S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Far in the forest, a story online

. (page 4 of 17)
Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellFar in the forest, a story → online text (page 4 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

whom she was so much in contact. Her husband
when alive was to them simply Paul Preston, and,
little as he relished the fashion, soon gave up all
form of protest ; but his wife was Mrs. Preston to
all, and, to some of the older Eew-Englanders,
Madam, after the now extinct usage, a survival of
colonial days. It amused her a little, but she did
not dislike the distinction.

" Where is that boy V at last said Biverius. " He
has a fierce young stomach. Shall I call him ?"

"No," said the mother. " I would rather not."

Consider, as usual, seeming to know what was
going on, caught at the name. " Might Paul go
with me to ketch hell-benders Saturday ? I've been
a-promisin' him. I know whar ther's a lot on 'em."

She shook her head.

" What are hell-benders, please ?" said Eiverius.
" Certainly the name does not assist one."

" Sorter small dragon beast, lives in the mud,"
answered Philetus.

At this moment the lad broke into the room, his
eyes a little red, his face flushed. " Keep me some
dinner, mother. I'm going over to Miriam Rich-
mond's after those blessed eggs."

She rose up and kissed him.


" And some pie, mother."

She sat down. " "Where's your hat, Paul ?"

" Oh I" he said, smiling, and doffed his head-
cover. " Good-by."

At the door he looked back, and the two pair of
cloud-blue eyes met and said to one another, " We
understand : unpleasant, this, but necessary."


A moment later Paul was away, gayly jumping
the stumps as he went, and with a keen desire for
the dinner he had left behind. Once past the
snake fence, he left the ox-road, and without hesi-
tation passed into the dense forest. Presently he
stopped, took off his jacket, undid the suspenders,
and, using them as a strap to sustain the coat and
compress the expostulatory cravings of a boy's
empty interior, set off again at a steady trot with-
out hesitation through what would have been for
a city-bred boy a pathless wilderness. There was
much of the mother in the lad, and this perhaps
made it easier for her to influence him than it
would have been for any one without a personal
key to the complicated lock of character. Some
boys are best in the hands of men, but there are
others who prosper better when controlled by
women who understand them and whose natures
admit of none of the compromises to which men
are more apt to be subject. The lad was of a cer-
tain resoluteness which grew to obstinacy in the
face of opposition. Active resistance excited him
into unreason, but the passive feminine steadiness
of a woman merely stopped him like a wall which
arrests one but is not actively antagonistic. Then
always, soon or late, his passionate admiration for
the mother and his warm affection did the rest. It


was well for him that the life of cities was to come
later. He was fortunate in that friendly Nature
took a hand in his education. Existence in this
wild land was hard, but awakened no passions, had
no feeders for the personal pride from which reso-
lute and yet refined characters may suffer under
the influences of social and other forms of adversity.
The people about him were mostly adults, and too
plainly his superiors in one and another way for
comparison. He had, like all boys worth anything,
his childish ideals, and in one or another of those
near him found enough for good example.

He paused a minute to breathe as he crossed a
deserted clearing and passed near a ruined cabin.
Suddenly his eyes flashed, and he smiled. Under
the eaves was a huge gray mass like a crumpled
ball of gray wrapping-paper, a great hornet-nest.
He seized a stone and with unerring skill sent it
into the hive, and, shouting defiance, fled with a
hundred winged and wrathful warriors after him.
They went by, missing him, with a ping, ping, like
bullets. Then he cried, " Oh !" as a happier shot
struck fair in the back of his neck, and he hesitated
whether or not to drop safely in a bed of ferns, but
his habitual inborn hatred of defeat came upper-
most, and, seizing a dogwood bougb, he broke it,
and, turning, faced the foe as he struck to right
and left. Half a minute ended it, and he sat by a
little puddle on a stump and counted up his wounds.
There was one on the lip that hurt and promised to
swell nobly, one on the cheek, and a very unpleas-
ant one somewhere inside his trousers from a too en-


terprising hornet. He applied a little mud to each
wound, and at last extracted the dead hornet which
had caused him a moment of anguished dance such
as a dervish might have envied. He had not quite
run away, and, pleased with himself, he made note
of an intention to come back and have it out with the
enemy, which had now returned to its stronghold.
A half-hour more brought him to a slope, on which,
as usual amid mouldered stumps and backed by
waving corn-pennons, was the cabin of Philetus

Some fifteen years before, Philetus, a man of
fifty, well preserved and not yet blind, was for a
few days in a small inn at Harrisburg. Thither
they brought from a travelling dramatic company
an actress not over twenty years of age and sud-
denly taken ill with a fever, and here they left her.
Very soon her money was exhausted. Philetus
had seen her play when for the first and last time
he had been present in a theatre. The story of her
misery moved his heart. The possible fall from
the magnificent being he had beheld in her glory
as Ophelia to a probable death in the poor-house
troubled him. He helped her quietly out of his
small savings, and at last, when she was still feeble
and had before her the sad prospect of a long and
tedious convalescence, he further aided her to find
a temporary home. She was but a third-rate actress
in a strolling company, and with no near relations
who cared to help her. When Philetus had
seen her act Ophelia, she had merely taken the
place of another and better performer for a time.


Her usual roles were unimportant, and her wages
small. When the sturdy woodman at last found
courage to ask her to marry him, her overestimate
of her own chances on the stage was the chief op-
ponent influence. Gratitude, isolation, poverty,
may all have affected her final decision, but the
physical stateliness of this ample-shouldered giant,
still strong and vigorous, had also a share. Cer-
tainly she loved him at last, despite the disparity in
years. She had little education except such as a
common actress might get from her stage training
and experience, and, being intensely feminine,
slight and pretty, was, like such women, allured
by a profoundly masculine temperament. Ac-
customed to manual work in her youth, she took
kindly to the conditions of her forest life, and if at
times she had moments of regret and longing for
the foot-lights, she usually concealed or set them
aside, and perhaps remembered too well her former
trials and uncertainties. The life was less lonely
when some years later a little girl was born. Soon
after Philetus became hopelessly blind, and then
all that was best in his wife was gradually called
out in varied shapes of helpfulness. The little
money he had spent to help her years before was a
good investment, and there was enough of mutual
admiration to flavor the love which the child served
to knit anew with ties which grew increasingly
stronger year by year. Like many men who marry
much younger women, he was more or less jealous,
a peculiarity intensified by the suspiciousness from
which the blind rarely escape altogether. Except


for its occasional hardships, her married life brought
her but one grave trouble. Very early she learned
to her cost that her sturdy mate was incapable of
taking a single glass of liquor without being morally
poisoned. He knew and hated this single weak-
ness, but could at times be led into self-indulgence.
Since Mrs. Preston's arrival, Philetus's wife had,
however, a potent ally, and the two women, con-
scious of their respective burdens, had for each
other a friendly regard quite curious in two per-
sons so far apart in many ways.

As the boy came near the cabin, he heard at a
distance Mrs. Richmond's voice in tones of angry
remonstrance. He paused. A lumberman in rough
linsey-woolsey and high boots was standing just
within the door-way, a broad, squarely-built man,
slightly bow-legged, as Paul saw him from behind.
Again Miriam Richmond's voice, high-pitched in
wrath, was heard by Paul :

" No, he's not at home, Ance Yickers ; and if he
was, he shouldn't go to work at Smith's with you,
I tell you that."

The lad paused, a little surprised, somewhat in-
terested. Moreover, the burly woodman's figure
blocked the door- way, and Paul hesitated to go by.

"You alius keep a-thinkin' I want to git your
man into trouble."

" Yes, you give him whiskey, that's what you do."

"But ef you'd jus' listen, Myry "

"And I won't listen. You go away, that's all. I
command you to depart," said the ex-actress, who
was apt when roused to recall the foot-lights.



" An' what ef I ain't minded to go ? Ther'
ain't no one I likes well's you. Ther' ain't no
woman I likes as much. You 'ain't no call to talk
fierce to me."

" I don't want to be liked by any one but my
husband. Now get out of this at once. You are
the only man can make Phil drink. One way and
another, you're driving me hard, Ance Vickers. Do
you hear ? Out of that door with you ! Lord, if I
was a man, I'd kill you, you drunken sot."

" Now, for the nicest woman on the Alleghany
to be a-talkin' that 'ere way! Let's make up,
Myry." And, so saying, he moved into the room,
a look of maudlin affection in his face.

" Don't you dare to come near me !" said Miriam.
Close after him followed Paul.

" Ah !" she added, much relieved. " That's you,
Paul Preston. Come in." Her rage was still high,
and she foolishly said, " If you were a man I'd just
ask you to kick that drunken cur out of my cabin."

" What's the row ?" said the boy, surveying the
shock of red beard, the close-cropped stubble of the
head, ruddy as autumn buckwheat, and the liquor-
reddened eyes.

" Ther' ain't no row."

" Would be if Philetus was here," said Miriam.

" You're pretty drunk, Ance," said the boy, with
all the courage of his opinions.

" That's so," added Miriam.

" You crow pretty loud for a small bantam. For
mighty little, I'd shingle you well."

The boy flushed. " You couldn't catch me in a


week." And he glanced about, ready for a prudent

" You'll keep," returned Ance ; " and mind you
git a civil tongue in your head, ef you don't want a
lickin'. That's all."

" If I tell Phil you've been abusing Myry, some-
body else will get a licking," cried the lad, feeling
all the insult of Ance's threat.

" Try it ef you jus' dare," said Ance, looking
furious, and not quite liking the threat.

" Oh, he ain't been abusing me," added Miriam,
quickly. "You mind }^our own business, Paul. I
can talk to Phil when it's wanted." At which
Paul, rather puzzled and a little hurt, was suddenly

" I didn't go to hurt you, Myry," said Ance.
u I'm your friend, I am." And he smiled in the
silly confidential way of the man a trifle overloaded
with whiskey. " Good-by, and jus' you think it
over about Smith's. Good-by, Myry." And, so
saying, he found his way out and slowly meandered
among the stumps and down the slope. The boy
glanced after him and then turned. " Don't cry,"
he said. " He's no good."

" He has been here twice to-day. If I was to tell

Phil Come here. You're a brave boy. You

weren't afraid of him, were you ?"

" I guess not."

Miriam kissed him, — a thing he loathed. She
was rather fond of this mode of expressing her re-
gard for the boy, and now he skilfully got the table
between them to avoid repetition of the dose.


" I wish he had tried it on," he said, laughing.
" You'd have seen some fun. He's not half as bad
as hornets."

"Sol see. I've got some eggs for your mother.
They're in the basket. Now, don't you go after hor-
nets any, or you'll break them ; and don't you tell
Phil Ance Yickers was here."

"All right; but I don't see why. I'd lick him
well if I was Phil. Good-by." As he set foot on
the fence, he heard her call, " Paul Preston !"

" Halloo !" She came slowly over the field,
buxom, rosy, and very straight; at times a re-
membrance of the stage in her movements. The
boy settled himself upon his perch on the fence-top,
watching her with a certain sense of satisfaction at
her full rounded form, liking it as he liked the sun
of a cold day.

" You did not well to make me tramp hither,
Paul. Why did not you come to meet me when I
summoned you?"

Paul had ceased to be surprised at her lapses into
a style of speech above the familiar occasion. With
due respect for the eggs, he got to the ground, a
queer, amused glimmer of fun on his face. " The fact
is, Mrs. Richmond, I forgot. I — I was thinking."

" And pray, sir, of what ?"

He had a little doubt as to the propriety of the
statement her question should have called forth.

" Well ?" she exclaimed.

" Oh, I was thinking you looked "

There was still much of the child in the woman.
She urged, " What ? how do I look ?" and advanced


so that Paul, in dread of another kiss, found him-
self cornered in the fence-angle with an awkward
explanation in front, a more awkward basket of
eggs as impedimenta, and no chance of a dignified
and safe retreat.

""Well, I was thinking of you."

" Ah !" she cried, cunningly expectant. " And
what did you think ?"

" Oh, I just thought you were awful handsome.
There's stuff like your hair grows down by Bond's
brook." And he flushed like a girl.

" Oh, is that all ?" said Miriam. " I ain't what I
was." She would have liked to make clear to him
how pleased she really was, not lacking pride in
her appearanc% and in the rather tumbled gold of
her hair, but no phrase came to lip which seemed
to her fitting, and by this time, taking base advan-
tage of her doubt, he had wriggled through the fence.
There he enjoyed her embarrassed look in security.

" I ain't what I was," she repeated, half sadly.

" Mother says when you're with Phely, you just
get beautiful."

" Oh, Paul !"

« She did. She said so. Where is Phely ?"

"Asleep, I guess. She's been huckleberryin',
and got tired. Come over and play with her soon,
and tell mother I'll be along Sunday for sure. And,
oh, here's what I wanted. Mind you don't tell
Philetus about that Anson Vickers. Promise me."

The kiss was not yet fully avenged, and he felt
disposed to tease h,er. iC I don't know. He might
ask me."


" Oh, he won't, Paul. Look here, you mustn't.
There'd be trouble. Now promise me."

"All right," he said, quickly, glancing somewhat
puzzled at her anxious face. " I won't."

" Thank you. I'll have dumplings for you when
you come over."

"I don't care for dumplings," he said. The
statement was hardly correct, but he felt the notion
of the bribe to be incompatible with his dignity.
" I said I wouldn't, and I won't. Good-by."

He went down the slope to the little brook below,
paused to turn over a stone or two in search of
crayfish, and passed into the wood. On the whole,
he felt cheerfully contented with himself, and went
along whistling until he came into the deserted
clearing. There he paused abruptly. " Oh !" he
exclaimed, a sudden gleam of mischief in his face.
" He'll spank me, will he ?" Sound asleep in the
shadow of the hut lay his enemy, Ance Viekers,
very red, very hot, and unconscious of the mos-
quitoes, who were engaged in a reckless debauch
on the dilution of corn whiskey in his heated veins.
" Great Scott, won't he scratch to-morrow ?" said
the boy to himself. The situation was too tempting
for the human nature of any reasonably constituted
lad. He went quietly into the woods, deposited the
basket in a thicket, cut a long stick, and watchfully
returned to the cabin. There he paused in antici-
pative delight. His strong foe, whom the Delilah
whiskey had given over into the hands of the young
Philistine, lay, face upward, unconscious in the yet
vigorous sun of a failing day of July. Above him,


but a few feet away, the gray hornet-citadel seemed
tranquil enough, and but a little the worse for re-
cent war. Around it a half-dozen watchful senti-
nels crawled or flew. Surveying the situation, Paul
reflected. He would stand at the corner of the
cabin, stir up the gray fortress, and, having thus
brought about a personal difficulty between Ance
and the hornets, leave the man and the winged
lancers to settle it, whilst he, in noiseless mocca-
sins, sped away from danger. It was well planned,
and, after boy-law, a righteous retribution, — skill
and opportunity against insult and brute force.
His allies, the hornets, were sure to insist, after
the lynch-law fashion of the woods, on the nearest
man as the guilty one. But that Ance should suffer
without knowing who punished him would leave the
matter rather incomplete, so far as the boy was con-
cerned. Moreover, he must tell some one, for not
to share the fun of it with another was a thing not
to be thought of. It might be Riverius he would
tell. But to confess to that gentleman how he had
smitten his foe at second hand and run away was
not so pleasant to think of as he recalled certain
looks and words with which the German had re-
ceived some story of trick or stratagem which set
the winter camp-fires in a roar of applause. That
settled it for Paul. The next moment, as he would
have said, he prodded Ance Yickers sharply with
the staff he had just cut. The sleeper groaned,
rolled over, and muttered, " Myry Richmond, she's
the gal."

"George, but that's fun!' said Paul to himself.


" Here goes." At a second rather savage dig in
the shoulder from the boy behind him, now alert
and grimly watchful, Ance sat up, rubbing his
eyes and groping about for his straw hat. " Oh,
dern them skeeters !" he said. At this moment
Paul thrust his stick through the nest, and, crying
aloud, " Take a shingle to me now, Ance Vickers,"
fled around the cabin, and a hundred yards away
turned to reckon the fruits of his victory. The re-
sult was all that could be desired. The red shock
of hair was full of hornets. They were down
the man's neck, up his sleeves, in his breeches.
Every boy has wondered how they get there. For
a brief moment Ance was in doubt as to both
cause and consequence, the result somewhat dis-
turbing his power to attend to its author. It was
a novel means of sobering a man, but, as usual
with great inventions, brought the author small
share of gratitude. Ance leaped to his feet, tore
at his hair and beard, slapped with frantic gestures
at mysterious sharp-shooters under his breeches,
and danced with a wild agility which Paul felt to
be far beyond his own recent performance.

" Take a shingle, Ance," cried the maker of the

" Oh, I'll be even with you ! Oh !" and he swore
fiercely. " Jus' wait !" And with that he started
at unexpected speed after the boy, who fled reeling
with laughter and with no intention of abiding the

" Catch me first!" he cried, and was away down
the slope as fast as a pair of active legs could take


him, the foe in deadly earnest hard after him and
a furious train of attentive hornets in the rear.
Now, when a man has in front just cause for venge-
ful haste and after him equal urgencies in the shape
of legions of angry hornets, even a little too much
whiskey may not retard him greatly; and Ance
had slept off a fair amount of his drunkenness. For
a while the race was pretty even. The youngster
douhlecl and turned, and, coming to an open pine
grove, ran across it like a deer. Then there was
undergrowth, and the strong woodman had the
advantage as the panting boy struggled through it,
wishing he had taken a longer start of his foe, but
still impenitent enough. At last, looking back, he
saw that furious red face within twenty yards, and
felt that his own wind was almost gone. Under
ordinary circumstances he would have stopped and
faced the enemy, being a gallant little fellow, but
a second glance at the ferocious visage, now lit up
with security of vengeance, decided him. He did
not like the man's looks. Instantly selecting a
tree, Paul swarmed up it with his last remnant of
strength, and was well out of reach before Ance
stood beneath him. Catching a full breath, Paul
reached a branch, swung himself up to a second,
and at last sat secure in the maple leaves twenty
feet above his pursuer, who stood silent and grim,
for a moment breathing too hard to speak. Paul
could see him, but he himself was partly hidden by
the thick intervening foliage between them. With
new belief in his security, the boy's spirits rose,
and with them his natural sense of fun.


" Pretty comfortable up here, Ance."

" I'll make you comfortable right soon," said the
man. " Wait till I git a few stones."

Paul laughed, but did not altogether like it.
" Fire away," he said, boldly. A small stone went
by his head, then another, and at last one barked
his shin. It hurt, but he only said, " You're a
mean cuss, Ance Vickers, to stone a boy. Wait
till I tell Phil Richmond what I heard you say to
Myry." He had no idea of telling, but the situa-
tion was grave. The next moment he regretted
the indiscretion.

" You won't never tell on me," returned Ance.
"I'm comin' up to finish you. This here joke's
lasted jus' long 'nough. You'd best say your

Paul trembled, but climbed higher.

" It's no use. I'll git you." The angry man
tore off his coat, pulled off" his long boots, and
began with dreadful ease to climb the tree.

Paul called a truce. " If I come down, what
will you do ?"

" Kill you, by !" said the man, brutally. " I

won't have no tales told on me."

How far the lumberman was in earnest, and
how far merely disposed to frighten him, Paul
could not know. Ance had a bad record as a
man rather merciless when excited with anger and
whiskey. Just now the lad's threat had alarmed
and irritated him, and, while Paul may have over-
estimated Ance's desire for cruel vengeance, it is
pretty sure that the man's sense of accumulated


wrong left him little self-control. Terrified, Paul
climbed higher, and at last crawled out on a large
limb almost as far as he dared to go. Ance, now
silent, was within ten feet of him, and began also
with a good deal of caution to follow the boy, his
greater height enabling the man to stand on a
lower branch and thus to distribute his weight as
he moved, hand beyond hand, towards the boy.
Meanwhile, Paul was edging along on top of his
limb, fiercely gripping it with legs and arms. At
last Ance was too far out to keep safe footing on
the branch below him. The limb above was crack-
ing with the double weight. Both were silent, but
very warily the man inch by inch came nearer.
" You'll kill us both," said Paul. " It won't hold."
Ance said nothing. Paul let go with one hand,
got a penknife out of his pocket, opened it with
his teeth, and said, " If you come nearer, I'll cut
your hand." " Cut away," cried Ance. The boy
raised his arm : the red hairy hand was almost
within touch of him. At this moment a loud
voice rang out below.

" Halloo ! what's all this about ? Let that boy
alone, I say." Ance looked down. The tall form
and blond moustache of John Riverius were visible
through the swaying leafage.

" Not till I ketch him," cried Ance. " You ain't
the man to stop Ance Vickers."

Riverius took in the danger of the situation in a

" Der Teufel !" he cried. The sharp double
click of the cock was heard distinctly. "I've got


you covered," he cried, as he raised his rifle. " As
surely as I live, you are a lost man if you are not
down out of that tree in a minute."

Ance lost no time. There was deadly earnest-
ness in the voice of Riverius. " I'll come," said
Ance, and proceeded to descend, followed by the
boy, now pale and shaking from the effects of im-
mense physical exertion and mental strain. Ance
set his back to the tree and folded his arms as Paul
swung out on a lower branch and dropped beside
his protector.

"What's all this about?" said Riverius.

" Ask him," returned Ance, sullenly. " I won't
forget either one of you. You look out. That's

" Pshaw !" said Riverius. " I can take care of

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellFar in the forest, a story → online text (page 4 of 17)