A Fugitive from Romance
BY FORREST CRISSEY
" YOU'LL toe the mark now, boy," genially remarked the harness-maker, as he deftly drew the waxed threads through the tug he was sewing. "No more running loose for you!"
Clint, who hung about the harness shop because he liked the smell of the leather and the wax, which gave the place an atmosphere of its own, eyed the hairy, freckled arms of the harness-maker with furtive reserve and held his peace. He knew that Mr. Ginn would betray the cause of the remark when convinced that there was no particular desire to learn it.
"Yep," resumed the harness-maker, as he pierced the leather before him with the awl that seemed to the boy as much a part of him as his nose or his freckles. "I was up to the Highlands yestiddy, an' it's a certain fact—your pa's gone and married the Highlands schoolma'am—an' she's red-headed, she is! I guess she'll give you a course of sprouts, all right!" and he grinned at the thought of the peppery possibilities of a red-headed schoolmistress in the capacity of step-mother to a boy who had been "let to run."
"Huh!" was the only answer that escaped the boy.
"Oh, it's so!" insisted the harness-maker. "You'll find out for yourself 'bout Monday. He preaches at the Highlands next Sabbath and then starts for home. They seem to think a good deal of the school-teacher up there, and I expect they'll shell out the biggest collection for your pa that he's ever had since he took to preachin'. You bet he couldn't afford to miss next Sunday's chance—even if he hain't any idea just where his youngest colt happens to be strayin'."
An odd, sullen mingling of shame and resentment showed in the thin face of the boy as he flung a scrap of leather to the floor and turned to leave.
"Oh, I wouldn't take it too hard, Clint," relented the harness-maker. "Mebby it won't be so bad, after all. An' you do need somebody to look after your clothes—specially the back sides of them pants. Anyhow, if worse come to worse you . . ."
But the boy had gone—gone to the blacksmith shop, where he always went when the world pressed him hard. There was something cheering in the ring of the hammer on the anvil and in the red, glowing iron fresh from the forge that aroused a responding glow within himself. Besides, the blacksmith was too inveterate a whistler to make much use of a tart tongue. There were times when Clint did not relish "being run on," and this was certainly one of those times.
In a vague way he had long realized that his father's evangelistic efforts were not taken altogether seriously in his home town, and that somehow, since his mother's death, three years before, things had gone badly with the little home just in the edge of town. But the harness-maker's words, "took to preachin'," brought him a new and definite sense of shame and disgrace. It was something as if he had said "took to drink"—a phrase he had often heard applied in interesting and moral recitals of the career of "Bat" Harmon, the town drunkard.
And Old Ginn needn't think that he didn't know how bad his clothes looked! He could remember, to the day, when his last suit was bought and just how it had looked on the long counter of the Golden Palace Clothing Store—all neatly folded down the middle of the back. There was still another and a more poignant realization awakened by the harness-maker's taunts. It was a disgrace in the eyes of grown-up folks to be "let to run." Of course his liberty was the envy of the other boys who had folks to look after them, and he never discouraged the appreciation of his one enviable possession. But he was too sensitive not to catch from the atmosphere about him the verdict that his vagrant liberty while his father was "off preachin' " was held as a shame both to himself and his father.
And now his father had added to "goin' off preachin' " the further unmanly weakness of marrying again—and marrying a "red-headed schoolma'am" at that! Of course, as a common point of honor among his kind, Clint hated her first for being a school-teacher, next for being red-headed, and finally for marrying his father. Probably they had already talked it over together how she would "boss" him and make him "toe the mark," just as the harness-maker had said. Then, too—in spite of the fact that he had seemed for a long time to be safely out of his father's mind, excepting when he was "prayed over" with distressing fervor on being heard swearing at half-witted old Nancy who tended the house—there was in the boy a faint feeling that this Highlands school-teacher was helping to take his father from him a little more completely.
His bare feet trod the gravel sidewalk with sullen spats that softly echoed his dark mood. His misery choked his throat as he thought that if his mother had not died this double disgrace of a father who weakly took to preaching and then more weakly married would never have come upon him—and he would be wearing clothes as good as the postmaster's Bennie. And perhaps he could brag about his father with the stoutness and loyalty of Tommy Ancliffe, the State Senator's son, who had confidently proclaimed that it took almost as big a man to go to the Legislature as to be President.
The boy's head was hanging low with the weight of his unnatural woes as he approached his consolation refuge, the wide and welcoming doors of the blacksmith shop. Religion and love loomed large in his horizon as the twin weaknesses which preyed upon male mankind. Suddenly he stopped. There in front of the blacksmith shop stood the most splendid red wagon he had ever seen!
"Hain't she a daisy?" the wheelwright was saying. "That top is sure the nobbiest thing that ever come over these roads. If I could rub and varnish wood into a polish like that, I'd be bossin' a big shop up to Dayton instead of repairin' farm wagons in the back of Bedloe's blacksmith shop in a little one-hoss town." But while the wheelwright was bubbling with generous admiration of the fine craftsmanship of the wagon, Clint gazed at the polished side of the odd equipage, which glistened like a great, ruddy mirror, and instantly knew that a sleeping something within him had been awakened.
There, in glorious red and bronze and blue, upon the centre of the wagon's side, was the life-size image of an Indian's head—the war-bonnet of eagle feathers streaming militantly back from the chieftain's brow; the bronze face was smeared with war-paint, and the savage eyes were, to the vision of the boy, alight with that courage which could not be dimmed by the tortures of the stake or the lance.
In the glowing admiration which the sight awakened in the lately despairing soul of Clint were fused two of his earliest recollections, two of the strongest impressions which he had brought with him from the dim border-land of childhood. Almost his first memory was that of gazing at a pretty, pinkish stone, delicately notched and pointed, that nestled in his palm. He had picked it from the gravelly bank of the brook. Now, of course, he knew that when he had first held that piece of flint in his hand he could not have known that it was fashioned by the coppery hands of some savage craftsman who had been dead for uncounted years—and yet it seemed to the boy that he had felt the thrill of its mystery the moment his childish hand had touched it. And always since, his eye had been quick to see the tiniest arrow-head hiding among stones and pebbles. To touch one of these "relics" was to Clint to drift at once into a region of delightful dreams, into fascinating speculations upon the remote and barbaric past; he repeopled the world of Coral Corners with painted warriors, wiped from its map the houses of the village, and in their place saw wigwams and camp-fires.
But stronger, perhaps, than this impression associated with finding his first Indian flint was the memory of standing at the front gate and staring with fascinated eyes at the tin-peddler as he opened his travelling store and displayed its secret treasures. And far inside he had caught tantalizing glimpses of white-knobbed drawers and doors which he longed to open and explore. Once he had summoned courage to ask the Old Peddler Walker for leave to crawl up into that house-like wagon and explore its mysteries for himself—but just as the question was on his trembling lips his mother had selected a shining dipper, and said with, decision, That will be all, Mr. Walker." The question remained unasked, and the peddler had climbed into his high seat at the front and started the speckled, flop-eared mare on her plodding way. And always he had stood and watched the weather-beaten wagon, with its camel-like hump of rags at the back, rattle down the road—watched the watering-pail swinging from the rear axle like a pendulum, and thought that when he grew to be a man he would travel far and wide and know as much of the great world of traffic as Old Peddler Walker—only he hoped that his face would not look so sour and leathery as Old Walker's.
All of these things found their focus in the glorious wagon before him. Why, there was even an arrow-head, like the first one he had found, painted in gold, under the head of the chieftain!
"Want t' see the inside?" asked the proud owner; and without waiting for an answer, beckoned the blacksmith and the wheelwright to enter. Dazed and trembling with eagerness, Clint remained by the wheel. Then, as the men stepped down, he heard the magic words:
"Come on, boy, climb in! I guess you'll appreciate it much as anybody. Never saw a boy that wasn't dyin' to get a peep inside the old wagon even." And as Clint was feasting his eyes upon the marvels of the interior of the wagon the relic man remarked to the others, "Don't seem to be quite so forward as most boys."
"He's a good boy, sir," volunteered the blacksmith, "an' it ain't his fault that he's let to run the town. A while back his father took to preachin' 'round and seemed to plum forget that he had a boy. That was after the mother died. Clint's a bright lad, and honest—every hair of him. The elder's just got married again. What 'll come of the boy now we don't know."
Meantime Clint remained inside, almost stupefied with the interior wonders and charms of the wagon—the marvellous bed that let down from each side wall, the panels of choice specimens of Indian implements arrayed in graceful shapes against the dark, polished wood, the tiny cook-stove and miniature kitchen; and, best of all, the bewildering array of drawers, compartments, and lockers stored with merchandise for trading. Oh, the endless marvel of it all! What a poor and barren contrivance was the old peddler's wagon compared with this travelling palace of mysteries and delights!
"How'd you like to go 'long with me, boy?" suddenly asked the proprietor, who had quietly returned and seated himself in the rear door.
Clint stared dumbly, unbelievingly, at the relic man. He had been so often joked by the men of The Corners that he was instantly on the defensive. And so great a stroke of fortune could not possibly come to him! But there was a gravity in the man's voice and face which contradicted this suspicion, and the boy finally stammered, "I'd—I'd like it, Sir.
"You look like an honest boy," continued the man, "an' that's what I want most of all. I'll give you three square meals a day and buy you a good suit of store clothes an' cap an' shoes when you come back in the fall if you stick it out. The blacksmith here knows me, an' 'll explain things to your pa. Is it a bargain, son?"
"Yes, sir," eagerly responded Clint. "When do you want me to start?"
"To-night. Run home an' fetch all the clothes an' things you want to take with you—an' don't forget anything you might need. Come back here to the shop and we'll start about five o'clock, just after the last mail is distributed."
Before Clint climbed into the wagon for his grand departure every boy in Coral Corners knew that he was the most enviable of all boys who had ever inhabited the village. Some secretly proposed running away from home and joining the wagon at the fork of the roads by Pigeon Woods. But against all such proposals Clint was adamant. He did, however, consent to accept sundry offerings from his disappointed associates, and he did not scruple to trade a motley assortment of personal treasures, on the strength of his sudden prestige, for a Colt's revolver which "Bull" Dunham's father had brought home from the Civil War. Under ordinary conditions this transaction would have been hopelessly impossible and its proposal scorned. His joy over being chosen as the travelling companion of "the relic man" was further increased by overhearing the postmaster say to a group of men:
"They's a considerable mystery about Heizer, the relic-trader. You notice his right hand is just a stump—cut square off at the wrist? Down in the Sycamore Bottoms, where Heizer belongs, they say he done it a-purpose—blew it off himself with a shotgun because the old man was bound and determined he should be a farmer, an' he was just as sot on bein' a relic-dealer. Of course he says it was an accident—but that don't go with the folks in th' Bottoms who know. By the Lord Harry! it must have taken a power of nerve—that must!"
No circus ever broke camp in an inland town with so unanimous attendance of the male population as witnessed the departure of Clint, the relic-dealer, and the splendid red wagon. The boy's heart burned with a fury of triumph. Here was vindication beyond his wildest dreams. What if his father had "gone off preachin' "? What if he had been let to run "until his clothes were ragged? What if his home was a mere weather-beaten shell of a house and the yard grown to giant burdocks where his mother's flower-beds had once flourished their orderly array of bright colors? He was going away with the relic man in the most beautiful and marvellous wagon that had ever visited Coral Corners—going with the envy of every boy in the village!
In those days of trailing dusty roads along the river courses of Ohio, Clint explored every drawer and locker in the wagon excepting two—one close behind the relic man's seat and the other underneath the wagon-box. These and their contents still remained mysteries. Early in their pilgrimage he won the goodwill of his employer by building a contrivance which served as a turtle-trap at night and a chicken-coop by day.
"A man gets a little ti'ed of bacon and pancakes every mornin' for months stiddy—no matter how good he can cook 'em—an' them turtles sure do make a fine change an' don't cost anything," the relic man often remarked, and sometimes added, "An' we wouldn't have had this here soup if it hadn't been for you, boy."
He learned the arts of camp life and the cunning of the trader's life, the shrewd plays upon human nature by which the relic man acquired a beautiful lance-head, or a stone mortar and pestle, by swapping a showy pattern of dress-goods or a table-cloth when a money price would not be considered.
But the great event of his early pilgrimage as a relic hunter was when, at a turn of the road, they came suddenly upon two men and a dog. Instantly the boy saw that a tragedy was being staged there in the stake-and-rider fence. One man was holding up the overlapping ends of the rails, and the other was attempting to force the head of the dog underneath the crude deadfall.
"Give him to me!" suddenly shouted the boy, leaping from the wag-on. There was terror in the eyes of the old English sheep-dog, a fierce suspicion of his doom.
"He's a good watch-dog," admitted the farmer, "but folks 'round here accuse him of killing sheep. But they've never caught him with the wool in his teeth. It was a case of fight the neighbors or kill the dog, so we had to come to it." As the man handed the lead-rope to Clint he said, "His name's Caper."
Suddenly it occurred to Clint that he had not stopped or even thought to ask the permission of Mr. Heizer. "They say he's a fine watch-dog," pleadingly ventured the boy.
"Tie him behind," was the crisp answer that made the boy's heart beat with delight. He had always wanted a dog of his own, but such a privilege had been consistently denied. And this was just the kind of a dog he had most desired—an odd, stocky creature with half-human eyes.
In the week that followed the acquisition of the new companion Clint felt that he was truly living in the land of Romance. Perhaps he might have continued much longer in this delectable state of mind had they not reached "the mounds."
"They's some Indian graves a little back from the next town," remarked the relic man, "an' if the farmers hain't opened 'em up yet I'm goin' to steal a march on 'em. Sometimes them graves are mighty rich diggin's—stuffed full of relics. And if we'd find a full skeleton it would be something handsome. I got a standin' offer from a collector in Pittsburg of fifty dollars for one in good condition. You help me on the diggin' an' there'll be a half-dollar in it for you—if we make a good find."
The gift of a red table-cloth to the widow who owned the farm gained her permission to break into the ancient burial-place, which was soon to be "ploughed up, anyway." In the excitement of making the excavation Clint had no thought of fear; but when his cautious shovel uncovered a skeleton, and the relic man drew out one bone after another, a shiver of revulsion ran through the boy, and he was glad that it was broad daylight instead of night.
The precious bones were stored in the padlocked drawer underneath the wagon-box—and as he was putting them in place the relic man remarked, playfully:
"Didn't know that we carried a graveyard right along with us, did ye, Clint? Well, we do, an' it's most full now. There's more money in it than in any other line of the business."
A travelling graveyard! The phrase haunted the boy and he slept only fitfully that night, thinking uncomfortably that there were dead men's bones almost underneath the pillow on which his head rested. And his dreams were as wild and troubled as the thoughts which had filled his mind before dropping asleep.
In the little town, next day, when the relic man was at the store buying supplies, a tottering negro woman paused at the wagon. Shaking her withered black hand at Clint, who was tightening bolts and nuts with the wrench, she muttered: "De curse ob Gawd is on dem as robs graves. It 'll git dat man. It 'll git him shore! Ah knows it. Flee f'm de wrath t' come, chile!"
There was a light of weird prophecy in the wrinkled old face of the black woman that made her words carry home. A terror seized upon the boy like that he had seen in the eyes of Caper at the moment of his rescue. Instantly he determined to take the crone's advice and flee; he would go back home. Yes, home—even if the woman who had married his father were waiting there to make him "toe the mark." Better face a red-headed stepmother, he reflected, than sleep over dead men's bones and inherit the curse pronounced upon the robbers of graves. On a scrap of paper, with the pencil which was always in its place beside the driver's seat, he wrote:
"Mr. Heizer i have gone Home I haint took anything but caper an some ham an bread. You can keep the fifty cents for it Clint Jarvis.
"P.S.—It's the dead men's bones i can't sleep."}}
He left the note on the driver's seat, put the bread and the ham in his pockets, and then waited until he saw the relic-dealer coming down the long village street. Then he called softly, "Come, Caper!" and boy and dog vanished ignobly into a side lane that led to the river. His wagon life had made him wise in the lore of roads and distances, and always the central point of his calculations had been Coral Corners. He knew that in following the windings of the river—for the relic-dealer never deserted the waterways—they had described a circuit, and that the last halt of the red wagon was only fifty miles from Coral Corners, cross-country—although they had travelled several hundred miles. He trudged steadily ahead, with Caper at his side, stopping only to drink at wayside springs and streams and to stretch at full length on the sward as he divided his noonday feast with the dog.
"You can't eat apples or roastin' ears," he explained to his companion, "so it's only fair to give you the big end of the bread and meat."
Later in the day, when his feet dragged heavily and his throat was choked with the dust, he confided to his fellow traveller: "If we c'd only make the Dunkard settlement to-night, they'd give us a place to sleep, all right. They're good and never turn travellers away. But that's a good thirty miles from the wagon, an' mebbe my legs won't hold out. Anyhow, we can sleep in a haystack. We ain't afraid, are we?"
The legs did not hold out. They grew strangely heavy, and when he came alongside a corn field his determination weakened. Picking a few choice ears, he retreated up a ravine, and at a spot hidden from the highway he built his fire, roasted the corn, and laid upon each sizzling ear a thin, wafer-like slice of ham, shaved with the keen blade of his jack-knife, which the relic man had taught him to sharpen to a razor-like edge. Then they sought a haystack in a back field, and the boy burrowed cozily under its edge, while the dog lay on guard at his feet. Exhaustion plunged Clint into heavy and dreamless sleep, and when the sun awakened him he was stiff and sore, but refreshed.
"We must make home to-night," he confided to his eager roadmate, "if we drop! I got to."
A man in a single buggy offered him a ride, but he refused. "It's a ride for both or not at all," he told Caper.
"You'd have been all run out keepin' up with that horse. No, sir—we'll stick together, you bet!"
At dusk he was nine miles from Coral Corners, and the road was lonely and little travelled. His determination might again have shared the weakness of his legs had he not passed a graveyard, its dilapidated stone wall overgrown with vines, which took on fantastic shapes in the twilight. A white weeping-birch waved its wraith-like fingers at him and the scene drove spurs into his lagging legs. He ran until the next rise of the ground put the cemetery out of sight. Clouds scurried across the sky under the whip of the rising wind, and finally the moon was completely obscured. Then his only light was the angry flashes of lightning that streaked the dark horizon. He tried hard to remember if there was another graveyard on the Briar Hill road—and he had a vague, distressing recollection that in his triumphal ride out of Coral Corners they had passed one. At each lightning flash his frightened eyes searched the near landscape for the menacing white faces of tombstones, and he walked constantly with his hand on the head of faithful Caper. Once the dog growled—and the next flash revealed the figure of an approaching man. Clint drew away to the roadside, placed his hand over the dog's muzzle, and waited in trembling silence until the plodding feet of the wayfarer had passed, dreading lest another flash might reveal him.
At Enterprise schoolhouse, three miles out, the rain broke in torrents, and the wind blew it aslant in gusts that nearly took the boy off his feet. He could feel streams coursing down his body, and each footstep was a splash. But the light in a farmhouse window was only an instant's temptation to him. Just a little beyond was Bald Mound Hill, and beyond that, in the elbow of the valley, was Coral Corners! He stiffened to his task, and again plunged and splashed resolutely ahead.
At last he was in the old home town. There was not a light in all the village that he could see. But he knew each step of the way, and the instant he turned into his own street he stopped short. There was a light, sure enough—and in the front window of his home! When almost at the steps a fiercer blast than ever whirled him about; he stumbled and fell sprawling upon the slant and rickety boards of the porch floor.
By the time he had regained his feet he was blinded with a flood of light from the suddenly opened door. Before him in the glare was not the expected figure of his father, but a woman dressed in flowing white—a woman who was saying, "Come in quick, child, come right in." And her hands drew him so quickly inside that Caper gained the shelter of the room only by a wild dash. The next thing the boy knew his coat and shirt had been stripped from him, and the woman was deftly rubbing his drenched and shivering body into a warm glow and saying:
"I left the light for you, dear. It's been there every night—all night long. And, oh, I wanted you to come so much! I haven't slept a wink to-night—for I had the feeling that you might be out in the storm, somewhere—wet and cold and—perhaps afraid! I'm always afraid in a storm. And see—there on the table. Each night I've set out something ready for you if you should come. And then I've got a surprise for you. Go into the bedroom and take off your trousers and finish drying yourself. You'll find the surprise on the bed. I bought them at The Highlands with my own money. Put them on, dear. Oh, I can't wait to see if they fit!"
When the boy came out from the parlor bedroom he was clad in the splendor of a suit which even the postmaster's Bennie might have envied. He stood in solemn bashfulness—but his embarrassment was evidently unnoticed, for the red-headed lady was feeding Caper scraps of meat and saying: "I'm so glad you brought a dog. He'll take care of us while your father's away—I can see it in his big, clear eyes!"
This welcome to his roadmate, to the dog he had rescued from death, swept away the boy's last dike of fortitude and reserve, and suddenly the tears broke in a torrent like that against which he had battled in the muck and the darkness of Briar Hill road. And as suddenly he found himself gathered into the lap of the red-headed woman, his face held tight against her warm breast and her hand stroking his cheek. Looking up, he saw that her own eyes were wet and glistening—but bright with a light that warmed his lonely and homesick heart to the core. Impulsively his arm reached up and encircled the white neck, and he said:
"I think you've got beautiful hair!—and—and you're a—a—lovely lady!"