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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ordeal: A Mountain Romance Of Tennessee - Chapter 12
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The Ordeal: A Mountain Romance Of Tennessee - Chapter 12 Post by :samuraiwarrior Category :Long Stories Author :Mary Noailles Murfree Date :May 2012 Read :1715

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The Ordeal: A Mountain Romance Of Tennessee - Chapter 12

CHAPTER XII

With the return of fine weather the work of railroad construction on the extension of the G. T. & C. line began to be pressed forward with eager alacrity. Indeed, it had languished only when the ground was deeply covered with snow or locked so fast in the immobile freeze that steel and iron could not penetrate it. The work had been persistently pushed at practicable intervals, whenever the labor could be constrained to it. Possibly this urgency had no ill results except in one or two individual cases. The sons of toil are indurated to hardship, and most of the gang were brawny Irish ditchers. Jubal Clenk, already outworn with age and ill nourished throughout a meagre life, unaccustomed, too, to exposure to the elements (for the industry of moonshining is a sheltered and well-warmed business), was the only notable collapse. He began by querulously demanding of anyone who would listen to him what he himself could mean by having an "out-dacious pain" under his shoulder-blade. "I feel like I hev been knifed, that's whut!" he would declare. This symptom was presently succeeded by a "misery in his breast-bone," and a racking cough seemed likely to shake to pieces his old skeleton, growing daily more perceptible under his dry, shrivelled skin. A fever shortly set in, but it proved of scanty interest to the local physician, when called by the boss of the construction gang to look in upon him, in one of the rickety shacks which housed the force of laborers, and which was his temporary home.

"There's no show for him," the doctor laconically remarked. "Lungs, heart, throat, all have got into the game. You had better get rid of him--he will never be of any use again."

"Throw him over the bluff, eh?" the jolly, portly boss asked with a twinkling eye. "We ain't much on transportation yet."

"Well, it's no great matter. He'll provide his own transportation before long;" and the physician stepped into his buggy with an air of finality.

The old man had, however, unsuspected reserves of vitality. He crept out into the sunshine again, basking in the vernal warmth with a sense of luxury, and entering into the gossip of the ditchers with an unwonted mental activity and garrulity.

One day--one signal day--as he sat clumped up on a pile of timber destined for railroad ties, his arms hugging his knees, his eyes feverishly bright and hollow, a personal interest in his condition was developed in the minds of his old pals and fellow-laborers, Drann and Holvey, albeit of no humane tendency. It was the nooning hour, and the men at their limited leisure lay in the sun on the piles of lumber, like lizards.

"Gee!" exclaimed one burly fellow, rising on his elbow. "How I'd like ter git my paw on that reward--five thousand dollars for any information!"

"I'm in fur money ez sure ez ye air born! All signs favor," exclaimed old Clenk eagerly. "I dream about money mighty nigh every night. Paid in ter me--chink--chink--I allus takes it in gold. Goin' ter bed is the same ter me that goin' ter the bank is ter most folks."

His interpolations into the conversation usually failed to secure even a contemptuous rebuff; they passed as if unheard. But such is the coercive power of gold, albeit in the abstract, that this tenuous vision of wealth had its fascination. The brawny workman held the newspaper aside to look curiously over at the piteous wreck, as the old ragamuffin grinned and giggled in joyous retrospect, then began to read again the advertisement: "Twenty-five thousand dollars in cash if the information leads to the recovery of the child."

"Do they head them advertisements '_Suckers, Attention_'?" asked one of the men who labored under the disadvantage of illiteracy. The scraps read aloud from the papers were his only source of information as to their contents. "They _oughter say 'Suckers, Attention,' for they don't even tell whut the kid looks like. I wouldn't know him from Adam ef I wuz ter pass him in the road."

"But they _do tell what he looks like!" exclaimed the reader. "Here it all is: blue eyes, golden hair, fair skin, rosy cheeks----"

"Cutest leetle trick!" exclaimed old Clenk, with a reminiscent smile at the image thus conjured up.

The words passed unnoticed save by Drann and Holvey. They exchanged one glance of consternation, and the fancied security in which they had dwelt, as fragile as a crystal sphere, was shattered in an instant. The old man was broken by his illness, his recent hardships. He was verging on his dotage. His senile folly might well cost them their lives or liberty.

Indeed, as the description progressed, detailing the child's attire even to his red shoes, the old fellow's fingers were toying fatuously with one of them in his deep coat pocket among the loose tobacco that fed his pipe. "That don't half ekal _him_," he broke out suddenly. "Never war sech another delightsome leetle creeter."

A moment of stunned amazement supervened among the group.

"Why, say, old Noah, did you ever see that kid?" at length demanded the reader, with a keen look of suspicion.

It was the inimical expression, rather than a definite consciousness of self-betrayal, that sent the old man's drifting mind back to its moorings. "Jes' listenin' ter that beautiful readin'," he grinned, his long yellow tobacco-stained teeth all bare in a facial contortion that essayed a smile, his distended lips almost failing of articulation. "Them was fine clothes sure on that lovely child."

The flamboyant advertisements had often before been read aloud in the construction camp, and the matter might have passed as the half-fevered babblings of a sick old man, but for that look of stultified comment, of anguished foreboding, that was interchanged between the two accomplices. Only one man, however, had the keen observation to catch that fleeting signal, and the enterprise to seek to interpret it.

The next day, when Clenk did not reappear, this man quietly slipped to the shack where the three lived together. There was a padlock knocking in the wind on the flimsy door. This said as plain as speech that there was no one within. Ordinarily this would have precluded all question, all entrance. But the intruder was seeking a pot of gold, and informed by a strong suspicion. With one effort of his brawny hands, he pulled loose from the top first the strap of one of the broad upright boards that formed the walls, then the board itself. He turned sideways and slipped his bulk through the aperture, the board swinging elastically back into place.

There was a stove in the squalid little apartment, instead of the open fires common to the region. It was masked in a dusky twilight, but as his eyes became accustomed to the obscurity and the disorder, his suspicion exhaled, and a heavy sense of disappointment clogged his activities like a ball and chain.

There in his bunk lay Clenk, his eyes shining with the light of fever, his illness affording an obvious explanation of the precaution of his comrades in locking the door while they were away at work, at the limits of the construction line, to protect him from molestation by man or beast.

Nevertheless, the intruder made an effort to hold his theory together. He approached the bunk, and with an insidious craft sought to draw the old man out. But Clenk was now on his guard. His comrades had bitterly upbraided him with his self-betrayal, that indeed threatened the safety of all. In fact, their courage was so reduced by the untoward episode that he more than suspected they intended to flee the region, and he was disposed to give the fact that he was left cooped up here under lock and key no such humane interpretation as the intruder had placed upon it. They had left him to starve, if not discovered, while they sought to compass a safe distance. At all events, he was so broken in mind and body that his story was more than likely to be discredited, unless their own clumsy denials and guilty faces were in evidence to confirm its truth.

Now his garrulity had vanished; he licked his thin lips ever and anon, and looked up over the folds of the red blanket drawn to the chin with a bright, inscrutable eye and said nothing. His weakness was so great that the policy of lying silent and supine, rather than exert his failing powers, was commended by his inclination as well as his prudence.

Though it was in vain that the spy plied him with question and suggestion, one phrase was like a galvanic current to this inert atrophy of muscle and mind. "Look here, old man," the intruder said at length, baffled and in despair, "you mark my words!" The brawny form had come close in the shadow and towered over the recumbent and helpless creature, speaking impressively through his set teeth. "You mark my words: your pals are going to do you."

A quiver of patent apprehension ran over the dimly descried face, and under the blanket the limbs writhed feebly; but Clenk's resolution held firm, and with a curse, balked and lowering, the man stepped out at the place where he had effected his entrance at the moment when his scheme might have borne fruit.

For old Clenk had struggled up in bed. This threat was true. He had vaguely suspected the fact, but in the words of another his fear had an added urgency. He had betrayed his accomplices, he had betrayed himself. Doubtless it was a race between them as to who could soonest seize the opportunity to turn State's evidence.

And why should he fear the law more than another? As matters stood, he would be left to bear the brunt of its vengeance, while the active perpetrator of the deed escaped, and the accessories sought shelter beneath the aegis of the law itself.

He was not long in reasoning it out. The strength of his resolution imparted a fictitious vigor to his muscles. While unaided he could never have stirred the heavy board, his efforts made it give, loosened as it had already been, so that his thin, wiry body could slip between its edge and the rest of the wall. He had one moment of intense terror lest it slip elastically back and hold him pinioned there, but a convulsive struggle sufficed, and he stepped out, exhausted and trembling, into the gathering dusk, a lowering assemblage of darkling mountains, and at a little distance the shacks of the construction gang. The doors were aflare with flickering lights from within, and the unctuous smell of frying pork was on the air. It was well for his enterprise that at the critical moment the camp was discussing its well-earned supper and had scant attention to bestow on other interests.

An hour later the men on a hand-car, whizzing down the portion of the track that was sufficiently complete for this mode of progression, gave little heed that a workman from the camp was stealing a ride, sitting in a huddled clump, his feet dangling. Whether discharged or in the execution of some commission for the construction boss, they did not even canvass. Far too early it was for the question of rates or passes to vex the matter of transportation. They did not even mark when he dropped off, for the hand-car ran into the yards at the terminus, carrying only its own crew.

Clenk was equally fortunate in creeping into an empty freight here unobserved, and when it was uncoupled and the engine swept into the round-house in the city of Glaston, it was verging again toward sunset, and he was hundreds of miles from his starting-point.

Some monitions of craft were vaguely astir in his dull old brain. He had resolved to throw himself on the mercy of the mother, ere he trusted himself to the clutches of the law. He winced from the mere thought of those sharp claws of justice, but he promised himself that he would be swift. He could not say how Holvey and Drann might secure precedence of him. They had gotten the start, and they might hold it. But if he should tell the mother where they had left the child, he would surely have a friend at court. When he was in the street he walked without hesitation up to the first responsible-looking man he met, and, showing him the advertisement in the newspaper, boldly asked to be directed to the house of that lady.

So dull he was, so unaccustomed to blocks and turnings and city squares, that after an interval of futile explanation the stranger turned out of his way and walked a short distance with him. All the world had heard of the tragedy and the mysterious disappearance of the child, and, although suspecting a fake, even a casual stranger would not disregard a chance of aid.

It was well that the distance was not great, for even his excitement was hardly adequate to sustain Clenk's failing physique. When the old mountaineer paused on the concrete sidewalk to which the spacious grounds of the suburban residence sloped, he looked about with disfavor. "Can't see the house fur the trees," he muttered, for the great oaks, accounted so magnificent an appurtenance in Glaston, were to him the commonest incident of entourage, and a bare door-yard, peeled of grass, a far more significant token of sophistication. As he approached, however, the stately mansion presently appeared, situated on a considerable eminence, and with long flights of stone steps from a portico, enriched with Corinthian columns, and from two successive terraces at some little distance in front. Here were tall stone vases on either hand, and beside one of these at the lower terrace two ladies had paused, waiting, descrying his approach. One was gowned in deep black, sad of aspect, though serene, and very beautiful. The other wore a dress all of sheer white embroideries, with knots of brocaded lilac ribbon, festival of intimation, but her face was thin, wan, worn, tortured out of all semblance of calm or cheer. He came falteringly toward them, and stood for a moment uncertain. Then--for the scope of his cultivation did not include the civility of lifting his hat--he said, "Which of ye two wimin hev los' a child?" His voice was quavering, even sympathetic, and very gentle as he looked at them.

"I have lost my little son!" cried Lillian in a keen, strained tone, agonized anew by the mere mention of the catastrophe. "Have you any information about him? I am ready to pay for it." She had been warned a hundred times that eagerness in proffering money, in making the reward so obviously sure, was not conducive to accelerating the disclosure, bringing into play the innate perversity of human nature, and a desire to trade on the situation and increase the gains; yet try as she might, she could not refrain from invoking always the cogent aid of gold.

"I ain't so particular 'bout the money, lady. I got su'thin' on my mind. I be bent on makin' it square with the law. An' then, too, that leetle Archie air a mighty gamesome leetle trick." He laughed slightly as with a pleasant fleeting reminiscence. "Come mighty nigh dyin', though--skeered me, fur a fack. Powerful tight squeak he had!"

All at once his eyes, glancing over his shoulder, lighted on Bayne, who had just come to call on the ladies and now stood at the bottom of the flight of the terrace steps. Clenk drew back with an obvious shock. "Why, look-a-hyar, _you ain't Mr. Briscoe!" he exclaimed insistently, as with a desire to reassure himself. His eyes large, light, distended, were starting out of his head. His jaw quivered violently. The grimy, claw-like hand he extended shook as with a palsy.

When together, Briscoe and Bayne had scant facial resemblance; but apart, that stamp of consanguinity might easily recall for each the face of the other. Bayne, with his wonted subtlety of divination, replied at once, "No, but Mr. Briscoe was my cousin."

"Oh, ho--oh, ho--I see," the old man said, tractable and easily convinced. "I know--Lawd! I got reason ter know that Briscoe's dead. I war afeared o' seein' su'thin' oncommon--his harnt, or some sech. The idee shuk me powerful. I hev had a fever lately. Lemme sit down--I--I--can't stand up. I been hevin' a misery lately in my breast-bone--oh!"--he waved his hand in the air with a pathetic, grasping gesture--"me breath is gone--me breath, me breath----"

He sank down on an iron bench at one side on the velvety turf and feebly gasped.

"I'll get some brandy," Gladys said in a low tone to Lillian, and sped swiftly up the steps toward the house.

Suddenly Clenk partially lifted himself and dived into one of the pockets of his loose coat. He brought up a little red shoe, all tarnished and tobacco-stained, and held it out to Lillian with a faint and flickering smile of bestowal, certain of gratitude as well as recognition. "Does you-uns know that leetle foot?"

Lillian swayed for a moment as if she might fall. Then, with a piercing shriek, she darted forward and seized it from his shaking grasp. She held it up to the light, and as Gladys returned, herself bearing the tray with the glass and decanter, Lillian convulsively clutched her arm and, speechless and trembling, pointed to the name in tarnished gilt on the inside of the sole--her own shoemaker, who had constructed the delicate little hand-sewed slipper!

"Where is he now--where is this child?" Bayne demanded precipitately, his own breath short, his pulses beating in his temples till the veins seemed near bursting.

"I can't rightly say _now_," the old man drawled; "but--but I kin tell you where we-uns lef' him. 'T war a awful bis'ness, that crackin' off Briscoe--that warn't in the plan at all. We-uns war after the revenuer. What right had he ter bust our still an' break up our wu'm and pour our mash an' singlings out on the ground? Ain't it our'n? Ain't the corn an' apples an' peaches our'n? Didn't we grow 'em?--an' what right hev the gover'ment ter say we kin eat 'em, but can't bile 'em--eh? They b'long ter we-uns--an' gosh! the gover'ment can't hender! But we never meant no harm ter Briscoe. Lawd! Lawd! that warn't in the plan at all. But the child viewed it, an', by gosh! I b'lieve that leetle creetur could hev told the whole tale ez straight as a string--same ez ef he war twenty-five year old. That deedie of a baby-child talked sense--horse-sense--he _did_, fur a fack!"

"Where--where----" Lillian was using every power of her being to restrain the screams of wild excitement, to sustain the suspense.

"Where did you last see him?" asked Bayne. He had grown deadly white, and the old man, lifting his face, gazed vaguely from one to the other. Their intense but controlled excitement seemed subtly imparted to his nerves. The details of the tragedy had become hackneyed in his own consciousness, but their significance, their surfeit of horror, revived on witnessing their effect on others.

"Look-a-hyar, you two an' this woman will stan' up fur me when I gin myself up fur State's evidence, ef I put ye on the track fur findin' Bubby? He's thar all right yit, I'll be bound--well an' thrivin, I reckon. He hev got backbone, tough ez a pine knot."

"Yes, yes, indeed; we pledge ourselves to sustain you," cried Lillian. Bayne was putting the glass of brandy into the grimy, shaking paw, mindful of the old man's shattered composure.

"It be a mighty risk I be a-runnin'"--the old, seamed face was of a deadly pallor and was beginning to glister with a cold sweat. "I reckon I oughtn't ter tell nuthin' exceptin' ter the officers, but--but--I 'lowed leetle Archie's mother would help me some again them bloodhounds o' the law."

"I'll move heaven and earth to aid you!" cried Lillian.

"See here, I can _promise that you shall be held harmless, for I am the prosecutor," Gladys struck suddenly into the conversation, pale but calm, every fibre held to a rigorous self-control. "I am Mr. Briscoe's wife, his widow. Now tell me, _where did you last see that child?"

"Wh--wh--wh--whut? You the widder?" Clenk's eyes were starting from their sockets as he gazed up at her from his crouching posture on the bench, his head sunk between his shoulders, his hand with the untasted glass in it trembling violently.

"An' ye say that ye too will stand by me? Then lemme tell it--lemme tell it now. 'T was--what d'ye call that place?--I ain't familiar with them parts. _Wait_"--as Bayne exclaimed inarticulately--"lemme think a minit." He dropped his head on one of his hands, his arm, supported by the back of the bench, upholding it. His slouched hat had fallen off on the stone pavement, and his shock of gray hair moved in the soft breeze.

The moment's interval in the anguish of suspense seemed interminable to the group. "Drink a little brandy," Bayne counselled, hoping to stimulate his powers.

He evidently heard, and sought to obey. The hand holding the untasted liquor quivered, the glass swayed, fell from his nerveless grasp, and shivered to fragments on the stone pavement.

Bayne sprang to his side and lifted his head. Ah, a drear and ghastly face it was, turned up to the gorgeous sunset, the gentle ambient air, the happy, fleeting shadows of the homing birds.

"Has he fainted?" asked Lillian.

"The man is dead!" Bayne cried with a poignant intonation. "He is dead! He is dead!"

For while they had waited for the word that had eluded him he had gone out into the great wordless unknown. His failing strength had thwarted his will. His spirit had given him the slip.

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