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- Down the Ravine - 3/20 -
ter hev a heap o' tan ter fill them thar vats ag'in. Ef I war ter leave an' go a-gold huntin', the men on the mounting would find out what I war arter, an' they'd come a-grabblin' thar too, an' mebbe git it all, 'kase I dunno how much or how leetle thar be. I wants ter make sure of enough ter buy a horse, or a mule, or su'thin', ef I kin, 'fore I tells ennybody else. An' I 'lowed ez ye an' me would go pardners. Ye'd take my place hyar at the tanyard one day, whilst I dug, an' I'd bide in the tanyard nex' day. An' we would divide fair an' even all we fund."
Nate did not reply. He was absorbed in a project that had come into his head as his friend talked, and the two dissimilar trains of thought combined in a mental mosaic that would have amazed Birt Dicey.
"Ye see," Birt presently continued, "I dunno when I kin git shet o' the tanyard this year. Old Jube Perkins 'lows ez he air mighty busy 'bout'n them hides an' sech, an' he wants me ter holp around ginerally. He say ef I do mo' work'n I owes him, he'll make that straight with my mother. An' he declares fur true ef I don't holp him at this junctry, when he needs me, he won't hire his mule to my mother nex' spring; an' ye know it won't do fur we-uns ter resk the corn-crap an' gyarden truck with sech a pack o' chill'n ter vittle ez we-uns hev got at our house."
Nate deduced an unexpected conclusion. "Ye oughter gin me more'n haffen the make," he said. "'Kase ef 'twarn't fur me, ye couldn't git none. An' ef ye don't say two thurds, I'll tell every critter on the mounting an' they'll be grabblin' in yer gold mine d'rec'ly."
"Ye dunno whar it is," said Birt, quietly.
If a sudden jet from the cold mountain torrent, that rioted through the wilderness down the ravine hard by, had been dashed into Nate's thin, sharp face, he could not have cooled more abruptly. The change almost took his breath away.
"I don't mean THAT, nuther," he gasped with politic penitence, "kase I hev promised not ter tell. I dunno whether I kin holp nohow. I hev got ter do my sheer o' work at home; we ain't through pullin' fodder off'n our late corn yit."
Birt looked at him in silent surprise.
Nate was older than his friend by several years. He was of an unruly and insubordinate temper, and did as little work as he pleased at home. He often remarked that he would like to see who could make him do what he had no mind to do.
"Mebbe old Jube wouldn't want me round 'bout," he suggested.
"Waal," said Birt, eager again to detail his plans, "he 'lowed when I axed him this mornin' ez he'd be willin' ef I could trade with another boy ter take my place wunst in a while."
Nate affected to meditate on this view of the question. "But it will be toler'ble fur away fur me ter go prowlin' in the woods, a- huntin' fur gold, an' our fodder jes' a-sufferin' ter be pulled. Ef the spot air fur off, I can't come an' I won't, not fur haffen the make."
"'T ain't fur off at all--scant haffen mile," replied unwary Birt, anxious to convince. "It air jes' yander nigh that thar salt lick down the ravine. I marks the spot by a bowlder--biggest bowlder I ever see--on the slope o' the mounting."
The instant this revelation passed his lips, regret seized him. "But ye ain't ter go thar 'thout me, ye onderstand, till we begins our work."
"I ain't wantin' ter go," Nate protested. "I ain't sati'fied in my mind whether I'll ondertake ter holp or no. That pullin' fodder ez I hev got ter do sets mighty heavy on my stomach."
"Tim an' yer dad ALWAYS pulls the fodder an' sech--I knows ez that air a true word," said Birt, bluntly. "An' I can't git away from the tanyard at all ef ye won't holp me, 'kase old Jube 'lowed he wouldn't let me swop with a smaller boy ter work hyar; an' all them my size, an' bigger, air made ter work with thar dads, 'ceptin' you- uns."
Nate heard, but he hardly looked as if he did, so busily absorbed was he in fitting this fragment of fact into his mental mosaic. It had begun to assume the proportions of a distinct design.
He suddenly asked a question of apparent irrelevancy.
"This hyar land down the ravine don't b'long ter yer folkses--who do it b'long ter?"
"Don't b'long ter nobody, ye weasel!" Birt retorted, in rising wrath. "D'ye s'pose I'd be a-stealin' of gold off'n somebody else's land?"
Nate's sly, thin face lighted up wonderfully. He seemed in a fever of haste to terminate the conference and get away. He agreed to his friend's proposition and promised to be at the bark-mill bright and early in the morning. As he trudged off, Birt Dicey stood watching the receding figure. His eyes were perplexed, his mind full of anxious foreboding. He hardly knew what he feared. He had only a vague sense of mischief in the air, as slight but as unmistakable as the harbinger of storm on a sunshiny summer day.
"I wisht I hedn't tole him nuthin'," he said, as he wended his way home that night. "Ef my mother hed knowed bout'n it all, I wouldn't hev been 'lowed ter tell him. She DEspises the very sight o' this hyar Nate Griggs--an' yit she say she dunno why."
After supper he sat gloomy and taciturn in the uninclosed passage between the two rooms, watching alternately the fire-flies, as they instarred the dark woods with ever-shifting gold sparks, and the broad, pale flashes of heat lightning which from time to time illumined the horizon. There was no motion in the heavy black foliage, but it was filled with the shrill droning of the summer insects, and high in the branches a screech-owl pierced the air with its keen, quavering scream.
"Tennessee!" exclaimed Birt, as the unwelcome sound fell upon his ear--"Tennessee! run an' put the shovel in the fire!"
Whether the shovel, becoming hot among the live coals, burned the owl that was high in the tree-top outside, according to the countryside superstition, or whether by a singular coincidence, he discovered that he had business elsewhere, he was soon gone, and the night was left to the chorusing katydids and tree-toads and to the weird, fitful illuminations of the noiseless heat lightning.
Birt Dicey rose suddenly and walked away silently into the dense, dark woods.
"Stop, Tennessee! ye can't go too!" exclaimed Mrs. Dicey, appearing in the doorway just in time to intercept the juvenile excursionist. "Ketch her, Rufus! Ef she wouldn't hev followed Birt right off in the pitch dark! She ain't afeared o' nothin' when Birt is thar. Git that pomegranate she hed an' gin it ter her ter keep her from hollerin', Rufe; I hed a sight ruther hear the squeech-owEL."
Tennessee, overpowered by disappointment, sobbed herself to sleep upon the floor, and then ensued an interval of quiet. Rufe, a towheaded boy of ten, dressed in an unbleached cotton shirt and blue-checked homespun trousers, concluded that this moment was the accepted time to count the balls in his brother's shot-pouch. This he proceeded to do, with the aid of the sullen glare from the embers within and the fluctuating gleams of the lightning without. There was no pretense of utility in Rufe's performance; only the love of handling lead could explain it.
"Ye hed better mind," his mother admonished him. "Birt war powerful tried the t'other day ter think what hed gone with his bullets. He'll nose ye out afore long."
"They hev got sech a fool way o' slippin' through the chinks in the floor," said the boy in exasperation. "I never seen the beat! An' thar's no gittin' them out, nuther. I snaked under the house yestiddy an' sarched, an' sarched!--an' I never fund but two. An' Towse, he dragged hisself under thar, too--jes' a-growlin' an' a- snappin'. I thought fur sartin every minit he'd bite my foot off."
He resumed his self-imposed task of counting the rifle balls, and now and then a sharp click told that another was consigned to that limbo guarded by Towse. Mrs. Dicey stood in silence for a time, gazing upon the unutterably gloomy forest, the distant, throbbing stars, and the broad, wan flashes at long intervals gleaming through the sky.
"It puts me in a mighty tucker ter hev yer brother a-settin' out through the woods this hyar way, an' a-leavin' of we-uns hyar, all by ourselves sech a dark night. I'm always afeared thar mought be a bar a-prowlin' round. An' the cornfield air close ter the house, too."
"Pete Thompson--him ez war yander ter the tanyard day 'fore yestiddy with his dad," said the boy, "he tole it ter me ez how he seen a bar las' Wednesday a-climbin' over the fence ter thar cornfield, with a haffen dozen roastin'-ears under his arm an' a watermillion on his head. But WAR it a haffen dozen? I furgits now ef Pete said it war a haffen dozen or nine ears of corn the bar hed;" and he paused to reflect in the midst of his important occupation.
"I'll be bound Pete never stopped ter count 'em," said Mrs. Dicey. "Pick that chile up an' come in. I'm goin' ter bar up the door."
Birt Dicey plodded away through the deep woods and the dense darkness down the ravine. Although he could not now distinguish one stone from another, he had an uncontrollable impulse to visit again the treasure he had discovered. The murmur of the gently bubbling water warned him of the proximity of the deep salt spring almost at the base of the mountain, and, guiding himself partly by the sound, he made his way along the slope to the great bowlder beneath the cliffs that served to mark the spot. As he laid his hand on the bowlder, he experienced a wonderful exhilaration of spirit. Once more he canvassed his scheme. This was the one great opportunity of his restricted life. Visions of future possibilities were opening wide their fascinating vistas. He might make enough to buy a horse, and this expressed his idea of wealth. "But ef I live ter git a cent out'n it," he said to himself, "I'll take the very fust money I kin call my own an' buy Tennessee a chany cup an' sarcer, an' a string o' blue beads an' a caliky coat--ef I die fur it."
His pleased reverie was broken by a sudden discovery. He was not
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