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Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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in the settlement. The Mount Zion meetin’-house couldn’t hold protracted
meetin’ without ‘im. He fed more preachers an’ the’r hosses than anybody
else, an’ some ‘lowed that he wuz jest too natcherly good to pass away
like common folks, an’ that when his time come he’d jest disappear body
an’ all.” She was now wiping her eyes on her apron, and her voice had
the suggestion of withheld emotions. “I never calculated on him bringin’
sech disgrace as this on his family.”

“Whar is he now?” asked Odell, preliminarily.

“Down thar stackin’ hay. Sally begun on ‘im ag’in at dinner about yore
orders to Eph, an’ he went away ‘thout finishin’ his dinner. She’s been
a-cryin’ an’ a-poutin’ an’ takin’ on fer a week, an’ won’t tech a bite
to eat. I never seed a gal so bound up in anybody as she is in Eph. It
has mighty nigh driv her pa distracted, kase he likes Eph, an’ Sally’s
his pet.” Mrs. Calihan turned her head toward the adjoining room:
“Sally, oh, Sally! are ye listenin’? Come heer a minute!”

There was silence for a moment, then a sound of heavy shoes on the floor
of the next room, and a tall rather good-looking girl entered. Her eyes
and cheeks were red, and she hung her head awkwardly, and did not look
at any one but her mother.

“Did you call me, ma?”

“Yes, honey; run an’ tell yore pa they are all heer, - the last one
of ‘em, an’ fer him to hurry right on to the house an’ not keep ‘em
a-waitin’.”

“Yes-sum!” And without any covering for her head the visitors saw her
dart across the back yard toward the meadow.

With his pitchfork on his shoulder, a few minutes later Abner Calihan
came up to the back door of his house. He wore no coat, and but one
frayed suspender supported his patched and baggy trousers. His broad,
hairy breast showed through the opening in his shirt. His tanned cheeks
and neck were corrugated, his hair and beard long and reddish brown. His
brow was high and broad, and a pair of blue eyes shone serenely beneath
his shaggy brows.

“Good evenin’,” he said, leaning his pitchfork against the door-jamb
outside and entering. Without removing his hat he went around and gave
a damp hand to each visitor. “It is hard work savin’ hay sech weather as
this.”

No one replied to this remark, though they all nodded and looked as
if they wanted to give utterance to something struggling within them.
Calihan swung a chair over near the door, and sat down and leaned back
against the wall, and looked out at the chickens in the yard and the
gorgeous peacock strutting about in the sun. No one seemed quite ready
to speak, so, to cover his embarrassment, he looked farther over in the
yard to his potato-bank and pig-pens, and then up into the clear sky for
indications of rain.

“I reckon you know our business, Brother Calihan,” began Odell, in a
voice that broke the silence harshly.

“I reckon I could make a purty good guess,” and Calihan spit over his
left shoulder into the yard. “I hain’t heerd nothin’ else fer a week.
From all the talk, a body’d ‘low I’d stole somebody’s hawgs.”

“We jest _had_ to take action,” affirmed the self-constituted speaker
for the others. “The opinions you have expressed,” and Odell at once
began to warm up to his task, “are so undoctrinal an’ so p’int blank
ag’in’ the articles of faith that, believin’ as you seem to believe,
you are plumb out o’ j’int with Big Cabin Church, an’ a resky man in
any God-feerin’ community. God Almighty” - and those who saw Odell’s
twitching upper lip and indignantly flashing eye knew that the noted
“exhorter” was about to become mercilessly personal and vindictive - “God
Almighty is the present ruler of the universe, but sence you have set up
to run ag’in’ Him it looks like you’d need a wider scope of territory to
transact business in than jest heer in this settlement.”

The blood had left Calihan’s face. His eyes swept from one stern,
unrelenting countenance to another till they rested on his wife and
daughter, who sat side by side, their faces in their aprons, their
shoulders quivering with soundless sobs. They had forsaken him. He was
an alien in his own house, a criminal convicted beneath his own roof.
His rugged breast rose and fell tumultuously as he strove to command his
voice.

“I hain’t meant no harm - not a speck,” he faltered, as he wiped the
perspiration from his quivering chin. “I hain’t no hand to stir up
strife in a community. I’ve tried to be law-abidin’ an’ honest, but it
don’t seem like a man kin he’p thinkin’. He - ”

“But he kin keep his thinkin’ to hisse’f,” interrupted Odell, sharply;
and a pause came after his words.

In a jerky fashion Calihan spit over his shoulder again. He looked at
his wife and daughter for an instant, and nodded several times as if
acknowledging the force of Odell’s words. Bart Callaway took out his
tobacco-quid and nervously shuffled it about in his palm as if he had
half made up his mind that Odell ought not to do all the talking, but he
remained mute, for Mrs. Calihan had suddenly looked up.

“That’s what I told him,” she whimpered, bestowing a tearful glance on
her husband. “He mought ‘a’ kep’ his idees to hisse’f ef he had to have
‘em, and not ‘a’ fetched calumny an’ disgrace down on me an’ Sally. When
he used to set thar atter supper an’ pore over the _True Light_ when
ever’body else wuz in bed, I knowed it’d bring trouble, kase some o’ the
doctrine wuz scand’lous. The next thing I knowed he had lost intrust in
prayer-meetin’, an’ ‘lowed that Brother Washburn’s sermons wuz the same
thing over an’ over, an’ that they mighty nigh put him to sleep. An’
then he give up axin’ the blessin’ at the table - somethin’ that has been
done in my fam’ly as fur back as the oldest one kin remember. An’ he
talked his views, too, fer it got out, an’ me nur Sally narry one never
cheeped it, fer we wuz ashamed. An’ then ever’ respectable woman in Big
Cabin meetin’-house begun to sluff away from us as ef they wuz afeerd o’
takin’ some dreadful disease. It wuz hard enough on Sally at the
start, but when Eph up an’ tol’ her that you had give him a good
tongue-lashin’, an’ had refused to deed him the land you promised him ef
he went any further with her, it mighty nigh prostrated her. She hain’t
done one thing lately but look out at the road an’ pine an’ worry. The
blame is all on her father. My folks has all been good church members as
fur back as kin be traced, an’ narry one wuz ever turned out.”

Mrs. Calihan broke down and wept. Calihan was deeply touched; he could
not bear to see a woman cry. He cleared his throat and tried to look
unconcerned.

“What step do you-uns feel called on to take next to - to what you are
a-doin’ of now?” he stammered.

“We ‘lowed,” replied Odell, “ef we couldn’t come to some sort o’
understandin’ with you now, we’d fetch up the case before preachin’
to-morrow an’ let the membership vote on it. The verdict would go ag’in’
you, Ab, fer thar hain’t a soul in sympathy with you.”

The sobbing of the two women broke out in renewed volume at the mention
of this dreadful ultimatum, which, despite their familiarity with
the rigor of Big Cabin Church discipline, they had up to this moment
regarded as a vague contingent rather than a tangible certainty.

Calihan’s face grew paler. Whatever struggle might have been going on in
his mind was over. He was conquered.

“I am ag’in’ bringin’ reproach on my wife an’ child,” he conceded, a
lump in his throat and a tear in his eye. “You all know best. I reckon I
have been too forward an’ too eager to heer myself talk.” He got up
and looked out toward the towering cliffy mountains and into the blue
indefiniteness above them, and without looking at the others he finished
awkwardly: “Ef it’s jest the same to you-uns you may let the charge
drap, an’ - an’ in future I ‘ll give no cause fer complaint.”

“That’s the talk,” said Odell, warmly, and he got up and gave his hand to
Calihan. The others followed his example.

“I ‘ll make a little speech before preachin’ in the mornin’,” confided
Odell to Calihan after congratulations were over. “You needn’t be thar
unless you want to. I ‘ll fix you up all right.”

Calihan smiled faintly and looked shamefacedly toward the meadow, and
reached outside and took hold of the handle of his pitchfork.

“I want to try to git through that haystack ‘fore dark,” he said,
awkwardly. “Ef you-uns will be so kind as to excuse me now I ‘ll run down
and finish up. I’d sorter set myself a task to do, an’ I don’t like to
fall short o’ my mark.”

Down in the meadow Calihan worked like a tireless machine, not pausing
for a moment to rest his tense muscles. He was trying to make up for
the time he had lost with his guests. Higher and smaller grew the great
haystack as it slowly tapered toward its apex. The red sun sank behind
the mountain and began to draw in its long streamers of light. The gray
of dusk, as if fleeing from its darker self, the monster night, crept
up from the east, and with a thousand arms extended moved on after the
receding light.

Calihan worked on till the crickets began to shrill and the frogs in the
marshes to croak, and the hay beneath his feet felt damp with dew.
The stack was finished. He leaned on his fork and inspected his work
mechanically. It was a perfect cone. Every outside straw and blade of
grass lay smoothly downward, like the hair on a well-groomed horse. Then
with his fork on his shoulder he trudged slowly up the narrow field-road
toward the house. He was vaguely grateful for the darkness; a strange,
new, childish embarrassment was on him. For the first time in life he
was averse to meeting his wife and child.

“I’ve been spanked an’ told to behave ur it ‘ud go wuss with me,” he
muttered. “I never wuz talked to that away before by nobody, but I jest
had to take it. Sally an’ her mother never would ‘a’ heerd the last of
it ef I had let out jest once. No man, I reckon, has a moral right to
act so as to make his family miserable. I crawfished, I know, an’ on
short notice; but law me! I wouldn’t have Bill Odell’s heart in me fer
ever’ acre o’ bottom-lan’ in this valley. I wouldn’t ‘a’ talked to a
houn’ dog as he did to me right before Sally an’ her mother.”

He was very weary when he leaned his fork against the house and turned
to wash his face and hands in the tin basin on the bench at the side of
the steps. Mrs. Calihan came to the door, her face beaming.

“I wuz afeerd you never would come,” she said, in a sweet, winning tone.
“I got yore beans warmed over an’ some o’ yore brag yam taters cooked.
Come on in ‘fore the coffee an’ biscuits git cold.”

“I ‘ll be thar in a minute,” he said; and he rolled up his sleeves and
plunged his hot hands and face into the cold spring-water.

“Here’s a clean towel, pa; somebody has broke the roller.” It was Sally.
She had put on her best white muslin gown and braided her rich, heavy
hair into two long plaits which hung down her back. There was no trace
of the former redness about her eyes, and her face was bright and full
of happiness. He wiped his hands and face on the towel she held, and
took a piece of a comb from his vest pocket and hurriedly raked his
coarse hair backward. He looked at her tenderly and smiled in an abashed
sort of way.

“Anybody comin’ to-night?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Eph Odell, I ‘ll bet my hat!”

The girl nodded, and blushed and hung her head.

“How do you know?”

“Mr. Odell ‘lowed I mought look fer him.”

Abner Calihan laughed slowly and put his arm around his daughter, and
together they went toward the steps of the kitchen door.

“You seed yore old daddy whipped clean out to-day,” he said,
tentatively. “I reckon yo ‘re ashamed to see him sech a coward an’ have
him sneak away like a dog with his tail tucked ‘tween his legs. Bill
Odell is a power in this community.”

She laughed with him, but she did not understand his banter, and
preceded him into the kitchen. It was lighted by a large tallow-dip in
the center of the table. There was much on the white cloth to tempt a
hungry laborer’s appetite - a great dish of greasy string-beans, with
pieces of bacon, a plate of smoking biscuits, and a platter of fried ham
in brown gravy. But he was not hungry. Slowly and clumsily he drew
up his chair and sat down opposite his wife and daughter. He slid a
quivering thumb under the edge of his inverted plate and turned it
half over, but noticing that they had their hands in their laps and had
reverently bowed their heads, he cautiously replaced it. In a flash he
comprehended what was expected of him. The color surged into his homely
face. He played with his knife for a moment, and then stared at them
stubbornly, almost defiantly. They did not look up, but remained
motionless and patiently expectant. The dread of the protracted silence,
for which he was becoming more and more responsible, conquered him. He
lowered his head and spoke in a low, halting tone:

“Good Lord, Father of us all, have mercy on our sins, and make us
thankful fer these, Thy many blessings. Amen.”




THE TENDER LINK


I

|Several customers were gathered in Mark Wyndham’s store at the
cross-roads. They were rough farmers, wearing jean clothing, slouch
hats, and coarse, dusty brogans.

A stranger, a man of quite a different type, came in and sat down near
the side door. At first the crowd gazed at him curiously, but after a
while he seemed to pass out of their minds. When he had waited on all
his customers, Mark approached the stranger.

“By hookey!” he exclaimed, pausing in astonishment, and then extending
his hand, “as the Lord is my Maker, it’s Luke King! Who’d ever expect to
see you turn up?”

“Yes; Luke King it will have to be, since you, like all the rest, won’t
call me by my right name.”

Mark laughed apologetically. “Oh, I forgot you never could bear to be
called by yore step-daddy’s name; but you wuz raised up with the King
layout, an’ Laramore is not a easy word to handle. Well, I reckon you
are follerin’ what you started - writin’ books?”

“Yes.”

“I ‘lowed you’d stick to it. I never seed a feller study harder an’ want
to do a thing as bad.”

Lucian Laramore smiled. “Did any one here ever find out that I had
adopted that profession?”

“Not a soul, Luke. I never let on to anybody that I knowed it, an’ the
folks round heer don’t read much. They mought ‘a’ suspected some ‘n’ ef
Luke King had been signed to yore books and stories, but nobody ever
called you by yore right name. What on earth ever made you come home?”

“It was my mother that brought me here, Mark - not the others,” said
Laramore. “If a man is a man, no sort of fame or prosperity can make him
forget his mother. I planned to come back several times, but something
always prevented it. However, when you wrote me that the last time you
saw her she was not looking well, I decided to come at once.”

Mark was critically surveying his old friend from head to foot while he
was speaking. Laramore smiled, and added, “You are wondering why I am so
plainly dressed, Mark; you needn’t deny it.”

Mark flushed when he replied: “Well, I did ‘low you fellers ‘ud put on
more style ‘n we-uns down here.”

“It’s an old suit I have worn out hunting in Canada. I put it on because
I intended to do a good deal of walking; and then, to tell the truth, I
thought it would look better for me to go back very simply dressed.”

“That’s a fact, now I think of it; well, I wish you luck over thar.
Goin’ ter foot it over?”

“Yes; it is only three miles, and I have plenty of time.”

But the walk was longer than Laramore thought it would be, and he was
hot, damp with perspiration, and covered with dust when he reached the
four-roomed cabin among the stunted pines and wild cedars.

Old Sam King sat out in front of the door. He wore no shoes nor coat,
and his hickory shirt and jean trousers had been patched many times. His
hair was long, sun-burned, and tangled, and the corrugated skin of his
cheek and neck was covered with straggling hairs.

As the stranger came in view from behind the pine-pole pig-pen, the old
man uttered a grunt of surprise that brought to the door two young women
in homespun dresses, and a tall, lank young man in his shirt-sleeves.

“I suppose you don’t remember me,” said Laramore, and he put his satchel
on a wash-bench by a tub and a piggin of lye soap.

“Well, I reckon nobody in this shack is gwine to ‘spute with you,”
rumbled the old man, as with his chin in his hand, he lazily looked at
the face before him.

“I might not have known you either if I had not been told that you lived
here. I am the fellow you used to call Luke King.”

“By Jacks!” After that ejaculation the old man and the others stared
speechlessly.

“Yes, that’s who I am,” continued Laramore. “How do you do, Jake?” (to
the lank young man in the door). “We might as well shake hands. You
girls have grown into women since I left. I’ve stayed away a long time,
and been nearly all over the world, but I’ve always wanted to get back.
Where is mother?”

Neither of the girls could summon up the courage to answer, and they
seemed under stress of great embarrassment.

“She is porely,” said the old man, inhospitably keeping his seat. “She’s
had a hurtin’ in ‘er side from usin’ that thar battlin’-stick too much
on dirty clothes, an’ her cold has settled on ‘er chest. Mary, go tell
yore maw Luke’s got back. Huh, we all ‘lowed you wuz dead ‘cept her. She
al’ays contended you wuz alive som ‘ers. How’s times been a-servin’ uv
you?”

“Pretty well.” Laramore put his satchel on the ground and sat down
wearily on the bench by the tub.

“Things is awful slow heer. Whar have you been hangin’ out?”

“Nowhere in particular - that is, I have lived in a good many places.”

“Huh! ‘bout as I expected; an’ I reckon you hain’t got nothin’ at all
ter show fer it ‘cept what you’ve got on yore back.”

“That’s about all.”

“What you been a-follerin’?”

Laramore colored sensitively.

“Writing for papers and magazines.”

“I ‘lowed you mought go at some ‘n’ o’ that sort; you used to try mighty
hard to write a good hand; you never would work. Married?”

“No.”

“Hain’t able to support a woman I reckon. Well, you showed a great lot
of good sense thar; a feller can sorter manage to shift fer hisse’f ef
he hain’t hampered by a pack o’ children an’ er sick woman.”

At that juncture Mary returned. She flushed as she caught Laramore’s
expectant glance. She spoke to her father.

“Maw said tell ‘im ter come in thar.” Laramore went into the front room
and turned into a small apartment adjoining. It was windowless and dark,
the only light filtering through the front room. On a low, narrow bed
beneath a ladder leading to a trap-door above, lay a woman.

“Here I am, Luke,” she cried out, excitedly. “Don’t stumble over that
pan o’ water! I’ve been taking a mustard footbath to try an’ git my
blood warm. La, me! How you did take me by surprise! I’ve prayed for
little else in many er yeer, an’ I was jest about ter give it up.”

His foot touched a three-legged stool, and he drew it to the head of her
bed and sat down. He took one of her hard, thin hands and bent over her.
Should he kiss her? She had not taught him to do so when he was a child,
and he had never kissed her in his life, but he had seen the world and
grown wiser. He turned her face toward him and pressed his lips to hers.
She was much surprised, and drew herself from him and wiped her mouth
with a corner of the sheet, but he knew she was pleased.

“Why, Luke, what on earth do you mean? Have you gone plumb crazy?” she
said, quickly.

“I wanted to kiss you, that’s all,” he said, awkwardly. They were
both silent for a moment, then she spoke, tremblingly: “You al’ays was
womanish an’ tender-like; it don’t do a body any harm; none o’ the rest
ain’t that way. But, my stars! I cayn’t tell a bit how you look in this
pitch dark. Mary! oh, Mary!”

Laramore released his mother’s hand, and sat up erect as the girl came
to the door.

“What you want, maw?”

“I cayn’t see my hand’fore me; I wish you’d fetch a light heer. You ‘ll
find a piece o’ candle in the clock; I hid it there to keep Jake from
usin’ it in his lantern.”

The girl lit the bit of tallow-dip, and fastened it in the neck of a
bottle. She brought it in, stood it on a box filled with cotton-seed
and ears of corn, and shambled out. Laramore’s heart sank as he looked
around him. The room was nothing but a lean-to shed walled with upright
slabs and floored with puncheons. The bedstead was a crude wooden frame
supported by perpendicular saplings fastened to floor and rafters. The
cracks in the wall were filled with mud, rags, and newspapers. Bunches
of dried herbs hung above his head, and piles of old clothing and
agricultural implements lay about indiscriminately. Disturbed by the
light, a hen flew from her nest behind a dismantled loom, and with a
loud cackling went out at the door.

The old woman gazed at him eagerly. “You hain’t altered so overly much,”
she observed, “‘cept yore skin looks mighty white, and yore hands feel
soft.”

Then she lowered her voice into a whisper, and glanced furtively toward
the door. “You favor yore father - I don’t mean Sam, but Mr. Laramore.
Yore as like as two peas. He helt his head that away, an’ had yore way
o’ bein’ gentle with womenfolks. You’ve got his high temper, too. La,
me! that last night you was at home, an’ Sam cussed you, an’ kicked yore
books into the fire, I didn’t sleep a wink. I thought you’d gone off to
borrow a gun. It was almost a relief to know you’d left, kase I seed you
an’ Sam couldn’t git along. Yore father was a different sort of a man,
Luke; he loved books an’ study, like you. He had good blood in ‘im; his
father was a teacher an’ a circuit-rider. I don’t know why I married
Sam, ‘less it was kase I was young an’ helpless, an’ you was a baby.”

There was a low whimper in her voice, and the lines about her mouth
tightened. Lara-more’s breast heaved, and he suddenly put out his hand
and began to stroke her thin, gray hair. A strange, restful feeling
stole over him. The spell was on her, too; she closed her eyes, and a
blissful smile lighted her wan face. Then her lips began to quiver, and
she turned her face from him.

“I’m er simpleton,” she sobbed, “but I cayn’t he’p it. Nobody hain’t
petted me nur tuk on over me a bit sence yore paw died. I never treated
you right, nuther, Luke; I ort never to ‘a’ let Sam run over you like he
did.”

“Never mind that,” Laramore replied, tenderly; “but you must not lie
here in this dingy hole; you need medicine and good food.”

“I’m gwine ter git up,” she answered. “I’m not sick; I jest laid down
ter rest. I must git the house straight. Mary and Jane hain’t no hands
at housework ‘thout I stand over ‘em, and Jake an’ his paw is
continually a-fussin’. I feel stronger already; ef you ‘ll go in t’other
room I ‘ll rise. They ‘ll never fix you nothin’ ter eat, nur nowhar to
sleep. I reckon you ‘ll have to lie with Jake, like you useter, tel I can
fix better. Things is in a awful mess sence I got porely.”

He went into the front room. The old man had brought his satchel in. He
had opened it in a chair, and was coolly examining the contents in the
firelight. Jake and the two girls stood looking on. Laramore stared
at the old man, but the latter did not seem at all abashed. Finally he
closed the satchel and put it on the floor.

In a few minutes Mrs. King came in. She blew out the candle, and as she
crossed to the mantelpiece she carefully extinguished the smoking wick.
The change in her was more noticeable to her son than it had been a
few minutes before. She looked very frail and white in her faded black
cotton gown. Her shoes were worn and her bare feet showed through the


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