side there is no need to
fear, and there won't be a shade of wrong in this if I have anything to
do with it. I've made up my mind to do a wife's part in every sense of
the word, and let it go at that--nothing risk, nothing have. I never
used to think I'd ever marry a man I never saw--in fact, when I was
young and silly I used to see myself strutting by whole regiments of
fellers all making signs to me to come be his darling, but that was when
my eyelids was glued down and before they was jerked open by trouble.
Marrying with me in this case is an open-and-shut business proposition.
I read somewhere that it is worked that way among high-up folks in
France--though the dickering takes place between the parents of the
contracting parties; and as I know a sight more about what to do than
Ma, why, it was all right for me to take it in hand. Peter is an orphan,
and I'm the head of a family, and so there was nobody else concerned. My
two women are getting old and plumb helpless--more like children than
grown-ups. They may live a long time. I certainly hope they will, for
they are all I've got; but they are actually getting so that they don't
want to budge out of the house, even as far as the fence. They are
afraid a little sun will kill 'em dead. But, Alfred, I don't somehow
like the way you look about it. You don't take it like I thought you
would. I know in reason that you wish me well, and--"

"I don't know that I have a right to say a thing agin it," Henley broke
into her now hesitating words. "But I must confess I'm sorter stunned,
Dixie. I've always felt like a big brother to you, and pitied you a good
deal, and now--well, you see, I reckon it is natural for me to be
sorter afraid that you may be making a mistake in what you are doing. I
feel like begging you not to do it, and then ag'in I don't, for I've
always made up my mind that marrying was one thing no outsider could
decide about. I have been dead agin marriages that afterwards turned out
tiptop, and you know I didn't show such far-reaching wisdom in my own
case as to set myself up as a judge."

"Well, you needn't have any fears on my account," Dixie smiled,
assuringly. "I know what I am about, and I ain't the back-out kind. It's
too late, anyway; the day has been set. For the last two weeks I've been
giving every spare minute to the making of my outfit. It is a good one.
I was determined to give Miss Wade a treat. I do things right, and I've
spent some cash. My trousseau will attract attention, and I reckon Peter
won't be ashamed. But it is to be kept quiet. Don't you say a word to a
soul. A week from to-day I'll drive in and meet the up-train and haul my
bridegroom home in my wagon. We'll eat dinner at our house and then
drive over to Preacher Sanderson's and have him tie the knot. Now I'll
go down in front and buy a few things and mail my letter and hurry
home."

"Wait a minute, Dixie." She was moving away, and he stopped her,
standing before her, a grave look in his eyes. "Surely it ain't as dead
sure as that?"

"Yes, it is, Alfred; it's settled--plumb settled."

"But--but," he pursued, anxiously, "if you didn't like him when you see
him, you wouldn't marry him?"

"Oh, that's a gray horse of another color," she smiled. "I think I'll
like him; but if I didn't--well, if I didn't, I'd pay his way back to
Florida, and beg off."

Henley made no further protest. He sat at his desk and bowed his head
in troubled thought as she tripped lightly away.

"What a pity!" he mused. "She deserves the best in the land, and this
fellow looks like a worthless scamp."



CHAPTER VI


That evening after supper, while the sultry dusk hung heavily over the
land, shutting out the few lights of the village and obscuring the
near-by mountain, Henley took his chair into the passage, and, without
his coat, he leaned back against the weather-boarding and lighted his
pipe. He had not been there long when his wife, having finished her
duties in the kitchen, came out and stood over him. Accustomed to her
varying moods, he saw by her attitude that she was displeased.

"Pa told me something I don't like," she began. "I tried not to pay
attention to it, but it was so unexpected, so unheard-of, so plumb
disrespectful, that it hurt me. He said you told him you was going to
Texas to keep from being here during the--the memorial service next
month."

"I told him no such thing," Henley retorted, with an effort to control
his rising temper. "I can't be responsible for the slap-dash way he puts
things. I don't like his eternal gab, nohow."

"Well, you must have said _something_," Mrs. Henley pursued, probingly.
"He never makes up things out of whole cloth. He is not that way."

"Well, I suppose I did say something," Henley reluctantly admitted. "He
was nagging the life out of me at the store about what you intended to
do, and holding me up to ridicule, and I reckon I did say that I
wouldn't be here--that my business would keep me in Texas. As for that
matter, I told you about the trip long before this queer--long before
you decided to do this--this thing."

"I know just how you said it," the woman threw back, sharply. "I know
what you've thought all along about Pa and Ma being here, and me loving
'em and caring for 'em. You do your best to hide it, but you can't."

"Well, if I do my best, what more could you expect?" Henley asked, with
more logic than patience.

"I'd want you to keep your promise to me," Mrs. Henley said, crisply,
and she bent lower over him and fixed her offended eyes on his. "You
told me before we were married that you'd promise never to object--you
even said you admired me for my feelings, and that it proved to you that
I had stability and strength of character--that you wouldn't have a wife
that would ever forget her dead husband."

"Well, I have kept my promise," Henley said. "I am not sure that I
knowed just precisely what I was doing when I made it, but I've kept it.
As for attending his--his funeral services at such a late day, that is
another thing. I don't see how you could expect it."

"You don't?" she flared up. "Will you tell me if there would be anything
to be ashamed of in your being there? Would a divine service of that
sort disgrace you? Would it besmirch your character?"

"No, and nobody said it would," Henley managed to fish from his addled
brain. "But I simply thought, somehow, that it would look better for me
to be out of the way. Funerals and the like are generally attended by
mourners, and, well, where would I come in? I reckon my proper seat
would be with you and the--the rest of the family on the front bench, if
it was anywhere. It would look funny for me just to be a looker-on from
the back part of the house, and I'd feel like a dern fool in front. A
dern fool--you may not know what that is from experience, but you ought
to from observation; you've had one under your eye for some time."

"Well, you simply don't approve of it," the woman returned, resentfully.
"You can set there, blessed with good health and life, and plenty to eat
and wear, and actually begrudge the little mite of respect that is paid
to the helpless dead. In being overpersuaded and marrying you I was
untrue to him and his memory, and now you make it worse by opposing a
simple little ordinance that is due every person on earth, high or low."

"It ought to have been done earlier, and before I got--got mixed up in
it, if it was done at all," Henley said, trying to speak mildly and,
even, pacifically.

"I know that now," Mrs. Henley said, in a tone of such deep
self-reproach that her stare softened and wavered; "but it wasn't
thought of. I never knew it was the style till this man come along and
told me; but that is no reason I shouldn't make amends, late as it is.
It is all the better proof that Dick is remembered. But you can go to
Texas." The stare hardened and became fixed again. "Folks will say you
are jealous and mean, and that I was an unfaithful fool for listening to
you, but I will have to stand it."

"Well, I'll simply be obliged to be away," Henley said, doggedly. "The
business won't be put off, and--and--"

"And you are a heartless brute!" the gaunt woman cried, as she whirled
from him and strode into the house.

A few minutes later there emerged from the near-by door of the kitchen
the real instigator of the present dispute. He trudged across the
passage, drawn down on one side by the weight of a dripping swill-pail
which he was taking to the pigpen, descended the short flight of steps,
and turned back toward Henley. He stood for a moment hesitatingly, the
pail wiping its dripping exterior against his baggy jean trousers. Then
he said: "I've got a thing or two to say to you, Alf, if you will oblige
me by steppin' down to my pen so I can stop that hog's squealin' long
enough to hear myself talk. One at a time, I say, an' let it be me."

"By all means," Henley answered, ambiguously, and he joined Wrinkle on
the grass and they walked down the path together to the pigpen in a
corner of the rail-fenced cow-lot.

"No use enterin' a talkin'-match with the whistle of a crazy
steam-engine," the stepfather-in-law strained his lungs to say, and he
grunted as he raised the pail to the top rail of the pen and cautiously
tilted it to let the contents run into the wooden trough.

"Now, that's more like it," he said, his voice rising above the
suction-pump noise of the hungry animal. He lowered the empty pail to
the ground, and with a paddle began to dig out the mushy sediment from
the bottom and throw it into the trough, as a mason might mortar from a
trowel. "The truth is, Alf, I've got an apology to make to you, and I
didn't want to do it up thar before them women. The other day when I
said that about old Welborne a-sendin' you a bunch o' flowers to
decorate Dick's grave I wasn't actually thinkin' about you as much as I
was about Welborne an' his close-fisted ways. Of course, now I think of
it again, it _would_ be a good way for 'im to git back at you for yore
joke in sendin' the tombstone man to him, and I catch myself lafin'
every time I think of it, and the way you'd look if he did, but--"

"What the devil do you mean?" Henley broke in, testily. "Here you are
startin' in to apologize for a thing and going over it again word for
word? Have you plumb lost your senses?"

"Was I doin' that?" Wrinkle asked, blandly, though even in the twilight
Henley could see that his eyes were twinkling. "Well, I'm sorry again,
and I'm just man enough to say so, Alf. I'll apologize as many times as
you like. I'll keep on till you _are_ satisfied. But you must listen.
You are a-gittin' powerful touchy here lately, and it ain't becomin' in
a man of yore dignity. It will git so after a while that I can't express
any sort of opinion to you without a fist-fight. I was goin' on to say
that I was jest thinkin' of old Welborne's quick wit in every emergency
that set me to wonderin' that day how he might act in sech a case. They
say everything is grist to his mill--that he turns every single thing
that drifts his way into profit great or small. And that day after you
railed out at me in the store I went across the Square to see how yore
joke would terminate. The door of his dingy little office was open, an'
I could see the grave-rock man inside bendin' over old Welborne at his
little table, pointin' at the pictures in his book and sweatin' like a
nigger in a cotton-gin. But what struck me most of all was the glazed
look in old Welborne's eye; he looked like he wasn't hearin' a word the
fellow was spoutin', but was thinkin' o' some'n else plumb different. I
walked on and hung about outside till the tombstone man come out. He was
as mad as Hector. I seed he was, an' stopped 'im in a offhand way and
axed him what luck.

"'Luck hell,' says he--he used the word, I didn't--'I talked to that
dried-up old mummy,' says he, 'fer an hour jest to find that he was
settin' thar all the time figurin' in his head about a speculation I'd
made 'im think of while I was talkin' to him.'

"The agent was so mad that he wouldn't explain what the speculation was,
but I heard it that evenin'. Hank Bradley was tellin' it to a crowd at
the post-office. You know Hank makes all manner of sport of his uncle
behind the old skunk's back. He told a tale, too, that I'd never heard.
It seems that old Welborne's mother-in-law died, and Welborne went to a
undertaker to buy 'er coffin. He picked out a fifty-dollar one, and
talked and talked till he finally got the pore devil down to forty. Then
he said:

"'You'd sell two for seventy-five, wouldn't you?'

"'I reckon I might,' the undertaker said, 'but you only want one.'

"'I'll need another 'fore many months,' old Welborne said. 'My
father-in-law won't last long. I'll take one now at thirty-seven-fifty
and the other when the time comes.'"

Henley laughed, despite his displeasure. "That is just like him," he
said, "and I believe every word of it."

"His present speculation takes the rag off'n the bush," said Wrinkle.
"The talk of the gravestone man started him to thinkin' about what thar
might be in that line for him, and he recalled that he owned ten acres
of ground on a rise in the edge of town which he had bought at a
tax-sale for twenty-five dollars. The very next mornin' he had a feller
diggin' post-holes an' puttin' a fence around it with a main gate that
had a big curvin' sign over it with the words 'Sunnyside Cemetery' on
it, and I'm told that he has been all over town tellin' folks that the
_old_ graveyard is too low and soggy to be half decent, and that his'n
was a great improvement. He intimated, too, that nobody but blue-bloods
could git the'r names enrolled, and thar has been a powerful scramble
for places, even by folks that have no idea of dyin' yet a while. You
see, Alf, I got a good many particulars at fust hand, for he was out
here to see Hettie in regard to accommodations for Dick, and I heard all
that was said. Accordin' to Welborne thar is to be a wholesale movin'
right away and choice quarters will be scarce, right when they are in
the most demand."

"I suppose she--I suppose my wife--"

"Yes, she bit, Alf, and took a full mouthful at that. Welborne told her
he was givin' her the pick of the whole thing because she was startin'
the ball rollin', an' her fine marble would set the place off. She
selected twenty foot square under a weepin'-willow, which he said had a
rock bottom and the best view of the town. It only set her back two
hundred round plugs, but she had that much left in the bank, and seems
powerful well, satisfied. I wouldn't 'a' fetched all this up, but I
'lowed you'd like to know what a big thing growed out of yore little
joke that day. I love a good joke myself, but when one's turned on you
in a sort o' wholesale way, it don't feel the best in the world."

"There is no joke about it; it's outright stealing!" Henley had
reference to Welborne's part of the transaction. "Any man can get money
out of fool women, if he's mean enough to take advantage of their silly
whims."

"I often wonder about you an' me an' the whole bunch of us here at the
house," Wrinkle said. "Not one of the four is blood kin to the other,
and yet here we are all wedged together as tight as young catbirds in a
nest. Folks say the hardest question on earth is how to live, and yet to
me it's been as easy as fallin' off a log into soft sand. Me 'n Jane
never counted on Dick for any sort of aid, an' yet it was through him
that we are provided for--in fact, he was so wishy-washy and helpless
that we was glad to have him tie up with a woman that had a few dollars.
He went in for a high old time, and he had it. I couldn't object--I was
that way myself. He was as bad after gals as a drummer, and in his
sparkin' days, as maybe you know, he could have had his pick. I couldn't
keep from hearin' you an' Hettie talkin' in the passage jest now, and
when she come into the light mad enough to bite a tenpenny nail in two I
saw thar had been a row. Her notion to have you on hand at sech a time
as that may seem odd, but women are all odd. They want what other women
can't have, and I reckon Het thinks it would be a sort o' feather in
'er cap to mourn in public over one husband while she's leanin' agin
another that is ready an' willin' in every way."

"I reckon we've talked long enough about it," Henley said, frigidly, and
he glanced toward the lights in the farm-house.

"Yes, I reckon so," returned the gadfly. "As for me, I never was able to
see how Het could accuse you of bein' jealous of Dick, when--"

"Jealous fiddlesticks!" Henley snorted. "I never was jealous of a _live_
man, much less a dead one."

"It would _seem_ that way," was all the support Wrinkle would give to
the claim, as he took up his pail and started back to the house. "I
didn't say you _was_, but Het seems to size it up that way."

Left alone, and with hot fires of resentment raging in his breast,
Henley sauntered along the fence till he was behind his barn. His change
of position brought him within a few yards of Dixie Hart's cottage, and
he suddenly heard her voice. She was speaking to some one. Peering
through the deepening darkness, which was broken only by the gleams of a
few random stars, he saw her inside her yard at the gate, and leaning on
the fence from the outside was the tall, well-clad form of Hank Bradley.

"You are not going to treat a feller as mean as that," Bradley was heard
to say, in a gruff, pleading tone, "when I've been begging you so many
times."

"I can't let you come in now, and I can't go to ride with you, either,"
Henley heard her answer, as she stood well away from the fence. "I've
got good and sufficient reasons, and I hope you won't ask me any more."

"I'll keep on asking till the crack of doom," Bradley said, in a voice
that shook. "You know I'm not the weak-kneed kind. The Bradley stock
hold on like bulldogs. When they take a notion to anything they want
it, and they keep on till they get it. So look out, Dixie Hart. I'm not
to blame; your eyes burn holes in me and set me on fire. The more you
turn me down the more I think about you."

"Well, you mustn't come any more," Dixie said, firmly. "Good-night."

Henley saw her move across the grass and vanish in the cottage. He heard
Bradley stifle a surly exclamation of disappointment, and saw him turn
and walk off slowly toward his uncle's house.

"Poor girl!" Henley said to himself. "In all her troubles she has to
ward off a dirty, designing scamp like that; but she's doing it like a
queen, an' no harm can touch 'er. And she's going to get married! She is
going into the treacherous thing absolutely blindfolded, and the Lord
only knows what will come of it. It's a risk for the best, and under the
best conditions--it may prove to be the final stroke that will knock out
her wonderful courage. God have mercy on her!"



CHAPTER VII


On the day set for Dixie's wedding Henley had occasion to go to the
little express office, adjoining the old-fashioned brick car-shed in the
village, to see about a shipment of produce which had been incorrectly
marked. And as he was returning he saw the girl seated in her wagon in
the open space between the station and the hotel.

Henley knew what it meant. She had come to meet her lover. She happened
to have her glance fixed on some point in the opposite direction from
him and did not know that he was near. He hesitated for an instant, and
then decided that he would not intrude upon her privacy. There was
something in her attitude of bland and helpless expectancy that probed
the deepest fount of his sympathy.

"Poor, brave little woman!" he mused, as he turned his back upon the
scene and moved on toward his store. "She's having her dream like all
the rest. She may get a fair cut of the cards, and she may not. He ain't
very promising material from the looks of his picture, but it wouldn't
be fair to judge him by that. He may do his part, and the Lord knows she
needs help. I'm too big a failure in the marrying line to object or
offer advice."

Reaching his desk, he applied himself to the writing of some letters
pertaining to his intended trip to Texas, but the pathetic sight he had
of the girl at the station thrust itself between him and his task. She
was his faithful friend. He loved her almost as if she had been a
sister; she had confided in him; only he and she and her little family
knew of what was to take place to-day. How strange to think that she
would no longer be as she was! The wife of a man she had never seen, of
a man whose full name Henley had not even heard.

Just then the still air was stirred by the sportive whippoorwill's call
with which the young engineer of that particular train always announced
with the locomotive's whistle his approach to Chester, and later there
was a sound of escaping steam and the slow clanging of a bell as the
train drew up in the shed. Only a moment's pause, and the train was off
again.

It occurred to Henley that as his store was on the most direct way to
her home Dixie would naturally drive past it on her return, so he went
to the front, taking pains to stand back a few feet from the entrance
that his position might not appear to be by design. He was glad that
Cahews and Pomp were busy in the rear, and he became conscious of the
hope that no stray customer would interrupt him at what seemed such a
grave and important moment. Time passed, and still old Bob and the
ramshackle wagon were not in sight. Henley cautiously ventured to the
door, whence he glanced down the street. He saw the wagon. It was now at
the door of the post-office, but no one was in it. With his hip-joint
loose the animal swayed and sagged against one of the shafts, the reins
hanging from his rump to the ground.

"They've stopped to get the mail," Henley said in his tight throat;
"they'll be out in a minute. I'll take one peep at 'im, anyway."

But Dixie emerged from the narrow doorway of the little building alone.
She was reading a letter, and she groped slowly across the sidewalk to
the wagon, where she stood till she had finished it. Even at that
distance Henley could see that she was pale, and he fancied that her
hand and step were unsteady as she mounted to the spring seat and
reached for the reins. Henley receded farther into the store, actuated
by a vague intuition that she might not care to be seen, and he was glad
that he had not intruded upon her, for, as she drove past the store, she
did not glance toward it, but instead looked steadily in the opposite
direction.

"The fellow didn't come, and she's had bad news besides," Henley mused,
and he now stood in the doorway and looked after the shackly vehicle as
it moved slowly away in the beating sunshine. "She's bad hit by
something or other," he said, anxiously. "I've never seen her look like
that before. Some'n has gone wrong."

He did not see her for three days. On the evening of the third day he
was standing at the door of his barn. It was growing dark. The coming
night had robed the mountain-peaks in gray, and put them out of sight.
Old Wrinkle was singing "How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord!"
as he trudged back to the house, swinging his empty swill-pail. The door
of Dixie Hart's cottage opened, and in a narrow frame of firelight she
stood peering out toward him. Then he saw that she was coming. She moved
swiftly, and with a sure step, till she paused at the fence which
separated her land from his.

"I've been wanting to see you, Alfred," she said, in a low, changed
voice. "I had no excuse to go to the store, and--well, I didn't think
that was exactly the place, anyway to--to say what I had to say. You
haven't spoke about what I told you to anybody--I know in reason that
you haven't, but--"

"I'd cut off my right arm first," he declared, earnestly. "What you said
that day was as sacred to me as if it had come from on high and my very
salvation depended on it."

"I knew that," she said, softly. "I only said that to--to sort o' get
started. I'm all upset, Alfred; I'll get right after a while, but things
are all crooked now. I've had trouble--I reckon a girl might call it
that and still have self-respect. I've had heaps of unexpected trouble."

"I was afraid some'n had gone wrong," Henley found himself able to say,
"not hearing any more, you see, about--about what you talked of that
day."

"I'm going to tell you, and then dismiss it," Dixie said, her pretty lip
twitching, the dark curves under her eyes lending sharp contrast to
their fathomless lustre. "I had everything ready, and went to meet him,
but he didn't come. I went to the post-office and got a letter. He
was--was taken sick--so the letter said. He was pretty bad off. In fact,
Alfred, the truth is, he's dead; the--the fellow is dead."

Her head was down; she had folded her arms on the top rail of the fence,
and she rested her brow on them. He was wondering if she was crying and
what there was for him to say, when she suddenly, and quite dry-eyed,
looked up and said: "But that must be a secret, too. Nobody knows about
it except my home folks, and nobody must. I'd give plumb up if Carrie
Wade was to flaunt that in my face and start it going over hill and
dale."

"It's too bad," Henley ventured, as nearly upon what he considered
consolation as his knowledge of her rather questionable bereavement
would justify. "What was his complaint?"

"You mean, what ailded him?" Dixie asked, an incongruous flush battling
with the pallor of her face and becoming observable even in the
starlight. "Why, you see, Alfred, I didn't get full particulars--a body
never can, you know, at a time like that--and in just a letter--but you
can depend upon it that it was sudden."

"Maybe it was what they say is so common now," Henley pursued,
awkwardly--"heart failure."

"Or weakness of the backbone." He was sure that she smiled impulsively,
for she quickly covered her mouth with her hand and lowered her head to
the fence again, and for a moment he stood staring at her and wondering
if the calamity had caused her to be hysterical. Suddenly she looked up
again and said:

"I reckon you think I ought to act different--that I ought to cry and
take on--but I can't. You must make what allowance you can. You see, I
never saw him in my life, and, well, it was just a wild-goose chase that
started in nothing and ended the same way."

"I see," Henley ventured, "but I'm sorry. Death is bad enough, in any
case, but to be called away without a minute's notice and on the eve
of--"

"Well, you needn't be sorry for me--you needn't waste pity on me," Dixie
broke in with irrelevant warmth. "You'll find me doing business at the
same old stand, man or no man. If we can just keep this silly caper from
getting out I'll be thankful. So far, I've got along by myself, and,
outside of wanting to flaunt a husband in Carrie Wade's face, I don't
know as I'll be particularly disappointed. I can keep on at the plough
and hoe, rain or shine, and--" Her voice had trailed away into
indistinctness, and he saw her lower lip quivering. She suddenly turned
and hurried away.

He saw her vanish in the lighted doorway, and he stood overwhelmed with
blended perplexity and sympathy.

"She's trying to keep a stiff upper lip, but she's hit, and hit
hard--harder'n I thought possible in her case," he mused. "She never saw
the feller, but she may have had a sort of a idea in her head of what he
was like, an' the loss is as keen as if she had knowed him a long time,
maybe keener, for the gloss hain't been rubbed off by actual
acquaintance, as it has been off of me and most other married folks. I
reckon my wife has put the gloss back on Dick Wrinkle, if it was ever
off, and I've got a rival in the spirit-world that nothing earthly
could ever hope to match. They say absence works that way, and when I
get to Texas maybe she will look back on all I've done to keep peace and
harmony betwixt us and appreciate me more than she is doing now. I say
maybe, for, on t'other hand, she may be glad to have me away, and when I
get back I may find that her whole heart is in the empty grave she is
bent on digging and adorning at such a great outlay."



CHAPTER VIII


The next afternoon, as Henley was on his way home from the store, and
was passing a corn-field owned by Sam Pitman--a farmer of weak character
and sullen disposition who had been a moonshiner as long as the law had
permitted the business to yield profits--he was surprised to see Dixie
near the centre of the field. She was bending over something or
somebody, and, fearing that an accident had happened, he hastily climbed
the fence and walked rapidly over the ploughed soil toward her. He could
not make out what the object of her attention was till he was quite
near, and then he saw that it was a little boy about ten years of age
who was seated on the ground and, till now, hidden by the corn-stalks
and their succulent blades, which, as he sat, rose higher than his
yellow, ill-kempt head. Dixie heard Henley's step and turned a very
grave face on him.

"It's the poor little orphan Sam Pitman adopted by law the other day,"
she informed him in a gentle aside, as her hand rested tenderly on the
child's head, which was supported by his frail knees in their ragged and
patched covering. "I've had my eye on him all evening. He's hoed out all
this since dinner." She waved an indignant hand over the patch of corn
immediately about them. "I couldn't have done more myself, and I know
what work is. Yes, I was watching him, and awhile ago I saw him stagger
an' fall. He'd fainted from overheat. I come as quick as I could. I got
water in his hat and dashed it on him--look how wet it made him, but it
revived him. He wanted to work on, but I made him stop and set down.
He's timid and shy before you, but me 'n him are great friends, ain't
we, Joe? He helped me hunt eggs the other day"--she was running on now
in a tender, caressing tone--"and I gave him some of my pie. He could
crawl to places I never got at before, and we raked in a peck that would
have been a dead loss, for I've already got too many broods."

"I heard Pitman had got a boy," Henley said, guardedly, "and I wondered
what the Ordinary meant by turning such a little fellow over to a man
like him. It seems like there was only one or two applications, and the
boy had to be sent somewhere right off. Do you feel better now, Joe?"

"Yes, sir," the child answered. "It wasn't nothing. It didn't hurt a
bit."

Henley caught Dixie's quick upward glance. "Ain't it pitiful?" she said,
with a shake of her head and a catch in her full voice. "Huh, 'didn't
hurt,' I say! You dear little boy!"

With a brave smile the lad stood up to the full height of his spare
frame. He was still pale, and his hair was matted down over his brow by
the douche it had received. His little, cotton, checked shirt was open
at the neck, disclosing a rather low chest. He stooped down and picked
up the hoe, which was of the regulation size and weight used by men.
Dixie was protesting against his working more that day, when, looking
behind her, she saw the foster-father of the boy approaching.

"What's the matter here?" the farmer growled, eying the group
distrustfully with his small gray eyes under pent-house brows. He was
short of stature, sinewy, and grizzled as to head and bristling beard.

"Miss Dixie says the boy fainted," Henley answered. "I saw her here,
and come over to see what was wrong. The little fellow don't look overly
stout."

"Nothing's the matter with 'im," Pitman retorted, visibly angered by
what he regarded as the interference of outsiders in his private
affairs.

"Well, I know he fainted," Dixie said, calmly, "but we won't argue about
it. I'll tell you one thing, though, Sam Pitman, if this thing goes
on--I say, if Joe is overworked like this any more--a single other
time--and it comes to my knowledge, I'll take you smack-dab to court. I
don't meddle in things that don't concern me, as a general thing, but
I'll take this in hand and I'll clutch it tight."

"You'll do wonders," Pitman sneered, but with a guarded glance at
Henley, who had, on one occasion, knocked him down in some dispute over
a debt at the store. He turned to the boy and took the hoe from him.
"You go drive up that cow. I'll finish this patch myself, and don't you
dare come back and say you can't find her, nuther. If you know what's
good for you, you fetch 'er home."

Leaving Pitman at work in the corn, and with the boy trudging homeward,
Henley and Dixie made their way out to the road. At the fence he threw
down several rails and aided her to step over the remaining ones. When
he had put the rails back in their places and joined her he was struck
by the altered expression of her face.

"I've wanted to see you all day," she began, her grave glance on the
ground, "and it looks like this meeting is providential. I want to get
it all plumb out, Alfred, and have it off my mind. I don't know when a
thing has bothered me so much. It seemed like such a little thing at the
time, but a whopping big one now. You 'n me have been too good friends,
Alfred, to let deception of any sort whatever come between us. Please
don't look at me so straight; I'll never get through it if you do. You
think I'm as good as the general run of girls, I'll be bound, and yet I
ain't."

"I'll take the risk on that," he laughed, incredulously. "I know what
you are--you are true blue. You've just showed the stripe you're made
of. In a minute you'd have fought that skunk back there like a mad
wildcat. For the time, at least, you was loving that pore boy as if he
was your own."

"We are not talking about that--that's nothing," she said. "No woman
that is half a one could see the dreamy blue eyes of that lonely boy,
and know what he's going through, and not want to hug 'im up to her
breast and pet 'im and comfort 'im. I saw him the day Pitman fetched him
here. He sat out under the trees all day long. I watched him from my
field, and I could see 'im wiping his eyes on his sleeve. He kept it up
from morning till night. Sometimes, Alfred, I doubt the goodness of God
Almighty. I know it's a sin to say so, but I can't help it. I've talked
a heap to Joe off and on, an' he's had more put on 'im than a grown
person ought to bear. Poor thing! he misses his Ma. From what he says I
judge she was good and tender. I had a queer dream the other night. I
seemed to see a woman in my room; she was crying, and, as plain as I can
hear yore voice this minute, I heard her say: 'Don't let 'em abuse
'im--he's weak and he can't stand it,' and with that she seemed to melt
away. But that is clean off the track. I've got a confession to make to
you, and I am so ashamed I hardly know what to do. Alfred Henley, I've
told you a lie--a cold, deliberate lie. Can you respect anybody that
will tell a lie?"

"Well, I wouldn't have much respect for myself then," he said, his eyes
large in wonder over what she was driving at. "I've lied as many times
as an average clock can tick in a lifetime. I've told a dozen lies to
sell a pair of shoes, and forty to sell a hoss."

"Hush joking," she said. "Listen. When I told you that fellow was dead I
was lying. I didn't intend to fool you, but I got in an awful tangle,
and you had to take your chance along with the rest. When I went to the
train that day and that fool didn't heave in sight I smelt a mouse. I
went to the post-office and got a letter from him. It was the most
wishy-washy concoction that was ever put on paper. He never, at any
time, had marry in the back of his head. He was just seeing how far he
could go with me to pass time. Some men are that way. They are powerful
interested till they get a girl to commit herself, and then they begin
to twist and turn or call it all off on the spot. As long as I kept this
'un in doubt he wrote the softest gush that ever flowed from a pen. But
when I wrote that I was ready--actually ready and waiting--well, that
was another proposition. He plumb lost his nerve."

"The scoundrel!" Henley burst out, grown red in the face. "He is below
contempt. I was afraid he was a sneak the minute I saw his picture. I'd
have stopped you if I'd known how."

"Well, it was nobody's fault but mine." Dixie was trying to divest her
brave voice of a certain quavering. "Folks say I've got a long head on
me--you amongst 'em--but if any God-forsaken female on this round globe
ever made a bigger fool of herself than I did that whack I'd like to
shake hands with her. I shall see myself setting in that wagon in my new
togs waiting for that train to blow--I'll see that sickening sight till
I draw my last whiff of air. Oh, you don't know! Being a man, you can't
understand what a woman's pride is. Fate has hit me hard licks, but
letting me get my outfit ready, clean up the house, and cook enough
ahead to last a week, and come to town with my own hoss and wagon to
haul a trifling man to the altar who was _jest joking with me_--well,
that's what made me lie."

"God knows, it was enough," Henley answered in his throat. "The banners
toted by the angels have such mottoes as your lie on 'em."

"I was forced to it to protect myself," Dixie said. "You see, Alfred, Ma
is kind o' high strung and liable to fly off the handle and talk before
folks. She thinks I'm all right, and she'd have raised the roof off the
house and let all the country know my plight if I hadn't acted, and
acted quick. I drove home slow that day and studied up a plan. Death was
the only thing that would do any good, and so I killed him. I liked that
part of it, anyway. I wouldn't have lied to you, but I'd done it so
often at home, and with such a straight face, that it had got to be a
settled habit. But I jumped from the frying-pan into the fire in one
way, for they both weep and wail over him--think o' that, and me feeling
like I could pull his ears clean out of his head and stomp 'em into the
ground."

"Oh, they take it that way!" exclaimed Henley.

"That's what they do," said the girl. "I attend that fellow's funeral
sixteen times a day. They want me to put on black--to put on--huh! when
the fool has already made me spend my last dollar on an outfit
that--shucks! Well, you see what I've got my foot into. I had actually
to clap my hand over Ma's mouth the other day while Carrie Wade was
there making her brags to keep Ma from telling of my great loss. Carrie
would see through it, you know she would, and I'd never hear the end of
it. Ma was dead bent on letting folks know, till I worked a trick on
her. I told her, I did, that men didn't like to marry widows, and if I
ever expected to get a husband I must keep Pete's death quiet. With that
understanding they both agreed to hold their tongues. But it's funny,
ain't it?" she ended with a laugh--"you with your tombstone trouble at
home, and me with a dead bridegroom to look after, and one that treated
me like a hound-pup in the bargain?"

Henley laughed now, for she was laughing. "I'm not going to let mine
bother me any more," he said, "now that I've heard what you are going
through."

"And you'll forgive me for the lie I told you?" she asked anxiously, as
she turned to leave him at a point where their ways parted.

"I would for a million of its sort," he said, fervently. He raised his
hat and smiled, and stood watching her till she was out of sight in the
apple-orchard she had to traverse to reach the cottage.



CHAPTER IX


Henley had been away nearly a year, his absence being protracted by
various business enterprises. Letters to Jim Cahews in regard to the
store, which Cahews was admirably managing, contained humorous accounts
of the various deals which Henley had put through. At one time he had
bought a roller-skating rink, which was sold by auction at a great
sacrifice because the town was too small to support it. Henley had bid
it in, packed it up, and shipped it to a thriving young city, advertised
a big opening, and sold it for a handsome profit while the novelty was
at its height. On another occasion he was the highest bidder on the
scrap-iron in a stove-foundry which had been destroyed by fire, and he
made a handsome "speck" through his ability to guess more nearly than
any of his competitors the weight of the refuse. There was nothing he
would not buy if the price was right, he wrote his clerk, except
_tombstones_, and Cahews understood, and answered to the best of his
ability and tact that the public had long since ceased to talk about
that unfortunate little matter, and when Henley returned he would
perhaps never hear it mentioned.

The stepfather-in-law had used less diplomacy in the account he had
forwarded to Henley on the day following the great occasion. Wrinkle was
as fond of writing as he was of talking, and he fairly basked in the
sunshine of the letter he sent. He read it aloud to himself as he
walked to Chester to post it, pausing now and then to scratch out a word
or to add one with a pencil as the paper lay on his raised knee. This is
the way it sounded to his pleased ears:

     "DEAR ALF,--I take my pen in hand to address these few lines to you
     to let you know that we are all well, and hope you are endowed with
     the same and many like blessings. Nothin' unusual is goin' on here
     right now. It is as quiet as the day after camp-meetin'. Dick's
     funeral was preached yesterday. The weather was tiptop, and nothin'
     was lackin' to make it a plumb success. Hettie got us out of bed
     before a single streak of day had appeared. We put on our clothes
     by pine-knots. The preacher she sent away off for, because she was
     bound to git some'n extra, was installed at the hotel. He is a
     wheel-hoss; he dressed as fine as a fiddle, with a plug-hat and
     dashboard shoes, and had a long jimswinger coat that come to his
     knees. The paper said he was the silver-tongued orator of the
     entire Cherokee pulpit, and printed his picture, and said he'd been
     paid a handsome figure by one of our wealthiest citizens to take
     part in the memorable occasion. I cut the artickle out to send to
     you, but forgot an' lit my pipe with it. I'll try to git another,
     but they are hard to find, as all hands seem to be keepin' 'em for
     future generations to look at. I seed ten men all readin' one at
     the same time in a gang at the sawmill t'other day. They seemed to
     consider it funny, but I didn't. I don't see how a thing as solemn
     as that affair was could be funny.

     "We et our breakfast by candle-light, and then set around and had
     nothin' to do till startin'-time. We went in the two-seated
     spring-wagon. I was the only one in our layout not draped from head
     to foot in black. I couldn't see the women's faces, and as they
     didn't say a word I couldn't estimate the extend of their grief. I
     reckon you can guess, anyway. You know 'em. You never saw sech a
     stream o' folks in all yore born days. You'd 'a' thought it was a
     public hangin', and every livin' soul had to take a special peep at
     us as we driv along. As well as I could make out through her veil,
     Hettie seemed to like bein' so conspicuous, for she axed me to
     drive slow an' go through the main street, which ain't the nighest
     way to the church. When we got thar the house was packed as tight
     as dry apples in a cider-press. But the front bench was all our'n.
     Nobody dared take it, although more'n half of it was empty, an'
     folks was settin' in the windows. I had trouble with Hettie, for
     she made me throw my chaw o' tobacco away, and I found I was
     settin' right over a wide crack in the floor, too. I wouldn't 'a'
     damaged a thing, an' could 'a' done it without bein' seed.

     "Then I made her as mad as Old Nick by a little mistake of mine.
     While I was hitchin' up the wagon Old Bay bit a whoppin' big gap
     out'n my straw hat, and it was so comical-lookin' that Ma told me
     not to wear it. That was easy enough to say, but I didn't want to
     go bareheaded, so I begun to look about the house for some'n to put
     on, and hid away amongst Het's knickknacks I found a hat that used
     to belong to Dick. It was jest my size, and so I put it on an'
     thought no more about it till we was all settin' in church. It was
     on my lap, and all at once I seed Hettie lift up her veil an'
     squint at it; then she heaved a big groan and snatched it and put
     it out o' sight. She'd have blessed me out on the spot, I reckon,
     if the singers hadn't set in. I was a sight goin' home without a
     thing on my head, but she wouldn't listen to reason, an' kept it
     stuffed all in a wad under her arm. She said I had no feelin' or I
     wouldn't have done sech an outrageous thing.

     "The preacher was all right, but he'd bit off more than he could
     chaw. It seems from report that he went around Chester to find out
     statements that he could work in about Dick that would sound nice
     and suitable; but for some reason or other--maybe because everybody
     was so excited, and maybe because they was naturally backward
     before sech a shinin' light--but, as I say, he run short on
     information. When he come to that part of his talk he looked
     actually teased. He floundered about considerable, an' drunk a lot
     o' water, but he done the best he could. He said Dick was a devoted
     husband and father, and got red when he corrected the last part,
     and said a Divine Providence had seed fit to take 'im away purty
     early in the game, and that the poor fellow hadn't really had a
     chance to show what was in him. Looked like he was determined to
     say some'n nice about Dick, so he gave a few backhanded licks at
     the Republican party and the nigger-lovers of the North, an' wound
     up by sayin' that the late lamented had been a stanch Democrat an'
     worked at the poles as hard to overthrow graftin' and Yankee
     oppression as any man in the fair Southland. He got through
     somehow, but, betwixt me 'n you, Alf, I don't think Hettie thought
     she got her full money's worth, for she was countin' on a wonderful
     display of poetry and highfalutin' things that would be remembered
     an' placed to her credit for a long time afterwards. He got his
     foot in it several times. Once I heard Hettie sniff mighty nigh
     loud enough for him to hear it. It was when he said life wasn't
     what it was cracked up to be, nohow, and he didn't doubt that Dick
     was a sight better off where he was at than here in this earthly
     wrangle. I thought to myself, I wonder what Alf would say in his
     far-off retreat to a statement of that sort.

     "The marble monument looks all right in Welborne's new graveyard,
     an' he has a right to be proud of his enterprise. The ground is
     bein' mapped off in great shape. He's had grass sowed all over it
     and laid out avenues and sidewalks, and thar's some talk of a
     fountain.

     "That Dixie Hart's a corker. She's not mealy-mouthed about
     anything. The day before the funeral Hettie was talkin' to her at
     the cow-lot, and axed Dixie if she was goin' to take it in. Dixie
     quit milchin', and stood up straight and said: 'No, I've got better
     sense, and you ought to be ashamed of yoreself. You've got a good
     husband, and you don't appreciate him nigh enough.'

     "I thought it was funny that Het didn't fly off the handle, but she
     stood and tuck it, and seemed to be set back a peg or two. Me 'n
     her went to the house together, an' I looked for her to rail out on
     me, anyway, but she set on the porch like she had a lot to think
     about till bed-time. I made up my mind then that Het jest loves to
     do things that other folks don't approve of, an' that Dixie had set
     'er to wonderin' if she hadn't gone a little bit too far.

     "But the old gal is all right. She has tuck a new turn, as I wrote
     you in my last. She keeps boarders in the two spare rooms mighty
     nigh all the time, and she is figurin' expenses purty close.
     Sometimes it is a rovin' peddler at day-rates or a fruit-tree agent
     by the week. I can't say I like it overly much--though thar is
     somebody to talk to at odd times when they are through work--for
     she don't seem to feed quite as well when she's bein' paid as
     before money begun to come in. She seems to want to lay up scads
     for some reason or other; maybe it is to try to git back the cash
     she has spent on her odd notion. I don't know, an' I ain't sure she
     does herself, but she's as close as the bark on a tree. Jim says
     she's runnin' a separate account at the store, an' makes 'im figure
     everything she gets at bare cost in market--freight not included. I
     heard her tellin' a lightnin'-rod peddler that that was where she
     could cut under the Chester House, which didn't have no store nor
     credit to speak of.

     "Who do you think was here last week? Why, Ben Warren, Hettie's
     bach' uncle. He stayed all night, an' occupied yore room. He says
     he's got two thousand acres in his plantation over the mountain,
     and the finest residence in the State--keeps a dozen hosses an' all
     the old niggers that his daddy used to own. He's thirty-five, an'
     still on the turf, but he told us he was at last engaged to a
     Baltimore lady that he had been settin up to for lo these many
     years. He's goin' to have us all spend a week over thar before
     long. He thinks a lot of Het, an' wants her to fix up his house for
     the bride. Het's lookin' forward to it. He couldn't stay over for
     the funeral, but he said she was showin' by her act that women was
     not forgetful of the past, and that it made him feel more secure in
     the venture he was about to make. He'd been inclined to doubt
     females to some extent, he said, and he was goin' to let Het's
     conduct stand before him always as a proof of how deep a woman's
     affections can be when they are tested.

     "Now, take care of yourself, Alf, and come on home. These cool,
     green mountains are good enough for any man, an' you know what is
     said about a rollin' stone. So long. I sign myself, with my best
     respects,

                        "Yours truly,
                                 "JASON WRINKLE.

     "_P. S._--The same old crowd of jolly loafers make the store
     headquarters, and they are, if anything, worse 'n when you was the
     king-bee o' the bunch. They git off a fresh joke on somebody every
     day. I got off one on Jim that he didn't like a bit. Jim is still
     holdin' on to old man Hardcastle's gal like grim death, an' in
     order to cut a special dash he's got to sendin' his things to the
     steam laundry at Carlton. T'other day at the post-office the nigger
     that delivers for the Express Company, an' can't read, showed me
     Jim's package of socks, drawers, shirts, an' the like, that had
     just come, an' axed me who it was for. With as straight a face as
     if I was lookin' a corpse in the eyes, I p'inted out Hardcastle's
     house an' tol' 'im to take it thar. Then I writ with a pencil on
     the kiver these words, 'Please restore missin' buttons and stitch
     up holes.' Then what did I do but hike back to the store an' set
     an' wait. Miss Julia sent the stuff a-whizzin' to Jim by a nigger
     woman that works for her folks. The things was all tousled up in a
     big basket, an' she fetched along a note that made Jim turn as
     white as a cake o' tallow. He left me in charge an' run over an'
     explained matters to the best of his ability, but it's the talk of
     the town, an' not a soul has suspicioned me. If you don't want to
     git knocked flat you'd better not mention a steam laundry in Jim's
     presence.

                                                "J. W."



CHAPTER X


Alfred Henley was coming home. Jim Cahews announced it one morning to a
cluster of farmers and chronic loungers at the store, and the news
rapidly spread through the village and country-side, and various
comments were made. He was going to do a man's part and try to put up
with the cranky woman he had married, said the men. He was heartily
ashamed of himself, said the women. He had got over his silly pout and
was coming home to make amends for his conduct in living so long away
from a woman who had shown such beautiful constancy to her first and,
perhaps--as it looked now--only love.

Dixie Hart heard the report on her way to the post-office, and, needing
a spool of cotton, she went into the store.

"Yes, he's headed this way," was Cahews's confirmation of the news. "The
truth is, Miss Dixie, if I'm any judge of a man's letters, Alf's
actually homesick. He wants the mountains he was fetched up in. He
writes about his lonely days and nights, when his speculations don't
keep him busy, an' says they don't have anything out thar but pesky
north winds an' sand-storms. He might have stayed away longer, as it
was, but one little thing I wrote him turned the scale. You know that
measly ten-cent circus that was to show here last month got stranded.
The performers all quit and footed it home, an' the sheriff levied on
the thing, lock, stock, and barrel, an' is to sell it piece by piece at
public outcry Saturday week. Alf wrote me that a sale of that sort was
exactly in his line, and that he'd try to be on hand. He didn't think
anybody here would have any money to invest in such truck, and he'd have
his own way. He said about the only man hereabouts that he'd have to
contend with would be old Welborne, but he would risk him. He don't
often allude to home matters, Miss Dixie, but I think Alf counts on
havin' things up at the house a little smoother than they was when he
went off."

"And maybe he will," the girl answered, thoughtfully, as she turned
away.

The only boarders Mrs. Henley had at this time were a certain young
married pair, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Allen, who had arrived only a week
before with a baby not yet a month old. Allen was a travelling
sewing-machine agent, and boarded his wife and child at some farm-house
while he drove about the country in a buggy with a sample machine to
instruct women in the use of it and take orders.

When Mrs. Allen heard the report that Henley was coming back, she was
considerably disturbed by the thought that she and hers might not be
wanted any longer. She nursed her fears all the morning, and finally,
with the infant on her arm, she went out to Mrs. Henley, who was in the
back-garden gathering cucumbers for the dinner-table.

"I reckon I'd as well come to the point an' be done with it," Mrs. Allen
began, timidly. She was thin, had blue eyes and faded blond hair, used
snuff, as was indicated by the brownish deposits in the corners of her
mouth and her stained teeth. "I want to speak to you about yore
husband."

"Well, what is it?" Mrs. Henley asked, as she drew herself up and peered
at the speaker from the hood of her sunbonnet, and rested her pan of
cucumbers on her hip.

"Why, they all say he's comin' home," said Mrs. Allen. "I've heard yore
father-in--I mean, I've heard old Mr. Wrinkle say that yore husband,
never havin' had children, can't abide babies, an' I got bothered. My
little darlin' don't cry much--in fact, compared to most babies, it's a
purty good un. It did cry some just a minute ago, but that wasn't its
fault. It was mine. Like a plumb fool, who certainly ought to have had
more sense, I was takin' a dip o' snuff from my box as I come out of the
house, an' a sudden whiff of wind round the corner blowed a speck of it
in the little thing's eyes. You know it stings like ackerfortis. We are
goin' next week, anyway, you see."

"Well, you needn't let my husband's coming hurry you off," Mrs. Henley
answered, as she reached out to a bean-pole and bore down on it that she
might fasten it more firmly in the soil, and it was impossible to judge
whether there was resentment in the tone. "He's coming back of his own
free will, and if he stays he'll put up with the house just as he finds
it. Nothing will be turned topsy-turvy, you may be sure. His room is
where it always was, and it ain't likely to be changed."

The conversation was disturbed by the appearance of the baby's father,
who emerged from the house and was on the way to the stable to feed and
water his horse. He wore a ready-made suit of clothes and a scarlet
necktie which clashed sharply with his blond hair and mustache. He was
almost as young as his wife, and he beamed proudly on the red human lump
in her arms as he paused for a moment. He smiled warmly on Mrs. Henley
when his wife playfully informed him that they would not have to move
till their week was up.

"Well, I certainly am glad to hear it," he declared. "I'd hate to look
for a new place just for a day or so, an' I've got so I feel sorter at
home here. Me an' yore father-in--(excuse me)--I mean, me 'n Mr. Wrinkle
have high old times. Even if I went to board somers else I'd come here
an' set of an evenin' to hear him talk. He drives off every spell of
blues I have. He is the beatenest man to get off jokes I ever knowed, to
be as old as he is. Just now he walked clean over to Pitman's to tell
that crusty old cuss that thar was a cow inside his lot fence, an' when
Pitman come down hoppin' mad with his shot-gun full o' pease yore
father-in--(excuse me)--Mr. Wrinkle p'inted to Pitman's own cow an'
said, 'I wasn't lyin' to you, Sam; thar she is.' He was laughin' just
now an' said he had a joke in store for Mr. Henley when he got here. I
tried to git it out of him, but he wouldn't say what was in the wind."

That evening, after supper, as the night was warm, the Allens, with the
child asleep on a pillow in a chair between them, were seated out under
the trees in front of the house, when Wrinkle slouched across the grass
to them. He was chewing tobacco, and frequently pressed two fingers over
his lips and between them spat with considerable accuracy at various
shrubs and tufts of grass about him. Even in the twilight they could see
that his small eyes were twinkling with suppressed amusement.

"I thought once, Allen," he chuckled, "that I wouldn't let you in on
this joke, but I'm afraid I won't sleep if I don't tell somebody. I
don't mind lettin' you two in on the quiet, but I wouldn't tell Hettie
for any amount. You see, this un's a baby joke, an' it may be a tender
point with her, not havin' a baby, an', in fact, never havin' had one up
to date, although she's had two husbands in her day, an' resided with
each one a sufficient time."

"So it's a baby joke?" Allen said. "Well, that interests _me_."

"That's what it is," the old man said, dryly. "You'd enjoy it if you
knowed Alf. The gang at the store was eternally laughin' at 'im about
babies. They could shet 'im up tight by jest gettin' a nigger nurse-gal
to tote a lusty one back to his desk while he was at work. Once one of
the gang sent 'im a tin rattler by mail, an' they was all thar to see
'im open it. He took it all in good fun, too; he's one joker that kin
stand one on hisself. You may 'a' noticed that Hettie is a sorter odd
woman in some ways. Well, she's more peculiar on the husband line than
any other. Alf's been off now goin' on ten months, an' she hain't once
put pen to paper for him. So the few lines that has gone from this
shebang has been writ by yours truly. Alf hasn't writ to me much, but
I've kept 'im posted. He didn't write me he was headed this way, but I
got it from Cahews. As soon as I heard he was comin' in a week or so, I
set down to write how glad we was. I was in my room j'inin' your'n at
the time, an' all at once it struck me that it would be a royal welcome
to greet 'im with some sort o' joke, an' while I was tryin' to study up
some'n yore baby rolled out o' the bed an' struck the floor with a
thump. It was as quiet as a stick o' wood fer a minute till it ketched
its wind, an' then it set up a scream like a Comanchy Injun, an' right
thar I got my idea. I determined to write Alf that he'd become the daddy
of a bouncin' baby boy. But I had to go about it right, you see, for I
knowed Alf would smell a mice if I brought it out bluntlike; so, knowin'
that I'd have time to hear from him ag'in before he started, I jest
ended my letter by sayin' that I didn't intend to take no hand in the
little cold spell betwixt him an' his wife, but that I felt bound to say
that after she had laid down her pride to write him _sech important_ an'
_delicate news_, for him to take no notice of it whatever was enough to
hurt and offend any woman. He bit. He took my bait an' hook an' line,
broke my pole, an' run up-stream. He writ by the next mail--said he
hadn't got no letter from Hettie, an' axed me what the news was. He was
so anxious to know that he said he was goin' to stop a day or so in
Atlanta, an' wouldn't I oblige him by sendin' my answer thar? You bet I
did. I'll do a friend a favor whenever I kin. I told 'im Alf Junior was
a buster, had a yell on 'im that would do for a fire-alarm, an' was
already keen enough to know the difference betwixt a bottle with a
rubber neck an' the rail thing. So thar it rests. He hain't got no use
for babies, an' he'll be as mad as Tucker, but when he finds out it's
jest a joke he'll be happy enough to set up the drinks."

"Gracious, surely you didn't go as far as that," Mrs. Allen cried,
casting a jealous look at her sleeping infant and sweeping it on to her
grinning spouse.

"Didn't I, though!" Wrinkle spat, gleefully. "Alf has often said I
couldn't fool _him_, an' we'll see--we'll see this pop."

"It certainly is a corker," Allen declared--"that is, if he swallows
it."

"He's already done it," sniggered the stepfather-in-law. "I writ a
document a Philadelphia lawyer and a Pinkerton detective combined
couldn't pick a flaw in. I hedged it in with roundabout reasons an'
facts, tellin' 'im he'd 'a' had letter after letter about how the baby
was thrivin' if he'd just answered Hettie's first official proclamation,
and so on, and so on. Folks, I can hardly wait. He'll git here to-morrow
night, an' we'll have the fun of our lives. I hope you two won't say a
word--at fust, anyway. Leave it all to me."



CHAPTER XI


The following afternoon about dusk the mail-hack, which usually brought
a few passengers over from Carlton, put Henley down at the gate. The
Allens, the Wrinkles, and Mrs. Henley were seated on the porch, and all
stared expectantly except the wife of the returning man, who rose
suddenly and retired into the house. Henley was tanned, wore a more
stylish suit of clothes than had been his wont, and a broad-brimmed hat.
As he advanced up the walk, swinging his bag in one hand and a bulky
parcel in the other, the observers noted that he was flushed and smiling
complacently.

"Durn it all!--dad blast his pictur'!" Wrinkle ejaculated, "I'll bet he
missed my letter. He wouldn't look tickled that way if he'd got it.
Well, the fun is off. If I was to tell 'im now he'd know I was lyin'."

The new-comer was at the bottom of the steps now, and, depositing his
things on the grass, he came up with his hand extended.

"Well, here I am," he cried, as he clasped Wrinkle's hand and shook it
cordially. "I never was as glad to strike Georgia grit in my life. I
feel like a old soldier back from war. As I drove over and saw the sun
in its bed of yellow behind the mountains I felt like I was flying
through space. This country is good enough for me, and I'll prove it by
sticking to it in the future. Where's Hettie? But, first of all, I want
to see that baby. Trot him out--bless his soul!--trot him out."

Profound astonishment showed itself in every face. Only old Jason seemed
capable of rising to the situation. For barely an instant he floundered,
and then his small eyes began to twinkle, his voice held a rippling,
unctuous quality as he laid his hand on Henley's arm.

"Oh, you mean _little_ Alf," he faltered. "Why, he's--he's in thar
asleep on the bed. We-uns--the last one of us--'lowed you'd raise big
objections. You always seemed to have mighty little use for anything o'
the sort."

"Huh!" Henley grunted, an honest flush spreading over his face. "That's
another matter altogether. There are babies and babies in this world.
This one's got different blood in 'im--this one's _mine_! If I've made
light o' having little tots, I wasn't talking about _him_, for he hadn't
come. Where is he? Let me see 'im. I won't wake 'im. I'll walk easy, an'
not say a word."

"Well, step this way." Wrinkle cast a bubbling glance of warning at Mrs.
Allen, who had risen resentfully, and motioned her back into her chair,
and, with a comical strut, he led Henley into the room occupied by the
child's parents. Near the door, in the dim light of a sputtering
tallow-dip, on a tiny bed lay the sleeping infant. Wrinkle, choking down
his amusement, took the candle from the mantelpiece and held it over the
little face. "You can't see the favor so plain while its eyes are shet,"
he chuckled, "but when it grins an' winks it's you to a gnat's heel."

"Gewhilikins, ain't he a corker!" Henley said, worshipfully, under his
breath, as he leaned over the bed.

"I wouldn't wake 'im now." Mrs. Allen stood in the doorway, quite erect
and cold in her bearing, and there was no one but the deluded man who
failed to detect her frigid tone of offended ownership. "This is his
sleepin'-time; if he wakes now he'll fret all night, an' Mr. Allen has
to git his rest or he can't git up early an' do his work."

"I see," said Henley, politely. "I heard Hettie had taken some boarders.
I know she'd hate to have the little thing keep anybody awake."

"Sh! not yit, for the Lord's sake, not yit!" Wrinkle whispered, as he
slid along, to the bewildered mother. "Don't spile it all."

"Well, let's go back on the porch," Henley said. "I've got some'n to
show you. What you reckon I've got in my bundle? Come take a look." He
led them back into the outer dusk, and descended to the ground for the
parcel, which, after hastily cutting the string, he opened on the steps.
The others stared in astonishment at the pile of toys, little dresses,
flannels, dainty caps of lace, and shoes and stockings.

"What did you go an' buy all them things for?" Wrinkle asked, rendered
serious for the first time by the realization that his jest had at least
cost more than he had intended.

"Because I wanted to, that's what for!" Henley laughed, proudly. "Do you
reckon I was going to come away from Atlanta empty-handed when I was
right where so many things could be had? I showed your letter to Mrs.
Moody, who keeps the house I stopped at, and she took me down-town and
helped select what was best. She said every single article would come in
handy, and she ought to know--she's the mother of nine. Lord, I wish I'd
got here earlier, before his bed-time. I tried to git the driver to
hurry up, but first one thing happened, then another. I want to see what
the little chap 'll do with this rattler; these blamed little bells set
up a jinglin' noise every time the hack struck a snag."

During this monologue the machine-agent was silent, a dark frown of
indecision on his face. As for his wife, she looked as if she had
bartered her child's birthright for something that had disagreed with
her mental digestion. Jason Wrinkle, however, reflections on the cost of
his joke for the moment set aside, seemed to have fallen into his
happiest mood. Unable to disguise his merriment at such close range from
his victim, he had slipped out into the yard, and Allen could see him
writhing in the folds of darkness as he slapped his thighs and raised
his heavy boots in a soundless dance of joy.

"Well, I'll go find Hettie." Henley took up the parcel, and, with it in
his arms, he clattered thunderously through the hallway back to his
wife's room. There was candle-light in the room, and he saw her hastily
turn toward a window as he entered and threw the things on her bed.

"Well, here I am," he announced, the ring of elation still in his voice.
"I don't blame you for hiding from me, Hettie. I've acted like an old
hog, and I've come back to say so."

She turned toward him, an expression of surprise struggling on her thin
face, but it had never been her way to show affection, and she made no
offer even to shake hands. However, he had put his arms round her and
kissed her cold cheek.

"You've just come?" she said, tentatively, as she drew stiffly from his
embrace.

"Just a minute ago. I had to see the baby the first thing. I couldn't
wait. The old man showed him to me. Ain't he great? I hain't seen his
eyes yet--he was sound asleep. I reckon that boarder-woman helps you
with him; she seems to thinks lots of him, and be powerful particular. I
didn't get your letter about its coming, Hettie. I'd have written at
once--you know I would. It was lost, I reckon. The mails don't run right
always. The old man wrote me, and it certainly was like a thunderclap.
I'm mighty proud, Hettie. You see, I'd given up hoping that a baby'd
ever come to us, an'--"

"To _us_?" The woman stared and drew herself more erect. "What do you
mean? Are you crazy? You've seen babies before and never went on at such
a rate. I don't care for it. I haven't once touched it since it come. I
don't like its mother any too well, and she is such a fool about it
that--"

"Its _mother_?" Henley gasped. "Why, ain't it _ours_--ain't it yours and
mine? The--the old man wrote me that--" Henley's voice faltered and
sank. His lower lip hung loose from his teeth and quivered. With a
furious shrug Mrs. Henley turned from him to the curtainless window
against which the outer night pressed like a palpable substance. She
could hear him behind her panting like a tired beast of burden. For a
moment there was an awful silence in the room, then he broke it.

"My God, he made a fool of me!" he groaned.

"And you made one of _me_," the woman threw back from the window, "and
before them all!" She sneered, as her glance fell on the pile of gifts
on the bed. "This is what you come back for? Any other man would have
had too much sense to be so easily fooled." She strode to the table and
picked up the candle, for what purpose he did not know, but it slipped
from her fingers and fell to the floor and went out. He heard her groan,
and the slats of the bed creaked as she sat down. Thankful that the
darkness hid the evidences of shame on his face, and not daring to trust
his voice to further utterance, he went out of the room. As he passed
through the hallway he heard a low cry from the infant on the right, and
its mother crooning over it. No one was on the porch. A vast weight of
misery and chagrin was on him. He sat down on the steps and fumbled in
his pocket for his pipe. But his nerveless fingers broke the only match
he had, as he attempted to strike it on the step, and, holding his pipe
before him, he sat staring into space. He had a hunted sense of wanting
to avoid forever all human contact; an intangible shame burned within
him, drying up the tender emotions which so recently had swayed his
being.

Suddenly his glance fell on his valise still resting on the step where
he had left it, and, rising, he clutched it as he might the hand of a
friend. The next instant he was striding over the grass to the gate. To
shun the village, the lights of which winked sardonically in the
distance, he crossed the road, climbed the fence and was in the meadow
which lay between his land and Dixie Hart's. Blindly he trudged through
the high weeds and grass, now wet with dew.

Cruel, cruel--a joke, a mere joke, as such things went with the shallow
and light-minded, and yet it was a tragedy. For several days, in the
highest realm of fancy he had revelled in the first joys of fatherhood,
only to have it end like this. He paused on a slight rise of the ground
and looked back at the outlines of the farm-house, and cursed it and its
inhuman inmates. As he dug his nails into his palms and gnashed his
teeth, he swore that the surrounding mountains, so false in their late
promises, should never see him more; the wide, free world should be his
solace, if solace could be had.

Suddenly, as he stood, he became conscious that there was a moving blur
before him, as if some portion of the general darkness, by some trick of
vision, had been rendered more compact and animate. Then he saw that it
was a cow, and immediately in the animal's wake appeared another blur.
This was the form of a woman. In a mellow, soothing tone she called out
to the cow, and Henley recognized the voice. It was Dixie Hart.
Instinctively, and shrinking even from her, he started on, but she
suddenly cried out:

"Don't go, Alfred, you haven't said howdy to me. You aren't going to
treat an old friend that way, I know."

Putting his valise down at his feet, he stood speechless while she
advanced to him, her hand extended from beneath the shawl which
enveloped her head and shoulders. "How are you?" She seemed to avoid
seeing his valise. "I'm powerful glad to see you back home."

He made an effort to speak, but there was a dry tightness in his throat
which made him doubt his command of utterance. His only response was the
dumb clasping of her hand, and to it he clung, unconscious of what the
act implied, as a proof of weakness.

"I knew you had got back," she went on, her face uplifted, her friendly
fingers tightening on his. "That old mischief-maker told me. I didn't
come out here after the cow. That was just a dodge to keep anybody from
talking about me being away from home after dark. I had to see you. I
knew you needed a friend, and I'm one, Alfred--I'd sacrifice anything on
earth to help you. You've been a true friend to me, and I want to be to
you. I know all that happened back there."

"You say you do?"

"Yes, Mr. Wrinkle come and told me. He was laughing, but he let up, for
I opened his eyes. He hasn't had such a tongue-lashing since he was
born. The fool, the fool--the silly fool! You mustn't mind, Alfred. You
really mustn't."

"Mind?" he muttered. "My God!"

"Oh, I know!" she went on, still soothingly. "It is awful looked at from
_your_ standpoint, but that ain't the thing. We must consider the
intentions of folks before we take offence. Why, Alfred, that old
busybody hasn't yet got it through his head that any living man could
object to a joke like that. Nothing under high heaven was ever sacred to
him; you must have noticed that in the time you have known him. He'd
make a jest out of the death of his closest kin. He told me once that to
think anything was wrong in this world would be to deny God's goodness
to mankind. When I told him just now that he had overstepped the bounds
of reason and good sense in what he done, he simply wouldn't believe it.
He said you knew how to give a joke and take one, and that he liked you
better than any living man. The Allens are going to leave soon. Alfred,
you mustn't go 'way like this--you just mustn't."

"There's nothing else to do."

"Oh yes, there is." She laid her hand on his arm, and gazed persuasively
into his eyes. "You've got your duty to perform--your duty to your wife,
Alfred."

"Huh, to her!" he sniffed.

"Yes, to _her_," Dixie went on, simply and yet eagerly. "I'm sorry for
her, Alfred. To most folks she seems peculiar, and yet God made her that
way just as He made you and me like we are, and, moreover, she can't
help being like she is. You told me once that you didn't think she had
ever quite got over her love for her first husband, but that you counted
on that when you married her. Well, all the queer things which she done
while you was away, that folks thought was so funny, come from her idea
of her duty in that direction. If I read her right, she thinks, somehow,
that she proved herself untrue to--to the dead by marrying again, and
she's let it prey on her mind. But that is over with. I think she is
afraid now that she went too far."

"You think so?" Henley breathed hard.

"Yes, I lost patience with her myself during it all, and give her a
piece of my mind one day. If she had been plumb sure she was right she'd
have got mad, but she didn't. She took it different from what I
expected. She never had paid any attention to me before, but after that
day she made a point o' coming to me. She never would bring up the
subject again, but she'd stand and talk with as much respect as if I'd
been some old person. She looked like she was ashamed, and wanted to let
me know in some other way than telling me in so many words. No, you
mustn't go 'way like this, Alfred. It 'ud never do. She ain't to blame
for that old man's joke, and she ought not to suffer for it. She was
glad you was coming back. A woman can read a woman, and she couldn't
hide it. It looked to me like she is glad to get a chance to act
different and do her part. If you was to go off on top of this thing it
would humiliate her awfully. A great deal would be said, and it would
all heap up on her as the prime cause. You are the noblest man I ever
knew, Alfred, and you won't go and do as big a wrong as this would be,
and in such thoughtless haste. A man never can decide on a correct
course when he is upset like you are now, and you'd live to regret it.
Then think of yourself. You was plumb homesick for these old mountains,
and was glad to get back."

"How did you know that?"

"A little bird told me." She quoted the saying with an arch smile. "You
wanted to get here in time to be at the auction sale of that broke-down
circus, and you'll miss a good thing if you go. The horses are in bad
shape, owing to poor feeding and hard use, but there's big come-out in
'em. Nobody else here will have the ready money, and you'd have a clean
walk-over."

"What else have they got besides hosses?" The trader's eyes twinkled
with an interest that broke through the stupor that was on him.

"Oh, lots o' odds and ends; you wait and see. Tote that valise back in
the house, Alfred, and don't do what you'll be sorry for all your life.
If you was to leave like this to-night it would be harder than ever to
come back, and you'd have to do it sooner or later. You know I'm giving
you good advice."

"Yes, I know it--before God I know it," he said, fervently. "You are the
best friend I've got, Dixie. No, I don't want to go back to Texas." His
strong voice shook and he coughed to steady it. "I never want to roam
about that way again. I forced myself to stay out there day by day. That
was one mistake, and I ought not to make another on top of it. You see
it right, Dixie. You see it right."

"Then there is little Joe," she reminded him. "He is still having a hard
time with Sam Pitman, and the little fellow has almost counted the hours
since he heard you was coming. He dotes on you. He still has the money
hid away that you left for him. He says he is going to keep it till he's
a man. Oh, it was so sad! Alfred, he started to run away one night
awhile back, after Pitman had whipped him for planting the wrong
seed-corn. I happened to meet him down the road. He had a little bundle
under one arm and a pet chicken I had given him under the other. I
stopped him and got him to go back. I couldn't bear the thought of
having him so far away from me and unprotected. I told him that, and it
made him break down and cry. Then he let me kiss him; he never had
before, he's so bashful, and, well"--her eyes were glistening and her
tone was husky--"the next morning I saw him in the field bright and
early. He was doing the hardest work there is on a farm--digging sprouts
with a heavy grubbing-hoe. But he was cheerful."

"You made him go back, just as you are making me do," Henley said,
swallowing a lump in his throat and forcing a smile. "You were right in
his case, and right in mine. You are my best friend. How goes it with
you? We've talked enough about me."

"Same old seven and six," she answered, with a shrug. "Still fighting
with the world and Carrie Wade. She's a worm in my flesh that is on a
constant wiggle. She nags me more now because she is more miserable
herself. She don't even get as much attention as she did. She used to go
after it, but the men have headed her off. The fellows at the
lumber-camp got to laughing at her for the way she done. She's got down
to little boy sweethearts. She's been making eyes at Johnny Cartwright,
and the little fool--he ain't more than seventeen, eight years younger'n
her--is clean daft about her. Poor old Mrs. Cartwright is awfully
worried. The little scamp declares he is engaged to Carrie, and, instead
of giving the report the lie, she actually seems proud of it."

"But how about your marrying?" Henley questioned.

"Me? Oh, I've got my trousseau ready, every stitch of it, including hat,
gloves, stockings, and what not."

"You don't tell me--well, that _is_ news!" Henley exclaimed in surprise.

"Well, it ain't to me," Dixie laughed. "You see, Alfred, it is the same
old outfit that I laid in a year ago and keep in storage. It hain't
exactly the latest wrinkle as to style, but I could cut away and add a
flounce here and a ruffle there, and not have so much cash to lay out as
I did when I missed fire that time. But I don't think I'll get to use it
soon. Field-work in the broiling sun and setting on a divan with a dinky
fan to your face and a young man to peep over it don't hitch, somehow.
And I'm still deep in debt to old Welborne. He's the only man I make
love to, but I don't get a cent off for my smiles; he growls and
grumbles every time I see him about hard times and the like. But I'll
pay out one of these days. As you pass it in the morning I want you to
just take a look at my stand of cotton; if the drought will let it alone
I'll make five bales. Now I must go. I know you'll keep your promise, so
I ain't going to worry. Good-night."

"Good-night," he echoed, and as she moved away in the darkness he took
up his valise and turned his face toward the farm-house. "She's right,"
he muttered. "God bless her, she's plumb right."



CHAPTER XII


The Allens had gone, taking with them the baby things, which Henley had
prevailed upon them to accept. He sank into his accustomed place at home
and at the store as naturally as if he had been away only for a day. The
news of his return drew around him many of the motley ilk who made
trading and swapping both a business and an avocation. They seldom dealt
with him, to be sure, but it was a liberal education to hear his
experiences, and even better to see him actually make a deal. On his
first day at home he had bought a lame horse for the small sum of fifty
dollars, after he had delivered a free lecture about the great "American
Cruelty to Animals Association," as he called it. And, with his eyes on
the owner, he gave it as his opinion that in a more enlightened
community a man who would ride a horse in that condition would be
dragged straight to court, and maybe imprisoned for life. When the
animal was his, and the ex-owner had gone to buy a ticket to go home by
rail, Henley winked at Cahews and said: "I know how to cure that hoss's
leg. I paid two dollars to learn in Fort Worth from an Indian
hoss-doctor. Two hundred dollars wouldn't buy 'im right now."

It was the loquacious stepfather-in-law who revelled most in Henley's
sayings and doings, and he regaled his wife and Henley's with accurate
and vivid reports of them. One morning he came into the sitting-room,
where the two women sat bent over a quilt on a big, square frame, their
needles going methodically up and down.

"You mought guess one million years," he panted, as he bent over them,
that he might feast on their facial expressions, "an' not guess what Alf
Henley's gone an' done."

They raised their faces and stared, and the wizened raconteur smiled as
he stepped to the open fireplace, shifted the paper screen to one side,
carefully spat, and then, replacing it, returned to his coign of
vantage.

"I don't know, and care less," Mrs. Henley answered, though her poised
needle and steady gaze belied her words. "He's done so many fool things
in his life that I'd not be surprised if he'd gone off in a balloon."

"That's equal to sayin' you give it up." Wrinkle again applied himself
to the screen and fireplace, and returned shuffling, his tobacco-quid in
his hand. "Well, you've heard about the dime circus that was to show
here a month back, an' couldn't because all the actors hit the grit an'
left the manager to settle with the sheriff for debts that follered it
all the way from Boston?"

They had heard every detail of the matter innumerable times, and only
stared and gaped as they awaited further revelations.

"Well, Alf Henley is sole owner an' manager now," was the bomb which
exploded in Wrinkle's hands. "He's the John Robinson and P. T. Barnum of
the whole capoodle."

"You don't mean that he has actually gone off with--" began Mrs. Henley,
but was checked by the old man's smile of correction.

"Well, he ain't, to say, actually _started out_ yit," the old man
grinned. "You know he'd have to git performers, tight-rope walkers,
hoop-jumpers, bareback riders, an' the like, an' these mountain
clodhoppers ain't in practice. But I'm here to state to you two women
if he kin git clowns to furnish as much fun fer a dime and a seat
throwed in as he give that crowd this mornin' he'll be rich enough to
throw twenty-dollar gold pieces at cats in no time. I seed the whole
shootin'-match. I was in the store when the nigger boy come by the front
janglin' a bell an' totin' the red flag with a sign on it, an' Alf sent
Pomp out fer one of the circulars that had a list of the items. He
looked it over, an' then re'ched for his hat, an' me 'n him went down to
the court-house yard whar the whole thing was spread out, piled up, an'
haltered. It was like Noah's Ark washed ashore an' lyin' thar to dry.
Thar was six hosses so thin you could read through 'em without yore
specs, three big road-wagons heavy enough to haul steam-engines on, the
little, teensy pony with a bob-tail that the clown driv' in the
procession, an' the little red-an'-green streaky wagon that he rid in.
Then thar was the heavy iron den on another big road-wagon that the lion
stayed in till he starved to death, a whoppin' pile of planks that was
used for seats, an', last of all, the big canvas tent.

"The entire town an' country was on hand, nosin' about an' crackin'
jokes on the fat manager who had come up from Atlanta to attend the sale
an' was lookin' as seedy as a last year's bird's-nest. But I'm here to
tell you that when Alf Henley come stalkin' down, lookin' sorter
indifferent, like he always does when he has a notion to trade, that
crowd pulled in its horns an' waited."

"The fool!" Mrs. Henley ejaculated. "Making a public exhibition of
himself."

"Well, I've often wondered about that very thing," Wrinkle said. "I
sometimes think he tries to make folks think he is a fool to suit his
aims, an' ef he ain't a natural-born one it oughtn't to be belt agin
him. I admit I was puzzled on that point this mornin'. I stuck to his
heels, bound to see 'im through. He'd sniff at one thing an' turn away
from another as if it didn't smell right; he'd kick a pile of stuff with
contempt an' walk on, an' he grinned to beat a heathen idol at the mere
sight of the lion-cage an' pony an' cart, an' then he just squared
hisse'f around same as to say, 'Well, I'm in pore business, but I'll
jest stand here an' see if anybody will be fool enough to bid on such
truck.'

"You know Sheriff Tobe Webb is a dry-talkin' cuss, anyway, an' I had to
laff when he got up an' begun his harangue, fer all the world like a
feller in front of a side-show tryin' to drum up a crowd to see a passel
o' freaks on the inside. Tobe had the fust item led out fer
inspection--a bony hoss that tried to lie down, an' Alf spoke up an'
wanted to know if he was a stump-sucker.

"Fred Dill up an' said, 'The man that buys 'im will be the sucker,' an'
everybody laffed, Alf as big as the rest.

"'I think I know whar I could sell his hide,' he said, an' bid ten
dollars. Then somebody--or it may jest have been the show-man's
bluff--raised it to fourteen, an' then Alf went 'im a dollar more an'
got the hoss."

"Another one to feed and doctor," sighed Mrs. Henley.

"I say another," Wrinkle chuckled. "He got all six at about the same
figure. Nobody was biddin' agin 'im except old Welborne, an' he was so
mad he couldn't stand still. They say he had been countin' on havin' it
all his own way, but Alf come home an' turned his cake to dough. Next
come the three road-wagons. Some o' the farmers was interested in 'em,
but they was too heavy fer field-work, an' though Tobe mighty nigh tore
the linin' out o' his throat yellin' agin it as a plumb outrage, Alf
raked 'em in at about the cost of the bare iron in 'em.

"The next item was the lion's cage, an' a big laff started, for Fred
Dill told Alf that it was entirely too clumsy fer a baby-carriage, an' I
knowed then that my joke was goin' the rounds, an' I backed away a
little, fer I didn't like the way Alf looked. But he was still in the
game, an' he walked up to the cage an' ketched hold of the bars an'
sorter shook 'em. It had one of the same heavy wagons under it in good
condition, an' I believe Alf was tryin' to attract attention from the
wagon, for all the time Tobe was talkin' an' sayin' the cage would be a
good thing fer a man to lock his wife up in to break 'er of the
gad-about habit, Alf was examinin' the iron slats an' the bolts an'
bars. It had a big door an' wooden sides that could be tuck off or left
on, an' Dill advised Alf to buy it an' turn gypsy, an' roam about
tradin' here an' yan. But Alf got the thing at his own bid, an' sorter
sneered as he writ down the price on the scrap of paper in his hand."

"For Heaven's sake, what fool caper did he cut next?" Mrs. Henley
demanded, in a tone of impatience.

"Why, he bought the pony an' little wagon fer ten dollars, even money,
an' it was all I could do to keep the baby joke from risin' ag'in. I
could see that Dill was about to spring it, but I shook my head at 'im,
an' he kept quiet. I reckon he thought thar was no use rubbin' it in.
Then everybody got to watchin' the nigger helpers stretch out the big
tent at the sheriff's orders. It was stout, new cloth, an' it glistened
like a patch of snow in the sun, an' driv' the crowd back on all sides
in a big ring. I reckon everybody thar thought Alf surely would balk at
a thing like that, but it looked like the fun folks was pokin' at him
had got his dander up. Jim Cahews had closed the store an' come down,
an' I seed 'im nudge Alf an' heard 'im say, 'I believe I'd let that item
slide, Alf, the cloth has been cut on the bias, an' the seams are so
stout that it never could be sold by the yard.'

"'Shet up, I know what I'm about,' I heard Alf whisper, an' then he
yelled out to the sheriff, 'Put up the pile o' planks along with it;
nobody wants a' old rag as big as that.'

"The sheriff agreed, an' both lots went in as one. It was a sharp trick
of Alf's, for he had found out that a photographer was thar from Carlton
to go his limit on the tent, but lumpin' it in with the planks sorter
upset the chap's calculations, an' he didn't have the look of a man that
could figure quick. He shuck all over as he bid ten dollars, an' while
the sheriff was yellin' 'Goin'! goin'!' Alf stooped down an' felt of the
canvas. He found a clean hole that looked like it had been cut, an' run
his finger through it an' laffed an' said, 'It wouldn't do to hang it up
to dry, the wind 'ud blow it to pieces, but I kin use the planks, an'
I'll resk a dollar more.' The photographer got scared, an', while he was
stoopin' down tryin' to feel o' the tent, Alf ketched the sheriff's eye
an' said, 'I'll withdraw my bid if you don't hurry. I'm wastin' time.'
The sheriff yelled out an' told the photographer it was agin 'im, but he
look scared wuss 'n ever an' shuck his head, an' that ended it. Alf
wasn't in as big a hurry to git away as he had let on, neither. He set a
couple o' niggers to work stackin' up the planks in neat piles an'
rollin' up the tent. He sent the hosses to the pasture back o' the
store, an' told Pomp to give 'em a good rubbin' down, an' to put some o'
his famous hoss-tonic in the'r feed."

"A circus!" Mrs. Henley said, with a sniff. "A circus, and me the
daughter of a Baptist preacher."

"Well, he ain't raily goin' to put the thing on the road," Wrinkle said,
seriously. "He counts on sellin' it off piece by piece. I went back to
the store when he did. I was afeard, at the start, that he was cracked
in the upper story, but I've sorter switched around. Old Welborne come
in an' had his say about the snag Alf had at last struck in his
overeagerness to have some'n to do now that he was back, an' went out as
mad as the very devil about some'n or other. Jim an' me set down back at
the desk an' watched Alf figure up. He looked tickled, and after a while
he said:

"'Jim, I'm glad I got back. I know now that Texas ain't no place for my
talent. It's overrun with sharp-witted Jews an' keen Yankees that know
values down to a gnat's heel. But here in these mountains these yokels
git scared clean out o' the'r senses when a dollar has to change hands.
Do you know,' says he, 'that I'm out less'n two hundred this mornin',
an' at a low estimate I have got a thousand dollars' wuth o' truck?'

"'I don't know, Alf,' Jim said. 'I'm with yore judgment, as a general
thing, but not on this deal. I was lookin' at them hosses t'other day in
the court-house yard, an' the Chester brass-band come along. Now, a
average hoss,' Jim said, 'will either git scared or break an' run at a
sound like that, but three o' them things you got this mornin' struck up
a regular jig an' capered about the lot kickin' up the'r heels as if
they was in a ring jumpin' over red strips o' cloth.'

"Well, folks," old Wrinkle continued, "you kin always tell a born trader
by his not bein' in a hurry to unload, an' Alf is that way. While we all
was settin' thar Pete Hepworth come in at the front, an' while he was on
his way to us Alf said: 'You fellers hold yore tongues. That feller is
itchin' fer a deal; I had my eye on 'im at the sale.'

"Pete leaned agin the platform-scales an' talked about the weather an'
crops, an' then he said, kinder offhand, to Alf: 'I had a sort o' idea
o' biddin' on that pile o' old planks, but when the sheriff lumped 'em
in with that fine tent it let me out. I want to build me a cowhouse an'
wagon-shed.'

"'I didn't care for the _tent_,' Alf said, an' he filled his pipe from a
china bowl on the desk an' made Pomp fetch 'im a match. 'It was them
planks I was after, an' I was bound to have 'em. They are smooth,
ready-dressed, long-leaf, heart-pine boards, one an' a quarter by ten,
with the ends sawed square an' seasoned by folks settin' on 'em under
cover for three or four years--never had a nail driv' in 'em, nuther.'

"'Well, I never thought they was as good as all that,' Pete said, 'but
what are you holdin' 'em at?'

"'I hain't thought much about it,' Alf said. 'I hain't much of a hand to
jump at a trade. It railly does my eyes good to look at lumber like that
these days when the best timber you kin git is full o' sap an'
worm-holes. How would twenty-five dollars for the pile look to you?'

"'Why,' said Pete, with a funny look at me an' Jim, 'you only paid
eleven for the tent an' planks together.'

"That hain't got a thing to do with yore deal an' mine,' Alf said, an'
he turned an' axed Jim some'n about shippin' some chickens to Augusta
that Jim didn't seem to know how to answer.

"'I think it is purty steep,' Pete said. 'I've got time to build now,
an' it 'ud take a month to git an order sawed out at the mill, so I'll
have to take it'; an' as he was countin' out the cash he laffed an'
said: 'I've got an apology to make to you, Alf. Back at the sale I
remarked that you was a born idiot, but I don't believe it now. You are
a big fish amongst minnows.'

"An' when Pete had left Alf winked at us an' said, 'You fellers lie low
an' watch, an' if I don't double my money on every item I bought to-day
I'll buy new hats fer you both.'"



CHAPTER XIII


The purchase of the circus furnished amusement for the village for many
a day afterward. During the month that followed the event every citizen
who had any appreciation for the droll things of life looked in at the
store and had some dry remark to make in regard to the deal. Fred Dill,
the clerk of the court and wag of the place, had a new suggestion to
make each day as he went to his work. There were certain village freaks
he declared who would be drawing-cards on the road and who would work
simply for their board and clothes.

But Henley was wisely keeping his own counsel. His underlying wisdom
began to show itself one day early in June when there was a widely
advertised sale of horses in the square. Farmers came for miles around
to sell, swap, or buy, and buyers for city persons were on hand with
plenty of ready money. The strangers in town saw nothing remarkable in
the fact, but the knowing ones stood open-mouthed when Henley's negro
assistants led six well-groomed horses into the square. The Chester band
played in the balcony of the court-house, and Henley's exhibit kept gay
and sprightly step to the music, as if glad to be once more in their
accustomed element. The mane of each animal was decorated with a blue
ribbon bow, to which was fastened a card holding the price asked. In no
case was it low, and yet when the day was over Henley had completely
sold out, and in the presence of many admiring witnesses whom he could
hardly shake off he had banked a prodigious roll of currency.

The tide of opinion had turned. From ridicule it had swept with
eager-eyed conviction to vast local pride in Henley as a native product.
From that day on the remaining items of the circus property were
regarded with growing interest. Would Henley actually triumph all
through? became the question the villagers asked one another as if it
were a game they, themselves, were playing. There was much general
discussion over what, after all, really was the "hardest stock" of the
lot, and the general consensus of opinion had decided that it was
perhaps the three wagons, which were too heavy and cumbersome for any
ordinary use. And this view was held till one day when the well-dressed
representative of a gang of men working on a new railway over the
mountain came and took a look at the wagons. They were almost too heavy,
he said, but they might be made to answer his purpose in trucking ties
along the new road. He had offered twice as much as Henley had paid for
them, and yet the latter's laugh of open derision could have been heard
across the street.

"I see you don't want my wagons," he smiled, as he cordially patted the
stranger on the shoulder. "You want your company to spend their money on
them light, painted things that bust in the sun and break down if you
run 'em on anything but a plank floor."

The customer thought too well of himself to realize that he was under
Henley's spell. "How much do you hold them at?" he asked.

Henley mentioned a price which was fully four times what they had cost
him, and he did it in a tone of supreme contempt for the smallness of
the figures. He added that he would never dream of letting them go so
low, but that he had no place to store them and didn't care to ship them
to Atlanta.

"Well, I'll take them," the man said. "I reckon neither of us will lose
by it."

"Well, _you_ won't, there's one thing certain about that," was the
agreeable seal Henley put on the deal as he watched the railroad man
draw out his check-book.

"I really did need one more," the purchaser remarked, "and I'm sorry you
only had three."

"Hold on, hold on," Henley said, as the other was shaking the ink down
into the tip of his fountain-pen. "Let me study a minute. You see that
lion-cage standing on that vacant lot across the street. Now, I'll tell
you what I'll do. The wagon the cage is on is pine-plank like them
you've bought. The lot it stands on belongs to Seth Woods, the
shoemaker; his shop is right around the corner behind the post-office. I
put the thing there without his consent, intending to move it right
away. I can't get away from here right at this minute, but if you'll
step in and ask him if he will consent to let the cage rest on his land
awhile I'll have a carpenter take the cage part off and you may have the
wagon at the same low figure as the others."

It was one of Henley's best dodges--this raising of apparent obstacles
between a customer and his own munificent proposals in the customer's
behalf. He had learned early in life that nothing so completely clinched
a trade as making a party to it work to bring it about. The man's eyes
twinkled as he consented. He hastened out and returned in a moment to
say that the shoemaker, with whom he had left an order for a pair of
boots, was perfectly willing for his neighbor to use the lot as long as
he liked, as he had given up all hope of ever being able to build a shop
on it, as had been his plans when he bought the property.

"Well, then, you can draw your check for the whole amount," said Henley,
in the same uneventful tone that always preceded his reception of money.
"I'll let the cage set on the edge of the sidewalk. Maybe I can induce
the town council to use it as a calaboose. The one they've got ain't
strong enough by half."

The report of the four-wheeled transfer went over the village before
nightfall, and the next morning, for the first time, Fred Dill looked in
on Henley without a smile or a joke. He eyed the storekeeper, as he
stood behind the show-case smoking a cigar, with a new and wondering
respect. Fred was beginning to see largely manifested in Henley the very
qualities which were wofully missing from his own merry and shiftless
make-up. He counted on his mental digits the remaining items of the
defunct circus--the tent, the clown's pony and cart, and the lion's den
standing open-doored like a wheelless furniture-van across the street.
And even while Dill stood there, telepathically apologetic for his past
bantering in the presence of so much incarnate shrewdness and foresight,
little Sammy Malthorn, the twelve-year-old son of the wealthiest planter
in the village, came in, as he had been doing several times a day for a
week past. His voice quivered with youthful triumph as he looked eagerly
across the show-case at the smoker.

"Well," he announced, "papa says I may have 'em. You can charge it on
his account. It was twenty-five dollars, you said."

"Yes, twenty-five to _you_, Sammy boy," Henley laughed easily. "Pomp
will go with you to the stable and hitch 'im up. You'd better let me put
in a ten-cent box of axle-grease for them wheels. If you haven't got the
dime handy I can add it on the bill. I'd hate to see as fine a rig as
that going through town squeaking like a rusty wheelbarrow."

"All right," responded the proud owner of the pony and cart. "Pomp will
get it for me."

"Good Lord!" Fred Dill said in his throat, and he went at once to Seth
Woods's shoe-shop, where there was a group of loafers, and told the
last bit of news. "I begin to think, boys," he said, "that Alf Henley is
goin' to make the only money that dang circus ever made. Jest think of
it--think of a big circus, hippodrome, menagery, an' side-shows tourin'
the whole United States an' Canada without a cent of profit, an' a
mountain storekeeper in a measly hole like this gitting rich out of its
remains without turning his hand over or losin' a minute's sleep. It
looks like thar is some'n crooked in the universe."

"It's beca'se the Lord's bent on smitin' sech cussedness with a broad
hand," said a long-faced deacon, who had come in to half-sole his own
shoes with the shoemaker's tools, and sat soaking his bits of leather in
a tub of dingy water.

"I mought take yore view of it ef the reward was bestowed in a different
quarter," Fred said, grimly. "But Alf don't go to meetin' any oftener'n
I do. Though he kin send up as good a prayer as the next one when they
force 'im to it. Boys, I'm curious to see what he will do with the tent
an' lion's cage. Nothin' would surprise me now. He's dead sure to git
profit out of 'em."



CHAPTER XIV


That very evening Henley took even another step in his amusing
enterprise. He returned to the store after supper and sat writing
letters till about eight o'clock. Then he got up, brushed his clothes,
and made Pomp polish his boots, and adjusted his black string tie before
a glass over the water-pail and basin. Then he went out and walked
leisurely up the street till he came to the dark stairway of a little
public hall over a feed-store. He ascended the steps with a respectful
tread and entered the hall. It was furnished with crude unpainted
benches and lighted by kerosene lamps in concave-mirrored brackets on
the white walls. At the end stood a table holding a pitcher of water, a
goblet, and a Bible, and behind the table sat an earnest-eyed,
middle-aged evangelistic preacher, who bowed and smiled in agreeable
surprise at the new-comer. The room held fifty or sixty men and women,
all silently awaiting the beginning of the services. Henley seated
himself on the front bench nearest the preacher, and put his hat on the
floor, and dropped his handkerchief into it.

The meeting was opened with the singing by the congregation of familiar
hymns, in which Henley joined harmoniously with a fair bass. It was
known of him that he never declined an invitation to lead in prayer, and
on being asked this evening he readily complied. His voice was deep and
round and mellow, and the burden of his utterances was suitable to that
or any other religious occasion, being a sort of singsong tribute to
the eternal glory of humility and submission to the divine will. The
prayer was followed by a rousing sermon from the preacher, and, in
closing, he called attention, as Henley evidently had gathered from some
source that he would do, to the future plans of the organization. The
time was ripe for work in the highways and byways--the sowing of seed in
out-of-the-way places, and the preacher was to "take the road" with one
or two good singers, a cornet-player, and a cottage-organ, and give
people in isolated mountain-nooks a chance to hear the Word and profit
thereby for their eternal weal.

He had just seated himself and was mopping his perspiring brow when
Henley rose and stood hemming and hawing and clearing his throat.

"I want to say in this same connection," he began, "that I plumb approve
of this new idea of taking the great and living Truth into remote
corners of our spiritually dark land. Here in Chester we are, you might
say, basking in the sunshine of Christian civilization, but away out off
of the main roads in the mountains the Book hain't read and prayer
hain't held except now and then. I heard that you had already entered
into negotiations with an Atlanta tent factory to furnish you with a
tabernacle, an' I must say it ain't a bad notion, because many a fine
bush-arbor meeting has been busted all to flinders by sudden showers
that good, stout canvas would shed as well as a roof of shingles. I want
to contribute five dollars toward the fund myself; but I'm here to
confess to you frankly that I wouldn't like to see the money throwed
away. The great majority of them meeting-tents on the market are simply
made to sell and not for hard use. They look all right in the
sample-room, but they are full of starch to give 'em body, and when they
get wet they are about as porous as a fish-net."

"That's a fact, Brother Henley," spoke up the preacher, with a slow and
deliberate nod. "We've been looking around and receiving circulars from
all sides, and we have found it purty hard to run across a durable tent
at a price we can afford; but there was a drummer here from Nashville
the other day, and he claimed--"

"I'd advise you to let drummers alone, too," and Henley brushed away the
preacher's words with a firm and all-wise hand. "You see, in my constant
contact at the store I know 'em all the way down to the ground. They are
the most ungodly pack on earth. Most of 'em drink and play poker, an'
never look inside of a Bible. The fact is, if I may be allowed to speak
of it at such a time, I happened myself, awhile back, to buy a whopping
big tent from a stranded show. I thought at the time that some such a
need as this might arise, and so I bid it in. To get it, I had to pay
for a lot of old planks and such-like, but in doing it I secured a
rattling good thing. It was a bargain; but I could let a good
organization like yours have it for a sight less than a new tent not
halt as big would cost. It would last a lifetime. It is big enough to
hold the multitude that ate the loaves and fishes. It was made for rough
wear and must have cost a pile of money. I don't know but what we all
could agree on a price--that is, if I had any idea of how much your body
would feel disposed to--to invest in a tent."

"We have fifty dollars in the treasury," spoke up the preacher, with an
eagerness that blended in his face and voice. "Of course, it may not be
near enough to--" He blew his nose and coughed.

Henley stroked his face thoughtfully, and he had the look of a man who
was making a polite effort to be resigned to disappointment.

"Well, of course, I _had_ hoped that I might do much better than that,"
he said finally, looking around at the anxious group, "but, as I said
at the start, I want to help you along. You know I said I'd contribute
five myself, so--to be accurate--we'd better call the price fifty-five.
Then I'll take what you've got in the treasury and call it even."

There was a murmur and shuffle of released suspense throughout the hall.
The preacher beamed joyfully as he reached forward and shook Henley
warmly by the hand.

"There's no use putting it to a vote," he said. "I'll take the
responsibility and accept your magnificent offer right now. Brethren, we
are in luck. A special providence seems to have been at work through the
whole thing. A vain and ungodly enterprise broke down in our midst, and
we are, by our act, directing streams of evil into channels of good. In
putting this tent to our use we will be turning over the tables of the
money-changers, and causing grain of righteousness to grow where tares
of evil flourished."

As Henley walked homeward along the lonely road he mused: "I could have
run that crowd up to seventy-five as easy as not. They would have raked
up the balance, but I reckon a fellow ought to let well enough alone."

Of all the denizens of Chester and its environs, no one had keener
enjoyment over the gossip concerning these various deals than Dixie
Hart. She had enough of the speculative tendency in her make-up to
heartily appreciate the situation in all its phases, and she was glad,
too, that her friend had found, so soon after his return home, such good
opportunities to exercise his rare gifts. She went into the store only a
day or two after the sale of the tent, and found Henley alone.

"So you won out in that venture, after all?" she laughed. "And, if what
folks say is true, you made big money."

"I'm not out of the woods yet," he smiled. "There is always a drawback,
you know." He pointed through the open doorway to the lion's cage on the
shoemaker's lot across the street. "I've still got that thing, and I'm
afraid it's going to be a white elephant. I'm sorry, too, for I'd like
to make a clean sweep, just because folks bet that I'd lose heavy. I'd
give the cage away if I could do it, but, like a fool, I went and said
that I'd show 'em that I could turn every item in the lot over at a
profit."

"What are you asking for it?" Dixie inquired.

"Twenty-five dollars," he replied. "If I can't sell it like it stands
I'll split it up an' use the iron some way or other."

"It would be a pity to do that," the girl said, thoughtfully. "Let me
take a look at it."

He stood in the doorway and watched her as she crossed the street in her
easy, graceful way, and then he saw her approach the lion's cage, turn
the bolt of the door, and look in, and heard the sound of her fist as it
rapped against the wooden sides. Then she disappeared. She had entered
the cage and was out of sight for several minutes. Emerging, she came
directly across the street to Henley, her head hanging thoughtfully, a
slight flush on her face.

"You may think I've plumb lost my senses," she smiled, "but I want to
buy that thing. I've heard so much about your deals that I'm itching to
speculate some myself. You seem to have come to the end of your rope as
far as this cage is concerned, and I want to try my hand. They say two
heads is better 'n one, if one is a cabbage-head."

"_You?_--good Lord, what could you do with it?" Henley gasped.

"A heap of things," she retorted, lightly. "You've been offering it for
twenty-five dollars, and I'm going to take you up. I had just started to
the bank to deposit some money, and so I happen to have the ready
cash."

She put her hand into her pocket and drew out a roll of bills, but
Henley held up his hand protestingly, and flushed red.

"You don't spend your hard-earned money like that and through my foolish
example," he said. "I've had experience in all sorts of junk-handling,
and what I do is a different matter. Besides, I know there's no money to
be made out of that thing. I got the cream out of the deal, and I won't
let you throw money away."

Jim Cahews came in at this moment, and, redder in the face than ever,
Henley explained the situation.

"Alf's right, Miss Dixie," the clerk joined in. "You'd better take his
advice. If there was anything in that old pile of iron he'd have seen it
long ago."

But her money was lying on the show-case before Henley's eyes, and she
had retreated to the door.

"I've bought it," she insisted. "It's mine, and I'm going to make some
money out of it, too. I'm tired of working like a corn-field nigger for
puny profits, while you men make jokes here in the shade and get rich at
it."

Henley refused to touch the money. His flush had given place to a look
of pained concern.

"I can't--just can't let you do it!" he said. "Like a good many women, I
reckon, Dixie, you look at the dealings of men from the outside, and are
willing to go an' plunge into unknown waters and get ducked and leave
your money at the bottom. Profit ain't ever made by getting in at the
tail-end of another fellow's venture. I've squeezed this thing dry,
and--"

"I'm a more experienced milker than you are," Dixie laughed, "and the
cage is mine. There's your money. It's mine, and if I make money out of
it I won't have you grumbling, either."

Henley and Cahews exchanged glances of actual alarm.

"What do you intend to do with it?" Henley almost snapped in his
impatience.

"Did anybody ask you what you intended to do with it when _you_ bought
it?" Dixie asked. "You haven't any right to ask. But I'll tell you _one_
thing. I'm not going to turn it into a corn-crib, though it would make a
dandy, and one that no nigger could steal from. I'm buying it to sell
for at least twice as much as I've paid for it, and I want you to watch
me. I've been tickled mighty nigh to death over your late deals, and I
want to amuse you. I know you'd like to see me make some money, and I'm
going to do it as sure as I'm knee-high to a duck."

When she had gone Henley and Cahews stood in the doorway disconsolately
staring after her as she walked briskly down the street.

"You see, Jim, I'm afraid I'm responsible for it," the storekeeper said,
with a frown. "She's got a long head for a woman in most matters, but
she's had it turned by watching this little game of mine. It is the
first time I've ever seen her fly off the handle at all. As a rule she's
very cautious, but, Lord, Lord, the idea of paying twenty-five dollars
for that thing! Why, if it gets out she'll be the laughing-stock of the
town."



CHAPTER XV


The next morning when Henley arrived at the store, Cahews, who with a
face drawn long was standing at the front, pointed mutely at the lion's
cage. Henley looked and groaned. It bore a pasteboard placard, and the
words, in big, irregular capitals:

FOR SALE. APPLY TO DIXIE HART.

"She come in here yesterday evening after you'd gone," Cahews explained,
"and borrowed my marking-pot and brush. Then she had me get her the
pasteboard, and after she had painted the sign she took the nail-box and
hammer and went over there and tacked it up. A crowd of school-boys was
watching, and raised a laugh, but she come away without paying any
attention to them. I tried to get her to reason a little, and told her
the money was there in the drawer waiting for her to change her mind,
but she said she knowed exactly what she was about, and if I'd lie low I
might learn a trick or two in business methods."

"She's off--she's away off!" Henley sighed. "And I'm plumb sorry, for
she is, in many other ways, as quick as a steel trap and bright as a new
dollar."

One morning, two days later, as the storekeeper was at his desk in the
rear writing letters, his attention was called by a keen whistle from
Cahews, who stood in the front-door wildly signalling him to approach.
And going to the clerk, who was now on the front porch staring toward
the lion's cage, he saw that Seth Woods, the begrimed shoemaker, had
torn down the placard and stood looking into the cage.

"He's mad about it, I'll bet," was Henley's troubled comment. "I reckon
folks have been guying him. That railroad man said he consented to let
me use the lot. Maybe he lied to close the trade."

"Maybe he did," agreed Cahews; "but look! What do you make of that?"

A negro man with the shoemakers bench on his shoulder had turned the
corner and was headed for the cage. "Put it inside an' go back for the
rest," they heard Woods order.

Wonderingly, Henley strode across the street and reached the cage just
after the negro had put down the bench on the inside and was coming out
of the narrow doorway.

"What's the meaning of this?" Henley inquired of the shoemaker.

"Why," and a complacent smile broke through the grime on Woods's face,
"it means, Alf, that I'm at last my own landlord. I've been paying old
Welborne fifty dollars a year rent fer that little hole in a wall, away
back from the square, because I couldn't get enough ahead to build on
this lot or get any other shop. I think I've had a stroke of luck, and,
strange to say, it come through a woman. Yesterday evening Dixie Hart
come in my shop and axed me if I could straighten the heels of her shoes
while she set thar. I told her certainly, an' while I was at work we got
to talking first on one topic and then on another. She likes my wife an'
daughter, an' she said a good deal about 'em. She axed me if I had any
objections to lettin' this cage, which she said she had raked in from
you at a big bargain, to set on my lot till somebody come along and
bought it. I thought buyin' sech a thing was a powerful quar thing for a
young woman to do, but of course I didn't say so to her, for it wa'n't
any o' my business. Well, one thing fetched on another till she got to
lookin' about my shop while I was trimmin' the heel-taps, an' all at
once she wanted to know--if thar was no harm in axin'--what rent I was
payin'. I told 'er fifty dollars, an' she whistled kind o' keenlike an'
said: 'My gracious! an' got a vacant lot, too, right in the heart o' the
square.' I explained to her that I wasn't able to build a shop, an' was
afraid I never would be, gettin' old like I am an' so many to feed.
Then, Alf, what you think that gal said? As cool as a cucumber in a
spring branch, as she set thar wigglin' her toes in 'er stockin' feet,
she said: 'You'd better listen to me, an' I'll fix you so you won't have
_any_ rent to pay. That lion's cage, just at it stands, with the door
openin' on the sidewalk, would make the dandiest shoe-shop in seven
States. It's plenty wide and long; it is well-roofed with painted
sheet-iron, an' would be as tight in cold weather as a jar of preserves.
It faces every street that leads into the square, and you'd get twice as
much custom there as you do away back here next to this little pig-trail
alley.' By gum, what she said struck me like a bolt of lightnin'. I'd
examined the cage, as everybody else in town has, I reckon, an' I knowed
all about it, so I up an' axed 'er what she'd paid you for it, an' she
kind o' dodged my question.

"'Has that got anything to do with it?' she axed, an' I told 'er, I did,
that I heard you was offerin' it fer twenty-five dollars. That seemed to
set 'er studyin' fer a minute, an' then she said:

"'To tell you the truth, Mr. Woods, that _is_ all I had to pay, but I
got it, you mought say, at that figure by the very skin o' my teeth. In
a thoughtless moment Alf Henley said he'd take twenty-five, and,
knowing what it was railly worth, I yanked out the money on the spot and
laid it down. He's a gentleman'--she said--'Alf Henley is a plumb
gentleman, but he tried his level best to back down. Jim Cahews will
testify that I was actually obliged to leave the money on the counter
and walk out before he'd give in.' Is that so, Alf?"

"I am obliged to say it is, Seth," Henley answered, flushing. "Some'n
like that actually _did_ take place."

"I didn't think she'd fib about it," Woods went on, "and I finally axed
her what she'd take, an' she said nothin' less than fifty dollars cash
down would interest her, as she had a winter cloak to lay in, an' shoes
for three women, an' what not.

"I told her fifty looked purty steep, but she throwed herself back an'
laughed hearty. She said my rent in the shop fer one year alone would
pay it, and after that I'd be a free man. She said in the summer I could
prop up both these flap sides, to cut off the sun, an' the wind would
blow clean through. She said the very oddity of the thing would draw
trade, that I could have the picture of the lion painted out an' a big
boot an' shoe put in place of it. Oh, I can't begin to tell you all she
said. She'd 'a' been talkin' till now if I hadn't traded: Besides,
betwixt me'n you, she give me a scare; you see I was afraid the thing
would slip through my fingers, fer she set in to talkin' about havin' it
moved to t'other side o' the square and rentin' it fer a barber-shop,
an' she 'lowed, too, that it would be a bang-up thing to sell to a
convict-camp to keep chain-gang prisoners in.

"As a last resort, I axed her, I did, if she thought I ought to pay her
a clean hundred per cent. profit, an' she said: 'That ain't for you to
consider at all, Mr. Woods. You must jest let your mind rest on what
_you_ are goin' to get out of it. Alf Henley's made money out of it; I
must make my part, and you can do the same. It is the way business is
run all over the world. As soon as it becomes yours, somebody may come
along and pay you a hundred for it, though you'd be a fool to let it go
even at that. You are the one man in all the world that ought to hold on
to it.' She was right, Alf. I'm tickled over the change. I feel like a
new man. You ought to have seen old Welborne's face when I told 'im I
was goin' to vacate. He swore Dixie Hart was a meddlesome hussy, an'
that she had cheated the hindsight off of me. He said she owed him an'
was behind in her pay, an' that he was goin' to fetch 'er to taw."

Henley went back to his desk. There was a flush on his brow.

"Beat to a finish, and by a girl," he mused. "Here I've been thinking I
had nothing to learn about trading, and she picks up one of my remnants
and turns it over at a hundred per cent. profit as easy as knitting a
pair of socks. If I'd lived a hundred years I'd never have thought about
that shoe-shop."



CHAPTER XVI


Henley did not see Dixie Hart till a week had elapsed. He had started to
drive over to Carlton one morning, when he passed her as she was mending
a rail-fence round one of her fields which extended down to the road.
She had on a sunbonnet and heavy gloves, and stood in a dense patch of
prickly blackberry briers which reached to her shoulders.

"That work's too hard for you," Henley greeted her cordially. "I've done
all sorts of jobs on a farm, from splitting rails to feeding a steam
thresher, and they are picnics beside what you are now at."

"I believe you are right," she smiled, as she pushed back her bonnet and
exposed her red face and neck. "But I had to do it; the pigs have rooted
away the rotten rails next to the ground under these briers and got in
to my turnips and potatoes. But I've nearly finished, thank goodness."

"I'm off for Carlton," he informed her. "I go every day or so now on
business. Is there anything I can do for you over there?"

"There really is, Alfred." She parted the clinging briers and came quite
close to him in one of the fence corners which was infested with the
wild growth. She had drawn off her gloves, and now thrust a pink hand
into her pocket and got out a handkerchief, in a corner of which were
tied some coins. "I want you to step into the book-store and get me a
Second Reader--the sort they use in the public schools over there. It's
for little Joe. I'm learning him to read, and he's doing it as fast as a
dog can trot."

"I wish you'd let me pay for the book," Henley ventured, as she put the
money into his hand. "You know I've got twenty-five dollars of your
cash, anyway. That old cage wasn't worth anything."

"You mean I've got twenty-five dollars of _your_ money," she retorted.
"Why, I've been ashamed to look you in the face. I didn't act right
about it, and I hardly know why I done it. As a friend to you I ought to
have told you about the chance I saw and not set in to gain myself. I
don't feel right about it. I'd rather you'd have it--I can't feel like
it's mine. You'd made money out of all the other things, and you ought
to have made a clean sweep of the whole job."

"You are forgetting two main things," he said, gravely, his eyes
averted. "You forget that you paid me all I asked for the blame thing,
and that if it hadn't been for you I'd not have been at the sale of the
circus, anyway."

"You mean--" She flushed knowingly, and avoided his earnest gaze.

"That you stopped me that night, and kept me from doing the biggest fool
thing a sensible man ever was guilty of. I've thanked you in my heart,
Dixie, thousands and thousands of times. It would have ruined me for
life, but you looked ahead and saw it and saved me."

"Oh, well, that's past and gone," Dixie said, touched by a certain new
and deep quality in his voice. "I'll keep the money if you want me to. I
really need it. Old Welborne got hopping mad at me for ousting his
tenant, and simply rowed me up Salt River. Some day I may come to you
for legal advice. I want you to look over the document he got me to
sign. I want to know more about it than I do. There are too many
'aforesaids' and 'herebys' in it to suit me. I bought that farm with my
eyes shut. I was so anxious to own land that I was willing to take the
property on any terms. Welborne is getting to be like that old man in
the fairy-book that stuck to the feller's neck and never could be shook
off till he was made drunk. Welborne never touches a drop, you know, and
so he'll stick till death claims him. I'm in an awful mess. I work like
a slave from break of day till away after dark, and never seem to move a
peg toward any sort of landing-place."

"You really ought to marry," Henley said. "That's exactly what you ought
to do. There's many a good man in the world that is actually suffering
for the need of the right sort of a helpmeet."

"You hit the nail on the head that whack," she said, quite seriously. "I
know I'm better-looking now--when I'm fixed up, at least--than I will be
ten years later; and I've got sense enough to know that old maids don't
make natural-looking brides. No, I really ought to give the subject more
thought. I ain't acting in a businesslike way about it. I ought to put
myself on the market, but I let first one thing and then another
interfere, and now it seems to be little Joe. I think I've got a sort of
mother-love for him, Alfred. He works over in his field, and me in mine,
and when it's twelve o'clock I get out my dinner-bucket and call to him,
and we both go down to the spring and have a picnic. That's where I
learn him to read. If old Pitman was to get on to it I reckon he'd raise
a row. Joe fetches his pore little scraps of streak-o'-lean,
streak-o'-fat bacon an' hoe-cake along, but I make 'im throw the stuff
away. I don't know, but I believe I'd rather see that child's big,
hungry eyes as I open that bucket than to be admired by the handsomest
young man in the county. I don't know, though--I've never tried the
young-man part."

"Yes, you ought to marry, Dixie." Henley, with the true feeling of a
gentleman that he ought not to sit while she stood, got out of his buggy
and leaned on the fence. "I'm going to confess that I've thought a lot
about that very thing since I got home, and, if I'm the judge I think I
am, I believe I've run across the very man for you."

"You don't say!" Dixie cried, eagerly. "Well, well!"

"You know I drive over to Carlton every now and then," Henley went on,
"and as Jim always has a few pounds of butter, a box or so of eggs, and
the like, to send, I take 'em to a store run by a young feller that I
always did like. Jasper Long is his name. He got his start by the
hardest licks that was ever dealt by a poor boy. He was a half-orphan,
and had to take care of his old mother till she died and left him all
alone. He drove a dray about town till he was twenty, and with money
he'd saved he set up for himself in business. He's the wonder of the
town now, for he made money hand over fist. He's hitched on a brick
warehouse to his shebang, and buys cotton when it reaches its lowest ebb
and holds it till it gets to the top--then he lets loose. Me and him are
pretty thick, and when I go over there either I have to eat with him at
the hotel or he does with me. Sometimes we toss up head-or-tails to see
who pays."

"I've never seen him," Dixie said, quite interested, "but I've heard
about him. Carrie Wade said he come out to camp-meeting one Sunday, and
was pointed out as a big catch, but she said he was sort of clumsy and
awkward in his movements."

"Carrie wouldn't think his gait was so bad if he was trotting at her
side," commented Henley. "But Long's all right; he's honest, and
straight as a shingle. I'd trust him to act square in any deal, and
that's a lot to say these times. He ain't had much to do with women. You
see, they've got a sort of stuck-up society crowd over there that don't
think he's quite the thing, and so he's out of what you might call the
_elyte_. His sort are the kind that always count in any struggle,
though. He bunks in a big, wide bed in the back end of his store, and
one night when I had to lie over there because the river was out o'
banks he made me sleep with him. That was the time I advised him to
marry. It pleased him powerful, and he up and told me that he'd been
giving the matter considerable thought and investigation. He said that
every now and then it would occur to him that precious time was passing,
but that he'd been so busy he'd not had time to go at it right. He said
that most of the women on any list of the kind he'd seen was fussy and
looked lazy and thriftless. Then he come right out and asked me if I
happened to know a suitable candidate, and--well, Dixie, I couldn't hold
in. I talked as earnest as a preacher at a ranting revival. I had his
eye and I helt it clean through. I described you to him and--"

"You did?" Dixie laid an eager hand on his arm and laughed merrily,
"What did you say? Tell me exactly. I won't let you leave till you do.
Tell me, Alfred."

"Oh, I couldn't do that, Dixie!" Henley flushed to his hat. "I'd make a
botch of it. I could talk to him, but I couldn't to you--at least--at
least not on that line."

"But you've _got_ to do it!" the girl insisted. "I want to hear it. I've
always wanted to know what a man would say about me behind my back. I
know what women will say, for they will tell you to your teeth exactly
what they will behind your back, only worse, if they can possibly do it.
Try to remember exactly what you said."

Henley's blood burned fiercely in his tanned face. "I couldn't tell you
like I did him, and I hain't going to try. I ain't made that way--some
men are, but I ain't."

"You are afraid I'll feel bad about it, I see," the girl said, with
well-assumed severity, and she glanced aside that he might not read the
look of conscious power in her eyes. "You and me have been such stanch
friends that you hate to tell me what a poor opinion you have of me and
my looks. I see. I see. Well, I hain't got no right to think anybody
would think well of me--you least of all."

"Shucks! If you'd heard me you'd never complain," Henley burst forth. "I
told him you was the prettiest thing that ever wore shoe-leather; that
you had hair of a reddish-brownish mixture that no man could begin to
describe, and eyes so big and deep and drawing-like that a feller
couldn't look in 'em without wondering what they was made of, and cheeks
and lips as red and ripe and laughing as--"

"That will do," Dixie laughed, pleasurably. "You was determined to trade
me off, and you went at it like I was a horse you was trying to get rid
of for more than he was worth. Well, what else did you say?"

"Why, I told 'im about your awful struggle against adversity; about the
hold old Welborne had on you; about your mother and aunt being helpless
on your hands, and about how you wanted to add to it all by helping
Pitman's bound boy. But when I told him the other day about the way you
bought and sold that lion's cage I thought he would bust wide open. He
throwed himself back agin the counter and yelled and clapped his hands.
Said he:

"'Alf, that's the woman for me. Every trading man, needs a partner like
her. Such women as her are the mothers of kings and presidents and great
geniuses. _My_ mother was that way; she made me what I am.' And then he
railed out against conditions that could make you undergo so much
hardship, and said he'd just love to give a girl like you a good home
that you could keep neat and clean and in apple-pie order. He said his
life was lonely, and that he wanted to see a smiling face at the window
when he got home after work. He says he's able to build as good a house
as any man in Carlton, and that he already owns a corner lot on Tilbury
Avenue, the swell street of the town. The truth is, he wants to take a
look at you powerful bad, and I promised him, if it was possible, that I
would--"

"Well, I don't know about that," Dixie objected suddenly, and her pretty
brow wrinkled. "You know what they say about a burnt child. I've already
as good as offered myself to one chap. I didn't come up to requirements,
and I don't want to do it again. What you'd say to _him_ about me and
what he'd actually _think_ are two different things. If I was to meet
him and I saw from his looks that he didn't think much of your judgment
I'd hate you both and feel like scratching your eyes out. I'd make a
sensible man a good wife, and I'd do my part; but I'll be hanged if I'll
walk up to him wearing a 'For Sale' tag. What you say is mighty
interesting, and I may let it bother me a good deal, for a woman owes it
to herself to look out for number one, but there is a line of
self-respect that a woman can't cross. I'm in an awful mess, and I'd
marry to get out of it. You may say what you please about me to him, but
that's as far as I'll go."

"You don't think you could send the poor chap some word or other?"
Henley ventured, at the end of his diplomacy, as he got into his buggy
and took up the reins.

"No, I don't," was the thoughtful answer. "He's a friend of yours, and
you recommend him high enough, but we hain't been introduced, and to
take any step beforehand on _my_ side would be unbecoming of a lady, and
that's what I am."

"Yes--of course, and you know best," said Henley, as he clucked to his
horse, "but Long will be powerfully disappointed. He's got sort of
keyed up over this thing, and it has gone and unsettled him. I reckon
he's got a pretty picture of you in his mind, and keeps it before him
all the time."

"That's it," said Dixie. "And I wouldn't like to see it turn to a chromo
on his hands. I know what I look like to myself, but I wouldn't expect
to suit every taste."



CHAPTER XVII


That evening, just after dark, when Henley drove his horse into his
barn-yard, he saw Dixie over in her own lot milking her cow. She was a
brave, erect little figure as she stood in the soft, black loam. "So,
so!" she was saying in her sweet, persuasive voice to the restless
animal. "Can't you stand still and keep that pesky fly-brush out of my
eyes? Them hairs cut like so many knives when they are flirted about
like a wagon-whip. You may as well let me get that milk out of your bag.
It will give you trouble through the night if you don't."

Henley turned his horse into one of the stalls, and fed him with fodder
and corn in the ear, and came and leaned on the fence behind her. She
was now crouched down beside the cow; he could see her brown, tapering
arms and wrists against the cow's flank, and hear the milk as it ran
into her tin pail with a sharp, intermittent sound. Above the back of
the cow, of which she seemed a part in the thickening darkness, loomed
up her cottage. There was a yellow light in the kitchen from a bank of
blazing logs in the wide-open fireplace. Henley waited till she had
finished and stood up.

"Hard at it," he jested. "Day or night, it's all the same to you. I
wonder if you work when you are asleep."

"Huh," she laughed, as she advanced toward him, her pail swinging by her
side. "This is my reception-day, and this is my parlor. Won't you come
in and set awhile? Take that rocking-chair over near the piano--or
maybe you'd rather smoke in the bay-window, where you can get fresh
air."

"What's the joke now?" he inquired. "I'm not exactly on."

"Why, you see, you are the second beau I've had right here in the mud,
and with these dirty clothes on, in the last ten minutes."

"The second?" he said, wondering what she was driving at.

"Yes," she made answer, as she rested her pail at her feet and stood
smiling blandly at him. "Hank Bradley has just left. He come over to
invite me to go with a party of girls and boys to the Springs day after
to-morrow. I wish I knew exactly what to do in a case like that. I want
to go--my! I want to go so bad I hardly know what to do. Mother and Aunt
Mandy both think I ought to accept such invitations. I know folks talk
about Hank, and say all sorts of things about girls he goes with. But he
says he has quit drinking and gambling and wants to settle down. His
sister, Mrs. Bailey, is going along to give respectability to it, and it
is to be a great blow-out. I've never been on such a trip; they say
there is a lot of fashionable Atlanta folks at the hotel, and a fine
band, a ten-pin alley, and a lawn-tennis court, and I hardly know what
all."

"Hank Bradley? Good gracious!" Henley said, but he could think of
nothing further that would voice the protestations running wildly
through his brain.

"Oh, I see you'll oppose it, too," she sighed. "I reckon I've just been
trying to make myself believe I ought to go. Hank begged so hard,
and--and said such nice things about liking me. I reckon almost any girl
would want to believe even a fellow like him, if she'd been a
wall-flower all her life, and somehow didn't think she ought to be."

"But did you accept--did you? That's the main thing," Henley asked, and
his eyes were fixed on her mobile face where the pink shadows chased one
another beneath her long, drooping lashes.

"No, not positive," she said. "I simply couldn't get rid of him to do my
work without saying something; so I agreed to talk it over with my folks
and let him know after supper. He is to send a man over for the answer.
I already see my finish--I see it in the way you are staring at me right
now."

"He ain't for you, Dixie," Henley answered, decidedly. "You said once
that you looked on me like a big brother. Well, if your brother was to
see you driving off that way beside that man--that _sort_ of a man--he'd
be miserable. I can't do much to show my interest and friendship--though
I've tried hard to think of some way. I know you deserve more than has
come to you. You are young and full of life, and bright and pretty--so
pretty that you'd be the main one in any cluster, and it is hard to
think you have to pass your days as you do. But Hank Bradley ain't the
one to extend a hand. He ain't--God knows he ain't."

"I know it; you needn't say another word." The girl came nearer. The
moon was out now in a clear sky, and its rays fell athwart her face and
gleamed in the gold of her abundant tresses. His hand was resting on the
top rail of the fence, and she laid her own on it reassuringly. "Don't
bother, big brother," she said, in a deep, trembling tone. "I'll write
him that I can't go. I'd not enjoy a minute of it knowing that your
judgment was against it. Let's not talk about it. Let's talk about
something else. I've been thinking all day about that Carlton
storekeeper."

"Your ears must have burned." Henley betrayed his relief by the free
breath he drew. "I saw him over there, and we talked about you for an
hour on a stretch. I wasn't going to see him, but he heard I was in
town and sent his porter after me. He wanted to see me about you."

"_Me?_ That's funny, if you ain't joking."

"I ain't joking," Henley declared. "He said he'd been unable to get his
mind on business like he used to. He says, from what I've told him, that
he knows just how you look. He pinned me down again about fetching you
over there; and when I told him that you felt sort of backward about
taking such a step, he seemed more tickled than set back. He said he'd
seen so many women that throwed theirselves at him and interfered with
his movements that the hold-off sort was just what he was looking for.
He went on and told me about the old maids that knitted socks for him,
and the giddy young ones that tittered and looked at him out of the
corners of their eyes whenever he passed, and how many widows and
mothers of gals was trading at his store now that hadn't before, and how
much bother they all was in refusing to let his clerks wait on 'em, and
was always coming back to his desk to make him get what they needed."

"Shucks, I'll bet he's had his head turned," was Dixie's comment. "Well,
he needn't think he's the whole show; they wouldn't do him that away if
he didn't have money. Well, I needn't criticise them, for, as good as I
think I am, I don't reckon I'd give him a second thought if he was just
a farm-hand at seventy-five a day. Money adds a lot to a person, and I
reckon if a girl went about it right and as a matter of duty she could
love a rich man as quick as a poor one."

"Well, I simply couldn't head 'im off," Henley resumed. "I couldn't get
around his arguments. He said there was a way you and him could meet
without compromising your pride, and that was this: he said me and you
was good friends, and that if I wanted to make you pass a pleasant day
I could invite you to drive over there next Saturday week and see the
fire tournament that is to be held."

"Well, he's got cheek enough, I must say," Dixie said. "I reckon he
might let you run your own business and extend your own invites. It
ain't for him to up and dictate to you--huh! I say!"

"But, you see, I'd already told him that I'd enjoy fetching you over at
any time. You see, he knowed it would be a pleasure to me. I'm going
over, anyway, and your company the ten miles and back would be a sight
better than being alone."

"Well, that's different," said Dixie, "and I really would enjoy the
trip. But it would have to be fully understood that I went just with
you, and was not going along to exhibit myself, to see if I'd suit him
or not."

"Good!--now you've hit it!" Henley laughed. "It will be fun all round.
I'm going again to-morrow, and I'll tell him to be--I'll tell him me and
you have decided to take in the tournament."

"Yes, put it that way," said Dixie, and she took up her pail. "It may be
a flash in the pan, and I'd hate everybody in creation--you included--if
I was accused of--of missing fire the _second time_!"

They both happened to glance toward the cottage, and standing framed in
the kitchen doorway with a background of light they saw a mute and
motionless figure.

"It's little Joe!" Henley exclaimed. "Wait, I forgot what you sent me
for." He went to his buggy and returned with a parcel. "I got the Second
Reader, and I had the man put in a Geography-book full of pretty maps
and pictures. I thought maybe Joe would--"

"He'll be tickled to death," Dixie cried, as she reached for the parcel.
"The poor little fellow is watching us now. I told him you'd bring it
to-night, and he's been down several times to see if you was back. It's
awfully sweet of you, Alfred, to think of the Geography. I need it
myself, and me and Joe'll study it together. If that thing we was
talking about should happen to go through, the first move I'd make would
be to try to get that boy out of Pitman's clutch. I love 'im--he's so
gentle and patient that I can't help it."

They heard a step behind them, and, turning, they saw old Wrinkle
peering at them through the dark as he stood near the barn.

"If that's you, Alf," he called out, "you'd better come on to supper.
After a square meal at the Carlton Hotel you may look on our fare as
purty pore stuff. But you may choke it down. It's gettin' cold; the
grease in the beef hash is turnin' to tallow, an' the bread was baked
yesterday an' is as hard as a brick."

"All right; I'm with you," Henley said, good-naturedly, as he saw Dixie
hurrying away.



CHAPTER XVIII


On the morning set for the excursion to Carlton, Henley went down to the
stable and harnessed and hitched his horse to his buggy. Old Jason, who
was with him, made no offer to assist with the various buckles and
straps, but stood leaning in the barn-door chewing tobacco. He was
sufficiently courteous, however--as Henley started away with the remark
that he was going to give Dixie Hart a lift over to Carlton and back--to
slouch in front, his hands in his pockets, his tousled head bared to the
slanting rays of the sun, and open the big gate.

Reaching the front-door of Dixie Hart's cottage, Henley had only a
minute to wait. Mrs. Hart, followed by her sister with an arm in a
sling, came down the steps with a mincing step, her weak eyes shaded by
her thin hand, and approached him.

"It's powerful good of you to take my daughter," she said, in grateful
tones. "She has so little pleasure in her life, and she's been wanting
to go to Carlton for a long time. A place even as much like a city as
that is, kind o' interests a young girl. She's always reading about the
doings over there among the rich folks."

"I'll see that nothing happens to her, and fetch her back safe," he
promised. Then Dixie emerged from the house wearing her best dress, a
white muslin, immaculately clean and well ironed, and adorned by broad,
pink ribbons which heightened her complexion. Her hat was new and most
becoming, and as she rustled out to the gate he felt a thrill of pride
in having such a presentable companion. She touched her mother playfully
under the chin and kissed her on the cheek.

"Now, Muttie," she said, "you've got to be on your good behavior while
I'm off or I'll switch you good when I get back. I have put the exact
feed for the horse in his trough, and pumped the tub full of water, and
you only have to let down the stable-door bars at twelve and he'll do
the rest. The chicken-feed is already mixed in the dish-pan, and you
only have to tilt it out of the kitchen-window and they'll divide it
amongst 'em."

"Oh, I can attend to everything!" Mrs. Hart remarked to Henley. "I
reckon you've found out that she's a regular case."

"Case or not," Dixie broke in, as Henley was smiling and nodding his
response, "I'm not through yet. If I don't tell you, you'll be begging
for something to eat amongst the neighbors. Your dinner is already
cooked and the coffee made. All you'll have to do is to set it on the
coals and warm it up. The sugar is right at the coffee-pot, and the
cream is in the spring-house to keep it from souring.

"I didn't dare hint to 'em about--about that Carlton fellow," Dixie
said, in a confidential tone, as they drove away. She was holding her
big hat on to keep it from blowing off in the crisp current of their own
making.

"You didn't?" he said, interrogatively, charmed as he had never been
before by her propinquity and vivaciousness.

"Not after being sold as bad as I was by letting them know about that
other scrape," she laughed, as she glanced at him archly. "Why, they
would meet us a mile out on the road to-night--the halt leading the
blind--to know every particular. No, I've been burnt once, and I don't
want a second coat of blisters."

"You certainly look stunning." Henley allowed his admiring eyes to take
her in from head to foot. "You needn't be one bit afraid of what that
galoot will say. I tell you I've been about over the country and I know
a thing or two."

"Well, I've got my all on my back," she said--"that is, except my
wedding outfit. I don't know how I'll ever get my money out of it. I've
thought about selling it, but nobody of my size seems to be marrying
round here. Even if _this_ thing is a go--I mean even if me and Mr. Long
_do_ come to terms--I don't believe I'd feel just right in using it. It
would be sort o' like marrying in widow's weeds, wouldn't it?"

They were now passing Farmer Wade's house, on the edge of the village,
and they saw Carrie on the veranda-steps with Johnny Cartwright at her
side. The couple stood close together, and Henley saw that the boy was
holding Carrie's hands and gazing at her ardently. Seeing the passing
buggy, Carrie suddenly drew herself back and stared at them curiously.
There was no salutation from either side, and Henley drove on, noting
that Dixie kept her eyes on the pair till they were out of sight.

"I thought I'd give her a good, straight look," she said, "so she'd see
that I wasn't doing anything I am ashamed of. I know that girl through
and through, and you mark my words, Alfred, she'll be low enough to
throw out hints about me driving with a young, married man like you. The
way she's acting with that poor silly boy is disgusting. His poor old
mother is so upset she's talking to everybody about it. She is afraid
Carrie will actually run off with him, and Carrie will, too, if she gets
a good chance--she's just that desperate. It's funny how mean, spiteful
folks can make other people the same way. Right now, I'd rather have
this Long man come out here and take me to meeting where Carrie could
see it than to do a kind deed of any sort."

After this, to Henley's mystification, she did not talk as freely as at
the outset, and she seemed to be very thoughtful. As they were driving
into the bustling town, she looked at him fixedly and said:

"The papers say the programme don't begin till eleven o'clock. That's
the hour set for the first race with the reel-wagons. I was just
wondering what we'd better do to kill time till then. I hain't got a
thing to buy that you hain't got in your stock at home, and I hain't a
person to go in and nose about and have clerks pull down a whole raft of
bolts and boxes without paying for the trouble. You see, I reckon it
ain't later 'n nine o'clock now, and--"

"Oh, I see," said Henley. "Why, Dixie, I sort o' mapped it out this way.
You see, knowing how anxious Long will be to meet you right off, I
thought we'd drive straight to his shebang and 'light and hitch. He's
got a chair or two in the back-end of his shack, and we could kind o'
set about, and when he ain't waiting on customers, why, we--"

"I thought you had more sense than that," Dixie burst out with
unexpected warmth. "_You_ can go there if you like, but I won't go a
step! Huh, I say--I _would_ cut a purty dash, wouldn't I?--setting
around amongst chicken-coops, lard-cans, and salt pork for a fool, vain
man to look me over and sniff and feel set back because I didn't happen
to--to come quite up--shucks! I don't believe any of you men understand
women. Huh! but we understand _you_ all right."

"I'm awfully sorry I made you mad," Henley stammered. "You know, Dixie,
I wouldn't say a thing for worlds that would--"

Dixie laughed. "You couldn't make me mad at you to save your life,
Alfred. I'm mad at myself, that's all, for starting out on such a silly
jaunt. I might have knowed that it would be hard to put this thing
through in any decent shape. I don't care what Long'll say or think. I
come over here to this tournament with you, at your invite, and if he
shows by a single bat of the eye that he thinks I meant anything else
he'll hear something that will ring in his ears till he's put under
ground. I reckon the idea never got within a mile of his brain that he
may not suit _me_ at all. Why, I may hate the very sight of him."

"You no doubt will if you keep on looking at the thing that way," said
Henley, admiring the very mystery that cloaked her words and manner, and
quite convinced that she was wiser, in some vague way, at least, than
all the rest of mankind put together. "I only thought that would be the
best way to start the ball rolling."

"Well, it won't start at all if I have to tote it to the top of a hill
and give it the first kick," Dixie said, firmly. "I'm a big fool. I'll
bet you haven't a bit of respect for me. That other racket of mine was
enough to brand me as the champion woman idiot of the earth, and this
goes that one better. What's the use o' being a fool if you don't learn
sense by it?"

"Oh, don't talk that way, Dixie," Henley protested, at the end of his
resources. "I thought we was going to have such a fine time, and now you
hardly know what you want. If you won't go to his store, then I'll tell
you what we could do. The public wagon-yard is the best place to see the
tournament from. I could unhitch at the edge of the sidewalk in the
shade of the trees, and you'd have a reserved seat through it all."

"That's _some_ better, anyway," she said, as if relieved. "I come near
showing my temper, didn't I? Well, I've got one hid away inside of me,
and it kicks up sand sometimes when I'm least expecting it."

Leaving his sprightly charge in the buggy watching the gathering of the
festive crowd and listening to the blatant music of the town band from
the balcony of the Carlton House, Henley, making some excuse about
having to mail a letter, hastened round a corner and down to Long's
store.

The young man, in his best suit of clothes and with the odor of bay-rum
in his smooth, compact hair, and the barber's powder on his
razor-scraped face, was busy giving instructions to his chief clerk.

"Don't come to me to ax a single question," Henley overheard him saying.
"This is _one_ day I simply will have off. If there is anything you
don't know about, let it lie over--tell 'em I'm on the committee of
entertainment, tell 'em any darned thing you want to, but don't bother
me. Oh!" He had caught sight of Henley, who stood half hidden by a stack
of soap-boxes, and came forward, his face falling. "My Lord, Alf, don't
tell me you didn't fetch her in!" he panted. "Good Lord, don't say
that!"

Henley grinned and explained the situation, much to the storekeeper's
relief.

"It don't railly make any great difference." Long twisted his small
mustache under its coat of pomade till the ends looked like facial
spikes, and pulled at his white waistcoat. "I had a nigger make a bucket
of lemonade with ice in it, and left an order at the hotel for three of
the best meals they know how to put up. I supply the shebang with
produce, and I stand in with 'em. They would spread themselves for me. I
was counting on having us all three eat in my back-room. I wanted to do
exactly the right thing, you see, so she'd know at the outset that I
understand how to make a woman comfortable, and that I ain't a man to
split hairs when it comes to a little outlay."

"The back-room wouldn't suit at all." Henley was already a wiser man
than when he left home that morning. "I wouldn't think of asking her or
any decent woman to eat in a room where you bunk, or where anybody
bunks, for that matter--male or female."

"I'll just countermand that order, then," Long said, "and we'll all go
to the hotel. We'll see the fust part of the show from the buggy, and
then repair to the big dining-room and have our banquet."

"I think she'd really like that," Henley declared, "but I'm going to
give you both the slip and take dinner with Judge Temple's folks. They
made me promise to come the next time I was in; besides, I want to give
you both full swing on this day of days."

"Right you are," Long rubbed his heavy hands together in delight, "and
you may have the worth of your meal in the finest cigars in my shebang.
Alf, you are my friend. Let's go down where she's at. To tell you the
God's holy truth, man to man, I don't feel half as good as I make out.
It wouldn't take the weight of a hair to make me show the white feather.
I have a sort of forewarning that I ain't agoing to walk straight into
this thing. If she'd 'a' driv' right up to the front, and got out and
gone back to the rear and set down and looked about like she was taking
stock of my belongings, I'd have knowed how to proceed, but this way of
having to walk a plank that she's propped up has made me sorter weak at
the knees. How do I look, anyway--honest, I don't want any flattery? If
you think I'd look better in my silk plug-hat and long Prince Albert I
can whisk 'em on in a jiffy."

"You are just right." Henley charitably viewed the individual from his
own point rather than that of the over-critical Dixie. "In hot sun like
this to-day your straw hat will look better, and that sack coat fits
like a kid glove."

"I sorter thought this would be the thing." Long bent down and for the
twentieth time dusted his shoes with his handkerchief. "Now get them
cigars." He led the way to a show-case near the front. "Help
yourself--them's the genuine Havana fillers in the corner. Take good
ones--by George, take the best."

"I won't take but one," Henley said, as he opened the case and reached
for a cigar. "I don't like to collect pay in advance; and while I don't
want to throw cold water on you, Long, I'm free to confess I don't know
exactly how she'll act. I always knowed women was curious, but they are
more curious about selecting a mate than everything else combined. When
I was talking this meeting up at such a rate, I thought I could count on
'er; but, la me! she's got me so mixed that I don't know whether I'm a
Methodist preacher or an escaped convict. But let's go down. I want to
see what _you'll_ make of her."



CHAPTER XIX


As the two friends approached the buggy, Dixie, who had seen them,
suddenly turned her head in an opposite direction and seemed to be
laughing immoderately at the beginning of a barrel-race. To attract her
attention Henley cleared his throat and coughed. But whether she heard
he never knew. At all events she was heartily amused, as was evidenced
by her free laughter and the sparkle of her merry eyes. As it was,
Henley reached the buggy and clutched the front wheel and shook it,
while, with his left hand, he held Long's arm in a nervous grasp.

"Oh, it's you!" she said, sweeping him with a careless glance and
allowing her eyes to be drawn back at once to the racers. "Ain't it fun?
You ought to have seen that boy try to climb the greasy pole just now.
He put sand all over his pants to make 'em rough, but he could only go
so high, and there he stopped, unable to budge a hair's-breadth. He hung
to it for a minute, as red as blood in the face, and then begun to slide
down as slow as the hour-hand of a clock till he sat flat on the
ground."

"I fetched Mr. Long down; you know--you may remember he wanted to meet
you," Henley stammered, under a restraint that was new to him. And, as
the couple stared at each other, he finished with a gulp--"Mr. Jasper
Long, Miss Dixie Hart--Miss Dixie Hart, Mr. Jasper Long."

Dixie was polite and absolutely unruffled, while Long was one straight
flush from head to foot. "Come--come over to see our brag show?" he
stuttered, with an untoward jerk of the body, for he had tried to put
his foot on the hub of the wheel and missed it. It was a bow so
pronounced that Long's hat was dislodged and hurled to the ground. In
his shocked sympathy for his friend, Henley was bewildered by noting
that Dixie was actually subduing a laugh, her rebellious lips covered
with her white-gloved hand. Long secured his hat, drew himself up, and
repeated his platitude.

"I thought I would," she said, now gravely studying his face, his hair,
his clothing, and his broad, restless hands, on the backs of which
rather long hairs lay beaded with perspiration. "Alfred was coming
along, and as I have never been to a tournament before, and as he was so
set on bringing me, I decided to make the trip. I've heard him speak of
you. You are in the bank, ain't you?"

"Why, no, Miss Dixie--" Henley began, but there was a certain warning
quality darting from her eyes, now fixed on him, that broke into his
puzzled correction, and then he caught the drift of her harmless
pretence and obliterated himself with a low grunt of perplexity.

"Why, no, I'm _J. W._ Long, of the 'Live and Let Live Grocery,'" the
merchant said. "The other feller is _L. A._ I've had circulars scattered
broadcast all over your county. Looks like you'd have seen some of 'em.
I believe in lettin' folks know you are alive and in the push. I'm
surprised that Alf didn't tell you about me and my business, even if you
hain't heard it from others over your way or through the papers."

"There are some Longs that rented land from me a few years ago," Dixie
said, evasively. "I wonder if they are akin to you. Seems to me, now I
think of it, that you favor 'em some."

"They may be away-off fourth or fifth cousins, I don't really know."
Long looked as if he thought the conversation had taken quite an
unprofitable turn. "I never was much of a hand to keep track of far-off
kin. Folks is liable to want credit on a score like that, and think they
never have to settle."

Then the colloquy languished. Henley was plainly not a success as a
manager of delicate situations. What puzzled him beyond any mystery he
had ever stumbled on in the intricate make-up of his charming neighbor
was her evident cool and detached enjoyment of his and Long's
awkwardness. At any rate, he reflected with satisfaction, he could
extricate himself from the tangle, and in that, at least, he felt that
he had the advantage of Long.

"I see an old fellow over there at that covered wagon that was bantering
me for a hoss-trade the other day," he courageously threw into the gap.
"I believe I'll go see how he talks now. There will be a sight of
hoss-flesh change hands to-day. I understand there's a gypsy camp in the
edge o' town, and they are the dickens on a swap."

"Hold on a minute!" Long called out, as Henley was moving off, his hat
lifted. "I want to see you."

Henley pulled up a few yards away, behind Dixie's back, and Long joined
him.

"Are you going to leave me the bag to hold?" Long asked, in a tone of
blended gratification and nervousness.

"I don't see that I'm doing you one bit of good," Henley answered,
gravely. "This is your day of grace. If you can't fix things up after
what I've done we'll have to call it off. I've done my part. I fetched
her here, but I can't make women out, and I don't intend to try. Life is
too short. When I get bothered about what a woman's going to do or not
do I want to get blind, staving drunk; it always has that effect on me,
and you know I'm inclined to sobriety."

"The trouble is, I don't know whether I'm welcome or not," Long
declared, grimly. "I have never felt exactly that way before. Do you
reckon she'd look with favor on the invite to dinner at the hotel?"

"You bet she will!" Henley was more sure of his ground now. "Cooking and
fixing up the table is a woman's joy, and they'll go just to see what
hotel fare is like, and, as a rule, they will sample every article
that's passed."

"Well, I'll risk it on your judgment, Alf. You've stood by me so far
like a man and a brother, and I don't believe you'd set a trap for me to
tumble in."

"Not me," answered Henley. "But I was wondering what you think of her
looks; men differ in tastes, and--"

"Shucks!" Long sniffed. "You needn't ask me that. That'ud be a fool
question for a blind man to ask. Why, Alf, she is the stunningest trick
that ever wore shoe-leather. She's so dadblamed purty I can't look her
straight in the face. There is some'n in her eyes and the way she sets
and bends her neck an' cocks 'er head that makes me feel like one of the
chaps in olden times that knelt on a strip of carpet at a queen's
throne. But it ain't just her looks and trim shape and nobby little
feet--it's the woman herself, by gosh! She looks clean through a feller;
what she says goes from her as straight as a gun-shot. Well, I'll hurry
back and do the best I can. I'm having a big time, Alf--a big, roaring
time."

All the rest of the morning, as he strolled here and there through the
merry assemblage, Henley managed to keep the pair in sight. Long kept
the same position, his right foot on the hub of the wheel, his face
upturned to Dixie's. It was the passing of the local military company
and the surging of the spectators forward that gave Long a valuable
opportunity, for he got into the buggy and sat beside the girl. Henley
could see him lashing the air over the dashboard with his whip in a
most reckless manner.

"The blame fool!" Henley ejaculated. "He's wearing out that whip. I
wonder if he thinks I buy the best whalebone for him to court with.
She'd like 'im better if he'd set still, anyway, and not be cavorting
about like a jumping-jack."

Noon came, and Henley saw the pair alight from the buggy and walk across
to the hotel. Thereupon he betook himself to the house of his friends,
and had his own dinner. When it was time to start home he went down to
the wagon-yard. He found them seated in the buggy, and, to his surprise,
he saw nothing in the manner of either to indicate that any sort of
understanding had been reached.

"I reckon it's time we was on the way," Henley announced to her, as he
shaded his eyes and glanced at the declining sun.

"Yes, it's high time," Dixie answered, crisply. "I was wondering where
on earth you was. I'll have to pay for this jaunt, and the sooner I set
in to my work at home the better it will be for me."

Long made elaborate excuses to Dixie for absenting himself, and followed
Henley to where his horse was hitched.

"Well," said Henley, as he was putting the collar on the animal, "how
did you make out?"

"I hardly know, Alf." Long looked very grave. "There is no use saying
she is exactly the thing I am looking for, but, as much as I've seen of
her to-day, I don't know any more'n a rabbit what my showing is. She
ain't a bit like these town-women; you _can_ sorter get at them, for
they are on the carpet, and they don't make no beans about it. But this
un has a way of making you watch every step you take and every word you
speak. I've been in the habit of having women folks listen to all I
say, and laugh hearty now and then, but this un has her eyes on
everything that is passing, and seems to me to laugh at the wrong time,
when there ain't the slightest call for amusement. I reckon maybe I'd
have made more progress if we'd been where thar wasn't so much to
attract her attention. I don't know--I'm just guessing. But I'm game to
the backbone, Alf, and I'm in the race. You hear me? I'm in to stay."

"That's the way to talk," Henley agreed. "A woman that ain't hard to win
ain't worth having. These town-gals are after your money; it is my
opinion that this one will have to like you a powerful lot before she
gives up her freedom."

"She's as independent as a hog on ice." Long smiled, but not at his
simile. "I hardly knowed what to do when we got to the hotel. I thought
she was accepting my invite, you see, when, lo and behold, at settling
time she drawed out her money and insisted on planking down her part to
a fraction of a cent. I argued as strong as I knowed how agin it, but
nothing would do her but to pay her way. I feel mean about that, Alf.
What would _you_ have done?"

"Why, it's the part of a gentleman to let a lady have her way in _every
single thing_," Henley opined. "If she asks you to get her a drink of
water, she wants it; and if she asks to pay her bill at a hotel, she
wants that; to accuse her of anything else would be prying into her
private matters. If she didn't want to eat at your expense the first day
she was throwed with you--well, that was her business. I think it is
spunky, myself. I reckon you didn't come right out and talk marrying?"
Henley ended with a rather anxious look at his friend.

"No, Alf, I was afraid to--I don't know why, but, as much as I wanted to
ease my mind on the matter, I just couldn't get it out. It seemed to
lodge in my throat; in fact, I was scared half the time. Every time I'd
say a thing, no matter how little, I'd wonder if it injured my case or
not. Alf, I'm a goner--a clean goner. I'll never have a minute's peace
till she's mine. It's going to be slow work. I asked her if I couldn't
drive out to see her next Sunday, but she wouldn't hear to it. She
finally said I could come on the first Sunday of next month to hear a
brag preacher that is billed to appear for the first time on that date.
It's a dern long time to wait, but she's laid down the law, and I'll
have to obey it."

During the drive home Dixie seemed wilfully uncommunicative, and she and
Henley were silent most of the way. As they were on the brow of the hill
overlooking Chester, however, she drew a deep breath and said: "Well,
Alfred, I certainly had a bang-up time. Carrie Wade may make her brags
of how she runs things, but I certainly had a rip-roaring time."

"But," ventured Henley, his eyes on the jostling back of his horse,
"from what Long intimated--at least from what he hinted--it appears that
you and him didn't come to any, that is to say, any _positive_
agreement."

The girl laughed heartily, covering her face with both hands, and bent
downward.

"You men are so silly, Alfred. You want an important thing like that to
be over in a minute, while a woman--a woman naturally would like for it
to last. If that fellow could insure me, in some shape or other, that
he'd keep acting and talking like he did to-day, _after we was married_,
I'd be more interested than I am. But hot-headed ones like him cool down
about as quick as they get het up. As a general thing the marriage altar
seems to rest on a big cake of ice, and overheated couples catch colds
that make 'em sniff the rest of their lives."

"I've been waiting to hear you say how he--what you thought of Long's
looks," stammered the match-maker; "that always seems the main thing
in--in a deal o' this sort."

"Well," she chuckled, "I'm better at making rag-dolls than men, but if
men-making was my trade I think I could have turned out a better job
than Long. Folks say that to be wide betwixt the eyes shows sense. That
may be so up to certain limits, but I'm afraid his are entirely too far
apart. Why, when you set close to him you can't see both of 'em at the
same time; you have to look first at one and then at the other. I tried
to get around the trouble by looking at his nose, but that seemed to be
crooked and awful flat. I didn't like them long hairs on his hands; his
forefathers must have lived in a cold climate."

"The hairs don't mean nothing." Henley was amused, in spite of his
loyalty to his friend. "A heap of men are that way."

"You ain't." Dixie glanced at the rather slender hands of her companion,
and then lifted her eyes to his face slowly and studiously. "You haven't
got a big chunk of a head, either, and flopping, fuzzy ears, and, above
all, Alfred, you ain't dead stuck on yourself. If I marry that man it
will be after I've taken him down several pegs. His vanity fairly leaks
out of him and stands in a puddle at his feet. Well, that don't matter.
When he comes to take me to meeting it will be the talk of the entire
community. Carrie Wade will laugh on the other side of her face. I would
have let him come earlier, but I want to take plenty of time to make me
a dandy dress and get me a new hat. I'm going to cut a wide swath.
That's to be my one big day of triumph and getting even."



CHAPTER XX


It was after nightfall when Henley put Dixie down at the cottage and
drove around to his barn. In the stable doorway lurked a shadow of
uncertain shape and quite motionless. It turned out to be the form of
Jason Wrinkle. The pipe in his mouth glowed like a speeding firefly as
he stepped down to the buggy.

"Hello! Well," he muttered, with a low, significant laugh, "you've come
back--reports notwithstanding to the contrary, female, legal, or
otherwise."

"Yes, I'm back," Henley said, rather curtly. "Anything strange about
it?"

"Well, I was just wonderin'. Huh, in this day and time of new-fangled
ways and doin's a body never knows what will happen. You'll certainly
never know if you listen to talk." Wrinkle peered into the face of his
stepson-in-law quite studiously for a moment, and with no little
irritation Henley unfastened the hamestring with a downward jerk and
began to remove the harness.

"What's the matter with you, anyway?" he asked. "Are you up to another
one of your infernal jokes?"

"No, I hain't," Wrinkle puffed. "That one about the baby was my last
one--on you, anyway. You took it like some old, peevish man, and sulked
and looked crooked for a week. I've tried to study out just how that
happened to go agin the grain so mighty awful, but I'm up agin a snag.
No, Alf, you make the bread-and-butter for this shebang, and you work
better when you hain't plagued. This time I come as a friend, and maybe
adviser--I don't know, it is all owin' to how you'll feel about it. For
all I know to the contrary, you may be as innocent as snow that hain't
been walked on, and, if you _are_, you ought to know what is going on
behind your back."

"Behind my back?" Henley jerked the words from him as he tossed the
harness into the buggy and allowed his horse to find his stall unguided.
"Well, what's going on behind my back?"

Wrinkle sucked audibly at the stem of his pipe before he delivered
himself into the eager expectancy that was massed between him and his
companion. "Alf," he began, finally, "you've dealt with humanity, in one
shape and another, enough to know that this is a sort of hide-bound
community, and, well, you driv' off this mornin' with a good-lookin'
young woman, didn't you?"

"Of course I did!" Henley retorted. "What of that?"

"You went toward Carlton, didn't you?"

"I went _to_ Carlton," Henley answered, restraining an outburst with
difficulty. "I took Miss Dixie over on--on business. It was transacted,
and--"

"You didn't tell Hettie whar you was bound for?"

"I didn't, because I didn't think it made any difference. She's never
interested in what I do or where I go, and there was no reason for
telling her."

"Maybe not--maybe not," Wrinkle answered, aimlessly, "but it wouldn't
'a' done yore case any harm if you had sorter tetched on it before
startin' out. You see, Carrie Wade sa'ntered over about eleven o'clock.
She hain't been a constant visitor at our house, and as she had a kind
o' fidgety walk on her, an' a curious dazzle in her eyes, I knowed she
hadn't come to see the pattern of the new quilt as she claimed, and so,
bein' a friend of yourn, I set down at the window and listened,
wonderin' when she'd quit her eternal preamble an' git down to business.
Purty soon I knowed land was in sight, for she said, like she was in a
sort of a dream, for she wasn't lookin' at anybody in particular--she
said: 'I seed Dixie Hart an' Alfred drivin' off this mornin'. They was
headed fer Saunder's Spring, at the foot o' the mountain. She had on her
best duds (which ain't sayin' much)'--them was Carrie's words, not
mine--'an' a whoppin' big picnic basket full o' good things. That girl
will do to watch, Mrs. Henley. As they passed our house the reins was
lyin' loose in the buggy, an' Dixie was leanin' agin Alfred like a sick
kitten to a hot brick.' It was the fust Hettie had heard of the
scrape--the trip, I mean--and I thought she'd flare up, or wilt, or
some'n or other, but she was on the job as quick as a flash. On my soul,
I don't believe old Het so much as batted her eye, though the revelation
must have been as sudden as a mule-kick in the ribs. She give the quilt
she was showin' a pull agin the frame like she wanted to straighten out
the stitches, an' said, 'Yes, Alf give 'er a lift over to Carlton. I'm
awfully glad he had company.' And on that she axed Carrie how her Ma's
sore foot was, an' recommended Dr. Stone's hoss liniment, an' cited a
good many cases where cures to both man an' beast had been made at a
small outlay.

"But Carrie Wade wasn't thar to l'arn how to doctor sore feet. She
leaned back in her chair and laffed; you could 'a' heard her this far if
you'd 'a' been here an' the pig was asleep. She riz and went and slapped
Hettie on the back and said:

'You watch my words, Mrs. Henley, thar's goin' to be talk, an' lots of
it. Dixie Hart has got tired o' bein' out o' the ring of young folks,
an' is bent on gittin' attention by fair means or foul. Alf's
good-lookin', plenty young, an' she's deliberately cuttin' her eyes at
'im. I've heard she goes to the store when she don't need a thing, an'
that they sa'nter home together through the woods.'"

"The trifling hussy!" Henley muttered, angrily. "I thought she was a
meddlesome busybody, and now I know it."

"Well, you know Hettie don't smile more 'n once a year," Wrinkle
tittered, "but this was her anniversary. She was actually one broad grin
from ear to ear."

"'I wish somebody _would_ stir Alf up a little bit,' she said. 'He's
entirely too poky. Carrie, that man is the slowest stick that ever
lived. I wish some pretty, dashin' gal like Dixie Hart _would_ flirt
with him good and hard. If you wasn't so old I'd git _you_ to do it. My
first husband was different; he was a great ladies' man. That is the
only thing that will make married life bearable. A dead certainty in
love-matters is killin.'"

"Good!" Henley chuckled. "Hettie saw through her, and headed her off in
fine style."

"Well, 'out of the heart the mouth speaketh,'" quoted Jason. "And the
truth is, Alf, I railly don't think Hettie would care a hill o' beans if
you _did_ sort o' prove that you was up to snuff. You ort to profit by
what's gone before in matrimony as you have in tradin' amongst men.
Dick, when all is said an' done, was her maiden choice, an' if thar ever
was a woman roustabout, a feller that had a bow and a scrape for every
pair o' bright eyes that come his way, that feller was Dick Wrinkle. He
kept Hettie in hot water, and I don't know but what the cold bath you've
giv' 'er has sort o' gone agin her constitution. She's a critter that
likes what she can't git better 'n what lies right at hand wigglin' to
attract attention. No, you needn't be afeard of any family row. The
truth is, I think Hettie is some better pleased than she has been for a
long time. I reckon she's beginnin' to feel a sort o' pride in you. It
ain't from her that you'll have trouble, but from Carrie Wade."

"Trouble, how?" Henley asked, impatiently, as he was turning toward the
lights in the farm-house.

"Why, from her clatterin' tongue. If she'll talk like that to us, you
know she will about town, and it takes a powerful small spark to set a
haystack of scandal afire. Folks think Hettie has driv' you pretty far,
anyway, with her odd, graveyard notions, and it wouldn't take much
to--to start a ugly report."

Henley furiously tore himself from the old gossip and went into the
house. As he paused at the water-shelf and filled a basin to wash the
dust of his drive from his face and hands, he saw his wife moving about
in the dimly lighted kitchen, and was struck by her easy and obviously
gratified bearing. He was drying his hands on a towel which hung from a
roller on the wall when Mrs. Wrinkle came out and suddenly faced him.
She caught her breath, stared in surprise for a moment, then turned into
the kitchen. Henley saw her clutch his wife's sleeve and give it a
warning pull. She meant to speak in an undertone, but her piping voice
slipped a cog and Henley heard her say:

"They didn't run off; he's back! He's out thar wash--"

"Sh!" came from Mrs. Henley's lips. "Be quiet; you don't know what you
are talking about."

"Why, Carrie Wade said him an' Dixie Hart had 'loped away, an'--"

"Didn't I tell you to hush?" Mrs. Henley commanded, in a guarded tone.
"You go set down and be quiet for once in your life. You've said enough
about this thing."

Henley saw the old woman stand staring blankly for a moment, and then
she came back to him in the half-darkness and stood mutely eying him
from beneath the black poke-bonnet. Leaving her, he went into the
dining-room, where a lamp was shedding yellow rays over the meal his
wife had ready for him. He sat down in his accustomed place, and Mrs.
Henley promptly brought his coffee.

"It must have been powerful hot on the Carlton road," she said. "We
mighty nigh melted here in the shade with every window and door wide
open."

"It wasn't so much hotter than common." He put sugar into his coffee,
and slowly stirred it. "I reckon moving at a brisk pace through the air
keeps you from feeling heat as much as you would if you was setting
still. We didn't start back till toward sundown."

"They had some sort of a celebration over there, didn't they?" Mrs.
Henley reached over and pushed the biscuits nearer to his plate.

"Yes, but it didn't amount to much."

"I reckon Dixie liked it. The poor girl hain't been away often."

"I think she did," Henley said. "Anyways, she acted that way all
through. She had a tiptop seat in my buggy, where she could catch first
sight of everything that happened, and she took it all in, every speck
of it, even a good dinner at the hotel."

"Oh, I see." Mrs. Henley's brow was furrowed in perplexity. She left the
room and returned in a moment with a bowl in her thin hands. "Here is
some fresh apple-butter; it's right from the spring. You can put rich
milk on it; there's plenty just from the cow."

The wrinkle remained on her brow while he helped himself liberally. She
stood and studied his profile from the lighted side. The best reader of
her facial expression in the family, had he been a witness, and he
doubtless was, as the windows were open, would have found much to rivet
his attention in the unwonted solidity of her features. Henley ate
silently for several minutes before she spoke again. Then she cleared
her voice, drew herself up more erectly, and said:

"You say Dixie set in the buggy all the time? Why, I had an idea from
something Pa dropped that she went over there to attend to some
er--business or other."

"Well, a body _might_ attend to business setting in a buggy," he said,
ambiguously and he put a spoonful of apple-butter into a broad smile and
swallowed both as he looked at her with twinkling eyes.

The furrows deepened on the austere brow of the woman, and she drew her
under lip inward and pressed it between her teeth.

"I don't know exactly what you mean," she said, presently. "I supposed
she had things to buy for her farm, or--"

Henley laughed. "I may as well tell you the secret, Hettie. You ain't
any hand to gad about and talk, and I know it will be safe with you. The
truth, is I'm a match-maker. You've heard me speak of Jasper Long? Well,
he's dying to get married, and I've been a sort o' go-between with him
and Dixie. He wanted to meet her, and I took her over, and--"

"Oh!" The furrows were gone, the colorless face lighted up from within.
"I understand now." She walked round the table and leaned over the
dishes toward him and laughed. "Alfred," she tittered, "you certainly
are the most goody-goody old poke of a stick that ever wore man's
clothes, and you are blind, blind as a day-old kitten. You know men, all
grades and styles of 'em, but you are a born fool when it comes to
women. When that girl marries Jasper Long--I say, when Dixie Hart takes
him, let me know, will you?" and she turned from the room, leaving him
more than convinced that he didn't understand women, and certain that he
never should try to do so again.



CHAPTER XXI


One morning, in the early part of the following week, as Henley sat
working at his desk in the store, and Pomp and Cahews were busy
attending three or four elderly women in front, he became conscious that
some one was speaking in loud, angry tones near the door. And, rising,
that he might look over a stack of soap-boxes which obstructed his view,
he saw that a dispute of some sort was taking place between Cahews and
Hank Bradley over some cigars that the latter had failed to pay for on a
former occasion. Bradley was evidently under the influence of liquor,
and he began to swear loudly and threateningly. The women dropped the
purchases they were making and shrank back farther into the store.

With a flush of anger over the insult to his house and customers, Henley
strode hotly forward and thrust himself between the disputants.

"We'll talk about the account some other time," he said, glaring into
Bradley's face. "But right now you get out of this house. You sha'n't
stand here spouting vile oaths before these ladies."

"What have _you_ got to do with it?" Bradley flared up in his turn, and
he whipped his hand back toward his pistol-pocket, only to discover that
he was not armed, as he evidently thought he was. However, he kept his
hand behind him in a threatening attitude.

"I'll show you what I've got to do with it if you open your dirty jaws
like that again!" Henley said, fearlessly. "You dare to draw a gun on me
and I'll make you swallow your own teeth. Now, you get out of here!"
And, taking him by the arm in a grip of steel, Henley drew him hurriedly
to the door and shoved him down the steps.

"This ain't the end of it," Bradley threw back furiously. "You bet it
ain't."

"It'll be the end o' _you_ if you fool with me!" Henley retorted, and he
turned back into the store and resumed his seat at his desk. He had not
been there long when one of the women finished her purchases and, with
some parcels under her arm, came back and stood timidly by his desk. It
was Mrs. Cartwright, the old widow whose son Johnny was so devoted to
Carrie Wade. She was short in stature, had iron-gray hair, was slight
and stooped, and wore a plain gingham dress and a sunbonnet of the same
material.

"It was powerful good of you, Alfred, to do what you did jest now," she
said, timidly, as he looked up. "It was like the old-time way men had
when I was a girl of takin' up for women. I always heard you was good
and kind, and now I know it. A man kin do a lot o' things that women
will appreciate, but I'll risk my all that every woman in that bunch
down thar will go home wishin' that her husband or brother had done what
you did an' in the same sperit. Women love, above all things, to be
protected by manly men."

"Well," said Henley, his flush of anger giving way to one of genuine
embarrassment, "he was upsetting business, Mrs. Cartwright. I hated
to--to git mad that way, but he was running my trade away, and that's a
thing I won't let no man do right under my eyes. Set down an' rest, Mrs.
Cartwright; you don't look overly stout."

The woman took the chair near his desk, and he heard her sigh as she
massed her parcels in her lap with her thin, quivering hands.

"I reckon I don't look well," she said, seeing that his kindly eyes were
still on her. "They say worry will kill a body quicker 'n anything else,
and, Alfred, I'm worried mighty nigh to death. I don't know which way to
turn or what to do. It is all about my youngest child, Johnny. He's took
a quar notion to marry Carrie Wade."

"I see, I see," Henley said, sympathetically; "and that's bad. Why, he's
hardly out o' the spelling-book class, and hain't a sign of fuzz on his
lip. The last time he was in here I know the crowd was teasing him
because his voice was in the gosling stage. It had sech a funny way of
wobbling about from bass to treble."

"But he thinks he's full grown," the woman sighed, "and won't listen to
reason. He keeps declarin' he's older than the way it's recorded in the
Bible. This last trouble begun at the Sunday-school Christmas-tree, when
Carrie put on an embroidered handkerchief for him. That turned his head,
and he hain't hardly let her out of his sight sence. He growed from
child to man betwixt two suns."

"They'll do that sometimes," Henley said. "It is surely an odd sort of
attachment. She is plenty old to have nursed him. I wouldn't be afraid
to say that she was cutting her eyes at men when he was cutting his
teeth. Thinking of that ud make some fellers ashamed to act that way,
but as apt as not Johnny don't let himself study about it. Somehow I can
excuse it better in the boy than in her, because she's old enough to
know better."

The old woman nodded and sighed again. "Alfred, sometimes I think I've
had more put on me than my share in this world. I've had three sons
besides this un, and every last one of 'em give me trouble along at
Johnny's age."

"And about women older 'n they was, too, I've heard," Henley said.

"Yes, it looks like it runs in the blood--not in mine, thank the Lord!
for I wish nary woman had ever been made; yes, all of my boys no sooner
got out o' frocks than they made a dead-run for the first old maid in
sight, and marry they would in spite of all possessed."

"And not one got hitched up exactly right," said Henley.

"Not one, Alfred. The two oldest stuck to their hot-headed agreement
long enough to feel sort o' tied down, and they went clean off an' left
their wives high and dry. Jim is still living with his'n, but I cry my
eyes out every time I see the pore fellow. Looks like he hain't got a
thing to live for. When a man leaves his own fireside and comes and sets
around his mammy's house like Jim does, he hain't got no paradise under
his own roof. Ef he'd 'a' had children it mought 'a' been different. I
did think I could show Johnny the mistakes of his brothers and make him
act different. I've talked it to him sence he was old enough to know
right from wrong, but you see how little weight it had."

"Why don't you go to headquarters and call a halt?" Henley's indignation
was rising.

"You mean to Carrie? Well, I did, but somehow she manages to git around
the question. She jest looks kind o' 'shamed and keeps wanting to talk
about other things. I ought to be sorry for her, desperate as she is for
attention, but I hain't. She's a tattle-tale and scandalmonger. She
never got over losin' that young preacher that Dixie Hart cut her out
of, and she spends all her time hammerin' at that pore girl, who is good
and decent and noble, if thar ever was sech a thing. Just here lately,
because you seed fit to take Dixie with you over to Carlton--"

"Oh, I know--I know." Henley's face grew darker, and he clinched his
hand. "I can't think of her bell-clapper tongue without gettin' mad, and
I don't like to be that way with a woman. What does Johnny say?"

"Oh, he talks as big as a railroad president; he talks jest the same
foolishness as his brothers did; _he's_ doin' the marryin'--nobody else
has a'thing to do with it. That's what hurts. If I could jest git the
pore, simple boy out of her clutches for a month I believe I could open
his eyes, but I am afraid at the slightest move they will run off and
git married. Sometimes I try to be resigned and argue to myself that
maybe him and her could git along together, but when I see my pore
baby-boy with that powdered and painted thing out in public I mighty
nigh die with mortification."

"We must simply bust it up, Mrs. Cartwright," Henley said, firmly.
"That's all there is about it. We must checkmate 'em. Let me study over
it. I'll help if I can."

"I wish you would," the woman said, anxiously. "There he is now in the
front-door. I'll slip out the side way; he mought suspicion I was
talkin' about him."

A moment after her departure Johnny Cartwright came back to the desk.
"Jim said Ma was here," he said, glancing around the room.

"She was, Johnny, boy," Henley said, patronizingly, "but she went home.
Ah, ha! I saw you with Carrie Wade the other day--at least it had her
look."

"Yes, it was her." A flush of pride rose and spread itself over the
boyish face. "I was taking her home from Mrs. Spriggs's quilting."

"I'd bet a hat I know what you wanted to see her about," Henley said,
his hand over his facile mouth. "Some of these old bachelors, or
widowers with a gang of children to take care of, sent you with some
invite or other. When I was a little chap like you I used to pick up a
lot o' odd dimes in taking notes to the gals. About ten years from now
you'll be spending _your_ money that way. You must hear a lot o' funny
things if you see much o' Carrie. I'd give a pretty to be near her when
she got word from some man or other. She's waited a long time, Johnny. I
reckon a proposal at this late day would tickle her to death."

"I don't tote notes for nobody." The boy was white about the lips, and
looking as if he hardly knew whether to be angry or not.

"Well, I reckon you wouldn't to Carrie," Henley said. "I hardly reckon
anybody has her in mind, now. You know she's been a drug on the market a
long time. I wonder if she ever told you about that tin-peddler? It was
away back, I reckon, when you was playing with your rattler. Carrie and
the peddler had up an awful case--they was going to get married, and
open up a tin-shop at Carlton, but a man come along and said the peddler
already had a wife or two to his credit, and the skunk changed his
route. Lawsy me! how Carrie did take on! We heard her yelling like a
knife was sticking in her clean to the sorgum-mill."

"It's a lie! I don't believe a word of it," the boy cried, his face
aflame with fury. "She told me she never had a sweetheart in her
life--that she hated men."

"She's had good cause," answered Henley. "A woman that don't get a speck
of attention will hate anything. I reckon she's passed the line, and
nobody will marry her."

"She's going to marry _me_," the boy blurted out, leaning over and
striking the desk with his fist, as if to emphasize his words, "and when
she's my wife I'll call and make you settle for what you've said.
Remember that, sir." And he turned and strode angrily from the store.

"I hated to say it," Henley mused, "but I was doing it for the lasting
good of all concerned. It won't do--it simply won't do. That meddlesome
old maid simply shall not ruin that boy's life and break his old mammy's
heart. I wonder--" He sat staring at the floor for several minutes, and
then a smile disturbed the stern lines of his face. "It might work--by
gum, I'll try it, anyway!"

Glancing down to the front, he saw that Cahews was disengaged and seated
on the end of a counter swinging his long legs to and fro. Henley went
to him.

"Say, Jim, Johnny Cartwright and Carrie Wade is driving his mammy mighty
nigh distracted with their doings. I don't know when I've ever been so
sorry for an old person. I wonder if me and you couldn't put our heads
together and--and sort o' bust it up."

"Well, I don't know, Alf--you are a better schemer than I am. I'm
willin' to help, but I can't git up nothing. If the boy was mine I'd
give 'im a good spankin' in public, and maybe that ud shame Carrie into
behavin' herself."

"If I could get you to help I think I could work a change in the thing,
anyway," Henley said, persuasively.

"Me, Alf?"

"Yes, it's just this way, Jim, with a woman of that brand and vintage,"
Henley pursued. "You see, she's gone without the right sort of attention
so long that she's kind o' lost respect for herself. Jim, you are the
leading young man in Chester, not yet married, and considered a fine
catch. I don't know how it will strike you, but you could really do a
good turn all round if you'd just pay Carrie a little attention. Take
her in your new top buggy to camp-meeting next Sunday."

"Me? Oh, Lord!"

"I don't mean for you to _marry_ her," Henley went on, smoothly. "But if
I'm any judge of women, I think when a man of your stripe drives out in
public with her she'll simply look up again, and, by gum, I believe
she'll look clean over that boy's head. I'm asking you to take part in a
good deed, Jim."

"I see--I understand pine-blank what you mean, but, Alf, I'm not the man
for the job. You'll understand my fix if you'll just study a minute.
You know how it is between me and Julia Hardcastle. I'll never marry no
other woman as long as the sun shines. She hain't never said the word,
nor she hain't plumb pitched me out, either, but she makes me walk a
chalk-line. Why, if she was to see me out with Carrie Wade I'd never
hear the end of it."

"Julia's going to the camp-meeting, ain't she?" Henley asked, cutting a
significant glance at his clerk.

"Yes, she's going with Sam Willis, that Atlanta shoe-drummer. She don't
care for him, mind you, Alf, but she likes to have fellows of that sort
hanging on. She don't seem half as particular about who she goes with as
the company I keep. She's got me where the wool is short, Alf. I
wouldn't rub her the wrong way for the world. I hope to get her some
day, but I'll have to wait till she gits tired of dashing around."

Henley was looking straight into his clerk's face, a smile twinkling in
his kindly eyes. "You are not working that girl right, Jim," he said,
decidedly. "She'd have been yours long ago if you'd had more
independence. If you keep up that sort of a lick she'll waltz off with
some bold and daring chap one of these days and give you the merry
ha-ha. The truth is, she wants you, but she wants you to be more of a
man. You've tried your sort of way long enough, now switch off and try
mine just for one single day, anyway, and see if I ain't right. Solomon
himself--and he was the greatest masher in the Bible--even he couldn't
win a woman by letting her have her own way. A woman thinks a man is a
sissy that gives in to her every whim. You just take Carrie Wade to
meeting like any other free-born American citizen has a right to do, and
Julia Hardcastle will set up and take notice, and she'll think a sight
more of you--that is, if you don't knuckle under and beg her pardon the
minute she mentions it to you."

Cahews's jaw was really a massive member, and it looked as solid as
stone when he finally answered, which he did when he had stood down on
the floor and walked to and fro for a moment in deep and turbulent
thought.

"She nor no other woman could make me knuckle if I didn't want to," he
said, pausing and resting a steady hand on the shoulder of his employer.
"I've been giving in all along, but I'm tired, dang tired. Here she's
going with that town-dude Sunday and expects me to drive out there by
myself and enjoy the sight from afar. Derned if I don't believe, as you
say, that I've been giving that girl too much rein and floundering about
too much in the dust at her feet. Alf, I'll write a note to Carrie this
minute, and I'll give the old girl a good time if I know how."

"Well, you go back to the desk and write the note," said Henley. "Mark
my words, I'll bet, if you hold a stiff lip all through, you'll
accomplish in a day what you haven't in all these years."



CHAPTER XXII


The next day, as Henley was walking home in the dusk and was passing
Mrs. Cartwright's cottage, she saw him and hastened out to the fence.
She was in a flutter of excitement, rubbing her thin hands together in
vast satisfaction.

"Alfred," she began, "I want to tell you what's happened. I'm so excited
I'm as limber as a dish-rag. Jim Cahews sent a note over by your nigger
yesterday to Carrie Wade invitin' her to drive to the campground with
him Sunday."

"Oh, Jim's going to take _her_?" said Henley, his eyes twinkling. "He's
a sly dog about his doings, and don't tell me all he does."

"That hain't the main thing, Alfred." The old woman raised her hands to
her face and laughed immoderately. "Pomp had no sooner gone off with the
answer and a big bunch of roses Carrie gathered and sent with it, when
she run over to tell me about it and to borrow my cape. She 'lowed it
mought be cool drivin' back behind sech a fast hoss as Jim's new one,
an' she didn't have a thing heavy enough to throw over her shoulders.
Johnny was a-settin' in the corner of the kitchen unbeknownst to her,
and heard all she said. An', la me, what you reckon he done? He up an'
laid down law an' gospel right on the spot, bless you! Jim Cahews wasn't
goin' a step with 'er. Johnny could afford to hire a livery-stable team
if he had to borrow the money, an' _he_ was goin' to take 'er."

"That was a corker, wasn't it?" Henley exclaimed, with a pleased laugh.
"What did Carrie say to that?"

"Looked like she hardly knowed what _to_ say," was the old woman's
reply. "Him an' her stood starin' smack dab at each other fer a minute,
and then--just think of it!--she begun to beg the boy not to interfere
with her doin's, and pleaded an' wheedled an' went on at a powerful
rate. But Johnny stood as firm as the rock o' Gibralty, an' told 'er, he
did, that his plighted wife jest shouldn't run about an' disgrace 'em
right on the eve of marriage, and said a lot about folks walkin' over
dead bodies an' swimmin' rivers o' blood, an' the like. Well, all that
finally made Carrie mad, an' she told 'im he was jest a boy, an' that
she had never meant to marry 'im, nohow. An' while he stood gaspin' fer
breath she lit in to beggin' him not to tell nobody about the'r little
flirtation. She said folks would think it was silly of her, an' if Jim
Cahews meant business, which it looked like he did, a tale like that
might sp'ile her chances."

"Huh," grunted Henley, "she was getting down to bedrock, wasn't she?"

"Well, I don't blame 'er," said the widow, charitably. "Many a good,
married woman wouldn't want all her girlish pranks to reach the ear of
the man she finally settled down with, an' I reckon Jim Cahews wants
'er. They say he's tired chasin' after Julia Hardcastle, an' Carrie may
suit. Johnny tuck it awful hard. After she went home he come an' laid
his head in my lap an' sobbed out good an' strong. I was never tickled
by grief of a child o' mine before; but even while my eyes an' throat
was full, a laugh would rise in me that I couldn't hold in. But he
didn't catch on--he 'lowed I was cryin', too. After a while he set up
an' wiped his eyes. 'I reckon,' said he, 'that I've been the fool
everybody said I was, but I'm goin' to let women alone till I'm old
enough to understand 'em.'"

"He'll let 'em alone a long time, then," said Henley, with a dry smile,
as he turned away.

The following Monday morning Henley found Cahews busy in the front part
of the store cleaning up and putting things straight on the shelves. As
soon as he saw his employer, Jim walked from behind the counter and
extended his hand: "Put it right there, Alf, an' give it a good, tight
shake," he grinned. "Richard is hisself at last. It's been an awful
up-hill fight, but I'm there--gee whiz! I'm there, an' don't you forget
it."

"So you really like Carrie? Well, I thought maybe you and her--"

"Carrie, hell! It's the other--damn it! Huh! you may think you know
some'n about women, but don't I? I was a long time learning how to turn
the trick, but I'm an expert now. I had the time of my life. It was a
clean walk-over from start to finish. I had the bit in my teeth, an' I
went ahead like the woods afire. I driv' around to Carrie's house,
dressed to kill. I had on my plug-hat, silk vest, light-gray pants,
dark-blue coat, and my new patent-leather shoes. I put the old gal in by
me an' away we shot. I saw that drummer and Julia ahead on a straight
piece of road plodding along like they was hauling a load of wood to
town, and I chirped to my Kentucky blue-blood, and, with Carrie's
ribbons flying in the wind like the flags of a war-ship, we passed like
a cannon-ball, leaving 'em in a cloud of dust as thick as a Texas
sand-storm. And the funniest part was that I didn't, somehow, care a
dern. I was on a new basis, an' believed in it."

"Well, you know I advised--" Henley began, but the eager clerk broke in:

"Yes, that was it; you started me on my new line, and it was the act of
a friend. It was that advice that saved me. But I reckon it was the
sight of that sap-headed idiot with my girl that did most of it. Well,
to come to the end, as soon as Julia and her dude got to the campground
she lit out of his buggy and made a bee-line to whar me and Carrie was
setting under the trees waiting for the first hymn. She stopped right
square in front of me as mad as a wet hen.

"'What did you mean by throwing dust on us?' she asked, as red as a
beet, her eyes flashing sparks. Right then I felt just a little
inclination to take back water, but I remembered, our talk t'other day,
and told myself it was now or never, and that the worm had turned over a
new leaf. Carrie had dropped her handkerchief, an' I sprung up and put
it back in her lap with a bow, taking a grip on myself while in the act.
Then I looked Julia in the eyes and said:

"'I couldn't hold my hoss in, Miss Julia; he's a high-stepper, and it
makes 'im hopping mad to see common stock ahead of 'im. The only thing
to do was to let 'im pass everything in sight.'

"She stared at me like she thought I'd lost my senses, and then she
said, 'Well, you ought to apologize; any gentleman would after covering
a lady with dust from a dirty road.'

"'But it wasn't my fault,' I told her, with a grin. 'It is my hoss's
fault. If anybody apologizes it ought to be him, and he can't talk half
as good as he can trot.' Gee whiz, but wasn't she mad? She was splotched
with red and white all over, and the purtiest thing, Alf, that you ever
laid eyes on. She whirled away and went back to her drummer. He had put
the buggy-seat under a tree in sight of where me an' Carrie sat, and,
knowing she was looking, I laid myself out to be pleasant to my partner.
I had to pass by Julia and her dude to get to the spring, and I fetched
water for Carrie every hour in the day, and always went whistling a jig.
At twelve o'clock some of the folks along with Julia come over and
invited me and Carrie to dump our basket in with theirs and all eat
together, but me and Carrie refused, and had ourn on a grassy slant in
plain sight of the rest. It was the first frolic I'd ever had with
Julia, and I shore did like it. I dunno, but I reckon it was the way she
acted that made me keep it up. Then, after dinner, when Carrie went to
Mrs. Wilson's tent to rest up a little, Julia saw me smoking at the
spring, and come straight to me. She had a sort o' give-in look, and yet
was proud and cold.

"'I want to know,' said she, 'what you mean by fetching that old maid
out here.'

"'I don't know as she's so almighty old,' said I, as independent as a
wood-sawyer, and yet scared half out o' my mind. 'I don't know but what
it is a sort of comfort to go with women old enough to be sensible once
in a while.'

"That made her madder'n ever, but, you see, I was making her come to me
with complaints, and that had never happened before. She stood punching
at the ground with her blue parasol and looking every now and then
toward Mrs. Wilson's tent like she was afraid Carrie would come. Then
all at once I saw that her pretty lips was quivering. I was dying to
grab her, Alf, and confess the whole dang trick, but I remembered your
talk and helt out.

"'I see,' said she, with a sigh, 'you don't mean what you've been saying
to me all this time.'

"I looked her straight in the eyes, Alf, and let 'er have it right from
the shoulder good and fast. 'I tell you, Julia,' said I, 'I'm a marrying
man. I'm tired of living alone in the back end of a store with just a
house-cat for company, while men no better are toasting their shins at a
cheerful family fire. I'm tired of fooling. Carrie may not have as many
dudes at her beck and call as some I know, but she knows what she wants
in the man-line and won't take all eternity to decide.'

"'Oh, you are cruel! You are heartless!' Julia said, and then she
busted out crying. Then, before we knowed it, me and her was walking in
the woods, 'long a narrow, shady road. She said, Alf, that she'd loved
me good and true all along and wanted to quit everything that was
foolish and settle down. We are going to be married Christmas, and, Alf,
I'm so happy I could holler at the top of my voice. If I don't sell
goods to-day there won't be a customer in forty miles of the store."

Henley nodded slowly. "The thing worked," he said, "and I'm glad. The
only thing I hate about it is that we had to fool that poor woman to do
it. But Carrie was acting wrong with that boy. I had to do it to save
him and his old mammy. We must make it up to Carrie some way. We'll find
her a husband if we have to advertise in the papers and put up cash
inducements. She's got a mischievous tongue and lots of malice, but hard
luck fetched 'em on her."

"Alf, you are a good chap," Cahews said, with emotion. "I know well
enough you ain't any too happy at home--a blind man could see that--and
yet you are always trying to help others."

Henley's kindly eyes wavered as they rested on those of his friend. "My
wife is doing the best she can, too, Jim. I don't blame her. In fact, I
blame myself. When that fellow went off and died I ought to have left
her alone with her grief, but I was blinded by the desire to have what
I'd tried so long to win. I reckon I took an unfair advantage of her at
a time when she wasn't in a mood to fight off anything. Now, let's get
to work. I've got lots to do."



CHAPTER XXIII


As was his custom on Sunday mornings, Henley accompanied his wife and
the Wrinkles to church service in Chester on the day Long was expected
to pay his visit to Dixie. Henley and the old man fell in leisurely
behind the two women. The day was fine, being one of those rare June
days which had the moderate temperature of spring.

As they came within sight of Dixie Hart's cottage, Henley noticed a
sleek pair of horses and a stylish trap held by a negro boy at the gate,
and knew that the girl's suitor had arrived. He fancied that the couple
might pass him on his way to church, and in his mind's eye he saw
himself waving a cordial salutation to them. It was not, however, until
the church was reached and he had conducted his party to their usual
seats that Dixie and her escort arrived. Accustomed as the congregation
was to direct its attention to the door as much as the pulpit, at least
before the services began, all eyes were turned thither when a sudden
commotion at the front showed that something of an unusual nature had
occurred. The fact was that Long's driver, being unfamiliar with the
ways of a place much smaller than his own town, had driven the prancing,
snorting pair close to the door in the effort to land his passengers on
the steps, and his loud, "Woah dar, blast yo' skins!" rang clearly
through the resonant building. As it was, the coming of a bridal pair
themselves could not have attracted more attention. Every pivotal head
turned on its axis; even the visiting parson, with the huge Bible on his
thin knees, half rose that he might peer over the pulpit behind which he
sat.

Dixie, in her new gown and new hat, was the very embodiment of easy
self-possession as she piloted her escort to a seat in the middle of the
room. Long, red and perspiring, and rigged out in all the splendor of
the haberdasher's art, even to boots that screamed in pain, had the air
of a social laborer who was worthy of his hire. As soon as he was seated
he reached for Dixie's fan and began waving it to and fro with the
conscientious regularity of a pendulum, thereby increasing his warmth
and not lessening Dixie's.

Sheer astonishment clutched all observers. The women bent their necks
and stared, and the men winked at one another comically.

Suddenly Henley noticed that Carrie Wade was immediately behind him, and
he felt a sharp twinge of conscience over the wan and desperate
expression of her face. She had seen, and was staring down into her lap
and slowly twirling her bloodless fingers. She had heard of Jim Cahews's
engagement and knew that her transient hopes in that direction were
groundless; and now this--this of all things--to see her hated rival in
such a coveted position in the view of all before whom she had been so
systematically maligned.

But Henley's mind refused to be riveted to Carrie's discomfiture. For
the first time he was seeing his friend Long through new glasses. He
was, indeed, as Dixie had hinted, a rather uncouth individual, and this
fault was not lessened by his flashy attire and juxtaposition to so much
innate refinement in the person of his companion.

After the service, as they were leaving the church, Henley saw that
three-fourths of the congregation, at least, had deliberately paused
outside, and were watching the Carlton man assist his partner into the
shining trap. They stood as if transfixed, and regarded the pair till
they had disappeared down the road in the direction of Dixie's home.

That morning before sunrise old Wrinkle had gone to his watermelon-patch
and plucked a ripe melon. He had put it in the spring-house to keep it
cool, and during the afternoon he served it to the family on the
back-porch. Henley had enjoyed it with the others, and was idly
sauntering about the front-yard when he saw Long leave the Hart cottage
and start back to Carlton. Seeing Henley, he told the driver to stop,
and sprang down to the ground and came to the fence.

"Well, what progress?" Henley asked. "I saw you at meeting this
morning."

"Well, I hardly know yet, Alf." Long clutched one of the palings of the
fence with his gloved hand and swung back from it and took a deep
breath. "I hardly know what to say. I'm tickled to some extent, and then
again I hain't, for I hain't as sure of my ground as I'd like to be.
Alf, she's by all odds the finest bolt of calico I ever tried to
unroll--I say _unroll_, because if she hain't a tight mystery I never
saw one."

"You mean you can't quite make her out?" suggested Henley, with an
eagerness for which he could hardly account.

"That's it; you've hit it the first throw out of the box. It looks to
me, Alf, like she's always going to do something that she never gets to,
and not do what she's sure to do when you ain't expecting it. Now, one
thing I counted on as a sure fact before I come out was that after
dinner at her house me 'n her would walk down to the woods where it was
shady and sort o' stroll about and take in the scenery, but not a peg
would she move, although I hinted at it several times. I like old
women--that is, you know, I respect 'em in their places--but that pair
was too much of a good thing. They set about where me and Miss Dixie was
every spare minute. I've seen gals love their kin, but this un fairly
dotes on hers. Why, one of 'em couldn't git up to get a drink without
Dixie jumpin' and telling her to set still, that she'd get it for her.
I'm as good as the average in knowing how to handle a woman, Alf, but I
don't profess to know how to court one in a crowd. One of these two is
half blind and t'other is lame, but that didn't help me out, for they
didn't let their tongues rest a second. They kept alluding to some chap
or other that was dead. They said they hadn't ever seen him, but kept
talking about his picture and wondering if he looked like me, and how
he'd like it to see me there, and so on. Seemed like the girl wanted to
shut that talk off, for she told 'em several times to be quiet and to
remember what they had promised her."

"Women are all hard to understand." There was a knowing twinkle in
Henley's eyes, which he averted from Long's anxious gaze. "I reckon
Dixie thought you ought to get acquainted with the family if you and her
are to come to any permanent understanding."

"Maybe so," Long agreed, wearily. "But I have enough dealings with old
rag-chawers in my business through the week not to want a Sunday off
when I get with my own sort. But this un is a prize, Alf, and worth any
man's trouble to get her. I'll never forget that dinner if I live to be
a hundred. I had to rise early to get a start from town, and the ride
kind o' whetted my appetite to a sharp edge, so that I was really ready
for anything she wanted to pass; but, geewhilikins! when we all slid our
chairs out into that dining-room, where everything was as white as snow
and shiny as a new dollar, and where green things was stuck about all
around, I begun to know what high living was. And she told me she'd
cooked every dab of it herself. Just think of that, and on top of it
rigged up like she did and went to meeting as fresh and cool as a rose
under dewy leaves! I made up my mind, as I set there and ate all that
good stuff, and saw her at the head of the table fingering things in
such a dainty way, that I'd have her at the head of my table in a fine,
new house, or bust a trace. I'm to come out again next Sunday. In the
mean time I'm going to try to think up some way to choke that old pair
of hens off my roost."

"Oh, they'll let you alone after a while," Henley said. "You see, you
are a novelty right now. You keep on. You wouldn't want a girl that
would throw her arms round your neck on the first visit."

"No, I reckon not," Long agreed, slowly, "and still I don't like the
uncertainty, either. Looks like she's studying me all the time, and
ain't any too well pleased, at that. I don't know; I reckon she's got me
rattled to some extent. I know what I want; I want _her_, and the sooner
I'm easy in my mind the sooner I'll be fit for business." Long glanced
at the sinking sun. "I must be on the move; take care of yourself, Alf,
and pray for me. You've put me on the track of a good thing, and if I
win I'll be yours for life."

The next morning, as Henley was on his way to the village, he saw Dixie
in her peanut-patch on the side of the road. She seemed to be carefully
inspecting the vine-covered mounds in the mellow soil, for he saw her
stoop now and then and lift the vines and peer beneath them. Vaulting
over the fence, he was soon by her side.

"Always at work, rain or shine," he said, lightly, as she glanced up and
smiled a cheery greeting.

"I've hit it right on these goobers, Alfred," she said. "I pulled up a
vine the other day and washed it in the branch. I'm keeping it for the
fair at Carlton. It is a dandy; the goobers on it are as thick as beads
on a strand, and already as big as your thumb. Folks laughed at me for
putting in five acres in this ground, but I knew what I was about. If
they go high this fall, I'll make up for the loss on my wheat and hay."

"From the looks of things yesterday," he said, "it don't seem like
you'll have to bother much more about raising anything."

"I saw you looking at us," she returned, gravely. "In fact, I saw
everybody in the house. It was an awful day, Alfred, and I wouldn't go
through another like it for no sap-headed man that ever walked the
earth. I was up before the break of day, scrubbing, sweeping, baking by
candle-light, and what was it all for--good gracious, what was it for?
For weeks I'd counted on it as a great event, just to feel, down in my
heart when it was all over, like a big fool."

"Why, I thought--I supposed--" Henley began in perplexity, but she
interrupted him.

"I hate sham, Alfred, and that whole thing was sham--sham, sham, from
first to last. Because I've been beat down and sneered at all this time
by a silly woman, and because my burden of life looked hard, I let
myself be tempted. Do you know, I believe Providence is trying to pound
some sense into me. I felt kind o' bad a year ago when that feller
didn't come to time, but, Alfred, I know myself better than I did then.
I thought I'd have stood up at the altar with a man I never saw, but
I'll bet now that I'd have backed out at the sight of him. I was blinded
the same way about this last one. When you told me about him, in your
kind way, I thought he was just what I was looking for, but when you
fetched him to me that day at Carlton it was an awful comedown. I can't
explain it to you, but, somehow, I felt like he was butting in with his
big head and loud voice between me and another one I was expecting."

"I see, I see. Long don't quite fill the bill," Henley said. "I was
afraid there might be a hitch somewhere, and he has all the essentials,
too--that is, I mean--" But Henley hardly knew what he meant.

"There is just one main essential, to use your big word," she said, her
fine, eyes resting on his in a wise gaze, "and that is love--the genuine
article. At one time I thought it was a fine house, and things to wear,
and comfort for them I love and protect that I needed, but it was
downright, unselfish love for somebody. Alfred, to my dying day I shall
shudder over all that parade yesterday. The man or woman who attempts to
get pleasure out of sitting in a finer seat, or living in a finer house,
or wearing finer duds than his neighbor, or even his enemy, will miss
it, unless he is of a low order and taste. When I saw all them good
folks gaping and staring at me like I was a comet with a tail, right
there in the house of God, while a good man was teaching humility, and
prayers, and songs was going up to the throne--I say, while all that was
taking place I felt like a cheat and a swindler hiding under plumes,
clap-trap flowers, and flounces that ud fade. I looked across and saw
Carrie--poor Carrie!--with that blank stare of death in her eyes. She
seemed to say, 'You've whipped me clean to the earth, Dix; I'm done; I'm
all in; but have mercy, don't you see how awful it is?' She may have
thought I was crowing over her, but I wasn't--God knows I wasn't. During
the first prayer I knelt down and prayed for her and begged forgiveness
for my silly caper. The poor thing has lost even her boy-lover. She's
yearning for something she may never lay her hands on. As God is my
judge, if I could give her this man that was here yesterday I'd do it at
the drop of a hat. Alfred, I don't want him, nohow. I thought I might
come round to it, but every word he says, every move he makes, goes
against me. If I tied myself to a man like that it would be one
continual fight to approve of him. Oh, he was so puffed up yesterday
that I wanted to pull his ears and make him see straight--talking all
the time about the dash we'd cut and the attention we attracted. I was
guilty of the crime and wanted to forget it, but it was all he could
talk about--well, that is, except one _other_ thing."

"One other thing?" Henley echoed.

"Yes, it was marry, marry, marry; wife, wife, wife--even before the
home-folks. He couldn't put a bite of my cooking in his big, red mouth
without saying what a blessing it would be to come to a table loaded
that way three times a day. I say! I had to laugh. There I was figuring
on using him to the end that I could set back in a rocking-chair and fan
myself and tell a nigger cook to rake any old scraps together and not
bother me with the details, while he saw me with my sleeves rolled up
humped over a hot stove, or in a cloud of steam at a wash-tub. He said
he could pay me the compliment of being the only girl who loved hard
work as much as his mother had till it killed her--_loved_ it, mind you!
Think of drudging all your life for a man that thought you loved dirty
work and was granting you a favor by keeping it piled up around you
while he was lying around a store telling a bunch of clerks what to do,
and wondering how long it would be before time to eat. Yes, I felt mean
all through the service and after he left. Little Joe sneaked over after
dark to get me to teach him his geography, and while I was doing it I
put my arm around his poor, little, wasted neck and hugged him. He
looked up and begun to cry and kissed me. Alfred, there ain't no
mistaking the article when you run across it. It is real love I have for
that boy--the love of a mother for her child that is suffering. I went
as far with him as the fence, and as me and him stood together in the
starlight I felt, somehow, that there was just one thing standing
between me and God, and that was the unworthy thing I had been doing
that day. I am thankful for my burdens, for under them I am free and
exalted. Love like I have for Joe shows what the other love ought to be
like, and until I yearn to help a man out of his troubles and cling to
him and want him by me every minute--until then I'll not sell myself.
You can't marry for pay and be honest, for you know you can't give value
for value. You'd have to act a part, and that would be a living lie that
would pall on you, and sicken your very soul."

"So you're not going to see Long any more?" Henley said, carried out of
himself by her winsome logic.

"Yes, he's coming Sunday. I'll get through the day in some fashion or
other, but I'm not going to tole 'im along like a pig following an ear
of corn. Some girls would, whether they intended to take him or not, but
I've been through the rubs and can't afford to be so silly. My natural
pride won't let me chop him off after the first visit, for folks would
say he turned me down, and, with all my good intentions, I can't stand
that. I don't know why, but I can't. I reckon we want what is ours, if
it is as empty as a bottle full of wind, and, in the fellow's way, he
_does_ want me. A girl can be an old maid with much more content if
she's had what the world would call a solid chance."

When he had left her and was walking down the road Henley paused and
looked back and saw her making her way homeward through her
cotton-field. "I might have known she'd kick him," he said, tenderly.
"No man alive is worthy of her--no man ever could be. She's a jewel
dropped from the skies. She is as sweet and innocent as a baby, and as
strong and brave as a lion. I wonder why God didn't let _me_--I wonder
why it was that _I_ happened not to--"

A flush of shame mounted to his face. His heart seemed to stand still.
He trudged onward, his gaze on the ground. "She is doing her duty," he
muttered, "and she is not complaining. I must do mine."



CHAPTER XXIV


On the afternoon of the following day Dixie came to the store. At the
moment Cahews was busy with some customers on the side of the house
devoted to dry-goods, and Henley was at his desk in the rear drawing a
cheque to pay for some cotton he had bought from a farmer. Dixie walked
straight toward him, but Henley did not see her till she was quite
close, then he was struck by the unusual pallor and tense gravity of her
face. He sprang up at once and proffered a chair.

"I want to talk to you," she said, her lips quivering, and she motioned
toward the waiting farmer. "Finish with him; I'm in no hurry."

Henley complied, a startled concern for her rendering him all but
incapable of resuming the business with the customer. He had to go out
to the farmer's wagon to read the marks on the cotton-bale for record,
and even as he made the notes in his book and directed the unloading of
the wagon he was saying to himself: "She's in trouble--something has
gone wrong. She never was knocked out like that before."

On his return he entered at the side-door, and as he was crossing the
yard to reach it he caught sight of her when she thought she was
unobserved. She was pressing her hands to her face, and her whole form
seemed to have wilted. She heard his step and essayed to assume a light
mood of greeting, but it was a poor pretence, at best. She smiled as
she looked up, but it was a cold, bloodless effort.

"I may as well tell you, Alfred, that I'm in trouble," she began,
tremulously, as he sat down near her. "You've always said I had a long
head on me for a girl, but I reckon I can manage just so far, and not a
bit farther. I can plant and sow and gather and reap, and even market
small dribs of things, but I'm a fool in big business matters, and I've
gone and got my foot in it. I'm up to my neck in the mire, and I'm
sinking inch by inch."

"What's wrong, Dixie?" he said, consolingly. "You mustn't let yourself
give up this way. It ain't like you."

"Well, it's about my farm," she said, and she paused to steady her
voice, which seemed to fail her.

"I see," Henley said. "Old Welborne is charging you too high interest.
You ought to shift the mortgage to somebody more human--somebody with at
least a thimbleful of soul. That man is the hardest taskmaster on earth.
He'd skin a flea for its hide and tallow."

"Mortgage? I'm afraid you wouldn't exactly call it a mortgage, Alfred.
Listen; I've just got to tell you about it. You are my friend. I know
you'll tell me the best thing to do, and I'll abide by your advice. When
I bought the farm from Uncle Tom, who, you remember, wanted to sell out
to move to Alabama when the trade was made, I only had a thousand
dollars ready money, and the price was two thousand. Uncle Tom was
anxious to close out and get away, and so he looked about for somebody
that would lend me the balance. Times was awfully hard then, and nobody
had any money on hand but Welborne, and he said he'd let me have it at a
reasonable rate of interest. Somehow Welborne never would get ready to
make out the papers and turn over the money, and Uncle Tom was nearly
out of his head with worry over the delay."

"One of the old dog's tricks!" Henley said, angrily. "I know him through
and through. But go on; go on."

"Well, it was the last day before Uncle Tom was to go that Welborne
finally said he was ready and had us come to his office. I haven't got
head enough to tell you all he said, for it was so mixed up. He went on
at a frightful rate about how hard it had been for him to call in money
enough to accommodate us, and finally made a proposition. He said in
order to make himself plumb secure the farm must be bought in his name
and mine as partners, with the understanding that whenever I got the
money I could buy him out. Somehow I felt uneasy then, but Uncle Tom
declared it was plumb fair. Sam Deacon, the young man who was studying
law here then, was in the office, and he told me it was all right and
perfectly safe, and so under all that pressure I consented. I have never
told a soul about it. Somehow the longer it went on the more foolish it
seemed for a girl like me to be in partnership with that old
money-shark, and I was ashamed."

"Well, even then," said Henley, still perplexed, "your interest must be
safe. I reckon you've had your scare for nothing."

"I haven't told you all yet," Dixie sighed. "The big rent I've had to
pay him on his half has kept my nose to the grindstone, so that I'm even
deeper in debt to him now than I was at the start."

"Rent?" exclaimed the storekeeper, staring blandly.

"Yes, nothing would suit Mr. Welborne but that his part was worth two
hundred a year, and he refused right out to trade any other way."

A light broke on Henley. He whistled softly, and his brawny hand
clutched his knee like a vise as he leaned forward.

"I see, I see," he panted, his eyes large in pitying surprise. "He was
dodging the law against usury. He has it fixed so that he's making no
violation of law, and yet he is getting at least two and a half times as
much as he'd be entitled to. Instead of eighty dollars a year--eight per
cent.--he's getting two hundred. You've already paid him for the value
of his part over and over. My Lord, my Lord, and you--you who have had
such a hard time! But have you never made any payment at all besides the
rent?"

"It was all I could do to rake up the two hundred a year," Dixie
answered, huskily. "Once, though, when cotton went high and I had made
six bales, I offered him a hundred dollars to lessen my debt, but he
wouldn't take it. He said it was too little to count, and that new
papers would have to be drawed up to make a proper credit, and for me to
keep it and spend it on some implements I needed. But I haven't told you
the worst yet, Alfred. He now says land has gone down in value, and that
he needs the money he's put in, and that I must buy him out, or him me,
he don't care which, but a transfer has to be made. He says if I hain't
got the money, and refuse his liberal cash offer, the property will have
to be put up at public outcry and settled that way."

"Look here, Dixie, little friend," Henley said, his tense face furrowed
with sympathy, "you've been in powerful bad hands. Your Uncle Tom never
gave the matter a minute's consideration--all he was after was getting
away to his new home, and that young lawyer that advised you didn't have
the sense of a gnat, or was in old Welborne's pay. The paper is a legal
one, I know, for that old hog has never done a thing he could be handled
for. You've committed yourself into the hands of the slyest, most
unprincipled old thief that ever blinked under the eye of justice. He is
telling you the truth. He can sell you out, according to law, whenever
either he or you are dissatisfied with the contract. He knows you've
improved that place till it is worth double what you paid for it, and
he thinks you are in such a tight place that you'll give up in despair
and let him have what you've made by such hard licks. I know that trick,
and it is the lowest and meanest one among traders. He's got you in a
worse fix than you may imagine."

"But how can the farm be worth as much as you say it is when he says he
is willing to take eight hundred for _his_ half, which cost originally a
thousand?" Dixie wanted to know.

"That's the old 'give-or-take' dodge," Henley explained. "He's kept his
eye on you, and he's satisfied that you can't possibly raise eight
hundred dollars, and that you will take his eight and be glad to get it.
I could help you out of this in a minute--clean out, for I've got the
idle money and it would tickle me to death to advance it to you, but he
wouldn't sell. He's telling you he'll give or take, but he wouldn't
_take_; that ain't his dirty game."

"So he really can sell me out at auction?" Dixie groaned.

"Yes, but that would be his last resort," Henley said. "He thinks he's
got you under his thumb, and that he'll scare you into accepting his
cash. Wait, keep your seat; let me study over it; there must be some
way. The Lord Almighty wouldn't let a grasping old skunk like that rob a
helpless girl like you. Welborne didn't make you the give-or-take offer
in writing--I'm sure he didn't; he's too slick for that?"

"No, he drove by home yesterday and called me out to the gate. He says
land has gone down on account of the new railroad passing on the other
side of the mountain, and that we both made a big mistake in paying as
much as we did."

"The old liar!" Henley cried. "The road's coming to Chester, and he
knows it. He thinks Chester will grow, and your farm will be cut up into
town building sites. He's determined to get your property by hook or
crook. Some'n must be done, and that right off. Let me study a minute."

Henley went to the side-door and looked out. Dixie saw him step down
into the junk-filled yard, and move aimlessly about from one spot to
another, his hands locked behind him. His head was bowed, and his fine,
strong face darkened by a steady frown. Jim Cahews came looking for him
to ask some question, but he waved him away. Dixie heard him cry out
impatiently: "Don't bother me!--let me alone! For the Lord's sake, go
back, go back!"

Cahews returned to his customer, and Dixie remained seated, her eyes
fixed on Henley. He seemed to have forgotten that she was near; he
seemed scarcely to know where he was himself, for once he drew himself
to a seat on a big dry-goods box and sat swinging his legs to and fro,
his gaze on the cloud-flecked sky. Then the pendulum-like movement, the
pounding of his heels would cease; with a hand clutching the box on
either side of him he would lean forward, lock his feet together beneath
him, and bite his lip. Suddenly he got down and came back to her, a
certain light of decision in his eyes.

"I've tackled a heap of jobs," he said, as he sat down beside her, "and
I've beat old Welborne more than once, but I generally steer clear of
him. I've been trying to think up some way to thwart him, but it is
powerful hard to devise any means to get at him. Now, if we just could
manage to get him to make his give-or-take offer before a witness we'd
have him good and tight, but he'd be too slick to do it. If he did make
it, you see, you could plank down the money I'll lend you and settle the
thing on the spot. Now listen, Dixie, there is only one possible way
open, and that is to trick the old scamp into writing down his offer and
signing it. I know something I'd like to try on if you'd forgive me for
the--the false light I'd have to put you in for a few minutes."

"False light? Why, what do you mean, Alfred?"

"Why, it's like this, amongst business men"--Henley flushed to the
eyes--"now and then two scamps (like me 'n him, for instance) kind o'
join forces against a weaker person and work together in harness like.
Now, if you just wouldn't think too hard of me, I could sort o' let on
to old Welborne, you see, that you was up to your eyes in debt to me,
and that--that the thing had been running on till I was--well, was plumb
tired out, and ready to come down on you."

"Oh, I see." A faint smile broke over the girl's shrewd face. "Why, I
wouldn't care what you did or said, Alfred," she cried. "He's trying to
rob me, and I'd have a right to protect myself."

"Well, then, enough said." Henley fell into an attitude of relief. "You
set here, and I'll run over and chat with him. I may fetch him here, and
if I openly abuse you and dun you to your teeth, you must take it all in
good spirit. You can hang your head and pretend to be sort o' shamed, if
you like; it will help to carry the thing out. Any girl that could sell
that old lion's cage for as much as you did--and in the way you did
it--ought to know how to pull the wool over Welborne's eyes. You see,
when the old devil is made to believe that I'm down on you and
determined to have a settlement, he'll think you are in more desperate
straits than ever. Wait!"

Henley went to the big iron safe in a corner of the room and counted out
a roll of currency. He folded it tightly and gave it to her. "Stick that
down in your pocket," he said, "and have it ready, and, remember, you
are to let on all the way through that you are willing to sell out, but
before you do so you want his proposition put down in black and white.
He may think it is just some cranky woman's notion, and do it--he may,
and he may not; our chances hang on that one thing. You are a dead
goner if you don't get that paper."

"I understand fully," Dixie said, her lips drawn firmly. "The only thing
I don't like is borrowing your money."

"Don't be silly," Henley snorted. "You are good for it, and I'd rather
lend money to you than anybody else on earth. Don't let that bother
you."

"Well, I won't, then," the girl said. "I know you want to help me, and
I'm very thankful for such a friend."



CHAPTER XXV


Crossing the street diagonally, Henley came to a little two-story frame
building near the post-office. Pausing before the door, he looked in and
saw old Welborne seated at his desk near an open window. The
money-lender was thin, had parchment-like skin, massive eyebrows, and
long, gray hair, which never seemed to have been trimmed, and was massed
on the greasy collar of his faded black alpaca coat. He was past seventy
years of age, and the hand which held his pen shook visibly. Henley went
in, and as he did so old Welborne laid down his pen and turned round in
his revolving-chair. He nodded and grunted, and motioned to a
three-legged stool near the desk.

Henley sat down on it, and as he did so he drew out a couple of cigars,
and, holding them in the shape of a letter V, he extended them toward
the old man. "I'm advertising a new brand," he said, cordially. "Take
one, and whenever you want a good smoke drop in. You'll find 'em as free
from cabbage-leaves as any in this town. One thing certain, you don't
have to bore a hole through 'em to start circulation."

"Drumming up trade, eh?" The money-lender smiled as he took the cigar,
and, pinching off the tip with his long thumb-nail, he thrust it between
his gashed and stained teeth. "Well, I don't blame any man for trying to
turn a penny during hard times like these. But, Lord, Alf, you'd make a
living if you was on a bare rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I
take off my hat to any man that could handle a busted circus like you
did. I wouldn't have touched that pile of junk at your figure if it had
been given to me, and yet--well, every man to his line."

Henley scratched a match on the sole of his shoe and lighted his cigar.
"I've been just a little afraid that your nephew--that Hank Bradley may
have told you about the little spat me and him had at the store the
other day--"

"I heard it," Welborne broke in, with an indifferent smile. "I was
standing in the door; he was full; he ought to have been kicked out; you
done right; he's a lazy, good-for-nothing scamp, but don't talk to me
about him. I pay him what is coming to him, board him for next to
nothing, and there my responsibility ends. I'm not fighting his
battles--huh, I guess not! How's trade over your way?"

"N. G." Henley puffed, squinting his right eye to avoid the smoke which
curled up from the end of his cigar, as he looked absently at the dingy
window-panes and the cobwebs hanging from the cracked and bulging
plastering overhead. "We can sell plenty on tick, but getting paid is
the devil. Jim Cahews is a good man, but he can't say no--to a
petticoat, anyway. While I was away he went it rather reckless. Why, he
let one little woman that has heretofore been the brag of the county get
in clean up to her neck."

Old Welborne ceased smoking; his dim, blue eyes twinkled. "I'll bet a
dollar to a ginger-cake I know who you mean," he said, eagerly.

"Well, maybe you do and maybe you don't," Henley said. "But I've had
enough of her foolishness and promising and never coming to time. I'm
not in business for my health. She's a neighbor of mine, and I always
admired her plucky fight, but charity begins at home. I'm not running
an orphan asylum, nor an old woman's home. Jim misunderstood me, anyway.
I told 'im her account was all right, and for him not to bear down too
hard on her, and I went to Texas and forgot all about it. But, holy
smoke! when I got home and looked at the books I was fairly staggered at
the figures. She's over there at the store now, and I had to talk to her
straight, and she won't get a bit deeper in my debt. I've got to call a
halt."

"I think I might set your mind at rest on what she owes you," Welborne
said, with an unctuous smile. "There is no use beating about the bush,
Henley, you know she's in debt to me, and you've come over to see if I
can help you out. Well, I can. I am in the shape to do it. Me 'n you
have clashed several times in our deals and had hard feelings, but there
is no use keeping up strife. We can work together now. Me and her own
that farm in partnership, and I've had enough of it. I've made a fair
give-or-take offer, and nothing is to prevent her from closing out and
paying you what she owes you. I've got eight hundred dollars in cash
ready to hand her at any minute."

"You don't say!" Henley's look of gratified surprise was perfect. "Well,
she's in a better fix than I thought. She ain't much of a hand to tell
her business, and I thought she had--well, about run through her pile."

"She can get the money if she will have common-sense," said Welborne;
"but women never know how to 'tend to business, and she may act stubborn
to the end and force me to put up the land for sale. It wouldn't fetch
much, and you and me'd both lose by it. The best thing to do is to make
her have sense, and if you will--if you will talk straight to her about
your debt, maybe she'll sell out and be done with it."

"Well, I can talk straight enough, if you'll leave it to me," Henley
said, with what looked like a frown of chronic resentment. "It makes me
mad to think she'll keep me out of my money while you are offering her
enough to square off."

"Well, go over to the store and see what you can do to bring her to her
senses," the money-lender proposed, with a smirk which twisted his
sallow visage into a grimace. "If you can bring her to reason, we'll
both get--get what's due us."

"All right," Henley said, in a tone of gratitude. "You come on over in a
minute. I'll tell her I've heard of your offer, and that I won't stand
anymore foolishness."

Henley sauntered back to the store. His face was set and colorless as he
approached Dixie. She glanced up, and he was shocked by the look of
despair in her great, sorrowful eyes.

"He's coming over," Henley said. "Everything is cocked and primed. He
thinks you may take his money--he thinks I'm going to _make_ you do it.
You needn't talk much, but stick to it that you want his offer writ down
in black and white and will have it before you'll move a peg. I'll write
it and have it ready for him to sign. If he does, we are solid; if not,
we are lost. I don't know that I ever tackled anything quite as ticklish
as this, for he is as wary and sly as a fox. We mustn't give 'im time to
think, if we can help it. Sh! there he is now. Don't mind anything I
say, no matter how harsh it sounds--remember, I'm working for your good,
and using fire to stop fire."

She nodded and smiled knowingly, but said nothing, for the money-lender
was approaching. When Welborne was quite near, Henley suddenly said
aloud: "You are a woman, but I ain't going to stand any more
foolishness. You've been saying all this time that you can't get the
money, and yet here is a cash offer of eight hundred dollars staring you
smack-dab in the face."

"I never had the offer until this morning," Dixie said, with what he
recognized as astonishing diplomacy. Her face was out of sight under the
hood of her sunbonnet, her handkerchief to her eyes.

"She's willing to do what's right," Henley said to Welborne. "The only
thing she holds out for is to have the proposition down in writing. Of
course, there is no need of it, but women know nothing about business,
and will have every detail carried out, and so I scratched it down here.
It is a plain give-or-take offer of eight hundred dollars either way,
and she ain't in no fix to refuse."

Henley dipped a pen in the ink and held the paper toward the old man.
There was an incipient wave of innate distrust in Welborne's manner as
he glanced from the bowed form of the girl to that of the waiting
storekeeper.

"Let her have her way about it," Henley advised. "Women will have
everything complete or you can't do a blessed thing with 'em. It don't
mean anything to you; you've made her a fair give-or-take offer."

"Yes, of course I have," Welborne said, conquering his qualms, and with
a quivering hand he signed the paper. He had no sooner done it than
Henley laid it face downward on a blotting-pad and, with a steady hand,
stroked its back. The eyes he fixed on Dixie, who was covertly watching
him, fairly danced as he raised the paper and folded it carefully.

"Now, you two have got the proposition down in fair legal shape, and
nothing stands between you and a deal. Miss Dixie, you are just a woman,
and may not know the ways of the business world, so I want to tell you
on my honor that this is what all fair-minded men call an absolutely
straight proposition, and when you've acted on it, it would be wrong for
you to ever say anybody coerced you or took advantage of you. You
understand that you've got a right either to pay eight hundred and own
the farm, or take eight hundred and sell your half. Is that plain to
you?"

"Yes, I understand it perfectly," Dixie answered, glancing first at him
and then at the expectant and suave money-lender.

"And you understand it, too, don't you, Mr. Welborne?"

"Yes, I understand it," the eager old man replied, craftily. "And you
know, Alf Henley, that I wouldn't have made as liberal an offer to
anybody but this girl. She's in a tight fix and needs the money, and the
farm has gone down to less 'n half of what it was worth when me and her
bought it."

"Well, then, Miss Dixie," Henley said, significantly, and he held the
paper tightly in his strong hand, "you'll have to decide which thing you
intend to do."

"I've already decided," the girl said, looking at Welborne with a placid
stare, "and I'm going to be satisfied. I know the farm isn't any good
now, and will perhaps be lower when the railroad is built the other side
of the mountain, but it is the only home we have, and I've decided to
buy it."

"_Buy_ it?" Welborne gasped, and stared as if unable to grasp her
meaning. "You don't mean that you--"

"Well, well!" Henley cried, "this _is_ a surprise. Here I've been rowing
you up Salt River for your puny little debt to me, and you now say you
are able to own a big chunk of real estate unencumbered. Why, you must
have struck oil somewhere. My, my, my!"

"I don't tell my business to everybody." Dixie, now standing, had thrust
her hand into the pocket of her skirt and was drawing out the bills.
"Here's the money, Mr. Welborne."

A snort that could have been heard to the front door issued from
Welborne's fluttering nostrils. He pushed the money from him, writhed
and tottered, and as he glared furiously at Henley he screamed:

"It's a trick put up between you. I see it, but I won't be buncoed in no
such way. Do you hear me?--no such way!"

He was turning off when Henley, now a different man, stepped before him.
"You are going to act fair for once, you old thief," he said, a gray
look of determination about his mouth and in his fixed eyes. "You've
been swindling this orphan girl all these years, and you are going to
abide by your own signed contract. You are going to do it, or, by all
that's holy, I'll head a gang of mountain-men that will drag you out of
your bed and lay a hundred lashes on your bare back."

"I'll see you in hell first!" Welborne shrieked, and, darting past
Henley, he hurried from the store as fast as his tottering gait would
take him.

"We lost, after all!" Dixie cried, and, sinking back in her chair, the
money clutched in her hand, she burst into tears.

"Not yet, not _plumb_ yet, little girl!" Henley was unconscious of the
vast tenderness of his tone. "Don't cry; be the brave little trick
you've always been."

"I'm not thinking of myself, really I'm not," she sobbed. "But my mother
and aunt have heard about it, and they are awfully upset. They love the
place, and the thought of leaving and being destitute is running them
crazy."

"Look here. Let me have the money," Henley said, his eyes flashing
dangerously. "You go home and be easy. Leave him to me. He sha'n't rob
you like that; I'll drag his bones from his dirty hide and rattle 'em
through the streets before I'll let 'im. This is a Christian community,
and God rules."

"You mustn't bother any more," Dixie said, and as she put the money into
his hands she clung to them tenderly and appealingly. "Blood has been
spilt over matters like this, Alfred, and the whole thing ain't worth
it. His nephew--I intended to warn you before--Hank Bradley is your
enemy, and now Welborne is, and between them"--she broke off with a
convulsive sob, but still clung pleadingly to his hands.

"I don't care if his whole layout is up in arms agin me; he sha'n't rob
you. You are the sweetest, dearest, most suffering little girl the sun
ever shone on, and I'll fight for you as long as there is a speck of
life in me. You go home. I'll come to you the very minute it is
settled."

"And you won't--oh, Alfred, please don't--please don't--for my sake,
don't have trouble with him. You're hot-tempered, and I've let you get
wrought up. Don't you see that it don't make any odds to me?"

"All right, then," he said, smiling, and yet she saw that his smile was
only on the surface. "I promise we won't fight about it. I'll try to
bring him to his senses in some other way. Now, go home. I'll come out
as soon as I possibly can."

It was after nightfall before he saw her again. As he was nearing her
cottage in the vague starlight he saw a figure of some one in the
fence-corner of her pasture which touched the road near his own land. He
surmised that it was she, and that she was there waiting for him, though
her head was bowed to the top rail of the fence and he couldn't see her
face. There was a strip of grass on the roadside, and he walked upon it
that it might deaden his tread till he was close upon her. As it was, he
reached her side without attracting her attention. Then something
clutched all his senses and held him like a dead thing in his tracks,
for he heard her praying in a sweet, suffering voice that lifted him
with it to the very throne of thrones.

"Oh, God, my Maker, my Saviour, my Redeemer," he heard her saying, "give
me the strength to bear it and let no harm come to my dear, dear friend.
I can bear the loss of my home, but not to have harm come to him. Oh,
Lord, help--" She raised her head, and their eyes met and clung
together. He had a folded paper in his hand, and he extended it to her.
His voice rose and broke in a wave of huskiness: "Here is the deed,
Dixie, little girl," he said. "The farm is yours. The transaction is
recorded at the court-house. Nothing can take it from you now."

"Mine, Alfred, mine, did you say?"

"Yes, I had trouble; he died hard; he saw it was all up with him after
he'd signed that agreement, but it was like pulling eye-teeth to get the
deed made out. He'd write a line, and then throw down the pen and cry
and whine like a baby. I'm ashamed to say it, but once I got mad and
caught him by that slim neck of his and pushed him down under his desk
and held him there. My thumb was in his throat. I clutched too tight. I
thought I'd killed him. The Lord must have restrained me. He was black
in the face and as limber as a rag. It was then that he give in. He'd
have held out to the end, but I was holding something over him. Women
all over the county are lending him money at a low rate, and I showed
him that if this trick of his agin you was published they'd lose faith
in him and make him pay up. He saw his danger and give in. But, my! how
it rankles. It's the first time he was ever whipped to a dead finish."

With the deed in her hand Dixie stood staring at him, her beautiful
mouth twitching with emotion, her great eyes aglow with joy. She started
to speak, but a sob rose within her and she lowered her head to the
rail. The beams of the rising moon fell on her exquisite neck; her
wonderful tresses lay massed on her shoulders.

"Don't--don't cry, Dixie," he said. "I can't bear it." He laid his hand
on her head and let it rest there gently.

Presently she looked up, caught his hand in both of hers and pressed her
lips to it. "You are the sweetest, best, noblest man in the world,
Alfred. I can't thank you. I'll--I'll choke. I'm so--so happy.
Good-night."

He stood at the fence and watched her till she had disappeared in the
cottage, and then, like a man in a delightful, bewildering dream, he
turned his face toward the lights in his own house.

Old Wrinkle was waiting for him at the gate, and he held it open for
him. "Your supper--sech as it is--is on the table waitin' for you," he
said, picking his teeth with a splinter from the fence. "Ma got it ready
for you; I've had mine; I made me some mush out of the yaller corn-meal
Pomp fetched from the mill. Mush-an'-milk, with a dab o' cream an' a
pinch o' salt, is all right to sleep on. We've had a day of it; Hettie
has gone all to flinders, and went to bed at sundown with a crackin'
headache, an' eyes swelled as big as squashes. Her uncle Ben is in
trouble. He sent her a letter fifty pages in duration by one of his
niggers. As well as I can make out betwixt Hettie's spasms her uncle
Ben's fine Baltimore lady has turned him down. Thar seems to be a Yankee
feller in the way. She advanced a hundred reasons fer deciding not to
retire to lonely mountain-life. She's riled up, for one thing, on the
nigger question--says she understands a lady has to go armed to the
teeth just to walk from the well to the back porch, an' that she never
had learned to shoot, nohow. The Yankee feller has more scads than Ben,
an' has bought an estate in New York City which he lays at her feet as
an inducement. Het an' Ben must be slices off the same block, for his
letter was soaked in salt water, an' she had to run a hot flatiron over
hern before it would do to send. He writ her that she was the only
faithful woman on earth--he was hintin' at Dick's burial arrangements, I
reckon--an' that if she was thar he'd put his head in her lap an' have a
good cry. They would have had to swap laps if they had been together
to-day, for Het needed a foot-tub to take care of her overflow. Well,
I'm keepin' you from your royal banquet. You'll find it on the
dinner-table, with the cloth all drawed up over it like a bundle ready
for the wash. Ma tied it up that way to keep the cat out of it. I don't
think the cat 'u'd care for any of it, but I reckon Jane 'lowed the
thing mought paw it over in the hope o' strikin' some'n worth while."

Conscious of little that the old man was saying, Henley passed on into
the dimly lighted farm-house, experiencing a vague sense of relief that
he was not just then to face his wife.



CHAPTER XXVI


One evening shortly after this Henley was returning from the store about
an hour later than was his custom. He was nearing Dixie Hart's cottage,
when, in the clear moonlight, he saw the girl emerge from the little
apple-orchard behind her barn and come rapidly toward him. Her glance
was on the ground, and she had evidently not seen him. As she drew near
where he stood waiting, he noted that her head was bare, and that she
had a medicine-bottle in her hand. He noted, too, from her gait and
hurried manner, that she was greatly disturbed. She was about to pass
him when he called out, cheerily, "Where away, in such a hurry?"

"Oh!" She looked up and stopped. "You scared me, Alfred. I couldn't
imagine who it was. I'm going over to Sam Pitman's. Joe is
sick--powerful sick. If I am any judge, it is pneumonia, and a bad case
at that."

"Pneumonia!" he echoed, aghast. "I didn't know anything was wrong with
him."

"It's been coming on some time," she said. "He caught an awful cold. You
know the day it rained so hard and the creek got out of banks? I was
trying to cross the ford below Pitman's in my wagon. I thought I could
make it all right, but the current washed the wagon in a hole, and old
Bob couldn't touch bottom. The wagon was floating like a boat, and he
finally got stuck in the mud with just his head and neck out and
couldn't budge. Joe was digging sprouts in the field on the right-hand
side, and ran down to me. I yelled at him not to come in, but he struck
out toward me with his clothes on, swimming like a dog. He got to me and
helped me out in the water on a high place, and made me stand there
while he worked and tugged at the trace-chains for twenty minutes till
he finally unhitched Bob and pulled him out of the mire. Then he helped
me out and dragged the wagon ashore."

"Plucky little chap!" cried Henley.

"But he's getting paid for it," Dixie said, bitterly. "He got overheated
in the cold mountain-water, and he is in a bad fix, Alfred. I know when
a sick person is dangerous, and he is."

She was moving on toward Pitman's now, and Henley was keeping step by
her side. "You mustn't take it so hard," he said, in an effort to calm
her. "It will come out all right."

"It is a ticklish thing, pneumonia is," she said; "and he hasn't got a
doctor. Sam Pitman says it isn't anything but a cold, and he won't send
for one. I was over there twice to-day, but he don't even want me to
nurse him. I've got my things all done up at home and the folks in bed,
and I'm going to stay with him all night if I have to have a
knock-down-and-drag-out row to do it. I told Sam Pitman that I'd pay for
the doctor out of my own pocket, but that just made him madder. He says
I'm trying to come under his roof and run his affairs, and that I
sha'n't do it. He may not let me in now. I don't know, but he is one of
the devil's imps, if there ever was one. Mrs. Pitman is a little better,
but he's got her under his thumb. She won't raise her voice when he is
around."

"We must have a doctor, that's certain," declared Henley. "You walk on
and I'll run to town and bring Doctor Stone. He knows his business, and
he'll take charge of the case if I back him. If Pitman tries to hinder
us I'll jail him as sure as he's a foot high."

"Oh, Alfred, I wish you would get the doctor. I'm so glad I met you. I
was worried to death. I know how to nurse in ordinary cases, but
pneumonia is so treacherous. Hurry, please; I'll never forget you for
this."

Twenty minutes later Henley entered the gate of Sam Pitman's diminutive
farm-house. Three watch-dogs came from beneath the little front porch,
but, recognizing the visitor, they stood wagging their tails cordially
and uttering low whines of welcome. There was a broken harrow, with
rusty iron teeth, leaning against the house near the log steps; a
top-heavy ash-hopper and a lye-stained trough stood under the spreading
branches of a beechnut-tree beside a rotting cider-press and a huge pot
for heating water during hog-killing or for boiling lye and grease for
the making of soap.

As Henley approached the steps Pitman and his wife, hearing the click of
the gate-latch, came out on the porch, which was shaded by overhanging
vines, and stood staring blankly at him. Henley was a gallant man, for
his station in life, and he drew off his broad-brimmed hat and remained
uncovered while he spoke.

"I've run over to inquire how little Joe is," he said, conscious of the
grim opposition to his visit in the very air that hung around the
farmer. "I happened to meet Miss Dixie Hart just now on her way here,
and she was considerably upset."

"Nothin' wrong with the boy," Pitman muttered, surlily. "That gal, like
most of her meddlin' sort, is havin' a regular conniption-fit over
nothin'. I reckon she is afeard thar'll be one less on the marryin' list
a few years from now. He was a pesky fool, anyway, plungin' in cold
water to attend to her business. He's had croupy coughs before this, an'
wheezin'-spells, an' been hot like all childern will when they eat too
much, but we never went stark crazy over it."

"Miss Dixie is a purty good judge, Sam," Henley answered, incisively.
"She'd be hard to fool if danger was lurkin' around. When she described
Joe's condition to me just now I saw she had plenty cause to worry, and
so I went straight back to town and left word for Doctor Stone to hurry
here as soon as he got home. They was looking for him every minute."

"You say you did!" Pitman came to the edge of the porch, and, with his
arm around one of the posts which upheld the roof, he leaned over till
his face was close to Henley's. "Huh! you are some pumpkins, ain't you?
You can keep me from runnin' an account at your dirty shebang, Alf
Henley, but you can't walk dry-shod over me in my own house. A man's
domicyle is his castle in law, and I'm goin' to manage mine an' defend
it, ef I have to."

"Don't get excited, Sam; keep your shirt on," Henley said, calmly. There
was an oblong spot of light thrown on the grass between him and the
gate. It was from the attic window above the porch, and across it now
and then moved a shadow. He knew that the little room under the roof was
occupied by the sick child, and that the shadow was Dixie's. The shadow
was now still and bowed at the window in an attitude of attention to
what was going on below.

"I ain't excited any to hurt," Pitman went on, his voice rising higher.
"You say you've ordered Stone to come, an' I say if he does he won't put
his foot across my threshold."

"You've got it in for me, Sam, I see," Henley said, still unruffled,
"but this is no time for you and me to settle old scores. The boy is no
blood kin to either of us."

"The law gives me full an' complete charge of 'im till he's of age,"
Pitman snarled, "an' I hain't invited you to put in, an' until I do
you'll be a sight safer on t'other side of that fence. I mean the one
right thar behind you."

The window-sash was raised above, and Dixie looked out.

"He's just dropped to sleep," she announced in a guarded tone. "Please,
Alfred, don't let them talk so loud, and send the doctor up the minute
he comes."

"Very well," Henley answered, softly and reassuringly. Then going close
to the farmer he said in a low voice, "I want to talk to you a minute;
let's walk round the house."

Pitman hesitated, staring doggedly at the speaker, and then shifted his
sullen gaze to the face of his wife.

"Go on with 'im," she said, and turned stiffly into the lark doorway
behind her.

Silently Henley led Pitman round the house to the little barn-yard in
the rear. There was a red-painted road-wagon near the wagon-shed and
Henley sat down easily on the strong pole and began to search through
his pockets for a cigar and matches. He grunted in disappointment when
he found his pockets empty, and then deliberately applied himself to the
matter in hand.

"Looky here, Sam Pitman," he began, "for a long-headed, sensible
mountain-man you are plunging into more serious trouble than any chap of
your size ever got into. I'm going to let you on to a thing that a
fellow usually keeps quiet--I'm going to do it because I feel that it is
my Christian duty not to be a party to the great disaster you are on the
brink of."

"I don't know what you mean, an' I don't care a damn," growled Pitman.
"I know what my rights are, an' that's all I'm talkin' about."

"I started to tell you, when you busted in," said Henley, swinging his
feet beneath him, "that I'm a member of the grand jury, and you may or
may not know that when a fellow is impaneled in that body he's got a
sworn job on his hands that is powerful exacting. He is on his oath to
report to the authorities any criminal irregularity that comes under his
notice. Now! I have had the word and the judgment of a respectable and
truthful lady that the boy bound to you by law is dangerously and
critically sick, and, calling here in my lawful capacity to look into
the matter, I hear you say with my own ears that no doctor shall put
foot across your threshold. Now, look at it straight, Sam. Even if Joe
was to get well a big, serious case may come up against you--I don't
promise that you'll come off free even as it is, but if the child was to
_die_--I say if he was to happen to pass away, and I've seen little ones
die when half a dozen skilled doctors was standing by--Sam Pitman, in
that case, no lawyer on earth could keep you out of limbo. I tell you,
you don't know it, but right this minute you are in the tightest hole
you ever slid into. A jury in your case wouldn't leave their seats. Men
pity helpless children in this life more'n they do big hulking men of
your stripe, and they'd sock it to you to the full extent of the law.
Even if it wasn't tried at court, take it as a hint from me, the men of
these mountains would get together in a body and lynch you. Reports have
already been going round to your eternal discredit about this child, and
one more act of yours will simply settle your hash. This is me talking,
Sam."

"You--you dare to come here--" But Pitman's rage was tinctured with
actual fear of the man before him, and his intended threat was not
uttered. He was white and quivering, but he was helpless. A sound broke
the stillness that now fell between the two men. It was the steady
trotting of a horse on the road.

"There's Doc now," Henley announced, and his eyes met Pitman's, which
were kindling again.

"Well, I've said he sha'n't--an', by God--" Pitman started toward the
house, but Henley sprang up and faced him. Laying his hand heavily on
the farmer's shoulder he cried almost with a hiss of fury: "Let that
doctor alone, you dirty whelp! He's going to crawl up that ladder to
that hole under the roof to see that boy. You and me are nigh the same
size, and we can settle right here. You tried me once before, maybe you
want another dose. Stir a peg to prevent this thing and I'll drive your
head into your shoulders same as I would a wedge in a split log."

Pitman glared helplessly, and then he showed defeat. With his eyes on
the ground, and writhing from beneath Henley's hand, he said:

"The boy hain't bad off, nohow!"

"Well, we'll see what Doc Stone has to say about it," Henley retorted.
"He's authority, an' you hain't."

Pitman had no reply ready. They heard the gate open and close, and then
on the still air came the gentle voice of Dixie speaking from the attic
window. "Come right in, Doctor, and up the ladder. Be careful and don't
stumble. I'll hold the candle for you."

Pitman sullenly turned away. Henley watched him as he went into the
stall of a stable and struck a match to light his pipe. Leaving him,
Henley went back to the farm-house and sat down on the steps of the
porch. The light from the attic window lay on the lush green grass
before him, and he kept his eyes upon it. There was a tread on the floor
behind him as soft as that of a cat. It was Mrs. Pitman in her bare
feet. She held her tattered shoes in her hand. She touched him on the
shoulder.

"I hope you an' Sam didn't--come to licks," she whispered.

"No, he's all right," was the gentle reply. "I had to talk sharp, Mrs.
Pitman, an' I'm sorry it was here at his own house."

"Well, I'm glad the doctor come," she conceded, slowly. "I was afeard to
put in while Sam was talkin'. He gits madder at me 'n he does to all the
rest combined. I'm sort o' feard the boy is bad off, myself."

"Yes, he's bad off," Henley nodded, grimly. "If it was a light case Doc
Stone would have been down before this. You may depend on it, it's
serious."

Muttering inarticulately, the woman crept away. Henley remained bent
forward, his eyes on the shifting shadows before him. He looked at his
watch; two hours had passed. The closing of a rear door and the
resounding tread of a pair of hobnailed boots on the lower floor told
him that Pitman had entered the house and was going to bed. He saw
Dixie's shadow in its frame on the grass, and went out to the fence and
looked up. She was there, and she leaned over the little sill and
nodded. "I only wanted to know if you was still there," she said, in a
low tone. "Joe--" But the doctor evidently had called her, for she
looked back into the room and vanished. Henley saw two shadows bending
forward, and he strode back and forth along the fence, a fierce suspense
clutching his heart. Presently the doctor, a middle-aged, full-bearded
man, with a gentle manner, crept down the ladder and walked softly
across the porch. Henley joined him at his buggy in the road.

"How is he, Doc?" he inquired, his fears deepened by the physician's
silence, as he stood between the wheels of the buggy and fumbled with
the reins wrapped around the whip-holder.

"Awful, awful!" Stone said, grimly. "Not one chance in five hundred.
Malignant pneumonia. Neglected case. I've left medicine and
instructions. I can't stay--would if I could--case of child-labor down
the road--nobody else to attend to it. I'll be back before morning.
That will be the crisis. He's in splendid hands; a trained nurse
couldn't be better."

"Anything I can do, Doc?" Henley swallowed a lump of emotion that had
risen in his throat.

"Not a thing; but you might stay right here. Miss Dixie might--if
anything happened--she might need you. She's a plucky little woman, and
it might be best for her to have some sort of company. She is wrought
up. She loves the boy as a mother would her own child, and yet she is
calm and steady."

Henley leaned on the fence and watched the vehicle disappear in the
misty moonlight which seemed to fall like a mantle from the mountain. He
was resting his head on the fence when he felt a light touch on his arm.
It was Dixie.

"He is sleeping," she whispered. "The doctor said it would be good for
him. Oh, Alfred, it's pitiful, pitiful! I'm glad to see that you feel
like you do. He loves you; he has spoken of you scores of times, and,
when I told him just now that you was down here watching, he was glad. I
wonder why God tears a human soul to pieces like this. If Joe is taken
to-night I don't think I could ever get over it. Oh, Alfred, my heart
yearns over him. At this minute I could ask for nothing better than to
be allowed to work for that child all the rest of my life." Tears stood
in her wonderful eyes, and her breast, under its thin covering, rose and
fell tumultuously.

"You are a sweet, good girl, Dixie." Henley's voice sounded new to
himself. "You are the noblest woman that ever drew the breath of life.
As the Lord is my Redeemer, I'd give all I possess on earth to help you
to-night."

Their eyes met in a strange gaze of wonderment. "I believe it," she
said, simply, while a sad smile touched her pulsing lips. "Yes, I
believe it. But I must go back."

He sat under the beechnut-tree watching the attic window till the
eastern sky above the mountains began to take on a grayish cast. Now and
then through the long vigil Dixie would come to the window and look down
on him, only to nod knowingly and retire, as if content with his mute
companionship.

It was almost dawn when the doctor came.

"I was delayed," he explained as he sprang out of his buggy; "bad case
of labor--had to use instruments, but successful." He hurried to the
gate without hitching his horse. "How is he?"

"I can't say, Doc--you'd better see for yourself."

The yellow light was filling all the sky with resplendent glory when
Dixie, her face wan and wearied, came down the ladder. Henley's heart
sank at the first sight of her, but it bounded when she had seen him,
for the rarest of smiles broke about her mouth and eyes.

"He's going to get well, Alfred!" she cried, and she extended her hand
with the warm confidence of a child toward a trusted friend. He let it
rest in his as he walked with her to the gate, wondering over the good
news, wondering over the delight with which her touch was firing his
being.

"Yes, the worst is over," she went on. "The doctor says with good
nursing and watching he'll pull through. He is going to stay with him
while I run home and do up the things, then I'll come back and relieve
him. He is going to give Pitman a tongue-lashing, and says he'll appear
against him in court if he doesn't act different. As soon as Joe can be
moved we are going to bring him to my house. Oh, Alfred, won't that be
glorious? There I can give him everything he needs, and a clean, cool,
airy room to get well in. Weak as he was, he cried with actual joy when
he heard the doctor say he could come. Alfred, do you know we all ought
to be ashamed of ourselves for complaining in this life, and wanting
more and more of the trashy baubles. Right now I'm so happy I feel like
flying. Look at that sunrise! We couldn't have seen it like that if we'd
been in our beds with our eyes shut; we couldn't feel this way if we
hadn't dragged through all that pain and anxiety last night. I've got to
write a letter and mail it before I come back. Jasper Long was to come
over Sunday, you know, but I can't give the time to him. I'll ask him to
come Sunday after next."

"It will disappoint him mightily," Henley said, a sudden feeling of
aversion to the subject on him. "It will break the fellow all up. He's
been counting the days and hours."

"I can't help it." Dixie shrugged her shoulders indifferently, her head
down. They were now in the little wood that lay between Pitman's farm
and her cottage. To the leaves and branches of the chestnut and
sassafras bushes that bordered the little-used road the night mists and
silvery cobwebs clung, magnified by their coating of dew and the yellow
light.

"I don't know as I ever saw a fellow quite so much concerned and
anxious," Henley's strangely tentative voice produced. "I saw him over
there the other day, and he had lots to say. He means to--to get you if
he possibly can. He's planning a fine house, and said he was going to
tell you about it when he come over. He says women know better about
such things than men, and is going to offer you full sway. To do him
credit, there ain't nothing little about Long. He'll do right, I reckon,
by any woman he pledges his word to. I'd hate to--to think I'd fetched
you together if--if he wasn't all right--that is, honest and upright."

"I know that," Dixie said. "But let's not talk about him, or his fine
house, or his money, or his good intentions. He don't seem, somehow, to
fit one bit into my feelings this morning. He's a cold-blooded business
proposition, and last night's terror and this morning's joy has filled
me to here"--she held her tapering hand under her plump chin and
laughed--"well, with some'n different from him. The truth is, I don't
care if I never see him again. That's a fact, Alfred. I feel like I'm on
the up-hill road in single harness, anyway, since I am out of debt to
Welborne, and owe you, instead. When are you going to send that note
over for me to sign?"

"Never, if I can help it," he said. "I've let men owe me without note or
security, why should I make you sign up for a trifle like that?"

"Well, to tell the truth, I like it as it is," she answered, with a fine
smile and a rippling laugh that woke the echoes in the quiet spot. "It
is such a sweet proof of your friendship. Ain't it funny how me 'n you
have been mixed up in things? You know me as well as I know myself,
Alfred. You've helped me, and I hope I have you--some. I don't know; I
hope I have."

"More than anybody else in the world," he said, fervently.

They had come to where their ways separated, and, with his hat in his
hand, and his heart full of an inexplicable, transcendental something,
he stood under the trees and watched her move away.



CHAPTER XXVII


On the day following Long's second visit to Dixie, Henley's affairs took
him to Carlton. He was at the cotton-compress making arrangements to
have a quantity of cotton prepared for shipment, when he met one of
Long's clerks.

"Have you seen Mr. Long?" the young man asked.

"No, I've just got in," Henley answered. He could not have explained the
fact, not being given to self-analysis, but he had vaguely determined
that he would make every possible effort to avoid the storekeeper. In
spite of his good intentions to aid Dixie in the contemplated alliance,
he had come to regard it as altogether too incongruous an affair to be
viewed favorably. What right had any man to her? What manner of man
could possibly be worthy of her, much less the stupid blockhead who was
thrusting himself upon her as Long was?

"Well, he's looking for you, Mr. Henley," the clerk said. "It must be
important, for he's been to the bank and post-office three times since
he heard you'd got in. It really looks like he's in trouble of some
sort."

"Business gone crooked?" Henley inquired, as he watched the clerk's face
with almost anxious eyes. "Maybe he's been buying futures?"

"Oh no, it ain't that!" the young man hastened to say. "He don't
speculate in anything. He's dead sure of everything he touches. No, it
ain't that, and business never was brisker, but we boys are doing it
all. He ain't much help; don't do anything but write letters and tear
'em up, and talk about marryin' to every man, woman, an' child that
happens in. He was all right and sound, and regular as a clock, till you
fetched that girl in from over your way and introduced him. Come down
right away, Mr. Henley. I'll tell 'im I saw you."

As Henley turned away to attend to his consignment of cotton in the
office of the compress he bit his lip and frowned darkly.

"If the dang fool thinks I'm going down there to be buttonholed for
hours to hear his tale of woe, he's certainly off his nut," he muttered,
angrily. "I've got other matters to attend to. I don't believe she is at
all struck with him, nohow. It don't look like she'd put 'im off like
she does and keep him floundering in so much hot water if she thought
much of him. He was there yesterday. I wonder what ails him now? She
didn't take 'im out to church. Little Joe is at her house, but he is
doing well enough for her to spare the time; I wonder if she was ashamed
to be seen out with him after that first splurge. I don't know; she
certainly is a plumb mystery to me."

His business over, he skirted around Long's establishment and made his
way through an isolated alley to the wagon-yard where he had left his
horse and buggy. He was just congratulating himself on his escape from
the storekeeper, when Long suddenly broke upon his vision as he plunged
incontinently through the big gateway. With an uneasy look in his eyes,
and with a face drawn and serious, the storekeeper came striding toward
him.

"Hello!" he panted. "I've been everywhere looking for you. You are as
slippery as an eel, and as hard to catch as a flea. I want to see you
bad, Alf. It's a particular matter. I can't let it rest."

"I was busy, and I hain't any too much time left on my hands now."
Henley looked at the sun and then at his watch. "You'll have to talk
fast, Long. Seems to toe there's a lot o' hitches in my affairs here
lately. This 'un to see, and that 'un to talk to, and--"

"I'm in trouble, Alf, old man." Long laid a red, perspiring hand on his
friend's shoulder and bore down heavily. "I was out yore way yesterday.
I tried to see you as I started home, but didn't know where to find you.
Alf, I can't jest somehow make out that little trick. Looks like she's
sorter shifty. In the first place, havin' to postpone the trip on
account of that sick young brat that ain't no blood kin to anybody
concerned sort o' knocked me off my props, and then, when the day _did_
come round, very little was done--that is, in the _right_ direction."

"You--you'll have to have patience," Henley remarked, insincerely. "If
you can't hold in and take things as they come you'd better call the
deal off. I started you; I can't lay down everything and keep--keep
telling you what to do and say. Life's too short and makes too many
claims on a fellow."

"I want you to say a good word for me, Alf." Long wiped his anxious
mouth with his bare hand and tugged at his mustache. "She believes the
sun rises and sets in you. Looks to me like it's Alfred did this, an'
Alfred said that, an' Alfred thinks so and so and does so and so, with
every breath she draws. For a while I 'lowed it was because she was
grateful to you for helpin' her out in the marryin' line, but she don't
seem to want to marry much, nohow. She'd listen to you, though, if she
would to any man alive, and something has to be done."

"Well, I reckon the little woman _is_ friendly to me." Henley avoided
the fiercely anxious stare of his flurried companion. "She's done me
good turns, and I've tried to respond."

"She'd fight for you tooth and toe-nail," Long declared. "I know from
experience. Why, I just happened to say one little, tiny thing about
you, and la! she flew at me like a hen fightin' for her brood. I meant
no harm. I'd have said the same thing to your face, as I am saying it
now. Me 'n her was talking about the way men dress these days, and I
said, without meanin' any harm, that it was naturally expected that
chaps here in a town like Carlton would be more up to date than at the
foot of the mountains where you live, and remarked that you made no
great pretence in the clothes you wore, in fact, that I thought you went
just a little bit too careless for a man as young and well-off as you
are."

"Huh, you told her that, did you?" Henley's cheeks reddened against his
will. "Well, I don't go much on style, in hot weather, anyway. I never
did want to be called a dude."

"Of course not, but what you reckon she done? She leaned back in her
chair while I was a-talking an' laughed like she'd bust herself wide
open. She pointed down at my new tan shoes and green socks and wanted to
know if things like them was style, and asked me why I kept my gloves on
in the house. She wanted to know if I let my yaller-bordered
handkerchief stick out of my upper pocket because I was afraid folks
wouldn't see it, an' if I kept a cheaper one to blow my nose on. You may
know, Alf, that all the good-dressers here at Carlton--and I pride
myself I'm amongst 'em--have their suits pressed once a week to make 'em
set right, but she said my pant-legs looked like they was lined with
pasteboard, and that my high collar looked like a cuff upside down. Of
course, I couldn't get mad, for she was joking all through, and laughin'
pleasant-like. But, Alf, I must say she's fallin' off in her meal
record. You know she made such a fine spread the first time that I
naturally expected some'n out of the common again. I saved myself up for
it. I didn't take on a big breakfast before I left home because I told
myself, I did, that I'd appreciate her fine fixings all the more. So you
can imagine how I felt when she marched me out, with them old women, and
set me down to--well, a body oughtn't to criticise what's set before 'em
in a friend's house, but, Alf, that really was the limit. I can tell you
just exactly what we had. I'll never forget it. It was plain pork and
beans, and boiled cabbage, and sliced tomatoes, and hard cornbread. She
hadn't put a sign of an egg in it, and cornbread without eggs ain't fit
to eat. It looks like Mrs. Hart had had some dispute with Dixie about
it, too, for the old lady kept whining and telling me it wasn't her
fault, that she thought Dixie was going to set in and fix up proper, but
that Dixie wouldn't listen to reason, and why, the old lady said, she
was unable to understand, for the like had never happened before. Dixie
didn't make any excuses, but set at the head of the table and dished out
that stuff as if it was the best afloat. 'Won't you pass yore plate for
more beans?' she wanted to know, and 'Won't you try some of the butter
with the cornbread?' I reckon I made a mistake by speaking of what a
fine spread she got up the last time, for she kind o' tilted her nose in
the air, an' said she 'lowed the weather was too hot to stand over a hot
cook-stove unless it was some _extra occasion_."

"She's got lots to do," Henley said, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
"She's undertaken to nurse that little boy back to health, and he takes
up a lot of her time."

"I reckon he does," Long said. "Looks like me an' her'd hardly get
settled in our chairs on the porch before her mammy would call out that
Joe wanted water, or Joe wanted to set up, or what not. It was more like
hard work than any day of courtin' I ever put in. But now, Alf, I'm
coming to my chief trouble. I want her, and I want her bad. I hardly
sleep at night for thinking about her sweet, pretty face, and
industrious habits, and what a bang-up wife she'd make, but I don't get
nowhere. The minute I come down to hard-pan she wiggles away like a
scared tadpole in shallow water. I done a thing, and I don't know
whether it was a big mistake or not, and that is the main thing I want
to see you about. It was just before I left, an' we was standin' at the
gate, nigh my hoss and buggy. It had got sorter dark, and--well, I'll
tell you all about it. Alf, I've heard fellows say (and they was men
that had had experience with women, too)--I've heard 'em say that the
chap that dilly-dallies with a woman, and always acts as sweet as pie,
never makes no headway. Them fellows say you've just got to be sorter
firm with a girl that won't make up her mind--that women like to have a
man show that he ain't scared out of his senses when he's with 'em. And
so I had all that in mind, you understand, when I made my last set at
her there in the dark. I saw nobody wasn't looking, and I catched hold
of her hand, I did, and held on to it though she pulled and twisted with
all her might. I told her I was bound to have a kiss, and I pulled her
up agin me and tried to take it. I couldn't manage it, though, and, by
gad! she got loose and slid through the gate, and went in the house and
slammed the door in my face."

"She ought to have knocked your head off, you low-lived fool!" cried
Henley. He was white in the face, and his eyes had a dangerous glare in
them. His breath came rapidly and with an audible sound. "For a minute
I'd pull you down here and stomp the life out of you!"

"Why, Alf! Alf! have you plumb lost your senses?" Long gasped. "Why,
why, good Lord, man! Why, Alf--"

"Don't Alf me!" Henley cried. "Get out of my sight or me 'n you'll mix
right here! I didn't introduce you to that gentle girl to have you pull
her around like a housemaid and force your foul lips to hers. I
introduced you as a _man_, not a bar-room roustabout. No wonder she
hain't took to you--no wonder she don't want to tie herself down for
life to you!"

Henley had sprung into his buggy and taken up the whip and reins. "Stand
out of the way!" he cried. "You've imposed on my friendship, and I don't
want you ever to mention this matter to me again. I'm heartily ashamed
of my part in it, and I don't want to be reminded of it."

Long tried to stop him, but, still white and furious, Henley lashed his
horse, and the animal bore him out of the yard and into the street. "I
ought to have given him one in the jaw!" Henley fumed. "I'll be sorry I
didn't the longer I think about it--the low-lived, dirty brute!"



CHAPTER XXVIII


All the next day as Henley performed his duties at the store the hot
sense of Long's stupid conduct brooded over him. One moment he was fired
with fury over the man's sheer vanity, the next he was bitterly accusing
himself for having been the primary cause of putting Dixie in a
disagreeable position. What would she think of him, he asked himself
over and over, for introducing such a despicable creature to her
hospitality and good graces?

It was near sunset when he saw her pass the store, going toward the
square. He went to the porch in front, unnoticed by the busy Cahews and
the drowsy Pomp, and saw her, much to his surprise, enter the
court-house yard, a place seldom visited by ladies. She was going up the
walk to the arching stone entrance when she met the ordinary of the
county, and Henley saw her pause and speak to him. The elderly,
gray-haired gentleman stood for several minutes in a listening attitude,
his hand cupped behind his ear, for he was slightly deaf. Presently
Henley saw the two turn toward the building and enter it side by side.

"I wonder what on earth the little trick's going there for at this time
of year," Henley mused. "It ain't tax-paying time."

The sun was down when she came out. He saw her coming and got his hat,
timing himself so that he would meet her, as if by accident, and walk
home with her. His calculations could not have been more accurate, for
she was in front of the store when he came out.

"Oh," he said, "it's you! I thought I saw you pass just now. I'm going
your way. I wanted to inquire how your little patient is."

"Oh, he's tiptop!" she cried, a delicate flush of tender enthusiasm on
her face, a sparkle in her eyes. "Dr. Stone says he's mending twice as
fast at our house because the little fellow is so happy there. When I'm
off at work he's petted half to death by them two old women who haven't
had anything better than a cat to pamper up since I got out of their
clutch."

"And old Pitman let you move him?" Henley half questioned, as he suited
his step to hers. "How did you manage it?"

"Me and the doctor put up a job on him," she laughed. "Dr. Stone wanted
to help me gain my point, and he had the sharpest talk with old Sam you
ever heard. The law was going to take him in hand for violating his
contract in regard to the boy, and Dr. Stone would have to appear
against him. But he told Sam that if he'd turn the boy over to me till
he got well, he thought the whole thing might drop."

"Good job!" Henley chuckled. "Sam's a hard nut to crack."

Dixie raised her long lashes in a steady stare at him. "Guess what I've
been doing at the court-house," she said. "I've been engaged in an odd
thing for this modern day of enlightenment. Maybe you think slavery is
over--maybe you think the Yankees wiped it clean out forty years ago,
but they didn't. I've turned the wheels of Time back. I laid down the
cash and bought a real live slave to-day. I didn't have to dig up as
much as two thousand, which, I understand, was the old price for stout,
able-bodied, hard workers, for the one I bought was a little sick one.
Alfred, I actually bought little Joe to-day. I paid Sam Pitman
twenty-five dollars to get him to release all his claims without any
rumpus. I've adopted him. Judge Barton has fixed up the papers good and
stout, and says nothing can take him from me as long as I do my part by
him. Alfred, I'm so happy that I want to shout at the top of my lungs."

"You have adopted him!" Henley exclaimed, in wondering surprise. "Well,
well, what won't you do next? Of all the things on earth this knocks me
off my feet, and you already loaded down with responsibilities!"

"I don't care," Dixie laughed. "I'd welcome more like that, and never
complain. You ought to have seen Joe when I told him Sam had agreed to
let him go, and that I was to be his mother. If you could have seen the
angelic look on that thin, white face you would have known that life is
eternal, and that the spirit is all there is to anything. He stared
straight at me with his pale brow wrinkled as if it was too good to be
so, and then when I convinced him, he put his arms around my neck and
hugged me tight, and sobbed and sobbed in pure joy."

Dixie was shedding tears herself now, and, with a heaving breast and
lowered head, she walked along beside her awed and silent companion.
They had entered a wood through which the road passed, and there seemed
to be a hallowed stillness in the cool, grayish touch of the coming
night that pervaded the boughs and foliage of the trees. Beyond the wood
a mountain-peak rose in a blaze of molten gold from the oblique rays of
the setting sun, but here the night-dews were beginning to fall and the
chirping insects of the dark were waking. In the marshy spots frogs were
croaking and snarling, and fireflies were cutting, to their kind perhaps
readable, hieroglyphics on the leafy background. Presently she wiped her
eyes, and smiled up at him.

"What a goose I am!" she said. "As old as I am, I'll cry if you crook
your finger at me. You went to Carlton yesterday, didn't you?"

"Yes," he replied, glad to see her emotion over, uplifting and rare as
its nature was.

"Did you happen to see my young man?" A smile he failed to see in the
shadows was playing sly tricks with her lineaments.

"_Your_ young man? You mean--"

"You know who I mean. I mean my beau--Mr. Jasper Long, Esquire,
merchant, cotton-handler, and rich capitalist."

"Yes, I saw him," Henley said, reluctantly. "I didn't make a point of
looking him up. He ran about searching for me. I've washed my hands of
that--that matter, Dixie. I ain't no hand at match-making, nohow. It
ain't my turn. I get all mixed up, and blunder at it. I'll never set
myself up to pick out a--a suitable mate for any woman again. There
ain't none in existence--there ain't none half good enough for you,
nohow. It makes me sick to--to think about a fellow like--well, no
better in many ways than this here Long is--having the gall to think
he--that you'd be willing to live with him the rest of your days as if
there was a single thing in common betwixt you. He told me about what he
done--what he _tried_ to do out at the fence when he started off the
other night, and, _well_--"

"Well what?" she cried, eagerly, the corners of her mouth curving upward
as she eyed him covertly.

"Why, you know well enough what the fool done, Dixie!" Henley said,
unaware of the meshes into which her curiosity was leading him. "When he
told me about it, in his offhand way, as if he had just done an
ordinary, every-day act, I come as nigh as peas mashing his big,
flathering mouth. I've been boiling mad ever since. I rolled and tumbled
in bed last night, and it's stuck to me all day. Somehow I just can't
shake it off."

"You mean, Alfred"--and she paused at the roadside, and put out her
hands to his arms, and studied his face with the eagerness of a child
searching for the confirmation of something hoped for and yet not
absolutely attainable--"do you mean that it actually made you mad when
he told you. Tell me how; tell me why. You wouldn't have--felt that way
if--if it had been some other girl, would you?"

"How do I know?" Henley cried, hot from the memory of the thing spoken
of. "I don't know whether I'd feel mad or not. I never tried it. It is
the first time I was ever up against a thing as aggravating as that was.
The idea of him actually trying to kiss you, and--and put his arms
around you, and holding to you, and--and--"

"He's a bad, mean thing, ain't he, Alfred?" And her merry laugh rang
through the quiet wood, plunging him into deeper mystification than
ever. "But of course he couldn't know that I'd not be willing to be
hugged and kissed right there at the fence, with a crippled woman
peeping out at the window, and a half-blind one standing by, begging for
a report of what's taking place. Before you married, Alfred, I'll bet
you selected a better place than that when you wanted to kiss a girl.
That fellow lives in a big town and I live here in the backwoods, but I
can learn him a thing or two."

"You can't fool me." Henley was sure of his ground now. "You wouldn't
let that chump kiss you at any time or at any place. I was a fool to
ever mention him to you; he ain't worthy to tie the shoes of a woman as
noble and sweet and pretty as you are."

"Go it, go it, Alfred!" A delicate flush of delight had overspread her
face, which was wreathed in smiles. There was a twinkling light in her
eyes, and her laugh rang out sweeter and more merrily than ever. "If
Jasper Long only knowed how to say nice things in your roundabout way
I'd marry him if he was as poor as Job's turkey. You never have told me
in so many words that--that you like my looks or--or like _me_, as for
that matter; but when you get worked up, the sweetest things in heaven
or earth slip out when you don't know it."

But grimly unpleasant thoughts had fastened themselves on Henley's
bewildered brain, and he could only stare at her in sheer agony of
suspense.

"Then you may--you _may_ marry him, after all!" he said, under his
breath. "You haven't fully decided yet. You may conclude that you and
him--" His voice broke, and, like a dumb animal brought to bay, he stood
staring at her, his mouth open, his lower lip quivering.

A great change came over her. She seemed to hesitate an instant, and
then she took his inert hand in both of hers, drew it up and held it
fondly against her throbbing breast. "Love--the right sort, Alfred--is
the sweetest, holiest thing in all the world. It is the first breath of
real heaven that men and women feel here on earth. When two people love
each other--like we--like they ought to love one another, they both know
it as plain as we know that sky full of stars is over us right now. They
feel it in the way their pulse beats when their hands meet; they hear it
in their voices when they speak; they see it in each other's eyes; they
love to be together, and feel like something has gone wrong when they
ain't. That's real love, Alfred, and if the man is tied up in a way God
never meant him to be, and if the woman is loaded down with burdens till
her fresh young shoulders are bent and ache night and day, still the
thought of their love may be always in their hearts and make life seem
one continual day of sunshine and music."

"Oh, Dixie, you mean--" His voice broke, and he could only stare at her
as if waking from a deep dream of perplexity into complete
understanding.

She nodded, kissed his hand reverently and released it. They walked on
without a word between them till they reached the point where their
ways parted. He would have detained her, but she said:

"No, not now, Alfred. I see somebody on your porch. I think it is your
wife. We must be careful to do no wrong in the sight of the world. You
owe that poor woman all the happiness you can give her. To think of what
we might want would be downright selfishness. We know what we know, and
that is sweet enough. Don't think of me marrying anybody. I've got Joe
and my duties, and--and you know what else. I shall never complain
again--never! Good-bye."



CHAPTER XXIX


Across the table at the evening meal Henley saw his wife regarding him
stealthily as she served the food to him and the others. Her look had a
queer, shifting, probing quality, which at any other time would have
inspired investigation, but she failed to rivet his attention to-night.
There were other things to think of--things as new and startling as the
dawn of day must have appeared to the opening eyes of the first man. And
all this had come to him. All these years he had groped in darkness,
seeking and never finding till the dreams of youth were dead. But now
all was lightness, full comprehension, and joy--joy which all but
stifled in its clinging embrace of restitution.

After supper, with a cigar which he forgot to light, he evaded the
tentative chatter of old Wrinkle and sought a rustic seat under a tree
in the yard. Over the meadow, and piercing the shadows which enveloped
him, shone a light from Dixie Hart's kitchen. He fancied that he saw her
at work, her strong, lithe form and glorious face emitting cheer,
courage, and hope to her helpless charges. He wondered if she was
recalling, as he would to the day of his death, the heavenly words she
had spoken at parting. The touch of her velvet lips still lay on his
hand, sending through his every vein streams of sheer ecstasy. Overhead
the sky arched, star-sprinkled, calm, and as full of its untold story as
at the dawn of time.

Inside the kitchen near by Mrs. Henley and Mrs. Wrinkle were washing
dishes. Wrinkle came from a rear door, a swill-pail in hand, and,
bending under its weight, he trudged down to his pigpen at the barn. The
clattering in the kitchen ceased; the light went out, to appear again in
Mrs. Henley's room. Her transported husband saw her through an
uncurtained window. At another time he might have wondered over her
present occupation, for, standing before a mirror, she was giving
unwonted attention to her toilet. She was fastening a flowing scarf
about her neck, pulling at the bow to make it hang to her fancy. She
applied white powder to her cheeks and the faintest hint of pink,
carefully brushing her hair and pulling down her scant bangs as he could
not remember having seen her do since their marriage. Next she threw a
light shawl over her shoulders, experimentally drawing it up under her
sharp chin, as she viewed the effect in the glass, and then settling it,
with final approval, and in easier fashion, farther back upon her
shoulders. He saw her raise her candle and turn her head in various
ways, her eyes fixed on her twisting image. Then, with a smile of
content, she blew out the candle. He saw the tiny red spark which
remained on the wick standing guard where she had left it. She must be
going to spend the evening somewhere and would demand his company,
Henley reflected, in dismay at the thought of his present fancies being
disturbed in such a prosaic way. Or perhaps she had taken a sudden whim
to go to prayer-meeting--this thought prompted by the dismal clanging of
a cast-iron church-bell at Chester. In that case there was a chance of
escape, for she would ask Mrs. Wrinkle to accompany her.

Suddenly she appeared on the porch, and came down the steps and tripped
lightly across the grass to him. He was conscious of the strange, almost
weird, alteration in her manner, and was therefore partially prepared
for the change in her voice and intonation.

"Is that you, Alfred?" she inquired, playfully. "I thought you might be
here, it is so close inside. You can always catch a breeze on this spot
if one is stirring at all."

"Yes, it's me," he answered, pulling his glance from the light across
the meadow and letting it rest on her face. "Are you going out
somewhere?"

She gave a little mechanical laugh. "Just because I put on this white
shawl?" she jested, her thin right hand toying with her bangs. "No,
there's no place to go that I know of, and if there _was_ I don't feel
in the humor for it to-night. Somehow I felt like I wanted to talk to
you. I hope Ma and Pa will go to bed; they are getting to be lots of
bother in one way and another. They mean well, the dear things, but they
are old and childish."

She sat down on the seat beside him and rested her elbow on its back,
her face toward him. "I saw you walking home with Dixie Hart this
evening," she remarked. "Did she say how that boy is getting on?"

"Why"--there was just the faintest pause on Henley's part; he was
conscious that he caught his breath, and that a warm, objectionable
flush was stealing over him--"why, I think he is mending purty fast.
I--I reckon there is no secret about it--Miss Dixie says she's adopted
him by process of law."

"Good gracious! You don't say! Why, that makes _three_ on her hands.
Well, she's a remarkable girl, Alfred, _and she's pretty_. Don't you
think so?" She was toying with the fringe of her shawl, and yet she
seemed to hang upon his answer as she gazed straight at him.

"Y-e-s," Henley said. "She really has undertaken a lot, but I reckon
she'll pull through, someway or other."

"Pa says she's managed to get out of old Welborne's debt," Mrs. Henley
went on, taking her knee in her hands and lifting her foot from the
ground and swinging it to and fro. "Lots of folks thought he'd finally
sell her out of house and home. I didn't think, myself, that she'd ever
pay out, but she seems to have succeeded. I give her full credit for all
she is, Alfred. I'm not the sort of woman that underrates another just
to be doing it. She's a stanch friend of yours. It is a good deal for me
to admit, but she gave me a straight talk once that set me to thinking.
I've never let on, but what she said made a deep impression on me."

The speaker paused, as if waiting for her words to take root and sprout
in his comprehension, but he said nothing--only sat staring at her, as
if trying to divine her subtle drift.

"It was while you was away, Alfred," she continued, "and--and there was
so much talk about what I was doing at that time, you remember, to--to
show respect for Dick's memory. For a girl as young as she is, she said
some powerful strong things. She thought I wasn't acting right toward
you, and told me so to my face. I went on with my plans, but I've often
thought of her advice. You may have noticed that I hain't talked as much
about the--the monument as I did, and I haven't been to see it as often
as I used to. Dixie Hart made me look at it from the outside to some
extent, and with that I began to be more considerate of you. I saw you
wasn't the same as you was at first--I might say, as you was all along
when you and Dick was both taking me out, and as you was--for that
matter--just before and after me and you got married. In fact, Alfred,
you are getting to be a sort o' puzzle to me. Even to-night at supper
you seemed to be in some sort of far-off dream or other. You'd lift up a
fork or a spoon and hold it a long time before you'd put it in your
mouth, and once I caught you gazing straight at me with the blankest
look I ever saw on a human face. You don't seem the same. I don't mean
that you haven't got a _healthy_ look, for that would bother me a lot,
but you are--well, you are just different."

"Don't you worry," Henley heard himself saying, aghast at the cliffs and
chasms ahead of him. "Don't worry about me if I seem to have my mind off
at times. I've made some trades lately, and got the best end of 'em. I'm
a natural trader--a born trader, Hettie. They say it is like a mild form
of gambling. Just yesterday I made a deal with an old chap--"

"I don't want to talk about trading and swapping, and the like," the
woman broke in, firmly. "Besides, no sort of ordinary business ever made
a man look like you've looked lately. You used to be sorter active and
nervous, but now you set and brood with an odd, reddish look on your
face. It ain't natural. It looks like you've resigned yourself to--to
something that you didn't exactly like before, and it don't please me to
see you that way. Pa's noticed it and mentioned it two or three times."

"There's nothing in the world the matter with me," Henley declared,
actually alarmed at the incongruity of his position.

"Alfred," the woman said, contritely, and she bent forward and peered up
into his face, "you are a sight better man than I am a woman, and--"

"Shucks!"

"You may say shucks if you want to, but wait till I get through. I
reckon, as women go, in the general run, I'm a queer sort of female. I
never was just like other girls. For one thing, I always wanted what was
out of my reach; not getting a thing, or even having doubts about it,
always made me want it more than anything else. I reckon that is why
Dick kind o' fascinated me: the girls was all after him, and he seemed a
sort of prize to be had at any cost. Even after we was married, as maybe
you know, he kept me worried with his attentions to some of the old
crowd of girls. But enough of that. When he died and you come back,
begging, as you did, to have me consider you, I finally give in and took
you. But that wasn't all. I had stood up before a preacher in the house
of God and agreed to be your wife and helpmeet, but, as I now see it, I
didn't do my duty by you. I made the mistake, I reckon, of thinking too
much about what I owed to the dead and gone, and I went so far as to do
things in public that actually driv' you away from home and caused folks
to laugh at you and make remarks. Dixie Hart was right; I wasn't toting
fair with you, and I want to tell you to-night, Alfred, that I see my
error, and--and I am plumb sorry."

He turned upon her resolutely. She was looking down, and he fancied she
was about to shed such tears as she had often shed early in their
married life when Dick Wrinkle's name was mentioned. He had none of the
old chivalrous sympathy which such a demonstration had once evoked, nor
any of the old indulgence for a love which he had hoped to see die, and
yet, just from his passionate contact with Dixie Hart, he was full of
comprehension and pity for his wife's plight--at least, as he now saw
it.

"Listen to me, Hettie," he began, and his voice shook with deep feeling.
"You've been right all along. Don't you bother about that. It was _me_
that was crooked. In this life folks don't love in the highest and best
way but once--not but once in a lifetime. Dick Wrinkle was your first
and only abiding fancy. The feeling that made you turn me down and take
him when you was a girl and I was a big blockhead of a boy was born of
God in heaven. I was the one that was making a mistake when I come and
begged you to marry me while that pure thing was still alive in your
heart. A love like that never dies; it is too sweet and glorious to die.
I see now, too, that you was plumb right about wanting to take care of
his mammy and daddy, and about wanting that sermon preached, and about
erecting a lasting monument to commemorate his name. You had to do all
them things because they was part and parcel of you yourself, and the
constancy God planted in you. I can say honestly that I'm glad you still
love him. You wouldn't be a high sort of a woman if you did change.
Death can't separate folks that love; they go on and on--side by side,
hand in hand, heart to heart--through all eternity."

She actually gasped. She rose, and stood staring toward the door, a deep
frown on her face; she shrugged her shoulders; she clinched her fists;
she rapped the ground sharply with her foot; then she slowly bent down
over him, resting her thin left hand on his broad shoulder while she
peered with a stare of would-be incredulity into his enraptured face.

"Look at me, Alfred!" she cried, in a rasping tone. "_You know you don't
mean one single word of all you've just said!_"

"Why, I do," he insisted, blandly. "As God is my judge, I do. There
ain't no such thing as _two_ loves--a first and a second. When the real
thing comes to a body he knows it. A feller could be blinded for a time,
I reckon, in hot-blooded youth, while he was in close pursuit of a thing
that kept slipping away from him, as was my case when Dick and me was
going nip and tuck to see which could get ahead; but the genuine, real
thing is as different as--as day from night."

She drew herself up straight, and heaved a deep, lingering sigh. "I
don't believe you mean a word of what you say," she repeated. "It ain't
natural for a man who is as jealous as--as you always have been
even--even of the dead--to set up and talk that way."

"Jealous?" he said, half musingly. "I don't think I'm a jealous man.
Anyways, I don't think a feller would have the right to be jealous of a
man that was dead and under ground. As I look at it now, I don't think a
man has a right, in the best sense, to marry a widow; and in the same
way a widower has no right to lay aside his past memories if they are
the right sort. They ought to be his best company in his loneliness. Of
course, now that you and me are linked together by law and religion, we
owe it to the community we live in to do our duty and make the best--I
mean, to live along as friendly and harmoniously as we can."

She sank down to the seat again, and sat staring at him fixedly.
Presently, seeing that he was not going to resume speaking, she said: "I
believe, on my soul, Alfred, you have plumb lost your senses. I may or
may not be responsible for it; you may have let all this talk about Dick
and my--my thinking about him prey on your mind till it is unhinged.
Why, what I done about his grave and memory wasn't anything but respect
that was due to him, and has nothing to do with our agreement. You've
hurt my feelings, Alfred--you actually have."

She rose suddenly, and, with her handkerchief to her eyes, she started
toward the door. She moved slowly, as if she expected him to call her
back, as he had frequently done in the past; but he seemed to be
oblivious of her presence and not to have heard her last plaintive
appeal, for he sat gazing at the light in Dixie Hart's cottage like an
unwakable man. She came slowly back, now with stiff, indignant
strides--strides which dug deeply into the unoffending turf.

"You certainly are either crazy or a plumb fool!" she fired at him. "You
said once that folks hinted that I was cracked in the upper story from
the way I acted, but the shoe is on the other foot now. If folks don't
say you are out of your head it is because they ain't here to listen to
your meandering. A man that will set up and hint to a wife who he loves,
and always has loved, that he's willing for her to still care for and
cherish another person--I say a man like that is in need of a doctor's
advice."

"Well, I was just trying to justify you and your acts," Henley answered
in pained retaliation, "and to show you that I had no ill-will in any
shape or form. You loved Dick in the right sort of way, and I'm just man
enough to lay no obstacle whatever in your track. In the next life you
and Dick will be reunited, and all things will be made straight. I don't
want to fuss with you over it, Hettie. This life is too beautiful, if it
is looked at right, to waste time in jowering. You and me can live in
harmony from now on if you'll just be reasonable and not fly off the
handle when a feller is doing his level best to arrive at some sort of
common meeting-ground. All these years I've been fretting and trying to
run a race with a dead man when I could have been in more active
business. I've give in at last, and I'm going to stay give in. The truth
is, I'm just beginning to live. For the first time in my life I'm in
sympathy with true, natural-born, well-mated lovers. If they are tied
together, all well and good; but if they are parted by some hook or
crook, then they are to be pitied, but still they've got the
satisfaction of knowing--well, of knowing what they know--that's all."

"Well, I know _one_ thing," Mrs. Henley said, and she turned away,
angrily. "I know you are simply daft--you've lost every grain of sense
you ever had."

"I might have known she'd twist the thing all upside-down and never see
it right," Henley mused, as he watched her ascend the steps, cross the
porch, and disappear in the house. "I thought that view would hit her
just right, but, contrary as she always was, she sees fit to disagree. I
reckon if she knew everything there _would_ be a row. Huh, I wouldn't
risk that with her. She can hold her funeral conclaves, and build
monuments to another fellow as high as a church-steeple, and expects me
to swallow the dose, but just let me kind o' look about a little, and
I'm a fit subject for a madhouse."



CHAPTER XXX


The next morning at breakfast Mrs. Henley seemed to have lost all memory
of the angry scene on the grass the evening before. Her countenance was
overcast with an expression that her husband would have designated as
one of pleasure had he been given to the analysis of her facial
phenomena, a pursuit he had long since given up as futile and
unprofitable. Her dress, too, showed unusual care, and a crisp,
fresh-ironed jauntiness that jerked him back to the past with rather
disagreeable suddenness. Amid the white ruffles at her neck she had
pinned a large, full-blown rose, and her manner toward the others was a
fragile sort of graciousness which would have been a delight if one
could have felt that it was permanent. As a rule she passed Henley's
coffee to him through the hands of the two Wrinkles, but this morning
she rose and brought it round to him, remarking that she had fixed it
just to his liking. Old Wrinkle, as his intimates--and many
others--knew, was not backward in the use of his tongue, and yet there
was something in the unwonted ceremony of the present meal that silenced
him. The old fellow, however, was making a record-breaking use of his
eyes. Henley saw him taking in every detail of his former
daughter-in-law's appearance and mood, and smiling all too knowingly for
anybody's comfort as he munched and gulped.

After breakfast Henley was at the gate ready to walk to the store when
Wrinkle came to him and clutched his arm familiarly.

"Wait, I'll go 'long with you," he said. "I want to talk to you some,
anyway. Alf, did you ever since the world was made--"

But his words were lost on the morning air, for Mrs. Henley was calling
to her husband from the porch, where she stood smiling at him from the
honeysuckle vines.

"Don't go yet!" she called out, and she tripped down the steps toward
him. She paused at a rose-bush on the way and plucked a bright-red bud,
and, bringing it to him, she began to fasten it on the lapel of his
coat. "You are getting entirely too slouchy," she mumbled, a pin in her
mouth. "You never used to wear such dowdy clothes. You've got to spruce
up--ain't he, Pa?"

"Well, it ain't Sunday, nor camp-meetin'," Wrinkle made answer. "He
looks well enough for every day; he'd look odd with a long, jimswinger
coat on in that dusty store with all them one-gallus mossbacks he makes
his livin' out of. Them fellers 'u'd laugh at 'im an' say he was gittin'
rich too fast at the'r expense."

As red as the flower with which she was trying to adorn him, Henley
pushed the bud away. "I don't want it," he said. "I never was any hand
to put on such things. I'd be a purty sight, now, wouldn't I--walkin' in
town with a flower-garden pinned to me?"

She submitted to his refusal, deftly twining the stem of the flower into
the cheap lace about her neck.

"I've got a favor to ask of you, Alfred," she said, sweetly, "and I
don't want you to refuse it, either. This time I know what I want, and I
must have it."

"Well, what is it?" he asked, his attention diverted from her by the
hungry stare with which old Wrinkle was awaiting the climax of the
little scene.

"Why, I want you to take me to drive."

"To drive!" Henley repeated, as much surprised as if she had asked him
for a trip to Europe, and he heard old Wrinkle laugh out impulsively and
saw him dig his heel into the earth, as, with lowered head, he sought
to hide a broad and too-knowing smile which had captured his facile
mouth. "To drive?"

"Yes, Alfred, it has been a long time since I've seen anything of the
country hereabouts. Why, I've almost forgot how it looks, and this is
the best time of the year. It would do us both good to take a little
jaunt every day in the cool of the evening. We used to go out that way
just before we was married, and for a while afterward, and I want to do
it again. We've got wrong, somehow. We are not living like we ought to.
I say it here before Pa because I mean it, and know he will see it as I
do. Don't you think he ought to take me, Pa?"

"Well, I don't know as I'd sanction your ridin' 'round _late in the
evenin_'." Wrinkle now showed no hint of even hidden merriment. "You
mought git delayed beyond the usual time and supper would hang fire.
Havin' fun an' startin' in to do courtin' over agin is all right an'
proper if a body _feels_ thataway, but doin' it on a starvation basis
ain't good for the health, if it is for the senti_ments_."

"Oh, I'll see that you don't suffer, you old, greedy thing," Mrs. Henley
said, playfully, and caught her husband's arm. "I want you to hitch up,
and get a new lap-robe, and take me to-day--this very evening."

"To-day? Good gracious, what's got into you, Hettie?" Henley stammered,
glancing here and there in sheer helplessness. "I couldn't get off from
business. I've got my hands full of deals of one kind and another.
Driving around is all right for--for young couples that are sparking,
and even for fresh-married ones, but there comes a time when all
sensible folks ought to settle down to the--the enjoyment of home life."

"I see--you have changed." Mrs. Henley now drew herself up austerely and
glared at him coldly. "You think I'm well enough as a drudge about a
dirty old farm-house, but not fit company for riding and driving like
any woman as young as I am is entitled to. You never thought that sort
of a thing was too frivolous before we married, but now you sneer at it.
Well, you just wait till I give you a chance to take me anywhere again.
I lowered my pride to ask it this time, but I won't remind you again.
No, sir."

With a cloud of fury on her face she whirled, and whisked into the
house.

"Come on, Alf," old Wrinkle advised, with a look of amusement in his
eyes. "Let 'er sweat it out alone. She's jest tryin' to work on you,
anyway. She'll be as smooth as goose-grease by night. Looky here, Alf,
I'm an old man, an' you are jest a boy by comparison," he went on, as
they walked down the road together, "but what I don't know about women
you don't know about hosses, and you know a lot. I've learned women inch
by inch all through life. I reckon I got on to it by lyin' around the
fire on cold or wet days and listenin' to 'em. They say some men make a
study of rocks, ores, plants, an' bugs, but my hobby always was females.
Why, I almost know what turn a baby gal will take when it grows up. It
was a sort of funny game with me. I set out to see if I'd ever see a
woman do or say a sensible thing, an' I hain't won yet. Now, you may not
know it, my boy, but you are in hot water, an' it is deep enough to
float yore whiskers. You had married life down about right till just a
few days ago. You could go and come whenever you liked an' nobody axed
any questions. You was about the freest married man I ever knowed, white
or black, yaller or red, but yore day of reckoning has come. I knowed
some'n was wrong last night when you an' Het had that powwow in the
yard, an' I knowed the sun was shinin' too bright this mornin' to do
yore crop any good except to burn it up. I know Het. I've watched her
bury one man an' start in with another, an' if you had been a worryin'
feller she'd have had you mouldin' in the ground long go. As long as
Hettie could worry you she was happy. Part of that grave-rock
celebration was because she 'lowed it bothered you. I couldn't help
hearin' the talk last night. You both spoke louder than you thought, an'
the wind was blowin' my way. Why, man, when you set thar last night an'
told that woman that her undyin' love for Dick was holy an' godly an' a
thing to be kept in a glass case an' looked at every hour in the day--I
say when you throwed all that guff at her you sealed yore doom. Them
words kicked every prop from under her, an' down she come with a flop
that knocked the breath out of all her calculations. She looks fresh and
rosy this morning, but she rolled and tumbled the most of the night. I
don't sleep sound, an' I heard her. I wondered what step she'd take, an'
the breakfast-table grins an' rose-bud and buggy-ride proposition showed
her hand. This mad spell is part of the game. She has set in to make you
do your courtin' over ag'in, an' you'll find that about as unnatural as
wearin' yore vest under yore shirt. No man can court the same woman
twice an' put his heart in the job, but a woman is just so constituted
that she could _have_ it done over an' over by one or a dozen men. I
reckon, as Scriptur' says, it is more blessed to give than to receive,
but a man 'u'd rather not be blessed in the time to come than to have to
make eyes an' say sweet things when he ain't feelin' jest right. Now,
I'll turn back; I jest walked out with you to give you what advice I
could. Git the bit in yore jaw an' pull yore way steady, an' after a
while she'll git tired an' quit naggin' you."

That morning, near noon, as Henley was busy at his work in the rear of
the store, Cahews came back to him with a mild look of surprise on his
face.

"Your wife is out in front in her uncle Ben's carriage," he announced.
"She's dressed for travel--got three or four valises in with her.
Warren, must have sent over after her; the team looks like it's been on
the go for several hours."

Henley found her in the luxurious seat behind the higher one on which
the colored driver, in a battered silk top-hat, sat holding the reins
over a handsome pair of blacks. She looked at him coldly as, hatless and
coatless, he hurried out to her.

"What's this?" he asked, half playfully. "You ain't going to vamoose the
ranch, are you?"

"Uncle Ben's sick," she answered, stiffly. "He sent a note by Ned. He
didn't say for me to come, but he hinted at it several times. I'd show
you what he wrote, but we haven't time to spare. I packed up as quick as
I could. We'll stop at the half-way house for dinner."

"Ben hain't dangerous, is he?" Henley asked, his foot on the
brass-tipped hub of the fore-wheel, his hand on the arm of the seat she
occupied.

"I don't know whether he is or not," the speaker pulled down the veil
under her hat-brim and avoided her husband's eyes, "but he's lonely and
heartbroken over the way that unprincipled woman has treated him, and he
needs petting and nursing and some company in that big, gloomy house to
take his mind off his trouble and humiliation."

"He ought never to have got mixed up with her." Henley was recalling
Wrinkle's sage remarks. "Dealing with a woman you've known all her life
is risky enough, without going as far as Ben did for an opportunity to
get slapped in the face. But he ought to be thankful he found her out in
time."

"Finding her out ain't going to lighten the blow." Mrs. Henley shrugged
her shoulders. "When a man--or a _woman_, for that matter--has full
faith in a person, and finds out that the person ain't anything like he
used to be, why, a body hardly knows what _to_ think. I'm glad I'm
going away, Alfred. You showed me this morning when I give you that
chance to take me about a little here and there that you are changed.
When I'm away you'll realize what you've missed, and I'll be glad of it.
Absence, on my side, is the medicine you need to restore your senses."

"Well, we'll all certainly miss you." Henley was too honest--at least in
domestic matters--to know that his assertion was insincere, and
accustomed as he was in his dealings among men to assume exactly the
shade of tone or set of face that went best with a statement, he now had
as complete an air of regret and discomfort as the most exacting of
wives could have wished.

"Well, I'm getting the drive I asked for," was her parting shot, and she
leaned over and gave him a cold, stiff hand. "I'm taking it all by
myself, as most married women have to do if they don't seek the
attention of other men. But I'm going to do my duty to a human sufferer,
and in that I'll get my reward."

He walked back to the store thoughtfully. "She's gone!" he said to
himself. "She's ripping mad and got it in for me, that's certain. She's
begun on a new line, and I'll bet she makes me smoke before she's
through with me. I know what she wants well enough, but somehow I just
can't do it. I might at one time, but I couldn't now to save my neck
from the loop. The old man is plumb right. When a feller's love gets
cold on the inside he can't warm it up by external applications. He's a
matrimonial misfit, and the sooner he realizes it and is resigned the
better he'll feel."



CHAPTER XXXI


"Well, the old gal's gone," Wrinkle remarked that day at sundown when
Henley came in at the gate and found him seated on a dismantled beehive
in the yard. "I reckon you seed 'er spin through town. For a woman goin'
out as a sick-nuss or spiritual comforter to a chap kicked by a
high-steppin' filly she certainly had a supply of frills and ruffles.
Them valises was packed as tight as a compressed cotton-bale. She left
behind her one solid wail of woe. Jane is afraid she'll never gratify
yore taste for grub as well as Het did, an' she's in thar now humpin'
herself to contrive new concoctions. Het kept boarders long enough to
git stingy, an' I told my wife to turn over a new leaf for a change. I
driv' a fat chicken in a fence-corner just now, and held its legs while
she chopped its spout off. She knows how to fry 'em, an' if she kin see
well enough to pick the pin-feathers off it will be all right. I'd put
her biscuits agin any ever baked."

After a really enjoyable supper Henley went out under the trees to get
the fresh air which, in invigorating gusts, swept up the valley along
the mountain-range. He told himself that his reason for wandering down
toward his barn was to avoid meeting Wrinkle, who he knew would soon
appear from the kitchen, where he was helping his wife wash the dishes.
He was aware, of course, that Dixie Hart's cow-lot adjoined his
stable-yard, and he knew that it was the hour at which she went to
milk, and yet he would not have admitted that he strolled thither in
the hope of meeting her, but, nevertheless, he went.

He saw her entering the lot-gate, a bright tin pail in her hand, and he
shielded himself with a jutting corner of his wagon-shed and watched her
graceful approach through the dusk. He saw her get the tub of cow's food
from the crib and give it to the animal, and then he heard her scream
out, and, following her startled eyes, he saw that, having failed to
close the gate behind her, the cow's calf had entered and was rushing to
its mother. With an ejaculation of impatience Dixie threw her arms about
the calf's neck and tried to pull it from the cow's bag, but it was of
no avail. The strong young beast would wriggle from her clutch and dart
back to its supper.

"Oh, you brat, you are stealing all the milk!" Dixie cried. She picked
up a dried corn-stalk, and with it belabored the sleek, brown back of
the calf, but she might as well have used an ostrich-plume for all the
effect it had on the hungry animal.

It was then that Henley, laughing heartily, sprang over the fence and
came to her assistance.

"Let me have the little scamp," he said. And he bent down and took the
squirming beast into his strong arms and lifted it bodily from the
ground. "Now, where do you want him put?" he asked, as he stood swaying
back and forth in his effort to control the wriggling prisoner.

"Over the fence!" she cried, and stood panting in admiration of his cool
skill and strength as he walked to the fence and dropped the calf on the
other side. He then fastened the gate and came back to her.

"You are doing a man's work, anyway," he said, looking into her flushed
face, "and you ought to call a halt. Life is too short to spend it as
you are doing."

"It's all very well for you men to talk that way," Dixie retorted, as
she pushed her milking-stool to the side of the cow and sat down with
the pail between her knees, "but women, as well as men, want to live,
and if there's any way to live without work, and plenty of it, I'd like
to find out about it."

"It seems to me that a feller by the name of Long was offering to point
out a way to you," he said, with a forced smile.

The back part of her uncovered head was turned toward him. Her shapely
hands and bare, tapering arms gleamed like yellow marble through the
dusk. He smelled the delightful odor of the warm milk as her deft
fingers sent it ringing into the pail.

"Yes, he was offering me a job," he heard her say with a sarcastic
little chuckle. "He wanted me to quit working at my old place and set in
for him, and nothing particular was said about raising my wages."

"And what are you going to answer him, I wonder?" Henley inquired, as he
bent down over her that the noise of the squirting milk might not drown
her reply.

She flashed a glance at him; there was an ineffable shimmer in her
long-lashed eyes; she made a comical little grimace. "I've said the last
word between me and him," she answered. "I got a humble letter from him
yesterday begging my pardon for what he'd tried to do, and saying he'd
behave like a gentleman from now on, if I'd only let him come out
again."

"Well, it was time he was apologizing," Henley cried. "For a little I'd
have--well!"

Dixie smiled and looked at him eagerly. "Did that make you mad,
Alfred--really mad?"

"I don't think I ever was madder in all my life." He walked
unsuspectingly into her trap. "I driv' away soon after or I don't know
what would have happened. The more I thought about it the madder I got.
Once I started to turn round and go back. I would, if I hadn't thought
he was such a weak fool. It ain't done with; I can't think about it
without wanting to mash something. I reckon me 'n him had better stay
apart."

"We ain't going to have any row about that, Alfred," Dixie said, quite
seriously. "You know you would bear a lot rather than have folks say
a--a married man was taking up for me in that way. If you ever meet him,
and the thing comes up, you must remember that one thing. My character's
all I've got, Alfred; if you are what I think you are, you'd think twice
before compromising me like that. Carrie Wade _would_ talk then, sure
enough. Married men don't go about having fisticuffs over girls that
live next door to 'em without folks wondering, and I tell you I'm like
that fellow Cæsar's wife--I'm too good to be wondered about in any shape
or form."

"I know it--God knows I know it," Henley responded, under his trembling
breath. "You needn't be afraid, Dixie. I'll take care. But you didn't
tell me what answer you made to--to Long's apology, or whether you was
going to let him come again or not."

"I wrote him a pretty nice sort of a letter." She was laughing as she
bent over her pail, but he didn't know it. "You see, Alfred, I was
afraid you had hurt the poor fellow's feelings that day, and I thought
_somebody_ ought to be mild-tempered. I told 'im that wasn't no place or
time, anyway, to kiss a girl--right in front of the door of her
house--that a girl naturally liked to be wheedled awhile before she set
in on such familiar terms, and that if it had been a _third_ visit,
instead of jest the _second_, that I'd have taken him for a stroll down
by the creek. There's a foot-log there plumb hid by willows, Alfred, and
I always thought it would be fine to set on it with your feet dangling
over the stream and see two sweethearts reflected in the clear water,
his arm round her waist and her head on his shoulder. Now, that's the
sort of thing this chicken has always had a yearning for, and--" Dixie
tittered inaudibly in the pail and said nothing more.

He had drawn himself erect and stood as full of despair as the night was
full of darkness. She heard him utter a low groan, but that was all. She
peered up at him stealthily, and then, with a face warm with content,
she resumed her work. He stood silent till she rose.

"Now that dratted calf can come to the second table," she said, in the
most uneventful tone imaginable. "Alfred, will you please let him in?
He's about to butt the gate down."

He walked stiffly across the lot and opened the gate. The calf shot past
him like an animated cannon-ball. He met her as, with the pail on her
arm, she had turned toward the cottage.

"I'm too big a fool to ever understand you, Dixie," he gulped, as they
paused face to face. "Since me and you parted the--the other day I--I've
been plumb crazy. I got to thinking things that are too far off--too
nigh the gates of heaven to be possible--things that made all my
troubles fly away, but now I see it was just in my imagination. I'm
going to be sensible from now on if it kills me. You can't keep on in
the miserable way you are living. You've always thought you'd escape the
worst by marrying, and I have no right because this here hell is raging
in me to tell you who, or who not, to take. I'd rather see you--you dead
in your coffin than the--the wife of that silly fool. But that's your
business--that's--that's--" His voice broke and he stood quivering, his
strong face torn into shreds by despair.

"You dear, dear boy!" Dixie said, laying her disengaged hand gently on
his arm, her own face suffused with a faint glow of uncontrollable
tenderness. "I'm only a girl--a natural one, Alfred--and I'm so hungry
for love that I try to make you say those things, wrong as they may be.
Don't you know when I'm joking? Listen and I'll tell you the truth. I
wrote Jasper Long that it was all right about what he'd tried to do. I'd
not hold any grudge against him, but that I knew I never could care for
him, and I hoped he'd never come to see me again."

"You--you wrote 'im that?" Henley gasped.

"Oh, Alfred," she cried, as she released his arm, "don't you know that I
could not marry a man I don't love? Don't you know what has been growing
up in me all this time in which you with your unhappiness and me with my
misfortune have been drawed so close together? Every night, as I say my
prayers and call on God to help you, I wonder what He meant by the bonds
with which He's tied me to you hand and foot, heart and soul. When you
was trying to find me a husband, and fighting for my legal rights, you
thought it was just friendship, and so did I. The world we live in
counts it one of the blackest of sins for a married man and an unmarried
girl to love each other, but you know we didn't do wrong intentionally.
We was as innocent and unsuspecting as lambs in the fold. Right when we
thought we was doing our duty the ground was slipping from under us, and
we was clutching each other to keep from falling. Now, that's all I'm
going to say. I shall never marry any man while this feeling is in my
breast. That would be wrong for a dead certainty, let folks say what
they please about the other. Your wife went off to-day, didn't she? I
saw Warren's carriage drive up and knew something was going to happen;
then the old man come over and told us about it."

She had passed through the gate on her way home, and he remained at her
side. "I want to stop in after supper, and--and see how little Joe is,"
he said, hesitatingly.

"No, not to-night, Alfred," she returned, firmly. "He'd like to see you,
but don't come the first night after--after she went away. We really
must be sensible. Folks don't understand--they never could
understand--and we've got to think of them. I may have done wrong in
letting you know how I feel, but it will end there."

"I see, I understand," he said, reverently. "They shall never talk about
you while I'm alive. Good-night."

He walked slowly toward the lights in the farm-house. He heard the two
Wrinkles, with cracked voices, singing a hymn as they sat in their
rocking-chairs on the porch. The very stars seemed to hang lower from
the darkling mystery overhead; he felt light enough, in his boundless
content, to rise to them and drink at their twinkling founts. His soul
seemed to swell to the point of bursting. "Oh, God, I thank Thee!" he
said, deep within himself. "I thank Thee!"



CHAPTER XXXII


With Henley the next day passed like some fascinating dream. He was busy
in various ways as usual, and yet scarcely for a moment were his
thoughts away from his new-found delight. He had no hope, bound as he
was to another to whom he owed his honor, of ever being closer to Dixie
than he was now, and yet there was something in the very purity of his
possession of her heart and in her willing sacrifice of so much for the
principle which guided her that lifted him into new and untrodden fields
of spiritual ecstasy.

It was near sunset, and he stood in the front doorway of the store,
looking out into the quiet square, when, to his surprise and with a
tumultuous throbbing of his heart, he saw Dixie pass with a letter in
her hand on the way to the post-office. She was on the opposite side of
the street and did not glance in his direction, and he made no effort to
attract her attention. As she passed along by old Welborne's diminutive
office Henley noticed that Hank Bradley, who had been drinking about
town through the day, came from the doorway and bowed to her
conspicuously, his slouch-hat almost sweeping the pavement as he bent
downward. She passed on with a bare nod and quickened her step till she
entered the post-office, a few doors farther on.

There was something in this, remembering as he did that Bradley had
persistently pursued the girl with attentions, which not only angered
Henley, but filled him with concern for her safety. The half-drunken
brute might take it into his head to follow her down the lonely road
which she had to traverse to reach her house. So, with these things in
mind, Henley told Cahews that he was going home, and he walked out to
the first densely shaded part of the road and, retiring into the bushes,
sat on the grass, determined that he would at least follow in her wake
till she was out of danger of being accosted.

The sunlight had quite disappeared now, and the fringe of dusk was
settling over the silent wood. He was growing impatient, and wondering
if anything could have happened to detain Dixie in town, when he beard
voices down the road. He stood up and peered through the curtain of wild
vines which hung between him and the open. He could see no one, and the
voices were so indistinct that he failed to recognize them. But the
conversing individuals were evidently rapidly approaching, for their
voices were growing louder. Both seemed to be talking at the same time,
and Henley was pretty sure that it was a man and a woman. Then the
coarser voice drowned the finer and fainter, and Henley recognized it as
belonging to Bradley.

"I've been put off and fooled and deviled by you as long as I'm going to
be!" the brute cried out. "You are a beautiful young devil, that's what
you are. I've offered you every inducement a man could offer. If I'm
drunk, you are the cause of it. I can't think of nothing but you--you,
with your maddening eyes of fire and cheeks full of hot blood. I want
you. I want you every minute I draw breath. You must listen to reason.
I've got plenty of money. We could live like a king and queen on the fat
of the land, as God means men and women to live, full of joy and life.
Stop, you've got to kiss me! We are alone; nobody is about."

"Let me pass, I tell you, let me pass!" Dixie's terrified voice rose to
a shriek, and then it ended in a smothered sound as if a hand had been
placed over her mouth. Henley was sure they were struggling and he
sprang into the road. Swaying back and forth against the dark background
of the wood, he saw Bradley with the girl in his arms. Dixie had ducked
her head to avoid his repulsive lips, and the assailant's back was
turned to Henley. With the bound of a panther he reached them just as
Dixie was eluding Bradley's embrace and trying to release her hand, to
which he clung with a grip of steel. Neither of the two saw Henley, and
it was a crushing blow from the storekeeper's fist against the side of
Bradley's head that showed him what he had to contend with. He had
scarcely taken another breath before Henley struck him again with the
force of a sledgehammer squarely between the eyes. Bradley staggered,
swayed, grew limp, and went down. His eyes rolled back in his head till
the whites were exposed. He quivered through his whole form, drew his
shoulders up once, and then lay still. Henley, his hands clinched, the
eyes of an infuriated animal in his head, his great mouth hanging open,
stood over the fallen man.

"Thank God, oh, thank God!" It was Dixie's voice behind him, and he
turned to see her at the edge of the road, her face as white as death
could have made it, her hands convulsively clasped in front of her. "Oh,
Alfred, Alfred, if you hadn't come--" She came to him, but, primitive
man that he now was, there seemed to be no place in him for tenderness.
His great breast heaved, his lips quivered, his eyes bulged from their
sockets. She was about to put out her hands in an effort toward soothing
him when, glancing toward Bradley, she uttered a scream of alarm. He was
rising, a drawn revolver in his hand. Quick as his approach had been,
Henley's next movement was quicker; before the weapon was fairly poised
he had knocked it from Bradley's grasp. Contemptuously kicking it out of
his reach, Henley gave the man a sharp blow with his fist; and while
Bradley was impotently shielding his face with his arms, Henley picked
up the revolver, cocked it, and directed it toward him.

"Apologize to this lady," he said, huskily, "and do it quick, for I'm
going to blow your brains out. Down on your knees, you dirty
whelp--down, I say!"

"I'll be damned if I do."

"Then take your medicine, and may God have mercy on your dirty soul!"
And, as Bradley screamed out and held up his hands in sudden,
overpowering fear, Dixie sprang forward and wrested the weapon from
Henley's hand.

"No," she said--"no, you sha'n't kill him. Hank Bradley, go! Go, I tell
you! I won't have blood spilt over me. I've got a right to demand that,
and I _do_ demand it. Go, I tell you! I'm going to keep this gun to
protect myself with. I live in a country of outlaws, and I'm going to
defend myself from now on. Go! What are you waiting for?"

Muttering and growling in sullen defiance, Bradley got to his feet, his
battered face and eyes swollen.

"You've got the best of the game so far," he snarled at Henley, "but
it's not ended. You'll hear from me."

"I'll tell you one thing, Hank," Henley said, as he glared at the man,
"you are leaving here now, but if I ever meet you face to face in town,
or anywhere else, I'll kill you as sure as there's a God. I've said it,
and I mean it--I'll kill you as I would a snake."

Henley and Dixie stood in silence and watched him as he entered the wood
and strode farther into its depths. They heard the cracking of dry twigs
under his feet as he steadily receded, the sound of his untoward
progress growing fainter and fainter in the distance.

"I'll be sorry to the day of my death that I didn't kill him," Henley
panted, the wild fury unabated in his voice, face, and eyes. "Why, he
was treating you like a dog; he actually proposed, actually dared to
hint that his dirty money--my God! and I let him walk off on his two
feet."

"I know, I know," Dixie muttered, soothingly, and she forced a smile as
she looked at the revolver in her hand, "and oh, Alfred, I'm just girl
enough to be glad you come as you did, and even to see it work you up
like it has; but at a time like this a woman must act and think for a
man when he is all wrought up and half out of his head. I couldn't
prevent what he done. He was waiting for me at the end of the street and
insisted on walking with me. I begged him to go back, but he was talking
so loud and rough that I was afraid folks would make remarks. I hated to
call for help; I'm neither sugar nor salt, and am able to care for
myself. But I'd never seen him as drunk as that before, and, well, if
you hadn't come--"

She shuddered convulsively. He looked at her wrist, which she kept
touching with her handkerchief; the skin was broken and the flesh
bruised where Bradley had clutched it.

"My God!" Henley took it gently in his throbbing hands and looked at it
with glaring eyes, "and I let him walk away! He's free now, but, as
there is a God overhead, I'll--"

"No, stop, listen--hear me, Alfred!" Dixie entreated, allowing her hand
to rest passively in his. "There are some things you men make more of
than us women. I reckon it's your natures to be that way. Now, me 'n you
have got to settle this thing for good and all right here and now, for
if I have to go home to-night with the fear that there is to be
bloodshed on my account I'd be more miserable than I ever was. Last
night, Alfred, after I left you at the lot-gate, I went home and done my
work with an odd feeling on me, I waited on Joe; I fixed the beds and
made my mother and aunt lie down, and then I was all alone and had time
to reflect over--over me and you. I reckon my thoughts had taken a new
turn by just one little remark of yours. Alfred, it was you asking to
come over on the--the first--the very first night after your wife left.
A girl will do a lot of headstrong things when her pity and admiration
are worked up for a man she loves, but now and then, if she's sensible,
some powerful small thing will make her think. Alfred, I saw the brink
we was standing on, as plain as if we was on a high cliff and there was
nothing between us and the bottom, and all sorts of forces was blinding
us and pulling and shoving us over. I'm a good, pure girl--no purer, in
thought or act, ever lived, and yet I've been in an inch of having a bad
character saddled on me for the rest of my life. As I looked at little
Joe asleep in his bed and remembered that I had given my word and bond
to the law to make a worthy mother to him, as I looked at them two old
women who think I'm already robed in the garb of paradise, and realized
that one mischievous word started about me and you would ruin me and all
the others--I say, when that thought come to me I wondered how I could,
in my right senses, have talked to you as I have and let you know my
feelings. I can't believe that it is wrong to--to feel as I do toward
you, because I was drawed into it by things that I couldn't avoid. You
was always trying to help me, and was so sweet and good and manly and
respectful that, knowing about your own troubles, I couldn't help
myself. Then I saw you loved--liked me, and the--the pure, hungry joy of
it--the dazzling glory of it, bound me hand and foot, and I plunged in
without thought or caution. But we are cooler now, Alfred, and we've got
to keep our heads. To begin with, you have got to let this matter with
that scamp drop. I demand it; my good name demands it; I haven't given
you the right to fight battles over me, and I don't intend to. I'd
rather let that man, repulsive as he is, kiss me a dozen times than
have to hang my head before them I love. They would take Joe from me; it
would hurry my mother to her grave; it would be a living death. See,
here's the revolver." She, forced a white smile as she slid it into the
pocket of his coat. "Dispose of it; I don't want to be reminded of
what's happened. I'm giving it to you because I can trust you. I know
you'll do as I ask."

"Do as you ask me--good God!" Henley bit his lip till the blood ran
against his fine teeth, and he fell to quivering. "I see what you mean,
and I know you are right, and yet, and yet, I couldn't have let him walk
off like that if I hadn't thought--"

"I know--I saw that in your eye," Dixie went on, firmly--"and that's why
I'm making you promise now. No matter what happens, Alfred, you are
going to avoid that man--you are going to protect me in a higher and
braver way than spilling human blood. You'll avoid him, won't you?"

She saw the muscles of his face settle into a rigid grimace, his eyes
flared, his great breast heaved, and he nodded. "Yes," he said, "I'll
avoid him; that is, I think--yes, I know I'll do it for your sake."

"There, I knew you wouldn't refuse me," Dixie cried, almost merrily.
"Now let's walk on. You mustn't go all the way. I'm afraid our dream is
over, Alfred. This scare has opened my eyes to our earthly duties. I'm
going to think of you just as--as often as I wish, and lo--love you, but
we mustn't meet often. I want you to love me, too--that's God's truth,
but don't tell me so, Alfred, any more--not a single time."

"How can I help it?" He turned on her, his face full of fire, his voice
shaking with passion. He threw his arms about her and was drawing her
into a close embrace when she stiffened her body and, with firm hands,
disengaged herself, and, as she pushed him back, she said: "No, no! that
will not do, Alfred. You must never do that again. It isn't because I
don't want you to. If we had the right, I could rest forever in your
dear arms; I could--oh, Alfred, what does God mean by treating us like
this?"

"He means that we were made for one another," Henley gulped, as his eyes
probed her own. "I know it--I know it."

"Yes, maybe," she said, as she moved onward, "but perhaps not for this
life, Alfred. Our love is as eternal as that space above is endless. It
is spiritual and pure; let's keep it that way. Now I'll leave you. Don't
forget."

"I'll obey your commands," Henley answered, fervidly. "I know my duty
and I'll try to do it."

She hung back a moment longer, her pretty, arching brows drawn together
in thought. "I'm more worried about you and Hank Bradley than you may
guess," she said. "Even if you don't meet him, he may do you some other
injury. In fact, he once said--" She paused, her eyes on the ground.

"He said what, Dixie?" Henley prompted.

"He said something one day that worried me a lot," she went on, slowly.
"It was the day, you remember, when he was drinking and you ordered him
from the store. I met him, and he was in an awful state of fury. I
didn't tell you about it because I was afraid it would make trouble."

"Oh, I reckon he was mad that day," Henley said, lightly. "He looked it
when he left."

"It wasn't that exactly," Dixie said. "He seemed to be under the same
impression that lots of folks are, that--that you are very much in love
with your wife, and always have been, for he sneered a great deal about
it, and finally said he knew something which, if he was not bound by
promise to keep, would tear you all to pieces."

"Humph!" Henley sniffed, "I reckon it was some lie or other that Dick
Wrinkle told him when they was out West together. You know Dick hated me
like a snake. That ain't nothing, don't let it bother you."

"I couldn't help it," Dixie said, as she turned away. "It looked to me
like he really meant something important. He seemed so sure that he had
you in his power. Now, good-bye. Keep your promise."



CHAPTER XXXIII


Hank Bradley, his face stinging from the bruises he had received, his
blood boiling with fury and humiliation, slunk deeper and deeper into
the wood. Now he would utter a despondent groan, again a long and
resonant string of threatening oaths. As he slowly spat the blood from
his gashed lips, he solemnly vowed that he would have the man's life who
had dared to interfere with him. To the end of his existence he would
see himself sprawling at the feet of the woman whom he had so long and
persistently sought--as long as he lived he would see the righteous
glare in his antagonist's eyes, the look of grateful relief which
lighted the face of the rescued. Plunging onward, he came to a
mountain-brook which, as clear as crystal, leaped and rippled, gurgled
and muttered down the rugged declivity. Here he paused, whining and
bemoaning his luck, and sat down and bathed his face. He was sober now,
all too sober, in fact, for his peace of mind. Above the tree-tops he
saw the roof and gables of his uncle's house, and, as he mopped his face
with his blood-clotted handkerchief, he trudged toward it.

Old Welborne himself was on the lawn inspecting his beehives, near the
front gate, when his nephew entered, and he turned toward him, staring
curiously.

"Why, what's the matter?" the old man asked. "You look like you've been
run over by a wagon, or kicked by an army mule. Great heavens, man!"
Welborne put out his hand as if to touch the purple and swollen spot
above Bradley's eye, but with a surly oath the young man drew back.

"Same mule, I reckon, that had hold of your windpipe in your office the
other day when you squealed like a stuck pig under the table."

"Huh!" Welborne grunted. "You was in the other room and didn't show
yourself when a man less 'n half my age and as strong as an ox
was--was--"

"T'wasn't my row, and this ain't _yours_," Hank growled. "I'll tell you
that now, and be done with it. I won't take up any fight of yours over
your close-fisted, hold-up deals, but I'll see mine through, and don't
you forget it."

"You'd better go in the house and put some medicine on your face," the
old man advised, "and sleep off that drunk! I smelt you before you
opened the gate. I knew when you was kicked out of Alf Henley's store
that day that you'd never let it rest till you had another row. You are
like your daddy was, always looking for trouble, and, somehow, always
finding plenty of it, and doing no particular harm to anybody else. He
was always going to kill somebody, but never got to it."

"Listen to me," Bradley snarled; "if I don't kill that dirty whelp in
twenty-four hours from now, I leave home for good and all."

"Say, look here," Welborne said, with a change of tone. "I'm not saying
this for Alf Henley's sake, for I hate him; he is the only man in this
county that ever tricked me out of my rights, and I'll get even with
'im, sooner or later, but I'm thinking now about you. You may be
foolhardy enough to try some slip-up game on him. I'm not afraid you'll
meet him like a man, for, if it had been in you, you'd have done it
before this, but you may think you can do your job in the dark, so
listen to me, Hank. You may think you can shoot him from behind, but I
tell you if you do you'll swing for it. I've got a longer head than you
have, because I've kept it clear, and hate of a man never will get my
neck in the loop. Don't you know--can't you see that if anything harmed
that fellow now, after this whipping he's given you, that suspicion
would be directed to you. He's popular--men on all sides like him--and a
jury would not leave their seats to convict you. You'd hang, I tell you,
hang till you are dead, dead, dead!"

"I'd rather hang, by God," Bradley growled, "than go through with what
I'm going through now. Don't talk to me. Go on with your flea-skinning,
and let me alone. I know what I'm about!"

"You don't, for you are too befuddled with liquor to know," retorted the
calm old man. "I can remind you of a thing that maybe you ought to
recall. There was a white man lynched for a certain offence two months
ago. It was done by a mob of eight or ten young devils on a drunken
rampage. The authorities was disposed to drop it, because it was
believed the man was guilty, but now it is leaking out that he was the
wrong party. His friends are working as quiet as moles under ground.
They are getting names and stacks of evidence. A man I've done a favor
for come and told me to warn you. I didn't think it was worth while, but
I do now, because if you fire on Alf Henley from the dark you'll be
arrested, and both charges will be saddled on you."

"I don't care a damn about that, either," Bradley spouted, and he turned
toward the house. "I'll do one thing at a time, and take the biggest
first."

"That's your determination, then?"

"You bet it is. I know my business, and I don't want you to put your
fingers in it."

"Well, go ahead with your rat-killing," the money-lender said. "I've
given you a piece of sound advice, and, if you don't take it, that isn't
my lookout."

Bradley strode heavily and with dragging feet along the gravelled walk
to the house. He lunged awkwardly across the veranda floor and went into
the wide hallway and ascended the walnut stairs to his room.

An hour later he came down. He had been drinking again from a supply of
liquor kept in his chamber. One of his hip-pockets bulged with a flask,
the other with a long revolver. No one was on the front veranda or on
the lawn. A dim light from a window at the right of the hall told him
that his uncle was in his room, perhaps absorbed over his accounts and
papers. Passing out at the gate, he took the narrow, private road
through his uncle's fields to Chester, the lights of which danced before
his unsteady vision. It was Saturday, and, as Henley often went to the
store on that night, Bradley concluded that he might be there now. When
he reached the square he found few persons on any of the divergent
streets. A few strangers and drummers sat smoking and chatting on the
low veranda of the little hotel, and in the darkness he passed them
without attracting attention. Reaching Henley's store, he glanced in at
the front. Cahews and Pomp were putting the tumbled dry-goods department
to rights, and sweeping, sprinkling, and dusting. A queer thrill of
triumph passed through the watcher as he descried the lamp on Henley's
desk and the unruffled face of the storekeeper in its circle of rays.

Fearing that some passer-by might notice him in front, Bradley climbed
over the fence at the side of the house and crouched down in the yard,
hidden by the shadow of the wall. The village was very still. The
clanging of a near-by church-bell calling the choir to practise for the
Sunday service jarred harshly on Bradley's tense nerves. Pomp was
singing, keeping time with strokes of his broom, and Cahews was
whistling an accompaniment. Bradley waited till the bell had ceased its
clangor, and then, with a step that was almost steady, he glided along
the weather-boarding through the junk-filled yard till he had reached
the open window close to Henley's desk. Henley was still there. He
seemed to be counting money, for he had a bag of coin near him and the
iron safe near by was open. Bradley could see the pigeon-holes and
little drawers with their brass mountings gleaming in the light. He drew
his revolver and cocked it noiselessly and aimed it experimentally at
his intended victim. No better mark could be desired, but the right
moment must be chosen. Bradley looked about him, his befuddled brain
noting this or that obstacle to immediate flight. He must think; he must
make no mistake, for, as his uncle had said, the risk was grave. The
sudden report of a revolver would cause that cottage door to fly open;
Seth Woods at work in his cage-like shop across the street would run
directly over to see what had happened. The loungers at the hotel would
appear, Cahews and Pomp, and, and--Bradley recalled Welborne's reference
to the lynched man, and shuddered. Yes, drunk as he was, he could see
that, easy as the deed was of execution, escape would be most difficult.
He told himself, as he thrust the weapon back into his pocket, that the
centre of the town was no place for work like this, and that later
Henley would have to pass along a lonely road in darkness to get home.
Yes, that was the best plan, he decided, and, creeping back through the
yard, he regained the fence, and, watching his opportunity, he climbed
over into the street and made his way unobserved out into the country
road.

Soon he had reached the point he had in mind. It was, by odd fatality,
the spot where he had received his castigation only a few hours before.
The moon was behind a cloud, and yet the visible stars furnished
sufficient light for him to see his way, dulled as his vision was by the
spirits he had consumed. Now his plan was complete. He would lie in wait
right where the unshaded roadway entered the wood. Henley's form would
be clearly limned against the unobstructed horizon. Bradley would fire
once, twice, as many times as would be necessary to do the work
absolutely. He believed that he would be calm enough, practicable as it
would be at that distance from any residence, to step forward and
examine the body to be sure that no mistake had been made. Bradley
chuckled as he sat down on the heather, and felt a satisfied, even
triumphant, glow steal over him. Taking out his flask, he drained its
contents, and then threw it into the wood. It whistled ominously as it
cut its way through the air and fell with a crash against a bowlder. He
drew out his watch and struck a match to see the dial. It was ten
o'clock. His victim could not be long now, for Henley never remained
late at the store.

"Ah, what was that? Surely it was a man's whistle, and Henley's whistle
was a well-known and merry characteristic of himself. To-night it
rippled forth more joyously than usual, and this in itself added to the
flames in the crouching man's breast. Henley could whistle that way
because he had triumphed so conspicuously in the recent encounter. But
stopping a man's whistle was a small matter when it was done with a
six-shooter by a good marksman, Bradley chuckled, and that wouldn't
bother him many seconds. Now he could distinctly hear the storekeeper's
step; he would soon be in view there where the fireflies were flashing,
and then--but what was that? Something seemed to be lowered from the
branches of a tree directly across the road as by a rope, and to hang
against the dark background, turning in a gruesome fashion, as if
wind-blown, first one way and then another. It was a human body. The
feet were tied by a bridle-rein, the hands bound behind by the
suspenders the corpse had worn. Bradley had seen the thing in fancy many
times before, but never in such grim actuality as now. He strained his
sight to make sure. There was no doubt. The thing was actually
there--there, there, great God!--there!

"Gentlemen, friends, neighbors"--he remembered the very words that had
escaped the lips now grinning at him--"you are hangin' the wrong man.
I'm innocent. In the name of God, spare me. I'm the father of six
children that depend on me for a living. Give me a chance to prove what
I say--oh, God!--oh, God, oh, God, have mercy!"

The hand holding the revolver relaxed. With a subdued cry of terror,
Bradley was on his feet, glaring at the accusing sight. He saw Henley
enter the wood and move on unsuspectingly toward the horrible spectre
which swung across his path. Indeed, Henley passed through it as through
a vapor, still whistling. With a cry still in his throat, Bradley dashed
into the wood and fled the spot.

Henley heard the sound of pattering feet and paused for a moment,
looking about him wonderingly. It wasn't an animal suddenly frightened
from its lair, for the weird, guttural cry was human. At the side of the
road stood a huge oak, on the trunk of which there was a grayish,
barkless strip about the width and length of a medium-sized man, and
hanging from a bough above was an uprooted grape-vine. These natural
objects would have attracted Henley's attention had he known how they
had been masquerading in his behalf. As it was, however, he resumed his
whistling, and, barely reminded by the spot of the recent encounter, he
cheerfully pursued his way. He was very tired, and looked forward with
eagerness to the moment when he could get into bed.



CHAPTER XXXIV


Henley's wife had been gone two weeks and had not written a line either
to him or the Wrinkles, when, one morning just after breakfast, as old
Jason stood on the front porch, he espied, far down the road, the Warren
carriage, with Ned in the driver's seat. The back part of the vehicle
was not in sight, but Wrinkle had seen enough to convince him that his
ex-daughter-in-law was returning, and he promptly and gleefully
announced the fact to his wife and Henley in the dining-room. They all
went to the porch and waited for the now-hidden carriage to round the
bend. For a short distance Ned's battered silk top-hat and the tip of
his whip flitting along above the tasselled corn-stalks which intervened
between the house and the road were the only evidence of the vehicle's
approach, and then it turned sharply in at the wagon-gate.

"My Lord, the dang thing's empty!" Wrinkle cried. "I wonder if she fell
out comin' down the mountain, an' Ned never noticed it?"

A full and rather startling explanation was furnished by the negro, when
he had reined in at the steps. Ben Warren was dead and was to be buried
the next day. Mrs. Henley had been too much overcome by careful watching
at his bedside and grief to write, but she had sent the carriage over
for the Wrinkles, whom she wished to attend the funeral. She wanted them
to bring a good many things to wear, as they might have to stay some
time to keep her company in her loneliness.

When Ned had driven his horses around the house to be fed and watered
and rubbed down, and Mrs. Wrinkle, uttering a fusillade of meaningless
ejaculations and puffs of gratified horror, had disappeared in the house
to pack, old Jason made a wry face and squinted comically at Henley. "I
reckon Het wasn't too much overcome to keep 'er from shufflin' 'er cards
in her little poker game with you. You notice she didn't include you in
the invite. I reckon she still feels sore over that buggy-ride that went
crooked, an' has decided that you sha'n't take part in any festivities
that she has anything to do with. I like to stay with you, Alf, as well
as I would with any feller, but the change to that fine place won't be
bad. I'll have a good time, takin' it all in all. Ben has--or had,
rather--a fine mansion that is well stocked with grub, an' some nigger
women that can prepare stuff to a queen's taste. If Het don't take
charge of the pantry, there'll be enough to go around an' plenty over.
But we'll see, we'll see."

That afternoon, as Henley and Cahews sat in the front part of the store,
the carriage passed on its way over the mountain. Wrinkle and his demure
spouse, in their very best clothing, sat on the luxurious leather
cushions in the rear, and Wrinkle was smiling broadly and waving parting
signals at them. The carriage had passed on, and was about to turn into
the first street leading mountainward, when Wrinkle was seen to reach
forward and clutch the driver's arm. He gave some command, and the
horses were reined in and Wrinkle got out, and as he busied himself
rubbing something from the lapel of his broadcloth coat he walked with
rather uncertain gait to the store.

"Say, Alf," he began, as he ascended the steps to the porch, "if it's
agreeable to you, I'd like to have a dollar for pocket-change. Het's
pretty liberal, as a general thing, but Ned says she's powerful upset
over her loss, an' I'd sorter hate to tackle 'er the fust day we are
over thar, an' I know, in reason, I'll need a few nickels to drop here
an' thar."

"Get it for him, Jim," Henley ordered, and, while Cahews was at the
cash-drawer, Wrinkle went round the counter and took a plug of tobacco
from a box.

"I'd take along a few sticks o' peppermint, too," he said, as he
wistfully surveyed the candy-jars, "but I've got so I can't suck a stick
without toothache. Ain't a bit o' fun treatin' yore stomach if you have
to abuse yore gums while you are at it. Well, so long, boys," he said,
after he had carefully counted the coins Cahews had put into his hand
and was descending the steps. "Folks says that partin' is always harder
on the ones that are left behind, an' I reckon it's so in this case, for
it's dull enough here, an' I intend to have a good time. The funeral,
and paying due respect to the dead, will occupy me to-day and to-morrow,
an' after that I want to take a fish in Ben's brag pond. They say he's
got--or did have when he was alive--government trout two foot long, an'
oodlin's of 'em, hungry enough to bite anything you stick on yore hook."

If the news of the wealthy planter's death and the departure of the
Wrinkles under the high honor which had been conferred upon the
unpretentious pair furnished food for gossip at Chester, what may be
said of the later report which at first crawled from the bereaved
mansion, and then, taking on speed, ran hurtling like wildfire over the
country?

Ben Warren, sick unto death, and yet in full possession of his senses,
for valid reasons of his own had cut off many anxious more distant
relatives and bequeathed all his real estate and personal property to
his loving and faithful niece, "Hester Wrinkle Henley."

Henley himself was disposed to regard the report as a false one, a
canard set afloat by the irrepressible Wrinkle, who would joke as
readily about the dead as the living. But even the shrewd business man
himself was convinced one morning by the appearance of Wrinkle, who had
dismounted from a fine horse at the hitching-post and came in lashing
the legs of his baggy trousers with a riding-whip.

"I reckon you've heard what's happened, Alf," he began, in a tone in
which there was no guile. "It never rains but it pours cats and
pitchforks. I'm out o' breath. Forty-six men, women, an' babies met me
as I rid in all as eager to know the facts as if they had the'r names in
the pot, an' I had to go over the tale so many times that my hoss got so
he would nod or shake his head exactly right whenever a question was
axed. Them that hate Het would turn white at the gills an' groan, an'
the rest would say, 'Oh, my!' an' set in to do it on the spot."

"Yes, we heard the report," Henley made answer, "but we didn't know
whether to believe it or not. I reckon you got it plumb straight?"

"Straight as a shingle," Wrinkle said, sincerely. "Het not only told me,
but so did the lawyer, a big-bellied chap from Atlanta, in broadcloth
and headlight buttons in his shirt. Huh! I reckon you think you know Het
purty well, Alf; but you don't. I don't, an' my wife don't. I reckon her
Maker sometimes wonders what she'll do in a pinch. I 'lowed she was one
woman that 'u'd like to fall heir to a pile o' cash, but they say when
Ben sent for her to come to his bed whar the lawyer was ready with pen
and ink and paper, an' Ben told her he was goin' to put her in entire
charge of his effects, lock, stock, an' barrel--they say when she heard
that she begun to wail an' take on at such a rate that they couldn't git
her to talk business at all. They had to rub 'er down an' bathe 'er feet
in hot mustard-water, an' it was all they could do to keep 'er from
crossin' over, hand in hand, with Ben, an' leavin' the boodle to anybody
that 'u'd pick it up. The Lord only knows who would have got the swag in
that case, but comin' into a fortune don't kill often, an' Het will
manage somehow. She et a square meal this mornin' 'fore I started,
pokin' it up under her veil-like, in purty good chunks, an' give orders
to the niggers like a captain on a ship ridin' high waves. Thar always
was only one thing in this life that pestered that woman, an' that was
responsibility to the dead. I reckon she thinks the livin' can tote
the'r own loads. Be that as it may, she's goin' to see that Ben's
shebang an' all pertainin' to it is run jest to a gnat's heel like he
would run it if he was alive. But comin' down to brass tacks, she owes
her good luck to exactly what most folks thought was a weak p'int in
'er. They say Ben was so all-fired mad at the gal that kicked 'im to
death that he said all women was unfaithful, an' he picked Het out for
reward because she had showed she was one amongst a million. Then, too,
Het kept tellin' 'im he was good for another forty years, while the rest
of his kin was sayin' to his teeth that they was sorry he had to go an
hopin' that he had his papers in order. If I could get head or tail of
the mystery of life, I might be able to tell whether Het was actin' a
part or not. I think she simply done it so well that she believed it;
anyways, Ben liked it, an' spent his last hours an' every cent he had
tryin' to pacify her."

"And he was rich?" Cahews thrust in, tentatively.

"Well, you'd think so," smiled Wrinkle. "He not only had the finest
plantation an' house in this county, but he held bank stocks, railroad
bonds, warehouses, cotton-factory interests, an' what not."

"And does--does Hettie intend to--to come back _here_?" Henley asked, a
flush of odd embarrassment on his face.

"Well, that's another matter," Wrinkle began, and then he broke off
abruptly: "Say, Alf, I've got something private to talk to you about.
Jim, I wish you'd give that hoss a bucket of water. I think he's dry."

With a knowing laugh the clerk turned away, and Wrinkle caught Henley's
suspender and gave it a familiar tug. "I didn't want to discuss family
affairs before a third party," he explained. "The truth is, Alf, I've
always been interested in yore little ups an' downs with Het, an' right
now I'm curious to see how prosperity will affect her. Up to now, you
see, she was dependent on you for funds, an' sorter had to go slow on
some o' her fancies, but now the shoe is on t'other foot, an'--"

"That is not answering the question I asked," Henley broke in, quite out
of patience. "I asked you if she intended to--"

"I knowed what you axed me, an' I intend to answer at the proper time
an' place," Wrinkle went on, quite unruffled by the reproof. "I never
begin to unravel a sock at the top or the middle. The toe is whar the
work begun, and therefore the toe is the only natural an' sensible place
to--"

"You make me tired!" Henley retorted, impatiently. "You take all day to
tell a thing."

"Well, if it won't hurt yore pride I'll tell you what I think is her
little game." Wrinkle smiled unctuously and rubbed his hands together.
"She left here when that little tiff was on with you about a buggy-ride
or two that was hangin' fire because you couldn't spare the time, an' I
think her present object is to make you do some knucklin' down. You see,
Alf, she's a fine lady now, an' a big heiress, an' naturally is now a
woman to be treated with respect by you or me or anybody else. She's the
head o' that whole thing over there, an' you'll have to fall in line
with the rest of us. She's in deep mournin', an' considerably overcome,
but she hain't forgot them buggy-rides. She's brought 'em up a dozen
times, an' always with a sniff an' a sneer. She sent me over to git all
our leavin's in shape for shipment, an' she's goin' to send a wagon over
after 'em."

"So she intends to make that her future home?" ventured Henley, a frown
of perplexity on his face.

"Yes, she says it would be out of all reason for the head of sech a big
thing to live away over here, an' that you kin sell out yore little
shack an' move thar. She's installed me an' Jane in a big room
overlookin' the river, an' has one set aside for you that is every bit
as good. I reckon you'll be made to feel like a common chap that has
married into a royal family, but I wouldn't let that bother me if I was
you. You are in luck, Alf. When you took her she didn't have a red cent,
an' now just look at her. If Dick had knowed this thing was in the wind,
he'd have stayed at home an' put up with a lot that he used to kick
agin. She sent you one positive message, an' that was to be sure to come
over next Saturday an' spend Sunday. She said you mustn't make it later
'n that, because folks would be sure to talk, an' that she don't want to
be talked about, especially while she is in black."

"Well, I'll go over, then," Henley said, with sarcasm that was lost on
Wrinkle. "You may tell her that I have accepted her kind invitation."
And he turned to his desk and sat down and began to work.



CHAPTER XXXV


That night at his uncle's house Hank Bradley, still wearing traces of
his encounter with Henley, sat reading a newspaper and smoking in his
chamber at the head of the stairs. A half-empty whiskey-flask and a
glass of water were on a table at his elbow, and torn and soiled
playing-cards were scattered about the floor.

Presently his attention was drawn to the outside by a sharp whistle
which was evidently familiar, for he dropped the paper and went to a
window which looked out on the front lawn. At first he could see only
old Welborne at a potato-bed on the right, but as his sight became used
to the outer gloom he descried a man leaning on the fence near the gate.
The fellow wore the broad-brimmed felt hat of the mountaineers; his
pants were tucked into his high-top boots and he wore no coat, but a
gray flannel shirt with a leather belt and a flowing necktie.

"It's Rayburn Hill," Bradley ejaculated. "What the devil can he want? He
must have come thirty miles."

Descending the stairs, and looking furtively at his uncle, whose back
was turned to him, Bradley tiptoed across the veranda and gained the
grass sward, across which he walked noiselessly.

"Hello!" he said, in a gruff tone; "what are you doing over here?"

"Come to see you, Hank." The man, who was under thirty and tall and
strong of limb, thrust out his hand and shook that of his friend. "I
left my horse down at the square."

"What do you want to see me about, Ray?" Bradley's voice almost shook
with growing perturbation. "You told me last week that you never would
come this way again--that the more we all was scattered the safer it
would be."

"I'm on my way to the nighest railroad, Hank."

"You say you are?" Bradley leaned against the fence, and his face turned
white. "You don't think it's as--as bad as that?"

"Don't I? Huh, I only hope I'll catch that twelve-o'clock flyer! I
wouldn't be here now but I told you I'd never act without reporting to
you, and that's what I'm doing, Hank."

"But what's--what's happened to--to scare you up so?" Bradley stammered.

"Hank, that fellow's kin are on our track like a pack of thirsty
bloodhounds. I got onto it by accident. They have smelt blood, and they
are going to drink some. We got the wrong man; I know it damned well
now, and you and me was the ringleaders. You know the West, Hank. I want
you to show me the way. Git a move on you. You haven't a minute to
lose."

"I'll have to raise some money." Bradley looked toward the dim form of
old Welborne through the darkness. "Go back to town, Ray. I'll see my
uncle and pack and meet you at the train. I'm sure you are right. I've
seen bad signs myself. I'd have lit out before this, but there was a
skunk here that I wanted to settle a score with."

"I know, but you'll have to cut that out, Hank. This is no time for
revenge. Hurry up. I'm off. I've got to get a man to take my horse
home."

When his accomplice had gone away, Bradley crossed over to old
Welborne.

"You remember," he began, "that you advised me to leave here the other
day?"

Old Welborne stared at him steadily for a minute, and then shrugged his
decrepit shoulders. "I have been expecting to hear you say you'd settled
with the jackass that gave you that licking that day. I don't want to
see you get into more trouble, but that fellow ought to be pulled down
from his lordly perch. I never see him without feeling his hands on my
throat. He's the one man that has always stood in my way. And now, just
look at him! He's in big luck again, and can sneer in his high and
mighty way at all of us. That fool woman he was so crazy about as to
marry when she loved another man has come into a great big fortune, and
he walks about with a strut as it he was a king and we all was common
trash 'way beneath his notice. I saw him talking to Dixie Hart this
morning in the post-office. His face was shining, and his eyes twinkling
over the news of his wife's big haul. Me an' him have had it nip and
tuck here ever since he set up in business, and he has always thwarted
me. I've pinched and delved to save a few dollars, and his comes to him
in rolls and wads. Folks say he's going to sell out and live over there
in ease the rest of his life. I don't care how soon he leaves, but I'd
like to wipe that grin off his gloating face."

"I've got to go, uncle," Bradley said. "It's too hot for me here. But I
need some money, and I must have it to-night."

"Money? Good Lord! How much do you want?"

"Five hundred. I'm going back West. I know the country, and I'll settle
there. As for Alf Henley, I've got something up my sleeve for him. He's
chuckling now over his wife's big luck, but I'll knock that higher than
a kite; he'll never live on that plantation or spend any of that cash.
You listen close and you'll hear something drop with a big clatter
before many days."

"What are you talking about?" the money-lender asked, bending forward
and peering eagerly into the bloated face of his nephew.

"I know what I'm talking about," Bradley replied, still evasively, "and
that will be the first thing I attend to when I get where I can breathe
fresh air. Say, uncle, I've had a secret in my hold for several years.
It is about Dick Wrinkle. If I thought you could hold your old tongue--"

"Hold my tongue?" Welborne broke in. "Did you ever hear of me telling
anything?"

"Nothing that concerned you, and this does, to some extent, I'll admit,"
Bradley said. "Listen, uncle. How would you like to hear that Alf Henley
ain't that woman's lawful husband? Dick Wrinkle is alive."

"Good Lord!" The old man's eyes gleamed even in the starlight. "You
don't mean it? Surely, surely, you don't."

"Yes, he's alive. He was in Oklahoma when I last saw him. He was done
with everything back here--bored to death by his wife and her odd ways,
and wanted to shake it all off. He had done me a good many favors. He
was hurt in that big storm and reported dead, and got me to confirm it
back here. I did the job right. You are the first one I've told the
facts to. I get a letter from him now and then, and know where he is.
He's made enough money to own a bar in a little place near the Texas
line."

"Well, well, but what has that got to do with Henley?" Welborne wanted
to know.

"It's just got this to do with him," answered Bradley. "Dick Wrinkle can
simply wrap the woman round his finger. She would fall on his neck at
the drop of a hat. If Dick came back she'd have a fit of joy and kick
Henley clean out of the house. I know women, and Dick has told me lots
about his hold on this one."

"But would he come back?"

"Would he? Humph! He's so homesick he thins his ink with brine when he
writes to me. He's known all along that she'd take 'im back, but there
wasn't any special inducement till now. I have an idea that when he is
told--and told in the right way--of this big haul of hers he'll come
back to life with some tale or other to square it, and hurry home and
claim his rights."

"And you want to start to-night?"

"If you'll get me the money. I've overdrawn my account like thunder,
uncle, but I'll not bother you for a while. Get it for me. I've got to
go."

The old man looked at the ground hesitatingly, then he shrugged his thin
shoulders. "Well, go ahead and pack. I've got that much in the safe at
the office. I'll meet you down there. But I'm going to count on you
to--to put this thing through."

"I will if I possibly can," Bradley said. "I think he'll do as I tell
him. He's always listened to me. I know how to work him up. Don't keep
me waiting. I'll pack in twenty minutes."

"Good Lord," the old man chuckled, as he stood alone in the dark. "If
Dick Wrinkle comes back and claims his wife, Alf Henley will take a
tumble from the highest peak he ever stood on. Won't I laugh at him
then? Say, won't I?"



CHAPTER XXXVI


The following Saturday afternoon Henley set out in his buggy to
accomplish, in some fashion or other, the disagreeable task of paying
his first visit to his wife in her new home. His chagrin could not be
imagined by any one less closely concerned in the affair than himself.
He had been taught to regard divorce laws as a veritable abomination,
and had never for an instant allowed himself to think of freedom from
shackles which goaded and chafed his body and soul. And now the
situation was even more irritating. His proud spirit rebelled against
the unlooked-for circumstances that had made him the husband of a
wealthy woman. Heretofore he had been able to realize that if he had
made a serious mistake in his marriage, he was, at least, helpful to the
woman he had chosen.

From a hill half a mile to the west of the Warren plantation he drew
rein and all but bitterly surveyed the vast possessions of his
incongruous spouse. In a grove of primitive oaks, near the
main-travelled road, against the misty blue background of the distant
mountain-range, stood the stately white residence, with its long veranda
supported by dignified Corinthian columns, its steep roof, quaint
dormer-windows, and central cupola.

"What a joke!" Henley said, with a wry smile, as he started his horse
slowly down the incline. "And she's the mistress of it all. I wonder if
she'll expect me to get down on my all-fours and crawl in at the
back-door."

Old Wrinkle must have been on the lookout for him, for, in his best
clothes, he was standing at the carriage-gate in the nearest corner of
the grounds. His beard had been trimmed, or awkwardly chopped off, by
the unsteady fingers of his wife, and his grizzled hair was plastered
down over his dingy brow flatter than it had ever been before.

"Hello!" he called out, merrily. "I 'lowed I'd warn you to enter at this
gate an' not drive on to the little one in front of the mansion. That's
for foot-passengers," he explained, as he swung the gate open. "Het's
mighty--I mean Hester; she says I mustn't call 'er Het any more; she
says it will make the nigger help disrespectful. It ain't Pa and Ma any
more, either, bless yore life! but father and mother. The other day at
the table, before we had lifted our plates, she started in to father me,
solemnlike, an' I ducked my head, for I thought she'd set in to ax the
blessin'. I started to say that she was mighty particular about the way
things are run. Ben had rules an' regulations, you see, an' she is
carryin' 'em out an' addin' on more. I seed 'er git as red as a
turkey-cock t'other day beca'se a nigger-wench rung the front-door bell.
She made the woman hump 'erself round to the kitchen double quick. She's
got a new toy to piddle with, an' it's a whoppin' big un. She says
things has to move accordin' to the clock on this gigantic place, an' so
far it's doin' it. Wait, I'll shet the gate an' ride to the barn with
you.

"You've got a lot to learn, Alf," Wrinkle resumed, as he climbed into
the buggy and the horse started, "and you might as well set in to do it.
I told my wife I was goin' to git you off on one side an' give you a few
hints so you won't make the mistakes we did at the outset. About
eatin'-time, for instance--no matter what meal is on--we are instructed
to listen for bells. It's that big un that presides at the kitchen-door.
Thar's always a fust un an' a last un--a number one an' a number two.
The fust is to wash an' comb by; the next is to come in the dinin'-room,
but, mark you, not in a hurry. I'd lafe a heap o' times if she wasn't so
all-fired serious over it. Goin' to school ain't in it. In her thick
black she looks as important and stern as a judge in his robes."

They had now reached the barn, a great, rambling structure that was
well-painted and well-kept.

"Thar's the stables," Wrinkle said. "It might as well be called a
hoss-hotel. It really is a finer shebang in many ways than the house we
all lived in till this happened. I ain't criticism' yore place, Alf. It
was the best you had to offer, an' nobody could be expected to do more
'n that. But Ben went in for show, an' he added to an' tuck away till
the day of his death. This barn has been painted so many times that dry
sheets of paint would fall off if you kicked the weather-boardin', and
inside--well, jest wait till you see it."

They had descended from the buggy, and Henley was about to unhitch the
traces when Wrinkle laid a firm, even agitated, hand on his arm.

"That's another thing," he said; "don't tetch it. You'll break a rule.
No member of the family--an' that means me an' you, for we can claim kin
by adoption, if not by blood--no member is allowed to do dirty work o'
any sort. Ben never allowed it, an' Het says the same rule must hold.
She says it would spile the help an' git 'em out o' the right sort o'
habits. She told me to whistle whenever I wanted a thing done, and
Rastus, or Lindy, or Cipo, or Ned would come on a run. That's sort o'
makin' bird-dogs out o' two-legged creatures, but I kind o' like it.
But, mind you, Alf, don't whistle for 'em inside the house. You will
find a fancy rope with a tassel on the end of it in every room. Give it
a light tug an' let it loose. Thar, I see Cipo now. Watch me!". Wrinkle
spat on the ground, wiped his mouth with his hand, and puckered up his
lips and whistled keenly. "He's comin'; watch 'im hop; he knows better
than to dally when I give that sound. He's slow, though; walks like he
had lumbago or locomotive attachment. Say, Cipo!" as the tall, elderly
negro arrived, holding his tattered hat in his hand, "this is Mr. Alfred
Henley, an' this is his hoss. Orders is out from headquarters to give
both of 'em every needed attention. It ain't any o' my business, Cipo.
I'd give all o' you coons a rest if I had my way. Life is too short to
bother about puttin' on style an' tyin' a bow of ribbon to every act."

With the broadest of grins the negro, whose splaying feet were in
remnants of shoes that were tied with white cotton strings, detached the
horse from the shafts and led him away.

"Now, come on," Wrinkle said. "I see Ma in the back veranda waitin' for
us."

As they reached the house the old woman, with timid, halting steps, and
better dressed than Henley had ever seen her before, came forward and
extended a limp hand. "Howdy do? How did you leave Chester?" she
inquired.

"All right," he answered. "Where is Hettie?"

The question was addressed to her, but she stared mutely, and with some
agitation looked at her husband.

"I forgot to tell you." Wrinkle glanced up at the sun. "This is her
nap-time. That used to be the order in Ben's day, an' she's holdin' to
it. Just after dinner all hands are expected to unstrip an' lie down
till the cool of the evenin'; then you are free to walk about, but you
ought to be ready for supper so you won't have to wash at the last
minute, an' come in in a scramble. We don't see Het at breakfast. Ben
had a habit of stayin' in his room an' havin' a nigger fetch his up on a
waiter, an' Het feels like it is her duty to do likewise. She sets up
thar, they tell me, in easy, roustabout clothes, an' attends to the
business of the day--sech as readin' the mail, answerin' letters, an'
listenin' to complaints from overseers an' land-renters. Ben advanced
cash, in dribs or wads, accordin' to needs, an' kept a set o' books.
Het's got all that an' more on her conscience, an' she's gittin' as thin
as a splinter over it. Folks say she's a regular hair-splitter when it
comes to settlements. She would divide a copper cent into several parts
if the Government would let 'em pass that way. Come in the parlor, Alf.
I want you to take a peep at it. You've travelled about some an' seen
sights, but for a place jest to live in, I'll bet you'll admit this caps
the stack. If a royal emperor was to kick at a home like this it would
start a revolution amongst his subjects."

Henley and the demure little woman followed at the talker's heels. He
led them into the main entrance-hall, a spacious, oblong room with
colored-glass windows on both sides and above the heavy Colonial
doorway. A massive stairway with a carved newel and balustrade of black
walnut wound gracefully up to a companion hall above. Piloting the
others around this, Wrinkle pushed open a big, white door and led them
into the parlor. It was really a spacious room of good design, the walls
and woodwork of which were ivory-white. It was, however, furnished with
execrable taste. There was an old-fashioned rosewood piano, a row of
modern bookcases of oak, rocking-chairs of ancient mahogany, cheap oil
landscapes in cheaper gilt frames, a worn carpet of shrieking colors and
a design which maddened the vision. There was one spot which would have
soothed the trained eye--it was the wide mantelpiece, on which stood a
quaint, glass-doored clock and a pair of tall, brass candlesticks of
simple form. The fireplace was deep and wide and held a pair of fine,
old brass dogs with an appropriate open-work fender.

"I jest want you to take a glance at that big lookin'-glass." Wrinkle
pointed at a fine gilt-edged pier-glass which reached from the floor to
the ceiling and filled all the space between the two windows at the end
of the room. "I'm callin' yore attention to it so you won't be fooled
like I was when I fust saw it. They had the funeral in here, an' me an'
Ma was axed to set over thar agin the wall. Well, you may believe me or
not, but I thought the lookin'-glass was a wide door into another room
the same size as this; an' all the time the folks was gatherin' I was
watchin' it, for it was fillin' up an' I couldn't make out whar the
folks come from. Then all at once I was scared mighty nigh out o' my
socks, for the crowd sorter shuffled, to make room, an' I seed another
coffin. If I'd been a drinkin' man I'd 'a' been sure I had the jimmies.
I wanted to p'int it out to Ma, but I was afeard it might go hard with
'er, for she's a believer in hobgoblins, an' might 'a' raised a noise.
So I jest set thar wonderin' who else could be dead, an' why I hadn't
heard about it, an' thinkin' maybe that it was the style to bury a rich
man in two boxes, though they looked to me like they was the same size
an' had the same trimmin's, an' was piled up the same way with flowers.
Then I said my prayers in dead earnest, for I seed Het come in on the
preacher's arm facin' me in t'other room, while they was walkin' with
the'r backs to me in this un. I reckon I'd a been fooled till now if the
preacher hadn't begun to hold forth. I could see two parsons as plain as
life, but only heard one voice, an' so I discovered my mistake just in
time to keep from goin' stark crazy."

At this juncture, Lucy, a young mulatto, came and touched Mrs. Wrinkle
on the arm, with the regretful air of one not wishing to disturb her
superiors.

"Miss wants to know who's got here," she said.

The little old woman started, looked nervously into the faces of the
others, and then ejaculated, "It's Alf; tell 'er it's Alf."

"'Miss'?" Henley repeated, as the girl was withdrawing, muttering the
monosyllabic name to herself to fix it on her memory--"who's 'Miss'?"

"Why, it's Het herself," Wrinkle explained, readily enough. "You see,
the niggers all used to call Ben's mother 'Old Miss' till she died. I'm
told they started in to call Het 'Young Miss,' but when she put on crape
an' begun to fling orders about they cut off the 'Young' part. I reckon
they'll call you some'n or other to fit the dignity of yore position
when they git it into the'r noggin's jest how close you stand to the
prime head of it all. They know who me 'n Jane are, you bet yore life,
an' when we call 'em they come in a tilt with the'r hats in the'r hands.
I never lived before, it seems to me, an' I care less than I ever did
about the future state. This is good enough for me. If it will just go
at the present pace all the time, I won't care to git cold feet an'
retire to a soggy hole in the ground."

Wrinkle suddenly took on a look of attention to external sounds, and he
went to the door and peered cautiously up the stairs.

"I think I heard 'er walkin' about," he called back, and he waved his
hand downward as if commanding silence. "Yes, she's comin'. Ma, you 'n
me had better make ourselves scarce. You see, Alf," he went on, in a
rasping whisper and with a very grave face, "we don't exactly know when
we are wanted an' when we ain't. It wouldn't be so awkward if she'd lay
down some positive rule. She's different under every change, an' the
Lord knows she changes often enough."

With a frightened mien Mrs. Wrinkle lowered her head and glided quietly
from the room through a door in the rear.

"Take a cheer," was the old man's parting injunction to Henley. "Throw
yoreself back, an' cross yore legs, an' let 'er know at the outset that
you ain't beholden to 'er, an' that her rise in life don't make no odds
to you. That's the way Dick would act if he was alive. He'd 'a' been
cussin' these niggers about an' tellin' Het to git out o' that bed an'
fix some'n to eat. That's the way he worked 'er, an' she was jest so
constructed that she liked it. Take my advice an' turn over a new leaf;
you'll have trouble if you don't."

Henley made no reply, and he found himself alone in the big room. The
lace curtains of the windows which opened like doors on the front
veranda were gently blown in by the cooling breeze, and into the white
surroundings came the grim, black-draped figure of his wife. She
advanced toward him, her hand stiffly extended. He took her cold fingers
into his and awkwardly pressed them. Her eyes rested only a moment on
him, for she was looking critically at the carpet.

"Oh, I'll never get things right!" she cried. "Look at the stable-mud on
the carpet. I've told 'em an' _told_ 'em not to come in here without
wiping their feet, but it goes in at one ear and out at another. They've
tracked it all over, and this ingrain carpet can't be cleaned. I'd shut
the room up and keep the key, but Uncle Ben always had this room open
for visitors, and I want to carry out his plans in every detail. Oh,
Alfred, I'm afraid this awful responsibility will kill me! You have no
idea of what it all is. I used to think you had enough to do, but your
affairs are simply child's play to this."

"I suppose so," he said, "but you never took hold of mine. That's why
you think this is so awful. It is on your shoulders like my business is
on mine."

She shook her head and sighed as if his remark were not worthy of
serious notice, and sat for half an hour going into all the details of
Ben Warren's last illness and his wonderful faith in her. "He simply
_would_ leave me in charge." She applied her handkerchief to her moist
eyes and choked down a sob. "I tried to get him to see that I wasn't at
all worthy, but it only made him more determined. The lawyer told me to
stop arguing, and the doctor said I was hastening his end, and so I let
him have his way. He died like a trusting child, Alfred. I held his hand
to the last."

"It was sad," Henley managed to fish out of his confused brain. "He was
a young man to go so suddenlike."

"That woman killed him, Alfred." The handkerchief was applied again,
though the voice of the speaker rang with rising indignation. "He had me
read all her letters over to him, and I followed the outrage from the
beginning to the final blow she dealt. She led him on and on, just
holding him as a certainty till another man proposed and she got what
she wanted--a home in New York. He couldn't stand up under it; she was
poor uncle's very life, and when she went out of it he wilted like a
delicate flower. I've ordered his monument; it will be the most
beautiful thing in the State. He had plans for a church to give to the
people in the neighborhood, and I'm going to see to the building of it.
I'll have to cut household expenses in a good many ways to do it, but
the edifice must be built. I get out the plans every day, but I shed
tears so that I can't hardly see the lines. This brings up what I wanted
to ask you, Alfred."

"To ask me?" Henley echoed, and he moved his feet and hands uneasily.

"Yes. I'll need the aid of a man over here, and, well, really, it would
look better for you to be here than over there. Jim Cahews managed for
you while you was away in Texas, and--"

"I know what you mean," Henley stammered. "I understand precisely, but
the truth is, right now, at least, I've got so many deals of one sort
and another on hand that--"

"I see. I might have known it." The woman sighed, avoided his helpless
stare, and tossed her head resentfully. "You never loved him as I do,
and you put your own selfish and worldly aims first." She rose stiffly
and stalked across the room to the silken bell-pull and gently drew it
downward. "You'll want to go to your room before supper. Lucy will show
you where it is. I hope everything will be in order up there. I have had
so much to worry me that I couldn't see about it myself. I'll meet you
at supper. I'm going down to the barn to see if they are taking care of
Jack--uncle's favorite horse. I haven't let anybody ride him since he
died. I don't know who would be worthy of it. Never mind, Alfred, this
is the second request I've made of you lately. I doubt if I'll ever make
another."

An impatient retort was rising in the man's breast, and it might have
found an outlet if she had not left him at that instant to give an order
to the girl who had come in response to her ring.



CHAPTER XXXVII


It was the second night after Henley's return to Chester. He was alone
at the farm-house. It was a desolate place now, despite his constant
self-assurance that he was accustomed, in his travels, to depend upon
his own resources for company and entertainment, and would now find
nothing lacking. He was in the kitchen cooking his supper in the same
crude way he had cooked his meals in the Western mining-camps where he
had once prospected.

He took down a rasher of bacon from a hook on a rafter, and with his big
pocket-knife deftly cut some thin slices into a frying-pan on the smoky
stove, and into the hot grease he broke some fresh eggs which he had
purloined from a hen's nest in the stable-loft. He had a loaf of baker's
bread, and he made some coffee of exactly the strength he liked. These
things ready, he took them to the big, empty dining-room, resting the
smoking frying-pan on an inverted plate on the clothless table. He sat
down and ate and drank, but somehow not with his usual relish, for there
was upon him a heavy sense of isolation from his kind. In spite of his
effort to regard his condition in a philosophical light, he found
himself unaccountably depressed. After all his youthful dreams of the
domestic happiness which was to round out his life, it had ended in
this. He could, he knew, go to live on the big plantation his wife had
inherited, but it would be at the cost of the pride of manhood which had
been his mainstay so far. She was acting out the part which had fallen
to her, and what was there to justify him in altering his plans--in
giving up the mode of life which had become a part of himself? Marriage,
such as his had become, through no fault of his own, was an acknowledged
failure.

Lighting his pipe, he blew out the lamp and sought the cooler air of the
front porch. There was something depressing, rather than helpful, in the
profound stillness of the night, the expanse of the star-filled heavens,
the shadowy outlines of the foot-hills of the invisible mountains
beyond. He heard his horses pawing in their stalls, old Wrinkle's pig
grunting in its pen; the chickens roosting in a cherry-tree hard by
chirped and flapped their wings as they jostled one another on the
boughs; all nature seemed normal and at peace save himself. What was
wrong? How could it go on? Where was it to end?

Presently his attention was drawn to a figure advancing along the front
fence to the gate. The latch was lifted; it was opened, and the figure,
with a light, confident tread, began to cross the grass toward him. It
was Dixie Hart, and he rose from his chair and went to the steps, a
throbbing sense of relief upon him.

She laughed softly, with a slight ring of affectation in her voice, as
she paused with her foot on the lowest step. "You must excuse me,
Alfred," she said. "I ought not to have come. I ought to have waited
till to-morrow, but I'm getting to be a regular slave to Joe. He was
worrying over you, and I was afraid he wouldn't go to sleep at all
unless--unless I set his mind at rest. Children are so funny."

"What's wrong with the little chap?" Henley came down the steps and
stood beside her. There was an inverted flour-barrel on the ground near
her, and Dixie sat upon it, and swung her feet back and forth for a
little while without seeming to have heard his question. He repeated
it, bending toward her the better to see her face in the starlight.

"Oh, I hardly know how--how to say it." She was studying his face with a
strange, hungry eagerness, which he failed to fathom. "Children are so
odd, Alfred, and have so many fancies that they conjure up themselves. I
reckon he's heard Ma and Aunt Mandy talking about--well, about the big
piece of luck that has come to you all. You know women that have never
had a windfall in any shape through their whole lives naturally make a
lot of the good-fortune that comes to a neighbor, and little Joe has
just set and listened to it all till--well, I reckon even you've changed
from--from his plain friend to--well, something like a king in royal
robes."

"The little goose! Besides--" But Henley's resources furnished no
further comment.

"He actually cried over _one_ thing," Dixie went on, avoiding Henley's
helpless stare. "It was when Aunt Mandy said that, while maybe you and
your wife had not been _quite_ as thick as--as some couples are, that
now, in all her wealth and splendor, you'd be like every other _natural_
man, and be more attentive and--and--even loving."

"How ridiculous!" Henley exclaimed. "Why, Dixie, that money and place
ain't anything to me. It comes to _her_, not to me, and, while I'm glad,
of course, for her sake, still--"

"Joe cried," Dixie broke in, with a cold, resentful shrug. "You see,
Alfred, he felt bad because Aunt Mandy hinted that you'd have to live
over there now, and move away from this farm. You see, as she told
Joe--I wasn't there--I don't listen to their silly gabble, anyway--but,
you see, Alfred, when the little fellow gets an idea like this in his
head and keeps hammering and hammering on it, there ain't nothing to do
but try to pacify him--as Aunt Mandy told Joe, your interests are so
whopping big over there that you will naturally have to be on hand to
look after 'em. Your wife--Mrs. Henley hain't got your head for
business, and it will be your bounden duty to help her run things. Of
course, you _do_ love money. A man would be unnatural that didn't, in
this day and time, when it is the main thing all humanity is out after.
And--and--" Her voice broke. She coughed and glanced aside.

"I'm not going over there, Dixie," he said, firmly. "I'm going to stick
right here, and do the best I can. Folks may talk some about me and
Hettie not living together, but I can't put up with all that rigmarole
over there. It would kill me."

"Aunt Mandy said you might say that at _first_." Dixie steadied her
voice. "She told Joe so in my hearing. She said it kinder nettled _some_
proud men to have it said they was beholden to their wives, but she
said--_she told Joe_--that the proudest man would give in to a situation
like that sooner or later. That's why the boy felt so bad, I reckon.
He's sure you are going to leave this measly little hole, and that he'll
never lay eyes on you again. I've tried to pacify him; but what can I
do? I wouldn't advise you to--to do a thing against your best interests,
either. You've made a good deal of money, and, like most men, you know
its value. As Aunt Mandy told Joe, in case of your wife's death you'd
get it all--that is, if you kept on the right side of her and indulged
her whims. It seems queer, Alfred, to be standing here in my plain dress
before a man as rich and high up in the world as you are."

"Dixie, listen to me!" Henley tried to take her hand, but she drew it
from his clasp stiffly and stared sharply into his face. "Dixie, you
said, not many days back, that me and you understood one another
perfectly, and that nothing would ever change our feelings. I can't
make out what you are driving at in all this roundabout palaver, but I
know I'm just pine-blank as I was, heart and soul and body. Going over
there made me miserable. I never spent such a day in my life. In all
that red-tape splendor and high doings I wanted my old ways and nothing
else."

"You'll get used to it," the girl said. "Aunt Mandy told Joe, you
remember, that you wouldn't like it at first, like any proud man, but
that the feeling would wear off. She says your wife ain't a bad-looking
woman, and that, in fine clothes and with fine things about her, she
will be different from what she was here. Money is power, Alfred; it
will have its way in this world. A man might sorter _fancy_ he couldn't
get along with a woman on his own level, but let her rise high above
him, and he won't be exactly in the same boat. He'll naturally think
more about her, and, in thinking more about her, and trying harder to
please her, his old love will be revived--that is, _if it ever died_.
Who could tell? I couldn't."

"Look here, Dixie, listen to me!" Henley's voice shook with subdued
passion. "I've never felt like it was exactly honorable, fixed like I
am, to tell you--to talk out plain to you about--about how I feel toward
you, but you are nagging me on to it. I can't help it. Right now it is
burning me up inside. I love you more than a man ever loved a woman. You
are in my mind day and night. Standing here before me now you seem as
far-off and precious as an angel of light. I want you. I want you from
the very bottom dregs of my suffering soul. She asked me to move over
there, and when she did it the thought of getting farther away from you
made me actually sick. I'd rather live here on a crust of bread than to
rule a nation away from you. I may as well confess it. I don't love her.
I couldn't in a thousand years. She killed the love I once had. She was
slowly killing it by her strange ways while you was growing into my
heart by your sweet, brave, unselfish life. Now, I've said all I can. I
have no hope of ever having you all for my own, but I can love you--I
can worship you, and no earthly power can prevent me."

Even in the starlight he could see the color rising in her face and the
shimmer of delight in her eyes. She laid her hand on his tense,
throbbing arm. "I see," she said, a sweet cadence in her voice. "I've
had all my scare for nothing. Oh, Alfred, I've been nigh crazy. I
doubted you. All the talk about your wife's wonderful luck went clean
against my better judgment. I kept telling myself that you was different
from ordinary men, but, somehow, it wouldn't stick. I may as well tell
the truth. That's why I come here to-night. I've been unable to sleep--I
was going crazy. You are mine, Alfred, all mine--ain't you?"

He felt her throbbing fingers on his wrist and saw her shoulders rise
convulsively. An overpowering force within him urged him to clasp her to
himself. He opened his arms, but she deftly caught his hands and held
them tightly. "No, no," she said, firmly, "not that--not that! Folks say
men and women fixed like we are can't love one another without doing
wrong; but they can. The strong ones can, and we are strong, Alfred. Our
love is sweet enough as it is. It is of heaven; let's keep it right. You
might think you'd respect me if I let you hold me in your arms--here at
your own house, with your wife away, but you wouldn't--down in your
secret soul you'd feel that I was--was tainted."

"Forgive me, Dixie, darling," he cried. "My blood's in my head; I'm
dazed and dazzled by you, little girl; but you know best. I wouldn't do
a thing you didn't approve of for all the world."

She released his hands with a little, satisfied laugh, and stepped back
toward the gate. "Well, I got what I wanted," she said, frankly. "I've
been more in the clutch of Old Harry since you went over there than I
ever was in all my born days. All day yesterday and to-day I've brooded
and brooded and had evil thoughts, till--well, I'd have gone plumb out
o' my mind if I hadn't come straight to you. I may as well tell the
truth; I don't want a lie, even a little, tiny one, to smut the
confidence between us. Alfred, Joe wasn't worrying so--so _very_ much. I
was attending to that job. What I said about him was to pump you dry and
make you ease my mind. I feel better. I can sleep now. Oh,
Alfred--Alfred--good-night!"

He threw out his hands impulsively, but she had evaded them, and, with
lowered head, was scudding across the grass toward the light in the
cottage.



CHAPTER XXXVIII


The bar in the Oklahoma village kept by Dick Wrinkle was in the centre
of the place. It was a narrow, one-story shanty built of undressed
boards, the roof of which sloped from the front to the rear. It was
devoid of the conventional door-screen, the rough, unpainted shutter,
with its padlock and chain, swinging back against the inner wall.

It was early in the morning. The proprietor, a fat, partially bald man
of forty years, without a coat, his shirt-sleeves rolled above his
elbows, was sweeping into the cracks of the floor the tobacco-quids,
stubs of cigars, and remnants of matches left by his carousing customers
the night before. He had just tossed his broom into a corner of the room
and was looking out of the door when a dust-laden, travel-worn
individual with a familiar look slouched around a corner and said:

"Hello, Dick! Don't you know a fellow?"

"By gum!" Wrinkle cried. "Where the hell did you blow from?"

"Georgia--from back home, Dick. Just got here on the night mail-stage.
Gosh, what a ride! My windpipe is lined with dust. Quick! Gimme
something to wash it out. Three men on the stage, and not a drop in the
bunch. I'm burning up."

"By gum!--by gum!" Wrinkle muttered, as he slid behind the counter and
set out a long bottle and glasses. "Help yourself, but I'll tell you now
it ain't any o' the simon-pure moonshine we used to get in the old red
hills. And you say you are direct from there? My Lord! It seems funny to
see a man in this God-forsaken place fresh from them old mountains.
Since I clean cut myself off--burnt my bridges, as the feller said, I
kind o' realize what I lost. Say, Hank, you didn't give me away, did
you?"

Bradley drank a half-tumbler of the whiskey, and took a sip of water and
cleared his throat. "No, I kept mum, Dick. I said I would, and I did. It
wasn't anything to me, nohow. I ain't no gossiper. That was your game,
and I saw no reason to spoil it. Shucks! you needn't worry; you are
deader back there than a door-nail. Where is that old pal of yours?"

"Dead." Wrinkle raised his hand warningly. "Don't talk about him. He was
a good chap, and stuck to me like a friend and a brother."

"Gee! then you must be lonely, away out here--"

"Don't talk about it. Cut that out, Hank. I'm blue enough as it is."
Wrinkle moved the bottle and glasses to a crude table near the door and
took a chair. Bradley drew up another and sat down. The rising sun
blazed in at the open door, and flared like flame in the gilt-framed
mirror back of the bar.

"All right. Out she goes. I didn't mean to touch on a sore spot, but I
didn't know. You didn't write often."

"I was afraid my letters might be opened by somebody else. I wanted all
that to stay wiped out, Hank. I didn't care so much for Het as I did for
the old man and woman."

"I wrote you about your wife marrying again?" Bradley said. "I reckon
that ain't news?"

"Oh no." Wrinkle had inherited his nonchalant smile and care-free tone
from his father. "The damn fool was welcome to 'er. In fact, I owed him
that dose. He's the only man I ever had a grudge against, and I was
glad he got her. He thought she was exactly the thing he was looking
for; I reckon he knows what he got by this time. Marrying her was the
foolishest thing I ever was guilty of, and I think I done it to spite
him. I ought to have let 'im marry 'er an' then 'a' took 'er away from
him. I could 'a' done it as easy as falling off a log. She was plumb
daft. I reckon she cut up considerable when the news was spread that I
was done for."

"It was the talk of the county, Dick. Folks thought she'd have to be
sent to the asylum. Her uncle, Ben Warren, who was so rich, you know,
took pity on her and made her come visit him so she could get her mind
off her trouble. When she got back, Henley made a dead set for her. But
while he got her, Dick, she never cared for him. I reckon you never
heard about what she done last summer."

"I haven't had a line from home in two years, Hank. She didn't quit 'im,
did she?--she didn't throw 'im clean over, after all, did she?" And
Wrinkle laughed expectantly as he pushed the bottle toward his
companion.

Bradley's eyes shone; the neck of the bottle in his unsteady hand
tinkled against the edge of the tumbler as he poured out another drink.

"No, but she come nigh to it. She drove him off to Texas, where he
pretended to have some business or other. Dick, she erected a monument
to you that cost a stack o' money. You can see it from the Chester
square, looming up like a ghost."

"The hell you say!"

"Not only that, but she sent off for a silver-tongued preacher and had
your funeral preached in bang-up style."

"Good Lord! What did she do that for?" Wrinkle groaned, and his mouth
set rigidly.

"Because the notion struck her," Bradley smiled. "She made a mark for
herself. She's the pride of all the women in that section. Whenever a
woman is accused of being changeable, your wife is pointed at to give it
the lie. You knew she was looking after your father and mother, didn't
you?"

"Yes, yes, you wrote about that," the barkeeper answered, his eyes
sullenly averted. "I thought she'd do something of the sort."

"And she has done it right, Dick; they are as rosy as two babies. Henley
makes plenty of money in one way and another, and he foots all her
bills, or did till--till--well, I haven't told you all the news yet.
Dick, neither one of us likes Henley. He's crossed me several times in
his high and mighty way, but he's got us both down now and he can sneer
at us all he wants to. No wind ever blowed that didn't blow profit to
him. You thought you was handing him a gold-brick when you left him your
wife, but, la me, Dick, you done him the biggest favor that one man ever
done another."

"What the hell you giving me?" Wrinkle raised a pair of wondering eyes
to Bradley's design-filled face, and fixed them there anxiously.

"Dick," Bradley toyed with the tumbler, turning it upside-down and
stamping rings of liquor on the table--"Dick, Ben Warren died and left
her every dollar of his estate. She's as rich as cream, and Henley--huh!
he's so stuck-up he can't walk. His lordly strut fairly shakes the
ground when he goes about. That fellow's as deep as the sky is high.
Folks think now that he knew she would come into that money away back
when he first set out to catch her. They don't know how he got onto it,
but it looks like he had a tip from some source or other."

With the lips and throat of a corpse, Dick Wrinkle swore; the pupils of
his eyes dilated; his yellow fingers, like prongs of dried rawhide,
clutched the edge of the table, and the tremor of his body shook it
visibly.

"I see it all now," he gasped. "He must have known it; he was crazy to
get her, and--and he took her as soon after--after I left as he could
possibly manage it. The Lord only knows what means he used, for, as you
say, she still loves me."

"Folks say Henley turns up his nose at common folks now," Bradley went
on. "He's planning a great stock-farm, and going to keep fine-blooded
race-horses, and him and his wife is going to travel about and see the
world. Things certainly run crooked in this life." Bradley laughed
significantly, his studious eyes on his victim's tortured visage. "Here
you are, all alone away out here in a measly little joint like this when
your old enemy is living like a king in the bosom of your family. Why,
he's even robbed you of your daddy and mammy. You are dead, buried, and
laughed at, Dick. I reckon you are not making much out of this thing?"
Bradley swept the meagre stock and cheap fixtures with a contemptuous
glance.

"Don't make my salt!" Wrinkle groaned. "Nothing is coming in, and no
prospect of a change. New town, Citico, drawing all the trade. I've
thought of selling out. There's a fellow here that has made me a cash
offer for the whole shooting-match--a thousand dollars down. He's a
gambler that is at the end of his rope; his wife says she'll quit 'im
and marry another man if he don't get into something more steady. She's
willing to put up the money if he'll buy me out. He's crazy for a deal.
He's got friends and can make it go. His wife's kin live here and she
won't move. He's in every hour of the day, shaking his wad in my face. I
saw him just now as I come down to open up. I'd let him have the dang
thing, but I don't know where to go. I'm sick o' the game, Hank. I've
had enough of the wild and woolly West. I've laid awake many and many a
night, by gosh! mighty nigh crying for the old life in the mountains.
Lord, Lord, I set here sometimes when there ain't anybody about except a
drunk Injun or cowboy and git so blue and lonely that it leaks out of me
like sweat and drops on the floor. I reckon it is kinder natural for a
feller to want what he's been brought up on, especially if he has, by
his own act, cut it out and signed his death-warrant. Oh, that was a
fool thing, Hank--a blasted fool thing! It seems to me that I dream o'
them damn mountains and blue skies every night hand-running--and the
good, old-fashioned grub we used to have! And, Hank, I hain't just a
dead man--another feller has took my place and, as you say, is gloating
over me."

"Oh, well, as for that matter," and Bradley looked idly out through the
doorway, "you ought to settle his hash--pull 'im down from his perch."

"Yes," ironically, "now that would be a good idea, wouldn't it?"

"The easiest thing on earth, Dick. Alf Henley ain't legally married to
your wife. He's living with her, but they hain't been tied by law."

The barkeeper stared blankly; his features worked as if he were trying
to solve a mathematical problem. He started to speak, but his mouth fell
open and remained so; his lower lip hung wet with saliva.

"Why, no," Bradley went on. "No woman can legally marry another man
while her husband is alive. She didn't get no divorce. She's your wife
yet, and Alf Henley has simply slid in and taken possession of all you
got on earth. I know what I'd do; I'd hike back there and walk in as if
nothing had happened, and I'd kick that skunk out, too, or shoot the top
of his head off. Dick, she never loved anybody but you; she'd be so glad
to have you back she'd throw her arms round your neck and hold you
tight. It is the talk of the whole county about how true she is to your
memory. It has driven Henley mighty nigh crazy."

Wrinkle stood up. He was shaking like a man with palsy. He leaned over
the table and gazed almost tearfully into the designing eyes before him.

"Yes, old Het's a good girl," he muttered. "She was always the right
stuff. I know in reason that she'd be the--the same as she was. I know
her through and through and exactly how to manage her, but, Hank, they
all think I'm--- dead!"

"Folks have made mistakes before," Bradley argued, in a tense and yet
plausible tone. "You was hit in the head by a falling beam in that
storm. You told me so. You was laid up with a lot of others in the
hospital, and for a solid month didn't know your hat from a hole in the
ground. That's how the report went out that you was done for. Why, Dick,
there have been no end of cases where men have not known where they
belonged for half a lifetime, and then got it all back in a flash.
Nobody would doubt that you was in that fix. I'll help you work it. I'm
your friend, and I want to see you get what is due you. That man's
robbing you, choking the life-blood out of you. You've simply got to go
back and claim your rights."

"I couldn't do it, Hank." The barkeeper sank back into his chair, and,
with his elbows on the table, he ran his blunt fingers through the
fringe of hair around his glistening pate. "I'm in a hole. I'm clean
done for. I wouldn't be good at such a racket as that. I wouldn't know
how to fix it. I'd forget my tale; I ain't got much memory. Hush, I saw
that gambler turn the corner. He's headed here."

"Dick, you'd better take my advice and sell out," Bradley advised.
"You'll be a damn fool if you don't. It's the chance of a lifetime."

"Sh!" Wrinkle hissed, warningly, as a shadow fell athwart the floor and
a tall, middle-aged man, with dyed mustache and whiskers, sauntered in
at the door. He was jocularly called "the Parson," owing to his
dignified and clerical appearance. His trousers were neatly folded into
the tops of his very high boots, and his shirt-bosom was broad and none
too clean, and his flowered silk waistcoat was cut so low that two
buttons sufficed to keep it in place. He wore a flowing, black necktie,
glistening foil-back studs, and rings of the same quality.

"I'm up early," he laughed, nodding to Bradley as a stranger might. "My
wife pulled me out o' bed. She has got Shanks to agree to sell me his
grocery, part cash and part on tick, and she wants me to watch and see
what sort o' early-morning trade he's got. She knows I don't know as
much about that line as this, but she thinks I kin learn, and maybe keep
better company. I reckon it will be a deal betwixt now and ten
o'clock--that is, unless you make up your mind to sell out."

Dick Wrinkle was looking into the speaking eyes of his old friend across
the table. He knew well enough that the gambler's remark was merely a
poker bluff, and yet it stirred certain natural fears within him.

"You can't root me out of a good thing with a little wad like that,
Parson," he said, rising and going behind the counter and briskly wiping
off its surface more from habit than necessity. "I've just met an old
friend of mine from back in God's Country, and we was just talking over
old times. What'll you have?"

"The one next the jug," the gambler said, and Wrinkle set the bottle
before him, watching him fill the glass with unsteady eyes.

"I don't think Dick is in a trading humor," Bradley informed him with a
cordial smile. "We've been talking over old times, and he's hot under
the collar. He's got an enemy back home that has been throwing dirt on
him. If I was in Dick's place I'd go back and call him down."

"I don't know anything about that," the gambler said, and he drank,
wiped his lips on his hand, and stepped to the centre of the bar and
peered out. "I see Shanks in front of his shebang now. If I make him an
offer and he accepts it, it is all off between us, Wrinkle--you
understand that. I've got to settle down at something, and I'll do it
without delay. What do you say?"

"Oh, I've said all I'm going to." Wrinkle tossed his head and applied
himself to restoring the bottle and washing the glasses beneath the
counter.

"All right. Good-day." He stepped out of the doors

Wiping his hands on a towel, Wrinkle came round to the table and leaned
on it.

"You damn fool!" Bradley cried, in disgust. "That's all I've got to
say."

"It's gone too far, Hank," Wrinkle groaned. "It was my own doings; I've
got to take my medicine. He's gone, anyway."

Bradley stared at the floor and pointed grimly at the gambler's
tell-tale shadow. Then he whispered: "Don't be a fool; close with him.
Secure his money, and I'll help you get your rights--don't lose this
chance. A thousand dollars is a lot of money back home. Call him in."

A change crept over Wrinkle's visage; he glided back behind the counter,
picked up his towel and began wiping the counter's top till he was in a
position to see the gambler. He caught the man's eye and laughed
tauntingly:

"Hey, Parson, you are always making your brags," he called out. "I'll
bet you haven't seen a thousand dollars in a month of Sundays."

"You think not, eh?" And the tall man stalked back into the room,
whipped out a roll of bills, and tossed them on the table in front of
Bradley. "Say, stranger, umpire this game--count it. I'm ready, but I
won't be ten minutes from now."

Bradley smiled easily and counted the twenty fifty-dollar bills.

"It's all right, Dick," he said. "You don't know what to do. I'm going
to close it for you. He'll take it, stranger." Bradley's eyes were on
the startled gambler. "I'll act for him."

There was a pause. Wrinkle's face was set under an expression of blended
fear, doubt, and half-willingness, but he said nothing, simply staring
at Bradley as a subject might under the spell of a hypnotist.

"Yes, he'll take it," Bradley repeated. "Get your hat, Dick, and leave
the gentleman in possession--the agreement sweeps everything, doesn't
it?"

"Yes, lock, stock, and barrel." The gambler was trying to conquer the
look of elation which had captured his features.

"All right," Wrinkle gave in, doggedly, and he reached for the money and
counted it. When he had finished he took his hat down from a nail on the
wall and extended his hand. "Luck to you, Parson," he said. "I reckon
I'll shake the dust of this place off my feet. I've got work to do at
home."



CHAPTER XXXIX


Dick Wrinkle, travel-stained and covered with dust, a small valise in
his hand, trudged down the declivitous footpath of the mountain amid the
splendor of late summer leafage and occasional dashes of rhododendron
and other wild flowers, the color and scent of which greeted his senses,
dulled as they were to the finer things of life, as a subtle something
belonging to the past which had been lost and was regained. Now and then
he would stop, rest his bag on the ground, and breathe in the crisp air
as if it were a palpable substance that was pleasing to his palate. At
such moments, when the open spaces between hanging boughs, tangled
vines, and trunks of trees would permit, his glance, half doubtful, half
confident, would rest on the palatial residence in the valley below,
which, at every step, had been growing nearer and nearer.

"Yes, that's the place," he said once, in a certain tone of exultation.
"It must be; I've followed the directions to the letter, and there
couldn't be two such dandy houses as that round here. And it is hers, in
her own right, to boss over and to keep or to sell or to do as we please
with."

When he had reached the level ground he found himself in a broad,
well-graded road that led straight to the gates of the mansion, and when
he was quite near to it he observed on the right-hand side an extensive
peach-orchard. It was the gathering season, and in a shed open at the
sides, and containing long, canvas-covered tables, several negro men and
women were busy packing the ripe peaches into new crates which were
being nailed up by a white man in overalls and a conical straw-hat. The
pedestrian leaned against the whitewashed board-fence and scanned the
group, seeking a familiar face. But those before him had a strange look.
He was wondering if he could be mistaken in the place, after all, when,
his glance roving to the nearest row of trees, he saw an aged man emerge
with his arms full of peaches, which he took to the nearest negro
packer. Dick Wrinkle didn't recognize him under his broad hat and in his
fine clothes, but a thrill went through him when he heard him address
the servant.

"Put these jim-dandies on top with the yaller side up," he commanded.
"They are a lettle mite soft, but they've only got to go over the
mountain. They are for the head boss, an' you'd better pack 'em right.
He's powerful fond o' good ripe peaches. I've seed 'im eat 'em with the
skin on, an', as much as I like 'em, I can't do that. I'd as soon chaw
sandpaper."

"It's Pa," the man at the fence said, in a tone of relief. "I'd know his
voice amongst a million. He looks younger by ten years than he did. I
reckon high living did it. Well, it's my turn at it, an' it won't be
long 'fore I set in. I may have trouble at the start, but I'll weather
the storm. I know who I'm dealing with. I didn't live with 'er as long
as I did without learning a few things."

Dropping his bag over the fence, he climbed over after it. He stood for
a moment, hesitatingly, and then, taking out his pocket-handkerchief, he
flicked the dust off his coat and trousers and new shoes. He was well
and rather tastily attired. He was shaved, and his scant hair showed
that it had been brushed. He wore a heavy gold chain, which had a
prosperous look stretching across his black waistcoat. The old man had
turned back toward the trees, and, without being noticed by the active
packers, his son followed him, bag in hand. Old Jason, his eyes raised
in searching for the choicest fruit among the low branches of the trees,
did not see his son till he was close behind him.

"Now, Pa," Dick Wrinkle began, calmly enough, "don't jump out o' your
hide. Reports to the contrary, I'm alive and kicking."

Turning at the sound of the familiar voice, the old man started, an
exclamation, half of fear, half of gratified wonder, escaping his lips.
He stared fixedly, and his mouth fell open, exposing his quid of
tobacco. The peaches in his hands rolled to the ground, and, utterly
bewildered, he stooped as if to pick them up, but paused and stared
again. "Lord, have mercy!" he cried. "Lord, have mercy, who'd have
dreamt it--you back--you--you here! Why, we all heard--we all 'lowed--we
all was plumb sure you was--"

"I know. Never mind about that," the younger said, with a shrug meant to
shake off the topic. "Where's Ma, and--and Hettie?"

"Your Ma?--your Ma? Why, she's down at the spring-house watchin' 'em try
a new-fangled churn, or--or was a few minutes ago. Why, Dick, we all
thought you was--was--"

"Oh, I know, but where is Hettie?"

"Hettie? Oh, my Lord! Why, Dick, boy, hain't you heard a thing?"

"I've heard a sight more 'n I want to hear or will again," Dick Wrinkle
said, with lowering brows and a voice which seemed to bury itself in a
mass of inner threats as to dire approaching events. "I've come to
propose a--a settlement, without blood if it can be arranged; if not, we
kin spill plenty of it in the up-to-date Western style. I've been away,
and was detained longer 'n I expected by circumstances over which I had
no control, and in my absence, I'm told, my household--an', by gosh, my
honor!--has been stained. I'm not out looking for trouble, but trouble
may throw itself in my way. I'm prepared to do an outraged man's part.
I've got a medium-sized gun in my hip-pocket and a young cannon in this
valise."

"Oh, Dick, Dick, we mustn't have blood spilt, for all we do!" Old
Jason's display of actual concern was the first ever wrung from him.
"Besides, the law--the law must be considered."

"Oh, I'm willing to consider the law," Dick said. "I'll do a lot o'
things if I'm not made any madder 'n I am right now. I'm glad to git
back, an' I don't want to be mad. I'll do as much toward keepin' peace
as any other man. There ain't anything so awfully unheard of in what
happened to me. Fellers has been off from home before, an' the whole
world wasn't plumb upset by it."

"But they didn't rise from the dead," old Jason submitted,
argumentatively. "How on earth did you manage to do it? I mean--"

The son's glance for the first time wavered. He looked toward the
towering mountain as if for moral sustenance. His lips mutely moved as
if he were conning a lesson he was learning by rote, and then, seeing
the question still in his father's blearing eyes, he began:

"I met with trouble, Pa--I reckon some would style it an accident. When
that big tornado struck the country out there and so many was blowed to
smithereens and never had even the pieces of 'em put together again--I
say, Pa, when all that happened I was struck in the back of the head by
a rock or a beam or a plank--I never knew exactly which--and never got
my right senses back for a long, long time afterward. In fact, I didn't
even know my own name or even recall you and Ma, or my old home back
here. I say, it was all a plumb blank till--till--"

"I know, till you heard about Hettie and--and--but go on. I'm a
listenin'."

"Well, there ain't much to tell." Dick Wrinkle was perspiring freely. He
took off his hat and wiped his red neck and bald pate with an impatient
hand. "Being hit that way, you see, was the last thing I remembered.
Folks say I must have wandered about over the plains like a wild animal
that didn't know how to do a thing but eat and drink what I could run
across. Some cowboys tuck me up and l'arned me to cook, and I followed
that for a long time. Then, t'other day, they put me on the back of a
bucking bronco, just for the fun o' the thing. I stayed on as long as I
could, but he finally flung me over on my head. That fetched me to. The
whole thing come back like a flash. Several years had slipped by, but
when I come to my right mind I thought that same storm was raging. I
refused to believe so much time had passed till a cowboy showed me the
date on a newspaper, and that plumb floored me."

"You don't say!" Old Wrinkle stroked his beard thoughtfully and, in
paternal sympathy, avoided his son's anxious eyes. "Well, well, that was
all-powerful curious, but--but I've read of sech things, and maybe
Hettie has, too; if she hain't, I'll try to show her that--I mean--but I
reckon I'd better trot over to the spring-house and kinder lead your Ma
up to it, and not have it sprung too suddenlike. She ain't one o' your
weak sort that flops down at the slightest report of good or bad luck,
but we'd better be on the safe side. I'll tell yore Ma, I say, an' then
I'll go up to the big house an see if I can do anything with Hettie."

"Well, maybe you'd better," Dick Wrinkle agreed, slowly, "and I reckon
you'd better give her a full account o' how it all happened. I don't
want to be eternally going over it. I've had enough of it myself."

"You mean about--yore crazy spell?" The old man stared inquiringly.

"Yes, about all that. I've told you--I've done give you full
particulars. You know as much about it as I do. A man out of his right
senses don't remember anything worth while, nohow."

"Well, I hope I'll git it straight, an' not backside foremost. It would
be funny if I begun it whar the bronco throwed you and ended up in the
tornado. Het will have to be worked fine, Dick. She sorter feels 'er
oats now. She always did hold 'er head in the air, but it's higher now
since she got rich. She mought take a fool notion that the bronco
throwed you powerful soon after her change o' luck."

"I don't want 'er dern money!" Dick Wrinkle snarled, his glance shifting
unsteadily. "I don't need _anybody's_ cash. I've got a thousand dollars
in my pocket now."

"You say you have?" The eyes under the bushy gray brows fluttered
thoughtfully. "Well, if I was you, I believe, Dick, that I'd not haul it
out an' make a show of it. You see--well, you see, it's like this: Het's
a thinkin' woman, an' sorter keen-eyed at times, when she wants to be,
an' lookin' at a wad like that mought--I don't say, it _would_--but it
mought, bein' a sort o' money-maker herself, it mought set her to
wonderin' how a feller clean out o' his senses could accumulate so much
cash in times as hard as these. If crazy fellers kin load up like that
out thar, men of brains could walk clean off with the State."

Dick Wrinkle started slightly and let his glance trail along the ground,
in several directions before lifting it again to the would-be helpful
countenance before him.

"I made it _after I got my senses back_," he said, finally, and rather
doggedly.

"Well, I don't believe I'd let that out, _nuther_," said old Wrinkle, in
a tone that was meant to be kindness itself. "You see, Dick, the bronco
throwed you just t'other day, an' a thing like that is liable to git you
all balled up. A woman like Het mought ax a heap o' fool questions, an'
you hain't had yore right mind back long enough to go into a game like
that yet awhile."

"Oh, I don't give a damn, one way or another!" the younger snorted. "It
ain't any o' her business, nohow where I was nor how long I was gone.
She's my wife, I ain't the fust man that ever went away for a spell and
then come home."

"I was jest wonderin'," the old man said, soothingly, "if yore old
high-an'-mighty way wouldn't be best, Dick. All the tornado an'
buckin'-bronco business may be a waste of talk. Het tuck to you in the
fust place beca'se you sorter held a tight rein over 'er, an', if I'm
any judge, Alf Henley, with all his easy ways an' indulgence, hain't
driv' her over any smooth road. I've heard it said that a woman will
kitten to a man that beats 'er quicker 'n she'll kitten to one that
kittens to her; an', if you set in on this fine place with a bowed head,
you'll be duckin' at every turn."

"Well, you go on an' tell her I've got home," was the request of the
son. "Tell 'er I want to see 'er, too, an' that right off. You may tell
'er I'm loaded for bear--that I've heard about the way she's been going
on with Alf Henley behind my back, an' that a day of reckoning has
arrived. It's been delayed, but it's here."

"All right," old Wrinkle said, gravely, "that's the best way. You are
comin' to yore senses, Dick. It wouldn't be natural for you to let a
fine place an' a little money scare the life out of you. It's lucky Alf
ain't here. I don't think he'll give you any trouble, though. Some
thought Het's good luck would spoil 'im, but, if I'm any judge, he seems
sorter 'shamed about it. He hain't been here but once, an' then acted
like a fish out o' water. He's a money-maker, an' too live a chap to
want to put on a dead man's shoes. You've come in good time, an' if Het
will let you stay you'll be in clover the rest o' yore days. Between you
an' Alf I naturally favor _you_, of course. Me 'n yore Ma felt all right
here, but we _did_ have a shaky sort o' claim, you'll admit, bein' akin
to the fountain-head in sech a roundabout way, an' with Alf Henley's
name in the pot, too. Well, I'll be goin'. Watch the back porch, an' if
you see me wave my hat up and down, this way, you come right on. If I
was to wave it to one side, like this--but never mind; we'll do the best
we kin."

"All right," agreed Dick. "I'll go pick me some ripe peaches. The very
sight of 'em makes my mouth water."



CHAPTER XL


One clear, warm evening three days later, on his return to his lonely
house, Henley went into the kitchen and prepared his simple meal, and,
after eating it, he went to his room to get his pipe and tobacco for a
smoke. He had no sooner entered the room than he noticed that it had
undergone a change. Some one had taken the white lace curtains from his
wife's room and put them up over his windows. Pictures in frames which
had been ill-placed in the parlor now hung by his bed and over the
mantelpiece. A neat-colored rug from Mrs. Henley's room ornamented the
floor, and on it stood a table from the hall, holding the family Bible,
an album of photographs, some other books from the parlor, and a vase
containing fresh roses. The open fireplace was filled with evergreens,
and the rough, brick hearth had been whitewashed, the lime giving out a
cool, pungent odor.

"She done it!" he exclaimed. "Nobody else would have thought of it." And
he sat down in a rocking-chair, in which some cushions had been placed,
and, not wishing to contaminate his surroundings by smoke, he leaned
back and enjoyed it as he had enjoyed few things in his life. "Yes, she
done it," he kept saying. "She slipped over here, busy as she is at
home, and done it just to please me. She is a sweet, good, noble girl."

As the dusk came on he went outdoors, lighted his pipe, and strolled
down to the gate. Leaning on it, he looked toward the mountains, which
were rapidly receding into the night. How majestic and glorious it all
seemed! How soothing to his sore spirit was the gift which had been so
delicately bestowed and which nothing should ever take from him! He
wouldn't have admitted to himself that he was there at the gate because
it was the hour at which Dixie drove her cow up from the pasture across
the way, but he was there with his glance on the pasture-gate. He saw
her coming presently, and went to meet her. Her color rose as she
recognized him above the back of the waddling cow, and she assayed a
mien of casual indifference as she returned his smile.

"I have to tell you," he began, as he turned and suited his step to
hers, "how tickled I am over the way you fixed up my room. I'm certainly
much obliged to you. It's a different place altogether."

"I'm glad you didn't scold me for the liberty I took," she said. "I saw
your front-door wide open, and--and, well, I just couldn't help it. I
never saw such a mess in all my life. It made me sick to look at it. I
simply had to clean it up. Oh, Alfred, you are just a big baby, and it's
a pity to see you left this way."

"And to think that you done it!" Henley said. "With them little hands,
and--and for a big, hulking chap like me."

"Oh, it was fun," she answered. "Joe was with me; he whitewashed the
hearth and cut the pine-tops for the chimney. He'd have moved every
stick of furniture out of the parlor if I'd 'a' let him."

"I kept bachelor's hall for years," Henley said, "but I never once
thought of fixing up the room I occupied. I can see now how much
difference it makes. La me, Dixie, I could set there by the hour and
just--just enjoy it, knowing that you--"

"Don't talk about it any more," she interrupted, with a wistful, upward
glance. "It makes me feel sad to think that after all you've done for
other folks you should make so much over what you ought to have by
rights. I actually cried the other night. I was driving the cow 'long
here and saw you through the window in the kitchen cooking your supper.
A woman's heart is tender toward children and to a man that she--to a
man that is plumb helpless and bungling about over things he has no
business to fool with. Alfred, your frying-pan had a sediment of eggs,
meat, grease, and pure dirt on the bottom as hard as the iron itself. I
had to chop it out with a hatchet. Your coffee-kettle was full to the
spout with old grounds, and you left a ham of meat lying flat on the
floor, and the flour-barrel was open for the hens to nest in."

"So you was there, too," said Henley. "I thought Pomp done it."

"Pomp? He's a man, if he is black," the girl sniffed. "He wouldn't have
thought anything was wrong if he'd found the house-cat sleeping in the
bread-tray. No, you've got to be attended to some way or other. I don't
know how, but it's got to be done."

"I'll make it all right," Henley declared. "I'm used to knocking about."

Dixie shook her head. They had reached his gate, and she paused,
allowing the cow to trudge on homeward. "You may not know it, Alfred,"
she said, "but you are changed. You look restless and unsettled. You
made one of your best trades the other day in buying them mules, but you
haven't been to see 'em once since you turned 'em in the pasture. It
ain't like you. You used to be so full of fun. This money your wife has
come into has upset you. You don't feel exactly right about it."

"I'll admit it," he said, softly. "I want her to get all she can out of
the good things of this world; but, somehow, that knocked me out--clean
out. I've made my own way in this life, and I want to keep doing it.
Men come to me every day and wish me joy in another man's death. I get
mad enough to slap 'em in the mouth. One fool said it was silly of me to
keep working when I had such a soft bed to lie on."

"I knew you'd feel that way," Dixie said, her eyes full of sympathetic
tenderness. "I was just thinking to-day of how many trials we've been
through together. I've helped you a little, maybe, and you've been my
mainstay. There is only one thing I'm plumb ashamed of, Alfred, and when
I think of it I get hot enough to singe my hair."

"What was that?" he asked in surprise.

"You remember--the time I engaged myself to a man I had never laid my
eyes on." And Henley saw that she was blushing. "I'd give my right arm,
and do my work with my left, to wipe that off my slate forever."

"Don't bother about that." He tried to comfort her. "You only come nigh
making the mistake I actually tumbled into. You ought to be thankful you
escaped the consequences that I had to shoulder. I didn't know Hettie,
and the only true love is the sort that comes from a deep knowledge of a
person's character. You see, I know you, little girl, through and
through. I've seen you in trouble and in joy, and found you all
there--true blue, the sweetest woman God ever made. If I'm out o' sorts
here lately it is because I can't keep from seeing what an awful,
life-long mistake I made. It is seeing the thing you'd die to have, but
which is out of your reach, that makes you see how empty the whole world
is."

"Don't say any more." Dixie impulsively touched his arm and then drew
her hand away. "I could listen to you talk that way all night, but I
must do my duty to you and me both. Talking of what we've lost won't
bring us any nearer to it. As for me, well--I'm a sight happier than I
was before she went off. I don't exactly know why, but I am. Every night
before I go to bed I tuck away my two old folks, and then hear little
Joe say his lessons and his prayers, and then I go out in the yard and
look at your light gleaming and twinkling through the vines about your
window. Then my heart gets full of a feeling so sweet and soothing that
when I look above the whole starry sky seems to shower down comfort and
blessings. Then I thank God, Alfred--not for giving you to me like other
women get their partners for life, but for giving me a love that can't
die as long as the universe stands."

He saw her breast heave with emotion. He tried to find his voice, but it
seemed to have sunken too deep within his throat for utterance. The
vague form of a horse and rider appeared outlined against the horizon
down the road. She was moving away, but he touched her arm and detained
her.

"Wait till he passes," he said. "Don't go yet--not just yet!"

"I ought not to be here talking to you after dark," she mildly
protested. There was a pause, during which the eyes of both were on the
horseman. "Why," she cried, "it is Mr. Wrinkle!"

And so it was. The old man reined in his sweating mount, and, throwing a
stiff leg over the animal's rump, he stood down beside them.

"Howdy do?" he greeted them. "I've just started to yore house, Alf. I'm
totin' a big piece o' news. I'm late. I had to stop an' tell it to a
hundred, at least, on the way. You mought guess all day and all night
an' never once hit it. Alf, we've had an increase in the family--but
hold on, hold on! it hain't that--it hain't another one o' my baby
jokes. I know better 'n to try a second dose on you out o' the same
bottle. Alf, Dick Wrinkle hain't dead."

"Not dead?" Henley and Dixie repeated the words in the same breath as
they tensely leaned forward.

"No, an' that ain't the only thing to be reckoned with. He's over at
home now, stouter and in better trim than he ever was in his life. He
appeared to me in the orchard whar we was packin' peaches, an' I was
plumb flabbergasted. It seems that he would have reported sooner if he
had been fully at hisself. He wasn't actually killed in that tornado,
but blowed off somers an' got a hit in the skull and was fixed so that
his remembrance played tricks on him. At one time he imagined he was a
cook for some cowboys, and a lot more fool antics. He would have been
that way yet--I mean in his crazy fix--but he says a pony throwed 'im
an' it all come back. You'll have to get him to tell you about it. I've
got it all mixed up."

Henley's wide-staring eyes sought Dixie's face. She was pale, still, and
mute.

"Well, I've got to be going," she said, in a quavering voice to old
Jason. "I haven't had a chance, Mr. Wrinkle, to ask you how Mrs. Henley
likes it over there. I hope your wife is well. They say the water is
freestone on that side of the mountain, and that is better for the
health than our hard limestone. You must tell them both that we all miss
them every day."

"Hold on! hold on!" Wrinkle said. "You'd better hear the straight o'
this thing. You'll wish you did, for folks will have it all lopsided by
to-morrow, an' I'll give you dead cold facts."

"But I've got my cow to milk," Dixie faltered, her color coming back,
"and it's growing late."

"I was going to tell you how Het tuck it," Wrinkle ran on, and there was
nothing for the girl to do but remain. "Dick told me to go on up to the
big house an' hand in his report in as fair shape as I could, an' I sent
his mammy, who was havin' ten fits a minute, to him, and went up to
Het's room, whar she lies down at that time o' the day. She's as tough
as rawhide, you know, an' I wasn't afraid she'd keel over, so while she
was frownin' at me like she thought I ought not to have butted in on her
privacy that way, I up an' told her the news. Well, sir, it plumb
floored her. You kin well imagine it would take a big thing to down Het,
but that did. She set up on the edge o' the bed, makin' wild stabs with
'er feet at 'er slippers, and lookin' wall-eyed an' scared.

"'Pa,' says she, 'this is one o' yore jokes.'

"'Joke a dog's hind-foot!' says I. 'If you think it's a joke you jest
step to that thar window an' look down at the peach-packin' shed.'

"Well, sir, you don't have to tell a woman twice how to verify an
important report. She riz like she was on springs, an' thumped across
the room in her stockin'-feet, an' looked out o' the window, with me
right in her wake. An' thar, as plain as a sheep in the middle of a
stream, stood Dick a-pealin' an' eatin' the peaches his mammy was
fetchin' him. An' now comes the part that may not suit you, Alf, one
bit; but I've come to fetch the whole truth an' nothin' but the truth.
In consideration of what Het has fell heir to, an' one thing an'
another, it may not be good news to you to hear that, instead o' lookin'
sorry, Het actually chuckled an' reddened up like a gal in her teens.

"'It's him!' she said. 'Thank God, it's Dick--it's Dick!'

"I couldn't pull 'er away from the window. She jest leaned agin the sash
an' stared, an' rubbed 'er hands together, an' went on like she was
gettin' religion. Then I set in, as well as I knowed how, to tell 'er
about Dick's mishap, but she waved her hand backward-like, an' stopped
me. 'Leave all that out,' she said, sorter impatient, as if she couldn't
think of but one thing at a time. 'You needn't tell about that--he's
alive, that's enough--Dick's alive!' And, would you believe it, folks?
She flopped herself down in a chair an' cried and tuck on at a great
rate. It upset me so that I give up the whole dang business. I went down
an' told Dick he'd better go attend to 'er. He axed me how the crazy
spell went down, an' I told 'im I didn't think she'd even heard it, or
ever would, for that matter. Women seem to scent a thing from far off
that they don't want to believe, an' close every pore of their bodies
an' eyes an' ears so it can't get in."

"Well, what was the final upshot of it all?" Henley was quite calm,
though a great new light was flaring in his eyes as they rested on
Dixie, who was looking off in the direction of the mountain, her little
hands grasping the palings of the fence, her tense body thrown slightly
backward.

"Dick's my own son," Wrinkle made answer, "but I got out o' all patience
with him. He ought to 'a' let well enough alone, bein' as Het was
willin' to let bygones be bygones. But not him. As me 'n him walked up
to the house, an' he looked over them broad acres on all sides, an' as
we went in at that fine door, he seemed to get back to his old self--an'
that is one thing that sorter makes me believe a little in the crazy
spell, for he looked like a man that had just waked up from a long nap,
shore enough. He was the maddest chap I ever laid eyes on as he went up
them steps to her private quarters. I followed. I wasn't wanted, I
reckon, but I had to see the thing through. She come up to him, Het did,
all wet from head to foot with tears, and tried to throw 'er arms around
his neck, but he shoved 'er off, he did, an' begun the awfulest
rip-rantin' jowerin' you ever heard, about the scan'lous way she'd
carried on with you while he was off. He didn't say nothin' about his
spell--he had no apologies to make. Accordin' to his way o' lookin' at
it, she'd blackened the white purity of his home while his back was
turned, an' nothing but blood, an' whole gurglin' streams of it, would
suit him. Well, they had it nip and tuck for fully an hour, an' then
they come to an agreement. They was to drive over to Carlton the next
day and ax Judge Fisk if Het had disgraced 'erself past recall; and so
we hit the road bright an' early. The judge was mighty nice. He said a
big mistake had evidently been made, but it was one that the law could
rectify if Het 'u'd just grease its wheels properly. He said he'd quit
settin' on the bench hisse'f--bein' beat by the Prohibitionists in the
last election--an' had gone back to practise at the bar, an' would
gladly take the case in hand. He saw plainly, he said, that it was Het's
duty, havin' come into sech a big estate as that, to clear her record
all she could, even if it _did_ cost her considerable outlay, first an'
last. He summed the whole thing up as calm, an' bent over with his
pencil in his hand, an' peepin' above his specs, just like he was
deliverin' a charge to a jury in a murder case. It was for Het to weigh
the evidence pro and con, an' consider, an' deliberate, an' make her
final choice betwixt the two claimants she had got tangled up with. He
didn't know, he went on to say--an', of course, he must have suspicioned
that she'd already made up her mind, bein' as she had fetched Dick along
an' left you out in the wet--he didn't know, he said, but what jestice
sorter leaned to the prior claimant, possession bein' nine parts of the
law, an' Dick bein' incapacitated an' rendered null an' void fer the
time involved. As to the crazy spell Dick had, he gave it as his opinion
that such things had been heard of often. He'd 'a' made a good doctor,
that judge would; he said the brain was the finest constructed part of
the human an--an--anatomy--that's it,--anatomy. He said it was made up
of a bunch of fibres an' strings as thin as spider-webs, an' that an
expert with the saw an' knife could open a man's skull an' tickle the
ends of 'em an' make the patient cut a different caper for every nerve
he touched. He said that's why human nature was so varied. He said, with
all fees paid, that Het could suit her own tastes an' inclination. He
said that she could claim that Dick's quar condition an' his
disinclination to furnish a support equal to her reasonable demands
justified her in callin' the fust deal off; or, on t'other hand, that
she could regyard it as the only obligation to which she was bound by
law or religion, an' that he would set about--after the fee was paid in
cash, or by check on any good, reliable bank, or even by a solid,
negotiable note--he would set about to have the second weddin' set
aside, and an-an--"

"Annulled," Henley threw into the gap.

"Yes, that's it--annulled," Wrinkle echoed. "An' he advised her to have
it docketed for next week's special term o' court, and that he'd promise
to rush it through without hitch or bobble. Dick seemed better satisfied
after they left the judge, an' they driv' back home without any more
wranglin'. Dick has bought him some new fishin'-tackle, an' is off to
the river to-day. He has a natural pride in the big plantation, and rid
all over it this mornin'. He says he has some new ideas that he picked
up in the West--before he had his spell, I reckon--which he intends to
apply there."

"Well, I really must hurry on," Dixie said, turning away. "Give my love
to your wife and to Mrs.--to your daughter-in-law. Good-night."

The two men saw her hastening away in the thickening shadows. There was
a vast throbbing within Henley's breast. The whole firmament above
seemed to be shimmering with a subtle, spiritual light. He laid his hand
almost affectionately on the old man's shoulder and beamed down into his
eyes.

"It is all for the best," he said. "I had no right to Dick's place. I
found that out long ago."

"Thar's one thing I don't like about it." Wrinkle was thoughtful, and a
rare mood it was for him. "I was thinkin' about it ridin' over here.
Alf, I don't like to give you up. As God is my holy judge, I like you--I
like you plumb down to the ground. You are a man an' a gentleman."

"Thank you." Henley's voice rang with a triumph he strove hard to
suppress. "Come in and put up your hoss and stay all night. I'll cook
you some supper and you can sleep in your bed, like old times."

"Much obliged all the same, Alf, but I reckon I can't. Het an' Dick both
laid down the law on that particular point. He's throwed that at 'er
several times already--I mean about lettin' you support me an' his Ma.
Seems like that sorter hurts his pride. He's threatened several times to
come over here an' instigate a civil war, but he won't do it right away.
He knows what a temper you got, an' I reckon he don't like the idea o'
that big tombstone already marked in Welborne's new graveyard. No, I
can't put up with you to-night. Het give me a five-dollar William to
defray expenses at the hotel, an' I sorter like the idea o' makin' a
splurge for a change. I'll make 'em give me the best drummer's quarters,
an' I'll order just what I want to eat."

Henley watched him remount and ride away, his legs swinging back and
forth against the flanks of the animal. He heard little Joe calling to
Dixie from the kitchen-door, and from the cow-lot her clear answering
"Whooee!" which came again in a softer echo from the nearest hill.

"I wonder what she is thinking?" he mused, the hot blood from his
surcharged heart tingling through his entire body. "I'd go to her now,
but she'd not like it. She wouldn't look at me while the old man was
talking. The sweet little thing is scared--she don't know what at, but
she's scared."



CHAPTER XLI


Although Henley, now grown oddly timid himself, made several efforts
within the next week to catch sight of Dixie, he failed signally. He
began by haunting the cow-lot at milking-time, but she did not come as
usual. From the front porch one evening he observed something that
explained this to him. It was the sight of little Joe driving the cow up
to the house instead of into the lot.

"She's milking up there to keep from meeting me," Henley said, his heart
growing heavy. "Maybe, after all, I've been hoping too much. Maybe she
sorter thought she'd like me well enough when I was bound to another,
like I was, but now she sees it different. Folks is likely to think
twice in a matter like this, for I mean business, an' she knows it. My
God, I may lose 'er--actually lose 'er, after all!"

For the next week Henley really suffered; the gravest doubts had beset
him; as close as Dixie had been to him, she now seemed farther away than
ever. He was constantly wavering between the hungry impulse to go
directly to her and the abiding fear that such an intrusion might offend
her beyond pardon.

One day, however, he felt that he could stand his suspense no longer. It
was the day his lawyer at Carlton had written him that he was a free
man. Surely, he argued, he would have the right to inform her of such an
important fact, after all that had passed between them, simply as a
friend, if nothing more. He left the store early in the afternoon, and
on his way home, and with a chill of doubt on him, he stopped at Dixie's
cottage.

Mrs. Hart was seated behind the vines on the little box-like porch, and
she rose at the click of the gate-latch and stood peering at him under
her thin hand.

"Oh, it's you, Alfred!" she cried, in pleased surprise. "I was just
wondering what had become of you. Did you want to see Dixie?"

"Yes, I thought I'd ask if she was about the house," Henley made reply,
in a jerky sort of fashion. "There is a little matter I wanted to speak
to her about."

"So the poor child is right, after all," the old woman sighed. "Well, I
reckon you must protect your own interests, Alfred, let the burden fall
where it may. She's done 'er best to pay out, an' if she can't do it,
why, she'll have to give in, that's all. She's undertaken too much,
anyway."

"I don't understand, Mrs. Hart." Henley was unable to follow her drift,
and, with his hat in hand and a puzzled expression on his face, he stood
silent.

"Why, for the last week, Alfred, Dixie hain't done a thing but fret and
worry about the money she owes you," Mrs. Hart explained, plaintively.
"Why, when you advanced the money to get her out of old Welborne's
clutch she was so happy she sung day and night, and me and her Aunt
Mandy thought the worst was over, because--well, because you seemed so
kind and friendly that we felt like you would not push her, that you'd
give her plenty o' time to make the payments. But now that her cotton
fell short of her expectations and the overflow killed half her
potato-crop she's all upset. She didn't say, in so many words, that you
was going to sue for your rights, but we couldn't, to save us, see what
she was so upset for, if you hadn't, at least, hinted about it. My
sister thought that maybe--that maybe, now that your wife's big fortune
had gone off in an unexpected direction, that you was obliged to raise
money to make good some investments that you made while you was counting
on things remaining the same. We couldn't talk it over with Dixie,
because she'd get out of patience every time we'd bring it up."

"You are quite mistaken, Mrs. Hart," Henley said, his face aglow from a
new light on the situation. "I don't want to collect any money from
Dixie. She can keep it as long as she wants it. If she thinks I want
that money, she is away off from the facts. Is she about the house?"

"No, she ain't," Mrs. Hart fairly gasped in relief. "Her and Joe went
down to the creek to fish. They are at the first bend; you can see the
spot from the gate. So that was a mistake! Well, I certainly am glad. I
reckon she just imagined it. She's acted funny for the last week,
anyway--sometimes just as happy and jolly as you please, and then
bringing up this money question--sayin' that she couldn't bear to be in
debt, and the like. She said if she could just sell the farm for
anything near its worth she'd do it and pay all she owes."

"She could easily sell it," Henley said, "but she won't have to do it to
pay me. I'll go down there, I believe, and see if they are having any
luck."

He walked away slowly, for the burden of doubt as to his chances was
still on him. From the bend of the road he looked across the level
pasture and hay-land to the green line of willows and canebrake that
marked the course of the stream. At first he saw nothing but his grazing
horses and mules, some of Dixie's sheep and lambs, and then he descried
a purplish blur against the living green, and recognized it as the
girl's sunbonnet, the back part of which was turned toward him. Across
the uneven ground, his feet retarded by creeping earth-vines and furrows
where grain had grown and ripened, he strode, his doubt and awkwardness
increasing with every step.

She saw him as he was nearing the grass-covered bank upon which she sat,
an open book in her lap. It was quite clear to him that she, too, was
embarrassed, for a violent color rose in her cheeks, and her glance
deliberately avoided his. She called out quite distinctly and
irrelevantly to Joe, who sat on a log which jutted out into the stream,
telling him to be careful and not fall in. Henley saw the boy shrug his
shoulders and heard him laugh contemptuously, as he whipped his rod and
line into the stream and reseated himself, his bare feet sinking into
the cooling water. "Why, it ain't up to my waist," he said. "I could
wade across."

"No, he's safe enough," Henley heard his coarse voice saying, as he
stood over her and looked down on her expressionless bonnet.

She looked up and pushed her bonnet back farther so that a wisp of her
beautiful hair was exposed to the sunlight against the shell-like
pinkness of her neck. "He hasn't caught a thing," she said; "but he's
had some bites that was just as much fun."

"I'm sorter tired," he ventured. "I've been on my feet all day, running
first one place and another. This is your picnic, and you are the boss.
I wonder if you'd care if I set down a minute."

"It may be my picnic, but it happens to be your ground," she laughed.
"There's a sign up at the fence that no trespassing is allowed, but me
and Joe neither one can read, and so we came right in and helped
ourselves."

He lowered himself to the grass at her feet, glad that he had it, and
yet almost afraid of the full view he now had of her face when he dared
to look directly at her. He leaned forward and began to pluck blades of
grass and twist them nervously in his fingers.

"You are powerful good to that boy," he said, after a silence through
which several kinds of thoughts percolated. "His own mammy couldn't
treat him better."

"I don't know whether I'm spoiling him or not." He detected a slight
quavering in her voice which was not exactly that of her usual
composure. "Some folks say I am. I know I can't bear to have him work
hard, although he is plumb well now. He had such a hard time under Sam
Pitman that, somehow, I want him to have a good, long vacation.
Alfred--" She raised her hand to her lips impulsively, colored
vexatiously, and then with a shrug, as if the familiar use of his name
were a matter that could not be remedied, she continued; "I started to
say that it makes me awful sad to think of the slavery that child went
through, short as it was. It might have made a scoundrel of him, in the
long-run, for he was getting hardened."

"And now he's just the reverse." Henley meant it as a tribute to her,
and it was as bold a compliment as he would have dared to pay her in the
dense anxiety through which he was groping. "He's a manly little chap,
and is sure to come out on top. I've been studying over it"--Henley was
growing a trifle bolder--his eyes met hers--"and I've wondered if you'd
get jealous if I said that I want to do something substantial for him.
He'll need good schooling, you know, and a lot o' things to start 'im
out fairly."

"You? Why, Al--why, surely you don't mean it--you don't mean _that_."

"Why, why not, Dixie--Miss Dixie?" he corrected, as his warm, anxious
gaze rested on her lowered lids, for she was turning the pages of the
arithmetic in her lap. "You see, I'm not exactly a poor man; the Lord
has been powerful good to me, and--and you see, now I'm all alone in the
world. I--I got news to-day about--about, well, I'm a free man now,
with no responsibilities on me, and--well, you see how it is."

"I don't know what to say about it--about Joe." She lowered her head
over the book. "It would be wrong for me to stand in his way, and I
won't. He was helpless on the world when I took him, and he is yet, for
I'm over head and ears in debt. I thought I could do wonders by buying
land on a credit, but I'm as near a bankrupt as could be possible. I'd
be down and out now if others got what was coming to them. As proud as I
am, and as hard as I've worked, I'm right now living on charity."

"Shucks! Don't be silly, Dixie!" burst from Henley's lips with
considerable warmth. "You sha'n't set here and talk such foolishness;
you've done more than thousands o' men could have done. You are a plumb
wonder."

"All you say don't alter facts," Dixie sighed. "I know that I've got a
big debt to pay, and it's got to be paid by fair means or foul. Let's
talk about something else. I've been setting here an hour trying to work
this example for Joe. It looks as easy as two and two make four, but it
ain't; it's simply terrible. Listen: 'Sixty is two-thirds of what
number?'"

"Let me see." And Henley crawled to her aide till he could see, as he
rested on his elbow, the page and the lines at which her finger pointed.
"That's easy enough, I reckon. 'Sixty is two-thirds of what number?'
Why, it's--" His eyes became fixed in vacancy, as he gazed at the blue
sky above the tree-tops, and then at the ground. "Why, it's a fool
thing--it must be a misprint. You often find mistakes like that in
school-books. I know my teacher used to write the correct thing on the
edge of the page."

"No, I reckon it's all right," Dixie argued. "It's a funny thing, for
every minute I seem to be on the point of catching it, and then it slips
away. You see, it has been so long since I went to school that I can't
remember how such sums are done."

"Well, I can work any sort o' example that I have use for in my
business," Henley defended himself as well as he could, "but the Lord
knows I never had any use for a--a thing as silly as that is on the very
face of it. Huh, I say--'Sixty is two-thirds of what number?' Why, the
fool don't even give the number he asks you to divide. How can you
divide a thing that hain't been seen, measured, or weighed? It is as
silly as asking how many inches long is two-thirds of a piece of string,
or how many bushels of wheat in two-thirds of a barn that's twice as big
as four-fifths of one that never was built."

Dixie laughed heartily. "It does seem that way, don't it? But, after
all, you do know that sixty must be two-thirds of _some_ number, for
every number is two-thirds of something, ain't it?"

"By gum, yes!" he exclaimed, with a start. "You are sure right. Ah, I
see now. By gosh, I've got it! No, it's gone already." He had reached
for her pencil and paper, but his hand fell idly on his knee. "Good
gracious! Some'n is dead wrong with me."

"I think it can be done," Dixie declared, her brow furrowed. "You see,
since sixty must be two-thirds of some number, I'm picking different
numbers and dividing by three and multiplying by two. The last trial I
made was one hundred, and I got sixty-six and two-thirds for the answer.
You see, that ain't so powerful far off."

"I see, I see," Henley cried, eagerly. "Now, what you want to do is to
keep getting lower and lower till you hit the nail on the head. I reckon
it's one o' them sums just got up to make the sprouting intellect hop
and skip about for practice. Suppose you try ninety-nine next? It's
better to go slow, and be sure, than to have to go back. Le'me see:
three into nine, three times and nothing to carry; three into nine
again--there, you've got thirty-three, and twice thirty-three are
sixty-six. See, we are still closer to the mark, for we have already
wiped off the two-thirds."

"We are warm!" Dixie cried, with the laugh of a child playing a game.
"Now let's try ninety-six."

Henley made a rapid calculation. "Sixty-four!" he cried out, gleefully.
"We are closer. Now let's take a stab at ninety-three." And he began to
figure, but she stopped him.

"My judgment is ninety," she said. "One-third of ninety is thirty and
twice thirty is--glory, Alfred, we've nailed it! We've got it--we've got
it! And we thought it couldn't possibly be done."

"That's so," he admitted. "But I'd hate to make a hoss-trade by such
figuring as that. The feller would back out or the hoss would git too
old."

The conversation languished. He had a feeling that she might object to
his closeness to her, and yet he hardly knew how to draw away without
attracting undue attention to the act, so he took the book into his
hands and began to look through it. And then he remembered what Mrs.
Hart had said about Dixie's desire to sell her farm, and a slow twinkle
of a set purpose began to burn in his eyes. "It might work," he said to
himself. "Anyways, that debt notion has got to be got out of the way or
I'll never make any progress.

"I was just wondering whether I oughtn't to give you a piece of advice,
in a business sort of a way," he said to her, his fingers rapidly
twirling the pages of the book. "You see, a feller that trades as much
as I do in all sorts of things is calculated to know the drift of the
market better, maybe, than a girl like you. You was speaking about how
you hated the idea of being in debt just now, and your mother says you
want to sell your farm--the fact is, I don't see why you don't sell it
and quit working like an ox in a yoke. It's plumb wrong; you oughtn't
to do it, that's all."

"Sell it? Why, Alfred," and she looked at him eagerly, "I'd only be too
glad to do it if I knew any one who would pay anything near its worth.
You see, it's cost me first and last something over two thousand
dollars, and if I could get that much--"

"That much!" he sniffed contemptuously. "Why, you'd be crazy to sell at
a figure like that. You see, I know the field pretty well. I rub against
moneyed men every day who are simply itching for something to invest in.
The most of 'em believe the new railroad will eventually strike Chester
on its way to hook on to the trunk-line through Tennessee and North
Carolina, and they are willing to bet on it. You know old Welborne
wanted your farm, and it nearly killed him to lose his hold on it.
But--while I ain't exactly free to use names--I know a man right now who
wants your property. He'd pay you three thousand dollars in cash right
down."

"Oh, Alfred, you don't mean it--surely you don't!"

"You say you'll take it," Henley laughed, though the edges of his mouth
were drawn tensely from some inner cause, "and I'll close the deal
before you can say Jack Robinson."

"Take it?" Dixie cried, and in her eagerness and gratitude she actually
laid her hand on his arm. "Oh, Alfred, if you'd only do that for me I'd
be the happiest girl in the world!"

"Well, it will be done to-morrow morning early," Henley said, a certain
purpose rendering his face rigid, his eyes fixed as if a great crisis
had arrived in his life. "The only thing is, that I'd naturally feel
like I'd be entitled to some commission--" He tried to smile into her
staring eyes, but failed. He caught hold of her hand and she seemed
wholly unconscious of the fact.

"Why, of course," she groped, "I'd be willing to pay all costs and
anything else you'd ask."

"There is only one thing I could want, or would ever care to have," he
swallowed, "and that is you, Dixie. You must be my wife. I'm free now.
Nothing stands between us. I want you, sweetheart--I want you!"

Their eyes met, volumes of tenderness sweeping to and fro between them.
A great light had taken possession of her face. He felt her lean against
him confidingly, and he put his arm around her and drew her head to his
shoulder, and then, with a boldness he would till now have ascribed only
to a god, he put his hand under her warm face, turned it upward and
kissed her on the lips. She nestled closer to him and shut her eyes,
remaining still and silent. He felt her warmth striking into his body.

For several minutes they sat thus, and then she opened her eyes and
smiled.

"Oh, Alfred, I'm so happy!" she said, softly.

"Well, maybe _I_ ain't," he said, huskily, and then he kissed her again.

"I'm so glad about the farm," she said. "I can come to you now freer. I
couldn't bear the idea of being in debt to the man _I_ was going to
marry. I've been independent so long that--that it actually hurt me. Are
you plumb sure you can sell it, Alfred--absolutely sure?"

"Absolutely," he answered. "The only thing that's bothering me is that
it's worth more."

"Never mind about that," she cried. "But tell me who is to take it,
Alfred?"

Their eyes met again steadily, a warm, confident, fearless smile lighted
up his face. He put his arm about her again, drew her close to him, and
held her cheek in his hand.

"There ain't but one man under God's eye that's got a right to own the
land you toiled on like you did," he said, "and that is the man that
worships every hair on your head and every drop of blood in your veins.
I'm the feller, Dixie."

"Oh, Alfred!" she cried out, but, seeing his eyes burning into hers, she
smiled, nestled closer into his arms, and said: "Well, what's the use?
My fight's over. I've got you, and nothing on earth can take you from
me."


THE END


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