by Sarah Orne Jewett
The passenger and mail transportation between the towns of North
Kilby and Sanscrit Pond was carried on by Mr. Jefferson Briley, whose
two-seated covered wagon was usually much too large for the demands of
business. Both the Sanscrit Pond and North Kilby people were
stayers-at-home, and Mr. Briley often made his seven-mile journey in
entire solitude, except for the limp leather mail-bag, which he held
firmly to the floor of the carriage with his heavily shod left foot.
The mail-bag had almost a personality to him, born of long association.
Mr. Briley was a meek and timid-looking body, but he held a warlike
soul, and encouraged his fancies by reading awful tales of bloodshed
and lawlessness in the far West. Mindful of stage robberies and train
thieves, and of express messengers who died at their posts, he was
prepared for anything; and although he had trusted to his own strength
and bravery these many years, he carried a heavy pistol under his
front-seat cushion for better defense. This awful weapon was familiar
to all his regular passengers, and was usually shown to strangers by
the time two of the seven miles of Mr. Briley's route had been passed.
The pistol was not loaded. Nobody (at least not Mr. Briley himself)
doubted that the mere sight of such a weapon would turn the boldest
Protected by such a man and such a piece of armament, one gray
Friday morning in the edge of winter, Mrs. Fanny Tobin was traveling
from Sanscrit Pond to North Kilby. She was an elderly and
feeble-looking woman, but with a shrewd twinkle in her eyes, and she
felt very anxious about her numerous pieces of baggage and her own
personal safety. She was enveloped in many shawls and smaller
wrappings, but they were not securely fastened, and kept getting undone
and flying loose, so that the bitter December cold seemed to be picking
a lock now and then, and creeping in to steal away the little warmth
she had. Mr. Briley was cold, too, and could only cheer himself by
remembering the valor of those pony-express drivers of the pre-railroad
days, who had to cross the Rocky Mountains on the great California
route. He spoke at length of their perils to the suffering passenger,
who felt none the warmer, and at last gave a groan of weariness.
How fur did you say 't was now?
I do' know's I said, Mis' Tobin, answered the driver, with a
frosty laugh. You see them big pines, and the side of a barn just this
way, with them yellow circus bills? That's my three-mile mark.
Be we got four more to make? Oh, my laws! mourned Mrs. Tobin.
Urge the beast, can't ye, Jeff'son? I ain't used to bein' out in such
bleak weather. Seems if I couldn't git my breath. I'm all pinched up
and wigglin' with shivers now. 'T ain't no use lettin' the hoss go
step-a-ty-step, this fashion.
Landy me! exclaimed the affronted driver. I don't see why folks
expects me to race with the cars. Everybody that gits in wants me to
run the hoss to death on the road. I make a good everage o' time, and
that's all I can do. Ef you was to go back an' forth every day
but Sabbath fur eighteen years, you'd want to ease it all you
could, and let those thrash the spokes out o' their wheels that wanted
to. North Kilby, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; Sanscrit Pond,
Tuesdays, Thu'sdays, an' Saturdays. Me an' the beast's done it eighteen
years together, and the creatur' warn't, so to say, young when we begun
it, nor I neither. I re'lly didn't know's she'd hold out till this
time. There, git up, will ye, old mar'! as the beast of burden stopped
short in the road.
There was a story that Jefferson gave this faithful creature a rest
three times a mile, and took four hours for the journey by himself, and
longer whenever he had a passenger. But in pleasant weather the road
was delightful, and full of people who drove their own conveyances, and
liked to stop and talk. There were not many farms, and the third growth
of white pines made a pleasant shade, though Jefferson liked to say
that when he began to carry the mail his way lay through an open
country of stumps and sparse underbrush, where the white pines nowadays
completely arched the road.
They had passed the barn with circus posters, and felt colder than
ever when they caught sight of the weather-beaten acrobats in their
My gorry! exclaimed Widow Tobin, them pore creatur's looks as
cheerless as little birch-trees in snow-time. I hope they dresses 'em
warmer this time o' year. Now, there! look at that one jumpin' through
the little hoop, will ye?
He couldn't git himself through there with two pair o' pants on,
answered Mr. Briley. I expect they must have to keep limber as eels. I
used to think, when I was a boy, that 't was the only thing I could
ever be reconciled to do for a livin'. I set out to run away an' follow
a rovin' showman once, but mother needed me to home. There warn't
nobody but me an' the little gals.
You ain't the only one that's be'n disapp'inted o' their heart's
desire, said Mrs. Tobin sadly. 'T warn't so that I could be spared
from home to learn the dressmaker's trade.
'T would a come handy later on, I declare, answered the
sympathetic driver, bein' 's you went an' had such a passel o' gals to
clothe an' feed. There, them that's livin' is all well off now, but it
must ha' been some inconvenient for ye when they was small.
Yes, Mr. Briley, but then I've had my mercies, too, said the widow
somewhat grudgingly. I take it master hard now, though, havin' to give
up my own home and live round from place to place, if they be my own
child'en. There was Ad'line and Susan Ellen fussin' an' bickerin'
yesterday about who'd got to have me next; and, Lord be thanked, they
both wanted me right off but I hated to hear 'em talkin' of it over.
I'd rather live to home, and do for myself.
I've got consider'ble used to boardin', said Jefferson, sence
ma'am died, but it made me ache 'long at the fust on 't, I tell ye.
Bein' on the road's I be, I couldn't do no ways at keepin' house. I
should want to keep right there and see to things.
Course you would, replied Mrs. Tobin, with a sudden inspiration of
opportunity which sent a welcome glow all over her. Course you would,
Jeff'son,she leaned toward the front seat; that is to say, onless
you had jest the right one to do it for ye.
And Jefferson felt a strange glow also, and a sense of unexpected
interest and enjoyment.
See here, Sister Tobin, he exclaimed with enthusiasm. Why can't
ye take the trouble to shift seats, and come front here long o' me? We
could put one buff'lo top o' the other,they're both wearin'
thin,and set close, and I do' know but we sh'd be more protected
ag'inst the weather.
Well, I couldn't be no colder if I was froze to death, answered
the widow, with an amiable simper. Don't ye let me delay you, nor put
you out, Mr. Briley. I don't know's I'd set forth to-day if I'd known
't was so cold; but I had all my bundles done up, and I ain't one that
puts my hand to the plough an' looks back, 'cordin' to Scriptur'.
You wouldn't wanted me to ride all them seven miles alone? asked
the gallant Briley sentimentally, as he lifted her down, and helped her
up again to the front seat. She was a few years older than he, but they
had been schoolmates, and Mrs. Tobin's youthful freshness was suddenly
revived to his mind's eye. She had a little farm; there was nobody left
at home now but herself, and so she had broken up housekeeping for the
winter. Jefferson himself had savings of no mean amount.
They tucked themselves in, and felt better for the change, but there
was a sudden awkwardness between them; they had not had time to prepare
for an unexpected crisis.
They say Elder Bickers, over to East Sanscrit's been and got
married again to a gal that's four year younger than his oldest
daughter, proclaimed Mrs. Tobin presently. Seems to me 't was fool's
I view it so, said the stage-driver. There's goin' to be a mild
open winter for that fam'ly.
What a joker you be for a man that 's had so much responsibility!
smiled Mrs. Tobin, after they had done laughing. Ain't you never
'fraid, carryin' mail matter and such valuable stuff, that you'll be
set on an' robbed, 'specially by night?
Jefferson braced his feet against the dasher under the worn buffalo
skin. It is kind o' scary, or would be for some folks, but I'd like to
see anybody get the better o' me. I go armed, and I don't care who
knows it. Some o' them drover men that comes from Canady looks as if
they didn't care what they did, but I look 'em right in the eye every
Men folks is brave by natur', said the widow admiringly. You know
how Tobin would let his fist right out at anybody that ondertook to
sass him. Town-meetin' days, if he got disappointed about the way
things went, he'd lay 'em out in win'rows; and ef he hadn't been a
church-member he'd been a real fightin' character. I was always 'fraid
to have him roused, for all he was so willin' and meechin' to home, and
set round clever as anybody. My Susan Ellen used to boss him same's the
kitten, when she was four year old.
I've got a kind of a sideways cant to my nose, that Tobin give me
when we was to school. I don't know's you ever noticed it, said Mr.
Briley. We was scufflin', as lads will. I never bore him no kind of a
grudge. I pitied ye, when he was taken away. I re'lly did, now, Fanny.
I liked Tobin first-rate, and I liked you. I used to say you was the
han'somest girl to school.
Lemme see your nose. 'T is all straight, for what I know, said the
widow gently, as with a trace of coyness she gave a hasty glance. I
don't know but what 't is warped a little, but nothin' to speak of.
You've got real nice features, like your marm's folks.
It was becoming a sentimental occasion, and Jefferson Briley felt
that he was in for something more than he had bargained. He hurried the
faltering sorrel horse, and began to talk of the weather. It certainly
did look like snow, and he was tired of bumping over the frozen road.
I shouldn't wonder if I hired a hand here another year, and went
off out West myself to see the country.
Why, how you talk! answered the widow.
Yes 'm, pursued Jefferson. 'T is tamer here than I like, and I
was tellin' 'em yesterday I've got to know this road most too well. I'd
like to go out an' ride in the mountains with some o' them great
clipper coaches, where the driver don't know one minute but he'll be
shot dead the next. They carry an awful sight o' gold down from the
mines, I expect.
I should be scairt to death, said Mrs. Tobin. What creatur's men
folks be to like such things! Well, I do declare.
Yes, explained the mild little man. There's sights of desp'radoes
makes a han'some livin' out o' followin' them coaches, an' stoppin' an'
robbin' 'em clean to the bone. Your money or your life! and he
flourished his stub of a whip over the sorrel mare.
Landy me! you make me run all of a cold creep. Do tell somethin'
heartenin', this cold day. I shall dream bad dreams all night.
They put on black crape over their heads, said the driver
mysteriously. Nobody knows who most on 'em be, and like as not some o'
them fellows come o' good families. They've got so they stop the cars,
and go right through 'em bold as brass. I could make your hair stand on
end, Mis' Tobin,I could so!
I hope none on 'em'll git round our way, I'm sure, said Fanny
Tobin. I don't want to see none on 'em in their crape bunnits comin'
I ain't goin' to let nobody touch a hair o' your head, and Mr.
Briley moved a little nearer, and tucked in the buffaloes again.
I feel considerable warm to what I did, observed the widow by way
There, I used to have my fears, Mr. Briley resumed, with an inward
feeling that he never would get to North Kilby depot a single man. But
you see I hadn't nobody but myself to think of. I've got cousins, as
you know, but nothin' nearer, and what I've laid up would soon be
parted out; andwell, I suppose some folks would think o' me if
anything was to happen.
Mrs. Tobin was holding her cloud over her face,the wind was sharp
on that bit of open road,but she gave an encouraging sound, between a
groan and a chirp.
'T wouldn't be like nothin' to me not to see you drivin' by, she
said, after a minute. I shouldn't know the days o' the week. I says to
Susan Ellen last week I was sure 't was Friday, and she said no, 't was
Thursday; but next minute you druv by and headin' toward North Kilby,
so we found I was right.
I've got to be a featur' of the landscape, said Mr. Briley
plaintively. This kind o' weather the old mare and me, we wish we was
done with it, and could settle down kind o' comfortable. I've been
lookin' this good while, as I drove the road, and I've picked me out a
piece o' land two or three times. But I can't abide the thought o'
buildin','t would plague me to death; and both Sister Peak to North
Kilby and Mis' Deacon Ash to the Pond, they vie with one another to do
well by me, fear I'll like the other stoppin'-place best.
I shouldn't covet livin' long o' neither one o' them women,
responded the passenger with some spirit. I see some o' Mis' Peak's
cookin' to a farmers' supper once, when I was visitin' Susan Ellen's
folks, an' I says 'Deliver me from sech pale-complected baked beans as
them!' and she give a kind of a quack. She was settin' jest at my left
hand, and couldn't help hearin' of me. I wouldn't have spoken if I had
known, but she needn't have let on they was hers an' make everything
unpleasant. 'I guess them beans taste just as well as other folks','
says she, and she wouldn't never speak to me afterward.
Do' know's I blame her, ventured Mr. Briley. Women folks is
dreadful pudjicky about their cookin'. I've always heard you was one o'
the best o' cooks, Mis' Tobin. I know them doughnuts an' things you've
give me in times past, when I was drivin' by. Wish I had some on 'em
now. I never let on, but Mis' Ash's cookin' 's the best by a long
chalk. Mis' Peak's handy about some things, and looks after mendin' of
It doos seem as if a man o' your years and your quiet make ought to
have a home you could call your own, suggested the passenger. I kind
of hate to think o' your bangein' here and boardin' there, and one old
woman mendin', and the other settin' ye down to meals that like's not
don't agree with ye.
Lor', now, Mis' Tobin, le's not fuss round no longer, said Mr.
Briley impatiently. You know you covet me same's I do you.
I don't nuther. Don't you go an' say fo'lish things you can't stand
I've been tryin' to git a chance to put in a word with you ever
senceWell, I expected you'd want to get your feelin's kind o'
calloused after losin' Tobin.
There's nobody can fill his place, said the widow.
I do' know but I can fight for ye town-meetin' days, on a pinch,
urged Jefferson boldly.
I never see the beat o' you men fur conceit, and Mrs. Tobin
laughed. I ain't goin' to bother with ye, gone half the time as you
be, an' carryin' on with your Mis' Peaks and Mis' Ashes. I dare say
you've promised yourself to both on 'em twenty times.
I hope to gracious if I ever breathed a word to none on 'em!
protested the lover. 'T ain't for lack o' opportunities set afore me,
nuther; and then Mr. Briley craftily kept silence, as if he had made a
fair proposal, and expected a definite reply.
The lady of his choice was, as she might have expressed it, much
beat about. As she soberly thought, she was getting along in years, and
must put up with Jefferson all the rest of the time. It was not likely
she would ever have the chance of choosing again, though she was one
who liked variety. Jefferson wasn't much to look at, but he was
pleasant and appeared boyish and young-feeling. I do' know's I should
do better, she said unconsciously and half aloud. Well, yes,
Jefferson, seem' it's you. But we're both on us kind of old to change
our situation. Fanny Tobin gave a gentle sigh.
Hooray! said Jefferson. I was scairt you meant to keep me
sufferin' here a half an hour. I declare, I'm more pleased than I
calc'lated on. An' I expected till lately to die a single man!
'T would re'lly have been a shame; 't ain't natur', said Mrs.
Tobin, with confidence. I don't see how you held out so long with
I'll hire a hand to drive for me, and we'll have a good comfortable
winter, me an' you an' the old sorrel. I've been promisin' of her a
rest this good while.
Better keep her a steppin', urged thrifty Mrs. Fanny. She'll
stiffen up master, an' disapp'int ye, come spring.
You'll have me, now, won't ye, sartin? pleaded Jefferson, to make
sure. You ain't one o' them that plays with a man's feelin's. Say
right out you'll have me.
I s'pose I shall have to, said Mrs. Tobin somewhat mournfully. I
feel for Mis' Peak an' Mis' Ash, pore creatur's. I expect they'll be
hardshipped. They've always been hard-worked, an' may have kind o'
looked forward to a little ease. But one on 'em would be left
lamentin', anyhow, and she gave a girlish laugh. An air of victory
animated the frame of Mrs. Tobin. She felt but twenty-five years of
age. In that moment she made plans for cutting her Briley's hair, and
making him look smartened-up and ambitious. Then she wished that she
knew for certain how much money he had in the bank; not that it would
make any difference now. He needn't bluster none before me, she
thought gayly. He's harmless as a fly.
Who'd have thought we'd done such a piece of engineering when we
started out? inquired the dear one of Mr. Briley's heart, as he
tenderly helped her to alight at Susan Ellen's door.
Both on us, jest the least grain, answered the lover. Gimme a
good smack, now, you clever creatur'; and so they parted. Mr. Briley
had been taken on the road in spite of his pistol.