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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Roof Tree - Chapter 1
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The Roof Tree - Chapter 1 Post by :acreativetouch Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Neville Buck Date :May 2012 Read :3063

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The Roof Tree - Chapter 1

CHAPTER I

Between the smoke-darkened walls of the mountain cabin still murmured the last echoes of the pistol's bellowing, and it seemed a voice of everlasting duration to the shock-sickened nerves of those within.

First it had thundered with the deafening exaggeration of confined space, then its echo had beaten against the clay-chink wall timbers and rolled upward to the rafters. Now, dwindled to a ghostly whisper, it lingered and persisted.

But the house stood isolated, and outside the laurelled forests and porous cliffs soaked up the dissonance as a blotter soaks ink.

The picture seen through the open door, had there been any to see, was almost as motionless as a tableau, and it was a starkly grim one, with murky shadows against a fitful light. A ray of the setting sun forced its inquisitive way inward upon the semi-darkness of the interior. A red wavering from the open hearth, where supper preparations had been going forward, threw unsteady patches of fire reflection outward. In the pervading smell of dead smoke from a blackened chimney hung the more pungent sharpness of freshly burned gun-powder, and the man standing near the door gazed downward, with a dazed stare, at the floor by his feet, where lay the pistol which gave forth that acrid stench.

Across from him in the dead silence--dead save for the lingering of the echo's ghost--stood the woman, her hands clutched to her thin bosom, her eyes stunned and dilated, her body wavering on legs about to buckle in collapse.

On the puncheon floor between them stretched the woman's husband. The echo had outlasted his life and, because the muzzle had almost touched his breast, he sprawled in a dark welter that was still spreading.

His posture was so uncouth and grotesque as to filch from death its rightful dignity, and his face was turned downward.

The interminability of the tableau existed only in the unfocussed minds of the two living beings to whom the consequence of this moment was not measurable in time. Then from the woman's parted lips came a long, strangling moan that mounted to something like a muffled shriek. She remained a moment rocking on her feet, then wheeled and stumbled toward the quilt-covered four-poster bed in one dark corner of the cabin. Into its feather billows she flung herself and lay with her fingernails digging into her temples and her body racked with the incoherencies of hysteria.

The man stooped to pick up the pistol and walked slowly over to the rough table where he laid it down noiselessly, as though with that quietness he were doing something to offset the fatal blatancy with which it had just spoken. He looked down at the lifeless figure with burning eyes entirely devoid of pity, then went with a soundless tread, in spite of his heavy-soled boots, to the bed and spoke softly to the woman--who was his sister.

"Ye've got ter quit weepin' fer a spell, honey," he announced with a tense authority which sought to recall her to herself. "I'm obleeged ter take flight right speedily now, an' afore I goes thar's things ter be studied out an' sottled betwixt us."

But the half-stifled moan that came from the feather bed was a voice of collapse and chaos, to which speech was impossible.

So the brother lifted her in arms that remained unshaken and sat on the edge of the bed looking into her eyes with an almost hypnotic forcefulness.

"Ef ye don't hearken ter me now, I'm bound ter tarry till ye does," he reminded her, "an' I'm in right tormentin' haste. Hit means life and death ter me."

As if groping her tortured way back from pits of madness, the woman strove to focus her senses, but her wild eyes encountered the dark and crumpled mass on the floor and again a low shriek broke from her. She turned her horrified face away and surrendered to a fresh paroxysm, but at length she stammered between gasps that wrenched her tightened throat:

"Kiver him up first, Ken. Kiver him up ... I kain't endure ter look at him thetaway!"

Although the moments were pricelessly valuable, the man straightened the contorted limbs of the dead body and covered it decently with a quilt. Then he stood again by the bed.

"Ef I'd got hyar a minute sooner, Sally," he said, slowly, and there was a trace of self-accusation in his voice, "hit moutn't hev happened. I war jest a mite too tardy--but I knows ye hed ter kill him. I knows ye acted in self-defence."

From the bed came again the half-insane response of hysterical moaning, and the young mountaineer straightened his shoulders.

"His folks," he said in a level voice, "won't skeercely listen ter no reason.... They'll be hell-bent on makin' somebody pay.... They'll plum hev ter hang SOME person, an' hit kain't be _you_."

The woman only shuddered and twisted spasmodically as she lay there while her brother went doggedly on:

"Hit kain't be _you ... with yore baby ter be borned, Sally. Hit's been punishment enough fer ye ter endure him this long ... ter hev been wedded with a brute ... but ther child's got hits life ter live ... an' hit kain't be borned in no jail house!"

"I reckon--" the response came weakly from the heaped-up covers--"I reckon hit's _got ter be thetaway, Ken."

"By God, no! Yore baby's got ter w'ar a bad man's name--but hit'll hev a good woman's blood in hits veins. They'll low I kilt him, Sally. Let 'em b'lieve hit. I hain't got no woman nor no child of my own ter think erbout ... I kin git away an' start fresh in some other place. I loves ye, Sally, but even more'n thet, I'm thinkin' of thet child thet hain't borned yit--a child thet hain't accountable fer none of this."

* * * * *

That had been yesterday.

Now, Kenneth Thornton, though that was not to be his name any longer, stood alone near the peak of a divide, and the mists of early morning lay thick below him. They obliterated, under their dispiriting gray, the valleys and lower forest-reaches, and his face, which was young and resolutely featured, held a kindred mood of shadowing depression. Beneath that miasma cloak of morning fog twisted a river from which the sun would strike darts of laughing light--when the sun had routed the opaqueness suspended between night and day.

In the clear gray eyes of the man were pools of laughter, too, but now they were stilled and shaded under bitter reflections.

Something else stretched along the hidden river-bed, but even the mid-day light would give it no ocular marking. That something which the eye denied and the law acknowledged meant more to this man, who had slipped the pack from his wearied shoulders, than did the river or the park-like woods that hedged the river.

There ran the border line between the State of Virginia and the State of Kentucky and he would cross it when he crossed the river.

So the stream became a Rubicon to him, and on the other side he would leave behind him the name of Kenneth Thornton and take up the less damning one of Cal Maggard.

He had the heels of his pursuers and, once across the state line, he would be beyond their grasp until the Sheriff's huntsmen had whistled in their pack and gone grumbling back to conform with the law's intricate requirements. At that point the man-hunt fell into another jurisdiction and extradition papers would involve correspondence between a governor at Richmond and a governor at Frankfort.

During such an interlude the fugitive hoped with confidence to have lost himself in a taciturn and apathetic wilderness of peak-broken land where his discovery would be as haphazard an undertaking as the accurate aiming of a lightning bolt.

But mere escape from courts and prisons does not assure full measure of content. He had heard all his life that this border line separated the sheep of his own nativity from the goats of a meaner race, and to this narrow tenet he had given unquestioning belief.

"I disgusts Kaintuck'!" exclaimed the refugee half aloud as his strong hands clenched themselves, one hanging free and the other still grasping the rifle which as yet he had no intent of laying aside. "I plum disgusts Kaintuck'!"

The sun was climbing now and its pallid disk was slowly flushing to the wakefulness of fiery rose. The sky overhead was livening to turquoise light and here and there along the upper slopes were gossamer dashes of opal and amethyst, but this beauty of unveiling turrets and gold-touched crests was lost on eyes in which dwelt a nightmare from which there was no hope of awakening.

To-day the sparsely settled countryside that he had put behind him would buzz with a wrath like that of swarming bees along its creek-bed roads, and the posse would be out. To-day also he would be far over in Kentucky.

"I mout hev' tarried thar an' fronted hit out," he bitterly reflected, "fer God in Heaven knows he needed killin'!" But there he broke off into a bitter laugh.

"God in Heaven knows hit ... _I knows hit an' _she knows hit, but nairy another soul don't know an' ef they did hit wouldn't skeercely make no differ."

He threw back his head and sought to review the situation through the eyes of others and to analyze it all as an outsider would analyze it. To his simplicity of nature came no thought that the assumption of a guilt not his own was a generous or heroic thing.

His sister's pride had silenced her lips as to the brutality of this husband whose friends in that neighbourhood were among the little czars of influence. Her suffering under an endless reign of terror was a well-kept secret which only her brother shared. The big, crudely handsome brute had been "jobial" and suave of manner among his fellows and was held in favourable esteem. Only a day or two ago, when the brother had remonstrated in a low voice against some recent cruelty, the husband's wrath had blazed out. Witnesses to that wordy encounter had seen Thornton go white with a rage that was ominous and then bite off his unspoken retort and turn away. Those witnesses had not heard what was first said and had learned only what was revealed in the indignant husband's raised voice at the end.

"Don't aim ter threaten me, Ken. I don't suffer no man ter do thet--an' don't never darken my door henceforward."

Now it must seem that Thornton had not only threatened but executed, and no one would suspect the wife.

He saw in his mind's eye the "High Court" that would try the alleged slayer of John Turk; a court dominated by the dead man's friends; a court where witnesses and jurors would be terror-blinded against the defendant and where a farce would be staged: a sacrifice offered up.

There had been in that log house three persons. One of them was dead and his death would speak for him with an eloquence louder than any living tongue. There were, also, the woman and Thornton himself. Between them must lie the responsibility. Conscientiously the fugitive summarized the circumstances as the prosecution would marshal and present them.

A man had been shot. On the table lay a pistol with one empty "hull" in its chamber. The woman was the dead man's wife, not long since a bride and shortly to become the mother of his child. If she had been the murdered man's deadly enemy why had she not left him; why had she not complained? But the brother had been heard to threaten the husband only a day or two since. He was in the dead man's house, after being forbidden to shadow its threshold.

"Hell!" cried Thornton aloud. "Ef I stayed she'd hev ter come inter C'ote an' sw'ar either fer me or ergin me--an' like es not, she'd break down an' confess. Anyhow, ef they put her in ther jail-house I reckon ther child would hev hits bornin' thar. Hell--no!"

He turned once more to gaze on the vague cone of a mountain that stood uplifted above its fellows far behind him. He had started his journey at its base. Then he looked westward where ridge after ridge, emerging now into full summer greenery, went off in endless billows to the sky, and he went down the slope toward the river on whose other side he was to become another man.

Kenneth Thornton was pushing his way West, the quarry of a man-hunt, but long before him another Kenneth Thornton had come from Virginia to Kentucky, an ancestor so far lost in the mists of antiquity that his descendant had never heard of him; and that man, too, had been making a sacrifice.

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