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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Roof Tree - Chapter 11
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The Roof Tree - Chapter 11 Post by :Trey_Brister Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Neville Buck Date :May 2012 Read :1136

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The Roof Tree - Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

The room that Dorothy Harper had given over to the wounded man looked off to the front, across valley slope and river--commanding the whole peak and sky-limited picture at whose foreground centre stood the walnut tree.

Uncle Jase came often and as yet he had been able to offer no greater assurance than a doubtful shake of the head. Bas Rowlett, too, never let a day pass without his broad shadow across the door, and his voice sounding in solicitous inquiry. But Dorothy had assumed an autocracy in the sick room which allowed no deviations from its decree of uninterrupted rest, and the plotter, approaching behind his mask of friendship, never found himself alone with the wounded man.

Between long periods of fevered coma Cal Maggard opened his eyes weakly and had strength only to smile up at the face above him with its nimbus of bronze set about the heaviness of dark hair--or to spend his scarcely audible words with miserly economy.

Yet as he drifted in the shadowy reaches that lie between life and death it is doubtful whether he suffered. The glow of fever through his drowsiness was rather a grateful warmth, blunted of all responsible thinking, than a recognized affliction, and the realization of the presence near him enveloped him with a languorous contentment.

The sick man could turn his head on his pillow and gaze upward into cool and deep recesses of green where the sun shifted and sifted golden patches of light, and where through branch and twig the stir of summer crooned a restful lullaby. Often a squirrel on a low limb clasped its forepaws on a burgher-fat stomach, and gazed impudently down, chattering excitedly at the invalid. From its hanging nest, with brilliant flashes of orange and jet, a Baltimore oriole came and went about its housekeeping affairs.

As half-consciously and dreamily he gazed up, between sleeping and waking, the life of the tree became for him that of a world in miniature.

But when he heard the door guardedly open and close, he would turn his gaze from that direction as from a minor to a major delight--for then he knew that on the other side of the bed would be the face of Dorothy Harper. "Right smart's goin' ter _dee_pend on how hard he fights hisself," Uncle Jase told Dorothy one day as he took up his hat and saddle-bags. "I reckon ef he feels sartin he's got enough ter live fer--he kin kinderly holp nature along right lavish."

That same day Maggard opened his eyes while the girl was sitting by his bedside.

His smile was less dazzling out of a thin, white face, than it had been through the tan of health, but such as it was he flashed it on her gallantly.

"I don't hone fer nothin' else ter look at--when you're hyar," he assured her. "But when you _hain't hyar I loves ter look at ther old tree."

"Ther old tree," she replied after him, half guiltily; "I've been so worrited, I'd nigh fergot hit."

His smile altered to a steady-eyed seriousness in which, too, she recognized the intangible quality that made him seem to her different from all the other men she had known.

He had been born and lived much as had the men about him. He had been chained to the same hard and dour materialism as they, yet for him life had another essence and dimension, because he had been born with a soul capable of dreams.

"Thet fust night--when I lay a-waitin' fer ye ter come back--an' misdoubtin' whether I'd last thet long," he told her almost under his breath, "seemed like ter me thet old tree war kinderly a-safeguardin' me."

She bent closer and her lips trembled.

"Mebby hit did safeguard ye, Cal," she whispered. "But I prayed fer ye thet night--I prayed hard fer ye."

The man closed his eyes and his features grew deeply sober.

"I'd love ter know ther pint-blank truth," he said next. "Am I a-goin' ter live or die?"

She struggled with the catch in her breath and hesitated so long with her hands clenched convulsively together in her lap that he, still lying with lids closed, construed her reticence into a death sentence and spoke again himself.

"Afore I come over hyar," he said, quietly, "I reckon hit wouldn't hev made no great differ ter me nuther way."

"Ye've got a chanst, Cal, and Uncle Jase 'lows," she bent closer and now she could command her voice, "thet ef ye wills ter live ... survigrous strong enough--yore chanst is a better one ... then ef ye ... jist don't keer."

His eyes opened and his lips smiled dubiously.

"I sometimes lays hyar wonderin' whether I truly does keer or not."

"What does ye mean, Cal?"

He paused and lay breathing as though hardly ready to face so vital an issue, then he explained:

"Ye said ye wasn't mad with me ... thet night ... under ther tree ... but yit ye said, too ... hit war all a sort of dream ... like es ef ye warn't plum shore."

"Yes, Cal?"

"Since then ye've jest kinderly pitied me, I reckon ... an' been plum charitable.... I've got ter know.... War ye mad at me when ye pondered hit in ther daylight ... stid of ther moonshine?"

The girl's pale face flushed to a laurel-blossom pink and her voice was a ghost whisper.

"I hain't nuver been mad with ye, Cal."

"Could ye--" he halted and spoke in a tense undernote of hope that hardly dared voice itself--"could ye bend down ter me an' kiss me ... ergin?"

She could and did.

Then with her young arms under his head and her own head bowed until her lips pressed his, the dry-eyed, heart-cramping suspense of these anxious days broke in a freshet of unrestrained tears.

She had not been able to cry before, but now the tears came flooding and they brought such a balm as comes with rain to a parched and thirsting garden.

For a space the silence held save for the tempest of sobs that were not unhappy and that gradually subsided, but after a little the rapt happiness on the man's face became clouded under a thought that carried a heavy burden of anxiety and he seemed groping for words that were needed for some dreaded confession.

"When a man fust falls in love," he said, "he hain't got time ter think of nuthin' else ... then all ther balance of matters comes back ... an' needs ter be fronted. Thar's things I've got ter tell ye, Dorothy."

"What matters air them, Cal? I hain't thought of nuthin' else yit."

"Ye didn't know nuthin' erbout me when I come hyar ... ye jest tuck me on faith, I reckon...."

He halted abruptly there, and his face became drawn into deep lines. Then he continued dully: "When I crossed over ther Virginny line ... a posse was atter me--they sought ter hang me over thar ... fer murder."

He felt her fingers tighten over his in spasmodic incredulity and saw the stunned look in her eyes, but she only said steadily, "Go on ... I knows ye _hed ter do hit. Tell me ther facts."

He sketched for her the grim narrative of that brief drama in the log cabin beyond the river and of the guilt he had assumed. He told it with many needful pauses for breath, but refused to stop until the story had reached its conclusion, and as she listened, the girl's face mirrored many emotions, but the first unguarded shock of horror melted entirely away and did not return.

"Ef ye'd acted any other fashion," came her prompt and spirited declaration when the recital reached its end, "I couldn't nuther love ye ner esteem ye. Ye tuck blame on yoreself ter save a woman."

For a time she sat there gazing out through the window, her thoughts busy with the grim game in which this man whom she loved had been so desperately involved. She knew that he had spoken the whole truth ... but she knew, too, that over them both must hang the unending shadow of a threat, and after a little she acknowledged that realization as she said with a new note of determination in her voice:

"Thar hain't no p'int in our waitin' over-long ter be wedded. Folks thet faces perils like we does air right wise ter git what they kin outen life--whilst they kin."

"We kain't be wedded none too soon fer me," he declared with fervour. "Albeit yore grandpap's got ter be won over fust. He's right steadfast to Bas Rowlett, I reckon."

As anxiously as Dorothy followed the rise and fall in the tide of her lover's strength it is doubtful if her anxiety was keener than that of Bas Rowlett, who began to feel that he had been cheated.

Unless something unforeseen altered the trend of his improvement, Cal Maggard would recover. He would not keep his oath to avenge his way-laying before the next full moon because it would require other weeks to restore his whole strength and give back to him the use of his gun hand, but the essential fact remained that he would not die.

Bas had entered into a compact based upon his belief that the other _would die--a compact which as the days passed became a thing concrete enough and actual enough to take reckoning of.

Of course Bas meant to kill his enemy. As matters now stood he must kill him--but he would only enhance his own peril by seeking to forestall the day when his agreement left him free to act.

So Bas still came to inquire with the solicitude of seeming friendship, but outside that house he was busy breathing life into a scheme of broad and parlous scope, and in all but a literal sense that scheme was a violation of his oath-bound compact.

It was when Cal sat propped against pillows in a rocking chair, with his right arm in a splint, and old Caleb smoked his pipe on the other side of the window, that Dorothy suddenly went over and standing by Maggard, laid her arm across his shoulders.

"Gran'pap," she said with a steadiness that hid its underlying trepidation, "Cal an' me aims ter wed ... an' we seeks yore blessin'."

The old mountaineer sat up as though an explosion had shaken him out of his drowsy complacency. The pipe that he held in his thin old fingers dropped to the floor and spilled its ashes unnoted.

He gazed at them with the amazement of one who has been sitting blindly by while unseen forces have had birth and growth at his elbow.

"Wed?" he exclaimed at last in an injured voice. "Why, I hedn't nuver suspicioned hit was nuthin' but jest plain charity fer a stranger thet hed suffered a sore hurt."

"Hit's been more then thet sence ther fust time we seed one another," declared the girl, and the old man shifted his gaze, altered its temper, too, from bewilderment to indignation, and sat with eyes demanding explanation of the man who had been sheltered and tended under his roof.

"Does ye aim ter let ther gal do all ther talkin'?" he demanded. "Hain't ye got qualities enough ter so much as say 'by yore leave' fer yoreself?"

Cal Maggard met his accusation steadily as he answered:

"Dorothy 'lowed she wanted ter tell ye fust-off her ownself. Thet's why I hain't spoke afore now."

The wrath of surprise died as quickly as it had flared and the old man sat for a time with a far-away look on his face, then he rose and stood before them.

He seemed very old, and his kindly features held the venerable gravity and inherent dignity of those faces that look out from the frieze of the prophets. He paused long to weigh his words in exact justice before he began to speak, and when the words at last came they were sober and patient.

"I hain't hed nobody ter spend my love on but jest thet leetle gal fer a lengthy time ... an' I reckon she hain't a-goin' ter go on hevin' me fer no great spell longer.... I'm gittin' old."

Caleb looked infirm and lonely as he spoke. He had struggled through his lifetime for a realization of standards that he vaguely felt to be a bequest of honour from God-fearing and self-respecting ancestors--and in that struggle there had been a certain penalty of aloofness in an environment where few standards held. The children born to his granddaughter and the man she chose as her mate must either carry on his fight for principle or let it fall like an unsupported standard into the mouldy level of decay.

These things were easy to feel, hard to explain, and as he stood inarticulate the girl rose from her knees and went over to him, and his arm slipped about her waist.

"I hain't nuver sought ter fo'ce no woman's will," he said at last and his words fell with slow stress of earnestness. "But I'd always sort of seed in my own mind a fam'ly hyar--with another man ter tek my place at hits head when I war dead an' gone. I'd always thought of Bas Rowlett in that guise. He's a man thet's done been, in a manner of speakin', like a son ter me."

"Bas Rowlett----" began Dorothy but the old man lifted a hand in command for silence. "Let me git through fust," he interrupted her. "Then ye kin hev yore say. Thar's two reasons why I'd favoured Bas. One of them was because he's a sober young man thet's got things hung up." There he paused, and the quaint phrase he had employed to express prosperity and thrift summed up his one argument for materialistic considerations.

"Thet's jest one reason," went on Caleb Harper, soberly, "an' save fer statin' hit es I goes along I hain't got nuthin' more ter say erbout hit--albeit hit seems ter me a right pithy matter fer young folks ter study erbout. I don't jedgmatically know nothin' erbout _yore affairs," he nodded his head toward Maggard. "So fur's I've got any means ter tell, ye mout be independent rich or ye mout not hev nothin' only ther shirt an' pants ye sots thar in ... but thet kin go by, too. Ef my gal kain't be content withouten ye, she kin sheer with ye ... an' I aims ter leave her a good farm without no debt on hit."

The girl had been standing silent and attentive while he talked, but the clear and delicate modelling of her face had changed under the resolute quality of her expression until now it typified a will as unbreakable as his own.

Her chin was high and her eyes full of lightnings, held back yet ready to break, if need be, into battle fires.

Now her voice came in that low restraint in which ultimatums are spoken.

"Whatever ye leaves me in land an' money hain't nuthin' ter me--ef I kain't love ther man I weds with. An' whilst I seeks ter be dutiful--thar hain't no power under heaven kin fo'ce me ter wed with no other!"

The old man seemed hardly to hear the interruption as he paused, while in his eyes ancient fires seemed to be awakening, and as he spoke from that point on those fires burned to a zealot's fervour.

"Nuther one of ye don't remember back ter them days when ther curse of ther Harper-Doane war lay in a blood pestilence over these hyar hills ... but I remembers hit. In them sorry times folks war hurtin' fer vittles ter keep life in thar bodies ... yit no man warn't safe workin' out in his open field. I tells ye death was ther only Lord thet folks bowed down ter in them days ... and ther woman thet saw her man go forth from ther door didn't hev no confident assurance she'd ever see him come back home alive. My son Caleb--Dorothy's daddy--went out with a lantern one night when ther dogs barked ... and we fotched him in dead."

He paused, and seemed to be looking through the walls and hills to things that lay buried.

"Them few men thet cried out fer peace an' law-abidin' war scoffed at an' belittled.... Them of us that preached erginst bloodshed was cussed an' damned. Then come ther battle at Claytown ter cap hit off with more blood-lettin'.

"One of ther vi'lent leaders war shot ter death--an' t'other one agreed ter go away an' give ther country a chanst ter draw a free breath in peace onc't more."

Again he fell silent, and when after a long pause he had not begun again Dorothy restively inquired: "What's thet got ter do with me an Bas Rowlett, Gran'pap?"

"I'm a-comin' ter thet ... atter thet pitch-battle folks began turnin' ter them they'd been laughin' ter scorn ... they come an' begged me ter head ther Thorntons an' ther Harpers. They went similar ter Jim Rowlett an' besaught him ter do ther like fer ther Rowletts an' ther Doanes. They knowed that despite all ther bad blood an' hatefulness me an' Jim was friends an' thet more then we loved our own kin an' our own blood, we loved peace fer every man ... us two!"

Cal Maggard was watching the fine old face--the face out of which life's hardship and crudity had not quenched the majesty of unassuming steadfastness.

"An' since we ondertook ter make ther truce and ter hold it unbroke, hit's done stood unbroke!" The old man's voice rang suddenly through the room.

"An' thet's been nigh on ter twenty ya'rs ... but Jim's old an' I'm old ... an' afore long we'll both be gone ... an' nuther one ner t'other of us hain't sich fools es not ter know what we've been holdin' down.... Nuther one ner t'other of us don't beguile hisself with ther notion thet all them old hates air dead ... or thet ef wild-talkin', loose-mouthed men gains a hearin' ... they won't flare up afresh."

He went over to the place where his pipe had fallen and picked it up and refilled it, and when he fell silent it seemed as though there had come a sudden stillness after thunder.

Then in a quieter tone he went on once more:

"Old Jim hain't got no boy ter foller him, but he confidences Bas. I hain't got no son nuther but I confidences my gal. Ther two of us hev always 'lowed thet ef we could see them wedded afore we lays down an' dies, we'd come mighty nigh seein' ther old breach healed--an' ther old hates buried. Them two clans would git tergither then--an' thar'd jest be one peaceful fam'ly 'stid of two crowds of hateful enemies."

Dorothy had hardly moved since she had spoken last. During her grandfather's zealous pronouncement her slender uprightness had remained statue-like and motionless, but in her deep eyes all the powerful life forces that until lately had slept dormant now surged into their new consciousness and invincible self-assertion.

Now the head crowned with its masses of dark hair was as high as that of some barbaric princess who listens while her marriage value is appraised by ambassadors, and the eyes were full of fire too steadily intense for flickering. The arch of her bosom only revealed in movement the palpitant emotion that swayed her, with its quick rise and fall, but her voice held the bated quiet of a tempest at the point of breaking.

"I'd hate ter hev anybody think I wasn't full loyal ter my kith an' kin. I'd hate ter fail my own people--but I hain't no man's woman ter be bartered off ner give away." She paused, and in the long-escaping breath from her lips came an unmistakable note of scorn.

"Ye talks of healin' a breach, Gran'pap, but ye kain't heal no breach by tyin' a woman up ter a man she kain't never love. Thar'd be a breach right hyar under this roof ter start with from ther commencement." That much she had been able to say as a preface in acknowledgment of the old man's sincerity of purpose, but now her voice rang with the thrill of personal liberty and its deeper claim. Her beauty grew suddenly gorgeous with the surge of colour to her cheeks and the flaming of her eyes. She stood the woman spirit incarnate, which can at need be also the tigress spirit, asserting her home-making privilege, and ready to do battle for it.

"Fam'ly means a man an' a woman--an' children," she declared, "an' ther man thet fathers my babies hes need ter be ther man I _loves_!"

Caleb inclined his head. He had spoken, and now as one closes a book he dismissed the matter with a gesture.

"I've done give ye my reasons," he said, "but I hain't nuver sought ter fo'ce no woman, an' hit's too late ter start. Ther two of ye sets thar like a jury thet's done heered ther argyment. My plan wouldn't be feasible nohow onlessen yore heart war in hit, Dorothy, an' I sees es plain as day whar yore heart's at. So I reckon I kin give ye my blessin' ef ye're plum shore ye hain't makin' no error."

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CHAPTER XIIThe old man struck a match and held it to his pipe and then as he turned to leave the room Maggard halted him. "I kain't suffer ye ter go away without I tells ye suthin'," he said, "an' I fears me sorely when ye hears hit ye're right like ter withhold yore blessin' atter all." The patriarch wheeled and stood listening, and Dorothy, too, caught her breath anxiously as the young man confessed. For a time old Caleb stood stonily immovable while the story, which the girl had already heard, had its second telling. But as the narration progressed
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CHAPTER XThrough the rest of that night Old Jase lay on a pallet spread before the fire, rising at intervals out of a deathlike slumber to slip his single suspender strap over his bent shoulder, turn up the lantern, and inspect his patient's condition. On none of these occasions did he find the girl, who spent that night in a straight-backed chair at the bedside, asleep. Always she was sitting there with eyes wide and brimming with suffering and fear, and a wakeful, troubled heart into which love had flashed like a meteor and which it threatened, now, to sear like
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