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- Down the Ravine - 2/20 -
His mother, standing in the passage, her tall, thin figure distinct in the firelight that came flickering out through the open door, soliloquized querulously: -
"Ef that thar child don't quit that fool way o' stickin' her head a- twixt the rails ter watch fur her brother, she'll git cotched thar some day like a peeg in a pen, an' git her neck bruk."
Birt overheard her. "Tennessee air too peart ter git herself hurt," he said, a trifle ashamed of his ready championship of his little sister, as a big rough boy is apt to be of gentler emotions.
If ever infancy can be deemed uncouth, she was an uncouth little atom of humanity. Her blue checked homespun dress, graced with big horn buttons, descended almost to her feet. Her straight, awkwardly cropped hair was of a nondescript shade pleasantly called "tow." As she came into the light of the fire, she lifted wide black eyes deprecatingly to her mother.
"She ain't pretty, I know, but she air powerful peart," Birt used to say so often that the phrase became a formula with him.
If she were "powerful peart," it was a fact readily apparent only to him, for she was a silent child, with the single marked characteristic of great affection for her eldest brother and a singular pertinacity in following him about.
"I dunno 'bout Tennie's peartness," his mother sarcastically rejoined. "'Pears ter me like the chile hain't never hed good sense; afore she could walk she'd crawl along the floor arter ye, an' holler like a squeech-owEL ef ye went off an' lef' her. An' ye air plumb teched in the head too, Birt, ter set sech store by Tennie. I look ter see her killed, or stunted, some day, in them travels o' hern."
For when Birt Dicey went "yerrands" on the mule through the woods to the Settlement, Tennessee often rode on the pommel of his saddle. She followed in the furrow when he ploughed. She was as familiar an object at the tanyard as the bark-mill itself. When he wielded the axe, she perched on one end of the woodpile. But so far, she had passed safely through her varied adventures, and gratifying evidences of her growth were registered on the door. "Stand back thar, Tennessee!" in a loud, boyish halloo, was a command when danger was ahead, which she obeyed with the readiness of a veteran.
Sometimes, however, this incongruous companionship became irksome to him. Her trusting, insistent affection made her a clog upon him, and he grew impatient of it.
Ah, little Sister! he learned its value one day.
The great wood fire was all aflare in the deep chimney-place. Savory odors came from the gridiron and the skillet and the hoe, on the live coals drawn out on the broad hearth. The tow-headed children grew noisy as they assembled around the bare pine table, and began to clash their knives and forks.
Birt, unmindful, crouched by the hearth, silently turning his precious specimens about, that he might examine them by the firelight. Tennessee, her chuffy hand on his shoulder, for she could reach it as he knelt, held her head close to his, and looked at them too with wide black eyes. His mother placed the supper on the table, and twice she called to him to come, but he did not hear. She turned and looked down at him, then broke out sharply in indignant surprise.
"Air ye bereft o' reason, Birt Dicey! Ye set thar nosin' a handful o' rocks ez ef they war fitten ter eat! An' now look at the boy--a stuffin' 'em in his pockets ter sag 'em down and tear 'em out fur me ter sew in ag'in. Waal, waal! Sol'mon say ef ye spare the rod ye spile the child--mos' ennybody could hev fund that out from thar own 'sperience; but the wisest man that ever lived lef' no receipt how ter keep a boy's pockets whole in his breeches."
Birt Dicey lay awake deep into the night, pondering and planning. But despite this unwonted vigil the old bark-mill was early astir, and he went alertly about his work. He felt eager, strong, capable. The spirit of progress was upon him.
The tanyard lay in the midst of a forest so dense that, except at the verge of the clearing, it showed hardly a trace of its gradual despoliation by the industry that nestled in its heart like a worm in the bud. There were many stumps about the margin of the woods, the felled trees, stripped of their bark, often lying among them still, for the supply of timber exceeded the need. In penetrating the wilderness you might mark, too, here and there, a vacant space, where the chestnut-oak, prized for its tannin, had once grown on the slope.
A little log house was in the midst of the clearing. It had, properly speaking, only one room, but there was a shed-room attached, for the purpose of storage, and also a large open shed at one side. The rail fence inclosed the space of an acre, perhaps, which was covered with spent bark. Across the pits planks were laid, with heavy stones upon them to hold them in place. A rude roof sheltered the bark-mill from the weather, and there was the patient mule, with Birt and a whip to make sure that he did not fall into reflective pauses according to his meditative wont. And there, too, was Tennessee, perched on the lower edge of a great pile of bark, and gravely watching Birt.
He deprecated the attention she attracted. He was sometimes ashamed to have the persistent little sister seen following at his heels like a midday shadow. He could not know that the men who stopped and spoke to him and to her, and laughed at the infirmities of the infant tongue when she replied unintelligibly, thought better of him for his manifestation of strong fraternal affection. They said to each other that he was a "peart boy an' powerful good ter the t'other chill'en, an' holped the fambly along ez well ez a man-- better'n thar dad ever done;" for Birt's father had been characterized always as "slack-twisted an' onlucky."
The shadows dwindled on the tan. The winds had furled their wings. White clouds rose, dazzling, opaque, up to the blue zenith. The querulous cicada complained in the laurel. Birt heard the call of a jay from the woods. And then, as he once more urged the old mule on, the busy bark-mill kept up such a whir that he could hear nothing else. He was not aware of an approach till the new-comer was close upon him; in fact, the first he knew of Nate Griggs's proximity was the sight of him. Nate was glancing about with his usual air of questioning disparagement, and cracking a long lash at the spent bark on the ground.
"Hello, Nate!" Birt cried out, eagerly. "I'm powerful glad ye happened ter kem hyar, fur I hev a word ter say ter ye."
"I dunno ez I'm minded ter bide," Nate said cavalierly. "I hates to waste time an' burn daylight a-jowin'."
He was still cracking his lash at the ground. There was a sudden, half-articulate remonstrance.
Birt, who had turned away to the bark-mill, whirled back in a rising passion.
"Did ye hit Tennessee?" he asked, with a dangerous light in his eyes.
"No--I never!" Nate protested. "I hain't seen her till this minute. She war standin' a-hint ye."
"Waal, ye skeered her, then," said Birt, hardly appeased. "Quit snappin' that lash. 'Pears-like ter me ez ye makes yerself powerful free round this hyar tanyard."
"Tennie air a-growin' wonderful fast," the sly Nathan remarked pleasantly.
Birt softened instantly. "She air a haffen inch higher 'n she war las' March, 'cordin' ter the mark on the door," he declared, pridefully. "She ain't pretty, I know, but she air powerful peart."
"What war the word ez ye war layin' off ter say ter me?" Nate asked, curiosity vividly expressed in his face.
Birt leaned back against the pile of bark and hesitated. Last night he had thought Nate the most desirable person to whom he could confide his secret whose aid he could secure. There were many circumstances that made this seem wise. But when the disclosure was imminent, something in those small, bead-like eyes, unpleasantly close together, something in the expression of the thin, pale face, something in Nate's voice and manner repelled confidence.
"Nate," said Birt, at last, speaking with that subacute conviction, so strong yet so ill-defined, which vividly warns the ill-judged and yet cannot stop the tongue constrained by its own folly, "what d'ye s'pose I fund in the woods yestiddy?"
The two small eyes, set close together, seemed merged in one, so concentrated was their gaze. Again their expression struck Birt's attention. He hesitated once more. "Ef I tell ye, will ye promise never ter tell enny livin' human critter?"
"I hope I may drap stone dead ef I ever tell!" Nate exclaimed.
"I fund a strange metal in the woods yestiddy. What d'ye s'pose 't war?"
Nate shook his head. His breath was quick and he could not control the keen anxiety in his face. A strong flush rose to the roots of his sandy hair, his lips quivered, and his small eyes glittered with greedy expectation. His tongue refused to frame a word.
"GOLD!" cried Birt, triumphantly.
"Whar be it?" exclaimed Nate. He was about to start in full run for the spot.
"I ain't agoin' ter tell ye, without we-uns kin strike a trade."
"Waal," said Nate, with difficulty repressing his impatience, "what air you-uns aimin' ter do?"
"Ye knows ez I hev ter bide hyar with the bark-mill mos'ly, jes' now," said Birt, beginning to expound the series of ideas which he had carefully worked out in his midnight vigil, "'kase they hev got
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