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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Hoosier Schoolmaster: A Story Of Backwoods Life In Indiana - Chapter 6. A Night At Pete Jones's
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The Hoosier Schoolmaster: A Story Of Backwoods Life In Indiana - Chapter 6. A Night At Pete Jones's Post by :WhoDoesItReach Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Eggleston Date :May 2012 Read :1725

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The Hoosier Schoolmaster: A Story Of Backwoods Life In Indiana - Chapter 6. A Night At Pete Jones's

CHAPTER VI. A NIGHT AT PETE JONES'S

When Ralph got to Pete Jones's he found that sinister-looking individual in the act of kicking one of his many dogs out of the house.

"Come in, stranger, come in. You'll find this 'ere house full of brats, but I guess you kin kick your way around among 'em. Take a cheer. Here, git out! go to thunder with you!" And with these mild imperatives he boxed one of his boys over in one direction and one of his girls over in the other. "I believe in trainin' up children to mind when they're spoke to," he said to Ralph apologetically. But it seemed to the teacher that he wanted them to mind just a little before they were spoken to.

"P'raps you'd like a bed. Well, jest climb up the ladder on the outside of the house. Takes up a thunderin' sight of room to have a stairs inside, and we ha'n't got no room to spare. You'll find a bed in the furdest corner. My Pete's already got half of it, and you can take t'other half. Ef Pete goes to takin' his half in the middle, and tryin' to make you take yourn on both sides, jest kick him."

In this comfortless bed "in the furdest corner," Ralph found sleep out of the question. Pete took three-fourths of the bed, and Hannah took all of his thoughts. So he lay, and looked out through the cracks in the "clapboards" (as they call rough shingles in the old West) at the stars. For the clouds had now broken away. And he lay thus recounting to himself, as a miser counts the pieces that compose his hoard, every step of that road from the time he had overtaken Hannah in the hollow to the fence. Then he imagined again the pleasure of helping her over, and then he retraced the ground to the box-elder tree at the spring, and repeated to himself the conversation until he came to the part in which she said that only time and God could help her. What did she mean? What was the hidden part of her life? What was the connection between her and Shocky?

Hours wore on, and still the mind of Ralph Hartsook went back and traveled the same road, over the fence, past the box-elder, up to the inexplicable part of the conversation, and stood bewildered with the same puzzling questions about the bound girl's life.

At last he got up, drew on his clothes, and sat down on the top of the ladder, looking down over the blue-grass pasture which lay on the border between the land of Jones and the land of Means. The earth was white with moonlight. He could not sleep. Why not walk? It might enable him to sleep. And once determined on walking, he did not hesitate a moment as to the direction in which he should walk. The blue-grass pasture (was it not like unto the garden of Eden?) lay right before him. That box-elder stood just in sight. To spring over the fence and take the path down the hill and over the brook was as quickly done as decided upon. To stand again under the box-elder, to climb again over the farther fence, and to walk down the road toward the school-house was so easy and so delightful that it was done without thought. For Ralph was an eager man--when he saw no wrong in anything that proposed itself, he was wont to follow his impulse without deliberation. And this keeping company with the stars, and the memory of a delightful walk, were so much better than the commonplace Flat Creek life that he threw himself into his night excursion with enthusiasm.

At last he stood in the little hollow where he had joined Hannah. It was the very spot at which Shocky, too, had met him a few mornings before. He leaned against the fence and tried again to solve the puzzle of Hannah's troubles. For that she had troubles he did not doubt. Neither did he doubt that he could help her if he could discover what they were. But he had no clue. In the midst of This meditations he heard the thud of horses' hoofs coming down the road. Until that moment he had not felt his own loneliness. He shrank back into the fence-corner. The horsemen were galloping. There were three of them, and there was one figure that seemed familiar to Ralph. But he could not tell who it was. Neither could he remember having seen the horse, which was a sorrel with a white left forefoot and a white nose. The men noticed him and reined up a little. Why he should have been startled by the presence of these men he could not tell, but an indefinable dread seized him. They galloped on, and he stood still shivering with a nervous fear. The cold seemed to have got into his bones. He remembered that the region lying on Flat Creek and Clifty Creek had the reputation of being infested with thieves, who practiced horse-stealing and house-breaking. For ever since the day when Murrell's confederate bands were paralyzed by the death of their leader, there have still existed gangs of desperadoes in parts of Southern Indiana and Illinois, and in Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, and the Southwest. It is out of these materials that border ruffianism has grown, and the nine members of the Reno band who were hanged two or three years ago by lynch law(17), were remains of the bad blood that came into the West in the days of Daniel Boone. Shall I not say that these bands of desperadoes still found among the "poor whitey, dirt-eater" class are the outcroppings of the bad blood sent from England in convict-ships? Ought an old country to sow the fertile soil of a colony with such noxious seed?

Before Ralph was able to move, he heard the hoofs of another horse striking upon the hard ground in an easy pace. The rider was Dr. Small. He checked his horse in a cool way, and stood still a few seconds while he scrutinized Ralph. Then he rode on, keeping the same easy gait as before, Ralph had a superstitious horror of Henry Small. And, shuddering with cold, he crept like a thief over the fence, past the tree, through the pasture, back to Pete Jones's, never once thinking of the eyes that looked out of the window at Means's. Climbing the ladder, he got into bed, and shook as with the ague. He tried to reason himself out of the foolish terror that possessed him, but he could not.

Half an hour later he heard a latch raised. Were the robbers breaking into the house below? He heard a soft tread upon the floor. Should he rise and give the alarm? Something restrained him. He reflected that a robber would be sure to stumble over some of the "brats." So he lay still and finally slumbered, only awakening when the place in which he slept was full of the smoke of frying grease from the room below.

At breakfast Pete Jones scowled. He was evidently angry about something. He treated Ralph with a rudeness not to be overlooked, as if he intended to bring on a quarrel. Hartsook kept cool, and wished he could drive from his mind all memory of the past night. Why should men on horseback have any significance to him? He was trying to regard things in this way, and from a general desire to keep on good terms with his host he went to the stable to offer his services in helping to feed the stock.

"Don't want no saft-handed help!" was all he got in return for his well-meant offer. But just as he turned to leave the stable he saw what made him tremble again. There was the same sorrel horse with a white left forefoot and a white nose.

To shake off his nervousness, Ralph started to school before the time. But, plague upon plagues! Mirandy Means, who had seen him leave Pete Jones's, started just in time to join him where he came into the big road. Ralph was not in a good humor after his wakeful night, and to be thus dogged by Mirandy did not help the matter. So he found himself speaking crabbedly to the daughter of the leading trustee, in spite of himself.

"Hanner's got a bad cold this mornin' from bein' out last night, and she can't come to spellin'-school to-night," began Mirandy, in her most simpering voice.

Ralph had forgotten that there was to be another spelling-school. It seemed to him an age since the orthographical conflict of the past night. This remark of Mirandy's fell upon his ear like an echo from the distant past. He had lived a lifetime since, and was not sure that he was the same man who was spelling for dear life against Jim Phillips twelve hours before. But he was sorry to hear that Hannah had a cold. It seemed to him, in his depressed state, that he was to blame for it. In fact, it seemed to him that he was to blame for a good many things. He seemed to have been committing sins in spite of himself. Broken nerves and sleepless nights often result in a morbid conscience. And what business had he to wander over this very road at two o'clock in the morning, and to see three galloping horsemen, one of them on a horse with a white left forefoot and a white nose? What business had he watching Dr. Small as he went home from the bedside of a dying patient near daylight in the morning? And because he felt guilty he felt cross with Mirandy, and to her remark about Hannah he only replied that "Hannah was a smart girl."

"Yes," said Mirandy, "Bud thinks so."

"Does he?" said Ralph.

"I should say so. What's him and her been a-courtin' fer for a year ef he didn't think she was smart? Marm don't like it; but ef Bud and her does, and they seem to, I don't see as it's marm's lookout."

When one is wretched, there is a pleasure in being entirely wretched. Ralph felt that he must have committed some unknown crime, and that some Nemesis was following him. Was Hannah deceitful? At least, if she were not, he felt sure that he could supplant Bud. But what right had he to supplant Bud?

"Did you hear the news?" cried Shocky, running out to meet him. "The Dutchman's house was robbed last night."

Ralph thought of the three men on horseback, and to save his life he could not help associating Dr. Small with them. And then he remembered the sorrel horse with the left forefoot and muzzle white, and he recalled the sound he had heard as of the lifting of a latch. And it really seemed to him that in knowing what he did he was in some sense guilty of the robbery.

FOOTNOTES:

(Footnote 17: Written in 1871.)

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