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- Thankful's Inheritance - 1/70 -
by Joseph C. Lincoln
The road from Wellmouth Centre to East Wellmouth is not a good one; even in dry weather and daylight it is not that. For the first two miles it winds and twists its sandy way over bare hills, with cranberry swamps and marshy ponds in the hollows between. Then it enters upon a three-mile stretch bordered with scrubby pines and bayberry thickets, climbing at last a final hill to emerge upon the bluff with the ocean at its foot. And, fringing that bluff and clustering thickest in the lowlands just beyond, is the village of East Wellmouth, which must on no account be confused with South Wellmouth, or North Wellmouth, or West Wellmouth, or even Wellmouth Port.
On a bright sunny summer day the East Wellmouth road is a hard one to travel. At nine o'clock of an evening in March, with a howling gale blowing and rain pouring in torrents, traveling it is an experience. Winnie S., who drives the East Wellmouth depot-wagon, had undergone the experience several times in the course of his professional career, but each time he vowed vehemently that he would not repeat it; he would "heave up" his job first.
He was vowing it now. Perched on the edge of the depot wagon's front seat, the reins leading from his clenched fists through the slit in the "boot" to the rings on the collar of General Jackson, the aged horse, he expressed his opinion of the road, the night, and the job.
"By Judas priest!" declared Winnie S.--his name was Winfield Scott Hancock Holt, but no resident of East Wellmouth called him anything but Winnie S.--"by Judas priest! If this ain't enough to make a feller give up tryin' to earn a livin', then I don't know! Tell him he can't ship aboard a schooner 'cause goin' to sea's a dog's life, and then put him on a job like this! Dog's life! Judas priest! What kind of a life's THIS, I want to know?"
From the curtain depths of the depot-wagon behind him a voice answered, a woman's voice:
"Judgin' by the amount of dampness in it I should think you might call it a duck's life," it suggested.
Winnie S. accepted this pleasantry with a grunt. "I 'most wish I was a duck," he declared, savagely. "Then I could set in three inches of ice-water and like it, maybe. Now what's the matter with you?" This last a roar to the horse, whose splashy progress along the gullied road had suddenly ceased. "What's the matter with you now?" repeated Winnie. "What have you done; come to anchor? Git dap!"
But General Jackson refused to "git dap." Jerks at the reins only caused him to stamp and evince an inclination to turn around. Go ahead he would not.
"Judas priest!" exclaimed the driver. "I do believe the critter's drowndin'! Somethin's wrong. I've got to get out and see, I s'pose. Set right where you be, ladies. I'll be back in a minute," adding, as he took a lighted lantern from beneath the seat and pulled aside the heavy boot preparatory to alighting, "unless I get in over my head, which ain't so dummed unlikely as it sounds."
Lantern in hand he clambered clumsily from beneath the boot and disappeared. Inside the vehicle was blackness, dense, damp and profound.
"Auntie," said a second feminine voice, "Auntie, what DO you suppose has happened?"
"I don't know, Emily. I'm prepared for 'most anything by this time. Maybe we've landed on Mount Ararat. I feel as if I'd been afloat for forty days and nights. Land sakes alive!" as another gust shot and beat its accompanying cloudburst through and between the carriage curtains; "right in my face and eyes! I don't wonder that boy wished he was a duck. I'd like to be a fish--or a mermaid. I couldn't be much wetter if I was either one, and I'd have gills so I could breathe under water. I SUPPOSE mermaids have gills, I don't know."
Emily laughed. "Aunt Thankful," she declared, "I believe you would find something funny in a case of smallpox."
"Maybe I should; I never tried. 'Twouldn't be much harder than to be funny with--with rain-water on the brain. I'm so disgusted with myself I don't know what to do. The idea of me, daughter and granddaughter of seafarin' folks that studied the weather all their lives, not knowin' enough to stay to home when it looked as much like a storm as it did this mornin'. And draggin' you into it, too. We could have come tomorrow or next day just as well, but no, nothin' to do but I must start today 'cause I'd planned to. This comes of figgerin' to profit by what folks leave to you in wills. Talk about dead men's shoes! Live men's rubber boots would be worth more to you and me this minute. SUCH a cruise as this has been!"
It had been a hard trip, certainly, and the amount of water through which they had traveled the latter part of it almost justified its being called a "cruise." Old Captain Abner Barnes, skipper, for the twenty years before his death, of the coasting schooner T. I. Smalley, had, during his life-long seafaring, never made a much rougher voyage, all things considered, than that upon which his last will and testament had sent his niece and her young companion.
Captain Abner, a widower, had, when he died, left his house and land at East Wellmouth to his niece by marriage, Mrs. Thankful Barnes. Thankful, whose husband, Eben Barnes, was lost at sea the year after their marriage, had been living with and acting as housekeeper for an elderly woman named Pearson at South Middleboro. She, Thankful, had never visited her East Wellmouth inheritance. For four years after she inherited it she received the small rent paid her by the tenant, one Laban Eldredge. His name was all she knew concerning him. Then he died and for the next eight months the house stood empty. And then came one more death, that of old Mrs. Pearson, the lady for whom Thankful had "kept house."
Left alone and without present employment, the Widow Barnes considered what she should do next. And, thus considering, the desire to visit and inspect her East Wellmouth property grew and strengthened. She thought more and more concerning it. It was hers, she could do what she pleased with it, and she began to formulate vague ideas as to what she might like to do. She kept these ideas to herself, but she spoke to Emily Howes concerning the possibilities of a journey to East Wellmouth.
Emily was Mrs. Barnes' favorite cousin, although only a second cousin. Her mother, Sarah Cahoon, Thankful's own cousin, had married a man named Howes. Emily was the only child by this marriage. But later there was another marriage, this time to a person named Hobbs, and there were five little Hobbses. Papa Hobbs worked occasionally, but not often. His wife and Emily worked all the time. The latter had been teaching school in Middleboro, but now it was spring vacation. So when Aunt Thankful suggested the Cape Cod tour of inspection Emily gladly agreed to go. The Hobbs house was not a haven of joy, especially to Mr. Hobbs' stepdaughter, and almost any change was likely to be an agreeable one.
They had left South Middleboro that afternoon. The rain began when the train reached West Ostable. At Bayport it had become a storm. At Wellmouth Centre it was a gale and a miniature flood. And now, shut up in the back part of the depot-wagon, with the roaring wind and splashing, beating rain outside, Thankful's references to fish and ducks and mermaids, even to Mount Ararat, seemed to Emily quite appropriate. They had planned to spend the night at the East Wellmouth hotel and visit the Barnes' property in the morning. But it was five long miles to that hotel from the Wellmouth Centre station. Their progress so far had been slow enough. Now they had stopped altogether.
A flash of light showed above the top of the carriage boot.
"Mercy on us!" cried Aunt Thankful. "Is that lightnin'? All we need to make this complete is to be struck by lightnin'. No, 'tain't lightnin', it's just the lantern. Our pilot's comin' back, I guess likely. Well, he ain't been washed away, that's one comfort."
Winnie S., holding the lantern in his hand, reappeared beneath the boot. Raindrops sparkled on his eyebrows, his nose and the point of his chin.
"Judas priest!" he gasped. "If this ain't--"
"You needn't say it. We'll agree with you," interrupted Mrs. Barnes, hastily. "Is anything the matter?"
The driver's reply was in the form of elaborate sarcasm.
"Oh, no!" he drawled, "there wasn't nothin' the matter. Just a few million pines blowed across the road and the breechin' busted and the for'ard wheel about ready to come off, that's all. Maybe there's a few other things I didn't notice, but that's all I see."
"Humph! Well, they'll do for a spell. How's the weather, any worse?"
"Worse? No! they ain't no worse made. Looks as if 'twas breakin' a little over to west'ard, fur's that goes. But how in the nation we'll ever fetch East Wellmouth, I don't know. Git dap! GIT DAP! Have you growed fast?"
General Jackson pulled one foot after the other from the mud and the wagon rocked and floundered as its pilot steered it past the fallen trees. For the next twenty minutes no one spoke. Then Winnie S. breathed a sigh of thankfulness.
"Well, we're out of that stretch of woods, anyhow," he declared. "And it 'tain't rainin' so hard, nuther. Cal'late we can get to civilization if that breechin' holds and the pesky wheel don't come off. How are you, in aft there; tolerable snug?"
Emily said nothing. Aunt Thankful chuckled at the word.
"Snug!" she repeated. "My, yes! If this water was salt we'd be as snug as a couple of pickled mackerel. How far off is this
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