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An Old Settler's Story Post by :forrestgump Category :Short Stories Author :James Whitcomb Riley Date :November 2011 Read :3739

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An Old Settler's Story

William Williams his name was--er so he said;--Bill Williams they called him, and them 'at knowed him best called him Bill Bills.

The first I seed o' Bills was about two weeks after he got here. The Settlement wasn't nothin' but a baby in them days, fer I mind 'at old Ezry Sturgiss had jist got his saw and griss-mill a-goin', and Bills had come along and claimed to know all about millin', and got a job with him; and millers in them times was wanted worse'n congerssmen, and I reckon got better wages; fer afore Ezry built, there wasn't a dust o' meal er flour to be had short o' the White Water, better'n sixty mil'd from here, the way we had to fetch it. And they used to come to Ezry's fer their grindin' as fur as that; and one feller I knowed to come from what used to be the old South Fork, over eighty mil'd from here, and in the wettest, rainyest weather; and mud! Law!

Well, this-here Bills was a-workin' fer Ezry at the time--part the time a-grindin', and part the time a-lookin' after the sawin', and gittin' out timber and the like. Bills was a queer-lookin' feller, shore! About as tall a build man as Tom Carter--but of course you don't know nothin' o' Tom Carter. A great big hulk of a feller, Tom was; and as fur back as Fifty-eight used to make his brags that he could cut and putt up his seven cord a day.

Well, what give Bills this queer look, as I was a-goin' on to say, was a great big ugly scar a-runnin' from the corner o' one eye clean down his face and neck, and I don't know how fur down his breast--awful lookin'; and he never shaved, and there wasn't a hair a-growin' in that scar, and it looked like a--some kind o' pizen snake er somepin' a-crawlin' in the grass and weeds. I never seed sich a' out-and-out ornry-lookin' chap, and I'll never fergit the first time I set eyes on him.

Steve and me--Steve was my youngest brother; Steve's be'n in Californy now fer, le' me see,--well, anyways, I rickon, over thirty year.--Steve was a-drivin' the team at the time--I allus let Steve drive; 'peared like Steve was made a-purpose fer hosses. The beatin'est hand with hosses 'at ever you did see and-I-know! W'y, a hoss, after he got kindo' used to Steve a-handlin' of him, would do anything fer him! And I've knowed that boy to swap fer hosses 'at couldn't hardly make a shadder; and, afore you knowed it, Steve would have 'em a-cavortin' around a-lookin' as peert and fat and slick!

Well, we'd come over to Ezry's fer some grindin' that day; and Steve wanted to price some lumber fer a house, intendin' to marry that Fall--and would a-married, I reckon, ef the girl hadn't a-died jist as she'd got her weddin' clothes done--and that set hard on Steve fer a while. Yit he rallied, you know, as a youngster will; but he never married, someway--never married. Reckon he never found no other woman he could love well enough--'less it was--well, no odds.--The Good Bein's jedge o' what's best fer each and all.

We lived then about eight mil'd from Ezry's, and it tuck about a day to make the trip; so you kin kindo' git an idy o' how the roads was in them days.

Well, on the way over I noticed Steve was mighty quiet-like, but I didn't think nothin' of it, tel at last he says, says he, "Ben, I want you to kindo' keep an eye out fer Ezry's new hand"--meanin' Bills. And then I kindo' suspicioned somepin' o' nother was up betwixt 'em; and shore enough there was, as I found out afore the day was over.

I knowed 'at Bills was a mean sort of a man, from what I'd heerd. His name was all over the neighberhood afore he'd be'n here two weeks.

In the first place, he come in a suspicious sorto' way: Him and his wife, and a little baby on'y a few months old, come through in a kivvered wagon with a fambly a-goin' som'ers in The Illinoy; and they stopped at the mill, fer some meal er somepin', and Bills got to talkin' with Ezry 'bout millin', and one thing o' nother, and said he was expeerenced some 'bout a mill hisse'f, and told Ezry ef he'd give him work he'd stop; said his wife and baby wasn't strong enough to stand trav'lin', and ef Ezry'd give him work he was ready to lick into it then and there; said his woman could pay her board by sewin' and the like, tel they got ahead a little; and then, ef he liked the neighberhood, he said he'd as lif settle there as anywheres; he was huntin' a home, he said, and the outlook kindo' struck him, and his woman railly needed rest, and wasn't strong enough to go much furder. And old Ezry kindo' tuk pity on the feller; and havin' house-room to spare, and railly in need of a good hand at the mill, he said all right; and so the feller stopped and the wagon druv ahead and left 'em; and they didn't have no things ner nothin'--not even a cyarpet-satchel, ner a stitch o' clothes, on'y what they had on their backs. And I think it was the third er fourth day after Bills stopped 'at he whirped Tomps Burk, the bully o' here them days, tel you wouldn't a-knowed him!

Well, I'd heerd o' this, and the facts is I'd made up my mind 'at Bills was a bad stick, and the place wasn't none the better fer his bein' here. But, as I was a-goin' on to say,--as Steve and me driv up to the mill, I ketched sight o' Bills the first thing, a-lookin' out o' where some boards was knocked off, jist over the worter-wheel; and he knowed Steve--I could see that by his face; and he hollered somepin', too, but what it was I couldn't jist make out, fer the noise o' the wheel; but he looked to me as ef he'd hollered somepin' mean a-purpose so's Steve wouldn't hear it, and he'd have the consolation o' knowin' 'at he'd called Steve some ornry name 'thout givin' him a chance to take it up. Steve was allus quiet-like, but ef you raised his dander onc't--and you could do that 'thout much trouble, callin' him names er somepin', particular' anything 'bout his mother. Steve loved his mother--allus loved his mother, and would fight fer her at the drap o' the hat. And he was her favo-rite--allus a-talkin' o' "her boy, Steven," as she used to call him, and so proud of him, and so keerful of him allus, when he'd be sick or anything; nuss him like a baby, she would.

So when Bills hollered, Steve didn't pay no attention; and I said nothin', o' course, and didn't let on like I noticed him. So we druv round to the south side and hitched; and Steve 'lowed he'd better feed; so I left him with the hosses and went into the mill.

They was jist a-stoppin' fer dinner. Most of 'em brought ther dinners--lived so fur away, you know. The two Smith boys lived on what used to be the old Warrick farm, five er six mild, anyhow, from where the mill stood. Great stout fellers, they was; and little Jake, the father of 'em, wasn't no man at all--not much bigger'n you, I rickon. Le' me see, now:--There was Tomps Burk, Wade Elwood, and Joe and Ben Carter; and Wesley Morris, John Coke--wiry little cuss, he was, afore he got his leg sawed off;--and Ezry, and--Well, I don't jist mind all the boys--'s a long time ago, and I never was much of a hand fer names.--Now, some folks'll hear a name and never fergit it, but I can't boast of a good rickollection, 'specially o' names; and fer the last thirty year my mem'ry's be'n a-failin' me, ever sence a spell o' fever 'at I brought on onc't--fever and rheumatiz together:--You see, I went a-sainin' with a passel o' the boys, fool-like, and let my clothes freeze on me a-comin' home. W'y, my breeches was like stove-pipes when I pulled 'em off. 'Ll, ef I didn't pay fer that spree! Rheumatiz got a holt o' me and helt me there flat o' my back fer eight weeks, and couldn't move hand er foot 'thout a-hollerin' like a' Injun. And I'd a-be'n there yit, I rickon, ef it hadn't a-be'n fer a' old hoss-doctor, name o' Jones; and he gits a lot o' sod and steeps it in hot whiskey and pops it on me,--and I'll be-switched-to-death ef it didn't cuore me up, fer all I laughed and told him I'd better take the whiskey in'ardly and let him keep the grass fer his doctor bill. But that's nuther here ner there!--As I was a-sayin' 'bout the mill: As I went in, the boys had stopped work and was a-gittin' down their dinners, and Bills amongst 'em, and old Ezry a-chattin' away--great hand, he was, fer his joke, and allus a-cuttin' up and a-gittin' off his odd-come-shorts on the boys. And that day he was in particular good humor. He'd brought some liquor down fer the boys, and he'd be'n drinkin' a little hisse'f, enough to feel it. He didn't drink much--that is to say, he didn't git drunk adzactly; but he tuk his dram, you understand. You see, they made their own whiskey in them days, and it wasn't nothin' like the bilin' stuff you git now. Old Ezry had a little still, and allus made his own whiskey, enough fer fambly use, and jist as puore as worter, and as harmless. But now-a-days the liquor you git's rank pizen. They say they putt tobacker in it, and strychnine, and the Lord knows what; ner I never knowed why, 'less it was to give it a richer-lookin' flavor, like. Well, Ezry he'd brought up a jug, and the boys had be'n a-takin' it purty free; I seed that as quick as I went in. And old Ezry called out to me to come and take some, the first thing. Told him I didn't b'lieve I keered about it; but nothin' would do but I must take a drink with the boys; and I was tired anyhow and I thought a little wouldn't hurt; so I takes a swig; and as I set the jug down Bills spoke up and says, "You're a stranger to me, and I'm a stranger to you, but I rickon we can drink to our better acquaintance,"--er somepin' to that amount, and poured out another snifter in a gourd he'd be'n a-drinkin' coffee in, and handed it to me. Well, I couldn't well refuse, of course; so I says "Here's to us," and drunk her down--mighty nigh a half pint, I rickon. Now, I railly didn't want it, but, as I tell you, I was obleeged to take it, and I downed her at a swaller and never batted an eye, fer, to tell the fact about it, I liked the taste o' liquor; and I do yit, on'y I know when I' got enough. Jist then I didn't want to drink on account o' Steve. Steve couldn't abide liquor in no shape ner form--fer medicine ner nothin', and I've allus thought it was his mother's doin's.

Now, a few months afore this I'd be'n to Vincennes, and I was jist a-tellin' Ezry what they was a-astin' fer their liquor there--fer I'd fetched a couple o' gallon home with me 'at I'd paid six bits fer, and pore liquor at that: And I was a-tellin' about it, and old Ezry was a-sayin' what an oudacious figger that was, and how he could make money a-sellin' it fer half that price, and was a-goin' on a-braggin' about his liquor--and it was a good article--fer new whiskey,--and jist then Steve comes in, jist as Bills was a-sayin' 'at a man 'at wouldn't drink that whiskey wasn't no man at all! So, of course, when they ast Steve to take some and he told 'em no, 'at he was much obleeged, Bills was kindo' tuk down, you understand, and had to say somepin'; and says he, "I reckon you ain't no better'n the rest of us, and we've be'n a-drinkin' of it." But Steve didn't let on like he noticed Bills at all, and retch and shuk hands with the other boys and ast how they was all a-comin' on.

I seed Bills was riled, and more'n likely wanted trouble; and shore enough, he went on to say, kindo snarlin'-like, 'at "he'd knowed o' men in his day 'at had be'n licked fer refusin' to drink when their betters ast em"; and said furder 'at "a lickin' wasn't none too good fer anybody 'at would refuse liquor like that o' Ezry's, and in his own house too"--er buildin', ruther. Ezry shuk his head at him, but I seed 'at Bills was bound fer a quarrel, and I winks at Steve, as much as to say, "Don't you let him bully you; you'll find your brother here to see you have fair play!" I was a-feelin' my oats some about then, and Steve seed I was, and looked so sorry-like, and like his mother, 'at I jist thought, "I kin fight fer you, and die fer you, 'cause you're wuth it!"--And I didn't someway feel like it would amount to much ef I did die er git killed er somepin' on his account. I seed Steve was mighty white around the mouth, and his eyes was a-glitterin' like a snake's; yit Bills didn't seem to take warnin', but went on to say 'at "he'd knowed boys 'at loved their mothers so well they couldn't drink nothin' stronger'n milk."--And then you'd ort o' seed Steve's coat fly off, jist like it wanted to git out of his way and give the boy room accordin' to his stren'th. I seed Bills grab a piece o' scantlin' jist in time to ketch his arm as he struck at Steve,--for Steve was a-comin' fer him dangerss. But they'd ketched Steve from behind jist then; and Bills turned fer me. I seed him draw back, and I seed Steve a-scufflin' to ketch his arm; but he didn't reach it quite in time to do me no good. It must a-come awful suddent. The first I rickollect was a roarin' and a buzzin' in my ears, and when I kindo' come a little better to, and crawled up and peeked over the saw-log I was a-layin' the other side of, I seed a couple clinched and a-rollin' over and over and a-makin' the chips and saw-dust fly, now I tell you! Bills and Steve it was--head and tail, tooth and toe-nail, and a-bleedin' like good fellers! I seed a gash o' some kind in Bills's head, and Steve was purty well tuckered and a-pantin' like a lizard; and I made a rush in, and one o' the Carter boys grabbed me and told me to jist keep cool--'at Steve didn't need no he'p, and they might need me to keep Bills's friends off ef they made a rush. By this time Steve had whirlt Bills, and was a-jist a-gittin' in a fair way to finish him up in good style, when Wesley Morris run in--I seed him do it--run in, and afore we could ketch him he struck Steve a deadener in the butt o' the ear and knocked him as limber as a rag. And then Bills whirlt Steve and got him by the th'oat, and Ben Carter and me and old Ezry closed in.--Carter tackled Morris, and Ezry and me grabs Bills--and as old Ezry grabbed him to pull him off, Bills kindo' give him a side swipe o' some kind and knocked him--I don't know how fur! And jist then Carter and Morris come a-scufflin' back'ards right amongst us, and Carter th'owed him right acrost Bills and Steve. Well, it ain't fair, and I don't like to tell it, but I seed it was the last chance and I tuk advantage of it:--As Wesley and Ben fell it pulled Bills down in a kindo' twist, don't you understand, so's he couldn't he'p hisse'f, yit still a-clinchin' Steve by the th'oat, and him black in the face.--Well, as they fell I grabbed up a little hick'ry limb, not bigger'n my two thumbs, and I struck Bills a little tap kindo' over the back of his head like, and, blame me! ef he didn't keel over like a stuck pig--and not any too soon, nuther,--fer he had Steve's chunk as nigh putt out as you ever seed a man's, to come to agin. But he was up th'reckly and ready to a-went at it ef Bills could a-come to the scratch; but Mister Bills he wasn't in no fix to try it over! After a-waitin' a while fer him to come to, and him not a-comin' to, we concluded 'at we'd better he'p him, maybe. And we worked with him, and warshed him, and drenched him with whiskey, but it 'peared like it wasn't no use.--He jist laid there with his eyes about half shet, and a-breathin' like a hoss when he's bad sceart; and I'll be dad-limbed ef I don't believe he'd a-died on our hands ef it hadn't a-happened old Doc Zions come a-ridin' past on his way home from the Murdock neighberhood, where they was a-havin' sich a time with the milk-sick. And he examined Bills, and had him laid on a plank and carried down to the house--'bout a mil'd, I reckon, from the mill. Looked kindo' cur'ous to see Steve a-he'ppin' pack the feller, after his nearly chokin' him to death. Oh, it was a bloody fight, I tell you! W'y, they wasn't a man in the mill 'at didn't have a black eye er somepin'; and old Ezry, where Bills hit him, had his nose broke, and was as bloody as a butcher. And you'd ort a-seed the women-folks when our p'session come a-bringin' Bills in. I never seed anybody take on like Bills's woman.--It was distressin'; it was, indeed.--Went into hysterics, she did; and we thought fer a while she'd gone plum crazy, fer she cried so pitiful over him, and called him "Charley! Charley!" 'stid of his right name, and went on, clean out of her head, tel she finally jist fainted clean away.

Fer three weeks Bills laid betwixt life and death, and that woman set by him night and day, and tended him as patient as a' angel--and she was a' angel, too; and he'd a-never lived to bother nobody agin ef it hadn't a-be'n fer Annie, as he called her. Zions said there was a 'brazure of the--some kind o' p'tuber'nce, and ef he'd a-be'n struck jist a quarter of a' inch below--jist a quarter of a' inch--he'd a be'n a dead man. And I've sence wished--not 'at I want the life of a human bein' to account fer--on'y,--well, no odds--I've sence wished 'at I had a-hit him jist a quarter of a' inch below!

Well, of course, them days they wasn't no law o' no account, and nothin' was ever done about it. So Steve and me got our grindin', and talked the matter over with Ezry and the boys. Ezry said he was a-goin' to do all he could fer Bills, 'cause he was a good hand, and when he wasn't drinkin' they wasn't no peaceabler man in the Settlement. I kindo' suspicioned what was up, but I said nothin' then. And Ezry said furder, as we was about drivin' off, that Bills was a despert feller, and it was best to kindo' humor him a little. "And you must kindo' be on you guard," he says, "and I'll watch him, and ef anything happens 'at I git wind of I'll let you know," he says; and so we putt out fer home.

Mother tuk on awful about it. You see, she thought she'd be'n the whole blame of it, 'cause the Sunday afore that her and Steve had went to meetin', and they got there late, and the house was crowded, and Steve had ast Bills to give up his seat to Mother, and he wouldn't do it, and said somepin' 'at disturbed the prayin', and the preacher prayed 'at the feller 'at was a-makin' the disturbance might be forgive'; and that riled Bills so he got up and left, and hung around till it broke up, so's he could git a chance at Steve to pick a fight. And he did try it, and dared Steve and double-dared him fer a fight, but Mother begged so hard 'at she kep' him out of it. Steve said 'at he'd a-told me all about it on the way to Ezry's on'y he'd promised Mother, you know, not to say nothin' to me.

* * * * *

Ezry was over at our house about six weeks after the fight, appearantly as happy as you please. We ast him how him and Bills was a-makin' it, and he said firstrate; said 'at Bills was jist a-doin' splendid; said he'd got moved in his new house 'at he'd fixed up fer him, and ever'thing was a-goin' on as smooth as could be; and Bills and the boys was on better terms'n ever; and says he, "As fur as you and Steve's concerned, Bills don't 'pear to bear you no ill feelin's, and says as fur as he's concerned the thing's settled." "Well," says I, "Ezry, I hope so; but I can't he'p but think they's somepin' at the bottom of all this"; and says I, "I don't think it's in Bills to ever amount to anything good"; and says I, "It's my opinion they's a dog in the well, and now you mark it!"

Well, he said he wasn't jist easy, but maybe he'd come out all right; said he couldn't turn the feller off--he hadn't the heart to do that, with that-air pore, dilicate woman o' his, and the baby. And then he went on to tell what a smart sorto' woman Bills's wife was,--one of the nicest little women he'd ever laid eyes on, said she was; said she was the kindest thing, and the sweetest-tempered, and all--and the handiest woman 'bout the house, and 'bout sewin', and cookin', and the like, and all kinds o' housework; and so good to the childern, and all; and how they all got along so well; and how proud she was of her baby, and allus a-goin' on about it and a-cryin' over it and a-carryin' on, and wouldn't leave it out of her sight a minute. And Ezry said 'at she could write so purty, and made sich purty pictur's fer the childern; and how they all liked her better'n their own mother. And, sence she'd moved, he said it seemed so lonesome-like 'thout her about the house--like they'd lost one o' their own fambly; said they didn't git to see her much now, on'y sometimes, when her man would be at work, she'd run over fer a while, and kiss all the childern and women-folks about the place,--the greatest hand fer the childern, she was; tell 'em all sorts o' little stories, you know, and sing fer 'em; said 'at she could sing so sweet-like, 'at time and time agin she'd break clean down in some song o' nother, and her voice would trimble so mournful-like 'at you'd find yourse'f a-cryin' afore you knowed it. And she used to coax Ezry's woman to let her take the childern home with her; and they used to allus want to go, tel Bills come onc't while they was there, and they said he got to jawin' her fer a-makin' some to-do over the baby, and swore at her and tuk it away from her and whirped it fer cryin', and she cried and told him to whirp her and not little Annie, and he said that was jist what he was a-doin'. And the childern was allus afeard to go there any more after that--'feard he'd come home and whirp little Annie agin. Ezry said he jist done that to skeer 'em away--'cause he didn't want a passel o' childern a-whoopin' and a-howlin' and a-trackin' round the house all the time.

But, shore enough, Bills, after the fight, 'peared like he'd settled down, and went 'bout his business so stiddy-like, and worked so well, the neighbers begin to think he was all right after all, and railly some got to likin' him. But fer me,--well, I was a leetle slow to argy 'at the feller wasn't "a-possumin'." But the next time I went over to the mill--and Steve went with me--old Ezry come and met us, and said 'at Bills didn't have no hard feelin's ef we didn't and 'at he wanted us to fergive him; said 'at Bills wanted him to tell us 'at he was sorry the way he'd acted, and wanted us to fergive him. Well, I looked at Ezry, and we both looked at him, jist perfectly tuk back--the idee o' Bills a-wantin' anybody to fergive him! And says I, "Ezry, what in the name o' common sense do you mean?" And says he, "I mean jist what I say; Bills jined meetin' last night and had 'em all a-prayin' fer him; and we all had a glorious time," says old Ezry; "and his woman was there and jined, too, and prayed and shouted and tuk on to beat all; and Bills got up and spoke and give in his experience, and said he'd be'n a bad man, but, glory to God, them times was past and gone; said 'at he wanted all of 'em to pray fer him, and he wanted to prove faithful, and wanted all his inemies to fergive him; and prayed 'at you and Steve and your folks would fergive him, and ever'body 'at he ever wronged anyway." And old Ezry was a-goin' on, and his eyes a-sparklin', and a-rubbin' his hands, he was so excited and tickled over it, 'at Steve and me we jist stood there a-gawkin' like, tel Bills hisse'f come up and retch out one hand to Steve and one to me; and Steve shuk with him kindo' oneasy-like, and I--well, sir, I never felt cur'oser in my born days than I did that minute. The cold chills crep' over me, and I shuk as ef I had the agur, and I folded my hands behind me and I looked that feller square in the eye, and I tried to speak three or four times afore I could make it, and when I did, my voice wasn't natchurl--sounded like a feller a-whisperin' through a tin horn er somepin'.--And I says, says I, "You're a liar," slow and delibert. That was all. His eyes blazed a minute, and drapped; and he turned, 'thout a word, and walked off. And Ezry says, "He's in airnest; I know he's in airnest, er he'd a-never a-tuk that!" And so he went on, tel finally Steve jined in, and betwixt 'em they p'suaded me 'at I was in the wrong and the best thing to do was to make it all up, which I finally did. And Bills said 'at he'd a-never a-felt jist right 'thout my friendship, fer he'd wronged me, he said, and he'd wronged Steve and Mother, too, and he wanted a chance, he said, o' makin' things straight agin.

Well, a-goin' home, I don't think Steve and me talked o' nothin' else but Bills--how airnest the feller acted 'bout it, and how, ef he wasn't in airnest, he'd a-never a-swallered that "lie," you see. That's what walked my log, fer he could a-jist as easy a-knocked me higher'n Kilgore's kite as he could to walk away 'thout a-doin' of it.

Mother was awful tickled when she heerd about it, fer she'd had an idee 'at we'd have trouble afore we got back, and a-gitten home safe, and a-bringin' the news 'bout Bills a-jinin' church and all, tickled her so 'at she mighty nigh shouted fer joy. You see, Mother was a' old church-member all her life; and I don't think she ever missed a sermont er a prayer-meetin' 'at she could possibly git to--rain er shine, wet er dry. When they was a meetin' of any kind a-goin' on, go she would, and nothin' short o' sickness in the fambly, er knowin' nothin' of it, would stop her! And clean up to her dyin' day she was a God-fearin' and consistent Christian ef they ever was one. I mind now when she was tuk with her last spell and laid bedfast fer eighteen months, she used to tell the preacher, when he'd come to see her and pray and go on, 'at she could die happy ef she could on'y be with 'em all agin in their love-feasts and revivals. She was purty low then, and had be'n a-failin' fast fer a day er two; and that day they'd be'n a-holdin' service at the house. It was her request, you know, and the neighbers had congergated and was a-prayin' and a-singin' her favorite hymns--one in p'tickler, "God moves in a myster'ous way his wunders to p'form," and 'bout his "Walkin' on the sea and a-ridin' of the storm."--Well, anyway, they'd be'n a-singin' that hymn fer her--she used to sing that'n so much, I rickollect as fur back as I kin remember; and I mind how it used to make me feel so lonesome-like and solemn, don't you know,--when I'd be a-knockin' round the place along o' evenings, and she'd be a-milkin', and I'd hear her, at my feedin', way off by myse'f, and it allus somehow made me feel like a feller'd ort 'o try and live as nigh right as the law allows, and that's about my doctern yit. Well, as I was a-goin' on to say, they'd jist finished that old hymn, and Granny Lowry was jist a-goin' to lead in prayer, when I noticed Mother kindo' tried to turn herse'f in bed, and smiled so weak and faint-like, and looked at me, with her lips a-kindo' movin'; and I thought maybe she wanted another dos't of her syrup 'at Ezry's woman had fixed up fer her, and I kindo' stooped down over her and ast her ef she wanted anything. "Yes," she says, and nodded, and her voice sounded so low and solemn and so fur-away-like 'at I knowed she'd never take no more medicine on this airth. And I tried to ast her what it was she wanted, but I couldn't say nothin'; my throat hurt me, and I felt the warm tears a-boolgin' up, and her kind old face a-glimmerin' away so pale-like afore my eyes, and still a-smilin' up so lovin' and forgivin' and so good 'at it made me think so fur back in the past I seemed to be a little boy agin; and seemed like her thin gray hair was brown and a-shinin' in the sun as it used to do when she helt me on her shoulder in the open door, when Father was a-livin' and we used to go to meet him at the bars; seemed like her face was young agin, and a-smilin' like it allus used to be, and her eyes as full o' hope and happiness as afore they ever looked on grief er ever shed a tear. And I thought of all the trouble they had saw on my account, and of all the lovin' words her lips had said, and of all the thousand things her pore old hands had done fer me 'at I never even thanked her fer; and how I loved her better'n all the world besides, and would be so lonesome ef she went away.--Lord! I can't tell you what I didn't think and feel and see. And I knelt down by her, and she whispered then fer Steven, and he come, and we kissed her--and she died--a-smilin' like a child--jist like a child.

Well--well! 'Pears like I'm allus a-runnin' into somepin' else. I wisht I could tell a story 'thout driftin' off in matters 'at hain't no livin' thing to do with what I started out with. I try to keep from thinkin' of afflictions and the like, 'cause sich is bound to come to the best of us; but a feller's rickollection will bring 'em up, and I reckon it'd ort'o be er it wouldn't be; and I've thought, sometimes, it was done maybe to kindo' admonish a feller, as the Good Book says, of how good a world'd be 'thout no sorrow in it.

Where was I? Oh, yes, I rickollect;--about Bills a-jinin' church. Well, sir, they wasn't a better-actin' feller and more religious-like in all the neighberhood. Spoke in meetin's, he did, and tuk a' active part in all religious doin's, and, in fact, was jist as square a man, appearantly, as the preacher hisse'f. And about six er eight weeks after he'd jined, they got up another revival, and things run high. They was a big excitement, and ever'body was a'tendin' from fur and near. Bills and Ezry got the mill-hands to go, and didn't talk o' nothin' but religion. People thought awhile 'at old Ezry'd turn preacher, he got so interested 'bout church matters. He was easy excited 'bout anything; and when he went into a thing it was in dead airnest, shore!--"jist flew off the handle," as I heerd a comical feller git off onc't. And him and Bills was up and at it ever' night--prayin' and shoutin' at the top o' their voice. Them railly did seem like good times--when ever'body jined together, and prayed and shouted hosanner, and danced around together, and hugged each other like they was so full o' glory they jist couldn't he'p theirse'v's!--That's the reason I jined; it looked so kindo' whole-souled-like and good, you understand. But law! I didn't hold out--on'y fer a little while, and no wunder!

Well, about them times Bills was tuk down with the agur; first got to chillin' ever'-other-day, then ever' day, and harder and harder, tel sometimes he'd be obleeged to stay away from meetin' on account of it. And onc't I was at meetin' when he told about it, and how when he couldn't be with 'em he allus prayed at home, and he said 'at he believed his prayers was answered, fer onc't he'd prayed fer a new outpourin' of the Holy Sperit, and that very night they was three new jiners. And another time he said 'at he'd prayed 'at Wesley Morris would jine, and lo and behold you! he did jine, and the very night 'at he prayed he would.

Well, the night I'm a-speakin' of he'd had a chill the day afore and couldn't go that night, and was in bed when Ezry druv past fer him; said he'd like to go, but had a high fever and couldn't. And then Ezry's woman ast him ef he was too sick to spare Annie; and he said no, they could take her and the baby: and told her to fix his medicine so's he could reach it 'thout gittin' out o' bed, and he'd git along 'thout her. And so she tuk the baby and went along with Ezry and his folks.

I was at meetin' that night and rickollect 'em comin' in. Annie got a seat jist behind me--Steve give her his'n and stood up; and I rickollect a-astin' her how Bills was a-gittin' along with the agur; and little Annie, the baby, kep' a-pullin' my hair and a-crowin' tel finally she went to sleep; and Steve ast her mother to let him hold her--cutest little thing you ever laid eyes on, and the very pictur' of her mother.

Old Daddy Barker preached that night, and a mighty good sermont. His text, ef I rickollect right, was "workin' out your own salvation"; and when I listen to preachers nowadays in their big churches and their fine pulpits, I allus think o' Daddy Barker, and kindo' some way wisht the old times could come agin, with the old log meetin'-house with its puncheon-floor, and the chinkin' in the walls, and old Daddy Barker in the pulpit. He'd make you feel 'at the Lord could make Hisse'f at home there, and find jist as abundant comfort in the old log house as He could in any of your fine-furnished churches 'at you can't set down in 'thout payin' fer the privilege, like it was a theatre.

Ezry had his two little girls jine that night, and I rickollect the preacher made sich a purty prayer about the Saviour a-cotin' from the Bible 'bout "Suffer little childern to come unto Me"--and all; and talked so purty 'bout the jedgment day, and mothers a-meetin' their little ones there--and all; and went on tel they wasn't a dry eye in the house--And jist as he was a-windin' up, Abe Riggers stuck his head in at the door and hollered "Fire!" loud as he could yell. We all rushed out, a-thinkin' it was the meetin'-house; but he hollered it was the mill; and shore enough, away off to the south'ards we could see the light acrost the woods, and see the blaze a-lickin' up above the trees. I seed old Ezry as he come a-scufflin' through the crowd; and we putt out together fer it. Well, it was two mil'd to the mill, but by the time we'd half-way got there, we could tell it wasn't the mill a-burnin', 'at the fire was furder to the left, and that was Ezry's house; and by the time we got there it wasn't much use. We pitched into the household goods, and got out the beddin', and the furnitur' and cheers, and the like o' that; saved the clock and a bedstid, and got the bureau purt' nigh out when they hollered to us 'at the roof was a-cavin' in, and we had to leave it; well, we'd tuk the drawers out, all but the big one, and that was locked; and it and all in it went with the buildin'; and that was a big loss: All the money 'at Ezry was a-layin' by was in that-air drawer, and a lot o' keepsakes and trinkets 'at Ezry's woman said she wouldn't a-parted with fer the world and all.

I never seed a troubleder fambly than they was. It jist 'peared like old Ezry give clean down, and the women and childern a-cryin' and a-takin' on. It looked jist awful--shore's you're born!--Losin' ever'thing they'd worked so hard fer--and there it was, purt' nigh midnight, and a fambly, jist a little while ago all so happy, and now with no home to go to, ner nothin'!

It was arranged fer Ezry's to move in with Bills--that was about the on'y chance--on'y one room and a loft; but Bills said they could manage some way, fer a while anyhow.

Bills said he seed the fire when it first started, and could a-putt it out ef he'd on'y be'n strong enough to git there; said he started twic't to go, but was too weak and had to go back to bed agin; said it was a-blazin' in the kitchen roof when he first seed it. So the gineral conclusion 'at we all come to was--it must a-ketched from the flue.

* * * * *

It was too late in the fall then to think o' buildin' even the onriest kind o' shanty, and so Ezry moved in with Bills. And Bills used to say ef it hadn't a-be'n fer Ezry he'd a-never a-had no house, ner nothin' to putt in it, nuther! You see, all the household goods 'at Bills had in the world he'd got of Ezry, and he 'lowed he'd be a triflin' whelp ef he didn't do all in his power to make Ezry perfeckly at home's long as he wanted to stay there. And together they managed to make room fer 'em all, by a-buildin' a kindo' shed-like to the main house, intendin' to build when Spring come. And ever'thing went along first-rate, I guess; never heerd no complaints--that is, p'tickler.

Ezry was kindo' down fer a long time, though; didn't like to talk about his trouble much, and didn't 'tend meetin' much, like he used to; said it made him think 'bout his house burnin', and he didn't feel safe to lose sight o' the mill. And the meetin's kindo' broke up altogether that winter. Almost broke up religious doin's, it did. 'S long as I've lived here I never seed jist sich a slack in religion as they was that winter; and 'fore then, I kin mind the time when they wasn't a night the whole endurin' winter when they didn't have preachin' er prayer-meetin' o' some kind a-goin' on. W'y, I rickollect one night in p'tickler--the coldest night, whooh! And somebody had stold the meetin'-house door, and they was obleeged to preach 'thout it. And the wind blowed in so they had to hold their hats afore the candles, and then onc't-in-a-while they'd git sluffed out. And the snow drifted in so it was jist like settin' out doors; and they had to stand up when they prayed--yes-sir! stood up to pray. I noticed that night they was a' oncommon lot o' jiners, and I believe to this day 'at most of 'em jined jist to git up where the stove was. Lots o' folks had their feet froze right in meetin'; and Steve come home with his ears froze like they was whittled out o' bone; and he said 'at Mary Madaline Wells's feet was froze, and she had two pair o' socks on over her shoes. Oh, it was cold, now I tell you!

They run the mill part o' that winter--part they couldn't. And they didn't work to say stiddy tel along in Aprile, and then they was snow on the ground yit--in the shadders--and the ground froze, so you couldn't hardly dig a grave. But at last they got to kindo' jiggin' along agin. Plenty to do there was; and old Ezry was mighty tickled, too; 'peared to recruit right up like. Ezry was allus best tickled when things was a-stirrin', and then he was a-gittin' ready fer buildin', you know,--wanted a house of his own, he said.--And of course it wasn't adzackly like home, all cluttered up as they was there at Bills's. They got along mighty well, though, together; and the women-folks and childern got along the best in the world. Ezry's woman used to say she never laid eyes on jist sich another woman as Annie was. Said it was jist as good as a winter's schoolin' fer the childern; said her two little girls had learnt to read, and didn't know their a-b abs afore Annie learnt 'em; well, the oldest one, Mary Patience, she did know her letters, I guess--fourteen year old, she was; but Mandy, the youngest, had never seed inside a book afore that winter; and the way she learnt was jist su'prisin'. She was puny-like and frail-lookin' allus, but ever'body 'lowed she was a heap smarter'n Mary Patience, and she was; and in my opinion she railly had more sense'n all the rest o' the childern putt together, 'bout books and cipherin' and 'rethmetic, and the like; and John Wesley, the oldest of 'em, he got to teachin' at last, when he growed up,--but, law! he couldn't write his own name so's you could read it. I allus thought they was a good 'eal of old Ezry in John Wesley. Liked to romance 'round with the youngsters 'most too well.--Spiled him fer teachin', I allus thought; fer instance, ef a scholard said somepin' funny in school, John-Wes he'd jist have to have his laugh out with the rest, and it was jist fun fer the boys, you know, to go to school to him. Allus in fer spellin'-matches and the like, and learnin' songs and sich. I rickollect he give a' exhibition onc't, one winter, and I'll never fergit it, I rickon.

The school-house would on'y hold 'bout forty, comf'table, and that night they was up'ards of a hunderd er more--jist crammed and jammed! And the benches was piled back so's to make room fer the flatform they'd built to make their speeches and dialogues on; and fellers a-settin' up on them back seats, their heads was clean aginst the j'ist. It was a low ceilin', anyhow, and o' course them 'at tuk a part in the doin's was way up, too. Janey Thompson had to give up her part in a dialogue, 'cause she looked so tall she was afeard the congergation would laugh at her; and they couldn't git her to come out and sing in the openin' song 'thout lettin' her set down first and git ready 'fore they pulled the curtain. You see, they had sheets sewed together, and fixed on a string some way, to slide back'ards and for'ards, don't you know. But they was a big bother to 'em--couldn't git 'em to work like. Ever' time they'd git 'em slid 'bout half-way acrost, somepin' would ketch, and they'd haf to stop and fool with 'em awhile 'fore they could git 'em the balance o' the way acrost. Well, finally, to'rds the last, they jist kep' 'em drawed back all the time. It was a pore affair, and spiled purt' nigh ever' piece; but the scholards all wanted it fixed thataway, the teacher said, in a few appropert remarks he made when the thing was over. Well, I was a-settin' in the back part o' the house on them high benches, and my head was jist even with them on the flatform, and the lights was pore, and where the string was stretched fer the curtain to slide on it looked like the p'formers was strung on it. And when Lige Boyer's boy was a-speakin'--kindo' mumbled it, you know, and you couldn't half hear--it looked fer the world like he was a-chawin' on that-air string; and some devilish feller 'lowed ef he'd chaw it clean in two it'd be a good thing fer the balance. After that they all sung a sleigh-ridin' song, and it was right purty, the way they got it off. Had a passel o' sleigh-bells they'd ring ever' onc't-in-a-while, and it sounded purty--shore!

Then Hunicut's girl, Marindy, read a letter 'bout winter, and what fun the youngsters allus had in winter-time, a-sleighin' and the like, and spellin'-matches, and huskin'-bees, and all. Purty good, it was, and made a feller think o' old times. Well, that was about the best thing they was done that night; but everybody said the teacher wrote it fer her; and I wouldn't be su'prised much, fer they was married not long afterwards. I expect he wrote it fer her.--Wouldn't putt it past Wes!

They had a dialogue, too, 'at was purty good. Little Bob Arnold was all fixed up--had on his pap's old bell-crowned hat, the one he was married in. Well, I jist thought die I would when I seed that old hat and called to mind the night his pap was married, and we all got him a little how-come-you-so on some left-handed cider 'at' had be'n a-layin' in a whiskey-bar'l tel it was strong enough to bear up a' egg. I kin rickollect now jist how he looked in that hat, when it was all new, you know, and a-settin' on the back of his head, and his hair in his eyes; and sich hair!--as red as git-out--and his little black eyes a-shinin' like beads. Well-sir, you'd a-died to a-seed him a-dancin'. We danced all night that night, and would a-be'n a-dancin' yit, I rickon, ef the fiddler hadn't a-give out. Wash Lowry was a-fiddlin' fer us; and along to'rds three er four in the morning Wash was purty well fagged out. You see, Wash could never play fer a dance er nothin' 'thout a-drinkin' more or less, and when he got to a certain pitch you couldn't git nothin' out o' him but "Barbary Allan"; so at last he struck up on that, and jist kep' it up, and kep' it up, and nobody couldn't git nothin' else out of him!

Now, anybody 'at ever danced knows 'at "Barbary Allan" hain't no tune to dance by, no way you can fix it; and, o' course, the boys seed at onc't their fun was gone ef they couldn't git him on another tune.--And they'd coax and beg and plead with him, and maybe git him started on "The Wind Blows over the Barley," and 'bout the time they'd git to knockin' it down agin purty lively, he'd go to sawin' away on "Barbary Allan"--and I'll-be-switched-to-death ef that feller didn't set there and play hisse'f sound asleep on "Barbary Allan," and we had to wake him up afore he'd quit! Now, that's jes' the plum facts. And they wasn't a better fiddler nowheres than Wash Lowry, when he was at hisse'f. I've heerd a good many fiddlers in my day, and I never heerd one yit 'at could play my style o' fiddlin' ekal to Wash Lowry. You see, Wash didn't play none o' this-here new-fangled music--nothin' but the old tunes, you understand, "The Forkéd Deer," and "Old Fat Gal," and "Gray Eagle," and the like. Now, them's music! Used to like to hear Wash play "Gray Eagle." He could come as nigh a-makin' that old tune talk as ever you heerd! Used to think a heap o' his fiddle--and he had a good one, shore. I've heerd him say, time and time agin, 'at a five-dollar gold-piece wouldn't buy it, and I knowed him myse'f to refuse a calf fer it onc't--yes-sir, a yearland calf--and the feller offered him a double-bar'l'd pistol to boot, and blame ef he'd take it; said he'd ruther part with anything else he owned than his fiddle.--But here I am, clean out o' the furry agin!... Oh, yes; I was a-tellin' 'bout little Bob, with that old hat; and he had on a swaller-tail coat and a lot o' fixin's, a-actin' like he was a squire; and he had him a great long beard made out o' corn-silks, and you wouldn't a-knowed him ef it wasn't fer his voice. Well, he was a-p'tendin' he was a squire a-tryin' some kind o' law-suit, you see; and John Wesley he was the defendunt, and Joney Wiles, I believe it was, played like he was the plaintive. And they'd had a fallin' out 'bout some land, and was a-lawin' fer p'session, you understand. Well, Bob he made out it was a mighty bad case when John-Wes comes to consult him 'bout it, and tells him ef a little p'int o' law was left out he thought he could git the land fer him. And then John-Wes bribes him, you understand, to leave out the p'int o' law, and the squire says he'll do all he kin, and so John-Wes goes out a-feelin' purty good. Then Wiles comes in to consult the squire, don't you see. And the 'squire tells him the same tale he told John Wesley. So Wiles bribes him to leave out the p'int o' law in his favor, don't you know. So when the case is tried he decides in favor o' John-Wes, a-tellin' Wiles some cock-and-bull story 'bout havin' to manage it thataway so's to git the case mixed so's he could git it fer him shore; and posts him to sue fer change of venue or somepin',--anyway, Wiles gits a new trial, and then the squire decides in his favor, and tells John-Wes another trial will fix it in his favor, and so on.--And so it goes on tel, anyway, he gits holt o' the land hisse'f and all their money besides, and leaves them to hold the bag! Well-sir, it was purty well got up; and they said it was John-Wes's doin's, and I 'low it was--he was a good hand at anything o' that sort, and knowed how to make fun.--But I've be'n a-tellin' you purty much ever'thing but what I started out with, and I'll try and hurry through, 'cause I know you're tired.

'Long 'bout the beginnin' o' summer, things had got back to purty much the old way. The boys round was a-gittin' devilish, and o' nights 'specially theyr was a sight o' meanness a-goin' on. The mill-hands, most of 'em, was mixed up in it--Coke and Morris, and them 'at had jined meetin' 'long in the winter had all backslid, and was a-drinkin' and carousin' round worse'n ever.

People perdicted 'at Bills would backslide, but he helt on faithful, to all appearance; said he liked to see a feller when he made up his mind to do right, he liked to see him do it, and not go back on his word; and even went so fer as to tell Ezry ef they didn't putt a stop to it he'd quit the neighberhood and go somers else. And Bills was Ezry's head man then, and he couldn't a-got along 'thout him; and I b'lieve ef Bills had a-said the word old Ezry would a-turned off ever' hand he had.--He got so he jist left ever'thing to Bills. Ben Carter was turned off fer somepin', and nobody ever knowed what. Bills and him had never got along jist right sence the fight.

Ben was with this set I was a-tellin' you 'bout, and they'd got him to drinkin' and in trouble, o' course. I'd knowed Ben well enough to know he wouldn't do nothin' ornry ef he wasn't agged on, and ef he ever was mixed up in anything o' the kind Wes Morris and John Coke was at the bottom of it, and I take notice they wasn't turned off when Ben was.

One night the crowd was out, and Ben amongst 'em, o' course.--Sence he'd be'n turned off he'd be'n a-drinkin',--and I never blamed him much; he was so good-hearted like and easy led off, and I allus b'lieved it wasn't his own doin's.

Well, this night they cut up awful, and ef they was one fight they was a dozend; and when all the devilment was done they could do, they started on a stealin' expedition, and stold a lot o' chickens and tuk 'em to the mill to roast 'em; and, to make a long story short, that night the mill burnt clean to the ground. And the whole pack of 'em collogued together aginst Carter to saddle it onto him; claimed 'at they left Ben there at the mill 'bout twelve o'clock--which was a fact, fer he was dead drunk and couldn't git away. Steve stumbled over him while the mill was a-burnin' and drug him out afore he knowed what was a-goin' on, and it was all plain enough to Steve 'at Ben didn't have no hand in the firin' of it. But I'll tell you he sobered up mighty suddent when he seed what was a-goin' on, and heerd the neighbers a-hollerin', and a-threatenin' and a-goin' on!--fer it seemed to be the ginerl idee 'at the buildin' was fired a-purpose. And says Ben to Steve, says he, "I expect I'll haf to say good-bye to you, fer they've got me in a ticklish place! I kin see through it all now, when it's too late!" And jist then Wesley Morris hollers out, "Where's Ben Carter?" and started to'rds where me and Ben and Steve was a-standin'; and Ben says, wild-like, "Don't you two fellers ever think it was my doin's," and whispers "Good-bye," and started off; and when we turned, Wesley Morris was a-layin' flat of his back, and we heerd Carter yell to the crowd 'at "that man"--meanin' Morris--"needed lookin' after worse than he did," and another minute he plunged into the river and swum acrost; and we all stood and watched him in the flickerin' light tel he clum out on t'other bank; and 'at was the last anybody ever seed o' Ben Carter!

It must a-be'n about three o'clock in the morning by this time, and the mill then was jist a-smoulderin' to ashes--fer it was as dry as tinder and burnt like a flash--and jist as a party was a-talkin' o' organizin' and follerin' Carter, we heerd a yell 'at I'll never fergit ef I'd live tell another flood. Old Ezry, it was, as white as a corpse, and with the blood a-streamin' out of a gash in his forred, and his clothes half on, come a-rushin' into the crowd and a-hollerin' fire and murder ever' jump. "My house is a-burnin', and my folks is all a-bein' murdered whilse you're a-standin' here! And Bills done it! Bills done it!" he hollered, as he headed the crowd and started back fer home. "Bills done it! I caught him at it; and he would a-murdered me in cold blood ef it hadn't a-be'n fer his woman. He knocked me down, and had me tied to a bed-post in the kitchen afore I come to. And his woman cut me loose and told me to run fer he'p; and says I, 'Where's Bills?' and she says, 'He's after me by this time.' And jist then we heerd Bills holler, and we looked, and he was a-standin' out in the clearin' in front o' the house, with little Annie in his arms; and he hollered wouldn't she like to kiss the baby good-bye. And she hollered My God! fer me to save little Annie, and fainted clean dead away. And I heerd the roof a-crackin', and grabbed her up and packed her out jist in time. And when I looked up, Bills hollered out agin, and says, 'Ezry,' he says, 'you kin begin to kindo' git an idee o' what a good feller I am! And ef you hadn't a-caught me you'd a-never a-knowed it, and "Brother Williams" wouldn't a-be'n called away to another app'intment like he is.' And says he, 'Now, ef you foller me I'll finish you shore!--You're safe now fer I hain't got time to waste on you furder.' And jist then his woman kindo' come to her senses ag'in and hollered fer little Annie, and the child heerd her and helt out its little arms to go to her, and hollered 'Mother! Mother!' And Bills says, 'Dam yer mother! ef it hadn't a-be'n fer her I' a-be'n all right. And dam you, too!' he says to me.--'This'll pay you fer that lick you struck me; and fer you a-startin' reports, when I first come, 'at more'n likely I'd done somepin' mean over East and come out West to reform! And I wonder ef I didn't do somepin' mean afore I come here?' he went on; 'kill somebody er somepin'? And I wonder ef I ain't reformed enough to go back? Good-bye, Annie!' he hollered; 'and you needn't fret about yer baby, I'll be the same indulgent father to it I've allus be'n!' And the baby was a-cryin' and a-reachin' out its little arms to'rds its mother, when Bills he turned and struck off in the dark to'rds the river."

This was about the tale 'at Ezry told us, as nigh as I can rickollect: and by the time he finished, I never want to see jist sich another crowd o' men as was a-swarmin' there. Ain't it awful when sich a crowd gits together? I tell you it makes my flesh creep to think about it!

As Bills had gone in the direction of the river, we wasn't long in makin' our minds up 'at he'd haf to cross it, and ef he done that he'd haf to use the boat 'at was down below the mill, er wade it at the ford, a mil'd er more down. So we divided in three sections, like--one to go and look after the folks at the house, and another to the boat, and another to the ford. And Steve and me and Ezry was in the crowd 'at struck fer the boat: and we made time a-gittin' there! It was awful dark, and the sky was a-cloudin' up, like a storm; but we wasn't long a-gittin' to the p'int where the boat was allus tied; but they wasn't no boat there! Steve kindo' tuk the lead, and we all talked in whispers. And Steve said to kindo' lay low and maybe we could hear somepin'; and some feller said he thought he heerd somepin' strange-like, but the wind was kindo' raisin' and kep' up sich a moanin' through the trees along the bank 'at we couldn't make out nothin'. "Listen!" says Steve, suddent-like, "I hear somepin'!" We was all still ag'in--and we all heerd a moanin' 'at was sadder'n the wind--sounded mournfuller to me,--'cause I knowed it in a minute, and I whispered, "Little Annie." And 'way out acrost the river we could hear the little thing a-sobbin', and we all was still's death; and we heerd a voice we knowed was Bills's say, "Dam ye! Keep still, or I'll drownd ye!" And the wind kindo' moaned ag'in, and we could hear the trees a-screetchin' together in the dark, and the leaves a-rustlin'; and when it kindo' lulled ag'in, we heerd Bills make a kindo' splash with the oars; and jist then Steve whispered fer to lay low and be ready--he was a-goin' to riconn'itre; and he took his coat and shoes off, and slid over the bank and down into the worter as slik as a' eel. Then ever'thing was still ag'in, 'cept the moanin' o' the child, which kep' a-gittin' louder and louder; and then a voice whispered to us, "He's a-comin' back; the crowd below has sent scouts up, and they're on t'other side. Now watch clos't, and he's our meat." We could hear Bills, by the moanin' o' the baby, a-comin' nearder and nearder, tel suddently he made a sorto' miss-lick with the oar, I reckon, and must a-splashed the baby, fer she set up a loud cryin'; and jist then old Ezry, who was a-leanin' over the bank, kindo' lost his grip, some way o' nother, and fell kersplash in the worter like a' old chunk. "Hello?" says Bills, through the dark, "you're there, too, air ye?" as old Ezry splashed up the bank ag'in. And "Cuss you!" he says then, to the baby--"ef it hadn't be'n fer your infernal squawkin' I'd a-be'n all right; but you've brought the whole neighberhood out, and, dam you, I'll jist let you swim out to 'em!" And we heerd a splash, then a kindo gurglin', and then Steve's voice a-hollerin', "Close in on him, boys; I've got the baby!" And about a dozent of us bobbed off the bank like so many bull-frogs, and I'll tell you the worter b'iled! We could jist make out the shape o' the boat, and Bills a-standin' with a' oar drawed back to smash the first head 'at come in range. It was a mean place to git at him. We knowed he was despert, and fer a minute we kindo' helt back. Fifteen foot o' worter's a mighty onhandy place to git hit over the head in! And Bills says, "You hain't afeard, I rickon--twenty men ag'in one!" "You'd better give yourse'f up!" hollered Ezry from the shore. "No, Brother Sturgiss," says Bills, "I can't say 'at I'm at all anxious 'bout bein' borned ag'in, jist yit awhile," he says; "I see you kindo' 'pear to go in fer baptism; guess you'd better go home and git some dry clothes on; and, speakin' o' home, you'd ort 'o be there by all means--your house might catch afire and burn up whilse you're gone!" And jist then the boat give a suddent shove under him--some feller'd div under and tilted it--and fer a minute it throwed him off his guard, and the boys closed in. Still he had the advantage, bein' in the boat: and as fast as a feller would climb in he'd git a whack o' the oar, tell finally they got to pilin' in a little too fast fer him to manage, and he hollered then at we'd have to come to the bottom ef we got him, and with that he div out o' the end o' the boat, and we lost sight of him; and I'll be blame ef he didn't give us the slip after all!

Wellsir, we watched fer him, and some o' the boys swum on down stream, expectin' he'd raise, but couldn't find hide ner hair of him; so we left the boat a-driftin' off down stream and swum ashore, a-thinkin' he'd jist drownded hisse'f a-purpose. But they was more su'prise waitin' fer us yit,--fer lo-and-behold-ye, when we got ashore they wasn't no trace o' Steve er the baby to be found. Ezry said he seed Steve when he fetched little Annie ashore, and she was all right, on'y she was purt-nigh past cryin'; and he said Steve had lapped his coat around her and give her to him to take charge of, and he got so excited over the fight he laid her down betwixt a couple o' logs and kindo' fergot about her tel the thing was over, and he went to look fer her, and she was gone. Couldn't a-be'n 'at she'd a-wundered off her-own-se'f; and it couldn't a-be'n 'at Steve'd take her, 'thout a-lettin' us know it. It was a mighty aggervatin' conclusion to come to, but we had to do it, and that was, Bills must a-got ashore unbeknownst to us and packed her off. Sich a thing wasn't hardly probable, yit it was a thing 'at might be; and after a-talkin' it over we had to admit 'at that must a-be'n the way of it. But where was Steve? W'y, we argied, he'd diskivvered she was gone, and had putt out on track of her 'thout losin' time to stop and explain the thing. The next question was, what did Bills want with her ag'in?--He'd tried to drownd her onc't. We could ast questions enough, but c'rect answers was mighty skearce, and we jist concluded 'at the best thing to do was to putt out fer the ford, fer that was the nighdest place Bills could cross 'thout a boat, and ef it was him tuk the child, he was still on our side o' the river, o' course. So we struck out fer the ford, a-leavin' a couple o' men to search up the river. A drizzlin' sorto' rain had set in by this time, and with that and the darkness and the moanin' of the wind, it made 'bout as lonesome a prospect as a feller ever wants to go through ag'in.

It was jist a-gittin' a little gray-like in the morning by the time we reached the ford, but you couldn't hardly see two rods afore you fer the mist and the fog 'at had settled along the river. We looked fer tracks, but couldn't make out nothin'. Thereckly old Ezry punched me and p'inted out acrost the river. "What's that?" he whispers. Jist 'bout half-way acrost was somepin' white-like in the worter--couldn't make out what--perfeckly still it was. And I whispered back and told him I guess it wasn't nothin' but a sycamore snag. "Listen!" says he; "sycamore snags don't make no noise like that!" And, shore enough, it was the same moanin' noise we'd heerd the baby makin' when we first got on the track. Sobbin' she was, as though nigh about dead. "Well, ef that's Bills," says I--"and I reckon they hain't no doubt but it is--what in the name o' all that's good and bad's the feller a-standin' there fer!" And a-creepin' clos'ter, we could make him out plainer and plainer. It was him; and there he stood breast-high in the worter, a-holdin' the baby on his shoulder like, and a-lookin' up stream, and a-waitin.'

"What do you make out of it?" says Ezry. "What's he waitin' fer?"

And, a-strainin' my eyes in the direction he was a-lookin', I seed somepin' a-movin' down the river, and a minute later I'd made out the old boat a-driftin' down stream; and then of course ever'thing was plain enough: He was waitin' fer the boat, and ef he got that he'd have the same advantage on us he had afore.

"Boys," says I, "he mustn't git that boat ag'in! Foller me, and don't let him git to the shore alive!" And in we plunged. He seed us, but he never budged, on'y to grab the baby by its little legs, and swing it out at arms-len'th. "Stop, there!" he hollered.--"Stop jist where ye air! Move another inch and I'll drownd this dam young-un afore yer eyes!" he says.--And he'd a-done it. "Boys," says I, "he's got us. Don't move! This thing'll have to rest with a higher power'n our'n! Ef any of you kin pray," says I, "now's a good time to do it!"

Jist then the boat swung up, and Bills grabbed it and retch 'round and set the baby in it, never a-takin' his eye off o' us, though, fer a minute. "Now," says he, with a sorto' snarlin' laugh, "I've on'y got a little while to stay with you, and I want to say a few words afore I go. I want to tell you fellers, in the first place, 'at you've be'n fooled in me: I hain't a good feller--now, honest! And ef you're a little the worse fer findin' it out so late in the day, you hain't none the worse fer losin' me so soon--fer I'm a-goin' away now, and any interference with my arrangements'll on'y give you more trouble; so it's better all around to let me go peaceable and jist while I'm in the notion. I expect it'll be a disapp'intment to some o' you that my name hain't 'Williams,' but it hain't. And maybe you won't think nigh as much o' me when I tell you furder 'at I was obleeged to 'dopt the name o' 'Williams' onc't to keep from bein' strung up to a lamp-post, but sich is the facts. I was so extremely unfortunit onc't as to kill a p'tickler friend o' mine, and he forgive me with his dyin' breath, and told me to run whilse I could, and be a better man. But he'd spotted me with a' ugly mark 'at made it kindo' onhandy to git away, but I did at last; and jist as I was a-gittin' reformed-like, you fellers had to kick in the traces, and I've made up my mind to hunt out a more moraler community, where they don't make sich a fuss about trifles. And havin' nothin' more to say, on'y to send Annie word 'at I'll still be a father to her young-un here, I'll bid you all good-bye." And with that he turned and clum in the boat--or ruther fell in,--fer somepin' black-like had riz up in it, with a' awful lick--my--God!--And, a minute later, boat and baggage was a-gratin' on the shore, and a crowd come thrashin' 'crost from t'other side to jine us,--and 'peared like wasn't a second longer tel a feller was a-swingin' by his neck to the limb of a scrub-oak, his feet clean off the ground and his legs a-jerkin' up and down like a limber-jack's.

And Steve it was a-layin' in the boat, and he'd rid a mil'd er more 'thout knowin' of it. Bills had struck and stunt him as he clum in whilse the rumpus was a-goin' on, and he'd on'y come to in time to hear Bills's farewell address to us there at the ford.

Steve tuk charge o' little Annie ag'in, and ef she'd a-be'n his own child he wouldn't a-went on more over her than he did; and said nobody but her mother would git her out o' his hands ag'in. And he was as good as his word; and ef you could a-seed him a half hour after that, when he did give her to her mother--all lapped up in his coat and as drippin' wet as a little drownded angel--it would a-made you wish't you was him to see that little woman a-caperin' round him, and a-thankin' him, and a-cryin' and a-laughin', and almost a-huggin' him, she was so tickled,--well, I thought in my soul she'd die! And Steve blushed like a girl to see her a-takin' on, and a-thankin' him, and a-cryin', and a-kissin' little Annie, and a-goin' on. And when she inquired 'bout Bills, which she did all suddent-like, with a burst o' tears, we jist didn't have the heart to tell her--on'y we said he'd crossed the river and got away. And he had!

And now comes a part o' this thing 'at'll more'n like tax you to believe it: Williams and her wasn't man and wife--and you needn't look su'prised, nuther, and I'll tell you fer why:--They was own brother and sister; and that brings me to her part of the story, which you'll haf to admit beats anything 'at you ever read about in books.

* * * * *

Her and Williams--that wasn't his name, like he acknowledged, hisse'f, you rickollect--ner she didn't want to tell his right name; and we forgive her fer that. Her and "Williams" was own brother and sister, and their parunts lived in Ohio some'ers. Their mother had be'n dead five year' and better--grieved to death over her onnachurl brother's recklessness, which Annie hinted had broke her father up in some way, in tryin' to shield him from the law. And the secret of her bein' with him was this: She had married a man o' the name of Curtis or Custer, I don't mind which, adzackly--but no matter; she'd married a well-to-do young feller 'at her brother helt a' old grudge ag'in, she never knowed what; and, sence her marriage, her brother had went on from bad to worse, tel finally her father jist give him up and told him to go it his own way--he'd killed his mother and ruined him, and he'd jist give up all hopes! But Annie--you know how a sister is--she still clung to him and done ever'thing fer him, tel finally, one night, about three years after she was married, she got word some way that he was in trouble ag'in, and sent her husband to he'p him; and a half hour after he'd gone, her brother come in, all excited and bloody, and told her to git the baby and come with him, 'at her husband had got in a quarrel with a friend o' his and was bad hurt. And she went with him, of course, and he tuk her in a buggy, and lit out with her as tight as he could go all night; and then told her 'at he was the feller 'at had quarrelled with her husband, and the officers was after him, and he was obleeged to leave the country, and fer fear he hadn't made shore work o' him, he was a-takin' her along to make shore of his gittin' his revenge; and he swore he'd kill her and the baby too ef she dared to whimper. And so it was, through a hunderd hardships he'd made his way at last to our section o' the country, givin' out 'at they was man and wife, and keepin' her from denyin' of it by threats, and promises of the time a-comin' when he'd send her home to her man ag'in in case he hadn't killed him. And so it run on tel you'd a-cried to hear her tell it, and still see her sister's love fer the feller a-breakin' out by a-declarin' how kind he was to her at times, and how he wasn't railly bad at heart, on'y fer his ungov'nable temper. But I couldn't he'p but notice, when she was a-tellin' of her hist'ry, what a quiet sorto' look o' satisfaction settled on the face o' Steve and the rest of 'em, don't you understand.

And now they was on'y one thing she wanted to ast, she said; and that was,--could she still make her home with us tel she could git word to her friends?--and there she broke down ag'in, not knowin', of course, whether they was dead er alive; fer time and time ag'in she said somepin' told her she'd never see her husband ag'in on this airth; and then the women-folks would cry with her and console her, and the boys would speak hopeful--all but Steve; some way o' nother Steve was never like hisse'f from that time on.

And so things went fer a month and better. Ever'thing had quieted down, and Ezry and a lot o' hands, and me and Steve amongst 'em, was a-workin' on the frame-work of another mill. It was purty weather, and we was all in good sperits, and it 'peared like the whole neighberhood interested--and they was, too--women-folks and ever'body. And that day Ezry's woman and amongst 'em was a-gittin' up a big dinner to fetch down to us from the house; and along about noon a spruce-lookin' young feller, with a pale face and a black beard, like, come a-ridin' by and hitched his hoss, and comin' into the crowd, said "Howdy," pleasant-like, and we all stopped work as he went on to say 'at he was on the track of a feller o' the name o' "Williams," and wanted to know ef we could give him any infermation 'bout sich a man. Told him maybe,--'at a feller bearin' that name desappeared kindo' myster'ous from our neighberhood 'bout five weeks afore that. "My God!" says he a-turnin' paler'n ever, "am I too late? Where did he go, and was his sister and her baby with him?" Jist then I ketched sight o' the women-folks a-comin' with the baskets, and Annie with 'em, with a jug o' worter in her hand; so I spoke up quick to the stranger, and says I, "I guess 'his sister and her baby' wasn't along," says I, "but his wife and baby's some'eres here in the neighberhood yit." And then a-watchin' him clos't, I says suddent, a-p'intin' over his shoulder, "There his woman is now--that one with the jug, there." Well, Annie had jist stooped to lift up one o' the little girls, when the feller turned, and their eyes met. "Annie! My wife!" he says; and Annie she kindo' give a little yelp like and come a-flutterin' down in his arms; and the jug o' worter rolled clean acrost the road, and turned a somerset and knocked the cob out of its mouth and jist laid back and hollered "Good--good--good--good--good!" like as ef it knowed what was up and was jist as glad and tickled as the rest of us.


(The end)
James Whitcomb Riley's short story: Old Settler's Story

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