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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Roof Tree - Chapter 26
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The Roof Tree - Chapter 26 Post by :snapperfr Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Neville Buck Date :May 2012 Read :2325

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The Roof Tree - Chapter 26

CHAPTER XXVI

The window panes were frost-rimed one night when Parish Thornton and Dorothy sat before the hearth of the main room. There was a lusty roar in the great chimney from a walnut backlog, for during these frosty days the husband and his hired man, Sim Squires, had climbed high into the mighty tree and sawed out the dead wood left there by years of stress and storm.

As it comforted them in summer heat with the grateful cool of its broad shadowing and the moisture gathered in its reservoirs of green, so it broke the lash and whip of stinging winds in winter, and even its stricken limbs sang a chimney song of cheer and warmth upon the hearth that pioneer hands had built in the long ago.

Through the warp and woof of life in this house went the influence of that living tree; not as a blind thing of inanimate existence but as a sentient spirit and a warder whose voices and moods they loved and reverenced--as a link that bound them to the past of the overland argonauts.

It stood as a monument to their dead and as the kindly patron over their lovemaking and their marriage. It had been stricken by the same storm that killed old Caleb and had served as the council hall where enmities had been resolved and peace proclaimed. Under its canopy the man had been hailed as a leader, and there the effort of an assassin had failed, because of the warning it had given.

And now these two were thinking of something else as well--of the new life which would come to that house in the spring, with its binding touch of home and unity. They were glad that their child would have its awakening there when the great branches were in bud or tenderly young of leaf--and that its eyes would open upon that broad spreading of filagreed canopy above the bedroom window, as upon the first of earthly sights.

"Ef hit's a man-child, he's goin' ter be named Ken," said the young woman in a low voice.

"But be hit boy or gal, one thing's shore. Hits middle name's a-goin' ter be T-R-E-E, tree. Dorothy Tree Thornton," mused Parish as his laugh rang low and clear and she echoed after him with amendment, "Kenneth Tree Thornton."

They sat silent together for a while seeing pictures in flame and coals. Then Dorothy broke the revery:

"Ye've done wore a face of brown study hyar of late, Cal," she said as her hand stole out and closed over his, "an' I knows full well what sober things ye've got ter ponder over--but air hit anything partic'lar or new?"

Parish Thornton shook his head with gravity and answered with candour:

"Hump and old Jim an' me've been spendin' a heap of thought on this matter of ther riders," he told her. "Hit's got ter be broke up afore hit gits too strong a holt--an' hit hain't no facile matter ter trace down a secret thing like thet."

After a little he went on: "An' we hain't made no master progress yit to'rds diskiverin' who shot at old Jim, nuther. Thet's been frettin' me consid'rable, too."

"War thet why ye rid over ter Jim's house yestidday?" she inquired, and Parish nodded his head.

"Me an' Sim Squires an' old Jim hisself war a-seekin' ter figger hit out--but we didn't git no light on ther matter." He paused so long after that and sat with so sober a face that Dorothy pressed him for the inwardness of his thoughts and the man spoke with embarrassment and haltingly.

"I lowed when we was married, honey, that all ther world I keered fer war made up of you an' me an' what hopes we've got. I was right sensibly affronted when men sought ter fo'ce me inter other matters then my own private business, but now----"

"Yes," she prompted softly. "An' now what?"

"Hit hain't thet ye're any less dear ter me, Dorothy. Hit's ruther thet ye're dearer ... but I kain't stand aside no more.... I kain't think of myself no more es a man thet jist b'longs ter hisself." Again he fell silent then laughed self-deprecatingly. "I sometimes 'lows thet what ye read me outen ther old book kinderly kindled some fret inside me.... Hit's es ef ther blood of ther old-timers was callin' out an' warnin' me thet I kain't suffer myself ter shirk ... or mebby hit's ther way old Hump and old Aaron talked."

"What is hit ye feels?" she urged, still softly, and the man came to his feet on the hearth.

"Hit's like es ef I b'longs ter these people. Not jist ter ther Harpers an' Thorntons but ter them an' ther Doanes alike.... 'Pears like them of both lots thet wants right-livin' hes a call on me ... that when old Caleb giv me his consent ter wed with ye, he give me a duty, too--a duty ter try an' weld things tergither thet's kep' breakin' apart heretofore."

Yet one member of the party that had gone to old Jim's had gained enlightenment even if he had held his counsel concerning his discovery.

The investigators had encountered little difficulty in computing just about where the rifleman had lain to shoot, but that had told them nothing at all of his identity. Yet as the three had stood on the spot where Bas Rowlett had crouched that day Sim's keen eye had detected a small object half buried in the earth and quietly he had covered it with his foot. Later, when the other two turned away, he stooped and picked up a rusty jack-knife--and he knew that knife had belonged to Bas Rowlett. Given that clue and attaching to it such other things as he already knew of Bas, it was not hard for Sim to construct a theory that, to his own mind at least, stood on all fours with probability.

So, when the mercenary reported to Rowlett what had occurred on that afternoon he omitted any mention of the knife, but much later he carelessly turned it over to its owner--and confirmed his suspicions.

"I diskivered hit layin' in ther highway," he said, innocently and Bas had looked at the corroded thing and had answered without suspicion, "Hit used ter be mine but hit hain't much use ter me now; I reckon I must hev drapped hit some time or other."

* * * * *

Bas Rowlett disappeared from his own neighbourhood for the period of ten days about that time. He said that he was going to Clay City to discuss a contract for a shipment of timber that should be rafted out on the next "spring-tide"; and in that statement he told the truth, as was evidenced by postcards he wrote back bearing the Clay City postmark.

But the feature of the visit which went unmentioned was that at the same time, and by prearrangement, Will Turk came from over in Virginia and met at the town where the log booms lie in the river the man whom he had never known before, but whose letter had interested him enough to warrant the journey and the interview.

Will Turk was a tall and loose-jointed man with a melancholy and almost ministerial face, enhanced in gravity by the jet-black hair that grew low on his forehead and the droop of long moustaches. In his own country the influence which he wielded was in effect a balance of power, and the candidate who aspired to public office did well to obtain Will Turk's view before he announced his candidacy. The judge who sat upon the bench made his rulings boldly only after consulting this overlord, but the matter which gave cause to the present meeting was the circumstance that Will Turk was a brother to John Turk, whom Parish Thornton was accused of killing.

"I 'lowed hit mout profit us both ter talk tergether," explained Rowlett when they had opportunity for discussion in confidence. "I'm ther man thet sent word ter ther state lawyer whar Ken Thornton war a-hidin' at."

"I'm right obleeged ter ye," answered Turk, noncommittally. "I reckon they've got a right strong case ergin him."

Bas Rowlett lighted his pipe.

"Ye knows more erbout thet then what I does," he said, shortly. "I heers he aims ter claim thet he shot in deefence of ther woman's life."

"He hain't got no proof," mused Turk, "an' feelin' runs right high ergin him. I'd mighty nigh confidence ther jury thet'll set in ther case ter convict."

Bas Rowlett drew in and puffed out a cloud of smoke. His eyes were meditative.

Here was a situation which called for delicate handling. The man whom he had called to conference was, by every reasonable presumption, one who shared an interest with him. His was the dogged spirit and energy that had refused to allow the Virginia authorities to give up the cold trail when Kenneth Thornton had supposedly slain his brother and escaped. His was the unalterable determination to hang that defendant for that act. Bas was no less eager to see his enemy permanently disposed of, yet the two met as strangers and each was cautious, wily, and given to the holding of his own counsel.

Rowlett understood that the processes of nominal law over in that strip of the Virginia mountains were tools which William Turk used at his pleasure, and he felt assured that in this instance no half-measures would satisfy him--but Bas himself had another proposition of alliance to offer, and he dared not broach it until he and this stranger could lay aside mutual suspicions and meet on the common ground of conspiracy. If there were any chance at all, however slight, that Parish Thornton could emerge, alive and free, from his predicament in court Rowlett wished to waylay and kill him on the journey home.

Over there where Thornton was known to have enemies, and where his own presence would not be logically suspected Bas believed he could carry out such a design and escape the penalty of having his confession published. This man Will Turk might also prefer such an outcome to the need of straining his command over the forms of law. If Parish could be hanged, Bas would be satisfied--but if he escaped he must not escape far.

"I'm right glad ter talk with ye," said the Virginian, slowly, "because comin' from over thar whar he's been dwelling at, ye kin kinderly give me facts thet ther Commonwealth would love ter know," and that utterance sounded the keynote of the attitude Turk meant to assume and hold.

Bas was disconcerted. This man took his stand solidly on his lawful interests as the presser of the prosecution, but declined to intimate any such savagery of spirit as cried out for vengeance, legal or illegal.

"Suppose he comes cl'ar over thar, atter all?" hazarded the Kentuckian, sparring to throw upon his companion the burden of making advances.

"I've done told ye I'm confi_dent he won't."

"Confi_dent hain't plum sartain. Ef thar's any slip-up, what then?"

Will Turk shrugged his shoulders and shook a grave head. He was sitting with the deeply meditative expression of one who views life and its problems with a sober sense of human responsibility, and the long fingertips of one hand rested against the tips of the other.

"I'd hate ter see any _dee_fault of jestice," he made response, "an' I don't believe any co'te could hardly err in a case like this one.... Ken Thornton war my brother-in-law an' him an' me loved one another--but ther man he kilt in cold blood war my own brother by blood--an' I loved him more. A crime like thet calls out louder fer punishment then one by a feller ye didn't hev no call ter trust--an' hit stirs a man's hate deeper down. I aims ter use all ther power I've got, an' spend every cent I've got, ef need be, ter see Ken Thornton hang." He paused and fixed the stranger with a searching interest. "I'm beholden ter ye fer givin' us ther facts thet led ter ketchin' him," he said. "War he an enemy of your'n, too?"

Rowlett frowned. The man was not only refusing to meet him halfway but was seeking to wring from him his own motives, yet the question was not one he could becomingly decline to answer, and if he answered at all, he must seem candid.

"Him an' me got ter be friends when he come thar," he said, deliberately. "Some enemy laywayed him an' I saved his life ... but he wedded ther gal I aimed ter marry ... an' then he tuck up false suspicions ergin me outen jealousy ... so long es he lives over thar, I kain't feel no true safety."

"Why hain't ye nuver dealt with him yoreself, then?" inquired Turk, and the other shook his head with an indulgent smile.

"Things hain't always as simple es they looks," he responded. "Matters air so shaped up, over thar in my neighbourhood, thet ef I had any fray with him, hit would bring on a feud war. I'm bounden in good conscience ter hold my hand, but I hain't got no sartainty he'll do ther like. Howsomever----" Bas rose and took up his hat, "I writ ter ye because I 'lowed a man ought ter aid ther law ef so be he could. Es fer my own perils, I hain't none terrified over 'em. I 'lowed I mout be able ter holp ye, thet's all."

"I'm obleeged ter ye," said Turk again, "ye've already holped me in givin' us ther word of his wh'arabouts. I reckon I don't need ter tax ye no further. I don't believe he'll ever come back ter pester nobody in Kaintuck ergin."

But both the Virginian and the Kentuckian had gathered more of meaning than had been put into words, and the impression was strong on Turk that the other wished to kill Parish in Virginia, if need be, because he dared not kill him in Kentucky. In that he had only an academic interest since he trusted his own agencies and plans, and some of them he had not divulged to Rowlett.

As he rose to take leave of his new acquaintance he said abstractedly:

"I'll keep ye posted erbout ther trial when co'te sots so thet afore hit eends up ye'll hev knowledge of what's happenin'--an' ef he _should chance ter come cla'r, ye'll know ahead of time when he's startin' back home. A man likes ter kinderly keep tabs on a feller he mistrusts."

And that was all Bas needed to be told.

One day during Rowlett's absence Parish met young Pete Doane tramping along the highway and drew him into conversation.

"Pete," he suggested, "I reckon ye appreciates ther fact thet yore pappy's a mouty oncommon sort of man, don't ye?"

The young mountaineer nodded his head, wondering a little at what the other was driving.

"Folks leans on him an' trusts him," went on Thornton, reflectively. "Hit ought ter be a matter of pride with ye, Pete, ter kinderly foller in his footsteps."

The son met the steady and searching gaze of his chance companion for only a moment before he shiftily looked away and, for no visible reason, flushed.

"He's a mighty good man--albeit a hard one," he made answer, "but some folk 'lows he's old-fashioned in his notions."

"Who 'lows thet, Pete--ther riders?"

Young Doane started violently, then recovered himself and laughed away his confusion.

"How'd I know what ther riders says?" he demanded. "We don't traffick with 'em none at our house."

But Parish Thornton continued to bore with his questioning eyes into the other face until Pete fidgeted. He drew a pipe from one pocket and tobacco crumbs from another, but the silent and inquisitorial scrutiny disconcerted him and he could feel a hot and tell-tale flush spreading on his face and neck.

Abruptly Parish Thornton admonished him in the quiet tone of decisiveness.

"Quit hit, Pete! Leave them riders alone an' don't mix up with 'em no more."

"I don't know what ye're talkin' erbout," disclaimed young Doane with peppery heat. "I hain't got no more ter do with them fellers then what ye hev yoreself. What license hev ye got ter make slurs like them erginst me, anyhow?"

"I didn't hev nothin' much ter go on, Pete," responded Thornton, mindful of his promise of secrecy to the unfortunate Jerry Black, "but ther way ye flushed up jest now an' twisted 'round when I named hit put ye in a kinderly bad light. Them men air right apt ter mislead young fellers thet hain't none too thoughted--an' hit's my business ter look inter affairs like thet. I'd hate ter hev yore pappy suspicion what _I suspicions erbout ye."

"Honest ter God," protested the boy, now thoroughly frightened, "I hain't nuver consorted with 'em none. I don't know nothin' erbout 'em--no more'n what idle tattle I heers goin' round in common talk."

"I hain't askin' ye whether ye've rid with 'em heretofore or not, Pete," the other man significantly reminded him. "I'm only askin' ye ter give me yore hand ye won't nuver do hit ergin. We're goin' ter bust up thet crowd an' penitenshery them thet leads 'em. I hate ter hev ye mixed up, when thet comes ter pass. Will ye give me yore hand?"

Readily the young member of the secret brotherhood pledged himself, and Parish, ignorant of how deeply he had become involved in the service of Bas Rowlett, thought of him only as young and easily led, and hoped that an ugly complication had been averted.

When Joe Bratton, the Kentucky sheriff, came to the house in the bend of the river to take his prisoner to the Virginia line, he announced himself and then, with a rude consideration, drew off.

"I'll ride ter ther elbow of ther road an' wait fer ye, Parish," he said, awkwardly. "I reckon ye wants ter bid yore wife farewell afore ye starts out."

Already those two had said such things as it is possible to say. They had maintained a brave pretence of taking brief leave of each other; as for a separation looking to a speedy and certain reuniting. They had stressed the argument that, when this time of ordeal had been relegated to the past, no cloud of fear would remain to darken their skies as they looked eastward and remembered that behind those misty ranges lay Virginia.

They had sought to beguile themselves--each for the sake of the other--with all the tricks and chimeras of optimism, but that was only the masquerade of the clown who laughs while his heart is sick and under whose toy-bright paint is the gray pallor of despair.

That court and that jury over there would follow no doubtful course. Its verdict of guilty might as well have been signed in advance, and, while the girl smiled at her husband, it seemed to her that she could hear the voice of the condemning judge, inquiring whether the accused had "aught to say why sentence should not now be pronounced" upon him.

For, barring some miracle of fate, the end of that journey lay, and in their hearts they knew it with a sickness of certainty, at the steps of the gallows. The formalities that intervened were little more than the mummeries of an empty formula with which certain men cloaked the spirit of a mob violence they were strong enough to wreak.

Parish Thornton halted at the stile, and his eyes went back lingeringly to the weathered front of the house and to the great tree that made a wide and venerable roof above the other roof. The woman knew that her husband was printing a beloved image on his heart which he might recall and hold before him when he could never again look upon it. She knew that in that farewell gaze and in the later, more loving one which he turned upon her own face, he was storing up the vision he wanted to keep with him even when the hangman's cap had shut out every other earthly picture--when he stood during the seconds that must for him be ages, waiting.

Then the hills reeled and spun before Dorothy Thornton's eyes as giddily as did the fallen leaves which the morning air caught up in little whirlwinds. Their counterfeit of cheer and factitious courage stood nakedly exposed to both of them, and the man's smile faded as though it were too flippant for such a moment.

Dorothy caught his hand suddenly in hers and led him back into the yard where the roots of the tree spread like star points which had their ends under the soil and deep in the rock of which those mountains were built.

"Kneel down, Cal," she whispered, chokingly, and when they had dropped side by side to postures of prayer, her voice came back to her.

"Lord God of Heaven an' y'arth," trembled the words on her bloodless lips, "he hain't goin' so fur away but what Yore power still goes with him ... keep him safe. Good Lord ... an' send him back ter me ergin ... watch over him thar amongst his enemies ... Amen."

They rose after their prayer, and stood for a little while with their hearts beating close in a final embrace, then Dorothy took out of her apron pocket a small object and handed it to him.

"I nigh fergot ter give hit ter ye," she said, "mebby hit'll prove a lucky piece over thar, Cal."

It was the small basket which he had carved with such neat and cunning workmanship from the hard shell of a black walnut ... a trinket for a countryman's watch chain--and intrinsically worthless.

"Hit's almost like takin' ther old tree along with ye," she faltered with a forced note of cheer, "an' ther old tree hain't nuver failed us yit."

Joe Bratton and his prisoner rode with little speech between them until they came to those creek bottom roads that crossed at Jake Crabbott's store, and there they found awaiting them, like a squad of cavalry, some eight or ten men who sat with rifles across the bows of their saddles.

Aaron Capper and Hump Doane were there in the van, and they rode as an escort of friends.

When their long journey over ridge and forest, through gorge and defile, came to its end at the border, the waiting deputation from Virginia recognized what it was intended to recognize. East of the state line this man might travel under strict surveillance, but thus far he had come with a guard of honour--and that guard could, and would, come further if the need arose.

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