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- Openings in the Old Trail - 15/35 -
"On account of 'her'!" Abner cast a hurried glance around the tables. Certainly Mrs. Byers was not there! He walked in the hall and the veranda--she was not there. He hastened to the rendezvous evidently meant by the writer, the wilderness behind the house. Sure enough, Byers, drunk and maudlin, supporting himself by the tree root, staggered forward, clasped him in his arms, and murmured hoarsely,--
"Gone?" echoed Abner, with a whitening face. "Mrs. Byers? Where?"
"Run away! Never come back no more! Gone!"
A vague idea that had been in Abner's mind since Byers's last visit now took awful shape. Before the unfortunate Byers could collect his senses he felt himself seized in a giant's grasp and forced against the tree.
"You coward!" said all that was left of the tolerant Abner--his even voice--"you hound! Did you dare to abuse her? to lay your vile hands on her--to strike her? Answer me."
The shock--the grasp--perhaps Abner's words, momentarily silenced Byers. "Did I strike her?" he said dazedly; "did I abuse her? Oh, yes!" with deep irony. "Certainly! In course! Look yer, pardner!"--he suddenly dragged up his sleeve from his red, hairy arm, exposing a blue cicatrix in its centre--"that's a jab from her scissors about three months ago; look yer!"--he bent his head and showed a scar along the scalp--"that's her playfulness with a fire shovel! Look yer!"--he quickly opened his collar, where his neck and cheek were striped and crossed with adhesive plaster--"that's all that was left o' a glass jar o' preserves--the preserves got away, but some of the glass got stuck! That's when she heard I was a di-vorced man and hadn't told her."
"Were you a di-vorced man?" gasped Abner.
"You know that; in course I was," said Byers scornfully; "d'ye meanter say she didn't tell ye?"
"She?" echoed Abner vaguely. "Your wife--you said just now she didn't know it before."
"My wife ez oncet was, I mean! Mary Ellen--your wife ez is to be," said Byers, with deep irony. "Oh, come now. Pretend ye don't know! Hi there! Hands off! Don't strike a man when he's down, like I am."
But Abner's clutch of Byers's shoulder relaxed, and he sank down to a sitting posture on the root. In the meantime Byers, overcome by a sense of this new misery added to his manifold grievances, gave way to maudlin silent tears.
"Mary Ellen--your first wife?" repeated Abner vacantly.
"Yesh!" said Byers thickly, "my first wife--shelected and picked out fer your shecond wife--by your first--like d----d conundrum. How wash I t'know?" he said, with a sudden shriek of public expostulation--"thash what I wanter know. Here I come to talk with fr'en', like man to man, unshuspecting, innoshent as chile, about my shecond wife! Fr'en' drops out, carryin' off the whiskey. Then I hear all o' suddent voice o' Mary Ellen talkin' in kitchen; then I come round softly and see Mary Ellen--my wife as useter be-- standin' at fr'en's kitchen winder. Then I lights out quicker 'n lightnin' and scoots! And when I gets back home, I ups and tells my wife. And whosh fault ish't! Who shaid a man oughter tell hish wife? You! Who keepsh other mensh' first wivesh at kishen winder to frighten 'em to tell? You!"
But a change had already come over the face of Abner Langworthy. The anger, anxiety, astonishment, and vacuity that was there had vanished, and he looked up with his usual resigned acceptance of the inevitable as he said, "I reckon that's so! And seein' it's so," with good-natured tolerance, he added, "I reckon I'll break rules for oncet and stand ye another drink."
He stood another drink and yet another, and eventually put the doubly widowed Byers to bed in his own room. These were but details of a larger tribulation,--and yet he knew instinctively that his cup was not yet full. The further drop of bitterness came a few days later in a line from Mary Ellen: "I needn't tell you that all betwixt you and me is off, and you kin tell your old woman that her selection for a second wife for you wuz about as bad as your own first selection. Ye kin tell Mr. Byers--yer great friend whom ye never let on ye knew--that when I want another husband I shan't take the trouble to ask him to fish one out for me. It would be kind--but confusin'."
He never heard from her again. Mr. Byers was duly notified that Mrs. Byers had commenced action for divorce in another state in which concealment of a previous divorce invalidated the marriage, but he did not respond. The two men became great friends--and assured celibates. Yet they always spoke reverently of their "wife," with the touching prefix of "our."
"She was a good woman, pardner," said Byers.
"And she understood us," said Abner resignedly.
Perhaps she had.
A BUCKEYE HOLLOW INHERITANCE
The four men on the "Zip Coon" Ledge had not got fairly settled to their morning's work. There was the usual lingering hesitation which is apt to attend the taking-up of any regular or monotonous performance, shown in this instance in the prolonged scrutiny of a pick's point, the solemn selection of a shovel, or the "hefting" or weighing of a tapping-iron or drill. One member, becoming interested in a funny paragraph he found in the scrap of newspaper wrapped around his noonday cheese, shamelessly sat down to finish it, regardless of the prospecting pan thrown at him by another. They had taken up their daily routine of mining life like schoolboys at their tasks.
"Hello!" said Ned Wyngate, joyously recognizing a possible further interruption. "Blamed if the Express rider ain't comin' here!"
He was shading his eyes with his hand as he gazed over the broad sun-baked expanse of broken "flat" between them and the highroad. They all looked up, and saw the figure of a mounted man, with a courier's bag thrown over his shoulder, galloping towards them. It was really an event, as their letters were usually left at the grocery at the crossroads.
"I knew something was goin' to happen," said Wyngate. "I didn't feel a bit like work this morning."
Here one of their number ran off to meet the advancing horseman. They watched him until they saw the latter rein up, and hand a brown envelope to their messenger, who ran breathlessly back with it to the Ledge as the horseman galloped away again.
"A telegraph for Jackson Wells," he said, handing it to the young man who had been reading the scrap of paper.
There was a dead silence. Telegrams were expensive rarities in those days, especially with the youthful Bohemian miners of the Zip Coon Ledge. They were burning with curiosity, yet a singular thing happened. Accustomed as they had been to a life of brotherly familiarity and unceremoniousness, this portentous message from the outside world of civilization recalled their old formal politeness. They looked steadily away from the receiver of the telegram, and he on his part stammered an apologetic "Excuse me, boys," as he broke the envelope.
There was another pause, which seemed to be interminable to the waiting partners. Then the voice of Wells, in quite natural tones, said, "By gum! that's funny! Read that, Dexter,--read it out loud."
Dexter Rice, the foreman, took the proffered telegram from Wells's hand, and read as follows:--
Your uncle, Quincy Wells, died yesterday, leaving you sole heir. Will attend you to-morrow for instructions.
BAKER AND TWIGGS,
The three miners' faces lightened and turned joyously to Wells; but HIS face looked puzzled.
"May we congratulate you, Mr. Wells?" said Wyngate, with affected politeness; "or possibly your uncle may have been English, and a title goes with the 'prop,' and you may be Lord Wells, or Very Wells--at least."
But here Jackson Wells's youthful face lost its perplexity, and he began to laugh long and silently to himself. This was protracted to such an extent that Dexter asserted himself,--as foreman and senior partner.
"Look here, Jack! don't sit there cackling like a chuckle-headed magpie, if you ARE the heir."
"I--can't--help it," gasped Jackson. "I am the heir--but you see, boys, there AIN'T ANY PROPERTY."
"What do you mean? Is all that a sell?" demanded Rice.
"Not much! Telegraph's too expensive for that sort o' feelin'. You see, boys, I've got an Uncle Quincy, though I don't know him much, and he MAY be dead. But his whole fixin's consisted of a claim the size of ours, and played out long ago: a ramshackle lot o' sheds called a cottage, and a kind of market garden of about three acres, where he reared and sold vegetables. He was always poor, and as for calling it 'property,' and ME the 'heir'--good Lord!"
"A miser, as sure as you're born!" said Wyngate, with optimistic decision. "That's always the way. You'll find every crack of that blessed old shed stuck full of greenbacks and certificates of
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