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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Roof Tree - Chapter 22
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The Roof Tree - Chapter 22 Post by :Trey_Brister Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Neville Buck Date :May 2012 Read :3223

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The Roof Tree - Chapter 22

CHAPTER XXII

The earliest frost of late September had brought its tang to the air with a snappy assertion of the changing season, when Parish Thornton first broached to Dorothy an idea that, of late, had been constantly in his mind. Somehow that morning with its breath of shrewd chill seemed to mark a dividing line. Yesterday had been warm and languorous and the day before had been hot. The ironweed had not long since been topped with the dusty royalty of its vagabond purple, and the thistledown had drifted along air currents that stirred light and warm.

"Honey," said the man, gravely, as he slipped his arm about Dorothy's waist on that first cold morning, when they were standing together by the grave of her grandfather, "I hain't talked much erbout hit--but I reckon my sister's baby hes done hed hits bornin' afore now."

"I wonder," she mused, as yet without suspicion of the trend of his suggestions, "how she come through hit--all by herself thetaway?"

The man's face twitched with one of those emotional paroxysms that once in a long while overcame his self-command. Then it became a face of shadowed anxiety and his voice was heavy with feeling.

"I've done been ponderin' thet day an' night hyar of late, honey. I've got ter fare over thar an' find out."

Dorothy started and caught quickly at his elbow, but at once she removed her hand and looked thoughtfully away.

"Kain't ye write her a letter?" she demanded. "Hit's walkin' right inter sore peril fer ye ter cross ther state line, Cal."

"An' yit," he answered with convincing logic, "I'd ruther trust ter my own powers of hidin' out in a country whar I knows every trail an' every creek bed, then ter take chances with a letter. Ef I wrote one hit would carry a post-office mark on ther envellop ter tell every man whence hit come."

She was too wise, too sympathetic, and too understanding of that clan loyalty which would deny him peace until he fulfilled his obligation, to offer arguments in dissuasion, but she stood with trouble riffles in her deep eyes until at last she asked:

"When did ye aim ter start--over yon?"

"Hit ought ter be right soon now, while travellin's good. Come snowfall hit'll git ter be right slavish journeyin'--but I don't 'low ter tarry there long. I kain't noways be content away from ye."

The thoughts that were occupying Dorothy were for the most part silent ones but at length she inquired:

"Why don't ye bring her back with ye, ter dwell hyar with us--her an' ther baby?"

Thornton shook his head, but his heart warmed because she had asked.

"Hit wouldn't do--jest yit. Folks mout seek ter trace me by follerin' her. I kin slip in thar an' see her, though, an' mebby comfort her some small degree--an' then slip back home ergin without no man's knowin' I've ever been thar."

Instinctively the wife shuddered.

"Ef they _did find out!" she exclaimed in a low voice, and the man nodded in frank comprehension.

"Ef they did," he answered, candidly, "I reckon hit would be hangin' or ther penitenshery fer me--but they hain't agoin' ter."

"I don't seek ter hinder ye none," she told him in a faltering voice, "despite hit's goin' ter nigh kill me ter see ye go. Somehow hit seems like I wouldn't be so skeered ef ye war guilty yoreself ... but ter hev ye risk ther gallers fer somethin' ye didn't nuver do----"

The words choked her and she stopped short.

"I'm goin' ter hev a mouty strong reason fer seekin' ter come home safe," he said, softly. "But even ef hit did cost me my life, I don't see as I could fail a woman thet's my sister, an' thet's been facin' her time amongst enemies, with a secret like thet hauntin' her day an' night. I've got ter take ther chanst, honey."

A sound came to them through their preoccupation, and they looked up to see Bas Rowlett crossing the stile.

His case-hardened hypocrisy stood valiantly by him, and his face revealed nothing of the humiliation he must feel in playing out his farcical role of friendship before the eyes of the man to whom it was so transparent.

"I war jest passin' by," he announced, "an I 'lowed I'd light down an' make my manners. I'd love ter hev a drink of water, too."

Without a word Parish turned and went toward the well and the visitor's eyes lit again to their avid hunger as he gazed at the girl.

Abruptly he declared: "Don't never fergit what I told ye, Dorothy. I'd do most anything, fer _you_."

The girl made no answer, but she flushed under the intensity of his gaze, and to herself she said, as she had said once before: "I wonder would he do sich a thing fer me as Cal's doin' fer his sister?"

The scope and peril of that sacrifice seemed to stand between her and all other thoughts.

Then Parish came back with a gourd dipper, and forced himself for a few moments into casual conversation. Though to have intimated his purpose and destination would have been a fatal thing, it would have been almost as foolish to wrap in mystery the fact that he meant to make a short journey from home, so as Bas mounted Parish said:

"I've got a leetle business acrost in Virginny, Bas, an' afore long I'm goin' over thar fer a few days."

When Elviry Prooner had consented to come as temporary companion for Dorothy, it seemed merely an adventitious happening that Sim, too, felt the call of the road.

"I don't know es I've named hit to ye afore, Parish," he volunteered the next day as the three sat around the dinner table, "but I've got a cousin thet used ter be more like a brother ter me--an' he got inter some leetle trouble."

"Is thet so, Sim?" inquired Parish with a ready interest. "War hit a sore trouble?"

"Hit couldn't skeercely be holped--but he's been sulterin' in ther penitenshery down thar at Frankfort fer nigh on ter two y'ars now. Erbout once in a coon's age I fares me down thar ter fotch him tidin's of his folks. Hit pleasures him."

Thornton began to understand--or thought he did, and again he inclined his head.

"I reckon, Sim," he said, "ye wants ter make one of them trips now, don't ye?"

"Thet's a right shrewd guess, Parish. Hit's a handy time ter go. I kin git back afore corn-shuckin', an' thar hain't no other wuck a-hurtin' ter be done right now."

"All right, Sim"--the permission came readily--"light out whenever ye gits ready--but come back fer corn-shuckin'."

When Sim related to Bas Rowlett how free of complication had been the arrangement, Bas smiled in contentment. "Start out--an' slip back--an' don't let him git outen yore sight till ye finds out whar he goes an' what he's doin'," came the crisp order. "He's up ter suthin' thet he hain't givin' out ter each an' every, an' I'd love ter know what hit is."

* * * * *

Along the ridges trailed that misty, smoky glamour with which Autumn dreams of the gorgeous pictures she means to paint, with the woods for a canvas and the frost for a brush.

Bas Rowlett had shaved the bristle from his jowl and chin and thrown his overalls behind his cabin door. He had dressed him in high-laced boots and donned a suit of store clothes, for in his mind were thoughts livened and made keen with the heady intoxication of an atmosphere like wine.

He knocked on the door of the house which he knew to be manless, and waited until it was opened by Elviry Prooner.

His swarthy face with its high cheekbones bequeathed from the shameful mixing of his blood in Indian veins wore a challenging smile of daredeviltry, and the buxom young woman stood regarding him out of her provocative eyes. Perhaps she owned to a revival of hope in her own breast, which had known the rancour of unacknowledged jealousy because this man had passed her by to worship at Dorothy Harper's shrine. Perhaps Bas Rowlett who "had things hung up" had at last come to his senses and meant, belatedly, to lay his heart at her feet. If he did, she would lead him a merry dance of doing penance--but she would nowise permit him to escape.

But Bas saw in Elviry only an unwelcome presence interfering with another tete-a-tete, and the hostile hardening of his eyes angered her so that the girl tossed her head, and wheeling haughtily she swept into the house. A minute later he saw her still flushed and wrathful stalking indignantly along the road toward Jake Crabbott's store at Lake Erie.

So Bas set his basket down and removed his hat and let his powerful shoulders relax themselves restfully against the door frame. He was waiting for Dorothy, and he was glad that the obnoxious Elviry had gone.

After a little Dorothy appeared. Her lips were innocent of the flippant sneer that the other girl's had held and her beauty was not so full-blown or material.

Bas Rowlett did not rise from his seat and the young woman did not expect it. Casually he inquired: "Is Parish hyar?"

The last question came so innocently that it accomplished its purpose.

Bas seemed to hope for an affirmative reply, and his manner robbed his presence of any apparent intent of visiting a husbandless wife. Since no one but himself knew that his jackal Sam Squires was at that moment trailing after Parish Thornton as the beagle courses after the hare, he could logically enough make such an inquiry.

"No. Didn't ye know? He started out soon this mornin'. I reckon he's fur over to'rds Virginny by now."

"Oh!" Bas Rowlett seemed surprised, but he made prompt explanation. "I knowed he hed hit in head ter go--but I didn't know he'd started yit." For more than an hour their talk went on in friendly channels of reminiscence and commonplace, then the man lifted the basket he had brought. "I fotched some 'simmons offen thet tree by my house. Ye used ter love 'em right good, Dorothy."

"I does still, Bas," she smiled with that sweet serenity that men found irresistible as she reached for the basket, but the man sat with eyes brimming melancholy and fixed on the violet haze of the skyline until she noticed his abstraction and inquired: "What ails ye, Bas? Ye're in a brown study erbout somethin'."

He drew back his shoulders then, and enlightened, "Sometimes I gits thetaway. I fell ter thinkin' of them days when you an' me used ter gather them 'simmons tergether, little gal."

"When we was kids," she answered, nodding her head. "We hed fun, didn't we?"

"God Almighty," he exclaimed, impetuously and suddenly. "How I loved ye!"

The girl drew away, and her answer was at once sympathetic and defensive. "Thet war all a right long time back, Bas."

The defeated lover came to his feet and stood looking at her with a face over which the passion of his feeling came with a sweep and surge that he made no effort to control.

In that instant something had slipped in Bas Rowlett and the madman that was part of him became temporarily all of him.

"Hit hain't so long a time ago," he vehemently declared, "thet I've changed any in hits passin'. So long es I lives, Dorothy, I'll love ye more an' more--till I dies."

She drew back another step and shook her head reprovingly, and in the gravity of her eyes was the dawning of indignation, disappointment, and astonishment.

"Bas," she said, earnestly, "even ef Cal hadn't of come, I couldn't nuver hev wedded with ye. He did come, though, an'--in thet way of carin'--thar hain't no other man in the world fer me. I kain't never pay ye back fer all thet I'm beholden ter ye ... fer savin' him an' fotchin' him in when thet craven shot him ... fer stayin' a friend when most men would hev got ter be enemies. I knows all them things--but don't seek ter spile none of 'em by talkin' love ter me.... Hit's too late.... I'm married."

For an instant he stood as though long-arrested passions were pounding against the dams that had held them; then his words came like the torrent that makes driftwood of its impediments.

"Ter hell with this man Thornton! Ye didn't never hev no chanst ter know yore own mind.... Ye jest thinks ye loves him because ye pitied him. Hit won't last noways."

"Bas," she spoke his name with a sharp and stinging note of command, "I'm willin' ter look over what ye've said so fur--because of what I owes ye--but don't say no more!"

In a frenzy of wild and sensuous abandon he laughed. Then leaping forward he seized her and crushed her to him with her arms pinioned in his and her body close against his own.

Her struggles were as futile as those of a bird held in a human hand--a hand that takes no thought of how severely it may bruise but only of making firm its imprisoning hold.

"I said 'ter hell with him'," repeated the man in a low voice but one of white-hot passion. "I says hit ergin! From ther time thet ye fust begun ter grow up I'd made up my mind thet ye belonged ter me--an' afore I quits ye're _goin' ter belong ter me. Ye talks erbout bein' wedded an' I says ter hell with thet, too! Mebby ye're his wife but ye're goin' ter be my woman!"

The senses of the girl swirled madly and chaotically during those moments when she strained against the rawhide strength of the arms that held her powerless, and they seemed to her hours.

The hot breath of the face which had suddenly grown unspeakably horrible to her burned her like a blast, and through her reeling faculties rose that same impression of nightmare that had come to Parish when he lay wounded on his bed: the need of altering at a flash her whole conception of this man's loyal steadfastness to a realization of unbelievable and bestial treachery.

The fact was patent enough now, and only the hideous possibilities of the next few minutes remained doubtful. His arms clamped her so tightly that she gasped stranglingly for breath, and the convulsive futility of her struggles grew fainter. Consciousness itself wavered.

Then Rowlett loosened one arm and bent her head upward until he could crush his lips against hers and hold them there while he surfeited his own with an endlessly long kiss.

When again her eyes met his, the girl was panting with the exhaustion of breath that sounded like a sob, and desperately she sought to fence for time.

"Let me go," she panted. "Let me go--thar's somebody comin'!"

That was a lie born of the moment's desperation and strategy but, somewhat to her surprise, it served its ephemeral purpose. Rowlett released his hold and wheeled to look at the road, and with a flashing swiftness his victim leaped for the door and slammmed it behind her.

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CHAPTER XXIIIAn instant later, with a roar of fury, as he realized the trick that had been played upon him, Bas was beating his fists against the panels and hurling against them the weight of his powerful shoulders. But those hot moments of agitation and mental riot had left him breathless, too, and presently he drew away for a quieter survey of the situation. He strolled insolently over to the window which was still open and leaned with his elbows on the sill looking in. The room was empty, and he guessed that Dorothy had hurried out to bar the back
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CHAPTER XXIThey helped Opdyke into the house and bandaged a wound in his leg, but old Jim sat looking on with a stony face, and when the first aid had been administered he said shortly: "Parish Thornton an' me hev jest been a-studyin' erbout how ter handle ther likes of _you_. Ye come in good season--an' so fur as kin be jedged from ther place whar thet ball hit, no man kin say which one of us ye shot at. We aims ter make a sample of ye, fer others ter regulate theirselves by, an' I reckon ye're goin' ter sulter
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