Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

Northern Georgia Sketches online

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“You bet it was, Betsey!” He stood in the doorway. The darkness hid his
face, but there was a note of boundless joy in his tone.

“I thought it would be, but I don’t yet understand why she come back so

“She don’t like city folks’ ways,” answered the storekeeper; “an’
then - ”

“An’ then what?” broke in Betsey, impatiently.

“Well, you see, the - the notion seemed to strike both of us when we was
travelin’ together, an’ - an’ she admitted that she was a leetle grain
afeered that ef we didn’t see one another ag’in fer three months that
the notion might wear off. Railly, she’s tickled to death, fur now she
says she kin give Amos an’ Sally a sensible reason fer wantin’ to git
back home.”

Betsey was silent so long that Joel began to wonder if she had fallen
asleep. Finally she said:

“Go to bed now, Joel. She’s the very woman fer you. I hain’t never had
no rail happiness in my life sence Jim died, but I want them I love to
git all they kin.”


|They were expecting Jim Trundle at the Cross-Roads that spring morning.
His coming had been looked for even more anxiously than that of Sid
Wombley, the wag of the “Cove.” Sid himself, when he dragged his long
legs into the store, forgot to think of anything amusing to say as he
looked the crowd over to see if Jim had preceded him.

It was on the end of his tongue to ask if Trundle had come and gone, but
for once he said nothing. He seated himself on the head of a soda-keg
and began to whittle the edge of the counter. Sid Wombley, quiet, suited
the humor of the group better on this occasion than the same voluble
individual in his natural element, so no one spoke to him, and all
continued to watch the road leading to Trundle’s cabin.

The silence and the delay were too much for the patience of Wade Sims,
a bold, dashing young man in tight-fitting trousers, sharp-heeled boots,
and a sombrero like an unroped tent. He was, as he often expressed it,
“afraid o’ nothin’ under a hide,” and if “the boys” had seen fit to
give Jim Trundle notification, in the shape of a letter he would shortly
receive, that he was a disgrace to the community, he saw no reason for
so much secrecy. He wasn’t afraid of the verdict of any jury that could
be impaneled in the three counties over which he openly traded horses
and secretly disposed of illicit whisky.

“I reckon thar’s no doubt about the letter bein’ ready fer ‘im,” he
remarked to Alf Carden, who stood in the little pigeon-holed pen of
upright palings which was known as “the postoffice.”

“I reckon not,” was the reply, “when it’s about the only letter I got on

“I could make a mighty good guess who drapped it,” said Sims, with a
grin at a one-armed man who had once held the position of book-keeper
at a cotton-gin, and who wrote letters and legal documents for half
the illiterate community, “but I wouldn’t give ‘im away if I was under

“I have an idee who’s goin’ to drap it,” spoke up Sid Wombley from his
soda-keg, and his sudden return to his natural condition evoked the
first laugh of the morning. At that moment a little boy, the son of the
storekeeper, who had been playing on the porch, came in quickly.
His words and manner showed that he knew who was in request, if his
intellect could not grasp the reason for it.

“Mr. Trundle is comin’ acrost the cotton-patch behind the store,” he
announced, out of breath. Then silence fell on the group, a silence so
complete that Jim Trundle’s strides over the plowed ground outside were
distinctly heard. The next moment Trundle had crawled over the low rail
fence at the side of the store, and with clattering, untied brogans was
coming up the steps.

The doorway, as his tall, lank figure passed through it, framed a
perfect picture of human poverty. His shirt, deeply dyed with the red of
the soil, was full of slits and patches worn threadbare. The hems of his
trousers had worn away, revealing triangular glimpses of his ankles,
and a frayed piece of a suspender hung from a stout peg in the waistband

He greeted no one as he entered. A silent tongue was one of Jim
Trundle’s peculiarities. Few people had ever gotten a dozen consecutive
words out of him. He strode to the end of the store, thrust his hand
into an open cracker-box, bit into a large square cracker, and sent his
eyes foraging along both counters for something to eat with it - cheese,
butter, a bit of honey, or a pinch of dried beef. He was violating
no rule of country store etiquette, for Alf Carden’s customers all
understood that those things left on the counters were to be partaken
of in moderation. I think the habitués of the place had gradually
introduced this custom themselves years before, when Carden was so
anxious to draw people from the store across the river that he would
willingly have given a customer bed and board for an indefinite time if
by so doing he could have deprived his rival of the profit on a bag of

Jim Trundle wasn’t going to ask if there was any mail for him, that was
plain to the curious onlookers; and their glances began to play back
and forth between Carden and the cracker consumer, making demands on the
former and condemning the latter for not more readily walking into the
trap set for him.

Wade Sims winked when he caught the storekeeper’s eye, and nodded toward
the gaunt robber, who had squatted at the faucet of a syrup-barrel and
was cautiously trailing a golden stream over an immaculate cracker.

“So you didn’t git no letter fer me, Alf,” said Sims, significantly.
“Seems like no mail don’t come this way here lately hardly at all. I
hope all the rest ‘ll have their ride fer nothin’ too.”

Alf Carden understood, having given Sims a letter half an hour before,
and he smiled. “No,” he said, “thar hain’t nothin’ fer any of you except
Jim Trundle; has he come along yet?”

Jim stood up quickly, and laid his besmeared cracker on the barrel.
“Me?” he ejaculated, and a white puff shot from his crunching jaws;
“I - I reckon yo ‘re mistaken.”

“I reckon I kin read,” replied Carden, still acting his part
nonchalantly, and glancing askance at Sims to see how that individual
was taking it. “It is jest Jim Trundle in plain ABC letters. It is
either from somebody that cayn’t write shore ‘nough writin’ ur is tryin’
to disguise his handwrite.”

Carden threw the letter on the counter. It lay there fully a minute,
while Jim Trundle wiped his hands on his trousers, gulped down a
mouthful of cracker, and stared helplessly round at the upturned faces.
Then he reached for the letter, and with trembling fingers tore it open
and read as follows:

_“Jim Trundle. This is to give you due notice. We the reglar organized
band of Regulators of this settlement hav set on yore case an decided
what we are goin to do about it. Time and agin good citizens have
advised you to change yore way of livin’, but you jest went along as
before, in the same old rut._

_“You are no earthly account, an no amount of talkin seems to do you any
good. Yore childern are in tatters an without food, an you jest wont do
nothin fer them. This might hav gone on longer without our action, but
last Wednesday you let yore sick wife go to the field in the hot brilin
sun, an she was seed by a responsible citizen in a faintin condition,
while you was on the creek banks a fishin in the shade._

_“To night exactly at eight oclock we are comin after you in full force
to give you a sound lickin. Yore wife an childern would be better off
without you, and we advise you to leave the country before that time. If
we find you at home at eight oclock you may count on a sore back._

“_Yours truly, the secretary.”_

The spectators observed that Jim Trundle had read every word of the
communication. His eyes, in their sunken sockets, darted strange, hunted
glances from face to face, as if seeking sympathy; then, as if realizing
the futility of the hope, he looked down at the floor. He leaned back
against the counter so heavily that Carden’s thread-case rattled its
contents and the beam of the scales wildly swung back and forth.

The group furtively feasted themselves on his visible agony, but they
got nothing more, for Jim Trundle did not intend to talk. Talking was
not in his line. He knew that at eight o’clock that night he was going
to be punished in a way that would be remembered against the third and
fourth generation of his descendants - that is, if he did not desert his
family and leave the country.

“Kin I do anything fer you in the provision line, Jim?” asked Carden,
for the entertainment of his customers. “I’ve got some fresh bulk pork.
Seems to me you hain’t had none lately.”

Trundle refused to answer. He only stared out into the golden sunshine
that lay on the road to his home. He saw through Carden’s remarks, and
his heart felt heavier under the thought that before him were some of
the faces which would be masked later on. He wondered if those men knew
that a lazy, worthless vagabond could feel disgrace as keenly as they

There was nothing left for him to do except to go home. He wanted to
turn his mind-pictures of his wife and children into helpful realities.
Somehow they had always comforted him in trouble. Oh, God! if only he
could have foreseen the approach of this calamity! As he moved out of
the store he felt vaguely as if his arms, legs, and body had nothing to
do with his real, horrible self except to hinder it, to detain it near
its spot of torture.

Outside he drew a long, deep, trembling breath. His breast rose and
expanded under his ragged shirt and then sank like a collapsed balloon,
and lay still while he thought of himself. He was a dead man alive, a
moving, breathing horror in the sight of mankind.

He was sure that it was his strange nature that had brought him to
it. Nature had, indeed, made him happy in rags, oblivious to material
things. Had he been endowed with education he might have become a poet.
He saw strange, transcendent possibilities in the blue skies; in the
green growing things; in the dun heights of the mountains; in the depths
of his children’s eyes; in the patient face of his wife.

What an awakening! A shudder ran over him. He felt the lash; he heard
Wade Sim’s voice of command; then his lower lip began to quiver, and
something rising within him forced tears into his eyes. He had begun to
pity himself. If only those men really understood him they would pardon
his shortcomings. No human being could knowingly lash a man feeling as
he felt.

The road homeward led him into the depths of a wood where mighty trees
arched overhead and obscured the sky. He envied a squirrel bounding
unhindered to its sylvan home. Nature seemed to hold out her vast green
arms to him; he wanted to sink into them and sob away the awful load
that lay upon him. In the deepest part of the wood, where tall, rugged
cliffs bordered the road, there was a spring. He paused, looked round
him, and shuddered anew, for something told him it was at this secluded
spot that he would receive his castigation.

He passed on. The trees grew less dense along the way, and then on a
rise ahead of him he saw his cabin, a low, weather-beaten structure that
melted into the brown plowed fields about it. He was anxious to see his
wife. Could it be true that she had almost fainted while at work? If so,
why had she not mentioned it to him? He had noted nothing unusual in her
conduct of late; but how could he? She was as uncommunicative as he, and
they seldom talked to each other.

As he passed the pig-sty in the fence-corner even the sight of the
grunting inmate seemed to remind him that he was going to be whipped by
his neighbors. He shuddered and felt his blood grow cold. He shuddered
with the same thought again, as if he were encountering it for the first
time, when he dragged open the sagging gate and looked about the bare
yard. In one corner of it he had once started to grow some flowers, but
his neighbors had laughed at his attempt so much that he allowed the
bulbs to die and be uprooted by his chickens. His mind now reverted to
that period, and he decided it was this and kindred impulses that had
always kept him from being a good husband, father, and citizen like his
sturdy, more practical neighbors.

Well, to-morrow he was going to turn over a new leaf - that is, if - but
he could not look beyond the torture set for eight o’clock. He had
imagination, but it could picture nothing but every possible detail of
his approaching degradation - the secluded spot, the masked circle of
men, a muffled talk by Wade Sims, the baring of his back, - the lash!

His wife was in the cabin. She held a wooden bowl in her lap and was
shelling peas. As he towered up in front of her in the low-roofed room,
for the first time in his life he noticed that she looked pale and
thin, and as he continued to study the evidences against him in growing
bewilderment he felt that even God had deserted him.

She looked up.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, in slow surprise.

“Nothin’.” But he continued to stare. How thin her hair seemed since
she had recovered from the fever! Perhaps if he had insisted on having
a doctor something might have been done for her then that was neglected.
Poor Martha! how he had made her suffer! The whipping would not be
so hard to bear now, except that - if she were to know - if she were to
witness it. Ah, he had not thought of that! Yes, God had left him wholly
at the mercy of Wade Sims and the rest of his neighbors.

Her eyes held a look of deep concern.

“What are you lookin’ at me that-a-way fer?” she asked.

He made no answer, but turned to a stool in the chimney-corner and sat
down. She must not suspect what was going to happen. He would not escape
it by deserting her, for he was going to be a better man, beginning with
the next day. He would stay with her and protect her, but she must never
hear of the whipping. He understood her proud spirit well enough to know
that she could never get over such a disgrace.

Then out of the black flood of his despair a plan rose and floated into
possibility before his mind’s eye. Sims’ men would gather at the store,
and just before the appointed hour would march along the road he had
just traversed. He would make some excuse to his wife for being obliged
to absent himself for a little while and go to meet them. If he told
them he had voluntarily come to be whipped, they might agree to keep the
fact from his wife. Yes, God would not let them refuse that, for even
Wade Sims would not want to pain an unoffending woman when he was told
how Martha would take it. Then a sob broke from him, and he realized
that his head had fallen between his knees, that tears were dripping
from his eyes to his hands, and, moreover, that Martha was looking at
him as she had never looked before. She wanted to ask him what was the
matter, but she could not have done it to save her life.

“Are you ready fer dinner?” she asked, still with that look in her eyes.

“Yes, I reckon, ef - ef you are. Whar’s the children?”

“Behind the house, hoein’ the young corn. Do you want ‘em?”

“No; jest thought I’d ask.”

She emptied the peas from her apron into the bowl, and put it on a
shelf. Then she walked across the swaying puncheon floor to a little
cupboard, and began to busy her hands with some dishes, keeping furtive
eyes the while on him. He evidently thought himself unobserved, for he
allowed his head to fall dejectedly again, and stared fixedly at the
hearth. Surely, thought Mrs. Trundle, Jim had never acted so peculiarly
before. Wiping a plate with a dishcloth, she moved across the floor till
she stood in front of him. He looked up. The gleaming orbs in their deep
hollows frightened the woman into speech she might not have indulged in.

“Look y’ heer, Jim, has anythin’ gone wrong?”

“No.” He drew himself up, and rubbed his eyes. “Did you say dinner was

“You know the table hain’t set. Look y’ heer, are you sick, Jim

“No.” His eyes rested on her. There was much that he wanted to ask her,
if only he could have found the words. She turned away unsatisfied.
The next moment she fanned him with the cloth she was spreading for the
meal, then she put a plate of fried bacon and a pan of corn bread on the
table, went to the back door, and called the children from their work.

He studied them one by one with fresh horror as they filed in, wondering
what this one or that one would think if they should learn that their
father had been whipped for neglecting them and their mother. At the
table, however, he studied his wife chiefly. The children were young and
healthy, and devoured their food like famished animals, but she was
only making feeble pretenses with the piece of bread she was daintily
breaking and dipping into bacon-grease. The “Regulators,” as they called
themselves, were right; he had allowed a sick wife to go into the hot
sun to do work he ought to have done. He thought now of the lash again,
but not with a shudder. It could never pain him more than the agony at
his heart.

He spent that long afternoon under an apple-tree behind the cabin,
mending a harrow that was broken, stealing glances at his wife, longing
to open his heart to her, watching the progress of the sun in its slow
descent to the mountain-top, and feeling the threatening chill of the
lengthening shadows. All nature seemed mutely to announce the coming
horror. At sundown he went to the shelf in the entry, filled a tin pan
with fresh spring-water, and washed his face and hands. Then he went in
to supper, but he did not eat heartily.

“Don’t you feel no better, Jim?” asked his wife, her manner softened
by a vague uneasiness his actions had roused. A suggestion of his mute
suppressed agony seemed to have reached her and drawn her nearer to him.

“No, I hain’t sick; I ‘ll be all right in the mornin’.”

Through the open door he watched the darkness thicken and heard the
insects of the night begin to chirp and shrill. He had the curse of
introspective analysis, and resolved that they were happy. He used to
whistle and sing himself when his youth rendered it excusable. How very
long ago that seemed!

All at once he rose, pretended to yawn, and said something to his wife
about going over to Rawlston’s a little while; he would be back by
bedtime. She wondered in silence, and after he had passed through the
gate she tiptoed to the door and looked after him uneasily.

The landscape darkened as he went along the road toward Carden’s store.
It was quite dark in the wooded vale. When he reached the spring he
stopped to await the coming of Wade Sims and his followers. He wondered
if the spot was far enough from the cabin to prevent Martha from hearing
the blows that were to fall. He hoped it was, and, more than anything
else, that “the regulators” would not be drinking. They would be more
apt to listen to his request if they were perfectly sober. The rising
moon in the direction of the store now made the arched roadway look like
a long tunnel.

It would soon be eight o’clock. He sat down on the root of a tree and
tried to pray, but no prayer he had ever heard would come into the chaos
of his mind, and he could not invent one to suit the occasion. By and
by he heard voices down the road, then the tramp, tramp of footsteps.
A dark blur appeared on the moonlit roadway at the mouth of the tunnel,
and grew gradually into a body of men.

Jim Trundle stood up. They should find him ready.

“Hello! what have we heer?” It was the undisguised voice of Wade Sims.
The gang of twenty men or more paused abruptly. There was a hurried
fitting on of white cloth masks.

“Who’s thar?” called out the same voice, peremptorily, and the hammer of
a revolver clicked.

“Me - Jim Trundle.”

“Huh!” Wade’s grunt of surprise was echoed in various exclamations round
the group. “On yore way out ‘n the county, eh? Seems to me yore time’s
up. We ‘ll have to put it to a vote. It’s a little past eight o’clock,
an’ you’ve had the whole day to git a move on you. Whar you bound fer?”

“I ain’t on my way nowhar. I come down heer a half-hour ago to meet
you-uns, an’ I’ve jest been a-waitin’.”

“To meet we-uns? Huh! Jeewhilikins!” It sounded like Alf Carden’s voice.

“I - I ‘lowed you-uns would likely want to do it heer, bein’ as it was
whar you-uns tuck Joe Rand last fall.”

Silence fell - a silence so profound, so susceptible, that it seemed to
retain Trundle’s words and hold them up to sight rather than to hearing
for fully half a minute after they had ceased to stir the air. Even Wade
Sim’s blustering equipose was shaken. His mask appealed helplessly to
other masks, but their jagged eye-holes offered no helpful suggestions.

“Well, we are much obleeged to you,” said Wade, awkwardly; and he
laughed a laugh that went little farther than his mask. “Boys, he looks
like he’s actu’ly itchin’ fer it; you needn’t feel at all squeamish.”

“I’ve been studyin’ over it,” said Trundle, furnishing more surprise,
“and I’ve concluded that I ort to be whipped, an’ that sound. In fact,
neighbors, the sooner you do it an’ have it over the better I ‘ll feel
about it.”

The silence that swallowed up this clear-cut assertion was deeper than
the one which had followed Trundle’s other remark. Seeing that no one
was ready to reply, he went on, “I did come down heer, though, to see ef
I couldn’t git you-uns to do me a sorter favor, ef you-uns jest would.”

“Ah!” Wade Sims was feeling better. “I must say I was puzzled about yore
conduct in sa ‘nterin’ out to meet us. Well, what do you want?”

“I’m ready fer my whippin’,” said Trundle, “becase I think I deserve it.
I’ve been so lazy an’ careless that I never once noticed till I got yore
letter that my wife was a sick woman. I _did_ let her go to the field
in the hot sun when I was a-fishin’ on the creek-bank in the shade. I
thought her an’ all of us would like some fresh fish, an’ I forgot that
our corn-patch was sufferin’ fer the hoe. But she didn’t. She ‘tended to
it. An’ - now I come to the favor I want to ask. She hain’t done a speck
o’ harm to you-uns, an’, as foolish as it may seem, it would go hard
with her in her weakly condition to heer about me a-goin’ through what
I ‘ll have to submit to. She has got a mighty sight of pride, an’ it’s
my honest conviction that she would jest pine away an’ die ef she knowed
about it. I ain’t a-beggin’ off from nothin’, understand; it’s only a
word fer her an’ the childern. You kin all take a turn an’ whip me jest
as long as you want to, but when it’s over an’ done with I ‘lowed you
mought consent to say nothin’ to nobody about it. Besides, I’ve made
up my mind to lead a different sort of a life, friends, God bein’ my
helper, an’ it would be easier to do it if I knowed Martha had respect
fer me; an’, neighbors, I am actu’ly afeered she won’t have it if she
diskivers what takes place to-night. I - I think you-uns mought agree to
that much.”

Masks turned upon masks. Some of them fell from strangely set visages
into hands that quivered and failed to replace them. It was plain to the
crowd that they had not elected a leader who could possibly do justice
to the infinite delicacy of the situation. In fact, something was
struggling in Wade Sims that was humiliating him in his own eyes, making
him feel decidedly unmanly.

“I think yore proposition is - is purty reasonable,” he managed to blurt
out, after an awkward hesitation. “We hain’t none of us got nothin’
ag’in yore wife; an’ ef she is sick, an’ hearin’ about this - ”

But his inability to continue was evident to his most sincere admirers.
Trundle sighed in relief. He knew that not one in the gang could
possibly be harder of heart than their blustering leader. “I wish, then,
gentlemen,” he said, calmly, “that you’d git it over with. I don’t know
how long it’s a-goin’ to take - that’s with you-uns; but Martha thinks
I’ve gone over to Rawlston’s to set till bedtime, an’ it ‘ll soon be time
I was back.”

“That’s a fact,” admitted Wade Sims, slowly, as if his mind were on
something besides the business in hand, and he looked round him. The

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