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Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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cleared last year, not countin’ bad debts an’ expenses? I’m over three
thousand ahead, an’ prospects fer trade never was better. My books will
show you that I am a-givin’ it to you straight.”

Webb made no reply. If he had been as sure of his own moral worth as he
was of Jim’s he would have been a better man. As it was, he only looked
significantly at Thornton, who had evidently come prepared to play a
part.

“It ain’t no business o’ mine, fellers, one way or the other,” began
Thornton, slightly confused. He cleared his throat and spat on the
floor. “But I ‘ll admit I’m kinder anxious to see Harry get into some
settled business. You know he’s mighty changeable, one day runnin’ some
fortune-wheel or card-table, an’ the next got charge of a side-show,
bar, or skating-rink, and never makes much stake at anything. I told
his wife to-day that I’d do my best to get you fellers to come to a
understanding. That’s all the interest I’ve got in the matter; but I’d
bet my last chip you’d have to look a long ways before you could find
another buyer with that much ready cash such times as these.”

“Huh, you don’t say!” sneered Jim, a cold gleam of indecision and
excitement in the glance that he accidentally threw to Bob Lash, who
erroneously fancied that his friend wanted him to say something to
offset the remarks made by Webb’s ally. But diplomacy was not one of the
few gifts with which frugal nature had blessed Bob, and when the idea
struck him that he ought to speak, he grew very agitated, and almost
stabbed a hole in one of his cheeks with the long splinter with which he
was picking his teeth.

“The man that gits it has a purty dead-shore thing fer a comfortable
income,” he blurted out, incautiously. “I wish I had the money to secure
it; I’d plank it down so quick it ‘u’d make yore head swim.”

Jim flushed. “Nobody hain’t said nothin’ ‘bout the shebang bein’ on the
market,” he said, quickly.

Bob saw his mistake too late to rectify it, so he said nothing.

Webb smiled, and rose with an easy assumption of indifference and
lighted a fresh cigar over the lamp-chimney. “Tibbs wants to rent me the
new store-room joining you, Jim,” he said, rolling his cigar into the
corner of his mouth and half closing the eye which was in direct line
with the rising smoke. “I kinder thought I’d like them big plate-glass
show-windows. Ten thousand dollars in bran-new groceries wouldn’t be
bad, would they?”

Jim was taken slightly aback, but he recovered himself in an instant.
“Not ef they was bought jest right, Harry,” he said, significantly. “A
man _mought_ have a purty fair start that way, ef he was experienced;
but law me! I’d hate awful to start to lay in a stock frum these cussed
drummers; they are wholesale bunco-sharks. An’ then, you see, I’ve been
here sence this town fust started, an’ I know who will do to credit an’
who won’t. My blacklist is wuth five thousand to any man in this line.
Thar’s men in this town that ‘ll pay a gamblin’ debt ‘thout a bobble,
an’ cuss like rips at the sight of a grocery bill. But thar ain’t no use
talkin’; I reckon my business ain’t fer sale.”

Webb turned to Thornton and coolly asked for a match; then the entire
group was silent till Bob Lash spoke.

“How in the world did you ever happen to come ‘way out here, anyway,
Jim?” he asked, obtusely believing that Bradley meant exactly what he
had said in regard to Webb’s proposition, and that for all concerned it
would be more agreeable and profitable to talk about something else.

“Got tired an’ wanted a change,” grunted Bradley. “I never was treated
exactly right by my folks, an’ was itchin’ awful to make money.”

“What county did you say you was from?”

“Gilmer.”

Webb yawned aloud, puffed at his cigar, and swept the store from end to
end with a rather critical, would-be dissatisfied glance.

“I passed through thar goin’ from Dalton to Canton,” went on Bob,
warming up. “It’s a purty country through them mountains. What was you
a-follerin’ back thar?”

“Farmin’ it. Thar was jest three uv us - me an’ brother Joe an’ mother;
but we couldn’t git along together.”

“What a pity!” said Bob.

“I al’ays wanted to make money,” went on Jim, “an’ atter the old man
died I was anxious fer me an’ Joe to save up enough to git a farm uv our
own; but he tuk to drinkin’ an’ spreein’ round generally, an’ was al’ays
off jest when the crop needed the most attention. I al’ays was easy
irritated, an’ never could be satisfied onless I was goin’ ahead. Me an’
Joe was eternally a-fussin’, an’ mother al’ays tuk his part. One night
she got rippin’ mad, an’ ‘lowed that she could git along better with ‘im
ef I wasn’t thar to make trouble, an’ so I made up my mind to come West.
I tol’ ‘em they was welcome to my intrust in the crap, an that I had had
all I could stand up under, an’ was goin’ off. Mother never even said
farewell, an’ Joe sorter turned up his nose, an’ ‘lowed I’d be writin’
back an’ beggin’ fer money to git home on ‘fore a month was out. I told
mother ef she ever needed help to write, but she never looked up from
her spinnin’-wheel, an’ from that day to this I hain’t had a scratch of
a pen.”

“Shorely you didn’t leave a old woman in sech hands as that,” ventured
Bob.

The expression on Jim Bradley’s face changed. “What was I to do? Ef I’d
‘a’ stayed thar I’d ‘a’ been a beggar to-day,” he said, argumentatively.
“I ‘lowed ef I was sech a bother I’d leave ‘em; but I ‘ll admit thar are
times when I think I may ‘a’ been a leetle hasty. An’ I do hanker atter
home folks mighty bad at times, especially when I’m locked up in this
lonely store at night, with nothin’ but my cat fer company. I’ve been
intendin’ to write to mother every day, but some ‘n’ al’ays interferes. I
heerd four year ago, accidentally, that they was gittin’ ‘long tolerable
well.”

“It’s mighty tough on fellers of our age, Jim, to grow old alone in the
world,” sighed Bob, reaching out to the crate for another splinter.
“I’d ruther have less money an’ more rale home comforts. Kin is a great
thing. Brother Sam sent me a pictur’ uv his little gal. I wish I had
it to show you; she’s mighty purty an’ smart-lookin’. It made me mighty
homesick.’

“I reckon it did,” said Bradley. “I’ve seed dogs that lived better than
I do. D’ you fellers ever see whar I bunk?”

“No,” joined in Thornton and Webb, seeing that they were addressed.

“Come into my parlor, then;” and Jim grinned, broadly. He lifted the
lamp, and holding it over his head, he led them through some curtains
made of cotton bagging into the back room. Empty boxes, hogsheads,
crates, bales of hay, heaps of old iron, and every sort of rubbish
imaginable covered the floor. A narrow bed stood by a window between
a row of dripping syrup-barrels and the greasy wall. “Thar’s whar I
sleep,” said Jim, pointing to the bed. “It hain’t been made up in a
coon’s age. Sometimes old Injun Mary changes the sheets an’ turns the
mattress when she happens along, but it hain’t often. At home I used to
sleep in a big sweet-smellin’ bed that was like lyin’ down in a pile o’
roses.”

“I’d think you’d git tired o’ this; I would, by hooky!” declared Bob.
“Whar do you git yore grub?”

“Fust one place an’ then another; I don’t bother much about my eatin’.
I have to light out o’ bed to wait on the fust one that rattles the
doorknob in the mornin’, an’ am so busy from then on that I cayn’t find
a minute to git a bite o’ breakfast. See my kettle thar? I can make as
good a cup o’ coffee as the next one. Half a cup o’ ground Javy in my
coffeepot, with bilin’ water poured on, an’ then put on the stove to
bile ag’in, does the business. Thar’s my skillet; a cowboy give it to
me. Sometimes I fry a slice o’ streak-o’-lean-streak-o’-fat, ur a few
cracked eggs, but it hain’t half livin’.”

They walked back and sat down in the store again. Bob had a strange,
perplexed look on his face. Webb was about to make some reference to his
offer, when Bob forestalled him in a rather excited tone.

“Jim, did yore mother live nigh Ellijay?”

“‘Bout three miles from town. What in the thunder is the matter? What
are you starin’ at me that way fer?”

Bob looked down and moved uneasily on the barrel. “I was jest
a-wonderin’ - my Lord, Jim! thar was a feller shot the day I passed
through Ellijay. I cayn’t be shore, but it seems to me his name was Joe
Bradley. He was a troublesome, rowdyish sort of a feller, an’ a man had
to shoot ‘im in self-defense.”

Jim stared at the speaker helplessly, and then glanced around at Webb
and Thornton. His great brown eyes began to dilate, and a sickly
pallor came into his face. His breathing fell distinct and harsh on
the profound stillness of the room. His mouth dropped open, but he was
unable to utter a word.

“He may not ‘a’ been yore brother,” added Bob, quickly, and with
sympathy. “I’m not plumb shore o’ the name, nuther. I was helpin a man
drive a drove of Kentucky hosses through to Gainesville, an’ we got thar
jest atter the shootin’. I heerd the shots myse’f. The coroner held a
inquest, an’ the dead man’s mother was thar. She looked pitiful; she
was mighty gray an’ old an’ bent over. I was standin’ in the edge o’
the crowd when some neighbor fotch’ ‘er up in his wagon, an’ we all made
room for ‘er. She had the pity of every blessed man thar. She jest stood
‘mongst the rest, lookin’ down at the corpse fer some time ‘thout
sayin’ a word to anybody, nur sheddin’ a tear. Then she seemed to come
to ‘erse’f, an’ said, jest as ef nothin’ oncommon had occurred: ‘Well,
gentlemen, why don’t you move ‘im under a shelter?’ an’ with that she
squatted down at his head, an’ breshed the hair off ‘n his forehead
mighty gentle-like. ‘We are a-holdin’ uv a inquest, accordin’ to law,’
a big feller said who was the coroner of the town. ‘Law ur no law,’
she said, lookin’ up at ‘im, her eyes flashin’ like a tiger-cat’s, ‘he
sha ‘n’t lie here in the br’ilin’ sun with no roof over ‘im. Thar wasn’t
no law to keep ‘im from bein’ murdered right in yore midst.’ An’ she had
her way, you kin bet on that. The men jest lifted ‘im up an’ toted ‘im
into the nighest store an’ put ‘im on a cot. The coroner objected, but
them men jest cussed ‘im to his face an’ pushed him away as ef he was so
much trash.”

“Did you take notice o’ the body?” gasped Bradley, finding voice
finally. “What kind of a lookin’ man was he?”

“Ef I remember right, he had sorter reddish hair an’ blue eyes, an’
was ‘bout yore build. He was a good-lookin’ man.”

“It was brother Joe,” said Bradley. He was trembling from head to foot
and was deathly pale. “Well, go on,” he said, making a mighty effort to
appear calm; “what about mother?”

“I don’t know anything more,” said Bob. “I left that same day. I heerd
some talk about her bein’ left destitute, an’ ef I ain’t mistaken, some
said her other son had gone off West an’ died out thar, as nobody had
heerd from him. That’s what made me - ” But Bradley interrupted him. He
rose, with a dazed look on his face, and went to his desk, a few feet
away. He sat on the high stool and leaned his shaggy head on a pile of
account-books. An inkstand rolled down to the floor, and a penholder
rattled after it, but he did not pick them up. Then everything was
still. Thornton reached over and took Webb’s cigar to light his own,
instead of striking the match he had taken from his pocket. The two
men exchanged significant glances, and then looked curiously, almost
breathlessly, at the mute figure bowed over the desk. Bradley raised his
head. His eyes were bloodshot, and a tangled wisp of his long hair lay
across his haggard face.

“How long ago was it, Bob?” he asked, in a deep, husky voice.

“Two year last May.”

“My Lord! she may be dead an’ gone by this time, an’ I kin never make
up fer my neglect!” He left the desk and came back slowly. “Kin you git
that money to-night?” he asked, looking down at Webb.

“Yes; by walkin’ up home.” Webb tried to subdue the eager light in his
eyes, which threatened to betray his intense satisfaction at the sudden
change of affairs.

“Well, go git it. I ‘ll pack my satchel while yo’ ‘re gone. I’m goin’ to
leave you fellers fer good, I reckon. I want to git back home. I wish
you luck with the business, Webb. It’s a good investment; we mought
never have traded ef this hadn’t ‘a’ come up.”

*****

Jim Bradley was worn out with the fatigue of his long journey when he
alighted from the train in the little town that he had once known so
well. The place had changed so much that he hardly knew which way
to turn. He went into a store. The merchant was at his desk behind a
railing in the rear, and a boy sat in the middle of the floor filling a
patent egg-case with fresh eggs. “Come in,” he said, without looking up,
and went on with his work. Jim put his oilcloth valise on the floor and
sat down in a chair.

“Some ‘n’ I kin do fer you to-day?” asked the boy, rising, and putting
the lid on the egg-case.

“No, I b’lieve not to-day, bub,” replied Bradley. “I’ve jest got off ‘n
the train an’ stopped in to ax a few questions. The’ used to be a woman
livin’ on the Starks place ten year ago - a widder woman, Mis’ Jason
Bradley; kin you tell me whar I’d be likely to find ‘er now?”

“I don’t know no sech er person,” said the boy; “mebby Mr. Summers kin
tell.”

“You mean Joe Bradley’s mother,” said the storekeeper, approaching - “the
feller that was shot over at Holland’s bar?”

“She’s the one,” said Jim, breathlessly; “is she still alive?”

“I hain’t heerd nothin’ to the contrary, but I don’t know jest whar she
is now. She was powerful hard up last winter, an’ somebody tuk ‘er to
live with ‘em - seems to me it was one o’ the Sanders boys.”

A woman entered the door and set her basket on the counter.

“Mis’ Wade ‘ll be able to tell you,” continued the merchant, turning to
her; “she lives over in that direction.”

“What’s that, Mr. Summers?” she asked, carefully untying the cloth that
covered some yellow rolls of butter.

“This gentleman was askin’ about the widow Bradley, Joe’s mother; do you
know whar she is?”

“She’s livin’ with Alf Sanders,” replied the woman; “I seed ‘er thar
soap-bilin’ as I driv by last Tuesday was a week. Are you any kin o’
hern?” and she eyed Bradley curiously from head to foot.

He made no reply to her question, though a warm color had suddenly come
into his face at the words she had spoken. He took up his valise and
looked out at the setting sun.

“How fer is it out thar?” he asked, a tremor in his voice. “I want to
see ‘er to-night.”

“Three mile, I reckon,” the woman said. “Keep to the big road tel you
cross the creek, an’ then turn off to the right. You cayn’t miss it.”

He thanked her, and trudged on past the other stores and the little
white church on the hill, and on into the road that led toward the
mountain. Just before entering the woods, he turned and looked back at
the village.

“O Lord, I’m glad I ain’t too late entirely,” he said; and he took a
soiled red handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes. “I don’t
know what I would ‘a’ done ef they’d ‘a’ said she was gone. But I ‘ll
never see Joe ag’in, an’ that seems quar. Poor boy! me an’ him used to
be mighty thick when we was little bits o’ fellers. I kin remember when
he’d ‘a’ fit a wildcat to help me, an’ I got mad at him fer drinkin’
when he wasn’t able to he’p hisse’f. I’d hold my peace ef it was to do
over ag’in.”

Sanders’ house was a low, four-roomed log cabin which sat back under
some large beech-trees about a hundred yards from the road. Sanders
himself sat smoking in the front yard, surrounded by four or five
half-clad children and several gaunt hunting-dogs. He was a thin, wiry
man, with long brown hair and beard, and dark, suspicious eyes set close
together. He did not move or show much concern as Jim Bradley, just at
dusk, came wearily up the narrow path from the bars to the door.

“Down, Ski! Down, Brutus!” he called out savagely to his barking dogs,
and he silenced their uproar by hurling an ax-helve among them.

“This is whar Alf Sanders lives, I reckon,” said Bradley.

“I’m the feller,” replied Sanders. “Take a cheer; thar’s one handy,” and
he indicated it with a lazy wave of his pipe.

Jim sat down mutely. Through the open door in one of the rooms he
could see the form of a woman moving about in the firelight. He fell
to trembling, and forgot that he was under the curious inspection of
Sanders and his children. A moment later, however, when the fire blazed
up more brightly, he saw that it was not his mother whom he had seen,
but a younger woman.

“Yo’ ‘re a stranger about here?” interrogated Sanders, catching his eye.

“Hain’t been in this country fer ten year,” was the laconic reply. “My
name’s Bradley - Jim Bradley; I’ve come back to see my mother.”

“My stars! We all ‘lowed you was dead an’ buried long ‘go!” and Sanders
dropped his pipe in sheer astonishment. “Well, ef that don’t take the
rag off ‘n the bush! Mary! Oh, Mary!”

“What ails you, Alf?” asked a slatternly woman, emerging from the
firelight.

“Come out here a minute. This is the old woman’s son Jim, back from the
West.”

“Yo’ ‘re a-jokin’,” she ejaculated, as she came slowly in open-eyed
wonder toward the visitor. “Why, who’d ‘a’ thought - ”

“Whar is she?” interrupted Bradley, unceremoniously. “I’ve come a long
ways to see ‘er.”

“She’s out thar at the cow-lot a-milkin’. She tuk ‘er bucket an’ the
feed fer Brindle jest now.”

His eyes followed hers. Beyond a row of alder-bushes and a little
patch of corn he saw the dim outlines of a log stable and lean-to shed
surrounded by a snake fence. Away out toward the red-skied west lay
green fields and meadows under a canopy of blue smoke, and beyond
their limits rose the frowning mountains, upon the sides of which long,
sinuous fires were burning.

“I reckon I ort not to run upon her too sudden,” he said, awkwardly,
“bein’ as she ain’t expectin’ me, an’ hain’t no idee I’m alive. Is she
well?”

“Toler’ble,” replied Mrs. Sanders, hesitatingly. “She’s been complainin’
some o’ headaches lately, an’ her appetite ain’t overly good, but she’s
up an’ about, an’ will be powerful glad to see you. She talks about you
a good deal of late. Jest atter yore brother Joe’s death she had ‘im
on her mind purty constant, but now she al’ays has some ‘n’ to say about
Jim - that’s yore name, I believe?”

He nodded silently, not taking his eyes from the cow-lot. His valise
rolled from his knees down on to the grass, and one of the children
restored it to him.

“Yes, that is a fact,” put in Sanders. “She was talkin’ last Sunday
about her two boys. She al’ays calls you the steady one. You ort to be
sorter cautious. Old folks like her sometimes cayn’t stand good news any
better ‘n bad.”

“I ‘ll be keerful.” His voice sounded husky and deep. “Does she - ” he
went on hesitatingly - “does she work fer you around the place?”

Sanders crossed his legs and cleared his throat. “That was
the understandin’ when we agreed to take ‘er,” he said, rather
consequentially. “She was to make ‘erse’f handy whenever she was able.
My wife has had a risin’ on ‘er arm an’ couldn’t cook, an’ we’ve had
five ur six field hands here to the’r meals. The old critter was willin’
to do anything to git a place to stay. The’ wasn’t any-whar else fer ‘er
to go. She’s too old to do much, but she’s willin’ to put ‘er hands to
anything. We cayn’t complain. She gits peevish now an’ then, though, an’
‘er eyesight an’ memory’s a-failin’, so that she makes mistakes in the
cookin’. T’other day she salted the dough twice an’ clean furgot to put
in sody.”

“She’s gittin’ into ‘er second childhood,” added Mrs. Sanders, “an’ she
ain’t got our ways in church notions, nuther. She’s a Baptist, you know,
an’ b’lieves in emersion of the entire body an’ in close communion
an’ sechlike, while the last one of us, down to little Sally thar, is
Methodists. She goes whar we do to meetin’ ‘ca’se her church is too fer
off an’ we use the hosses Sundays.”

Bradley’s face was hidden by the dusk and the brim of his slouch hat,
and they failed to notice the hot flush that rose into his cheeks. He
got up suddenly and put his valise on a chair. “I reckon I mought as
well walk out to whar she is,” he said. “She won’t be apt to know me.
I’ve turned out a beard an’ got gray sence she seed me.”

“I ‘ll go’long with you.” But Mrs. Sanders touched her husband on the
arm as he was rising. “It ‘u’d look more decent ef you’d leave ‘em
to the’rselves, Alf,” she whispered. He sat down without a word, and
Bradley walked away in the dusk to meet his mother. There was a blur
before the strong man’s eyes, and a strange weakness came over him as
he leaned against the cow-lot fence and tried to think how he would make
himself known to her. Beneath the low shed, a part of the crude stable,
he saw the figure of a woman crouched down under a cow. “So, so, Brin’!”
she was saying softly. “Cayn’t you stan’ still a minute? That ain’t no
way to do. So, so!”

His heart sank. It was her voice, but it was shrill and quivering, and
he recognized it only as one does a familiar face under a mask of age.
Just then, with a sudden exclamation, she sprang up quickly and placed
her pail on the ground out of the cow’s reach. He comprehended the
situation at a glance. The calf had got through the bars and was sucking
its mother.

“Lord, what ‘ll I do?” cried the old woman, in dismay; and catching the
calf around the neck, she exerted all her strength to separate it from
the cow.

Bradley sprang over the fence and ran to her assistance.

“Le’ me git a hold o’ the little scamp,” he said, and the next instant
he had the sleek little animal up in his strong arms. “Whar do you want
‘im put?” he asked, drily, turning to her.

“Outside the lot,” she gasped, so astonished that she could hardly utter
a word.

He carried his struggling burden to the fence and dropped it over, and
fastened up the bars to keep it out.

“Well, ef that don’t beat all!” she laughed, in great relief, when he
turned back to her. “I am very much obleeged. I ‘lowed at fust you was
one o’ the field hands.” He looked into her wrinkled face closely,
but saw no sign of recognition there. She put the corner of her little
breakfast-shawl to her poor wrinkled mouth and broke out into a low,
childlike laugh. “I cayn’t help from being amused at the way you tuk
up that calf; I don’t know” (and the smile left her face) “what I’d ‘a’
done ef you hadn’t ‘a’ come along. I never could ‘a’ turned it out, an’
Alf’s wife never kin be pacified when sech a thing happens. We don’t git
enough milk, anyway.”

“Le’ me finish milkin’,” he said, keeping his face half averted.

She laughed again. “Yo’ ‘re a-jokin’ now; I never seed a _man_ milk a
cow.”

“I never did nuther tel I went out West,” he replied. “The Yankees out
thar showed me how. I’m a old bach’, an’ used to keep a cow o’ my own,
an’ thar wasn’t nobody but me to tend ‘er.”

She stood by his side and laughed like a child amused with a new toy
when he took her place at the cow, and with the pail between his knees
and using both hands, began to milk rapidly.

“I never seed the like,” he heard her muttering over and over to
herself. Then he rose and showed her the pail nearly filled. “I reckon
that calf ‘u’d have a surprise-party ef he was to try on his suckin’


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