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- Viola Gwyn - 6/63 -


hundred. People who live in Crawfordsville give her seven hundred. Down at Covington an' Williamsport they say she's got about four hundred an' twelve. When you git to Lafayette Bob Johnson an' the rest of 'em will tell you she's over two thousand an' growin' so fast they cain't keep track of her. There's so much lyin' goin' on about Lafayette that it's impossible to tell jest how big she is. Countin' in the dogs, I guess she must have a population of between six hundred and fifty an' three thousand. You see, everybody up there's got a dog, an' some of 'em two er three. One feller I know has got seven. But, on the whole, I guess you'll like the place. It's the head of navigation at high water, an' if they ever build the Wabash an' Erie Canal they're talkin' about she'll be a regular seaport, like New York er Boston. 'Pears to me the worst is over, don't you reckon so?"

Kenneth, having adjusted his stock and white roll-over collar to suit his most exacting eye, slipped his arms into the coat Zachariah was holding for him, settled the shoulders with a shrug or two and a pull at the flaring lapels, smoothed his yellow brocaded waist-coat carefully, and then, spreading his long, shapely legs and at the same time the tails of his coat, took a commanding position with his back to the blazing logs.

"Are you referring to my toilet, Mr. Striker?" he inquired amiably.

"I was talkin' about the storm," explained Phineas hastily. "Take the boots out to the kitchen, Zachariah. Eliza'll git into your wool if she ketches you leavin' 'em in here. Yes, sir, she's certainly lettin' up. Goin' down the river hell-bent. They'll be gettin' her at Attica 'fore long. Are you plannin' to work the farm yourself, Mr. Gwynne, or are you goin' to sell er rent on shares?"

Gwynne looked at him in surprise. "You appear to know who I am, after all, Mr. Striker."

Striker grinned. "I guess everybody in this neck o' the woods has heerd about you. Dan Bugher,--he's the county recorder,--an' Rube Kelsey, John Bishop, Larry Stockton, an' a lot more of the folks up in town, have been lookin' down the Crawfordsville road fer you ever since your father died last August. You 'pear to be a very important cuss fer one who ain't never set foot in Indianny before."

"I see," said the other reflectively. "Were you acquainted with my father, Mr. Striker?"

"Much so as anybody could be. He wasn't much of a hand fer makin' friends. Stuck purty close to the farm, an' made it about the best piece o' propetty in the whole valley. I was jest wonderin' whether you was plannin' to live on the farm er up in town."

"Well, you see, I am a lawyer by profession. I know little or nothing about farming. My plans are not actually made, however. A great deal depends on how I find things. Judge Wylie wishes me to enter into partnership with him, and Providence M. Curry says there is a splendid chance for me in his office at Crawfordsville. I shall do nothing until I have gone thoroughly into the matter. You know the farm, Mr. Striker?"

"Yes. It's not far from here,--five or six mile, I'd say, to the north an' east. Takes in some of the finest land on the Wea Plain,--mostly clear, some fine timber, plenty of water, an' about the best stocked farm anywheres around. Your father was one of the first to edge up this way ten er twelve year ago, an' he got the pick o' the new land. He came from some'eres down the river, 'bout Vincennes er Montezuma er some such place. I reckon you know that he left another passel of land over this way, close to the Wabash, an' some propetty up in Lafayette an' some more down in Crawfordsville."

"I have been so informed," said his guest, rather shortly.

"I bought this sixty acre piece offen him two year ago. All timber when I took hold of it, 'cept seventeen acres out thataway," jerking his thumb, "along the Middleton road." He hesitated a moment. "You see, I worked for your father fer a considerable time, as a hand. That's how he came to sell to me. I got married an' wanted a place of my own. He said he'd sooner sell to me than let some other feller cheat the eye-teeth outen me, me bein' a good deal of fool when it comes to business an' all. Yep, I'd saved up a few dollars, so I sez what's the sense of me workin' my gizzard out fer somebody else an' all that, when land's so cheap an' life so doggoned short. 'Course, there's a small mortgage on the place, but I c'n take keer of that, I reckon."

"Ahem! The mortgage, I fancy, is held by--er--the other heirs to his property." "You're right. His widder holds it, but she ain't the kind to press me. She's purty comfortable, what with this land along the edge o' the plain out here an' a whole section up in the Grand Prairie neighbourhood, besides half a dozen buildin' lots in town an' a two story house to live in up there. To say nothin' of--"

"Come to supper," called out Mrs. Striker from the doorway.

"That's somethin' I'm always ready fer," announced Mr. Striker. "Winter an' summer, spring an' fall. Step right ahead, Mr.--"

"Just a moment, if you please," said the young man, laying his hand on the settler's arm. "You will do me a great favour if you refrain from discussing these matters in the presence of your other guest to-night. My father, as you doubtless know, meant very little in my life. I prefer not to discuss him in the presence of strangers,--especially curious-minded young women."

Phineas looked at him narrowly for an instant, a queer expression lurking in his eyes.

"Jest as you say, Mr. Gwynne. Not a word in front of strangers. I don't know as you know it, but up to the time your father's will was perduced there wasn't a soul in these parts as knowed such a feller as you wuz on earth. He never spoke of a son, er havin' been married before, er bein' a widower, er anything like--"

"I am thoroughly convinced of that, Mr. Striker," said Kenneth, a trifle austerely, and passed on ahead of his host into the kitchen.

"Bring in them two candlesticks, Phin," ordered Mrs. Striker. "We got to be able to see what each other looks like, an' goodness knows we cain't with this taller dip I got out here to cook by. 'Tain't often we have people right out o' the fashion-plates to supper, so let's have all the light we kin."

CHAPTER II

THE STRANGE YOUNG WOMAN

The tempest by now had subsided to a distant, rumbling murmur, although the rain still beat against the window-panes in fitful gusts, the while it gently played the long roll on the clapboards a scant two feet above the tallest head. Far-off flashes of lightning cast ghastly reminders athwart the windows, fighting the yellow candle glow with a sickly, livid glare.

Kenneth's fellow-guest was standing near the stove, her back toward him as he entered the kitchen. The slant of the "ceiling" brought the crown of her head to within a foot or so of the round, peeled beams that supported the shed-like roof, giving her the appearance of abnormal height. As a matter of fact, she was not as tall as the gaunt Eliza, who, like her husband and the six-foot guest, was obliged to lower her head when passing through the kitchen door to the yard.

The table was set for four, in the middle of the little kitchen; rude hand-made stools, without backs, were in place. A figured red cloth covered the board, its fringe of green hanging down over the edges. The plates, saucers and coffee-cups were thick and clumsy and gaudily decorated with indescribable flowers and vines done entirely in green--a "set," no doubt, selected with great satisfaction in advance of the Striker nuptials. There were black-handled case-knives, huge four-tined forks, and pewter spoons. A blackened coffee-pot, a brass tea-kettle and a couple of shallow skillets stood on the square sheet-iron stove. "Come in and set down, Mr. Gwynne," said Mrs. Striker, pointing to a stool. With the other hand she deftly "flopped" an odorous corn-cake in one of the skillets. There was a far from unpleasant odor of grease.

"I can't help thanking my lucky stars, Mrs. Striker, that I got here ahead of that storm," said he, moving over to his appointed place, where he remained standing. "We were just in time, too. Ten minutes later and we would have been in the thick of it. And here we are, safe and sound and dry as toast, in the presence of a most inviting feast. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your kindness."

"Oh, it's--it's nothing," said she, diffidently. Then to Striker: "Put 'em here on the table, you big lummix. Set down, everybody."

The young lady sat opposite Gwynne. She lowered her head immediately as Phineas began to offer up his established form of grace. The unhappy host got himself into a dire state of confusion when he attempted to vary the habitual prayer by tacking on a few words appertaining to the recent hurricane and God's goodness in preserving them all from destruction as well as the hope that no serious damage had been done to other live-stock and fowls, or to the life and property of his neighbours,--amen!

To which Zachariah, seated on a roll of blankets in the corner, appended a heartfelt amen, and then sank back to watch his betters eat, much as a hungry dog feasts upon anticipation. He knew that he was to have what was left over, and he offered up a silent prayer of his own while wistfully speculating on the prospects.

The two colonial candlesticks stood in the centre of the table, a foot or two apart. When Gwynne lifted his head after "grace," he looked directly between them at his vis-a-vis. For a few seconds he stared as if spell-bound. Then, realizing his rudeness and conscious of an unmistakable resentment in her eyes, he felt the blood rush to his face, and quickly turned to stammer something to his host,--he knew not what it was.

Never had he looked upon a face so beautiful, never had he seen any one so lovely as this strange young woman who shared with him the hospitality of the humble board. He had gazed for a moment full into her deep, violet eyes,--eyes in which there was no smile but rather a cool intentness not far removed from unfriendliness,--and in that moment he forgot himself, his manners and his composure.


Viola Gwyn - 6/63

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