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- Down the Ravine - 6/20 -
be, he certainly loitered. At last the leaves parted, and revealed- -Rufe.
Birt's first sensation was renewed disappointment. Then he was disposed to investigate the mystery of Nate's non-appearance.
"Hello, Rufe!" he called out, as soon as the small boy was inside the tanyard, "be you-uns SURE ez Nate said he'd come over by sun- up?"
Rufe halted and gazed about him, endeavoring to conjure an expression of surprise into his freckled face. He even opened his mouth to exhibit astonishment--exhibiting chiefly that equivocal tongue, and a large assortment of jagged squirrel teeth.
"Hain't Nate come yit?" he ventured.
The tanner suddenly put into the conversation.
"War it Nate Griggs ez ye war aimin' ter trade with ter take yer place wunst in a while in the tanyard?"
Birt assented. "An' he 'lowed he'd be hyar ter-day by sun-up. Rufe brung that word from him yestiddy."
Rufe's conscience had given him a recess, during which he had consumed several horse-apples in considerable complacence and a total disregard of "yerb tea." He had climbed a tree, and sampled a green persimmon, and he endured with fortitude the pucker in his mouth, since it enabled him to make such faces at Towse as caused the dog to snap and growl in a frenzy of surprised indignation. He had fashioned a corn-stalk fiddle--that instrument so dear to rural children!--and he had been sawing away on it to his own satisfaction and Tennessee's unbounded admiration for the last half-hour. He had forgotten that pursuing conscience till it seized upon him again in the tanyard.
"Oh, Birt," he quavered out, suddenly, "I hain't laid eyes on Nate."
Birt exclaimed indignantly, and Jubal Perkins laughed.
"I seen sech a cur'ous lookin' man, down in the ravine by the lick, ez it sot me all catawampus!" continued Rufe.
As he told of his defection, and the falsehood with which he had accounted for it, Jubal Perkins came to a sudden decision.
"Git on that thar mule, Birt, an' ride over ter Nate's, an' find out what ails him, ef so be ye hanker ter know. I don't want nobody workin' in this hyar tanyard ez looks ez mournful ez ye do--like ez ef ye hed been buried an' dug up. But hurry back, 'kase there ain't enough bark ground yit, an' I hev got other turns o' work I want ye ter do besides 'fore dark."
"War that Satan?" asked Rufe abruptly.
"Whar?" exclaimed Birt, startled, and glancing hastily over his shoulder.
"Down yander by the lick," plained Rufe.
"Naw!" said Birt, scornfully, "an' nuthin' like Satan, I'll be bound!"
He was, however, uneasy to hear of any man down the ravine in the neighborhood of his hidden treasure, but he could not now question Rufe, for Jube Perkins, with mock severity, was taking the small boy to account.
Byers was looking on, the knife idle in his hands, and his lips distended with a wide grin in the anticipation of getting some fun out of Rufe.
"Look-a-hyar, bub," said Jubal Perkins, with both hands in his pockets and glaring down solemnly at Rufe; "ef ever I ketches ye goin' of yerrands no better'n that ag'in, I'm a-goin' ter--TAN that thar hide o' yourn."
Rufe gazed up deprecatingly, his eyes widening at the prospect. Byers broke into a horse laugh.
"We've been wantin' some leetle varmints fur tanning ennyhow," he said. "Ye'll feel mighty queer when ye stand out thar on the spent tan, with jes' yer meat on yer bones, an 'look up an' see yer skin a-hangin' alongside o' the t'other calves, an' sech--that ye will!"
"An' all the mounting folks will be remarkin' on it, too," said Perkins. Which no doubt they would have done with a lively interest.
"I reckon," said Byers, looking speculatively at Rufe, "ez't would take a right smart time fur ye ter git tough enough ter go 'bout in respect'ble society ag'in. 'T would hurt ye mightily, I'm thinkin'. Ef I war you-uns, I'd be powerful partic'lar ter keep inside o' sech an accommodatin'-lookin' little hide ez yourn be fur tanning."
Rufe's countenance was distorted. He seemed about to tune up and whimper. "An' ef I war you-uns, Andy Byers, I'd find su'thin' better ter do'n ter bait an' badger a critter the size o' Rufe!" exclaimed Birt angrily.
"That thar boy's 'bout right, too!" said the man who had hitherto been standing silent in the door.
"Waal, leave Rufe be, Jubal!" said Byers, laughing. "YE started the fun."
"Leave him be, yerself," retorted the tanner.
When Birt mounted the mule, and rode out of the yard, he glanced back and saw that Rufe had approached the shed; judging by his gestures, he was asking a variety of questions touching the art of tanning, to which Byers amicably responded.
The mists were shifting as Birt went on and on. He heard the acorns dropping from the chestnut-oaks--sign that the wind was awake in the woods. Like a glittering, polished blade, at last a slanting sunbeam fell. It split the gloom, and a radiant afternoon seemed to emerge. The moist leaves shone; far down the aisles of the woods the fugitive mists, in elusive dryadic suggestions, chased each other into the distance. Although the song-birds were all silent, there was a chirping somewhere--cheerful sound! He had almost reached his destination when a sudden rustling in the undergrowth by the roadside caused him to turn and glance back.
Two or three shoats lifted their heads and were gazing at him with surprise, and a certain disfavor, as if they did not quite like his looks. A bevy of barefooted, tow-headed children were making mud pies in a marshy dip close by. An ancient hound, that had renounced the chase and assumed in his old age the office of tutor, seemed to preside with dignity and judgment. He, too, had descried the approach of the stranger. He growled, but made no other demonstration.
"Whar's Nate?" Birt called out, for these were the children of Nate's eldest brother.
For a moment there was no reply. Then the smallest of the small boys shrilly piped out, "He hev gone away!--him an' gran'dad's claybank mare."
Another unexpected development! "When will he come back?"
"Ain't goin' ter come back fur two weeks."
"Whar 'bouts hev he gone?" asked Birt amazed.
"Dunno," responded the same little fellow.
"When did he set out?"
There was a meditative pause. Then ensued a jumbled bickering. The small boys, the shoats, and the hound seemed to consult together in the endeavor to distinguish "day 'fore yestiddy" from "las' week." The united intellect of the party was inadequate.
"Dunno!" the mite of a spokesman at last admitted.
Birt rode on rapidly once more, leaving this choice syndicate settling down again to the mud pies.
The woods gave way presently and revealed, close to a precipice, Nate's home. The log house with its chimney of clay and sticks, the barn of ruder guise, the fodder-stack, the ash-hopper, and the rail fence were all imposed in high relief against the crimson west and the purpling ranges in the distance. The little cabin was quite alone in the world. No other house, no field, no clearing, was visible in all the vast expanse of mountains and valleys which it overlooked. The great panorama of nature seemed to be unrolled for it only. The seasons passed in review before it. The moon rose, waxing or waning, as if for its behoof. The sun conserved for it a splendid state.
But the skies above it had sterner moods,--sometimes lightnings veined the familiar clouds; winds rioted about it; the thunder spoke close at hand. And then it was that Mrs. Griggs lamented her husband's course in "raisin' the house hyar so nigh the bluffs ez ef it war an' aigle's nest," and forgot that she had ever accounted herself "sifflicated" when distant from the airy cliffs.
She stood in the doorway now, her arms akimbo--an attitude that makes a woman of a certain stamp seem more masterful than a man. Her grizzled locks were ornamented by a cotton cap with a wide and impressive ruffle, which, swaying and nodding, served to emphasize her remarks. She was conferring in a loud drawl with her husband, who had let down the bars to admit his horse, laden with a newly killed deer. Her manner would seem to imply that she, and not he, had slain the animal.
"Toler'ble fat," she commented with grave self-complacence. "He 'minds me sorter o' that thar tremenjious buck we hed las' September. HE war the fattes' buck I ever see. Take off his hide right straight."
The big cap-ruffle flapped didactically.
"Lor'-a--massy, woman!" vociferated the testy old man; "ain't I a- goin' ter? Ter hear ye a-jowin', a-body would think I had never shot nothin' likelier'n a yaller-hammer sence I been born. S'pos'n ye jes' takes ter goin' a-huntin', an' skinnin' deer, an' cuttin'
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