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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDown The Ravine - Chapter 8
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Down The Ravine - Chapter 8 Post by :65587 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary Noailles Murfree Date :May 2012 Read :683

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Down The Ravine - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

If she had had any relish for triumph, she might have found it in Birt's astonishment to learn that she understood all the details of entering land, which had been such a mystery to him.

"'Twar the commonest thing in the worl', whenst I war young, ter hear 'bout'n folks enterin' land," she said. "But nowadays thar ain't no talk 'bout'n it sca'cely, 'kase the best an' most o' the land in the State hev all been tuk up an' entered--'ceptin' mebbe a trac', hyar an' thar, full o' rock, an' so steep 't ain't wuth payin' the taxes on."

Simple as she was, she could have given him valuable counsel when it was sorely needed. He hung about the house later than was his wont, bringing in the store of wood for her work during the day, and "packing" the water from the spring, with the impulse in his attention to these little duties to make what amends he might.

When at last he started for the tanyard, he knew by the sun that he was long over-due. He walked briskly along the path through the sassafras and sumach bushes, on which the rain-drops still clung. He was presently brushing them off in showers, for he had begun to run. It occurred to him that this was no time to seem even a trifle remiss in his work at the tanyard. Since he had lost all his hopes down the ravine, the continuance of Jube Perkins's favor and the dreary routine with the mule and the bark-mill were his best prospects. It would never do to offend the tanner now.

"With sech a pack o' chill'n ter vittle ez we-uns hev got at our house," he muttered.

As he came crashing through the underbrush into view of the tanyard, he noticed instantly that it did not wear its usual simple, industrial aspect. A group of excited men were standing in front of the shed, one of them gesticulating wildly.

And running toward the bars came Tim Griggs, panting and white- faced, and exclaiming incoherently at the sight of Birt.

"Oh, Birt," he cried, "I war jes' startin' to yer house arter you- uns; they tole me to go an' fetch ye. Fur massy's sake, gimme Nate's grant. I'm fairly afeared o' him. He'll break every bone I own." He held out his hand. "Gimme the grant!"

"Nate's grant!" exclaimed Birt aghast. "I hain't got it! I hain't" -

He paused abruptly. He could not say that he had not touched it.

Tim's wits were sharpened by the keen anxiety of the crisis. He noticed the hesitation. "Ye hev hed it," he cried wildly. "Ye know ye hev been foolin' with it. Ye know 'twar you-uns!"

He changed to sudden appeal. "Don't put the blame off on me, Birt," he pleaded. "I'm fairly afeared o' Nate."

"Ain't the grant in the pocket o' his coat--whar ye left it hangin' on a peg in the shed?" asked Birt, dismayed.

"Naw--naw!" exclaimed Tim, despairingly. "He missed his coat this mornin', bein' the weather war cooler, an' then the grant, an' he sent me arter it. An' I fund the coat a-hangin' thar on the peg, whar I hed lef' it, bein' ez I furgot it when I went off with Rufe ter look at his chickens, an' the pocket war empty an' the paper gone! Nate hev kem ter sarch, too!"

Once more he held out his hand. "Gimme the grant. Nate 'lows 'twar you-uns ez tuk it, bein' ez I lef' it hyar."

Birt flushed angrily. "I'll say a word ter Nate Griggs!" he declared.

And he pushed past the trembling Tim, and took his way briskly into the tanyard.

There was a vague murmur in the group as he approached, and Nate Griggs came out from its midst, nodding his head threateningly. His hat, thrust far back on his sandy hair, left in bold relief his long, thin face with its small eyes, which seemed now so close together that his glance had the effect of a squint. He scanned Birt narrowly.

This was the first time the two had met since Birt's ill-starred confidence there by the bark-mill.

"What ails ye, ter 'low ez it air ME ez hev got yer grant, Nate Griggs?" Birt asked, steadily meeting the accusation.

The excitement had impaired for the moment Nate Griggs's cunning.

"'Kase," he blurted out, "ye hev been a-tryin' ter purtend ez ye fund the mine fust, an' hev been a-tellin' folks 'bout'n it."

"Prove it," said Birt, in sudden elation. "Who war it I tole, an' when?"

The sly Nathan caught his breath with a gasp. His craft had returned.

Admit that to HIM Birt had divulged the discovery of the mine! Confess, when! This would invalidate the entry!

"Ye tole TIM," Nate said shamelessly, "an' ez ter when--'twar yestiddy evenin' at the tanyard. Didn't he, Tim?" And he whirled around to his younger brother for confirmation of this audacious and deliberate falsehood.

The abject Tim--poor tool!--frightened and cowering, nodded to admit it. "Gimme the grant, Birt," he faltered, helplessly. "I oughtn't ter hev furgot it."

"Look-a-hyar, Birt," said the tanner with a solemnity which the boy did not altogether understand, "gin Nate the grant."

"I hain't got it," replied Birt, badgered and growing nervous.

"Tell him, then, ye never teched it."

Birt's impulse was to adopt the word. But he had seen enough of falsehood. He had done with concealment.

"I did tech it," he said boldly, "but I hain't got it. I put it back in the pocket o' the coat."

Jube Perkins laid a sudden hand upon his collar. "'Tain't no use denyin' it, Birt," he said with the sharp cadence of dismay. "Gin the grant back ter Nate, an' mebbe he won't go no furder 'bout'n it. Stealin' a paper like that air a pen'tiary crime!"

Birt reeled under the word. He thought of his mother, the children. He had a bitter foretaste of the suspense, the fear, the humiliation. And he was helpless. For no one would believe him! His head was in a whirl. He could not stand. He sank down upon the wood-pile, vaguely hearing a word here and there of what was said in the crowd.

"His mother air a widder-woman," remarked one of the group. "An' she air mighty poor."

Andy Byers was laughing cynically.

Absorbed though he was, Birt experienced a subacute wonder that any one could feel so bitterly toward him as to laugh at a moment like this. How had he made Andy Byers his enemy!

Nobody noticed it, for Nate was swaggering about in the crowd, enjoying this conspicuous opportunity to display all the sophistications he had acquired in his recent trip to Sparta. He was calling upon them to witness that he did not care for the loss of the grant--the PAPER was nothing to him!--for it was on record in the land office, and he could get a certified copy from the register in no time at all. But his rights were his RIGHTS!--and ten thousand Diceys should not trample on them. Birt had doubtless thought, being ignorant, that he could destroy the title by making away with the paper; and if there was law in the State, he should suffer for it.

And after this elaborate rodomontade, Nate strode out of the tanyard, with the obsequious Tim following humbly.

Birt told his story again and again, to satisfy curious questioners during the days that ensued. And when he had finished they would look significantly at one another, and chuckle incredulously.

The tanner seemed to earnestly wish to befriend him, and urged him to confess. "The truth's the only thing ez kin save ye, Birt."

"I'm tellin' the truth," poor Birt would declare.

Then Jube Perkins argued the question: "How kin ye expec' ennybody ter b'lieve ye when ye say Tennessee purvented ye from takin' the grant--ennything the size o' leetle Tennie, thar."

And he pointed at the little sister, who was perched upon the wood- pile munching an Indian peach.

Somehow Birt did not accurately define the moral force which she had wielded, for he was untaught, and clumsy of speech, and could not translate his feelings. And Jube Perkins was hardly fitted to understand that subtle coercion of affection.

When he found that Birt would only reiterate that Tennie "kem along unbeknown an' purvented" him, Jube Perkins gave up the effort at last, convinced of his guilt.

And Andy Byers said that he was not surprised, for he had known for some little time that Birt was a "most MISCHIEVIOUS scamp."

Only his mother believed in him, requiting his lack of confidence in her with a fervor of faith in him that, while it consoled, nevertheless cut him to the heart. It has been many years since then, for all this happened along in the fifties, but Birt has never forgotten how staunchly she upheld him in every thought when all the circumstances belied him. Now that misfortune had touched him, every trace of her caustic moods had disappeared; she was all gentleness and tenderness toward him. And day by day as he went to his work, meeting everywhere a short word, or a slighting look, he felt that he could not have borne up, save for the knowledge of that loyal heart at home.

He was momently in terror of arrest, and he often pondered on Nate's uncharacteristic forbearance. Perhaps Nate was afraid that Birt's story, told from the beginning in court, might constrain belief and affect the validity of the entry.

Birt vainly speculated, too, upon the strange disappearance of the grant. There it was in the pocket of the coat late that night, and the next morning early--gone!

Sometimes he suspected that Nate had only made a pretense of losing the grant, in order to accuse him and prejudice public opinion against him, so that he might not be believed should he claim the discovery of the mineral down the ravine.

His mother sought to keep him from dwelling upon his troubles. "We won't cross the bredge till we git thar," she said. "Mebbe thar ain't none ahead." But her fears for his sake tortured her silent hours when he was away. When he came back from his work, there always awaited him a bright fire, a good supper, and cheerful words as well, although these were the most difficult to prepare. The dogs bounded about him, Tennessee clung to his hand, the boys were hilarious and loud.

By reason of their mother's silence on the subject, that Birt might be better able to go, and work, and hold up his head among the men who suspected him, the children for a time knew nothing of what had happened.

Now Rufe, although his faults were many and conspicuous, was not lacking in natural affection. Had he understood that a cloud overhung Birt, he could not have been so merry, so facetious, so queerly and quaintly bad as he was on his visits to the tanyard, which were peculiarly frequent just now. If Birt had had the heart for it, he might have enjoyed some of Rufe's pranks at the expense of Andy Byers. The man had once found a sort of entertainment in making fun of Rufe, and this had encouraged the small boy to retaliate as best he could.

At this time, however, Byers suddenly became the gravest of men. He took little notice of the wiles of his elfish antagonist, and whenever he fell into a snare devised by Rufe, he was irritable for a moment, and had forgotten it the next. He had never a word or glance for Birt, who marveled at his conduct. He seemed perpetually brooding upon some perplexity. Occasionally in the midst of his work he would stand motionless for five minutes, the two-handled knife poised in his grasp, his eyes fixed upon the ground, his shaggy brows heavily knitted, his expression doubting, anxious.

The tanner commented upon this inactivity, one day. "Hev ye tuk root thar, Andy?" he asked.

Byers roused himself with a start. "Naw," he replied reflectively, "but I hev been troubled in my mind some, lately, an' I gits ter studyin' powerful wunst in a while."

As he bent to his work, scraping the two-handled knife up and down the hide stretched over the wooden horse, he added, "I hev got so ez I can't relish my vittles sca'cely, bein' so tormented in my mind, an' my sleep air plumb broke up; 'pears like ter me ez I hev got a reg'lar gift fur the nightmare."

"Been skeered by old Mis' Price's harnt lately?" Rufe asked suddenly from his perch upon the wood-pile.

Byers whirled round abruptly, fixing an astonished gaze upon Rufe, unmindful that the knife slipped from his grasp, and fell clanking upon the ground.

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CHAPTER VIIWhen Birt reached the fence, he discovered that the bars were down. Rufe had forgotten to replace them that afternoon when he drove in the cow to be milked. Despite his absorption, Birt paused to put them up, remembering the vagrant mountain cattle that might stray in upon the corn. He found the familiar little job difficult enough, for it seemed to him that there was never before so black a night. Even looking upward, he could not see the great wind-tossed boughs of the chestnut-oak above his head. He only knew they were near, because acorns
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