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- Down the Ravine - 4/20 -
standing among stones about the great bowlder; no--his foot had sunk deep in the sand! He stooped down in the darkness and felt about him. The spot was not now as he had left it yesterday afternoon. He was sure of this, even before a fleet, wan flash of the heat lightning showed him at his feet the unmistakable signs of a recent excavation. It was not deep, it was not broad; but it was fresh and it betrayed a prying hand. Again the heat lightning illumined the wide, vague sky. He saw the solemn dark forests; he saw the steely glimmer of the lick; the distant mountains flickered against the pallid horizon; and once more--densest gloom.
It was Nate who had been here,--Birt felt sure of that; Nate, who had promised he would not come.
Convinced that his friend was playing a false part, Birt went at once to the bark-mill in the morning, confident that he would not find Nate at work in the tanyard according to their agreement.
It was later than usual, and Jubal Perkins swore at Birt for his tardiness. He hardly heard; and as the old bark-mill ground and ground the bark, and the mule jogged around and around, and the hot sun shone, and the voices of the men handling the hides at the tanpit were loud on the air, all his thoughts were of the cool, dark, sequestered ravine, holding in its cloven heart the secret he had discovered.
Rufus happened to come to the tanyard today. Birt seized the opportunity.
"Rufe," he said, "ye see I can't git away from the mill, 'kase I'm 'bleeged ter stay hyar whilst the old mule grinds. But ef ye'll go over yander ter Nate Griggs's house an' tell him ter come over hyar, bein' ez I want to see him partic'lar, I'll fix ye a squir'l-trap before long ez the peartest old Bushy-tail on the mounting ain't got the gumption ter git out'n. An' let me know ef Nate ain't thar."
Rufe was disposed to parley. He stood first on one foot, then on the other. He cast calculating eyes at the bark-mill and out upon the deep forest. The exact date on which this promise was to be fulfilled had to be fixed before he announced his willingness to set out.
Ten to one, he would have gone without the bribe, had none been suggested, for he loved the woods better than the woodpile, and a five-mile tramp through its tangles wearied his bones not so much as picking up a single basketful of chips. Some boys' bones are constituted thus, strange as it may seem.
So he went his way in his somewhat eccentric gait, compounded of a hop, and a skip, and a dawdle. He had made about half a mile when the path curved to the mountain's brink. He paused and parted the glossy leaves of the dense laurel that he might look out over the precipice at the distant heights. How blue--how softly blue they were!--the endless ranges about the horizon. What a golden haze melted on those nearer at hand, bravely green in the sunshine! From among the beetling crags, the first red leaf was whirling away against the azure sky. Even a buzzard had its picturesque aspects, circling high above the mountains in its strong, majestic flight. To breathe the balsamic, sunlit air was luxury, happiness; it was a wonder that Rufe got on as fast as he did. How fragrant and cool and dark was the shadowy valley! A silver cloud lay deep in the waters of the "lick." Why Rufe made up his mind to go down there, he could hardly have said--sheer curiosity, perhaps. He knew he had plenty of time to get to Nate's house and back before dark. People who sent Rufe on errands usually reckoned for two hours' waste in each direction. He had no idea of descending the cliffs as Birt had done. He stolidly retraced his way until he was nearly home; then scrambling down rocky slopes he came presently upon a deer-path. All at once, he noticed the footprint of a man in a dank, marshy spot. He stopped and looked hard at it, for he had naturally supposed this path was used only by the woodland gentry.
"Some deer-hunter, I reckon," he said. And so he went on.
With his characteristic curiosity, he peered all around the "lick" when he was at last there. He even applied his tongue, calf-like, to the briny earth; it did not taste so salty as he had expected. As he rolled over luxuriously on his back among the fragrant summer weeds, he caught sight of something in the branches of an oak tree. He sat up and stared. It looked like a rude platform. After a moment, he divined that it was the remnant of a scaffold from which some early settler of Tennessee had been wont to fire upon the deer or the buffalo at the "lick," below. Such relics, some of them a century old, are to be seen to this day in sequestered nooks of the Cumberland Mountains. Rufe had heard of these old scaffolds, but he had never known of the existence of this one down by the "lick." He sprang up, a flush of excitement contending with the dirt on his countenance; he set his squirrel teeth resolutely together; he applied his sturdy fingers and his nimble legs to the bark of the tree, and up he went like a cat.
He climbed to the lower branches easily enough, but he caused much commotion and swaying among them as he struggled through the foliage. An owl, with great remonstrant eyes, suddenly looked out of a hollow, higher still, with an inarticulate mutter of mingled reproach, and warning, and anxiety. Rufe settled himself on the platform, his bare feet dangling about jocosely. Then, beating his hands on either thigh to mark the time he sang in a loud, shrill soprano, prone now and then to be flat, and yet, impartially, prone now and then to be sharp: -
Thar war two sun-dogs in the red day-dawn, An' the wind war laid--'t war prime fur game. I went ter the woods betimes that morn, An' tuk my flint-lock, "Nancy," by name; An' thar I see, in the crotch of a tree, A great big catamount grinnin' at me. A-kee! he! he! An' a-ho! ho! he! A pop-eyed catamount laffin' at me!
And, as Rufe sang, the anger and remonstrance in the owl's demeanor increased every moment. For the owl was a vocalist, too!
Bein' made game of by a brute beastis, War su'thin' I could in no ways allow. I jes' spoke up, for my dander hed riz, "Cat--take in the slack o' yer jaw!" He bowed his back--Nance sighted him gran', Then the blamed old gal jes' flashed in the pan! A-kee! he! he! An' a-ho! ho! he! With a outraged catamount rebukin' of me!
As Rufe finished this with a mighty CRESCENDO, he was obliged to pause for breath. He stared about, gaspily. The afternoon was waning. The mountains close at hand were a darker green. The distant ranges had assumed a rosy amethystine tint, like nothing earthly--like the mountains of a dream, perhaps. The buzzard had alighted in the top of a tree not far down the slope, a tree long ago lightning-scathed, but still rising, gaunt and scarred, above all the forest, and stretching dead stark arms to heaven. Somehow Rufe did not like the looks of it. He was aware of a revulsion of feeling, of the ebbing away of his merry spirit before he saw more.
As he tried to sing: -
I war the mightiest hunter that ever ye see Till that thar catamount tuk arter me! -
his tongue clove suddenly to the roof of his mouth.
He could see something under that tree which no one else could see, not even from the summit of the crags, for the tree was beyond a projecting slope, and out of the range of vision thence.
Rufe could not make out distinctly what the object was, but it was evidently foreign to the place. He possessed the universal human weakness of regarding everything with a personal application. It now seemed strange to him that he should have come here at all; stranger still, that he should have mounted this queer relic of days so long gone by, and thus discovered that peculiar object under the dead tree. He began to think he had been led here for a purpose. Now Rufe was not so good a boy as to be on the continual lookout for rewards of merit. On the contrary, the day of reckoning meant with him the day of punishment. He had heard recounted an unpleasant superstition that when the red sunsets were flaming round the western mountains, and the valleys were dark and drear, and the abysses and gorges gloomed full of witches and weird spirits, Satan himself might be descried, walking the crags, and spitting fire, and deporting himself generally in such a manner as to cause great apprehension to a small person who could remember so many sins as Rufe could. His sins! they trooped up before his mental vision now, and in a dense convocation crowded the encompassing wilderness.
Rufe felt that he must not leave this matter in uncertainty. He must know whether that strange object under the tree could be intended as a warning to him to cease in time his evil ways-- tormenting Towse, pulling Tennessee's hair, shirking the woodpile, and squandering Birt's rifle balls. He even feared this might be a notification that the hour of retribution had already come!
He scuttled off the platform, and began to swing himself from bough to bough. He was nervous and less expert than when he had climbed up the tree. He lost his grip once, and crashed from one branch to another, scratching himself handsomely in the operation. The owl, emboldened by his retreat, flew awkwardly down upon the scaffold, and perched there, its head turned askew, and its great, round eyes fixed solemnly upon him.
Suddenly a wild hoot of derision rent the air; the echoes answered, and all the ravine was filled with the jeering clamor.
"The wust luck in the worl'!" plained poor Rufe, as the ill-omened cry rose again and again. "'Tain't goin' ter s'prise me none now, ef I gits my neck bruk along o' this resky foolishness in this cur'ous place whar owELS watch from the lookout ez dead men hev lef'."
He came down unhurt, however. Then he sidled about a great many times through "the laurel," for he could not muster courage for a direct approach to the strange object he had descried. The owl still watched him, and bobbed its head and hooted after him. When he drew near the lightning-scathed tree, he paused rooted to the spot, gazing in astonishment, his hat on the back of his tow head, his eyes opened wide, one finger inserted in his mouth in silent deprecation.
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