Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/161

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

THE SECRET AT THE CROSSROADS

127

o’clock, and the sun was sinking. I wondered where I should be at midnight.

There is a curve in the road just before you reach the fork, five miles this side of Bell’s. On the left is an undefined area of land once cleared but now run wild again, save for a clump of four or five half-tended graves. On the right stands a grove of live oaks, perfect of its kind. A swampy “branch” flows through it, ‘eading the eye back into vistas of semi-gloom. The oaks spread their. elephantine limbs wide and low, and the sluggish waters mirror long festoons of moss and muscadine. Frogs were beginning to chirp and grunt as I drove past, and spirals of mosquitoes were drifting out. A specimen of culex pipiens found me and wailed indefinitely in my ear.

But habitation of some sort met my eyes just around the turn. Nearest me suddenly appeared a group of outhouses, at the farther end of which was a larger unpainted board structure—a store, it seemed, with gable and porch facing the road. Just beyond, the fork branched off, past that, woods again. Someone was cooking supper—there was a rich, inviting smell of ham and coffee.

On the porch was a man in his shirt sleeves, seated in a slack posture, his chair propped against the wall. “J. H. R. Agard, Drugs and Specialties,” the sign read, succinct and utterly vague. As I drew aside, the man on the porch arose with symptoms akin to those of lumbago, pivoting his steps at the knee. He took a stance against one of the posts, put his hands to his back, and expectorated.

“Good day," he addressed me, in a flat voice.

I answered and looked at him. He was small, sallow, and crestfallen in aspect. His eyes were dark and penetrating, yet curiously unexpressive, as though fencing for thoughts and exchanging distrust. He wore a wide-brimmed buff-coloured hat, and glossy celluloid collar and cuffs.

“Stranger in these parts?” he inquired, hitching himself a trifle nearer.

“Yes, at present,” I admitted. ‘Are you the—proprietor ere?”

“Well, you might say Tam. . . . Hello, what’s the matter with that s’ingletree? Where you headed for?”

"Bell’s Brake.”