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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesViola Gwyn - Chapter 4. Viola Gwyn
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Viola Gwyn - Chapter 4. Viola Gwyn Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :2437

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Viola Gwyn - Chapter 4. Viola Gwyn

CHAPTER IV. VIOLA GWYN

They stepped outside the cabin, into the fresh, brisk gale that was blowing. A gibbous moon hung in the eastern star-specked sky. Scurrying moonlit clouds off in the west sped northward on the sweep of the inconstant wind, which had shifted within the hour. A light shone dimly through the square little window of the bedroom. Kenneth's imagination penetrated to sacred precincts beyond the solid logs: he pictured her in the other frock, moving gracefully before the fascinated eyes of the settler's wife, proud as a peacock and yet as gay as the lark.

"Women like to talk," observed Striker, with a sidelong glance at the lighted window. He led the way to the opposite end of the cabin and pointed off into the night. "Lafayette's off in yan direction. There's a big stretch of open prairie in between, once you git out'n these woods, an' further on there's more timber. The town's down in a sort of valley, shaped somethin' like a saucer, with hills on all sides an' the river cuttin' straight through the middle. Considerable buildin' goin' on this spring. There's talk of the Baptists an' the Methodists puttin' up new churches an' havin' regular preachers instead of the circuit riders. But you'll see all this fer yourself when you git there. Plenty of licker to be had at Sol Hamer's grocery,--mostly Mononga-Durkee whisky,--in case you git the Wabash shakes or suddenly feel homesick."

"I drink very little," said Kenneth.

"Well, you'll soon git over that," prophesied his host. "Everybody does. A spell of aguer like we have along the river every fall an' winter an' spring will make you mighty thankful fer Sol Hamer's medicine, an' by the time summer comes you'll be able to stand more'n you ever thought you could stand. What worries me is how the women manage to git along without it. You see big strong men goin' around shakin' their teeth out an' docterin' day an' night at Sol's, but I'll be doggoned if you ever see a woman takin' it. Seems as if they'd ruther shake theirselves to death than tetch a drop o' whisky."

"You would not have them otherwise, would you?"

"Why, if I ever caught my wife takin' a swaller o' whisky, I'd--well, by gosh, I don't know what I would do. First place, I'd think the world was comin' to an end, and second place, I guess I'd be glad it was. No, sirree, I don't want to see whisky goin' down a woman's gullet. But that don't explain how they come to git along without it when they've got the aguer. They won't even take it when a rattlesnake bites 'em. Sooner die. An' in spite of all that, they bring he-children into the world that can't git over a skeeter bite unless they drink a pint or two of whisky. Well, I guess we better go to roost, Mr. Gwynne. Must be nine o'clock. Everything's all right out at the barn an' the chicken coops. Wolves an' foxes an' weasels visit us sometimes at night, but I got things fixed so's they go away hungry. In the day time, Eliza's got an ole musket o' mine standin' in the kitchen to skeer the hawks away, an' I got a rifle in the settin' room fer whatever varmint comes along at night,--includin' hoss-thieves an' setch-like."

"Horse-thieves?"

"Yep. Why, only last month a set of hoss-thieves from down the river went through the Wea plains an' stole sixteen yearlin' colts, drove 'em down to the river, loaded 'em on a flat-boat an' got away without losin' a hair. Done it on a Sunday night, too."

It was a few minutes past nine when Kenneth followed his host up the ladder and through the trap-door into the stuffy attic. He carried his rough riding-boots, which Zachariah had cleaned and greased with a piece of bacon-rind.

"I'll leave the ladder here," said Striker, depositing the candlestick on the floor. "So's I c'n stick my head in here in the mornin' an' rouse you up. There's your straw-tick over yander, an' I'll fotch your blankets up in a minute or two. I reckon you'll have to crawl on your hands an' knees; this attic wasn't built fer full-size men."

"I will be all right," his guest assured him. "Beggars cannot be choosers. A place to lay my head, a roof to keep the rain off, and a generous host--what more can the wayfarer ask?"

The clapboard roof was a scant three feet above the dusty floor of the attic. Stooping, the young man made his way to the bed-tick near the little window. He did not sniff with scorn at his humble surroundings. He had travelled long and far and he had slept in worse places than this. He was drawing off his boots when Striker again stuck his head and shoulders through the opening and laid his roll of blankets on the floor.

"Eliza jist stuck her head out to tell me to shut this trap-door, so's my snorin' won't keep you awake. I fergot all about my snorin'. Like as not if I left this door open the whole danged roof would be lifted right off'm the cabin 'fore I'd been asleep five minutes. Well, good night. I'll call you in the mornin' bright an' early."

The trap-door was slowly lowered into place as the shaggy head and broad shoulders of the settler disappeared. The young man heard the scraping of the ladder as it was being removed to a place against the wall.

He pried open the tight little window, letting a draft of fresh air rush into the stifling attic. Then he sat on the edge of the tick for a few minutes, ruminating, his gaze fixed thoughtfully on the sputtering, imperilled candle. Finally he shook his head, sighed, and began to unstrap his roll of blankets. He had decided to remove only his coat and waistcoat. The sharp, staccato barking of a fox up in the woods fell upon his ears. He paused to listen. Then came the faraway, unmistakable howl of a wolf, the solemn, familiar hoot of the wilderness owl and the raucous call of the great night heron. But there was no sound from the farmyard. He said his prayers--he never forgot to say the prayer his mother had taught him--blew out the candle, pulled the blankets up to his chin, and was soon fast asleep.

He did not know what time it was when he was aroused by the barking of Striker's dogs, loud, furious barking and ugly growls, signifying the presence in the immediate neighbourhood of the house of some intruder, man or beast. Shaking off the sleep that held him, he crept to the window and looked out. The moon was gone and the stars had almost faded from the inky black dome. He guessed the hour with the acute instinct of one to whom the vagaries of night have become familiar through long understanding. It would now be about three o'clock in the morning, with the creeping dawn an hour and a half away.

Suddenly his gaze fell upon a light moving among the trees some distance from the cabin. It appeared and disappeared, like a jack o' lantern, but always it moved southward, obscured every few feet by an intervening trunk or a clump of brush. As he watched the bobbing light, he heard some one stirring in the room below. Then the cabin door creaked on its rusty hinges and almost immediately a jumble of subdued hoarse voices came up to him. He felt for his pistols and realized with something of a shock that he had left them in the kitchen with Zachariah. For the first time in his travels he had neglected to place them beside his bed.

The dogs, admonished by a sharp word or two, ceased their barking. This reassured him, for they would obey no one except Phineas Striker. Whoever was at the cabin door, there was no longer any question in his mind as to the peaceful nature of the visit. He crept over to the trap-door and cautiously attempted to lift it an inch or so, the better to hear what was going on, but try as he would he could not budge the covering. The murmur of voices went on for a few minutes longer, and then he heard the soft, light pad of feet on the floor below; sibilant, penetrating whispers; a suppressed feminine ejaculation followed by the low laugh of a man, a laugh that might well have been described as a chuckle.

For a long time he lay there listening to the confused sound of whispers, the stealthy shuffling of feet, the quiet opening and closing of a door, and then there was silence.

Several minutes passed. He stole back to the window. The light in the forest had vanished. Just as he was on the point of crawling into bed again, another sound struck his ear: the unmistakable rattle of wagon wheels on their axles, the straining of harness, the rasp of tug chains,--quite near at hand. The clack-clack of the hubs gradually diminished as the heavy vehicle made its slow, tortuous way off through the ruts and mire of the road. Presently the front door of the cabin squealed on its hinges, the latch snapped and the bolt fell carefully into place.

He could not go to sleep again. His brain was awake and active, filled with unanswered questions, beset by endless speculation. The first faint sign of dawn, creeping through the window, found him watching eagerly, impatiently for its appearance. The presence of a wagon, even at that black hour of the night, while perhaps unusual, was readily to be accounted for in more ways than one, none of them possessing a sinister significance. A neighbouring farmer making an early start for town stopping to carry out some friendly commission for Phineas Striker; a settler calling for assistance in the case of illness at his home; hunters on their way to the marshes for wild ducks and geese; or even guardians of the law in search of malefactors. But the mysterious light in the woods,--that was something not so easily to be explained.

The square little aperture was clearly defined against the greying sky before he distinguished signs of activity in the room below. Striker was up and moving about. He could hear him stacking logs in the fireplace, and presently there came up to him the welcome crackle of kindling-wood ablaze. A door opened and a gruff voice spoke. The settler was routing Zachariah out of his slumbers. Far off in some unknown, remote land a rooster crowed,--the day's champion, the first of all to greet the rising sun. Almost instantly, a cock in Striker's barnyard awoke in confusion and dismay, and sent up a hurried, raucous cock-a-doodle-doo,--too late by half a minute to claim the honours of the day, but still a valiant challenger. Then other chanticleers, big and little, sounded their clarion call,--and the day was born.

Kenneth, despite his longing for this very hour to come, now perversely wished to sleep. A belated but beatific drowsiness seized him. He was only half-conscious of the noise that attended the lifting of the trap-door.

"Wake up! Time to git up," a distant voice was calling, and he suddenly opened his eyes very wide and found himself staring at a shaggy, unkempt head sticking up out of the floor, rendered grim and terrifying by the fitful play of a ruddy light from the depths below. For a second he was bewildered.

"That you, Striker?" he mumbled.

"Yep,--it's me. Time to git up. Five o'clock. Breakfass'll soon be ready. You c'n wash up out at the well. Sleep well?"

"Passably. I was awakened some time in the night by your visitors."

He was sitting up on the edge of the tick, drawing on his boots. Striker was silent for a moment.

"Thought maybe you'd be disturbed, spite of all we could do to be as quiet as possible. People from a farm 'tother side of the plains."

The head disappeared, and in a very few minutes Gwynne, carrying his coat and waistcoat, descended the ladder into the presence of a roaring fire. He shot a glance at the closed bedroom door, and then hastily made his way out of the cabin and around to the well. Eliza was preparing breakfast. In the grey half-light he made out Striker and Zachariah moving about the barnlot. A rough but clean towel hung across the board wall of the well, while a fresh bucket of water stood on the shelf inside, its chain hanging limply from the towering end of the "h'isting pole."

As he completed his ablutions, the darkey boy approached.

"Good morning, Zachariah," he spluttered, over the edge of the towel. "Did you sleep well?"

"No, suh, Marse Kenneth, Ah slep' powerful porely. Ah don't reckon Ah had mah eyes close' more'n fifteen seconds all night long, suh."

His master peered at him. Zachariah's eyes were not yet thoroughly open.

"You mean you did not have them open more than fifteen seconds, you rascal. Why, you were asleep and snoring by nine o'clock."

"Yas, suh, yas, suh,--but Ah done got 'em wide open ag'in 'side o' no time. Ah jes' couldn't holp worryin', Marse Kenneth, 'bout you all. Ah sez to mahself, ef Marse Kenneth he ain' got no fitten place to lay his weary haid--"

"Oh, then you were not kept awake by noises or--by the by, did you hear any noises?"

"Noises? No, SUH! Dis yere cabin hit was like a grave. Thass what kep' me awake, mos' likely. Ah reckon Ah is used to noises. Ah jes' couldn't go to sleep widdout 'em, Marse Kenneth. Wuzzen't even a cricket er a--"

His master's hearty laugh caused him to cut his speech short. A wary glance out of the corner of his eye satisfied him that it was now time to change the subject.

"Done fed de hosses, suh, an' mos' ready to packen up fo' de juhney, suh. Yas, SUH! Ev'thing all hunky-dory jes' soon as Marse Kenneth done had his breakfuss. YAS, suh! Yas, SUH!"

They ate breakfast by candle-light, Striker and Eliza and Kenneth. There was no sign of the beautiful and exasperating girl. Phineas was strangely glum and preoccupied, his wife too busy with her flap-jacks to take even the slightest interest in the desultory conversation.

"A little too early for my fellow-guest to be up and about, I see," ventured Kenneth at last, taking the bull by the horns. His curiosity had to be satisfied.

Striker did not look up from his plate. "She's gone. She ain't here."

"Gone?"

"Yep. Left jist a little while 'fore sun-up."

"Her ma sent for her," volunteered Eliza.

"Sent fer her to come in a hurry," added Striker, trying to be casual.

"Then it was she who went away in the wagon last night," said the young man, a note of disappointment in his voice.

"Airly this mornin'," corrected his host. "Jist half an hour or so 'fore sun-up."

"I trust her mother is not ill."

"No tellin'," was Striker's non-committal response.

It was quite apparent to Kenneth that they did not wish to discuss the matter. He waited a few moments before remarking:

"I saw a light moving through the woods above here,--a lantern, I took it to be,--just after I was awakened by the barking of the dogs. I thought at first it was that which set the dogs off on a rampage."

Striker was looking at him intently under his bushy eyebrows, his knife poised halfway to his lips. While he could not see Eliza, who was at the stove behind him, he was struck by the fact that there was a brief, significant suspension of activity on her part; the scrape of the "turnover" in the frying-pan ceased abruptly.

"A lantern up in the woods?" said Striker slowly, looking past Gwynne at Eliza.

"A light. It may not have been a lantern."

"Which way was it movin'?"

"In that direction," indicating the south.

The turning of the flap-jacks in the pan was resumed. Striker relaxed a little.

"Hunters, I reckon, goin' down stream for wild duck and geese this mornin'. There's a heap o' ducks an' geese passin' over--"

"See here, Phineas," broke in his wife suddenly, "what's the sense of sayin' that? You know it wasn't duck hunters. Nobody's out shooting ducks with the river as high as it is down this way, an' Mr. Gwynne knows it, if he's got half as much sense as I think he has."

"When I heard people out in front of the cabin shortly afterward, I naturally concluded that the lantern belonged to them," remarked the young man.

"Well, it didn't," said Striker, laying down his knife. "I guess it won't hurt you to know now somethin' that will be of considerable interest to you later on. I ain't betrayin' nobody's secret, 'cause I said I was goin' to tell you the whole story."

"Don't you think you'd better let it come from somebody else, Phin?" interposed his wife nervously.

"No, I don't, Eliza. 'Cause why? 'Cause I think he'd ort to know. Maybe he'll be able to put a stop to her foolishness. We didn't know until long after you went to bed that her real reason fer comin' here yesterday was to run off an' get married to Barry Lapelle. She didn't tell you no lies about her clothes an' all that, 'cause her ma had put her foot down on her takin' off black. They had it all planned out beforehand, her an' this Lapelle. He was to come fer her some time before daybreak with a couple of hosses an' they was to be off before the sun was up on their way to Attica where they was to be married, an' then go on down the river to his home in Terry Hut. Me an' Eliza set up all night in that bedroom, tryin' to coax her out of it. I don't like this Lapelle feller. He's a handsome cuss, but he's as wild as all get out,--drinks, gambles, an' all setch. Well, to make a long story short, that was prob'ly him up yander on the ole Injin trace, with his hosses, waitin' fer the time to come when they could be off. Her ma must have found out about their plans, 'cause she come here herself with two of her hired men an' old Cap'n Scott, a friend of the fam'ly, an' took her daughter right out from under Barry's nose. It was them you heared down here last night. I will say this fer the girl, she kinder made up her mind 'long about midnight that it was a foolish thing to do, runnin' off like this with Barry, an' like as not when the time come she'd have backed out."

"She's a mighty headstrong girl," said Eliza. "Sot in her ways an' sp'iled a good deal by goin' to school down to St. Louis." "Her mother don't want her to marry Lapelle. She's dead sot ag'inst it. It's a mighty funny way fer the girl to act, when she's so fond of her mother. I can't understand it in her. All the more reason fer her to stick to her mother when it's a fact that the old woman ain't got what you'd call a friend in the whole deestrict. She's a queer sort of woman,--close an' stingy as all get out, an' as hard as a hickory log. Never been seen at a church meetin'. She makes her daughter go whenever there's a meetin', but as fer herself,--no, sirree. 'Course, I understand why she's so sot ag'inst Barry. She's purty well off an' the girl will be rich some day."

"Shucks!" exclaimed Eliza. "Barry Lapelle's after her 'cause she's the purtiest girl him or anybody else has ever seen. He ain't the only man that's in love with her. They ALL are,--clear from Lafayette to Terry Hut, an' maybe beyond. Don't you tell me it's her money he's after, Phin Striker. He's after HER. He's got plenty of money himself, so they say, so why--"

"I ain't so sure about that," broke in her husband. "There's a lot of talk about him gamblin' away most everything his father left him. Lost one of his boats last winter in a poker game up at Lafayette, an' had to borrer money on some land he's got down the river to git it back. The packet Paul Revere it was. Used to run on the Mississippi. I guess she kinder lost her head over him," he went on musingly. "He's an awful feller with women, so good-lookin' an' all, an' so different from the farm boys aroun' here. Allus got good clothes on, an' they say he has fit a couple of duels down the river. Somehow that allus appeals to young girls. But I can't understand it in her. She's setch a level-headed girl,--but, then, I guess they're all alike when a good-lookin' man comes along. Look at Eliza here. The minute she sot eyes on me she--" "I didn't marry you, Phin Striker, because you was purty, let me tell you that," exclaimed Eliza, witheringly.

Gwynne, who had been listening to all this with a queer sinking of the heart, interrupted what promised to develop into an acrimonious wrangle over pre-connubial impressions. He was decidedly upset by the revelations; a vague dream, barely begun, came to a sharp and disagreeable end.

"She actually had planned to run away with this man Lapelle?" he exclaimed, frowning. "It was all arranged?"

"So I take it," said Striker. "She brought some of her personal trinkets with her, but Eliza never suspected anything queer about that."

"The fellow must be an arrant scoundrel," declared the young man angrily. "No gentleman would subject an innocent girl to such--"

"All's well that ends well, as the feller says," interrupted Striker, arising from the table. "At least fer the present. She seemed sort of willin' to go home with her ma, so I guess her heart ain't everlastingly busted. I thought it was best to tell you all this, Mr. Gwynne, 'cause I got a sneakin' idee you're goin' to see a lot of that girl, an' maybe you'll turn out to be a source of help in time o' trouble to her."

"I fail to understand just what you mean, Striker. She is an absolute stranger to me."

"Well, we'll see what we shall see," said Striker, cryptically. He opened the kitchen door and called to Zachariah to hurry in and get his breakfast.

Half an hour later Kenneth and his servant mounted their horses in the barnyard and prepared to depart. The sun was shining and there was a taste and tang of spring in the breeze that flouted the faces of the horsemen.

"Follow this road back to the crossin' an' turn to your left," directed Striker, "an' 'fore you know it you'll be in Lay-flat, as they call it down in Crawfordsville. Remember, you're allus most welcome here. I reckon we'll see somethin' of each other as time goes on. It ain't difficult fer honest men to be friends as well as neighbours in this part of the world. I'm glad you happened my way last night."

He walked alongside Gwynne's stirrup as they moved down toward the road.

"Some day," said the young man, "I should like to have a long talk with you about my father. You knew him well and I--by the way, your love-lorn friend knew him also."

The other was silent for half a dozen paces, looking straight ahead.

"Yes," said he, with curious deliberation. "She was sayin' as how she told you a lot about him last night,--what sort of a man he was, an' all that."

"She told me nothing that--"

"Jist a minute, Mr. Gwynne," said Striker, laying his hand on the rider's knee. Kenneth drew rein. "I guess maybe you didn't know who she was talkin' about at the time, but it was your father she was describin'. We all three knowed somethin' that you didn't know, an' it's only fair fer me to tell you the truth, now that she's out of the way. That girl was Viola Gwyn, an' she's your half-sister."

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