Down the Ravine by Charles Egbert Craddock
(Mary Noailles Murfree)
The new moon, a gleaming scimitar, cleft the gauzy mists above a rugged
spur of the Cumberland Mountains. The sky, still crimson and amber,
stretched vast and lonely above the vast and lonely landscape. A fox was
barking in the laurel.
This was an imprudent proceeding on the part of the fox, considering
the value of his head-gear. A young mountaineer down the ravine was
reminded, by the sharp, abrupt sound, of a premium offered by the State
of Tennessee for the scalp and ears of the pestiferous red fox.
All unconscious of the legislation of extermination, the animal sped
nimbly along the ledge of a cliff, becoming visible from the ravine
below, a tawny streak against the gray rock. Swift though he was, a jet
of red light flashing out in the dusk was yet swifter. The echoing crags
clamored with the report of a rifle. The tawny streak was suddenly
still. Three boys appeared in the depths of the ravine and looked
"Thar now! Ye can't git him off'n that thar ledge, Birt," said Tim
Griggs. "The contrairy beastis couldn't hev fund a more ill-convenient
spot ter die of he hed sarched the mounting."
"I ain't goin' ter leave him thar, though," stoutly declared the boy
who still held the rifle. "That thar fox's scalp an' his two ears air
wuth one whole dollar."
Tim remonstrated. "Look-a-hyar, Birt; ef ye try ter climb up this
hyar bluff, ye'll git yer neck bruk, sure."
Birt Dicey looked up critically. It was a rugged ascent of forty feet
or more to the narrow ledge where the red fox lay. Although the face of
the cliff was jagged, the rock greatly splintered and fissured, with many
ledges, and here and there a tuft of weeds or a stunted bush growing in a
niche, it was very steep, and would afford precarious foothold. The
sunset was fading. The uncertain light would multiply the dangers of the
attempt. But to leave a dollar lying there on the fox's head, that the
wolf and the buzzard might dine expensively to-morrow!
"An' me so tried for money!" he exclaimed, thinking aloud.
Nate Griggs, who had not before spoken, gave a sudden laugh,—a
dry, jeering laugh.
"Ef all the foxes on the mounting war ter hold a pertracted meet'n,
jes' ter pleasure you-uns, thar wouldn't be enough scalps an' ears
'mongst 'em ter make up the money ye hanker fur ter buy a horse."
To buy a horse was the height of Birt's ambition. His mother was a
widow; and as an instance of the fact that misfortunes seldom come
singly, the horse on which the family depended to till their scanty acres
died shortly after his owner. And so, whenever the spring opened and the
ploughs all over the countryside were starting, their one chance to
cultivate a crop was to hire a mule from their nearest neighbor, the
tanner. Birt was the eldest son, and his mother had only his work to
offer in payment. The proposition always took the tanner in what he
called a "jubious time." Spring is the season for stripping the trees of
their bark, which is richer in tannin when the sap flows most freely, and
the mule was needed to haul up the piles of bark from out the depths of
the woods to the tanyard. Then, too, Jubal Perkins had his own crops to
put in. As he often remarked in the course of the negotiation, "I don't
eat tan bark—nor yit raw hides." Although the mule was a
multifarious animal, and ploughed and worked in the bark-mill, and hauled
from the woods, and went long journeys in the wagon or under the saddle,
he was not ubiquitous, and it was impossible for him to be in the several
places in which he was urgently needed at the same time. Therefore, to
hire him out on these terms seemed hardly an advantage to his master.
Nevertheless, this bargain was annually struck. The poverty-stricken
widow always congratulated herself upon its conclusion, and it never
occurred to her that the amount of work that Birt did in the tanyard was
a disproportionately large return for the few days that the tanner's mule
ploughed their little fields.
Birt, however, was beginning to see that a boy to drive that mule
around the bark-mill was as essential as the mule himself. As Providence
had failed to furnish the tanner with a son for this purpose - his family
consisting of several small daughters—Birt supplied a long-felt
The boy appreciated that his simple mother was over-reached, yet he
could not see that she could do otherwise. He sighed for independence,
for a larger opportunity. As he drove the mule round the limited
circuit, his mind was far away. He anxiously canvassed the future. He
cherished fiery, ambitious schemes,—often scorched, poor fellow, by
their futility. With his time thus mortgaged, he thought his help to his
mother was far less than it might be. But until he could have a horse of
his own, there was no hope—no progress. And for this he planned,
and dreamed, and saved.
Partly these considerations, partly the love of adventure, and partly
the jeer in Nate's laugh determined him not to relinquish the price set
upon the fox's head. He took off his coat and flung it on the ground
beside his rifle. Then he began to clamber up the cliff.
The two brothers, their hands in the pockets of their brown jeans
trousers, stood watching his ascent. Nate had sandy hair, small gray
eyes, set much too close together, and a sharp, pale, freckled face. Tim
seemed only a mild repetition of him, as if Nature had tried to
illustrate what Nate would be with a better temper and less sly
Birt was climbing slowly. It was a difficult matter. Here was a
crevice that would hardly admit his eager fingers, and again a projection
so narrow that it seemed to grudge him foothold. Some of the ledges,
however, were wider, and occasionally a dwarfed huckleberry bush,
nourished in a fissure, lifted him up like a helping hand. He quaked as
he heard the roots strain and creak, for he was a pretty heavy fellow for
sixteen years of age. They did not give way, however, and up and up he
went, every moment increasing the depth below him and the danger. His
breath was short; his strength flagged, he slipped more than once, giving
himself a great fright; and when he reached the ledge where the dead fox
lay, he thought, "The varmint don't wuth it."
Nevertheless he whooped out his triumph to Nate and Tim in a
stentorian halloo, for they had already started homeward, and presently
their voices died in the distance. Birt faced about and sat down on the
ledge to rest, his feet dangling over the depths beneath.
It was a lonely spot, walled in by the mountains, and frequented only
by the deer that were wont to come to lick salt from the briny margin of
a great salt spring far down the ravine. Their hoofs had worn a deep
excavation around it in the countless years and generations that they had
herded here. The "lick," as such places are called in Tennessee, was
nearly two acres in extent, and in the centre of the depression the
brackish water stood to the depth of six feet or more. Birt looked down
at it, thinking of the old times when, according to tradition, it was the
stamping ground of buffalo as well as deer. The dusk deepened. The
shadows were skulking in and out of the wild ravine as the wind rose and
fell. They took to his fancy the form of herds of the banished bison,
revisiting in this impalpable guise the sylvan shades where they are but
a memory now.
Presently he began the rugged descent, considerably hampered by the
fox, which he carried by the tail. He stopped to rest whenever he found
a ledge that would serve as a seat. Looking up, high above the jagged
summit of the cliff that sharply serrated the zenith, he saw the earliest
star, glorious in the crimson and amber sky. Below, a point of silver
light quivered, reflected in the crimson and amber waters of the "lick."
The fire-flies were flickering among the ferns; he saw about him their
errant gleam. The shadowy herds trooped down the mountain side.
Now and then his weight uprooted a bush in his hands, and the clods
fell. He missed his footing as he neared the base, and came down with a
thump. It was a gravelly spot where he had fallen, and he saw in a
moment that it was the summer-dried channel of a mountain rill. As he
pulled himself up on one elbow, he suddenly paused with dilated eyes.
The evening light fell upon a burnished glimmer;—a bit of
stone—was it stone?—shining with a metallic lustre.
He looked at it for a moment, his eyes glowing in the contemplation of
a splendid possibility.
What were those old stories that his father used to tell of the gold
excitement in Tennessee in 1831, when the rich earth flung largess from
its hidden wealth along the romantic banks of Coca Creek! Gold had been
found in Tennessee—why not here? And once—why not again?
The idea so possessed him that while he was skinning the fox his sharp
knife almost sacrificed one of the two ears imperatively required
by the statute, in order that the wily hunter may not be tempted to
present one ear at a time, thus multiplying red foxes and premiums
therefor like Falstaff's "rogues in buckram."
He took his way homeward through the darkening woods, carrying the
pelt in his hand. It was not long before he could hear the dogs barking,
and as he came suddenly upon a little clearing in the midst of the dense,
encompassing wilderness, he saw them all trooping down from the
unenclosed passage between the two log-rooms which constituted the
house. An old hound had half climbed the fence, but as he laid his
fore-paw on the topmost rail, his deep-mouthed bay was hushed,—he
was recognizing the approaching step of his master. The yellow curs were
still insisting upon a marauder theory. One of them barked defiance as
he thrust his head between the rails of the fence. There was another
head thrust through too, about on a level with Towser's, but it was not a
dog's head. As Birt caught a glimpse of it, he called out hastily,
"Stand back thar, Tennessee!" And then it was lost to view, for at the
sound of his voice all the dogs came huddling over the bars, shrilly
yelping a tumultuous welcome.
When Birt had vaulted over the fence, the little object withdrew its
head from between the rails and came trotting along beside him, holding
up its hand to clasp his.
His mother, standing in the passage, her tall, thin figure distinct in
the firelight that came flickering out through the open door,
soliloquized querulously: -
"Ef that thar child don't quit that fool way o' stickin' her head
a-twixt the rails ter watch fur her brother, she'll git cotched thar some
day like a peeg in a pen, an' git her neck bruk."
Birt overheard her. "Tennessee air too peart ter git herself hurt,"
he said, a trifle ashamed of his ready championship of his little sister,
as a big rough boy is apt to be of gentler emotions.
If ever infancy can be deemed uncouth, she was an uncouth little atom
of humanity. Her blue checked homespun dress, graced with big horn
buttons, descended almost to her feet. Her straight, awkwardly cropped
hair was of a nondescript shade pleasantly called "tow." As she came
into the light of the fire, she lifted wide black eyes deprecatingly to
"She ain't pretty, I know, but she air powerful peart," Birt used to
say so often that the phrase became a formula with him.
If she were "powerful peart," it was a fact readily apparent only to
him, for she was a silent child, with the single marked characteristic of
great affection for her eldest brother and a singular pertinacity in
following him about.
"I dunno 'bout Tennie's peartness," his mother sarcastically
rejoined. "'Pears ter me like the chile hain't never hed good sense;
afore she could walk she'd crawl along the floor arter ye, an' holler
like a squeech-owel ef ye went off an' lef' her. An' ye air plumb
teched in the head too, Birt, ter set sech store by Tennie. I look ter
see her killed, or stunted, some day, in them travels o' hern."
For when Birt Dicey went "yerrands" on the mule through the woods to
the Settlement, Tennessee often rode on the pommel of his saddle. She
followed in the furrow when he ploughed. She was as familiar an object
at the tanyard as the bark-mill itself. When he wielded the axe, she
perched on one end of the woodpile. But so far, she had passed safely
through her varied adventures, and gratifying evidences of her growth
were registered on the door. "Stand back thar, Tennessee!" in a loud,
boyish halloo, was a command when danger was ahead, which she obeyed with
the readiness of a veteran.
Sometimes, however, this incongruous companionship became irksome to
him. Her trusting, insistent affection made her a clog upon him, and he
grew impatient of it.
Ah, little Sister! he learned its value one day.
The great wood fire was all aflare in the deep chimney-place. Savory
odors came from the gridiron and the skillet and the hoe, on the live
coals drawn out on the broad hearth. The tow-headed children grew noisy
as they assembled around the bare pine table, and began to clash their
knives and forks.
Birt, unmindful, crouched by the hearth, silently turning his precious
specimens about, that he might examine them by the firelight. Tennessee,
her chuffy hand on his shoulder, for she could reach it as he knelt, held
her head close to his, and looked at them too with wide black eyes. His
mother placed the supper on the table, and twice she called to him to
come, but he did not hear. She turned and looked down at him, then broke
out sharply in indignant surprise.
"Air ye bereft o' reason, Birt Dicey! Ye set thar nosin' a handful o'
rocks ez ef they war fitten ter eat! An' now look at the boy—a
stuffin' 'em in his pockets ter sag 'em down and tear 'em out fur me ter
sew in ag'in. Waal, waal! Sol'mon say ef ye spare the rod ye spile the
child—mos' ennybody could hev fund that out from thar own
'sperience; but the wisest man that ever lived lef' no receipt how ter
keep a boy's pockets whole in his breeches."
Birt Dicey lay awake deep into the night, pondering and planning. But
despite this unwonted vigil the old bark-mill was early astir, and he
went alertly about his work. He felt eager, strong, capable. The spirit
of progress was upon him.
The tanyard lay in the midst of a forest so dense that, except at the
verge of the clearing, it showed hardly a trace of its gradual
despoliation by the industry that nestled in its heart like a worm in the
bud. There were many stumps about the margin of the woods, the felled
trees, stripped of their bark, often lying among them still, for the
supply of timber exceeded the need. In penetrating the wilderness you
might mark, too, here and there, a vacant space, where the chestnut-oak,
prized for its tannin, had once grown on the slope.
A little log house was in the midst of the clearing. It had, properly
speaking, only one room, but there was a shed-room attached, for the
purpose of storage, and also a large open shed at one side. The rail
fence inclosed the space of an acre, perhaps, which was covered with
spent bark. Across the pits planks were laid, with heavy stones upon
them to hold them in place. A rude roof sheltered the bark-mill from the
weather, and there was the patient mule, with Birt and a whip to make
sure that he did not fall into reflective pauses according to his
meditative wont. And there, too, was Tennessee, perched on the lower
edge of a great pile of bark, and gravely watching Birt.
He deprecated the attention she attracted. He was sometimes ashamed
to have the persistent little sister seen following at his heels like a
midday shadow. He could not know that the men who stopped and spoke to
him and to her, and laughed at the infirmities of the infant tongue when
she replied unintelligibly, thought better of him for his manifestation
of strong fraternal affection. They said to each other that he was a
"peart boy an' powerful good ter the t'other chill'en, an' holped the
fambly along ez well ez a man—better'n thar dad ever done;" for
Birt's father had been characterized always as "slack-twisted an'
The shadows dwindled on the tan. The winds had furled their wings.
White clouds rose, dazzling, opaque, up to the blue zenith. The
querulous cicada complained in the laurel. Birt heard the call of a jay
from the woods. And then, as he once more urged the old mule on, the
busy bark-mill kept up such a whir that he could hear nothing else. He
was not aware of an approach till the new-comer was close upon him; in
fact, the first he knew of Nate Griggs's proximity was the sight of him.
Nate was glancing about with his usual air of questioning disparagement,
and cracking a long lash at the spent bark on the ground.
"Hello, Nate!" Birt cried out, eagerly. "I'm powerful glad ye
happened ter kem hyar, fur I hev a word ter say ter ye."
"I dunno ez I'm minded ter bide," Nate said cavalierly. "I hates to
waste time an' burn daylight a-jowin'."
He was still cracking his lash at the ground. There was a sudden,
Birt, who had turned away to the bark-mill, whirled back in a rising
"Did ye hit Tennessee?" he asked, with a dangerous light in his
"No—I never!" Nate protested. "I hain't seen her till this
minute. She war standin' a-hint ye."
"Waal, ye skeered her, then," said Birt, hardly appeased. "Quit
snappin' that lash. 'Pears-like ter me ez ye makes yerself powerful free
round this hyar tanyard."
"Tennie air a-growin' wonderful fast," the sly Nathan remarked
Birt softened instantly. "She air a haffen inch higher 'n she war
las' March, 'cordin' ter the mark on the door," he declared, pridefully.
"She ain't pretty, I know, but she air powerful peart."
"What war the word ez ye war layin' off ter say ter me?" Nate asked,
curiosity vividly expressed in his face.
Birt leaned back against the pile of bark and hesitated. Last night
he had thought Nate the most desirable person to whom he could confide
his secret whose aid he could secure. There were many circumstances that
made this seem wise. But when the disclosure was imminent, something in
those small, bead-like eyes, unpleasantly close together, something in
the expression of the thin, pale face, something in Nate's voice and
manner repelled confidence.
"Nate," said Birt, at last, speaking with that subacute conviction, so
strong yet so ill-defined, which vividly warns the ill-judged and yet
cannot stop the tongue constrained by its own folly, "what d'ye s'pose I
fund in the woods yestiddy?"
The two small eyes, set close together, seemed merged in one, so
concentrated was their gaze. Again their expression struck Birt's
attention. He hesitated once more. "Ef I tell ye, will ye promise never
ter tell enny livin' human critter?"
"I hope I may drap stone dead ef I ever tell!" Nate exclaimed.
"I fund a strange metal in the woods yestiddy. What d'ye s'pose 't
Nate shook his head. His breath was quick and he could not control
the keen anxiety in his face. A strong flush rose to the roots of his
sandy hair, his lips quivered, and his small eyes glittered with greedy
expectation. His tongue refused to frame a word.
"Gold!" cried Birt, triumphantly.
"Whar be it?" exclaimed Nate. He was about to start in full run for
"I ain't agoin' ter tell ye, without we-uns kin strike a trade."
"Waal," said Nate, with difficulty repressing his impatience, "what
air you-uns aimin' ter do?"
"Ye knows ez I hev ter bide hyar with the bark-mill mos'ly, jes' now,"
said Birt, beginning to expound the series of ideas which he had
carefully worked out in his midnight vigil, "'kase they hev got ter hev a
heap o' tan ter fill them thar vats ag'in. Ef I war ter leave an' go
a-gold huntin', the men on the mounting would find out what I war arter,
an' they'd come a-grabblin' thar too, an' mebbe git it all, 'kase I dunno
how much or how leetle thar be. I wants ter make sure of enough ter buy
a horse, or a mule, or su'thin', ef I kin, 'fore I tells ennybody else.
An' I 'lowed ez ye an' me would go pardners. Ye'd take my place hyar at
the tanyard one day, whilst I dug, an' I'd bide in the tanyard nex' day.
An' we would divide fair an' even all we fund."
Nate did not reply. He was absorbed in a project that had come into
his head as his friend talked, and the two dissimilar trains of thought
combined in a mental mosaic that would have amazed Birt Dicey.
"Ye see," Birt presently continued, "I dunno when I kin git shet o'
the tanyard this year. Old Jube Perkins 'lows ez he air mighty busy
'bout'n them hides an' sech, an' he wants me ter holp around ginerally.
He say ef I do mo' work'n I owes him, he'll make that straight with my
mother. An' he declares fur true ef I don't holp him at this junctry,
when he needs me, he won't hire his mule to my mother nex' spring; an' ye
know it won't do fur we-uns ter resk the corn-crap an' gyarden truck with
sech a pack o' chill'n ter vittle ez we-uns hev got at our house."
Nate deduced an unexpected conclusion. "Ye oughter gin me more'n
haffen the make," he said. "'Kase ef 'twarn't fur me, ye couldn't git
none. An' ef ye don't say two thurds, I'll tell every critter on the
mounting an' they'll be grabblin' in yer gold mine d'rec'ly."
"Ye dunno whar it is," said Birt, quietly.
If a sudden jet from the cold mountain torrent, that rioted through
the wilderness down the ravine hard by, had been dashed into Nate's thin,
sharp face, he could not have cooled more abruptly. The change almost
took his breath away.
"I don't mean that, nuther," he gasped with politic penitence,
"kase I hev promised not ter tell. I dunno whether I kin holp nohow. I
hev got ter do my sheer o' work at home; we ain't through pullin' fodder
off'n our late corn yit."
Birt looked at him in silent surprise.
Nate was older than his friend by several years. He was of an unruly
and insubordinate temper, and did as little work as he pleased at home.
He often remarked that he would like to see who could make him do what he
had no mind to do.
"Mebbe old Jube wouldn't want me round 'bout," he suggested.
"Waal," said Birt, eager again to detail his plans, "he 'lowed when I
axed him this mornin' ez he'd be willin' ef I could trade with another
boy ter take my place wunst in a while."
Nate affected to meditate on this view of the question. "But it will
be toler'ble fur away fur me ter go prowlin' in the woods, a-huntin' fur
gold, an' our fodder jes' a-sufferin' ter be pulled. Ef the spot air fur
off, I can't come an' I won't, not fur haffen the make."
"'T ain't fur off at all—scant haffen mile," replied unwary
Birt, anxious to convince. "It air jes' yander nigh that thar salt lick
down the ravine. I marks the spot by a bowlder—biggest bowlder I
ever see - on the slope o' the mounting."
The instant this revelation passed his lips, regret seized him. "But
ye ain't ter go thar 'thout me, ye onderstand, till we begins our
"I ain't wantin' ter go," Nate protested. "I ain't sati'fied in my
mind whether I'll ondertake ter holp or no. That pullin' fodder ez I hev
got ter do sets mighty heavy on my stomach."
"Tim an' yer dad always pulls the fodder an' sech—I knows
ez that air a true word," said Birt, bluntly. "An' I can't git away from
the tanyard at all ef ye won't holp me, 'kase old Jube 'lowed he wouldn't
let me swop with a smaller boy ter work hyar; an' all them my size, an'
bigger, air made ter work with thar dads, 'ceptin' you-uns."
Nate heard, but he hardly looked as if he did, so busily absorbed was
he in fitting this fragment of fact into his mental mosaic. It had begun
to assume the proportions of a distinct design.
He suddenly asked a question of apparent irrelevancy.
"This hyar land down the ravine don't b'long ter yer folkses—who
do it b'long ter?"
"Don't b'long ter nobody, ye weasel!" Birt retorted, in rising wrath.
"D'ye s'pose I'd be a-stealin' of gold off'n somebody else's land?"
Nate's sly, thin face lighted up wonderfully. He seemed in a fever of
haste to terminate the conference and get away. He agreed to his
friend's proposition and promised to be at the bark-mill bright and early
in the morning. As he trudged off, Birt Dicey stood watching the
receding figure. His eyes were perplexed, his mind full of anxious
foreboding. He hardly knew what he feared. He had only a vague sense of
mischief in the air, as slight but as unmistakable as the harbinger of
storm on a sunshiny summer day.
"I wisht I hedn't tole him nuthin'," he said, as he wended his way
home that night. "Ef my mother hed knowed bout'n it all, I wouldn't hev
been 'lowed ter tell him. She despises the very sight o' this
hyar Nate Griggs—an' yit she say she dunno why."
After supper he sat gloomy and taciturn in the uninclosed passage
between the two rooms, watching alternately the fire-flies, as they
instarred the dark woods with ever-shifting gold sparks, and the broad,
pale flashes of heat lightning which from time to time illumined the
horizon. There was no motion in the heavy black foliage, but it was
filled with the shrill droning of the summer insects, and high in the
branches a screech-owl pierced the air with its keen, quavering
"Tennessee!" exclaimed Birt, as the unwelcome sound fell upon his
ear—"Tennessee! run an' put the shovel in the fire!"
Whether the shovel, becoming hot among the live coals, burned the owl
that was high in the tree-top outside, according to the countryside
superstition, or whether by a singular coincidence, he discovered that he
had business elsewhere, he was soon gone, and the night was left to the
chorusing katydids and tree-toads and to the weird, fitful illuminations
of the noiseless heat lightning.
Birt Dicey rose suddenly and walked away silently into the dense, dark
"Stop, Tennessee! ye can't go too!" exclaimed Mrs. Dicey, appearing in
the doorway just in time to intercept the juvenile excursionist. "Ketch
her, Rufus! Ef she wouldn't hev followed Birt right off in the pitch
dark! She ain't afeared o' nothin' when Birt is thar. Git that
pomegranate she hed an' gin it ter her ter keep her from hollerin', Rufe;
I hed a sight ruther hear the squeech-owel."
Tennessee, overpowered by disappointment, sobbed herself to sleep upon
the floor, and then ensued an interval of quiet. Rufe, a towheaded boy
of ten, dressed in an unbleached cotton shirt and blue-checked homespun
trousers, concluded that this moment was the accepted time to count the
balls in his brother's shot-pouch. This he proceeded to do, with the aid
of the sullen glare from the embers within and the fluctuating gleams of
the lightning without. There was no pretense of utility in Rufe's
performance; only the love of handling lead could explain it.
"Ye hed better mind," his mother admonished him. "Birt war powerful
tried the t'other day ter think what hed gone with his bullets. He'll
nose ye out afore long."
"They hev got sech a fool way o' slippin' through the chinks in the
floor," said the boy in exasperation. "I never seen the beat! An'
thar's no gittin' them out, nuther. I snaked under the house yestiddy
an' sarched, an' sarched!—an' I never fund but two. An' Towse, he
dragged hisself under thar, too—jes' a-growlin' an' a-snappin'. I
thought fur sartin every minit he'd bite my foot off."
He resumed his self-imposed task of counting the rifle balls, and now
and then a sharp click told that another was consigned to that limbo
guarded by Towse. Mrs. Dicey stood in silence for a time, gazing upon
the unutterably gloomy forest, the distant, throbbing stars, and the
broad, wan flashes at long intervals gleaming through the sky.
"It puts me in a mighty tucker ter hev yer brother a-settin' out
through the woods this hyar way, an' a-leavin' of we-uns hyar, all by
ourselves sech a dark night. I'm always afeared thar mought be a bar
a-prowlin' round. An' the cornfield air close ter the house, too."
"Pete Thompson—him ez war yander ter the tanyard day 'fore
yestiddy with his dad," said the boy, "he tole it ter me ez how he seen a
bar las' Wednesday a-climbin' over the fence ter thar cornfield, with a
haffen dozen roastin'-ears under his arm an' a watermillion on his head.
But war it a haffen dozen? I furgits now ef Pete said it war a
haffen dozen or nine ears of corn the bar hed;" and he paused to reflect
in the midst of his important occupation.
"I'll be bound Pete never stopped ter count 'em," said Mrs. Dicey.
"Pick that chile up an' come in. I'm goin' ter bar up the door."
Birt Dicey plodded away through the deep woods and the dense darkness
down the ravine. Although he could not now distinguish one stone from
another, he had an uncontrollable impulse to visit again the treasure he
had discovered. The murmur of the gently bubbling water warned him of
the proximity of the deep salt spring almost at the base of the mountain,
and, guiding himself partly by the sound, he made his way along the slope
to the great bowlder beneath the cliffs that served to mark the spot. As
he laid his hand on the bowlder, he experienced a wonderful exhilaration
of spirit. Once more he canvassed his scheme. This was the one great
opportunity of his restricted life. Visions of future possibilities were
opening wide their fascinating vistas. He might make enough to buy a
horse, and this expressed his idea of wealth. "But ef I live ter git a
cent out'n it," he said to himself, "I'll take the very fust money I kin
call my own an' buy Tennessee a chany cup an' sarcer, an' a string o'
blue beads an' a caliky coat—ef I die fur it."
His pleased reverie was broken by a sudden discovery. He was not
standing among stones about the great bowlder; no—his foot had sunk
deep in the sand! He stooped down in the darkness and felt about him.
The spot was not now as he had left it yesterday afternoon. He was sure
of this, even before a fleet, wan flash of the heat lightning showed him
at his feet the unmistakable signs of a recent excavation. It was not
deep, it was not broad; but it was fresh and it betrayed a prying hand.
Again the heat lightning illumined the wide, vague sky. He saw the
solemn dark forests; he saw the steely glimmer of the lick; the distant
mountains flickered against the pallid horizon; and once
It was Nate who had been here,—Birt felt sure of that; Nate, who
had promised he would not come.
Convinced that his friend was playing a false part, Birt went at once
to the bark-mill in the morning, confident that he would not find Nate at
work in the tanyard according to their agreement.
It was later than usual, and Jubal Perkins swore at Birt for his
tardiness. He hardly heard; and as the old bark-mill ground and ground
the bark, and the mule jogged around and around, and the hot sun shone,
and the voices of the men handling the hides at the tanpit were loud on
the air, all his thoughts were of the cool, dark, sequestered ravine,
holding in its cloven heart the secret he had discovered.
Rufus happened to come to the tanyard today. Birt seized the
"Rufe," he said, "ye see I can't git away from the mill, 'kase I'm
'bleeged ter stay hyar whilst the old mule grinds. But ef ye'll go over
yander ter Nate Griggs's house an' tell him ter come over hyar, bein' ez
I want to see him partic'lar, I'll fix ye a squir'l-trap before long ez
the peartest old Bushy-tail on the mounting ain't got the gumption ter
git out'n. An' let me know ef Nate ain't thar."
Rufe was disposed to parley. He stood first on one foot, then on the
other. He cast calculating eyes at the bark-mill and out upon the deep
forest. The exact date on which this promise was to be fulfilled had to
be fixed before he announced his willingness to set out.
Ten to one, he would have gone without the bribe, had none been
suggested, for he loved the woods better than the woodpile, and a
five-mile tramp through its tangles wearied his bones not so much as
picking up a single basketful of chips. Some boys' bones are constituted
thus, strange as it may seem.
So he went his way in his somewhat eccentric gait, compounded of a
hop, and a skip, and a dawdle. He had made about half a mile when the
path curved to the mountain's brink. He paused and parted the glossy
leaves of the dense laurel that he might look out over the precipice at
the distant heights. How blue—how softly blue they were!—the
endless ranges about the horizon. What a golden haze melted on those
nearer at hand, bravely green in the sunshine! From among the beetling
crags, the first red leaf was whirling away against the azure sky. Even
a buzzard had its picturesque aspects, circling high above the mountains
in its strong, majestic flight. To breathe the balsamic, sunlit air was
luxury, happiness; it was a wonder that Rufe got on as fast as he did.
How fragrant and cool and dark was the shadowy valley! A silver cloud
lay deep in the waters of the "lick." Why Rufe made up his mind to go
down there, he could hardly have said—sheer curiosity, perhaps. He
knew he had plenty of time to get to Nate's house and back before dark.
People who sent Rufe on errands usually reckoned for two hours' waste in
each direction. He had no idea of descending the cliffs as Birt had
done. He stolidly retraced his way until he was nearly home; then
scrambling down rocky slopes he came presently upon a deer-path. All at
once, he noticed the footprint of a man in a dank, marshy spot. He
stopped and looked hard at it, for he had naturally supposed this path
was used only by the woodland gentry.
"Some deer-hunter, I reckon," he said. And so he went on.
With his characteristic curiosity, he peered all around the "lick"
when he was at last there. He even applied his tongue, calf-like, to the
briny earth; it did not taste so salty as he had expected. As he rolled
over luxuriously on his back among the fragrant summer weeds, he caught
sight of something in the branches of an oak tree. He sat up and
stared. It looked like a rude platform. After a moment, he divined that
it was the remnant of a scaffold from which some early settler of
Tennessee had been wont to fire upon the deer or the buffalo at the
"lick," below. Such relics, some of them a century old, are to be seen
to this day in sequestered nooks of the Cumberland Mountains. Rufe had
heard of these old scaffolds, but he had never known of the existence of
this one down by the "lick." He sprang up, a flush of excitement
contending with the dirt on his countenance; he set his squirrel teeth
resolutely together; he applied his sturdy fingers and his nimble legs to
the bark of the tree, and up he went like a cat.
He climbed to the lower branches easily enough, but he caused much
commotion and swaying among them as he struggled through the foliage. An
owl, with great remonstrant eyes, suddenly looked out of a hollow, higher
still, with an inarticulate mutter of mingled reproach, and warning, and
anxiety. Rufe settled himself on the platform, his bare feet dangling
about jocosely. Then, beating his hands on either thigh to mark the time
he sang in a loud, shrill soprano, prone now and then to be flat, and
yet, impartially, prone now and then to be sharp: -
Thar war two sun-dogs in the red day-dawn,
An' the wind war laid—'t war prime fur game.
I went ter the woods betimes that morn,
An' tuk my flint-lock, "Nancy," by name;
An' thar I see, in the crotch of a tree,
A great big catamount grinnin' at me.
A-kee! he! he! An' a-ho! ho! he!
A pop-eyed catamount laffin' at me!
And, as Rufe sang, the anger and remonstrance in the owl's demeanor
increased every moment. For the owl was a vocalist, too!
Bein' made game of by a brute beastis,
War su'thin' I could in no ways allow.
I jes' spoke up, for my dander hed riz,
"Cat—take in the slack o' yer jaw!"
He bowed his back—Nance sighted him gran',
Then the blamed old gal jes' flashed in the pan!
A-kee! he! he! An' a-ho! ho! he!
With a outraged catamount rebukin' of me!
As Rufe finished this with a mighty crescendo, he was obliged
to pause for breath. He stared about, gaspily. The afternoon was
waning. The mountains close at hand were a darker green. The distant
ranges had assumed a rosy amethystine tint, like nothing
earthly—like the mountains of a dream, perhaps. The buzzard had
alighted in the top of a tree not far down the slope, a tree long ago
lightning-scathed, but still rising, gaunt and scarred, above all the
forest, and stretching dead stark arms to heaven. Somehow Rufe did not
like the looks of it. He was aware of a revulsion of feeling, of the
ebbing away of his merry spirit before he saw more.
As he tried to sing: -
I war the mightiest hunter that ever ye see
Till that thar catamount tuk arter me! -
his tongue clove suddenly to the roof of his mouth.
He could see something under that tree which no one else could see,
not even from the summit of the crags, for the tree was beyond a
projecting slope, and out of the range of vision thence.
Rufe could not make out distinctly what the object was, but it was
evidently foreign to the place. He possessed the universal human
weakness of regarding everything with a personal application. It now
seemed strange to him that he should have come here at all; stranger
still, that he should have mounted this queer relic of days so long gone
by, and thus discovered that peculiar object under the dead tree. He
began to think he had been led here for a purpose. Now Rufe was not so
good a boy as to be on the continual lookout for rewards of merit. On
the contrary, the day of reckoning meant with him the day of punishment.
He had heard recounted an unpleasant superstition that when the red
sunsets were flaming round the western mountains, and the valleys were
dark and drear, and the abysses and gorges gloomed full of witches and
weird spirits, Satan himself might be descried, walking the crags, and
spitting fire, and deporting himself generally in such a manner as to
cause great apprehension to a small person who could remember so many
sins as Rufe could. His sins! they trooped up before his mental vision
now, and in a dense convocation crowded the encompassing wilderness.
Rufe felt that he must not leave this matter in uncertainty. He must
know whether that strange object under the tree could be intended as a
warning to him to cease in time his evil ways—tormenting Towse,
pulling Tennessee's hair, shirking the woodpile, and squandering Birt's
rifle balls. He even feared this might be a notification that the hour
of retribution had already come!
He scuttled off the platform, and began to swing himself from bough to
bough. He was nervous and less expert than when he had climbed up the
tree. He lost his grip once, and crashed from one branch to another,
scratching himself handsomely in the operation. The owl, emboldened by
his retreat, flew awkwardly down upon the scaffold, and perched there,
its head turned askew, and its great, round eyes fixed solemnly upon
Suddenly a wild hoot of derision rent the air; the echoes answered,
and all the ravine was filled with the jeering clamor.
"The wust luck in the worl'!" plained poor Rufe, as the ill-omened cry
rose again and again. "'Tain't goin' ter s'prise me none now, ef I gits
my neck bruk along o' this resky foolishness in this cur'ous place whar
owels watch from the lookout ez dead men hev lef'."
He came down unhurt, however. Then he sidled about a great many times
through "the laurel," for he could not muster courage for a direct
approach to the strange object he had descried. The owl still watched
him, and bobbed its head and hooted after him. When he drew near the
lightning-scathed tree, he paused rooted to the spot, gazing in
astonishment, his hat on the back of his tow head, his eyes opened wide,
one finger inserted in his mouth in silent deprecation.
For there stood a man dressed in black, and with a dark straw hat on
his head. He had gray whiskers, and gleaming spectacles of a mildly
surprised expression. He smiled kindly when he saw Rufe. Incongruously
enough, he had a hammer in his hand. He was going down the ravine,
tapping the rocks with it. And Rufe thought he looked for all the world
like some over-grown, demented woodpecker.
As Rufe still stood staring, the old gentleman held out his hand with a
"Come here, my little man!" he said in a kind voice.
Rufe hesitated. Then he was seized by sudden distrust. Who was this
stranger? and why did he call, "Come here!"
Perhaps the fears already uppermost in Rufe's mind influenced his
hasty conclusion. He cast a horrified glance upon the old gentleman in
black, a garb of suspicious color to the little mountaineer, who had
never seen men clad in aught but the brown jeans habitually worn by the
hunters of the range. He remembered, too, the words of an old song that
chronicled how alluring were the invitations of Satan, and with a
frenzied cry he fled frantically through the laurel.
Away and away he dashed, up steep ascents, down sharp declivities,
falling twice or thrice in his haste, but hurting his clothes more than
It was not long before he was in sight of home, and Towse met him at
the fence. The feeling between these two was often the reverse of
cordial, and as Rufe climbed down from rail to rail, his sullen "Lemme
'lone, now!" was answered by sundry snaps at his heels and a low growl.
Not that Towse would really have harmed him—fealty to the family
forbade that; but in defense of his ears and tail he thought it best to
keep fierce possibilities in Rufe's contemplation.
Rufe sat down on the floor of the uninclosed passage between the two
rooms, his legs dangling over the sparse sprouts of chickweed and clumps
of mullein that grew just beneath, for there were no steps, and Towse
bounded up and sat upright close beside him. And as he sought to lean on
Towse, the dog sought to lean on him.
They both looked out meditatively at the dense and sombre wilderness,
upon which this little clearing and humble log-cabin were but meagre
suggestions of that strong, full-pulsed humanity that has elsewhere
subdued nature, and achieved progress, and preëmpted perfection.
Towse soon shut his eyes, and presently he was nodding. Presumably he
dreamed, for once he roused himself to snap at a fly, when there was no
fly. Rufe, however, was wide awake, and busily canvassing how to account
to Birt for the lack of a message from Nate Griggs, for he would not
confess how untrustworthy he had proved himself. As he reflected upon
this perplexity, he leaned his throbbing head on his hand, and his
attitude expressed a downcast spirit.
This chanced to strike his mother's attention as she came to the
door. She paused and looked keenly at him.
"Them hoss apples ag'in!" she exclaimed, with the voice of
accusation. She had no idea of youthful dejection disconnected with the
Rufe was roused to defend himself. "Hain't teched 'em, now!" he
"Waal, sometimes ye air sorter loose-jointed in yer jaw, an' ain't
partic'lar what ye say," rejoined his mother, politely. "I'll waste a
leetle yerb-tea on ye, ennyhow."
She started back into the room, and Rufe rose at once. This cruelty
should not be practiced upon him, whatever might betide him at the
tanyard. He set out at a brisk pace. He had no mind to be long alone in
the woods since his strange adventure down the ravine, or he might have
hid in the underbrush, as he had often done, until other matters usurped
his mother's medicinal intentions.
When Rufe reached the tanyard, Birt was still at work. He turned and
looked eagerly at the juvenile ambassador.
"Did Nate gin ye a word fur me?" he called sonorously, above the
clamor of the noisy bark-mill.
"He say he'll be hyar ter-morrer by sun-up!" piped out Rufe, in a
A lie seemed less reprehensible when he was obliged to labor so
conscientiously to make it heard.
And then compunction seized him. He sat down by Tennessee on a pile
of bark, and took off his old wool hat to mop the cold perspiration that
had started on his head and face. He felt sick, and sad, and extremely
wicked,—a sorry contrast to Birt, who was so honest and reliable
and, as his mother always said, "ez stiddy ez the mounting." Birt was
beginning to unharness the mule, for the day's work was at an end.
The dusk had deepened to darkness. The woods were full of gloom. A
timorous star palpitated in the sky. In the sudden stillness when the
bark-mill ceased its whir, the mountain torrent hard by lifted a mystic
chant. The drone of the katydid vibrated in the laurel, and the
shrill-voiced cricket chirped. Two of the men were in the shed examining
a green hide by the light of a perforated tin lantern, that seemed to
spill the rays in glinting white rills. As they flickered across the
pile of bark where Rufe and Tennessee were sitting, he noticed how alert
Birt looked, how bright his eyes were.
For Birt's hopes were suddenly renewed. He thought that some
mischance had detained Nate to-day, and that he would come to-morrow to
work at the bark-mill.
The boy's blood tingled at the prospect of being free to seek for
treasure down the ravine. He began to feel that he had been too quick to
distrust his friend. Perhaps the stipulation that Nate should not go to
the ravine until the work commenced was more than he ought to have
asked. And perhaps, too, the trespasser was not Nate! The traces of
shallow delving might have been left by another hand. Birt paused
reflectively in unharnessing the mule. He stood with the gear in one
hand, serious and anxious, in view of the possibility that this discovery
was not his alone.
Then he strove to cast aside the thought. He said to himself that he
had been hasty in concluding that the slight excavation argued human
presence in that lonely spot; a rock dislodged and rolling heavily down
the gorge might have thus scraped into the sand and gravel; or perhaps
some burrowing animal, prospecting for winter quarters, had begun to dig
a hole under the bowlder.
He was perplexed, despite his plausible reasoning, and he continued
silent and preoccupied when he lifted Tennessee to his shoulder and
trudged off homeward, with Rufe at his heels, and the small boy's
conscience following sturdily in the rear.
That sternly accusing conscience! Rufe was dismayed, when he sat with
the other laughing children about the table, to know that his soul was
not merry. Sometimes a sombre shadow fell upon his face, and once Birt
asked him what was the matter. And though he laughed more than ever, he
felt it was very hard to be gay without the subtle essence of mirth.
That lie!—it seemed to grow; before supper was over it was as big
as the warping-bars, and when they all sat in a semicircle in the open
passage, Rufe felt that his conscience was the most prominent member of
the party. The young moon sank; the night waxed darker still; the woods
murmured mysteriously. And he was glad enough at last to be sent to bed,
where after so long a time sleep found him.
The morrow came in a cloud. The light lacked the sunshine. The
listless air lacked the wind. Still and sombre, the woods touched the
murky, motionless sky. All the universe seemed to hold a sullen pause.
Time was afoot—it always is—but Birt might not know how it
sped; no shadows on the spent tan this dark day! Over his shoulder he
was forever glancing, hoping that Nate would presently appear from the
woods. He saw only the mists lurking in the laurel; they had autumnal
presage and a chill presence. He buttoned his coat about him, and the
old mule sneezed as he jogged round the bark-mill.
Jubal Perkins and a crony stood smoking much of the time to-day in the
door of the house, looking idly out upon the brown stretch of spent bark,
and the gray, weather-beaten sheds, and the dun sky, and the shadowy,
mist-veiled woods. The tanner was a tall, muscular man, clad in brown
jeans, and with boots of a fair grade of leather drawn high over his
trousers. As he often remarked, "The tanyard owes me good
foot-gear—ef the rest o' the mounting hev ter go barefoot." The
expression of his face was somewhat masked by a heavy grizzled beard, but
from beneath the wide brim of his hat his eyes peered out with a jocose
twinkle. His mouth seemed chiefly useful as a receptacle for his
pipe-stem, for he spoke through his nose. His voice was strident on the
air, since he included in the conversation a workman in the shed, who was
scraping with a two-handled knife a hide spread on a wooden horse. This
man, whose name was Andrew Byers, glanced up now and then, elevating a
pair of shaggy eyebrows, and settled the affairs of the nation with
diligence and despatch, little hindered by his labors or the
Birt took no heed of the loud drawling talk. In moody silence he
drove the mule around and around the bark-mill. The patient old animal,
being in no danger of losing his way, closed his eyes drowsily as he
trudged, making the best of it.
"I'll git ez mild-mannered an' meek-hearted ez this hyar old beastis,
some day, ef things keep on ez disapp'intin' ez they hev been lately,"
thought Birt, miserably. "They do say ez even he used ter be a turrible
Noon came and went, and still the mists hung in the forest closely
engirdling the little clearing. The roofs glistened with moisture, and
the eaves dripped. A crow was cawing somewhere. Birt had paused to let
the mule rest, and the raucous sound caused him to turn his head. His
heart gave a bound when he saw that on the other side of the fence the
underbrush was astir along the path which wound through the woods to the
tanyard. Somebody was coming; he hoped even yet that it might be Nate.
He eagerly watched the rustling boughs. The crow had flown, but he heard
as he waited a faint "caw! caw!" in the misty distance. Whoever the
newcomer might be, he certainly loitered. At last the leaves parted, and
Birt's first sensation was renewed disappointment. Then he was
disposed to investigate the mystery of Nate's non-appearance.
"Hello, Rufe!" he called out, as soon as the small boy was inside the
tanyard, "be you-uns sure ez Nate said he'd come over by
Rufe halted and gazed about him, endeavoring to conjure an expression
of surprise into his freckled face. He even opened his mouth to exhibit
astonishment—exhibiting chiefly that equivocal tongue, and a large
assortment of jagged squirrel teeth.
"Hain't Nate come yit?" he ventured.
The tanner suddenly put into the conversation.
"War it Nate Griggs ez ye war aimin' ter trade with ter take yer place
wunst in a while in the tanyard?"
Birt assented. "An' he 'lowed he'd be hyar ter-day by sun-up. Rufe
brung that word from him yestiddy."
Rufe's conscience had given him a recess, during which he had consumed
several horse-apples in considerable complacence and a total disregard of
"yerb tea." He had climbed a tree, and sampled a green persimmon, and he
endured with fortitude the pucker in his mouth, since it enabled him to
make such faces at Towse as caused the dog to snap and growl in a frenzy
of surprised indignation. He had fashioned a corn-stalk
fiddle—that instrument so dear to rural children!—and he had
been sawing away on it to his own satisfaction and Tennessee's unbounded
admiration for the last half-hour. He had forgotten that pursuing
conscience till it seized upon him again in the tanyard.
"Oh, Birt," he quavered out, suddenly, "I hain't laid eyes on
Birt exclaimed indignantly, and Jubal Perkins laughed.
"I seen sech a cur'ous lookin' man, down in the ravine by the lick, ez
it sot me all catawampus!" continued Rufe.
As he told of his defection, and the falsehood with which he had
accounted for it, Jubal Perkins came to a sudden decision.
"Git on that thar mule, Birt, an' ride over ter Nate's, an' find out
what ails him, ef so be ye hanker ter know. I don't want nobody workin'
in this hyar tanyard ez looks ez mournful ez ye do—like ez ef ye
hed been buried an' dug up. But hurry back, 'kase there ain't enough
bark ground yit, an' I hev got other turns o' work I want ye ter do
besides 'fore dark."
"War that Satan?" asked Rufe abruptly.
"Whar?" exclaimed Birt, startled, and glancing hastily over his
"Down yander by the lick," plained Rufe.
"Naw!" said Birt, scornfully, "an' nuthin' like Satan, I'll be
He was, however, uneasy to hear of any man down the ravine in the
neighborhood of his hidden treasure, but he could not now question Rufe,
for Jube Perkins, with mock severity, was taking the small boy to
Byers was looking on, the knife idle in his hands, and his lips
distended with a wide grin in the anticipation of getting some fun out of
"Look-a-hyar, bub," said Jubal Perkins, with both hands in his pockets
and glaring down solemnly at Rufe; "ef ever I ketches ye goin' of
yerrands no better'n that ag'in, I'm a-goin' ter—tan that
thar hide o' yourn."
Rufe gazed up deprecatingly, his eyes widening at the prospect. Byers
broke into a horse laugh.
"We've been wantin' some leetle varmints fur tanning ennyhow," he
said. "Ye'll feel mighty queer when ye stand out thar on the spent tan,
with jes' yer meat on yer bones, an 'look up an' see yer skin a-hangin'
alongside o' the t'other calves, an' sech—that ye will!"
"An' all the mounting folks will be remarkin' on it, too," said
Perkins. Which no doubt they would have done with a lively interest.
"I reckon," said Byers, looking speculatively at Rufe, "ez't would
take a right smart time fur ye ter git tough enough ter go 'bout in
respect'ble society ag'in. 'T would hurt ye mightily, I'm thinkin'. Ef
I war you-uns, I'd be powerful partic'lar ter keep inside o' sech an
accommodatin'-lookin' little hide ez yourn be fur tanning."
Rufe's countenance was distorted. He seemed about to tune up and
whimper. "An' ef I war you-uns, Andy Byers, I'd find su'thin' better ter
do'n ter bait an' badger a critter the size o' Rufe!" exclaimed Birt
"That thar boy's 'bout right, too!" said the man who had hitherto been
standing silent in the door.
"Waal, leave Rufe be, Jubal!" said Byers, laughing. "Ye
started the fun."
"Leave him be, yerself," retorted the tanner.
When Birt mounted the mule, and rode out of the yard, he glanced back
and saw that Rufe had approached the shed; judging by his gestures, he
was asking a variety of questions touching the art of tanning, to which
Byers amicably responded.
The mists were shifting as Birt went on and on. He heard the acorns
dropping from the chestnut-oaks—sign that the wind was awake in the
woods. Like a glittering, polished blade, at last a slanting sunbeam
fell. It split the gloom, and a radiant afternoon seemed to emerge. The
moist leaves shone; far down the aisles of the woods the fugitive mists,
in elusive dryadic suggestions, chased each other into the distance.
Although the song-birds were all silent, there was a chirping
somewhere—cheerful sound! He had almost reached his destination
when a sudden rustling in the undergrowth by the roadside caused him to
turn and glance back.
Two or three shoats lifted their heads and were gazing at him with
surprise, and a certain disfavor, as if they did not quite like his
looks. A bevy of barefooted, tow-headed children were making mud pies in
a marshy dip close by. An ancient hound, that had renounced the chase
and assumed in his old age the office of tutor, seemed to preside with
dignity and judgment. He, too, had descried the approach of the
stranger. He growled, but made no other demonstration.
"Whar's Nate?" Birt called out, for these were the children of Nate's
For a moment there was no reply. Then the smallest of the small boys
shrilly piped out, "He hev gone away!—him an' gran'dad's claybank
Another unexpected development! "When will he come back?"
"Ain't goin' ter come back fur two weeks."
"Whar 'bouts hev he gone?" asked Birt amazed.
"Dunno," responded the same little fellow.
"When did he set out?"
There was a meditative pause. Then ensued a jumbled bickering. The
small boys, the shoats, and the hound seemed to consult together in the
endeavor to distinguish "day 'fore yestiddy" from "las' week." The
united intellect of the party was inadequate.
"Dunno!" the mite of a spokesman at last admitted.
Birt rode on rapidly once more, leaving this choice syndicate settling
down again to the mud pies.
The woods gave way presently and revealed, close to a precipice,
Nate's home. The log house with its chimney of clay and sticks, the barn
of ruder guise, the fodder-stack, the ash-hopper, and the rail fence were
all imposed in high relief against the crimson west and the purpling
ranges in the distance. The little cabin was quite alone in the world.
No other house, no field, no clearing, was visible in all the vast
expanse of mountains and valleys which it overlooked. The great panorama
of nature seemed to be unrolled for it only. The seasons passed in
review before it. The moon rose, waxing or waning, as if for its
behoof. The sun conserved for it a splendid state.
But the skies above it had sterner moods,—sometimes lightnings
veined the familiar clouds; winds rioted about it; the thunder spoke
close at hand. And then it was that Mrs. Griggs lamented her husband's
course in "raisin' the house hyar so nigh the bluffs ez ef it war an'
aigle's nest," and forgot that she had ever accounted herself
"sifflicated" when distant from the airy cliffs.
She stood in the doorway now, her arms akimbo—an attitude that
makes a woman of a certain stamp seem more masterful than a man. Her
grizzled locks were ornamented by a cotton cap with a wide and impressive
ruffle, which, swaying and nodding, served to emphasize her remarks. She
was conferring in a loud drawl with her husband, who had let down the
bars to admit his horse, laden with a newly killed deer. Her manner
would seem to imply that she, and not he, had slain the animal.
"Toler'ble fat," she commented with grave self-complacence. "He
'minds me sorter o' that thar tremenjious buck we hed las' September.
He war the fattes' buck I ever see. Take off his hide right
The big cap-ruffle flapped didactically.
"Lor'-a—massy, woman!" vociferated the testy old man; "ain't I
a-goin' ter? Ter hear ye a-jowin', a-body would think I had never shot
nothin' likelier'n a yaller-hammer sence I been born. S'pos'n ye jes'
takes ter goin' a-huntin', an' skinnin' deer, an' cuttin' wood, an' doin'
my work ginerally. Pears-like ye think ye knows mo' 'bout'n my work'n I
does. An' I'll bide hyar at the house."
Mrs. Griggs nodded her head capably, in nowise dismayed. "I dunno but
that plan would work mighty well," she said.
This conjugal colloquy terminated as she glanced up and saw Birt.
"Why, thar's young Dicey a-hint ye. Howdy Birt! 'Light an'
"Naw'm," rejoined Birt, as he rode into the enclosure and close up to
the doorstep. "I hain't got time ter 'light." Then precipitately
opening the subject of his mission. "I kem over hyar ter see Nate. Whar
hev he disappeared ter?"
"Waal, now, that's jes' what I'd like ter know," she replied, her face
eloquent with baffled curiosity. "He jes' borried his dad's claybank
mare, an' sot out, an' never 'lowed whar he war bound fur. Nate hev
turned twenty-one year old," she continued, "an' he 'lows he air a man
growed, an' obligated ter obey nobody but hisself. From the headin' way
that he kerries on hyar, a-body would s'pose he air older 'n the
Cumberland Mountings! But he hev turned twenty-one—that's a
fac'—an' he voted at the las' election."
(With how much discretion it need not now be inquired.)
"I knows that air true," said Birt, who had wistfully admired this
feat of his senior.
"Waal—Nate don't set much store by votin'," rejoined Mrs.
Griggs. "Nate, he say, the greatest privilege his kentry kin confer on
him is ter make it capital punishment fur wimmen ter ax him questions! -
Which I hev done," she admitted stoutly.
And the ruffle on her cap did not deny it.
"Nate air twenty-one," she reiterated. "An' I s'pose he 'lows ez I
hev no call nowadays ter be his mother."
"Hain't ye got no guess whar he be gone?" asked Birt, dismayed by this
strange new complication.
"Waal, I hev been studyin' it out ez Nate mought hev rid ter Parch
Corn, whar his great-uncle, Joshua Peters, lives—him that merried
my aunt, Melissy Baker, ez war a widder then, though born a Scruggs. An'
then, ag'in, Nate mought hev tuk it inter his head ter go ter the
Cross-roads, a-courtin' a gal thar ez he hev been talkin' about powerful,
lately. But they tells me," Mrs. Griggs expostulated, as it were, "that
them gals at the Cross-roads is in no way desirable,— specially
this hyar Elviry Mills, ez mighty nigh all the boys on the mounting hev
los' thar wits about,—what little wits ez they ever hed ter lose, I
mean ter say. But Nate thinks he hev got a right ter a ch'ice, bein' ez
he air turned twenty-one."
"Did he say when he 'lowed ter come back?" Birt asked.
"'Bout two or three weeks Nate laid off ter be away; but whar he hev
gone, an' what's his yerrand, he let no human know," returned Mrs.
Griggs. "I hev been powerful aggervated 'bout this caper o' Nate's. I
ain't afeard he'll git hisself hurt no ways whilst he be gone, for Nate
is mighty apt ter take keer o' Nate." She nodded her head convincingly,
and the great ruffle on her cap shook in corroboration. "But I hain't
never hed the right medjure o' respec' out'n Nate, an' his dad hain't,
Birt listened vaguely to this account of his friend's filial
shortcomings, his absent eyes fixed upon the wide landscape, and his mind
busy with the anxious problems of Nate's broken promises.
And the big red ball of the setting sun seemed at last to roll off the
plane of the horizon, and it disappeared amidst the fiery emblazonment of
clouds with which it had enriched the west. But all the world was not so
splendid; midway below the dark purple summits a dun, opaque vapor
asserted itself in dreary, aerial suspension. Beneath it he could see a
file of cows, homeward bound, along the road that encircled the
mountain's base. He heard them low, and this reminded him that night was
near, for all that the zenith was azure, and for all that the west was
aglow. And he remembered he had a good many odd jobs to do before dark.
And so he turned his face homeward.
Birt had always been held in high esteem by the men at the tanyard.
Suddenly, however, the feeling toward him cooled. He remembered
afterward, although at the time he was too absorbed to fully appreciate
it, that this change began one day shortly after he had learned of Nate's
departure. As he went mechanically about his work, he was pondering
futilely upon his friend's mysterious journey, and his tantalizing hopes
lying untried in the depths of the ravine. He hardly noticed the
conversation of the men until something was said that touched upon the
wish nearest his heart.
"I war studyin' 'bout lettin' Birt hev a day off," said the tanner.
"An' ye'll bide hyar."
"Naw, Jube—naw!" Andy Byers replied with stalwart independence
to his employer. "I hev laid off ter attend. Ef ye want ennybody ter
bide with the tanyard, an' keer fur this hyar pit, ye kin do it yerse'f,
or else Birt kin. I hev laid off ter attend."
Andy Byers was a man of moods. His shaggy eyebrows to-day
overshadowed eyes sombre and austere. He seemed, if possible, a little
slower than was his wont. He bore himself with a sour solemnity, and he
was at once irritable and dejected.
"Shucks, Andy! ye knows ye ain't no kin sca'cely ter the old woman; ye
couldn't count out how ye air kin ter her ter save yer life. Now,
I'm obleeged ter attend."
It so happened that the tanner's great-aunt was distantly related to
Andy Byers. Being ill, and an extremely old woman, she was supposed to
be lying at the point of death, and her kindred had been summoned to hear
her last words.
"I hed 'lowed ter gin Birt a day off, 'kase I hev got ter hev the mule
in the wagon, an' he can't grind bark. I promised Birt a day
off," the tanner continued.
"That thar's twixt ye an' Birt. I hain't got no call ter meddle,"
said the obdurate Byers. "Ye kin bide with the tanyard an' finish this
job yerse'f, of so minded. I'm goin' ter attend."
"I reckon half the kentry-side will be thar, an' I wants ter
see the folks," said Jubal Perkins, cheerfully.
"Then Birt will hev ter bide with the tanyard, an' finish this job.
It don't lie with me ter gin him a day off. I don't keer ef he never
gits a day off," said Byers.
This was an unnecessarily unkind speech, and Birt's anger flamed
"Ef we-uns war of a size, Andy Byers," he said, hotly, "I'd make ye
divide work a leetle more ekal than ye does."
Andy Byers dropped the hide in his hands, and looked steadily across
the pit at Birt, as if he were taking the boy's measure.
"Ye mean ter say ef ye hed the bone an' muscle ye'd knock me down, do
ye?" he sneered. "Waal, I'll take the will fur the deed. I'll hold the
grudge agin ye, jes' the same."
They were all three busied about the pit. The hides had been taken
out, and stratified anew, with layers of fresh tan, reversing the
original order,—those that had been at the bottom now being placed
at the top. The operation was almost complete before Jubal Perkins
received the news of his relative's precarious condition. He had no
doubt that Birt was able to finish it properly, and the boy's
conscientious habit of doing his best served to make the tanner's mind
quite easy. As to the day off, he was glad to have that question settled
by a quarrel between his employees, thus relieving him of
Birt's wrath was always evanescent, and he was sorry a moment
afterward for what he had said. Andy Byers exchanged no more words with
him, and skillfully combined a curt and crusty manner toward him with an
aspect of contemplative dreariness. Occasionally, as they paused to
rest, Byers would sigh deeply.
"A mighty good old woman, Mrs. Price war." He spoke as if she were
already dead. "A mighty good old woman, though small-sized."
"A little of her went a long way. She war eighty-four year old, an'
kep' a sharp tongue in her head ter the las'," rejoined the tanner,
adopting in turn the past tense.
Rufe listened with startled interest. Now and then he cocked up his
speculative eyes, and gazed fixedly into the preternaturally solemn face
of Byers, who reiterated, "A good old woman, though small-sized."
With this unaccustomed absorption Rufe's accomplishment of getting
under-foot became pronounced. The tanner jostled him more than once,
Birt stumbled against his toes, and Byers, suddenly turning, ran quite
over him. Rufe had not far to fall, but Byers was a tall man. His arms
swayed like the sails of a windmill in the effort to recover his
balance. He was in danger of toppling into the pit, and in fact only
caught himself on his knees at its verge.
"Ye torment!" he roared angrily, as he struggled to his feet. "G'way
from hyar, or I'll skeer ye out'n yer wits!"
The small boy ruefully gathered his members together, and after the
men had started on their journey he sat down on a pile of wood hard by to
give Birt his opinion of Andy Byers.
"He air a toler'ble mean man, ain't he, Birt?"
But Birt said he had no mind to talk about Andy Byers.
"Skeer me!" exclaimed Rufe, doughtily. "It takes a heap ter
He got up presently, and going into the shed began to examine the
tools of the trade which were lying there. He had the two-handled knife,
with which he was about to try his skill on a hide that was stretched
over the beam of the wooden horse, when Birt glanced up and came hastily
to the rescue. Rufe was disposed to further investigate the appliances
of the tanyard left defenseless at his mercy, but at last Birt prevailed
on him to go home and play with Tennessee, and was glad enough to see his
tow-head, with his old hat perched precariously on it, bobbing up and
down among the low bushes, as he wended his way along the path through
The hides had all been replaced between layers of fresh tan before the
men left, and Birt had only to fill up the space above with a thicker
layer, ten or fifteen inches deep, and put the boards securely across the
top of the pit, with heavy stones upon them to weight them down. But
this kept him busy all the rest of the afternoon.
Rufe was pretty busy too. When he came in sight of home Tennessee was
the first object visible in the open passage. The sunshine slanted
through it under the dusky roof, and the shadows of the chestnut-oak,
hard by, dappled the floor. Lying there was an old Mexican saddle, for
which there was no use since the horse had died. Tennessee was mounted
upon it, the reins in her hands, the headstall and bit poised on the
peaked pommel. She jounced back and forth, and the skirts of the saddle
flapped and the stirrups clanked on the floor, and the absorbed eyes of
the little mountaineer were fixed on space.
Away and away she cantered on some splendid imaginary palfrey, through
scenes where conjecture fails to follow her: a land, doubtless, where all
the winds blow fair, and sparkling waters run, and jeopardy delights, and
fancy's license prevails—all very different, you may be sure, from
the facts, an old saddle on a puncheon floor, and a little black-eyed
How far Tennessee journeyed, and how long she was gone, it is
impossible to say. She halted suddenly when her attention was attracted
to a phenomenon within one of the rooms.
The door was ajar and the solitary Rufe was visible in the dusky
vista. He stood before a large wooden chest. He had lifted the lid, and
kept it up by resting it upon his head, bent forward for the purpose,
while he rummaged the contents with vandal hands.
Tennessee stared at him, with indignant surprise gathering in her
Now that chest contained, besides a meagre store of quilts and
comforts, her own and her mother's clothes, the fewer garments of the
boys of the family being alternately suspended on the clothes-line and
their own frames. She resented the sacrilege of Rufe's invasion of that
chest. She turned on the saddle and looked around with an air of
appeal. Her mother, however, was down the hill beside the spring, busy
boiling soap, and quite out of hearing. Tennessee gazed vaguely for a
moment at the great kettle with the red and yellow flames curling around
it, and her mother's figure hovering over it. Then she looked back at
He continued industriously churning up the contents of the chest, the
lid still poised upon that head that served so many other useful
purposes—for the gymnastic exhibition involved in standing on it;
for his extraordinary mental processes; for a lodgment for his old wool
hat, and a field for his crop of flaxen hair.
All the instinct of the proprietor was roused within Tennessee. She
found her voice, a hoarse, infantile wheeze.
"Tum out'n chist!" she exclaimed, gutturally. "Tum out'n chist!"
Rufe turned his tow-head slowly, that he might not disturb the poise
of the lid of the chest resting upon it. He fixed a solemn stare on
Tennessee, and drawing one hand from the depths of the chest, he silently
shook his fist. And then he resumed his researches.
Tennessee, alarmed by this impressive demonstration, dismounted
hastily from the saddle as soon as his threatening gaze was withdrawn.
She tangled her feet in the stirrups and her hands in the reins, and lost
more time in scrambling off the floor of the passage and down upon the
ground; but at last she was fairly on her way to the spring to convey an
account to her mother of the outlaw in the chest. In fact, she was not
far from the scene of the soap-boiling when she heard her name shouted in
stentorian tones, and pausing to look back, she saw Rufe gleefully
capering about in the passage, the headstall on his own head, the bit
hanging on his breast, and the reins dangling at his heels.
Now this beguilement the little girl could never withstand, and indeed
few people ever had the opportunity to drive so frisky and high-spirited
a horse as Rufe was when he consented to assume the bit and bridle. He
was rarely so accommodating, as he preferred the role of driver, with
what he called "a pop-lashee!" at command. She forgot her
tell-tale mission. She turned with a gurgle of delight and began to
toddle up the hill again. And presently Mrs. Dicey, glancing toward the
house, saw them playing together in great amity, and rejoiced that they
gave her so little trouble.
They were still at it when Birt came home, but then Tennessee was
tired of driving, and he let her go with him to the wood-pile and sit on
a log while he swung the axe. No one took special notice of Rufe's
movements in the interval before supper. He disappeared for a time, but
when the circle gathered around the table he was in his place and by no
means a non-combatant in the general onslaught on the corn-dodgers.
Afterward he came out in the passage and sat quietly among the
The freshened air was fragrant, and how the crickets were chirring in
the grass! On every spear the dew was a-glimmer, for a lustrous moon
shone from the sky. Somehow, despite the long roads of light that this
splendid pioneer blazed out in the wilderness, it seemed only to reveal
the loneliness of the forests, and to give new meaning to the solemnity
of the shadows. The heart was astir with some responsive thrill that
jarred vaguely, and was pain. Yet the night had its melancholy
fascination, and they were all awake later than usual. When at last the
doors were barred, and the house grew still, and even the vigilant Towse
had ceased to bay and had lodged himself under the floor of the passage,
the moon still shone in isolated effulgence, for the faint stars faded
The knowledge that in all the vast stretch of mountain fastnesses he
was the only human creature that beheld it, as it majestically crossed
the meridian, gave Andy Byers a forlorn feeling, while tramping along
homeward. He had made the journey afoot, some eight miles down the
valley, and was later far in returning than others who had heeded the
summons of the sick woman. For she still lay in the same critical
condition, and his mind was full of dismal forebodings as he toiled along
the road on the mountain's brow. The dark woods were veined with
shimmering silver. The mists, hovering here and there, showed now a blue
and now an amber gleam as the moon's rays conjured them. On one side of
the road an oak tree had been uptorn in a wind-storm; the roots, carrying
a great mass of earth with them, were thrust high in the air, while the
bole and leafless branches lay prone along the ground. This served as a
break in the density of the forest, and the white moonshine possessed the
As he glanced in that direction his heart gave a great bound, then
seemed suddenly to stand still. There, close to the verge of the road,
as if she had stepped aside to let him pass, was the figure of an old
woman—a small-sized woman, tremulous and bent. It looked like old
Mrs. Price! As he paused amazed, with starting eyes and failing limbs,
the wind fluttered her shawl and her ample sunbonnet. This shielded her
face and he could not see her features. Her head seemed to turn toward
him. The next instant it nodded at him familiarly.
To the superstitions mountaineer this suggested that the old woman had
died since he had left her house, and here was her ghost already vagrant
in the woods!
The foolish fellow did not wait to put this fancy to the test. With a
piercing cry he sprang past, and fled like a frightened deer through the
In his own house he hardly felt more secure. He could not rest—
he could not sleep. He stirred the embers with a trembling hand, and sat
shivering over them. His wife, willing enough to believe in "harnts"* as
appearing to other people, was disposed to repudiate them when they
presumed to offer their dubious association to members of her own family
"Dell-law!" she exclaimed scornfully. "I say harnt! Old Mrs. Price,
though spry ter the las', war so proud o' her age an' her ailments that
she wouldn't hev nobody see her walk a step, or stand on her feet, fur
nuthin'. Her darter-in-law tole me ez the only way ter find out how
nimble she really be war ter box one o' her gran'chill'n, an' then she'd
bounce out'n her cheer, an' jounce round the room after thar daddy or
mammy, whichever hed boxed the chill'n. That fursaken couple always hed
ter drag thar chill'n out in the woods, out'n earshot of the house, ter
whip 'em, an' then threat 'em ef they dare let thar granny know they hed
been struck. But elsewise she hed ter be lifted from her bed ter her
cheer by the h'a'th. She wouldn't hev her sperit seen a-walkin'
way up hyar a-top o' the mounting, like enny healthy harnt, fur nuthin'
in this worl'. Whatever 'twar, 'twarn't her. An' I reckon of the
truth war knowed, 'twarn't nuthin' at all - forg, mebbe."
This stalwart reasoning served to steady his nerves a little. And
when the moon went down and the day was slowly breaking, he took his way,
with a vacillating intention and many a chilling doubt, along the winding
road to the scene of his fright.
It was not yet time by a good hour or more to go to work, and nothing
was stirring. A wan light was on the landscape when he came in sight of
the great tree prone upon the ground. And there, close to the edge of
the road, as if she had stepped aside to let him pass, was the figure of
a little, bent old woman—nay, in the brightening dawn, a
bush—a blackberry bush, clad in a blue-checked apron, a red plaid
shawl, and with a neat sunbonnet nodding on its topmost spray.
His first emotion was intense relief. Then he stood staring at the
bush in rising indignation. This sandy by-way of a road led only to his
own house, and this image of a small and bent old woman had doubtless
been devised, to terrify him, by some one who knew of his mission, and
that he could not return except by this route.
Only for a moment did he feel uncertain as to the ghost-maker's
identity. There was something singularly familiar to him in the plaid of
the shawl—even in the appearance of the bonnet, although it was now
limp and damp. He saw it at "meet'n" whenever the circuit rider
preached, and he presently recognized it. This was Mrs. Dicey's
His face hardened. He set his teeth together. An angry flush flared
to the roots of his hair.
Not that he suspected the widow of having set this trap to frighten
him. He was not learned, nor versed in feminine idiosyncrasies, but it
does not require much wisdom to know that on no account whatever does a
woman's best bonnet stay out all night in the dew, intentionally. The
presence of her bonnet proved the widow's alibi.
Like a flash he remembered Birt's anger the previous day. "Told me
he'd make me divide work mo' ekal, an' ez good ez said he'd knock me down
ef he could. An' I told him I'd hold the grudge agin him jes' the
same—an' I will!"
He felt sure that it was Birt who had thus taken revenge, because he
was kept at work while his fellow-laborer was free to go.
Byers thought the boy would presently come to take the garments home,
and conceal his share in the matter, before any one else would be likely
to stir abroad.
"An' I'll hide close by with a good big hickory stick, an' I'll gin
him a larrupin' ez he won't furgit in a month o' Sundays," he resolved,
He opened his clasp-knife, and walked slowly into the woods, looking
about for a choice hickory sprout. He did not at once find one of a size
that he considered appropriate to the magnitude of Birt's wickedness, and
he went further perhaps than he realized, and stayed longer.
He had a smile of stern satisfaction on his face when he was lopping
off the leaves and twigs of a specimen admirably adapted for vengeance.
He was stealthy in returning, keeping behind the trees, and slipping
softly from bole to bole. At last, as the winding road was once more in
view, he crouched down behind the roots of the great fallen oak.
"I don't want him ter git a glimge of me, an' skeer him off afore I
kin lay a-holt on him," he said.
He intended to keep the neighboring bush under close watch, and
through the interlacing roots he peered out furtively at it. His eyes
distended and he hastily rose from his hiding-place.
The blackberry bush was swaying in the wind, clothed only in its own
scant and rusty leaves. A wren perched on a spray, chirped cheerful
His scheme was thwarted. The boy had come and gone in his absence, all
unaware of his proximity and the impending punishment so narrowly
But when Andy Byers reached the tanyard and went to work, he said
nothing to Birt. He did not even allude to the counterfeit apparition in
the woods, although Mrs. Price's probable recovery was more than once
under discussion among the men who came and went,—indeed, she lived
many years thereafter, to defend her lucky grandchildren against every
device of discipline. Byers had given heed to more crafty counsels. On
the whole he was now glad that he had not had the opportunity to make
Birt and the hickory sprout acquainted with each other. This would be an
acknowledgment that he had been terrified by the manufactured ghost, and
he preferred foregoing open revenge to encountering the jocose tanner's
ridicule, and the gibes that would circulate at his expense throughout
the country-side. But he cherished the grievance, and he resolved that
Birt should rue it. He had expected that Birt would boast of having
frightened him. He intended to admit that he had been a trifle startled,
and in treating the matter thus lightly he hoped it would seem that the
apparition was a failure.
However, day by day passed and nothing was said. The ghost vanished
as mysteriously as it had come. Only Mrs. Dicey, taking her bonnet and
apron and shawl from the chest, was amazed at the extraordinary manner in
which they were folded and at their limp condition, and when she found a
bunch of cockle-burs in the worsted fringes of the shawl she declared
that witches must have had it, for she had not worn it since early in
April when there were no cockle-burs. She forthwith nailed a horseshoe
on the door to keep the witches out, and she never liked the shawl so
well after she had projected a mental picture of a lady wearing it,
riding on a broomstick, and sporting also a long peaked nose.
Birt hardly noticed the crusty and ungracious conduct of Andy Byers
toward him. He worked on doggedly, scheming all the time to get off from
the tanyard, and wondering again and again why Nate had gone, and where,
and when he would return.
One day—a gray day it was and threatening rain—as he came
suddenly out of the shed, he saw a boy at the bars. It was Nate Griggs!
No; only for a moment he thought this was Nate. But this fellow's eyes
were not so close together; his hair was less sandy; there were no facial
indications of extreme slyness. It was only Nathan's humble likeness,
his younger brother, Timothy.
He had Nate's coat thrown over his arm, and he shouldered his
Tim came slouching slowly into the tanyard, a good-natured grin on his
face. He paused only to knock Rufe's hat over his eyes, as the small boy
stood in front of the low-spirited mule, both hands busy with the
animal's mouth, striving to open his jaws to judge by his teeth how old
he might be.
"The critter'll bite ye, Rufe!" Birt exclaimed, for as Rufe stooped to
pick up his hat the mule showed some curiosity in his turn, and was
snuffling at Rufe's hay-colored hair.
Rufe readjusted his head-gear, and ceasing his impolite researches
into the mule's age, came up to the other two boys. Tim had paused by
the shed, and leaning upon the rifle, began to talk.
"I war a-passin' by, an' I thought I'd drap in on ye."
"Hev you-uns hearn from Nate since he hev been gone away?" demanded
"He hev come home," responded Tim.
"When did he git home?" Birt asked with increasing suspicion.
"Las' week," said Tim carelessly.
Another problem! Why had Nate not communicated with his partner about
their proposed work? It seemed a special avoidance.
"I onderstood ez how he aimed ter bide away longer," Birt
"He did count on stayin' longer," said Tim, "but he rid night an' day
ter git hyar sooner. It 'pears like ter me he war in sech a hurry so ez
ter start me ter work, and nuthin' else in this worl'. I owe Nate
a debt, ye see, an' I hev ter work it out. I hev been so onlucky ez I
couldn't make out ter pay him nohow in the worl'. Ye see, I traded with
Nate fur a shoat, an' the spiteful beastis sneaked out'n my pen, an' went
rootin' round the aidge o' the clearin', an' war toted off bodaciously by
a bar ez war a-prowlin' round thar. An' I got no good o' that thar
shoat, 'kase the bar hed him, but I hed to pay fur him all the same. An'
dad gin his cornsent ter Nate ter let me work a month an' better fur him,
ter pay out'n debt fur the shoat."
"What work be you-uns goin' ter do?" Birt had a strong impression,
amounting to a conviction, that there was something behind all this,
which he was slowly approaching.
"Why," said Tim, in surprise, "hain't ye hearn bout'n Nate's new land
what he hev jes' got 'entered' ez he calls it? He hev got a grant fur it
from the land-office down yander in Sparty, whar he hev been."
"New land—'entered!'" faltered Birt.
Tim nodded. "Nate fund a trac' o' land a-layin' ter suit his mind
what b'longed ter nobody but the State—vacant land, ye
see—an' so he went ter the 'entry-taker,' they calls him, an' gits
it 'entered,' an' the surveyor kem an' medjured it, an' then Nate got a
grant fur it, an' now it air his'n. The Gov'nor o' the State hev sot his
name ter that thar grant—the Gov'nor o' Tennessee!" reiterated Tim
pridefully. "An' the great seal o' the State!"
"Whar be the land?" gasped Birt, possessed by a dreadful fear.
His face was white, its muscles rigid. Its altered expression could
not for an instant have escaped the notice of Timothy's brother
"Why, it lays bout'n haffen mile off—all down the ravine nigh
that thar salt-lick; but look-a-hyar, Birt—what ails ye?"
The stunned despair in the white face had at last arrested his
"Don't ye be mindin' of me—I feel sorter porely an' sick all of
a suddint; tell on 'bout the land an' sech," said Birt.
He sat down on the end of the wood-pile, and Tim, still leaning on the
rifle, recommenced. He was generally much cowed and kept down by Nate,
and was unaccustomed to respect and consideration. Therefore he felt a
certain gratification in having so attentive a listener.
"Waal, I never hearn o' this fashion o' enterin' land like Nate done
in all my life afore; though dad say that's the law in Tennessee, ter git
a title ter vacant land ez jes' b'longs ter the State. Mebbe them air
the ways ez Nate l'arned whilst he war a-hangin' round the Settlemint so
constant, an' forever talkin' ter the men thar."
Birt's precocity had never let him feel at a disadvantage with Nate,
although his friend was five years older. Now he began to appreciate
that Nate was indeed a man grown, and had become sophisticated in the
ways of his primitive world by his association with the other men at the
There was a pause. But the luxury of being allowed to talk without
contradiction or rebuke presently induced Tim to proceed.
"He war hyar mighty nigh all day long," he said reflectively. "He eat
his dinner along of we-uns."
"Who? the Gov'nor o' the State?" exclaimed Birt, astounded.
"Naw, 'twarn't him," Tim admitted somewhat reluctantly, since
Birt seemed disposed to credit "we-uns" with a gubernatorial guest.
"It's the surveyor I'm talkin' 'bout. Nate hed ter pay him three dollars
an' better fur medjurin' the land. He tole Nate ez his land war ez steep
an' rocky a spot ez thar war in Tennessee from e-end ter e-end. He axed
Nate what ailed him ter hanker ter pay taxes on sech a pack o' bowlders
an' bresh. He 'lowed the land warn't wuth a cent an acre."
"What did Nate say?" asked Birt, who hung with feverish interest on
every thoughtless word.
"Waal, Nate 'lows ez he hev fund a cur'ous metal on his land; he say
it air gold!" Tim opened his eyes very wide, and smacked his
lips, as if the word tasted good. "He 'lowed ez he needn't hev been in
sech a hurry ter enter his land, 'kase the entry-taker told it ter him ez
it air the law in Tennessee ez ennybody ez finds a mine or val'able
min'ral on vacant land hev got six months extry ter enter the land afore
ennybody else kin, an' ef ennybody else wants ter enter it, they hev ter
gin the finder o' the mine thirty days' notice."
Tim winked, an impressive demonstration but for the insufficiency of
"The surveyor he misdoubted, an' 'lowed ez gold hed never been fund in
these parts. He said they fund gold in them mountings furder east 'bout
twenty odd year ago—in 1831, I believe he said. He 'lowed them
mountings hain't got no coal like our'n hev, an' the Cumberland Mountings
hain't got no gold. An' then in a minit he tuk ter misdoubtin' on the
t'other side o' his mouth. He 'lowed ez Nate's min'ral mought be
gold, an' then ag'in it moughtn't."
The essential difference between these two extremes has afforded scope
for vacillation to more consistent men than the surveyor.
"Thar's the grant right now, in the pocket o' Nate's coat," said Tim,
shifting the garment on his arm to show a stiff, white folded paper
sticking out of the breast pocket. "I reckon when he tole me ter tote
his gun an' coat home, he furgot the grant war in his pocket, 'kase he
fairly dotes on it, an' won't trest it out'n his sight."
Nate was in the habit of exacting similar services from his
acquiescent younger brother, and Tim had his hands full, as he tried to
hold the gun, and turn the coat on his arm. He finally hung the garment
on a peg in the shed, and shouldered the weapon. Suddenly he whirled
around toward Rufe, who was still standing by.
"What in the nation air inside o' that thar boy?" he exclaimed. "A
chicken, ain't it?"
For a musical treble chirping was heard proceeding apparently from
Rufe's pocket. This chicken differed from others that Rufe had put away,
in being alive and hearty.
The small boy entered into the conversation with great spirit, to tell
that a certain hen which he owned had yesterday come off her nest with
fourteen of the spryest deedies that ever stepped. One in especial had
so won upon Rufe by its beauty and grace of deportment that he was
carrying it about with him, feeding it at close intervals, and housing it
in the security of his pocket.
The deedie hardly made a moan. There was no use in remonstrating with
Rufe,—everything that came within his eccentric orbit seemed to
realize that,—and the deedie was contentedly nestling down in his
pocket, apparently resigned to lead the life of a portemonnaie.
Rufe narrated with pardonable pride the fact that, some time before,
his great-uncle, Rufus Dicey, had sent to him from the "valley kentry" a
present of a pair of game chickens, and that this deedie was from the
first egg hatched in the game hen's brood.
But Rufe was not selfish. He offered to give Tim one of the chicks.
Now poultry was Tim's weakness. He accepted with more haste than was
seemly, and at once asked for the deedie in the small boy's pocket.
Rufe, however, refused to part from the chick of his adoption, and
presently Tim, with the gun on his shoulder, left the tanyard in company
with Rufe, to look over the brood of game chicks, and make a selection
from among them.
Birt hardly noticed what they did or said. Every faculty was absorbed
in considering the wily game which his false friend had played so
successfully. It was all plain enough now. The fruit of his discovery
would be plucked by other hands. There was to be no division of the
profits. Nate Griggs had coveted the whole. His craft had secured it
for himself alone. He had the legal title to the land, the
mine—all! There seemed absolutely no vulnerable point in his
scheme. With suddenly sharpened perceptions, Birt realized that if he
should now claim the discovery and the consequent right of thirty days'
notice of Nate's intention, by virtue of the priority of entering land
accorded by the statute to the finder of a mine or valuable mineral, it
would be considered a groundless boast, actuated by envy and jealousy.
He had told no one but Nate of his discovery—and would not Nate now
However, one thing in the future was certain,—Nathan Griggs
should not escape altogether scathless. For a long time Birt sat
motionless, revolving vengeful purposes in his mind. Every moment he
grew more bitter, as he reflected upon his wrecked scheme, his wonderful
fatuity, and the double dealing of his chosen coadjutor. But he would
get even with Nate Griggs yet; he promised himself that,—he would
At last the falling darkness warned him home. When he rose his limbs
trembled, his head was in a whirl, and the familiar scene swayed, strange
and distorted, before him. He steadied himself after a moment, finished
the odd jobs he had left undone, and presently was trudging homeward.
A heavy black cloud overhung the woods; an expectant stillness brooded
upon the sultry world; an angry storm was in the air. The first vivid
flash and simultaneous peal burst from the sky as he reached the passage
between the two rooms.
"Ye air powerful perlite ter come a-steppin' home jes' at
supper-time," said his mother advancing to meet him. "Ye lef' no wood
hyar, an' ye said ye would borry the mule, an' come home early a-purpose
to haul some. An' me hyar with nuthin' to cook supper with but sech
chips an' blocks an' bresh ez I could pick up off'n the groun'."
Birt's troubles had crowded out the recollection of this domestic
"I clean furgot," he admitted, penitently. Then he asked suddenly,
"An' whar war Rufe, an' Pete, an' Joe, ez ye hed ter go ter
pickin' up of chips an' sech off'n the groun'?"
He turned toward the group of small boys. "Air you-uns all disabled
somehows, ez ye can't pick up chips an' bresh an' sech?" he said. "An'
ef ye air, whyn't ye go ter the tanyard arter me?"
"They war all off in the woods, a-lookin' arter Rufe's trap ez ye sot
fur squir'ls," Mrs. Dicey explained. "It hed one in it, an' I cooked it
Birt said that he could go out early with his axe and cut enough wood
for breakfast tomorrow, and then he fell silent. Once or twice his
preoccupied demeanor called forth comment.
"Whyn't ye eat some o' the squir'l, Birt?" his mother asked at the
supper table. "Pears-like ter me ez it air cooked toler'ble tasty."
Birt could not eat. He soon rose from the table and resumed his chair
by the window, and for half an hour no word passed between them.
The thunder seemed to roll on the very roof of the cabin, and it
trembled beneath the heavy fall of the rain. At short intervals a
terrible blue light quivered through crevices in the "daubin'" between
the logs of the wall, and about the rude shutter which closed the
glassless window. Now and then a crash from the forest told of a riven
tree. But the storm had no terrors for the inmates of this humble
dwelling. Pete and Joe had already gone to bed; Tennessee had fallen
asleep while playing on the floor, and Rufe dozed peacefully in his
chair. Even Mrs. Dicey nodded as she knitted, the needles sometimes
dropping from her nerveless hand.
Birt silently watched the group for a time in the red light of the
smouldering fire and the blue flashes from without. At length he softly
rose and crept noiselessly to the door; the fastening was the primitive
latch with a string attached; it opened without a sound in his cautious
handling, and he found himself in the pitchy darkness outside, the wild
mountain wind whirling about him, and the rain descending in steady
He had stumbled only a few steps from the house when he thought he
indistinctly heard the door open again. He dreaded his mother's
questions, but he stopped and looked back.
He saw nothing. There was no sound save the roar of the wind, the
dash of the rain, and the commotion among the branches of the trees.
He went on once more, absorbed in his dreary reflections and the
fierce anger that burned in his heart.
"I'll git even with Nate Griggs," he said, over and again. "I'll git
even with him yit."
When Birt reached the fence, he discovered that the bars were down.
Rufe had forgotten to replace them that afternoon when he drove in the
cow to be milked. Despite his absorption, Birt paused to put them up,
remembering the vagrant mountain cattle that might stray in upon the
corn. He found the familiar little job difficult enough, for it seemed
to him that there was never before so black a night. Even looking
upward, he could not see the great wind-tossed boughs of the chestnut-oak
above his head. He only knew they were near, because acorns dropped upon
the rail in his hands, and rebounded resonantly. But an owl, blown
helplessly down the gale, was not much better off, for all its vaunted
nocturnal vision. As it drifted by, on the currents of the wind, its
noiseless, out-stretched wings, vainly flapping, struck Birt suddenly in
the face, and frightened by the collision, it gave an odd, peevish
Birt, too, was startled for a moment. Then he exclaimed irritably,
"Oh, g'way owel"—realizing what had struck him.
The next moment he paused abruptly. He thought he heard, close at
hand, amongst the glooms, a faint chuckle. Something—was
it?—somebody laughing in the darkness?
He stood intently listening. But now he heard only the down-pour of
the rain, the sonorous gusts of the wind, the multitudinous voices of the
He said to himself that it was fancy. "All this trouble ez I hev hed
along o' Nate Griggs hev mighty nigh addled my brains."
The name recalled his resolve.
"I'll git even with him, though. I'll git even with him yit," he
reiterated as he plodded on heavily down the path, his mind once more
busy with all the details of his discovery, his misplaced confidence, and
the wreck of his hopes.
It seemed so hard that he should never before have heard of "entering
land," and of that law of the State according priority to the finder of
mineral. The mine was his, but he had hid the discovery from all but
Nate, who claimed it himself, and had secured the legal title.
"But I'll git even with him," he said resolutely between his set
He had thought it a lucky chance to remember, in his reverie before
the fire-lit hearth, that peg in the shed at the tanyard on which Tim had
hung his brother's coat. Somehow the episode of the afternoon had left
so vivid an impression on Birt's mind that hours afterward he seemed to
see the dull, clouded sky, the sombre, encircling woods, the brown
stretch of spent tan, the little gray shed, and within it, hanging upon a
peg, the butternut jeans coat, a stiff white paper protruding from its
That grant, he thought, had taken from him his rights. He would
destroy it—he would tear it into bits, and cast it to the turbulent
mountain winds. It was not his, to be sure. But was it justly Nate's? -
he had no right to enter the land down the ravine.
And so Birt argued with his conscience.
Now wherever Conscience calls a halt, it is no place for Reason to
debate the question. The way ahead is no thoroughfare.
Birt did not recognize the tearing of the paper as stealing, but he
knew that all this was morally wrong, although he would not admit it. He
would not forego his revenge—it was too dear; he was too deeply
injured. In the anger that possessed his every faculty, he did not
appreciate its futility.
There were other facts which he did not know. He was ignorant
that the deed which he contemplated was a crime in the estimation of the
law, a penitentiary offense.
And toward this terrible pitfall he trudged in the darkness, saying
over and again to himself, "I'll git even with Nate Griggs; he'll hev no
grant, no land, no gold—no more 'n me. I'll git even with
His progress seemed incredibly slow as he groped along the path. But
the rain soon ceased; the wind began to scatter the clouds; through a
rift he saw a great, glittering planet blazing high above their dark
How the drops pattered down as the wind tossed the laurel!—once
they sounded like footfalls close behind him. He turned and looked back
into the obscurities of the forest. Nothing—a frog had begun to
croak far away, and the vibrations of the katydid were strident on the
And here was the tanyard, a denser area of gloom marking where the
house and shed stood in the darkness. He did not hesitate. He stepped
over the bars, which lay as usual on the ground, and walked across the
yard to the shed. The eaves were dripping with moisture. But the coat,
still hanging within on the peg, was dry.
He had a thrill of repulsion when he touched it. His hand fell.
"But look how Nate hev treated me," he remonstrated with his
The next moment he had drawn the grant half-way out of the pocket, and
as he moved he almost stepped upon something close behind him. All at
once he knew what it was, even before a flash of the distant lightning
revealed a little tow-head down in the darkness, and a pair of black eyes
raised to his in perfect confidence.
It was the little sister who had followed him to-night, as she always
did when she could.
"Stand back thar, Tennessee!" he faltered.
He was trembling from head to foot. And yet Tennessee was far too
young to tell that she had seen the grant in his hands, to understand,
even to question. But had he been seized by the whole Griggs tribe, he
could not have been so panic-stricken as he was by the sight of that
unknowing little head, the touch of the chubby little hand on his
He thrust the grant back into the pocket of Nate's coat. His resolve
was routed by the presence of love and innocence. Not here— not
now could he be vindictive, malicious. With some urgent, inborn impulse
strongly constraining him, he caught the little sister in his arms, and
fled headlong through the darkness, homeward.
As he went he was amazed that he should have contemplated this
"Why, I can't afford ter be a scoundrel an' sech, jes' 'kase Nate
Griggs air a tricky feller an' hev fooled me. Ef Tennessee hedn't
stepped up so powerful peart I moughtn't hev come ter my senses in time.
I mought hev tore up Nate's grant by now. But arter this I ain't never
goin' ter set out ter act like a scamp jes' 'kase somebody else
His conscience had prevailed, his better self returned. And when he
reached home, and opening the door saw his mother still nodding over her
knitting, and Rufe asleep in his chair, and the fire smouldering on the
hearth, all as he had left it, he might have thought that he had dreamed
the temptation and his rescue, but for his dripping garments and
Tennessee in his arms all soaking with the rain.
The noise of his entrance roused his mother, who stared in drowsy
astonishment at the bedraggled apparition on the threshold.
"Tennie follered me ter the tanyard 'fore I fund her out," Birt
explained. "It 'pears ter hev rained on her, considerable," he added
Tennie was looking eagerly over her shoulder to note the effect of
this statement. Her streaming hair flirted drops of water on the floor;
her cheeks were ruddy; her black eyes brightened with apprehension.
"Waal, sir! that thar child beats all. Never mind, Tennie, ye'll meet
up with a wild varmint some day when ye air follerin' Birt off from the
house, an' I ain't surprised none ef it eats ye! But shucks!" Mrs. Dicey
continued impersonally, "I mought ez well save my breath; Tennie ain't
feared o' nuthin', ef Birt air by."
The word "varmint" seemed to recall something to Tennessee. She began
to chatter unintelligibly about an "owel," and to chuckle so, that
Birt had sudden light upon that mysterious laugh which he had heard
behind him at the bars.
In his pride in Tennessee he related how the owl had startled him, and
the little girl, invisible in the darkness, had laughed.
"Tennessee ain't pretty, I know, but she air powerful peart," he said,
affectionately, as he placed her upon her feet on the floor.
Birt was out early with his axe the next day. The air was
delightfully pure after the rain-storm; the sky, gradually becoming
visible, wore the ideal azure; the freshened foliage seemed tinted anew.
And the morning was pierced by the gilded, glittering javelins of the
sunrise, flung from over the misty eastern mountains. As the day dawned
all sylvan fascinations were alert in the woods. The fragrant winds were
garrulous with wild legends of piney gorges; of tumultuous cascades
fringed by thyme and mint and ferns. Every humble weed lent odorous
suggestions. The airy things all took to wing. And the spider was
Birt had felled a slender young ash, and was cutting it into lengths
for the fireplace, when he noticed a squirrel, sleek woodland dandy,
frisking about a rotten log at some little distance, by the roadside.
Suddenly the squirrel paused, then nimbly sped away. There was the
sound of approaching hoofs along the road, and presently from around the
curve a woman appeared mounted on a sorrel mare, and with a long-legged
colt ambling in the rear.
It was Mrs. Griggs, setting out on a journey of some ten miles to
visit her married daughter who lived on a neighboring spur. She had
taken an early start to "git rid o' the heat o' the noon," as she
explained to Mrs. Dicey, who had run out to the rail fence when she
reined up beside it. Birt dropped his axe and joined them, expecting to
hear more about Nate's grant and the gold mine. Rufe and Tennessee added
their company without any definite intention. Pete and Joe were hurrying
out of the house toward the group. All the dogs congregated, some of
them climbing over the fence to investigate the colt, which was skittish
under the ordeal. Even the turkey-gobbler, strutting on the outskirts of
the assemblage, had an attentive aspect, as if he, too, relished the
Mrs. Griggs's pink calico sunbonnet surmounted the cap with the
explanatory ruffle. She carried a fan of turkey feathers, and with
appropriate gesticulation, it aided in expounding to Mrs. Dicey the
astonishing news that Nate had found a gold mine on vacant land, and had
entered the tract. They intended to send specimens to the State Assayer,
and they were all getting ready to begin work at once.
Another surprise to Birt! The ignorant mountain boy had never heard
of the Assayer. But indeed Nate had only learned of the existence of the
office and its uses during that memorable trip to Sparta.
The prideful Mrs. Griggs from her elevation, literal and metaphorical,
supplemented all this by the creditable statements that Nate had turned
twenty-one, had cast his vote, and had a right to a choice at the
Then she chirruped to the rawboned sorrel mare, and jogged off down
the road, followed by the frisky colt, whose long, slender legs when in
motion seemed so fragile that it was startling to witness the temerity
with which he kicked up his frolicsome heels. The dogs, with that odd
canine affectation of having just perceived the intruders, pursued them
with sudden asperity, barking and snapping, and at last came trotting
nimbly home, wagging their tails and with a dutiful mien.
Mrs. Dicey went back into the house, and sat for a time in envious
meditation, fairly silenced, and with her apron flung over her face.
Then she fell to lamenting that she had been working all her life for
nothing, and it would take so little to make the family comfortable, and
that her children seemed "disabled somehow in thar heads, an' though
always rootin' around in the woods, hed never fund no gold mine nor
nuthin' else out o' the common."
Birt kept silent, but the gloom and trouble in his face suddenly
touched her heart.
"Thar now, Birt!" she exclaimed, with a world of consolation in her
tones, "I don't mean ter say that, nuther. Ain't I a-thinkin' day an'
night o' how smart ye be—stiddy an' sensible an' hard-workin' jes'
like a man—an' what a good son ye hev been to me! An' the t'other
chill'n air good too, an' holps me powerful, though Rufe air hendered
some, by the comical natur o' the critter."
She broke out with a cheerful laugh, in which Birt could not join.
"An' I mus' be gittin' breakfus fur the chill'n," she said, kneeling
down on the hearth, and uncovering the embers which had been kept all
night under the ashes.
"Don't ye fret, sonny. I ain't goin' ter grudge Nate his gold mine.
I reckon sech a good son ez ye be, an' a gold mine too, would be too much
luck fur one woman. Don't ye fret, sonny."
Birt's self-control gave way abruptly. He rose in great agitation,
and started toward the door. Then he paused, and broke forth with
passionate incoherence, telling amidst sobs and tears the story of the
woodland's munificence to him, and how he had flung the gift away.
In recounting the hopes that had deluded him, the fears that had
gnawed, and the despair in which they were at last merged, he did not
notice, for a time, her look as she still knelt motionless before the
embers on the hearth.
He faltered, and grew silent; then stared dumbly at her.
She seemed as one petrified. Her face had blanched; its lines were as
sharp and distinct as if graven in stone; only her eyes spoke, an
eloquent anguish. Her faculties were numbed for a moment. But presently
there was a quiver in her chin, and her voice rang out.
And yet did she understand? did she realize the loss of the mine? For
it was not this that she lamented
"Birt Dicey!" she cried in an appalled tone. "Did ye hide it from yer
mother—an' tell Nate Griggs?"
Birt hung his head. The folly of it!
"What ailed ye, ter hide it from me?" she asked deprecatingly, holding
out her worn, hard-working hands. "Hev I ever done ye harm?"
"Nuthin' but good."
"Don't everybody know a boy's mother air bound ter take his part agin
all the worl'?"
"Everybody but me," said the penitent Birt.
"What ailed ye, ter hide it from me? What did ye 'low I'd do?"
"I 'lowed ye wouldn't want me ter go pardners with Nate," he said
"I reckon I wouldn't!" she admitted.
"Ye always said he war a snake in the grass."
"He hev proved that air a true word."
"I wisht I hedn't tole him!" cried Birt vainly. "I wisht I
He watched her with moody eyes as she rose at last with a sigh and
went mechanically about her preparations for breakfast.
There was a division between them. He felt the gulf widening.
"I jes' wanted it fur you-uns, ennyhow," he said, defending his
motives. "I 'lowed ez I mought make enough out'n it ter buy a
"I hain't got time ter sorrow 'bout'n no gold mine," she said
loftily. "I used ter believe ye set a heap o' store by yer mother, an'
war willin' ter trust her—ye an' me hevin' been through mighty hard
times together. But ye don't—I reckon ye never did. I hev los'
mo' than enny gold mine."
And this sorrow for a vanished faith resolved itself into tears with
which she salted her humble bread.
If she had had any relish for triumph, she might have found it in Birt's
astonishment to learn that she understood all the details of entering
land, which had been such a mystery to him.
"'Twar the commonest thing in the worl', whenst I war young, ter hear
'bout'n folks enterin' land," she said. "But nowadays thar ain't no talk
'bout'n it sca'cely, 'kase the best an' most o' the land in the State hev
all been tuk up an' entered—'ceptin' mebbe a trac', hyar an' thar,
full o' rock, an' so steep 't ain't wuth payin' the taxes on."
Simple as she was, she could have given him valuable counsel when it
was sorely needed. He hung about the house later than was his wont,
bringing in the store of wood for her work during the day, and "packing"
the water from the spring, with the impulse in his attention to these
little duties to make what amends he might.
When at last he started for the tanyard, he knew by the sun that he
was long over-due. He walked briskly along the path through the
sassafras and sumach bushes, on which the rain-drops still clung. He was
presently brushing them off in showers, for he had begun to run. It
occurred to him that this was no time to seem even a trifle remiss in his
work at the tanyard. Since he had lost all his hopes down the ravine,
the continuance of Jube Perkins's favor and the dreary routine with the
mule and the bark-mill were his best prospects. It would never do to
offend the tanner now.
"With sech a pack o' chill'n ter vittle ez we-uns hev got at our
house," he muttered.
As he came crashing through the underbrush into view of the tanyard,
he noticed instantly that it did not wear its usual simple, industrial
aspect. A group of excited men were standing in front of the shed, one
of them gesticulating wildly.
And running toward the bars came Tim Griggs, panting and white-faced,
and exclaiming incoherently at the sight of Birt.
"Oh, Birt," he cried, "I war jes' startin' to yer house arter you-uns;
they tole me to go an' fetch ye. Fur massy's sake, gimme Nate's grant.
I'm fairly afeared o' him. He'll break every bone I own." He held out
his hand. "Gimme the grant!"
"Nate's grant!" exclaimed Birt aghast. "I hain't got it! I hain't"
He paused abruptly. He could not say that he had not touched it.
Tim's wits were sharpened by the keen anxiety of the crisis. He
noticed the hesitation. "Ye hev hed it," he cried wildly. "Ye know ye
hev been foolin' with it. Ye know 'twar you-uns!"
He changed to sudden appeal. "Don't put the blame off on me, Birt,"
he pleaded. "I'm fairly afeared o' Nate."
"Ain't the grant in the pocket o' his coat—whar ye left it
hangin' on a peg in the shed?" asked Birt, dismayed.
"Naw—naw!" exclaimed Tim, despairingly. "He missed his coat
this mornin', bein' the weather war cooler, an' then the grant, an' he
sent me arter it. An' I fund the coat a-hangin' thar on the peg, whar I
hed lef' it, bein' ez I furgot it when I went off with Rufe ter look at
his chickens, an' the pocket war empty an' the paper gone! Nate hev kem
ter sarch, too!"
Once more he held out his hand. "Gimme the grant. Nate 'lows 'twar
you-uns ez tuk it, bein' ez I lef' it hyar."
Birt flushed angrily. "I'll say a word ter Nate Griggs!" he
And he pushed past the trembling Tim, and took his way briskly into
There was a vague murmur in the group as he approached, and Nate
Griggs came out from its midst, nodding his head threateningly. His hat,
thrust far back on his sandy hair, left in bold relief his long, thin
face with its small eyes, which seemed now so close together that his
glance had the effect of a squint. He scanned Birt narrowly.
This was the first time the two had met since Birt's ill-starred
confidence there by the bark-mill.
"What ails ye, ter 'low ez it air me ez hev got yer grant, Nate
Griggs?" Birt asked, steadily meeting the accusation.
The excitement had impaired for the moment Nate Griggs's cunning.
"'Kase," he blurted out, "ye hev been a-tryin' ter purtend ez ye fund
the mine fust, an' hev been a-tellin' folks 'bout'n it."
"Prove it," said Birt, in sudden elation. "Who war it I tole, an'
The sly Nathan caught his breath with a gasp. His craft had
Admit that to him Birt had divulged the discovery of the mine!
Confess, when! This would invalidate the entry!
"Ye tole Tim," Nate said shamelessly, "an' ez ter when—
'twar yestiddy evenin' at the tanyard. Didn't he, Tim?" And he whirled
around to his younger brother for confirmation of this audacious and
The abject Tim—poor tool!—frightened and cowering, nodded
to admit it. "Gimme the grant, Birt," he faltered, helplessly. "I
oughtn't ter hev furgot it."
"Look-a-hyar, Birt," said the tanner with a solemnity which the boy
did not altogether understand, "gin Nate the grant."
"I hain't got it," replied Birt, badgered and growing nervous.
"Tell him, then, ye never teched it."
Birt's impulse was to adopt the word. But he had seen enough of
falsehood. He had done with concealment.
"I did tech it," he said boldly, "but I hain't got it. I put it back
in the pocket o' the coat."
Jube Perkins laid a sudden hand upon his collar. "'Tain't no use
denyin' it, Birt," he said with the sharp cadence of dismay. "Gin the
grant back ter Nate, an' mebbe he won't go no furder 'bout'n it.
Stealin' a paper like that air a pen'tiary crime!"
Birt reeled under the word. He thought of his mother, the children.
He had a bitter foretaste of the suspense, the fear, the humiliation.
And he was helpless. For no one would believe him! His head was in a
whirl. He could not stand. He sank down upon the wood-pile, vaguely
hearing a word here and there of what was said in the crowd.
"His mother air a widder-woman," remarked one of the group. "An' she
air mighty poor."
Andy Byers was laughing cynically.
Absorbed though he was, Birt experienced a subacute wonder that any
one could feel so bitterly toward him as to laugh at a moment like this.
How had he made Andy Byers his enemy!
Nobody noticed it, for Nate was swaggering about in the crowd,
enjoying this conspicuous opportunity to display all the sophistications
he had acquired in his recent trip to Sparta. He was calling upon them
to witness that he did not care for the loss of the grant—the
paper was nothing to him!—for it was on record in the land
office, and he could get a certified copy from the register in no time at
all. But his rights were his rights!—and ten thousand
Diceys should not trample on them. Birt had doubtless thought, being
ignorant, that he could destroy the title by making away with the paper;
and if there was law in the State, he should suffer for it.
And after this elaborate rodomontade, Nate strode out of the tanyard,
with the obsequious Tim following humbly.
Birt told his story again and again, to satisfy curious questioners
during the days that ensued. And when he had finished they would look
significantly at one another, and chuckle incredulously.
The tanner seemed to earnestly wish to befriend him, and urged him to
confess. "The truth's the only thing ez kin save ye, Birt."
"I'm tellin' the truth," poor Birt would declare.
Then Jube Perkins argued the question: "How kin ye expec' ennybody ter
b'lieve ye when ye say Tennessee purvented ye from takin' the grant -
ennything the size o' leetle Tennie, thar."
And he pointed at the little sister, who was perched upon the
wood-pile munching an Indian peach.
Somehow Birt did not accurately define the moral force which she had
wielded, for he was untaught, and clumsy of speech, and could not
translate his feelings. And Jube Perkins was hardly fitted to understand
that subtle coercion of affection.
When he found that Birt would only reiterate that Tennie "kem along
unbeknown an' purvented" him, Jube Perkins gave up the effort at last,
convinced of his guilt.
And Andy Byers said that he was not surprised, for he had known for
some little time that Birt was a "most mischievious scamp."
Only his mother believed in him, requiting his lack of confidence in
her with a fervor of faith in him that, while it consoled, nevertheless
cut him to the heart. It has been many years since then, for all this
happened along in the fifties, but Birt has never forgotten how staunchly
she upheld him in every thought when all the circumstances belied him.
Now that misfortune had touched him, every trace of her caustic moods had
disappeared; she was all gentleness and tenderness toward him. And day
by day as he went to his work, meeting everywhere a short word, or a
slighting look, he felt that he could not have borne up, save for the
knowledge of that loyal heart at home.
He was momently in terror of arrest, and he often pondered on Nate's
uncharacteristic forbearance. Perhaps Nate was afraid that Birt's story,
told from the beginning in court, might constrain belief and affect the
validity of the entry.
Birt vainly speculated, too, upon the strange disappearance of the
grant. There it was in the pocket of the coat late that night, and the
next morning early—gone!
Sometimes he suspected that Nate had only made a pretense of losing
the grant, in order to accuse him and prejudice public opinion against
him, so that he might not be believed should he claim the discovery of
the mineral down the ravine.
His mother sought to keep him from dwelling upon his troubles. "We
won't cross the bredge till we git thar," she said. "Mebbe thar ain't
none ahead." But her fears for his sake tortured her silent hours when
he was away. When he came back from his work, there always awaited him a
bright fire, a good supper, and cheerful words as well, although these
were the most difficult to prepare. The dogs bounded about him,
Tennessee clung to his hand, the boys were hilarious and loud.
By reason of their mother's silence on the subject, that Birt might be
better able to go, and work, and hold up his head among the men who
suspected him, the children for a time knew nothing of what had
Now Rufe, although his faults were many and conspicuous, was not
lacking in natural affection. Had he understood that a cloud overhung
Birt, he could not have been so merry, so facetious, so queerly and
quaintly bad as he was on his visits to the tanyard, which were
peculiarly frequent just now. If Birt had had the heart for it, he might
have enjoyed some of Rufe's pranks at the expense of Andy Byers. The man
had once found a sort of entertainment in making fun of Rufe, and this
had encouraged the small boy to retaliate as best he could.
At this time, however, Byers suddenly became the gravest of men. He
took little notice of the wiles of his elfish antagonist, and whenever he
fell into a snare devised by Rufe, he was irritable for a moment, and had
forgotten it the next. He had never a word or glance for Birt, who
marveled at his conduct. He seemed perpetually brooding upon some
perplexity. Occasionally in the midst of his work he would stand
motionless for five minutes, the two-handled knife poised in his grasp,
his eyes fixed upon the ground, his shaggy brows heavily knitted, his
expression doubting, anxious.
The tanner commented upon this inactivity, one day. "Hev ye tuk root
thar, Andy?" he asked.
Byers roused himself with a start. "Naw," he replied reflectively,
"but I hev been troubled in my mind some, lately, an' I gits ter studyin'
powerful wunst in a while."
As he bent to his work, scraping the two-handled knife up and down the
hide stretched over the wooden horse, he added, "I hev got so ez I can't
relish my vittles sca'cely, bein' so tormented in my mind, an' my sleep
air plumb broke up; 'pears like ter me ez I hev got a reg'lar gift fur
"Been skeered by old Mis' Price's harnt lately?" Rufe asked suddenly
from his perch upon the wood-pile.
Byers whirled round abruptly, fixing an astonished gaze upon Rufe,
unmindful that the knife slipped from his grasp, and fell clanking upon
This grave, eager gaze Rufe returned with the gayest audacity.
"Been skeered by old Mis' Price's harnt lately?" he once more chirped
He was comical enough, as he sat on the top of the wood-pile, hugging
his knees with both arms, his old, bent, wool hat perched on the back of
his tow head, and all his jagged squirrel teeth showing themselves,
unabashed, in a wide grin.
Jubal Perkins laughed lazily, as he looked at him.
Then, with that indulgence which Rufe always met at the tanyard, and
which served to make him so pert and forward, the tanner said, humoring
the privileged character, "What be you-uns a-talkin' 'bout, boy? Mrs.
Price ain't dead."
"He hev viewed old Mis' Price's harnt," cried Rufe, pointing at
Andy Byers, with a jocosely crooked finger. "He air so peart an'
forehanded a-viewin' harnts, he don't hev to wait till folkses be dead.
He hev seen Mis' Price's harnt—an' it plumb skeered the wits
Perkins did not understand this. His interest was suddenly alert. He
took his pipe from his mouth, and glanced over his shoulder at Byers.
"What air Rufe aimin' at, Andy?" he asked, surprised.
Byers did not reply. He still gazed steadfastly at Rufe; the knife
lay unheeded on the ground at his feet, and the hide was slipping from
the wooden horse.
At last he said slowly, "Birt tole ye 'bout'n it, eh?"
"Naw, sir! Naw!" Rufe rocked himself fantastically to and fro in
imminent peril of toppling off the wood-pile. "'Twar Tom Byers ez tole
"Tom!" exclaimed Byers, with a galvanic start.
For Tom was his son, and he had not suspected filial treachery in the
matter of the spectral blackberry bush.
Rufe stared in his turn, not comprehending Byers's surprise.
"Tom," he reiterated presently, with mocking explicitness.
"Tom Byers—I reckon ye knows him. That thar freckled-faced,
snaggled-toothed, red-headed Tom Byers, ez lives at yer house. I reckon
ye mus' know him."
"Tom tole ye—what?" asked the tanner, puzzled by Byers's
grave, anxious face, and Rufe's mysterious sneers.
Rufe broke into the liveliest cackle. "Tom, he 'lowed ter me ez he
war tucked up in the trundle-bed, fast asleep, that night when his dad
got home from old Mis' Price's house, whar he had been ter hear her las'
words. Tom, he 'lowed he war dreamin' ez his gran'dad hed gin him a
calf—Tom say the calf war spotted red an' white—an' jes' ez
he war a-leadin' it home with him, his dad kem racin' inter the house
with sech a rumpus ez woke him up, an' he never got the calf along no
furder than the turn in the road. An' thar sot his dad in the cheer,
declarin' fur true ez he hed seen old Mis' Price's harnt in the woods,
an' b'lieved she mus' be dead afore now. An' though thar war a right
smart fire on the h'a'th, he war shiverin' an' shakin' over it, jes' the
same ez ef he war out at the wood-pile, pickin' up chips on a frosty
And Rufe crouched over, shivering in every limb, in equally excellent
mimicry of a ghost-seer, or an unwilling chip-picker under stress of
"My!" he exclaimed with a fresh burst of laughter; "whenst Tom tole me
'bout'n it I war so tickled I war feared I'd fall. I los' the use o' my
tongue. I couldn't stop laffin' long enough ter tell Tom what I war
laffin' at. An' ez Tom knowed I war snake-bit las' June, he went home
an' tole his mother ez the p'ison hed done teched me in the head, an'
said he reckoned, ef the truth war knowed, I hed fits ez a constancy. I
Once more the bewildered tanner glanced from one to the other.
"Why, ye never tole me ez ye hed seen su'thin' strange in the woods,
Andy," he exclaimed, feeling aggrieved, thus balked of a sensation. "An'
the old woman ain't dead, nohow," he continued reasonably, "but air
strengthenin' up amazin' fast."
"Waal," put in Rufe, hastening to explain this discrepancy in the
spectre, "I hearn you-uns a-sayin' that mornin', fore ye set out from the
tanyard, ez she war mighty nigh dead an' would be gone 'fore night. An'
ez he hed tole me he'd skeer the wits out'n me, I 'lowed ez I could show
him ez his wits warn't ez tough ez mine. Though," added the roguish
Rufe, with a grin of enjoyment, "arter I hed dressed up the blackberry
bush in mam's apron an' shawl, an' sot her bonnet a-top, it tuk ter
noddin' and bowin' with the wind, an' looked so like folks, ez it gin
Me a skeer, an' I jes' run home ez hard ez I could travel. An
Towse, he barked at it!"
Andy Byers spoke suddenly. "Waal, Birt holped ye, then."
"He never!" cried Rufe, emphatically, unwilling to share the credit,
or perhaps discredit, of the enterprise. "Birt dunno nuthin' 'bout it
ter this good day." Rufe winked slyly. "Birt would tell mam ez I hed
been a-foolin' with her shawl an' bonnet."
Andy Byers still maintained a most incongruous gravity.
"It warn't Birt's doin', at all?" he said interrogatively, and with a
Jubal Perkins broke into a derisive guffaw. "What ails ye, Andy?" he
cried. "Though ye never seen no harnt, ye 'pear ter be fairly witched by
that thar tricked-out blackberry bush."
Rufe shrugged up his shoulders, and began to shiver in imaginary
terror over a fancied fire.
"Old—Mis'—Price's—harnt!" he wheezed.
The point of view makes an essential difference. Jube Perkins thought
Rufe's comicality most praiseworthy—his pipe went out while he
laughed. Byers flushed indignantly.
"Ye aggervatin' leetle varmint!" he cried suddenly, his patience
He seized the crouching mimic by the collar, and although he did not
literally knock him off the wood-pile, as Rufe afterward declared, he
assisted the small boy through the air with a celerity that caused Rufe
to wink very fast and catch his breath, when he was deposited, with a
shake, on the soft pile of ground bark some yards away.
Rufe was altogether unhurt, but a trifle subdued by this sudden aerial
excursion. The fun was over for the present. He gathered himself
together, and went demurely and sat down on the lowest log of the
wood-pile. After a little he produced a papaw from his pocket, and by
the manner in which they went to work upon it, his jagged squirrel teeth
showed that they were better than they looked.
Towse had followed his master to the tanyard, and was lying asleep
beside the woodpile, with his muzzle on his forepaws.
He roused himself suddenly at the sound of munching, and came and sat
upright, facing Rufe, and eyeing the papaw gloatingly. He wagged his
tail in a beguiling fashion, and now and then turned his head
Of course he would not have relished the papaw, and only begged as a
matter of habit or perhaps on principle; but he was given no opportunity
to sample it, for Rufe hardly noticed him, being absorbed in dubiously
watching Andy Byers, who was once more at work, scraping the hide with
the two-handled knife.
Jubal Perkins had gone into the house for a coal to re-kindle his
pipe, for there is always a smouldering fire in the "smoke-room" for the
purpose of drying the hides suspended from the rafters. He came out with
it freshly glowing, and sat down on the broad, high pile of wood.
As the first whiff of smoke wreathed over his head, he said, "What air
the differ ter ye, Andy, whether 't war bub, hyar, or Birt, ez dressed up
the blackberry bush? ye 'pear ter make a differ a-twixt 'em."
Still Byers was evasive. "Whar's Birt, ennyhow?" he demanded
"Waal," drawled the tanner, with a certain constraint, "I hed been
promisin' Birt a day off fur a right smart while, an' I tole him ez he
mought ez well hev the rest o' ter-day. He 'lowed ez he warn't
partic'lar 'bout a day off, now. But I tole him ennyhow ter go along. I
seen him a while ago passin' through the woods, with his rifle on his
shoulder—gone huntin', I reckon."
"Gone huntin'!" ejaculated Rufe in dudgeon, joining
unceremoniously in the conversation of his elders. "Now, Birt mought hev
let me know! I'd hev wanted ter go along too."
"Mebbe that air the reason he never tole ye, bub," said Perkins
For he could appreciate that Rufe's society was not always a boon,
although he took a lenient view of the little boy. Any indulgence of
Birt was more unusual, and Andy Byers experienced some surprise to hear
of the unwonted sylvan recreations of the young drudge. He noticed that
the mule was off duty too, grazing among the bushes just beyond the
fence, and hobbled so that he could not run away. This precaution might
have seemed a practical joke on the mule, for the poor old animal was
only too glad to stand stock still.
Rufe continued his exclamatory indignation.
"Jes' ter go lopin' off inter the woods huntin', 'thout lettin'
Me know! An' I never gits ter go huntin' nohow! An' mam won't
let me tech Birt's rifle, 'thout it air ez empty ez a gourd! She say she
air feared I'll shoot my head off, an' she don't want no boys, 'thout
heads, jouncin' round her house—shucks! Which way did Birt take,
Mister Perkins?—'kase I be goin' ter ketch up."
"He war headed fur that thar salt lick, whenst I las' seen him,"
replied the tanner; "ef ye stir yer stumps right lively, mebbe ye'll
overhaul him yit."
Rufe rose precipitately. Towse, believing his petition for the papaw
was about to be rewarded, leaped up too, gamboling with a display of
ecstasy that might have befitted a starving creature, and an elasticity
to be expected only of a rubber dog. As he uttered a shrill yelp of
delight, he sprang up against Rufe, who, reeling under the shock, dropped
the remnant of the papaw. Towse darted upon it, sniffed disdainfully,
and returned to his capers around Rufe, evidently declining to believe
that all that show of gustatory satisfaction had been elicited only by
the papaw, and that Rufe had nothing else to eat.
Thus the two took their way out of the tanyard; and even after they
had disappeared, their progress through the underbrush was marked by an
abnormal commotion among the leaves, as the saltatory skeptic of a dog
insisted on more substantial favors than the succulent papaw.
The tanner smoked for a time in silence.
Then, "Birt ain't goin' ter be let ter work hyar ag'in," he said.
Byers elevated his shaggy eyebrows in surprise.
"Ye see," said the tanner in a confidential undertone, "sence Birt hev
stole that thar grant, I kin argufy ez he mought steal su'thin' else, an'
I ain't ekal ter keepin' up a spry lookout on things, an' bein'
partic'lar 'bout the count o' the hides an' sech. I can't feel easy with
sech a mischeevious scamp around."
Byers made no rejoinder, and the tanner, puffing his pipe, vaguely
watched the wreaths of smoke rise above his head, and whisk buoyantly
about in the air, and finally skurry off into invisibility. A gentle
breeze was astir in the woods, and it set the leaves to whispering. The
treetoads and the locusts were trolling a chorus. So loudly vibrant, it
was! So clamorously gay! Some subtle intimation they surely had that
summer was ephemeral and the season waning, for the burden of their song
was, Let us now be merry. The scarlet head of a woodpecker showed
brilliantly from the bare dead boughs of a chestnut-oak, which, with its
clinging lichens of green and gray, was boldly projected against the
azure sky. And there, the filmy moon, most dimly visible in the
afternoon sunshine, swung like some lunar hallucination among the cirrus
"Ye 'lows ez I ain't doin' right by Birt?" the tanner suggested
presently, with more conscience in the matter than one would have given
him credit for possessing.
"I knows ye air doin' right," said Byers unexpectedly.
All at once the woodpecker was solemnly tapping—tapping.
Byers glanced up, as if to discern whence the sudden sound came, and
once more bent to his work.
"Ye b'lieves, then, ez he stole that thar grant from Nate Griggs?"
"I be sure he done it," said Byers, unequivocally.
The tanner took his pipe from his lips. "What ails ye ter say that,
Andy?" he exclaimed excitedly.
Andy Byers hesitated. He mechanically passed his fingers once or
twice across the blunt, curved blade of the two-handled knife.
"Ye'll keep the secret?"
"In the sole o' my boot," said the tanner.
"Waal, I knows ez Birt stole the grant. I hev been powerful
changeful, though, in my thoughts bout'n it. At fust I war glad when he
war suspicioned 'bout'n it, an' I war minded to go an' inform on him an'
sech, ter pay him back; 'kase I held a grudge ag'in him, believin' ez he
hed dressed out that thar blackberry bush ez Mrs. Price's harnt. An'
then I'd remember ez his mother war a widder-woman, an' he war nothin'
but a boy, an' boys air bound ter be gamesome an' full o' jokes wunst in
a while, an' I'd feel like I war bound ter furgive him 'bout the harnt.
An' then ag'in I got toler'ble oneasy fur fear the Law mought hold
me 'sponsible fur knowin' 'bout Birt's crime of stealin' the grant
an' yit not tellin' on him. An' I'd take ter hopin' an' prayin' the boy
would confess, so ez I wouldn't hev ter tell on him. I hev been mightily
pestered in my mind lately with sech dilly-dallyin'."
Again the sudden tapping of the woodpecker filled the pause.
"Did ye see him steal the grant, Andy?" asked the tanner, with
"Ez good ez seen him. I seen him slyin' round, an' I hev fund the
place whar he hev hid it."
And the woodpecker still was solemnly tapping, high up in the
Birt, meanwhile, was trudging along in the woods, hardly seeing where he
went, hardly caring.
He had not had even a vague premonition when the tanner told him that
he might have the rest of the day off. He did not now want the holiday
which would once have so rejoiced him, and he said as much. And then the
tanner, making the disclosure by degrees, being truly sorry to part with
the boy, intimated that he need come back no more.
Birt unharnessed the mule by the sense of touch and the force of
habit, for blinding tears intervened between his vision and the rusty old
buckles and worn straps of leather. The animal seemed to understand that
something was amiss, and now and then turned his head interrogatively.
Somehow Birt was glad to feel that he left at least one friend in the
tanyard, albeit the humblest, for he had always treated the beast with
kindness, and he was sure the mule would miss him.
When he reached home he loitered for a time outside the fence, trying
to nerve himself to witness his mother's distress. And at last his tears
were dried, and he went in and told her the news.
It was hard for him nowadays to understand that simple mother of his.
She did nothing that he expected. To be sure her cheek paled, her eyes
looked anxious for a moment, and her hands trembled so that she carefully
put down upon the table a dish which she had been wiping. But she said
quite calmly, "Waal, sonny, I dunno but ye hed better take a day off from
work, sure enough, an' go a-huntin'. Thar's yer rifle, an' mebbe ye'll
git a shot at a deer down yander by the lick. The chill'n haint hed no
wild meat lately, 'ceptin' squir'ls out'n Rufe's trap."
And then he began to cry out bitterly that nobody would give him work,
and they would all starve; that the tanner believed he had stolen the
grant, and was afraid to have him about the hides.
"'Tain't no differ ez long ez 'tain't the truth," said his mother
philosophically. "We-uns will jes' abide by the truth."
He repeated this phrase over and over as he struggled through the
tangled underbrush of the dense forest.
It was all like some terrible dream; and but for Tennessee, it would
be the truth! How he blessed the little sister that her love for him and
his love for her had come between him and crime at that moment of
"So powerful peart!" he muttered with glistening eyes, as he thought
The grant was gone, to be sure; but he did not take it. They accused
It was something to be free and abroad in the woods. He heard the
wind singing in the pines. Their fine, penetrating aroma pervaded the
air, and the rusty needles, covering the ground, muffled his tread. Once
he paused—was that the bleat of a fawn, away down on the mountain's
slope? He heard no more, and he walked on, looking about with his old
alert interest. He was refreshed, invigorated, somehow consoled, as he
went. O wise mother! he wondered if she foresaw this when she sent him
into the woods.
He had not before noted how the season was advancing. Here and there,
in the midst of the dark green foliage, leaves shone so vividly yellow
that it seemed as if upon them some fascinated sunbeam had expended all
its glamours. In a dusky recess he saw the crimson sumach flaring. And
the distant blue mountains, and the furthest reaches of the azure sky,
and the sombre depths of the wooded valley, and the sheeny splendors of
the afternoon sun, and every incident of crag or chasm—all appeared
through a soft purple haze that possessed the air, and added an ideal
embellishment to the scene. Down the ravine the "lick" shone with the
lustre of a silver lakelet. He saw the old oak-tree hard by, with the
historic scaffold among its thinning leaves, and further along the slope
were visible vague bobbing figures, which he recognized as the "Griggs
gang," seeking upon the mountain side the gold which he had
Suddenly he heard a light crackling in the brush,—a faint
footfall. It reminded him of the deer-path close at hand. He crouched
down noiselessly amongst the low growth and lifted his rifle, his eyes
fixed on the point where the path disappeared in the bushes, and where he
would first catch a glimpse of the approaching animal.
He heard the step again. His finger was trembling on the trigger,
when down the path leisurely walked an old gentleman attired in black, a
hammer in his hand, and a pair of gleaming spectacles poised placidly
upon the bridge of an intellectual Roman nose. And this queer game
halted in the middle of the deer-path, all unconscious of his deadly
It was a wonder that the rifle was not discharged, for the
panic-stricken Birt had lost control of his muscles, and his convulsive
finger was still quivering on the trigger as he trembled from head to
foot. He hardly dared to try to move the gun. For a moment he could not
speak. He gazed in open-mouthed amazement at the unsuspecting old
gentleman, who was also unaware of the far more formidable open mouth of
"Now, ain't ye lackin' fur head-stuffin'?" suddenly yelled out Birt,
from his hiding-place.
The startled old man jumped, with the most abrupt alacrity. In fact,
despite his age and the lack of habit, he bounded as acrobatically from
the ground as the expected deer could have done. He was, it is true, a
learned man; but science has no specific for sudden fright, and he jumped
as ignorantly as if he did not know the difficult name of any of the
muscles that so alertly exercised themselves on this occasion.
Birt rose at last to his feet and looked with a pallid face over the
underbrush. "Now, ain't ye lackin' fur head-stuffin'," he faltered,
"a-steppin' along a deer-path ez nat'ral ez ef ye war a big fat buck? I
kem mighty nigh shootin' ye."
The old gentleman recovered his equilibrium, mental and physical, with
"Ah, my young friend,"—he motioned to Birt to come
nearer,—"I want to speak to you."
Birt stared. One might have inferred, from the tone, that the
gentleman had expected to meet him here, whereas Birt had just had the
best evidence of his senses that the encounter was a great surprise.
The boy observed his interlocutor more carefully than he had yet been
able to do. He remembered all at once Rufe's queer story of meeting,
down the ravine, an eccentric old man whom he was disposed to identify as
Satan. As the stranger stood there in the deer-path, he looked precisely
as Rufe had described him, even to the baffling glitter of his
spectacles, his gray whiskers, and the curiously shaped hammer in his
Birt, although bewildered and still tremulous from the shock to his
nerves, was not so superstitious as Rufe, and he shouldered his gun, and,
pushing out from the tangled underbrush, joined the old man in the
"I want," said the gentleman, "to hire a boy for a few days—
He smiled with two whole rows of teeth that never grew where they
stood. Birt wished he could see the expression of the stranger's eyes,
indistinguishable behind the spectacles that glimmered in the light.
"What do you say to fifty cents a day?" he continued briskly.
Birt's heart sank suddenly. He had heard that Satan traded in souls
by working on the avarice of the victim. The price suggested seemed a
great deal to Birt, for in this region there is little cash in
circulation, barter serving all the ordinary purposes of commerce.
As he hesitated, the old man eyed him quizzically. "Afraid of work,
"Naw, sir!" said Birt, sturdily.
Ah, if the bark-mill, and the old mule, and the tan-pit, and the
wood-pile, and the cornfield might testify!
"Fifty cents a day—eh?" said the stranger.
At the repetition of the sum, it occurred to Birt, growing more
familiar with the eccentricity of his companion, that he ought not in
sheer silliness to throw away a chance for employment.
"Kin I ask my mother?" he said dubiously.
"By all means ask your mother," replied the stranger heartily.
Birt's last fantastic doubt vanished. Oh no! this was not Satan in
disguise. When did the enemy ever counsel a boy to ask his mother!
Birt still stared gravely at him. All the details of his garb,
manner, speech, even the hammer in his hand, were foreign to the boy's
Presently he ventured a question. "Do you-uns hail from
The stranger was frank and communicative. He told Birt that he was a
professor of Natural Science in a college in one of the "valley towns,"
and that he was sojourning, for his health's sake, at a little
watering-place some twelve miles distant on the bench of the mountain.
Occasionally he made an excursion into the range, which was peculiarly
"But what I wish you to do is to dig for—bones."
"Bones?" faltered Birt.
"Bones," reiterated the professor solemnly.
Did his spectacles twinkle?
Birt stood silent, vaguely wondering what his mother would think of
"bones." Presently the professor, seeing that the boy was not likely to
ask amusing questions, explained.
He informed Birt that in the neighborhood of salt licks—"saline
quagmires" he called them—were often found the remains of animals
of an extinct species, which are of great value to science. He gave Birt
the extremely long name of these animals, and descanted upon such
conditions of their existence as is known, much of which Birt did not
understand. Although this fact was very apparent, it did not in the
least affect the professor's ardor in the theme. He was in the habit of
talking of these things to boys who did not understand, and alack! to
boys who did not want to understand.
One point, however, he made very clear. With the hope of some such
"find," he was anxious to investigate this particular lick,—about
which indeed he had heard a vague tradition of a "big bone" discovery,
such as is common to similar localities in this region,—and for
this purpose he proposed to furnish the science and the fifty cents
per diem, and earnestly desired that some one else should furnish
He was accustomed to think much more rapidly than the men with whom
Birt was associated, and his briskness in arranging the matter had an
incongruous suggestion of the giddiness of youth. He said that he would
go home with Birt to fetch the spade, and while there he could settle the
terms with the boy's mother, and then they could get to work.
He started off at a dapper gait up the deer-path, while Birt, with his
rifle on his shoulder, followed.
A sudden thought struck Birt. He stopped short.
"Now I dunno which side o' that thar lick Nate Griggs's line
runs on," he remarked.
"Never mind," said the professor, waving away objections with airy
efficiency; "I shall first secure the consent of the owner of the
Birt cogitated for a moment. "Nate Griggs ain't goin' ter gin his
cornsent ter nobody ter dig ennywhar down the ravine, ef it air inside o'
his lines," he said confidently, "'kase I—'kase he—leastwise,
'kase gold hev been fund hyar lately, an' he hev entered the land."
The professor stopped short in the path.
"Gold!" he ejaculated. "Gold!"
Was there a vibration of incredulity in his voice?
Birt remembered all at once the specimens which he had picked up that
memorable evening, down the ravine, when he shot the red fox. Here they
still were in his pocket. They showed lustrous, metallic, yellow gleams
as he placed them carefully in the old man's outstretched hand, telling
how he came by them, of his mistaken confidence, the betrayed trust, and
ending by pointing at the group of gold-seekers, microscopic in the
distance on the opposite slope.
"I hev hearn tell," he added, "ez Nate air countin' on goin' pardners
with a man in Sparty, who hev got money, to work the gold mine."
Now and then, as he talked, he glanced up at his companion's face,
vaguely expecting to discover his opinion by its expression, but the
light still played in a baffling glitter upon his spectacles.
Birt could only follow when the professor suddenly handed back the
specimens with a peremptory "Come—come! We must go for the spade.
But when we reach your mother's house I will test this mineral, and you
shall see for yourself what you have lost."
Mrs. Dicey's first impression upon meeting the stranger and learning
of his mission was not altogether surprise as Birt had expected. Her
chief absorption was a deep thankfulness that the floors all preserved
their freshly scoured appearance.
"Fur ef Rufe hed been playin' round hyar ter-day, same ez common, the
rubbish would have been a scandal ter the kentry," she reflected.
In fact, all was so neat, albeit so poor, that the stranger felt as
polite as he looked, while he talked to her about employing Birt in his
Birt, however, had little disposition to listen to this. He was
excited by the prospect of testing the mineral, and he busied himself
with great alacrity in preparing for it under the professor's
directions. He suffered a qualm, it is true, as he pounded the shining
fragments into a coarse powder, and then he drew out with the shovel a
great glowing mass of live coals on the hearth.
The dogs peered eagerly in at the door, having followed the stranger
with the liveliest curiosity. Towse, bolder than the rest, entered
intrepidly with a nonchalant air and a wagging tail, for he and Rufe,
having failed to find Birt, had just returned home. The small boy paused
on the threshold in amazed recognition of the old gentleman who had
occasioned him such a fright that day down the ravine.
The professor gesticulated a great deal as he bent over the fire and
gave Birt directions, and, with his waving hands and the glow on his
hoary hair and beard, he looked like some fantastic sorcerer. Somehow
Rufe was glad to see the familiar countenances of Pete and Joe, and was
still more reassured to note that his mother was quietly standing beside
the table, as she stirred the batter for bread in a wooden bowl.
Tennessee had pressed close to Birt, her chubby hand clutching his collar
as he knelt on the hearth. He held above the glowing coals a long fire
shovel, on which the pulverized mineral had been placed, and his eyes
were very bright as he earnestly watched it.
"If it is gold," said the old man, "a moderate heat will not affect
The shovel was growing hot. The live coals glowed beneath it. The
breath of the fire stirred Tennessee's flaxen hair. And Birt's dilated
eyes saw the yellow particles still glistening unchanged in the centre of
the shovel, which was beginning to redden.
Suddenly—was the glistening yellow mineral taking fire? It began
to give off sulphurous fumes. And drifting away with them were all
Birt's golden visions and Nate's ill-gotten wealth—ending in smoke!
The sulphurous odor grew stronger. Even Towse stopped short, and
gazed at the shovel with a reprehensive sniff.
"Ker-shoo!" he sneezed.
And commenting thus, he turned abruptly and went hastily out, with a
startled look and a downcast tail.
His sneeze seemed to break the spell of silence that had fallen on the
"It be mighty nigh bodaciously changed ter cinders!" exclaimed Birt,
staring in amaze at the lustreless contents of the shovel from which
every suggestion of golden glimmer had faded. "What do it be, ef 'tain't
"Iron pyrites," said the professor. "'Fools' gold,' it is often
He explained to Birt that in certain formations, however, gold is
associated with iron pyrites, and when the mineral is properly roasted,
this process serving to expel the sulphur, the fine particles of gold are
found held in the resulting oxide of iron. But the variety of the
mineral discovered down the ravine he said was valueless, unless
occurring in vast quantities, when it is sometimes utilized in the
production of sulphur.
"I wonder," Birt broke out suddenly, "if the assayer won't find no
gold in them samples ez Nate sent him."
The professor laughed. "The assayer will need the 'philosopher's
stone' to find gold in any samples from this locality."
"Ye knowed then, all the time, ez this stuff warn't gold?" asked
"All the time," rejoined the elder.
"An' Nate hev got the steepest, rockiest spot in the kentry ter pay
taxes on," resumed Birt, reflectively. "An' he hev shelled out a power
o' money ter the surveyor, an' sech, a'ready. I reckon he'll be mightily
outed when he finds out ez the min'ral ain't gold."
Birt stopped short in renewed anxiety.
That missing grant! Somehow he felt sure that Nate, balked of the
great gains he had promised himself, would wreak his disappointment
wherever he might; and since the land was of so little value, he would
not continue to deny himself his revenge for fear that an investigation
into the priority of the mineral's discovery might invalidate the entry.
Once more Birt was tortured by the terror of arrest—he might yet
suffer a prosecution from malignity, which had hitherto been withheld
from policy. If only the mystery of the lost grant could be solved!
The conversation of the elders had returned to the subject of the
investigations around the "lick" and the terms for Birt's services. As
so much time had been consumed with the pyrites, the professor concluded
with some vexation that they could hardly arrange all the preliminaries
and get to work this afternoon.
"I dare say we had best begin to-morrow morning," he said at last.
"Birt can't go a-diggin' no-ways, this evenin'," put in the officious
Rufe, who stood, according to his wont, listening with his mouth and eyes
wide open, "'kase ez I kem home by the tanyard Jube Perkins hollered ter
me ter tell Birt ter come thar right quick. I furgot it till this
minit," he added, with a shade of embarrassment that might pass for
Birt felt a prophetic thrill. This summons promised developments of
importance. Only a few hours ago he was discharged under suspicion of
dishonesty; why this sudden recall? He did not know whether hope or fear
was paramount. He trembled with eager expectancy. He seized his hat,
and strode out of the house without waiting to hear more of the
professor's plans or the details of the wages.
He had reached the fence before he discovered Tennessee close at his
heels. He cast his troubled eyes down upon her, and met her pleading,
upturned gaze. He was about to charge her to go back. But then he
remembered how she had followed him with blessings—how mercy had
kept pace with her steps. He would not deny her the simple boon she
craved, and if she were troublesome and in his way, surely he might be
patient with her, since she loved him so! He lifted her over the fence,
and then started briskly down the path, the sturdy, light-footed little
mountain girl delightedly trudging along in the rear.
When he entered the tanyard no one was there except Jube Perkins and
Andy Byers the tanner, lounging as usual on the wood-pile, and the
workman, with scarcely less the aspect of idleness, dawdlingly scraping a
hide on the wooden horse. Birt discerned a portent in the unwonted
solemnity of their faces, and his heart sank.
"Waal, Birt, we-uns hev been a-waitin' fur ye," said the tanner in a
subdued, grave tone that somehow reminded Birt of the bated voices in a
house of death. "Set down hyar on the wood-pile, fur Andy an' me hev got
a word ter say ter ye."
Birt's dilated black eyes turned in dumb appeal from one to the other
as he sank down on the wood-pile. His suspense gnawed him like an actual
grief while Jubal Perkins slowly shifted his position and looked vaguely
at Andy Byers for a suggestion, being uncertain how to begin.
"Waal, Birt," he drawled at last, "ez yer dad is dead an' ye hev got
nobody ter see arter ye an' advise ye, Andy an' me, we-uns agreed ez how
we'd talk ter ye right plain, an' try ter git ye ter jedge o' this hyar
matter like we-uns do. Andy an' me know more 'bout the law, an' 'bout
folks too, than ye does. These hyar Griggs folks hev always been
misdoubted ez a fractious an' contrary-wise fambly. Ef enny Griggs ain't
aggervatin' an' captious, it air through bein' plumb terrified by the
t'others. They air powerful hard folks—an' they'll land ye in the
State Prison yet, I'm thinkin'. I wonder they hain't started at ye
a'ready. But thar's no countin' on 'em, 'ceptin' that they'll do all
they kin that air ha'sh an' grindin'."
"That air a true word, Birt," said Andy Byers, speaking to the boy for
the first time in many days. "Ef they hev thar reason fur it, they
mought hold thar hand fur a time, but fust or las' they'll hev all out'n
ye ez the law will allow 'em."
Birt listened in desperation. All this was sharpened by the certainty
that the mineral was only valueless pyrites, and the prescience of Nate's
anger when this fact should come to his knowledge, and prudence no longer
restrain him. His rage would vent itself on his luckless victim for
every cent, every mill, that the discovery of the "fools' gold" had cost
"They'll be takin' ye away from the mountings ter jail ye an' try ye,
an' mebbe ye'll go ter the pen'tiary arter that. An' how will yer
mother, an' brothers, an' sister, git thar vittles, an' firewood, an'
corn-crap an' clothes, an' sech—Rufe bein' the oldest child, arter
you-uns?" demanded the tanner. "An' even when ye git back—I hate
ter tell ye this word—nobody will want ye round. They'll be feared
ye'd be forever pickin' an' stealin'."
"But we-uns will stand up fur ye, bein' ez ye air the widder's son,"
said Byers eagerly. "We-uns will gin the Griggs tribe ter onderstand
"An' mebbe the Griggses won't want ter do nuthin', ef they hain't got
no furder cause fur holdin' a grudge," put in the tanner.
"What be ye a-layin' off fur me ter do?" asked Birt wonderingly.
"Ter gin Nate's grant back ter him," they both replied in a
"I hev not got it!" cried poor Birt tumultuously. "I never stole it!
I dunno whar it be!"
The tanner's expression changed from paternal kindliness to
"Air ye goin' ter keep on bein' a liar, Birt, ez well ez a thief?" he
"I dunno whar it be," reiterated Birt desperately.
"I know whar it be," said Byers. Birt gazed at him
"Whar?" he cried eagerly.
"Whar ye hid it," returned Byers coolly.
Birt's lips moved with difficulty as he huskily ejaculated "I never
hid it—I never!"
"Ye needn't deny it. I ez good ez seen ye hide it."
Birt looked dazed for a moment. Then the blood rushed to his face and
as suddenly receded, leaving it pale and rigid. He was cold and
trembling. He could not speak.
The tanner scrutinized him narrowly. Then he said, "Tell him 'bout
it, Andy. Tell him jes' ez ye tole me. An' mebbe he'll hev sense enough
ter gin it up when he sees he air fairly caught."
"Waal," said Byers, leaning back against the wall of the smoke-house,
and holding the knife idly poised in his hand, "I kem down ter the
tanyard betimes that mornin' arter the storm. Both ye an' Birt war
late. I noticed Nate Griggs's coat hangin' thar in the shed, with a
paper stickin' out'n the pocket, ez I started inter the smoke-house ter
tend ter the fire. I reckon I mus' hev made consider'ble racket in thar,
'kase I never hearn nuthin' till I sot down afore the fire on a log o'
wood, an' lit my pipe. All of a suddenty thar kem a step outside,
toler'ble light on the tan. I jes' 'lowed 't war ye or Birt. But I
happened ter look up, an' thar I see a couple o' big black eyes peepin'
through that thar crack in the wall."
He turned and pointed out a crevice where the "daubin'" had fallen
from the "chinkin'" between the logs.
"Ye can see," he resumed, "ez this hyar crack air jes' the height o'
Birt. Waal, them eyes lookin' in so onexpected didn't 'sturb me none. I
hev knowed the Dicey eye fur thirty year, an' thar ain't none like 'em
nowhar round the mountings. But I 'lowed 't war toler'ble sassy in Birt
ter stand thar peerin' at me through the chinkin'. I never let on,
though, ez I viewed him. An' then, them eyes jes' set up sech a
outdacious winkin' an' wallin', an' squinchin', ez I knowed he war makin'
faces at me. So I jes' riz up—an' the eyes slipped away from thar
in a hurry. I war aimin' ter larrup Birt fur his sass, but I stopped ter
hang up a skin ez I hed knocked down. It never tuk me long, much, but
when I went out, thar warn't nobody ter be seen in the tanyard."
He paused to place one foot upon the wooden horse, and he leaned
forward with a reflective expression, his elbow on his knee, and his hand
holding his bearded chin.
The afternoon was waning. The scarlet sun in magnified splendor was
ablaze low down in the saffron west. The world seemed languorously
afloat in the deep, serene flood of light. Shadows were lengthening
slowly. The clangor of a cow-bell vibrated in the distance.
The drone of Andy Byers's voice overbore it as he recommenced.
"Waal, I was sorter conflusticated, an' I looked round powerful sharp
ter see whar Birt hed disappeared to. I happened ter cut my eye round at
that thar pit ez he hed finished layin' the tan in, an' kivered with
boards, an' weighted with rocks that day ez ye an' me hed ter go an'
attend on old Mrs. Price. Ye know we counted ez that thar pit wouldn't
be opened ag'in fur a right smart time?"
The tanner nodded assent.
"Waal, I noticed ez the aidge o' one o' them boards war sot sorter
catawampus, an' I 'lowed ez 't war the wind ez hed 'sturbed it. Ez I
stooped down ter move it back in its place, I seen su'thin' white under
it. So I lifted the board, an' thar I see, lyin' on the tan a-top o' the
pit, a stiff white paper. I looked round toward the shed, an' thar hung
the coat yit—with nuthin' in the pocket. I didn't know edzactly
what ter make of it, an' I jes' shunted the plank back over the paper in
the pit like I fund it, an' waited ter see what mought happen. An' all
the time ez that thar racket war goin' on bout'n the grant, I knowed
powerful well whar 't war, an' who stole it."
Birt looked from one to the other of the two men. Both evidently
believed every syllable of this story. It was so natural, so credible,
that he had a curious sense of inclining toward it, too. Had he indeed,
in some aberration, taken the grant? Was it some tricksy spirit in his
likeness that had peered through the chinking at Andy Byers?
He could find no words to contend further. He sat silent, numb,
"Birt," said the tanner coaxingly, "thar ain't no use in denyin' it
enny mo'. Let's go an' git that grant, an' take it ter Nate an' tell the
The words roused Birt. He clutched at the idea of getting possession
of the paper that had so mysteriously disappeared and baffled and eluded
him. He could at least return it. And even if this should fail to
secure him lenient treatment, he would feel that he had done right. He
rose suddenly in feverish anxiety.
Andy Byers and Perkins, exchanging a wink of congratulation, followed
him to the pit.
"It air under this hyar board," said Byers, moving one of the heavy
stones, and lifting a broad plank.
Perkins pressed forward with eager curiosity, never having seen this
The ground bark on the surface was pretty dry, the layer being ten or
fifteen inches thick, and the tanning infusion had not yet risen through
Byers stared with a frown at the tan, and lifted another board.
Nothing appeared beneath it on the smooth surface of the bark.
In sudden alarm they took away the boards, one after another, till all
were removed, and the whole surface of the pit was exposed.
Then they looked at each other, bewildered. For once more the grant
Jubal Perkins broke the silence.
"Andy Byers," he exclaimed wrathfully, "what sort 'n tale is this ez
ye air tryin' ter fool me with?"
Byers, perturbed and indignant, was instantly ready to accuse
"Ye hev been hyar an' got the grant an' sneaked it off agin, hev ye!"
he cried, scowling at the boy.
Then he turned to the tanner. "I hope I may drap dead, Jube," he said
earnestly, "ef that grant warn't right hyar"—he pointed at the
spot—"las' night whenst I lef' the tanyard. I always looked late
every evenin' ter be sure it hedn't been teched, thinkin' I'd make up my
mind in the night whether I'd tell on Birt, or no. But I never could git
plumb sati'fied what to do."
His tone carried conviction. The tanner looked at Birt with
disappointment in every line of his face. There was severity, too, in
his expression. He was beginning to admit the fitness of harsh
punishment in this case.
"Ye don't wuth all this gabblin' an' jawin' over ye, ye miser'ble
leetle critter," he said. "An' I ain't goin' ter waste another breath on
Birt stood vacantly staring at the tan. All the energy of the truth
was nullified by the futility of protestation.
The two men exchanged a glance of vague comment upon his silence, and
then they too looked idly down at the pit.
Tennessee abruptly caught Birt's listless hand as it hung at his side,
for Towse had suddenly entered the tanyard, and prancing up to her in
joyous recognition, was trying to lick her face.
"G'way, Towse," she drawled gutturally. She struck vaguely at him
with her chubby little fist, which he waggishly took between his teeth in
a gingerly gentle grip.
"Stand back thar, Tennessee," Birt murmured mechanically.
As usual, Towse was the precursor of Rufe, who presently dawdled out
from the underbrush. He quickened his steps upon observing the intent
attitude of the party, and as he came up he demanded vivaciously, "What
ails that thar pit o' yourn, Mister Perkins?— thought ye said 't
warn't goin' ter be opened ag'in fore-shortly."
For a moment the tanner made no reply. Then he drawled absently,
"Nuthin' ails the pit, Rufe—nuthin'."
Rufe sat down on the edge of it, and gazed speculatively at it.
Presently he began anew, unabashed by the silence of the grave and
"This hyar tan hev got sorter moist atop now; I wonder ef that thar
grant o' Nate's got spi'led ennywise with the damp."
Birt winced. It had been a certain mitigation of his trouble that,
thanks to his mother's caution, the children at home knew nothing of the
disgrace that had fallen upon him, and that there, at least, the
atmosphere was untainted with suspicion.
The next moment he was impressed by the singularity of Rufe's mention
of the missing grant and its place of concealment.
"Look-a-hyar, Rufe," he exclaimed, excitedly; "how d'ye know ennything
'bout Nate's grant an' whar 't war hid?"
Rufe glanced up scornfully, insulted in some occult manner by the
"How did I know, Birt Dicey? How d'ye know yerse'f?" he retorted. "I
knows a heap, ginerally."
Perkins, catching the drift of Birt's intention, came to the
"Say, bub, how d'ye know the grant war ever put hyar?"
"Kase," responded Rufe, more amicably, "I seen it put hyar—right
He indicated the spot where the paper lay, according to Byers, when it
Birt could hardly breathe. His anxieties, his hopes, his fears,
seemed a pursuing pack before which he was almost spent. He panted like
a hunted creature. Tennessee was swinging herself to and fro, holding by
his hand. Sometimes she caught at Towse's unlovely ear, as he sat close
by with his tongue lolled out and an attentive air, as if he were
assisting at the discussion.
"Who put it thar, bub?" demanded Perkins.
It would not have surprised Birt, so perverse had been the course of
events, if Rufe had accused him on the spot.
"Pig-wigs Griggs," replied Rufe, unexpectedly.
A glance of intelligence passed between the men.
"Tell 'bout it, Rufe," said the tanner, suppressing all appearance of
"Ye ain't goin' ter do nuthin' ter Pig-wigs fur foolin' with yer pit,
ef I tell ye?" asked Rufe, quickly.
"Naw, bub, naw. Which Griggs do ye call 'Pig-wigs?'"
"Why—Pig-wigs," Rufe reiterated obviously.
Then he explained. "He air Nate's nevy. He air Nate's oldest
brother's biggest boy,—though he ain't sizable much. He air 'bout
haffen ez big ez me—ef that," he added reflectively, thinking that
even thus divided he had represented Pig-wigs as more massive than the
"Ye see," he continued, "one day when his uncle Tim war over hyar ter
the tanyard, I gin him one o' my game deedies; an' ez soon ez he got home
he showed 'em all that thar deedie—powerful, spryest poultry ye
Rufe smiled ecstatically as only a chicken fancier can.
"An' Pig-wigs war plumb de-stracted fur a deedie too. An' he
run all the way over hyar ter git me ter gin him one. But the deedies
hed all gone ter bed, an' the old hen war hoverin' of 'em, an' I didn't
want ter 'sturb 'em," said Rufe considerately. "So I tole Pig-wigs ter
meet me at the tanyard early, an' I'd fetch him one. An' ez his granny
war goin' visitin' her merried daughter, she let him ride behind her on
thar sorrel mare ez fur ez the tanyard. So he got hyar 'fore I did. An'
I kem an' gin him the deedie."
Rufe paused abruptly, as if, having narrated this important
transaction, he had exhausted the interest of the subject.
Byers was about to speak, but the tanner with a gesture repressed
"Ye hain't tole 'bout the pit an' the grant yit, bubby," he reminded
the small boy.
Byers's display of impatience was not lost upon Rufe, and it added to
the general acrimony of their relations.
"Waal," the small boy began alertly, "we-uns hed the deedie behind the
smoke-house thar, an' I seen him"—Rufe pointed at Byers with
disfavor—"a-comin' powerful slow inter the tanyard, an' I whispered
ter Pig-wigs Griggs ter be quiet, an' not let him know ez we-uns
war thar, 'kase he war always a-jawin' at me, 'thout the tanner war by
ter keep him off'n me. So we-uns bided thar till he went inter
the smoke-house. An' then ez we-uns kem by the shed, Pig-wigs seen his
uncle Nate's coat hangin' on a peg thar, 'kase that thar triflin' Tim hed
furgot, an' lef' it thar when he went ter see the deedies. An' Pig-wigs
Griggs, he 'lowed he knowed the coat war his uncle Nate's by the favior
of it, an' he reckoned the paper stickin' out'n the pocket war the grant
he hed hearn Nate talkin' 'bout. An' I whispered ter him ez he hed
better ondertake ter tote it home ter Nate. An' Pig-wigs said he
couldn't tote the coat, bein' so lumbered up with the deedie. But he
would tote the grant in one hand an' the deedie in t'other. He couldn't
put the deedie in one o' his pockets, 'kase his mother sews 'em all up,
bein' ez he would kerry sech a passel o' heavy truck in
'em,—rocks an' sech, reg'lar bowlders," added Rufe, with a casual
remembrance of the museum in his own pockets. "So Pig-wigs's mother
sewed 'em all up, 'kase she said they war tore out all the time, an' she
seen no sense in a boy hevin' a lot o' slits in his clothes ter let in
the air slanchwise on him. An' Pig-wigs 'lowed he'd tote the grant ef I
would git it fur him. An' I did."
"How did you-uns reach up ter that thar peg?" demanded Byers, pointing
to the peg on which the coat had hung, far beyond Rufe's reach.
"Clumb up on the wooden horse," said Rufe promptly. "I peeked through
the chinkin' an' seen ye thar a-smokin' yer pipe over the fire."
Rufe winked audaciously, suddenly convincing Byers as to the possessor
of the big black eyes, which he had recognized as characteristic of the
Dicey family, when they had peered through the chinking.
"Waal, how did the grant git inter the pit, Rufe, an' what hev become
of it?" asked Byers, overlooking these personalities, for he felt a
certain anxiety in the matter, being the last person known to have seen
the grant, which, by reason of his delay and indecision, had again been
"Pig-wigs put it thar, I tell ye," reiterated Rufe. "Ye see, I hed
got outside o' the gate, an' Pig-wigs war a good ways behind, walkin'
toler'ble slow, bein' ez he hed ter kerry the grant in one hand an' the
deedie in t'other. An' thar I see a-cropin' along on the ground a young
rabbit—reg'lar baby rabbit. An' I motioned ter Pig-wigs ter come
quick—I hed fund suthin'. An' ez Pig-wigs couldn't put the deedie
down, he laid the grant on top o' the boards ez kivered the pit. But the
wind war brief, an' kem mighty nigh blowin' that grant away. So Pig-wigs
jes' stuck it down 'twixt two planks, an' kem ter holp me ketch the
rabbit. But Pig-wigs warn't no 'count ter holp. An' the rabbit got
away. An' whilst Pig-wigs war foolin' round, he drapped his deedie, an'
stepped on it—tromped the life out'n it." Rufe's expression was of
funereal gravity. "An' then he follered me every foot o' the way home,
beggin' an' beggin' me ter gin him another. But I wouldn't. I won't gin
no more o' my deedies ter be tromped on, all round the mounting."
Rufe evidently felt that the line must be drawn somewhere.
"An' what hev gone with that thar grant? 'T war hyar yestiddy."
"I dunno," responded Rufe, carelessly. "Mebbe Pig-wigs reminded
hisself 'bout'n it arter awhile, an' kem an' got it."
This proved to be the case. For Andy Byers concerned himself enough
in the matter to ride the old mule over to Nate's home, to push the
inquiries. Nate was just emerging from the door. The claybank mare,
saddled and bridled, stood in front of the cabin. He was evidently about
"Look-a-hyar, ye scamp!" Byers saluted him gruffly, "whyn't ye let
we-uns know ez ye hed got back that thar grant o' yourn, ez hev sot the
whole mounting catawampus? Pig-wigs hearn ye talkin' 'bout it at las',
and tole ye ez he hed it, I s'pose?"
Nate affected to examine the saddle-girth. He looked furtively over
the mare's shoulder at Andy Byers. He could not guess how much of the
facts had been developed. In sheer perversity he was tempted to deny
that he had the grant. But Byers was a heavy man of scant patience, and
he wore a surly air that boded ill to a trifler.
Nate nodded admission.
"Pig-wigs fotched it home, eh?" demanded Byers, leaning downward.
Once more Nate lifted his long, thin questioning face. His craft had
"Ef ye be minded to call him 'Pig-wigs'—his right name air
Benjymen—'t war him ez fotched it home."
"Now ye air a mighty cantankerous, quar'lsome, aggervatin' critter!"
Byers broke out irritably. "Ain't ye 'shamed o' this hyar hurrah ye hev
kicked up fur nuthin'? accusin' o' Birt wrongful, an' sech?"
"Naw; I ain't 'shamed o' nuthin'!" said Nate hardily, springing into
the saddle. "I'm a-ridin' ter the Settlemint ter git word from
the assayer 'bout'n the gold ez I hev fund. An' when I rides back I'll
be wuth more'n enny man in the mountings or Sparty either!"
And he gave the mare the whip, and left Andy Byers, with his mouth
full of rebukes, sitting motionless on the dozing old mule.
The mare came back from the Settlement late that night under lash and
spur, at a speed she had never before made. Day was hardly astir when
Nate Griggs, wild-eyed and haggard, appeared at the tanyard in search of
Birt. He was loud with reproaches, for the assayer had pronounced the
"gold" only worthless iron pyrites. He had received, too, a jeering
letter from his proposed partner in Sparta, who had found sport in
playing on his consequential ignorance and fancied sharpness. And now
Nate declared that Birt, also, had known that the mineral was valueless,
and had from the first befooled him. In some way he would compel Birt to
refund all the money that had been expended. How piteous was Nate as he
stood and checked off, on his trembling fingers, the surveyor's fee, the
entry-taker's fee, the register's fee, the secretary of State's fee, the
assayer's fee—Oh, ruin, ruin! And what had he to show for it! a
tract of crags and chasms and precipitous gravelly slopes and gullies
worth not a mill an acre! And this was all—for the office of
laughing-stock has no emoluments. Where was Birt? He would hold Birt to
Andy Byers, listening, thought how well it was for Birt that Nate no
longer had the loss of the grant as a grievance.
Perkins mysteriously beckoned Nate aside. "Nate," he said in a low
voice, "Birt air powerful mad 'bout that thar accusin' him o' stealin'
the grant, when 't war some o' yer own folks, 'Pig-wigs,' ez hed it all
the time. I seen him goin' 'long towards yer house a leetle while ago.
I reckon he air lookin' fur you. He hed that big cowhide, ez I gin him
t'other day, in one hand. Ye jes' take the road home, an' ye'll ketch up
with him sure."
Nate's wits were in disastrous eclipse. Could he deduce nothing from
the tanner's grin? He spent the day at the Settlement without ostensible
reason, and only at nightfall did he return home, and by a devious route,
very different from that indicated by Jubal Perkins.
Inquiry developed the fact that the boundaries of Nate's land did not
include the salt lick, and his talents as an obstructer were not called
into play. The professor was free to dig as he chose for the antique
bones he sought, and many a long day did he and Birt spend in this
sequestered spot, with the great crags towering above and the darkling
vistas of the ravine on either hand. There was a long stretch of sunny
weather, and somehow that shifting purple haze accented all its
languorous lustres. It seemed a vague sort of poetry a-loose in the air,
and color had license. The law which decreed that a leaf should be green
was a dead letter. How gallantly red and yellow they flared; and others,
how tenderly pink, and gray, and purplish of hue! What poly-tinted
fancies underfoot in the moss! Strange visitants came from the north.
Flocks of birds, southward bound, skimmed these alien skies. Sometimes
they alighted on the tree-tops or along the banks of the torrent,
chattering in great excitement, commenting mightily on the country.
Birt had never been so light-hearted as during these days. The
cessation of anxiety was itself a sort of happiness. The long, hard
ordeal to which the truth had subjected him had ended triumphantly.
"Mighty onexpected things happen in this worl'," he said,
reflectively. "It 'pears powerful cur'ous to me, arter all ez hev come
an' gone, ez I ain't no loser by that thar gold mine down the
He himself was surprised that he did not rejoice in Nate's
mortification and defeat. But somehow he had struck a moral equilibrium;
in mastering his anger and thirst for revenge, he had gained a stronger
control of all the more unworthy impulses of his nature.
Meantime there was woe at the tanyard. Jube Perkins had been anxious
to have Birt resume his old place on the old terms. The professor,
however, would not release the boy from his engagement. It seemed that
this man of science could deduce subtle distinctions of character in the
mere wielding of a spade. He had never seen, he said, any one dig so
conscientiously and so intelligently as Birt. The tanner suddenly found
that conscience might prove a factor even in so simple a matter as
driving the old mule around the bark-mill. The boy who had taken Birt's
place was a sullen, intractable fellow, and brutal. When he yelled and
swore and plied the lash, the old mule would occasionally back his ears.
The climax came one day when the rash boy kicked the animal. Now this
reminded the mild-mannered old mule of his own youthful prowess as a
kicker. He revived his reputation. He seemed to stand on his fore-legs
and his muzzle, while his hind-legs played havoc behind him. The
terrified boy dared not come near him. The bark-mill itself was
endangered. Jube Perkins had not done so much work for a twelvemonth as
in his efforts to keep the boy, the mule, and the bark-mill going
There were no "finds" down by the lick to rejoice the professor, and
he went away at last boneless, except in so far as nature had provided
him. He left Birt amply rewarded for his labor. So independent did Mrs.
Dicey feel with this sum of money in reserve, that she would not agree
that Birt should work on the old terms with the tanner. Birt was
dismayed by this temerity. Once more, however, he recognized her acumen,
for Jubal Perkins, although he left the house in a huff, came back again
and promised good wages. Ignorant and simple as she was, her keen
instinct for her son's best interest, his true welfare, endowed her words
with wisdom. Thenceforth he esteemed no friend, no ally, equal to his
It delighted him to witness her triumph in the proof of his innocence,
and indeed she did not in this matter bear herself with meekness. It
made him feel so prosperous to note her relapse into her old caustic
habit of speech. Ah, if he were hurt or sore beset, every word would be
Birt shortly compassed a much desired object. The mule's revival of
his ancient glories as a "turrible kicker" had injured his market value,
and Birt's earnings enabled him to purchase the animal at a low price.
The mule lived to a great age, always with his master as "mild-mannered"
as a lamb.
For some time Birt saw nothing of Nate, but one day the quondam
friends met face to face on a narrow, precipitous path on the mountain
side. Abject fear was expressed in Nate's sharp features, for escape was
There was no need of either fear or flight.
"How air ye, I'on Pyrite!" cried Birt cheerfully.
The martyr's countenance changed.
"Ye never done me right 'bout that thar mine, Birt Dicey," Nate said
reproachfully. "Ye mus' hev knowed from the fust ez them thar rocks war
good fur nuthin'."
"Ye air the deceivinest sandy-headed Pyrite that ever war on the top
o' this mounting, an' ye knows it," Birt retorted in high good humor;
"an' ef it war wuth my while I'd gin ye a old-fashion larrupin' jes' ter
pay ye fur the trick ez ye played on me. But I ain't keerin' fur that,
now. Stan' back thar, Tennessee!"
Since then, Tennessee, always preserving the influence she wielded
that memorable night, has grown to be a woman—never pretty, but, as
her brother still stoutly avers, "powerful peart."