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- Down the Ravine - 5/20 -


For there stood a man dressed in black, and with a dark straw hat on his head. He had gray whiskers, and gleaming spectacles of a mildly surprised expression. He smiled kindly when he saw Rufe. Incongruously enough, he had a hammer in his hand. He was going down the ravine, tapping the rocks with it. And Rufe thought he looked for all the world like some over-grown, demented woodpecker.

CHAPTER IV.

As Rufe still stood staring, the old gentleman held out his hand with a cordial gesture.

"Come here, my little man!" he said in a kind voice.

Rufe hesitated. Then he was seized by sudden distrust. Who was this stranger? and why did he call, "Come here!"

Perhaps the fears already uppermost in Rufe's mind influenced his hasty conclusion. He cast a horrified glance upon the old gentleman in black, a garb of suspicious color to the little mountaineer, who had never seen men clad in aught but the brown jeans habitually worn by the hunters of the range. He remembered, too, the words of an old song that chronicled how alluring were the invitations of Satan, and with a frenzied cry he fled frantically through the laurel.

Away and away he dashed, up steep ascents, down sharp declivities, falling twice or thrice in his haste, but hurting his clothes more than himself.

It was not long before he was in sight of home, and Towse met him at the fence. The feeling between these two was often the reverse of cordial, and as Rufe climbed down from rail to rail, his sullen "Lemme 'lone, now!" was answered by sundry snaps at his heels and a low growl. Not that Towse would really have harmed him--fealty to the family forbade that; but in defense of his ears and tail he thought it best to keep fierce possibilities in Rufe's contemplation.

Rufe sat down on the floor of the uninclosed passage between the two rooms, his legs dangling over the sparse sprouts of chickweed and clumps of mullein that grew just beneath, for there were no steps, and Towse bounded up and sat upright close beside him. And as he sought to lean on Towse, the dog sought to lean on him.

They both looked out meditatively at the dense and sombre wilderness, upon which this little clearing and humble log-cabin were but meagre suggestions of that strong, full-pulsed humanity that has elsewhere subdued nature, and achieved progress, and preempted perfection.

Towse soon shut his eyes, and presently he was nodding. Presumably he dreamed, for once he roused himself to snap at a fly, when there was no fly. Rufe, however, was wide awake, and busily canvassing how to account to Birt for the lack of a message from Nate Griggs, for he would not confess how untrustworthy he had proved himself. As he reflected upon this perplexity, he leaned his throbbing head on his hand, and his attitude expressed a downcast spirit.

This chanced to strike his mother's attention as she came to the door. She paused and looked keenly at him.

"Them hoss apples ag'in!" she exclaimed, with the voice of accusation. She had no idea of youthful dejection disconnected with the colic.

Rufe was roused to defend himself. "Hain't teched 'em, now!" he cried, acrimoniously.

"Waal, sometimes ye air sorter loose-jointed in yer jaw, an' ain't partic'lar what ye say," rejoined his mother, politely. "I'll waste a leetle yerb-tea on ye, ennyhow."

She started back into the room, and Rufe rose at once. This cruelty should not be practiced upon him, whatever might betide him at the tanyard. He set out at a brisk pace. He had no mind to be long alone in the woods since his strange adventure down the ravine, or he might have hid in the underbrush, as he had often done, until other matters usurped his mother's medicinal intentions.

When Rufe reached the tanyard, Birt was still at work. He turned and looked eagerly at the juvenile ambassador.

"Did Nate gin ye a word fur me?" he called sonorously, above the clamor of the noisy bark-mill.

"He say he'll be hyar ter-morrer by sun-up!" piped out Rufe, in a blatant treble.

A lie seemed less reprehensible when he was obliged to labor so conscientiously to make it heard.

And then compunction seized him. He sat down by Tennessee on a pile of bark, and took off his old wool hat to mop the cold perspiration that had started on his head and face. He felt sick, and sad, and extremely wicked,--a sorry contrast to Birt, who was so honest and reliable and, as his mother always said, "ez stiddy ez the mounting." Birt was beginning to unharness the mule, for the day's work was at an end.

The dusk had deepened to darkness. The woods were full of gloom. A timorous star palpitated in the sky. In the sudden stillness when the bark-mill ceased its whir, the mountain torrent hard by lifted a mystic chant. The drone of the katydid vibrated in the laurel, and the shrill-voiced cricket chirped. Two of the men were in the shed examining a green hide by the light of a perforated tin lantern, that seemed to spill the rays in glinting white rills. As they flickered across the pile of bark where Rufe and Tennessee were sitting, he noticed how alert Birt looked, how bright his eyes were.

For Birt's hopes were suddenly renewed. He thought that some mischance had detained Nate to-day, and that he would come to-morrow to work at the bark-mill.

The boy's blood tingled at the prospect of being free to seek for treasure down the ravine. He began to feel that he had been too quick to distrust his friend. Perhaps the stipulation that Nate should not go to the ravine until the work commenced was more than he ought to have asked. And perhaps, too, the trespasser was not Nate! The traces of shallow delving might have been left by another hand. Birt paused reflectively in unharnessing the mule. He stood with the gear in one hand, serious and anxious, in view of the possibility that this discovery was not his alone.

Then he strove to cast aside the thought. He said to himself that he had been hasty in concluding that the slight excavation argued human presence in that lonely spot; a rock dislodged and rolling heavily down the gorge might have thus scraped into the sand and gravel; or perhaps some burrowing animal, prospecting for winter quarters, had begun to dig a hole under the bowlder.

He was perplexed, despite his plausible reasoning, and he continued silent and preoccupied when he lifted Tennessee to his shoulder and trudged off homeward, with Rufe at his heels, and the small boy's conscience following sturdily in the rear.

That sternly accusing conscience! Rufe was dismayed, when he sat with the other laughing children about the table, to know that his soul was not merry. Sometimes a sombre shadow fell upon his face, and once Birt asked him what was the matter. And though he laughed more than ever, he felt it was very hard to be gay without the subtle essence of mirth. That lie!--it seemed to grow; before supper was over it was as big as the warping-bars, and when they all sat in a semicircle in the open passage, Rufe felt that his conscience was the most prominent member of the party. The young moon sank; the night waxed darker still; the woods murmured mysteriously. And he was glad enough at last to be sent to bed, where after so long a time sleep found him.

The morrow came in a cloud. The light lacked the sunshine. The listless air lacked the wind. Still and sombre, the woods touched the murky, motionless sky. All the universe seemed to hold a sullen pause. Time was afoot--it always is--but Birt might not know how it sped; no shadows on the spent tan this dark day! Over his shoulder he was forever glancing, hoping that Nate would presently appear from the woods. He saw only the mists lurking in the laurel; they had autumnal presage and a chill presence. He buttoned his coat about him, and the old mule sneezed as he jogged round the bark- mill.

Jubal Perkins and a crony stood smoking much of the time to-day in the door of the house, looking idly out upon the brown stretch of spent bark, and the gray, weather-beaten sheds, and the dun sky, and the shadowy, mist-veiled woods. The tanner was a tall, muscular man, clad in brown jeans, and with boots of a fair grade of leather drawn high over his trousers. As he often remarked, "The tanyard owes ME good foot-gear--ef the rest o' the mounting hev ter go barefoot." The expression of his face was somewhat masked by a heavy grizzled beard, but from beneath the wide brim of his hat his eyes peered out with a jocose twinkle. His mouth seemed chiefly useful as a receptacle for his pipe-stem, for he spoke through his nose. His voice was strident on the air, since he included in the conversation a workman in the shed, who was scraping with a two- handled knife a hide spread on a wooden horse. This man, whose name was Andrew Byers, glanced up now and then, elevating a pair of shaggy eyebrows, and settled the affairs of the nation with diligence and despatch, little hindered by his labors or the distance.

Birt took no heed of the loud drawling talk. In moody silence he drove the mule around and around the bark-mill. The patient old animal, being in no danger of losing his way, closed his eyes drowsily as he trudged, making the best of it.

"I'll git ez mild-mannered an' meek-hearted ez this hyar old beastis, some day, ef things keep on ez disapp'intin' ez they hev been lately," thought Birt, miserably. "They do say ez even he used ter be a turrible kicker."

Noon came and went, and still the mists hung in the forest closely engirdling the little clearing. The roofs glistened with moisture, and the eaves dripped. A crow was cawing somewhere. Birt had paused to let the mule rest, and the raucous sound caused him to turn his head. His heart gave a bound when he saw that on the other side of the fence the underbrush was astir along the path which wound through the woods to the tanyard. Somebody was coming; he hoped even yet that it might be Nate. He eagerly watched the rustling boughs. The crow had flown, but he heard as he waited a faint "caw! caw!" in the misty distance. Whoever the newcomer might


Down the Ravine - 5/20

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