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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Roof Tree - Chapter 3
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The Roof Tree - Chapter 3 Post by :acreativetouch Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Neville Buck Date :May 2012 Read :2159

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The Roof Tree - Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

It was a distraite maiden who greeted the visiting swain that night and one so inattentive to his wooing that his silences became long, under discouragement, and his temper sullen. Earlier than was his custom he bade her good-night and took himself moodily away.

Then Dorothy Harper kindled a lamp and hastened to the attic where she sat with her head bowed over the old diary while the house, save for herself, slept and the moon rode down toward the west.

Often her eyes wandered away from the bone-yellow pages of the ancient document and grew pensive in dreamy meditation. This record was opening, for her, the door of intimately wrought history upon the past of her family and her nation when both had been in their bravest youth.

She did not read it all nor even a substantial part of it because between scraps of difficult perusal came long and alluring intervals of easy revery. Had she followed its sequence more steadily many things would have been made manifest to her which she only came to know later, paying for the knowledge with a usury of experience and suffering.

Yet since that old diary not only set out essential matters in the lives of her ancestors but also things integral and germane to her own life and that of the stranger who had to-day laughed in the road, it may be as well to take note of its contents.

The quaint phrasing of the writer may be discarded and only the substance which concerned her narrative taken into account, for her sheaf of yellow pages was a door upon the remote reaches of the past, yet a past which this girl was not to find a thing ended and buried but rather a ghost that still walked and held a continuing dominion.

In those far-off days when the Crown still governed us there had stood in Virginia a manor house built of brick brought overseas from England.

In it Colonel John Parish lived as had his father, and in it he died in those stirring times of a nation's painful birth. He had been old and stubborn and his emotions were so mixed between conflicting loyalties that the pain of his hard choice hastened his end. Tradition tells that, on his deathbed, his emaciated hand clutched at a letter from Washington himself, but that just at the final moment his eyes turned toward the portrait of the King which still hung above his mantel shelf, and that his lips shaped reverent sentiments as he died.

Later that same day his two sons met in the wainscoted room hallowed by their father's books and filled with his lingering spirit--a library noted in a land where books were still few enough to distinguish their owner.

Between them, even in this hour of common bereavement, stood a coolness, an embarrassment which must be faced when two men, bound by blood, yet parted by an unconfessed feud, arrive at the parting of their ways.

Though he had been true to every requirement of honour and punctilio, John the elder had never entirely recovered from the wound he had suffered when Dorothy Calmer had chosen his younger brother Caleb instead of himself. He had indeed never quite been able to forgive it.

"So soon as my father has been laid to rest, I purpose to repair to Mount Vernon," came the thoughtful words of the younger brother as their interview, which had been studiedly courteous but devoid of warmth ended, and the elder halted, turning on the threshold to listen.

"There was, as you may recall, a message in General Washington's letter to my father indicating that an enterprise of moment awaited my undertaking," went on Caleb. "I should be remiss if I failed of prompt response."

* * * * *

Kentucky! Until the fever of war with Great Britain had heated man's blood to the exclusion of all else Virginia had rung with that name.

La Salle had ventured there in the century before, seeking a mythical river running west to China. Boone and the Long Hunters had trod the trails of mystery and brought back corroborative tales of wonder and Ophir richness.

Of these things, General Washington and Captain Caleb Parish were talking on a day when the summer afternoon held its breath in hot and fragrant stillness over the house at Mount Vernon.

On a map the general indicated the southward running ranges of the Alleghanies, and the hinterland of wilderness.

"Beyond that line," he said, gravely, "lies the future! Those who have already dared the western trails and struck their roots into the soil must not be deserted, sir. They are fiercely self-reliant and liberty-loving, but if they be not sustained we risk their loyalty and our back doors will be thrown open to defeat."

Parish bowed. "And I, sir," he questioned, "am to stand guard in these forests?"

George Washington swept out his hand in a gesture of reluctant affirmation.

"Behind the mountains our settlers face a long purgatory of peril and privation, Captain Parish," came the sober response. "Without powder, lead, and salt, they cannot live. The ways must be held open. Communication must remain intact. Forts must be maintained--and the two paths are here--and here."

His finger indicated the headwaters of the Ohio and the ink-marked spot where the steep ridges broke at Cumberland Gap.

Parish's eyes narrowed painfully as he stood looking over the stretches of Washington's estate. The vista typified many well-beloved things that he was being called upon to leave behind him--ordered acres, books, the human contacts of kindred association. It was when he thought of his young wife and his daughter that he flinched. 'Twould go hard with them, who had been gently nurtured.

"Do women and children go, too?" inquired Parish, brusquely.

"There are women and children there," came the swift reply. "We seek to lay foundations of permanence and without the family we build on quicksand."

* * * * *

Endless barriers of wilderness peaks rose sheer and forbidding about a valley through which a narrow river flashed its thin loop of water. Down the steep slopes from a rain-darkened sky hung ragged fringes of cloud-streamer and fog-wraith.

Toward a settlement, somewhere westward through the forest, a drenched and travel-sore cortege was plodding outward. A handful of lean and briar-infested cattle stumbled in advance, yet themselves preceded by a vanguard of scouting riflemen, and back of the beef-animals came ponies, galled of wither and lean of rib under long-borne pack saddles.

Behind lay memories of hard and seemingly endless journeying, of alarms, of discouragement. Ahead lay a precarious future--and the wilderness.

The two Dorothys, Captain Caleb Parish's wife and daughter, were ending their journey on foot, for upon them lay the duties of example and _noblesse oblige_--but the prideful tilt of their chins was maintained with an ache of effort, and when the cortege halted that the beasts might blow, Caleb Parish hastened back from his place at the front to his wife and daughter.

"It's not far now," he encouraged. "To-night, at least, we shall sleep behind walls--even though they be only those of a block-house--and under a roof tree."

Both of them smiled at him--yet in his self-accusing heart he wondered whether the wife whose fortitude he was so severely taxing would not have done better to choose his brother.

While the halted outfit stood relaxed, there sounded through the immense voicelessness of the wilderness a long-drawn, far-carrying shout, at which the more timid women started flutteringly, but which the vanguard recognized and answered, and a moment later there appeared on the ledge of an overhanging cliff the lithe, straight figure of a boy.

He stood statuesquely upright, waving his coonskin cap, and between his long deerskin leggins and breech clout the flesh of his slim legs showed bare, almost as bronze-dark as that of an Indian.

"That is our herald of welcome," smiled Caleb Parish. "It's young Peter Doane--the youngest man we brought with us--and one of our staunchest as well. You remember him, don't you, child?"

The younger Dorothy at first shook her head perplexedly and sought to recall this youthful frontiersman; then a flash of recognition broke over her face.

"He's the boy that lived on the woods farm, isn't he? His father was Lige Doane of the forest, wasn't he?'

"And still is." Caleb repressed his smile and spoke gravely, for he caught the unconscious note of condescension with which the girl used the term of class distinction. "Only here in Kentucky, child, it is as well to forget social grades and remember that we be all 'men of the forest.' We are all freemen and we know no other scale."

* * * * *

That fall, when the mountains were painted giants, magnificently glorified from the brush and palette of the frost; when the first crops had been gathered, a spirit of festivity and cheer descended on the block-houses of Fort Parish. Then into the outlying cabins emboldened spirits began moving in escape from the cramp of stockade life.

Against the palisades of Wautaga besieging red men had struck and been thrown back. Cheering tidings had come of Colonel William Christian's expedition against the Indian towns.

The Otari, or hill warriors, had set their feet into the out-trail of flight and acknowledged the chagrin of defeat, all except Dragging Canoe, the ablest and most implacable of their chiefs who, sullenly refusing to smoke the pipe, had drawn far away to the south, to sulk out his wrath and await more promising auspices.

Then Caleb Parish's log house had risen by the river bank a half mile distant from the stockade, and more and more he came to rely on the one soul in his little garrison whose life seemed talisman-guarded and whose woodcraft was a sublimation of instinct and acquired lore which even the young braves of the Otari envied.

Young Peter Doane, son of "Lige Doane of the forest," and not yet a man in years, came and went through the wilderness as surely and fleetly as the wild things, and more than once he returned with a scalp at his belt--for in those days the whites learned warfare from their foes and accepted their rules. The little community nodded approving heads and asked no questions. It learned valuable things because of Peter's adventurings.

But when he dropped back after a moon of absence, it was always to Caleb Parish's hearth-stone that Peter carried his report. It was over Caleb Parish's fire that he smoked his silent pipe, and it was upon Caleb Parish's little daughter that he bent his silently adoring glances.

Dorothy would sit silent with lowered lashes while she dutifully sought to banish aloofness and the condescension which still lingered in her heart--and the months rounded into seasons.

The time of famine long known as the "hard winter" came. The salt gave out, the powder and lead were perilously low.

The "traces" to and through the Wilderness road were snow-blocked or slimy with intermittent thaws, and the elder Dorothy Parish fell ill.

Learned physicians might have found and reached the cause of her malady--but there were no such physicians. Perhaps the longings that she repressed and the loneliness that she hid under her smile were costing her too dearly in their levies upon strength and vitality. She, who had been always fearless, became prey to a hundred unconfessed dreads. She feared for her husband, and with a frenzy of terror for her daughter. She woke trembling out of atrocious nightmares. She was wasting to a shadow, and always pretending that the life was what she would have chosen.

It was on a bitter night after a day of blizzard and sleet. Caleb Parish sat before his fire, and his eyes went constantly to the bed where his wife lay half-conscious and to the seated figure of the tirelessly watchful daughter.

Softly against the window sounded a guarded rap. The man looked quickly up and inclined his ear. Again it came with the four successive taps to which every pioneer had trained himself to waken, wide-eyed, out of his most exhausted sleep.

Caleb Parish strode to the door and opened it cautiously. Out of the night, shaking the snow from his buckskin hunting shirt, stepped Peter Doane with his stoical face fatigue drawn as he eased down a bulky pack from galled shoulders.

"Injins," he said, crisply. "Get your women inside the fort right speedily!"

The young man slipped again into the darkness, and Parish, lifting the half-conscious figure from the bed, wrapped it in a bear-skin rug and carried it out into the sleety bluster.

That night spent itself through a tensity of waiting until dawn.

When the east grew a bit pale, Caleb Parish returned from his varied duties and laid a hand on his wife's forehead to find it fever-hot. The woman opened her eyes and essayed a smile, but at the same moment there rode piercingly through the still air the long and hideous challenge of a war-whoop.

Dorothy Parish, the elder, flinched as though under a blow and a look of horror stamped itself on her face that remained when she had died.

* * * * *

Spring again--and a fitful period of peace--but peace with disquieting rumours.

Word came out of the North of mighty preparations among the Six Nations and up from the South sped the report that Dragging Canoe had laid aside his mantle of sullen mourning and painted his face for war.

Dorothy Parish, the wife, had been buried before the cabin built by the river bank, and Dorothy, the daughter, kept house for the father whom these months had aged out of all resemblance to the former self in knee breeches and powdered wig with lips that broke quickly into smiling.

And Peter, watching the bud of Dorothy's childhood swell to the slim charms of girlhood, held his own counsel and worshipped her dumbly. Perhaps he remembered the gulf that had separated his father's log cabin from her uncle's manor house in the old Virginia days, but of these things no one spoke in Kentucky.

Three years had passed, and along the wilderness road was swelling a fuller tide of emigration, hot with the fever of the west.

Meeting it in counter-current went the opposite flow of the faint-hearted who sought only to put behind them the memory of hardship and suffering--but that was a light and negligible back-wash from an onsweeping wave.

Caleb Parish smiled grimly. This spelled the beginning of success. The battle was not over--his own work was far from ended--but substantial victory had been won over wilderness and savage. The back doors of a young nation had suffered assault and had held secure.

Stories drifted in nowadays of the great future of the more fertile tablelands to the west, but Caleb Parish had been stationed here and had not been relieved.

The pack train upon which the little community depended for needed supplies had been long overdue, and at Caleb's side as he stood in front of his house looking anxiously east was his daughter Dorothy, grown tall and pliantly straight as a lifted lance.

Her dark eyes and heavy hair, the poise of her head, her gracious sweetness and gentle courage were, to her father, all powerful reminders of the woman whom he had loved first and last--this girl's mother. For a moment he turned away his head.

"Some day," he said, abruptly, "if Providence permits it, I purpose to set a fitting stone here at her head."

"Meanwhile--if we can't raise a stone," the girl's voice came soft and vibrant, "we can do something else. We can plant a tree."

"A tree!" exclaimed the man, almost irritably. "It sometimes seems to me that we are being strangled to death by trees! They conceal our enemies--they choke us under their blankets of wet and shadow."

But Dorothy shook her head in resolute dissent.

"Those are just trees of the forest," she said, whimsically reverting to the old class distinction. "This will be a manor-house tree planted and tended by loving hands. It will throw shade over a sacred spot." Her eyes began to glow with the growth of her conception.

"Don't you remember how dearly Mother loved the great walnut tree that shaded the veranda at home? She would sit gazing out over the river, then up into its branches--dreaming happy things. She used to tell me that she found my fairy stories there among its leaves--and there was always a smile on her lips then."

The spring was abundantly young and where the distances lengthened they lay in violet dreams.

"Don't you remember?" repeated the girl, but Caleb Parish looked suddenly away. His ear had caught a distant sound of tinkling pony bells drifting down wind and he said devoutly, "Thank God, the pack train is coming."

It was an hour later when the loaded horses came into view herded by fagged woodsmen and piloted by Peter Doane, who strode silently, tirelessly, at their head. But with Peter walked another young man of different stamp--a young man who had never been here before.

Like his fellows he wore the backwoodsman's garb, but unlike them his tan was of newer wind-burning. Unlike them, too, he bowed with a ceremony foreign to the wilderness and swept his coonskin cap clear of his head.

"This man," announced Peter, brusquely, "gives the name of Kenneth Thornton and hears a message for Captain Parish!"

The young stranger smiled, and his engaging face was quickened with the flash of white teeth. A dark lock of hair fell over his forehead and his firm chin was deeply cleft.

"I have the honour of bearing a letter from your brother, Sir," he said, "and one from General Washington himself."

Peter Doane looked on, and when he saw Dorothy's eyes encounter those of the stranger and her lashes droop and her cheeks flush pink, he turned on his heel and with the stiffness of an affronted Indian strode silently away.

"This letter from General Washington," said Caleb Parish, looking up from his reading, "informs me that you have already served creditably with our troops in the east and that you are now desirous to cast your lot with us here. I welcome you, Sir."

Kenneth Thornton was swift to learn and when he went abroad with hunting parties or to swing the axe in the clearings, his stern and exacting task-masters found no fault with his strength or spirit.

Their ardent and humourless democracy detected in him no taint of the patronizing or supercilious, and if he was new to the backwoods, he paid his arrears of knowledge with the ready coin of eagerness.

So Kenneth Thornton was speedily accepted into full brotherhood and became a favourite. The cheery peal of his laugh and his even cordiality opened an easy road to popularity and confidence.

Thornton had been schooled in England until the war clouds lowered, and as he talked of his boyish days there, and of the sights and festivities of London town, he found in Caleb Parish and his daughter receptive listeners, but in young Doane a stiff-necked monument of wordless resentment.

One summer night when the skies had spilt day-long torrents of rain and the sun had set red with the woods still sobbing and chill, a great fire roared on Caleb Parish's hearth. Before it sat the householder with his daughter and Kenneth Thornton; as usual, too, silent and morose yet stubbornly present, was Peter Doane.

Oddly enough they were talking of the minuet, and Kenneth rose to illustrate a step and bow that he had seen used in England.

Suddenly the girl came to her feet and faced him with a curtsey.

Kenneth Thornton bent low from the waist, and, with a stately gesture, carried her fingers to his lips.

"Now, my lord," she commanded, "show the newest steps that they dance at court."

"Your humble servant, Mistress Dorothy," he replied, gravely.

Then they both laughed, and Caleb Parish was divided between smile and tears--but Peter Doane glowered and sat rigid, thinking of freshly reared barriers that democracy should have levelled.

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CHAPTER IVA week later Dorothy led Kenneth Thornton and Peter Doane to a place where beside a huge boulder a "spring-branch" gushed into a natural basin of stone. The ferns grew thick there, and the moss lay deep and green, but over the spot, with branches spreading nobly and its head high-reared, stood an ancient walnut and in the narrow circle of open ground at its base grew a young tree perhaps three feet tall. "I want to move that baby tree," said Dorothy, and now her voice became vibrant, "to a place where, when it has grown tall, it can
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