An Old Settler's Story

A poem by James Whitcomb Riley

William Williams his name was - or so he said; - Bill Williams they
called him, and them 'at knowed him best called him Bill Bills.

The first I seed o' Bills was about two weeks after he got here. The
Settlement wasn't nothin' but a baby in them days, far I mind 'at old
Ezry Sturgiss had jist got his saw and griss-mill a-goin', and Bills
had come along and claimed to know all about millin', and got a job
with him; and millers in them times was wanted worse'n congerss-men,
and I reckon got better wages; far afore Ezry built, ther wasn't a
dust o' meal er flour to be had short o' the White Water, better'n
sixty mild from here, the way we had to fetch it. And they used to
come to Ezry's far ther grindin' as far as that; and one feller I
knowed to come from what used to be the old South Fork, over eighty
mild from here, and in the wettest, rainyest weather; and mud! Law!

Well, this-here Bills was a-workin' far Ezry at the time - part the
time a-grindin', and part the time a-lookin' after the sawin', and
gittin' out timber and the like. Bills was a queer-lookin' feller,
shore! About as tall a build man as Tom Carter - but of course you
don't know nothin' o' Tom Carter. A great big hulk of a feller, Tom
was; and as far back as Fifty-eight used to make his brags that he
could cut and put up his seven cord a day.

Well, what give Bills this queer look, as I was a-goin' on to say, was
a great big ugly scar a-runnin' from the corner o' one eye clean down
his face and neck, and I don't know how far down his breast - awful
lookin'; and he never shaved, and ther wasn't a hair a-growin' in that
scar, and it looked like a - some kind o' pizen snake er somepin' a
crawlin' in the grass and weeds. I never seed sich a' out-an'-out
onry-lookin' chap, and I'll never fergit the first time I set eyes on
him.

Steve and me - Steve was my youngest brother; Steve's be'n in Californy
now far, le' me see, - well, anyways, I reckon, over thirty
year. - Steve was a-drivin' the team at the time - I allus let Steve
drive; 'peared like Steve was made a-purpose far hosses. The
beatin'est hand with hosses 'at ever you did see-an'-I-know! W'y, a
hoss, after he got kind o' used to Steve a-handlin' of him, would do
anything far him! And I've knowed that boy to swap far hosses 'at
cou'dn't hardly make a shadder; and, afore you knowed it, Steve would
have 'em a-cavortin' around a-lookin' as peert and fat and slick!

Well, we'd come over to Ezry's far some grindin' that day; and Steve
wanted to price some lumber far a house, intendin' to marry that
Fall - and would a-married, I reckon, ef the girl hadn't a-died jist as
she'd got her weddin' clothes done, and that set hard on Steve far
awhile. Yit he rallied, you know, as a youngster will; but he never
married, someway - never married. Reckon he never found no other woman
he could love well enough, 'less it was - well, no odds. - The Good
Bein's jedge o' what's best far each and all.

We lived then about eight mild from Ezry's, and it tuck about a day
to make the trip; so you kin kind o' git an idee o' how the roads was
in them days.

Well, on the way over I noticed Steve was mighty quiet-like, but I
didn't think nothin' of it, tel at last he says, says he, "Tom, I want
you to kind o' keep an eye out far Ezry's new hand," meanin Bills. And
then I kind o' suspicioned somepin' o' nother was up betwixt 'em; and
shore enough ther was, as I found out afore the day was over.

I knowed 'at Bills was a mean sort of a man, from what I'd heerd. His
name was all over the neighborhood afore he'd be'n here two weeks.

In the first place, he come in a suspicious sort o' way. Him and his
wife, and a little baby only a few months old, come through in a
kivvered wagon with a fambly a-goin' som'ers in The Illinoy; and they
stopped at the mill, far some meal er somepin', and Bills got to
talkin' with Ezry 'bout millin', and one thing o' nother, and said he
was expeerenced some 'bout a mill hisse'f, and told Ezry ef he'd give
him work he'd stop; said his wife and baby wasn't strong enough to
stand trav'lin', and ef Ezry'd give him work he was ready to lick into
it then and there; said his woman could pay her board by sewin' and
the like, tel they got ahead a little; and then, ef he liked the
neighberhood, he said he'd as leave settle there as anywheres; he was
huntin' a home, he said, and the outlook kind o' struck him, and his
woman railly needed rest, and wasn't strong enough to go much furder.
And old Ezry kind o' tuck pity on the feller; and havin' houseroom to
spare, and railly in need of a good hand at the mill, he said all
right; and so the feller stopped and the wagon druv ahead and left
'em; and they didn't have no things ner nothin' - not even a
cyarpet-satchel, ner a stitch o' clothes, on'y what they had on their
backs. And I think it was the third er fourth day after Bills stopped
'at he whirped Tomps Burk, the bully o' here them days, tel you would
n't a-knowed him!

Well, I'd heerd o' this, and the fact is I'd made up my mind 'at Bills
was a bad stick, and the place was n't none the better far his bein'
here. But, as I was a-goin' on to say, - as Steve and me driv up to the
mill, I ketched sight o' Bills the first thing, a-lookin' out o' where
some boards was knocked off, jist over the worter-wheel; and he knowed
Steve - I could see that by his face; and he hollered somepin', too,
but what it was I couldn't jist make out, far the noise o' the wheel;
but he looked to me as ef he'd hollered somepin' mean a-purpose so's
Steve wouldn't hear it, and he'd have the consolation o' knowin'
'at he'd called Steve some onry name 'thout givin' him a chance to
take it up. Steve was allus quiet like, but ef you raised his dander
one't - and you could do that 'thout much trouble, callin' him names er
somepin', particular' anything 'bout his mother. Steve loved his
mother - allus loved his mother, and would fight far her at the drap o'
the hat. And he was her favo-rite - allus a-talkin' o' "her boy,
Steven," as she used to call him, and so proud of him, and so keerful
of him allus, when he 'd be sick er anything; nuss him like a baby,
she would.

So when Bills hollered, Steve didn't pay no attention; and I said
nothin', o' course, and didn't let on like I noticed him. So we druv
round to the south side and hitched; and Steve 'lowed he'd better
feed; so I left him with the hosses and went into the mill.

They was jist a-stoppin' far dinner. Most of 'em brought ther
dinners - lived so far away, you know. The two Smith boys lived on what
used to be the old Warrick farm, five er six mild, anyhow, from wher'
the mill stood. Great stout fellers, they was; and little Jake, the
father of 'em, wasn't no man at all - not much bigger'n you, I rickon.
Le' me see, now: - Ther was Tomps Burk, Wade Elwood, and Joe and Ben
Carter, and Wesley Morris, John Coke - wiry little cuss, he was, afore
he got his leg sawed off - and Ezry, and - Well, I don't jist mind all
the boys - 's a long time ago, and I never was much of a hand far
names. - Now, some folks'll hear a name and never fergit it, but I
can't boast of a good ricollection, 'specially o' names; and far the
last thirty year my mem'ry's be'n a-failin' me, ever sence a spell o'
fever 'at I brought on onc't - fever and rheumatiz together. You see, I
went a-sainin' with a passel o' the boys, fool-like, and let my
clothes freeze on me a-comin' home. Wy, my breeches was like
stove-pipes when I pulled 'em off. 'Ll, ef I didn't pay far that
spree! Rheumatiz got a holt o' me and helt me there flat o' my back
far eight weeks, and couldn't move hand er foot 'thout a-hollerin'
like a' Injun. And I'd a-be'n there yit, I reckon, ef it had n't
a-be'n far a' old hoss-doctor, name o' Jones; and he gits a lot o' sod
and steeps it in hot whisky and pops it on me, and
I'll-be-switched-to-death ef it didn't cuore me up, far all I laughed
and told him I'd better take the whisky inardly and let him keep the
grass far his doctor bill. But that's nuther here ner there: - As I was
a-saying 'bout the mill: As I went in, the boys had stopped work and
was a-gittin' down ther dinners, and Bills amongst 'em, and old Ezry
a-chattin' away - great hand, he was, far his joke, and allus a-cuttin'
up and a-gittin' off his odd-come-shorts on the boys. And that day he
was in particular good humor. He'd brought some liquor down far the
boys, and he'd be'n drinkin' a little hisse'f, enough to feel it. He
didn't drink much - that is to say, he didn't git drunk adzactly; but
he tuck his dram, you understand. You see, they made ther own whisky
in them days, and it was n't nothin' like the bilin' stuff you git
now. Old Ezry had a little still, and allus made his own whisky,
enough far fambly use, and jist as puore as worter, and as harmless.
But now-a-days the liquor you git's rank pizen. They say they put
tobacker in it, and strychnine, and the Lord knows what; ner I never
knowed why, 'less it was to give it a richer-lookin' flavor, like.
Well, Ezry he 'd brought up a jug, and the boys had be'n a-takin' it
purty free; I seed that as quick as I went in. And old Ezry called out
to me to come and take some, the first thing. Told him I did n't
b'lieve I keered about it; but nothin' would do but I must take a
drink with the boys; and I was tired anyhow and I thought a little
would n't hurt; so I takes a swig; and as I set the jug down Bills
spoke up and says, "You're a stranger to me, and I'm a stranger to
you, but I reckon we can drink to our better acquaintance," er
somepin' to that amount, and poured out another snifter in a gourd
he'd be'n a-drinkin' coffee in, and handed it to me. Well, I could n't
well refuse, of course, so I says, "Here 's to us," and drunk her
down - mighty nigh a half pint, I reckon. Now, I railly did n't want
it, but, as I tell you, I was obleeged to take it, and I downed her at
a swaller and never batted an eye, far, to tell the fact about it, I
liked the taste o' liquor; and I do yit, only I know when I' got
enough. Jist then I didn't want to drink on account o' Steve. Steve
couldn't abide liquor in no shape ner form - far medicine ner nothin',
and I 've allus thought it was his mother's doin's.

Now, a few months afore this I 'd be'n to Vincennes, and I was jist
a-tellin' Ezry what they was a-astin' far ther liquor there - far I 'd
fetched a couple o' gallon home with me 'at I 'd paid six bits far,
and pore liquor at that: And I was a-tellin' about it, and old Ezry
was a-sayin' what an oudacious figger that was, and how he could make
money a-sellin' it far half that price, and was a-goin' on a-braggin'
about his liquor - and it was a good article - far new whisky, - and jist
then Steve comes in, jist as Bills was a-sayin' 'at a man 'at wouldn't
drink that whisky wasn't no man at all. So, of course, when they ast
Steve to take some and he told 'em no, 'at he was much obleeged, Bills
was kind o' tuck down, you understand, and had to say somepin'; and
says he, "I reckon you ain't no better 'n the rest of us, and we 've
be'n a-drinkin' of it." But Steve did n't let on like he noticed Bills
at all, and rech and shuck hands with the other boys and ast how they
was all a-comin' on.

I seed Bills was riled, and more 'n likely wanted trouble; and shore
enough, he went on to say, kind o' snarlin' like, 'at "he'd knowed o'
men in his day 'at had be'n licked far refusin' to drink when their
betters ast 'em;" and said furder 'at "a lickin' wasn't none too good
far anybody 'at would refuse liquor like that o' Ezry's, and in his
own house too" - er buildin', ruther. Ezry shuck his head at him, but
I seed 'at Bills was bound far a quarrel, and I winks at Steve, as
much as to say, "Don't you let him bully you; you'll find your brother
here to see you have fair play!" I was a-feelin' my oats some about
then, and Steve seed I was, and looked so sorry like, and like his
mother, 'at I jist thought, "I kin fight far you, and die far you,
'cause you're wuth it!" - And I didn't someway feel like it would
amount to much ef I did die er git killed er somepin' on his account.
I seed Steve was mighty white around the mouth and his eyes was a
glitterin' like a snake's; but Bills didn't seem to take warnin', but
went on to say 'at he'd knowed boys 'at loved the'r mothers so well
they couldn't drink nothin' stronger 'n milk. - And then you'd ort o'
seed Steve's coat fly off, jist like it wanted to git out of his way,
and give the boy room accordin' to his stren'th. I seed Bills grab a
piece o' scantlin' jist in time to ketch his arm as he struck at
Steve, - far Steve was a-comin' far him dangerss. But they'd ketched
Steve from behind jist then; and Bills turned far me. I seed him draw
back, and I seed Steve a-scufflin' to ketch his arm; but he didn't
reach it quite in time to do me no good. It must a-come awful suddent.
The first I ricollect was a roarin' and a buzzin' in my ears, and when
I kind o' come a little better to, and crawled up and peeked over the
saw-log I was a-layin' the other side of, I seed a couple clinched and
a rollin' over and over, and a-makin' the chips and saw-dust fly, now
I tell you! Bills and Steve it was - head and tail, tooth and toenail,
and a-bleedin' like good fellers. I seed a gash o' some kind in
Bills's head, and Steve was purty well tuckered, and a-pantin' like a
lizard; and I made a rush in, and one o' the Carter boys grabbed me
and told me to jist keep cool; 'at Steve didn't need no he'p, and they
might need me to keep Bills's friends off ef they made a rush. By this
time Steve had whirlt Bills, and was a-jist a-gittin' in a fair way to
finish him up in good style, when Wesley Morris run in - I seed him do
it - run in, and afore we could ketch him he struck Steve a deadener in
the butt o' the ear and knocked him as limber as a rag. And then Bills
whirlt Steve and got him by the throat, and Ben Carter and me and old
Ezry closed in - Carter tackled Morris, and Ezry and me grabs
Bills - and as old Ezry grabbed him to pull him off, Bills kind o' give
him a side swipe o' some kind and knocked him - I don't know how far!
And jist then Carter and Morris come a-scufflin' back'ards right
amongst us, and Carter throwed him right acrost Bills and Steve. Well,
it ain't fair, and I don't like to tell it, but I seed it was the last
chance and I tuck advantage of it: - As Wesley and Ben fell it pulled
Bills down in a kind o' twist, don't you understand, so's he couldn't
he'p hisse'f, yit still a-clinchin' Steve by the throat, and him black
in the face: Well, as they fell I grabbed up a little hick'ry limb,
not bigger 'n my two thumbs, and I struck Bills a little tap kind o'
over the back of his head like, and blame me ef he didn't keel over
like a stuck pig - and not any too soon, nuther, far he had Steve's
chunk as nigh put out as you ever seed a man's, to come to agin. But
he was up th'reckly and ready to a-went at it ef Bills could a-come to
the scratch; but Mister Bills he wasn't in no fix to try it over!
After a-waitin' awhile far him to come to, and him not a-comin' to, we
concluded 'at we'd better he'p him, maybe. And we worked with him, and
washed him, and drenched him with whisky, but it 'peared like it
wasn't no use: He jist laid there with his eyes about half shet, and
a-breathin' like a hoss when he's bad sceart; and I'll be dad-limbed
ef I don't believe he'd a-died on our hands ef it hadn't a-happened
old Doc Zions come a-ridin' past on his way home from the Murdock
neighberhood, where they was a-havin' sich a time with the milk-sick.
And he examined Bills, and had him laid on a plank and carried down to
the house - 'bout a mild, I reckon, from the mill. Looked kind o'
curous to see Steve a-heppin' pack the feller, after his nearly
chokin' him to death. Oh, it was a bloody fight, I tell you! W'y, ther
wasn't a man in the mill 'at didn't have a black eye er somepin'; and
old Ezry, where Bills hit him, had his nose broke, and was as bloody
as a butcher. And you'd ort a-seed the women-folks when our p'session
come a-bringin' Bills in. I never seed anybody take on like Bills's
woman. It was distressin'; it was, indeed. - Went into hysterics, she
did; and we thought far awhile she'd gone plum crazy, far she cried so
pitiful over him, and called him "Charley! Charley!" 'stid of his
right name, and went on, clean out of her head, tel she finally jist
fainted clean away.

Far three weeks Bills laid betwixt life and death, and that woman set
by him night and day, and tended him as patient as a' angel - and she
was a' angel, too; and he'd a-never lived to bother nobody agin ef it
hadn't a-be'n far Annie, as he called her. Zions said ther was a
'brazure of the - some kind o' p'tubernce, and ef he'd a-be'n struck
jist a quarter of a' inch below - jist a quarter of a' inch - he'd
a-be'n a dead man. And I've sence wished - not 'at I want the life of a
human bein' to account far, on'y, well, no odds - I've sence wished 'at
I had a-hit him jist a quarter of a' inch below!

Well, of course, them days ther wasn't no law o' no account, and
nothin' was ever done about it. So Steve and me got our grindin', and
talked the matter over with Ezry and the boys. Ezry said he was
a-goin' to do all he could far Bills, 'cause he was a good hand, and
when he wasn't drinkin' ther wasn't no peaceabler man in the
settlement. I kind o' suspicioned what was up, but I said nothin'
then. And Ezry said furder, as we was about drivin' off, that Bills
was a despert feller, and it was best to kind o' humor him a little.
"And you must kind o' be on your guard," he says, "and I'll watch him
and ef anything happens 'at I git wind of I'll let you know," he says;
and so we put out far home.

Mother tuck on awful about it. You see, she thought she'd be'h the
whole blame of it, 'cause the Sunday afore that her and Steve had went
to meetin', and they got there late, and the house was crowded, and
Steve had ast Bills to give up his seat to Mother, and he wouldn't do
it, and said somepin' 'at disturbed the prayin', and the preacher
prayed 'at the feller 'at was a-makin' the disturbance might be
forgive; and that riled Bills so he got up and left, and hung around
till it broke up, so's he could git a chance at Steve to pick a fight.
And he did try it, and dared Steve and double-dared him far a fight,
but Mother begged so hard 'at she kep' him out of it. Steve said 'at
he'd a-told me all about it on the way to Ezry's, on'y he'd promised
Mother, you know, not to say nothin' to me.

* * * * *

Ezry was over at our house about six weeks after the fight,
appearantly as happy as you please. We ast him how him and Bills was
a-makin' it, and he said firstrate; said 'at Bills was jist a-doin'
splendid; said he'd got moved in his new house 'at he'd fixed up far
him, and ever'thing was a-goin' on as smooth as could be; and Bills
and the boys was on better terms 'n ever; and says he, "As far as you
and Steve 's concerned, Bills don't 'pear to bear you no ill feelin's,
and says as far as he 's concerned the thing 's settled." "Well," says
I, "Ezry, I hope so; but I can't he'p but think ther 's somepin' at
the bottom of all this;" and says I, "I do n't think it's in Bills to
ever amount to anything good;" and says I, "It's my opinion ther 's a
dog in the well, and now you mark it!"

Well, he said he wasn't jist easy, but maybe he 'd come out all
right; said he couldn't turn the feller off - he hadn't the heart to do
that, with that-air pore, dilicate woman o' his, and the baby. And
then he went on to tell what a smart sort o' woman Bills's wife
was, - one of the nicest little women he 'd ever laid eyes on, said she
was; said she was the kindest thing, and the sweetest-tempered, and
all - and the handiest woman 'bout the house, and 'bout sewin', and
cookin', and the like, and all kinds o' housework; and so good to the
childern, and all; and how they all got along so well; and how proud
she was of her baby, and allus a-goin' on about it and a-cryin' over
it and a-carryin' on, and wouldn't leave it out of her sight a minute.
And Ezry said 'at she could write so purty, and made sich purty
pictures far the childern; and how they all liked her better'n ther
own mother. And, sence she'd moved, he said it seemed so lonesome like
'thout her about the house - like they'd lost one o' ther own fambly;
said they didn't git to see her much now, on'y sometimes, when her man
would be at work, she'd run over far awhile, and kiss all the childern
and women-folks about the place, - the greatest hand far the childern,
she was; tell 'em all sorts o'little stories, you know, and sing far
'em; said 'at she could sing so sweet-like,'at time and time agin
she'd break clean down in some song o'nuther, and her voice would
trimble so mournful-like 'at you'd find yourse'f a-cryin' afore you
knowed it. And she used to coax Ezry's woman to let her take the
childern home with her; and they used to allus want to go, 'tel Bills
come onc't while they was there, and they said he got to jawin' her
far a-makin' some to-do over the baby, and swore at her and tuck it
away from her and whipped it far cryin', and she cried and told him to
whip her and not little Annie, and he said that was jist what he was
a-doin'. And the childern was allus afear'd to go there any more after
that - 'fear'd he'd come home and whip little Annie agin. Ezry said he
jist done that to skeer 'em away - 'cause he didn't want a passel o'
childern a-whoopin' and a-howlin' and a-trackin' 'round the house all
the time.

But, shore enough, Bills, after the fight, 'peared like he 'd settled
down, and went 'bout his business so stiddy-like, and worked so well,
the neighbors begin to think he was all right after all, and railly
some got to likin' him. But far me, well, I was a leetle slow to
argy 'at the feller wasn't "a-possumin'." But the next time I went
over to the mill - and Steve went with me - old Ezry come and met us,
and said 'at Bills didn't have no hard feelin's ef we didn't, and
'at he wanted us to fergive him; said 'at Bills wanted him to tell us
'at he was sorry the way he'd acted, and wanted us to fergive him.
Well, I looked at Ezry, and we both looked at him, jist perfectly tuck
back - the idee o' Bills a-wantin' anybody to fergive him! And says I,
"Ezry, what in the name o' common sense do you mean?" And says he, "I
mean jist what I say; Bills jined meetin' last night and had 'em all
a-prayin' far him; and we all had a glorious time," says old Ezry;
"and his woman was there and jined, too, and prayed and shouted and
tuck on to beat all; and Bills got up and spoke and give in his
experience, and said he'd be'n a bad man, but, glory to God, them
times was past and gone; said 'at he wanted all of 'em to pray far
him, and he wanted to prove faithful, and wanted all his inemies to
fergive him; and prayed 'at you and Steve and your folks would fergive
him, and ever'body 'at he ever wronged anyway." And old Ezry was
a-goin' on, and his eyes a-sparklin', and a-rubbin' his hands, he was
so excited and tickled over it, 'at Steve and me we jist stood there
a-gawkin' like, tel Bills hisse'f come up and rech out one hand to
Steve and one to me; and Steve shuck with him kind o' oneasy like, and
I - well, sir, I never felt cur'oser in my born days than I did that
minute. The cold chills crep' over me, and I shuck as ef I had the
agur, and I folded my hands behind me and I looked that feller square
in the eye, and I tried to speak three or four times afore I could
make it, and when I did, my voice wasn't natchurl - sounded like a
feller a-whisperin' through a tin horn er somepin'. - and I says, says
I, "You're a liar," slow and delibert. That was all. His eyes blazed a
minute, and drapped; and he turned, 'thout a word, and walked off. And
Ezry says, "He's in airnest; I know he's in airnest, er he'd a-never
a-tuck that!" And so he went on, tel finally Steve jined in, and
betwixt 'em they p'suaded me 'at I was in the wrong and the best thing
to do was to make it all up, which I finally did. And Bills said 'at
he'd a-never a-felt jist right 'thout my friendship, far he'd
wronged me, he said, and he'd wronged Steve and Mother, too, and he
wanted a chance, he said, o' makin' things straight agin.

Well, a-goin' home, I don't think Steve and me talked o' nothin' else
but Bills - how airnest the feller acted 'bout it, and how, ef he
wasn't in airnest he'd a-never a-swallered that 'lie,' you see.
That's what walked my log, far he could a-jist as easy a-knocked me
higher 'n Kilgore's kite as he could to walk away 'thout a-doin' of
it.

Mother was awful tickled when she heerd about it, far she'd had an
idee 'at we'd have trouble afore we got back, and a-gitten home safe,
and a-bringin' the news 'bout Bills a-jinin' church and all, tickled
her so 'at she mighty nigh shouted far joy. You see, Mother was a' old
church-member all her life; and I don't think she ever missed a
sermont er a prayer-meetin' 'at she could possibly git to - rain er
shine, wet er dry. When ther was a meetin' of any kind a-goin' on, go
she would, and nothin' short o' sickness in the fambly, er knowin'
nothin' of it would stop her! And clean up to her dyin' day she was
a God-fearin' and consistent Christian ef ther ever was one. I mind
now when she was tuck with her last spell and laid bedfast far
eighteen months, she used to tell the preacher, when he 'd come to see
her and pray and go on, 'at she could die happy ef she could on'y be
with 'em all agin in their love-feasts and revivals. She was purty low
then, and had be'n a-failin' fast far a day er two; and that day
they'd be'n a-holdin' service at the house. It was her request, you
know, and the neighbers had congergated and was a-prayin' and
a-singin' her favorite hymns - one in p'tickler, "God moves in a
mysterous way his wunders to p'form," and 'bout his "Walkin' on the
sea and a-ridin' of the storm." - Well, anyway, they'd be'n a-singin'
that hymn far her - she used to sing that 'n so much, I ricollect as
far back as I kin remember; and I mind how it used to make me feel so
lonesome-like and solemn, don't you know, - when I'd be a-knockin'
round the place along of evenin's, and she'd be a-milkin', and I'd
hear her, at my feedin', way off by myse'f, and it allus somehow made
me feel like a feller'd ort o' try and live as nigh right as the law
allows, and that's about my doctern yit. Well, as I was a-goin' on to
say, they'd jist finished that old hymn, and Granny Lowry was jist
a-goin to lead in prayer, when I noticed mother kind o' tried to turn
herse'f in bed, and smiled so weak and faint-like, and looked at me,
with her lips a-kind o' movin'; and I thought maybe she wanted another
dos't of her syrup 'at Ezry's woman had fixed up far her, and I kind
o' stooped down over her and ast her if she wanted anything. "Yes,"
she says, and nodded, and her voice sounded so low and solemn and so
far away-like 'at I knowed she'd never take no more medicine on this
airth. And I tried to ast her what it was she wanted, but I couldn't
say nothin'; my throat hurt me, and I felt the warm tears a-boolgin'
up, and her kind old face a-glimmerin' a-way so pale-like afore my
eyes, and still a-smilin' up so lovin' and forgivin' and so good 'at
it made me think so far back in the past I seemed to be a little boy
agin; and seemed like her thin gray hair was brown, and a-shinin' in
the sun as it used to do when she helt me on her shoulder in the open
door, when Father was a-livin' and we used to go to meet him at the
bars; seemed like her face was young agin, and a-smilin' like it allus
used to be, and her eyes as full o' hope and happiness as afore they
ever looked on grief er ever shed a tear. And I thought of all the
trouble they had saw on my account, and of all the lovin' words her
lips had said, and of all the thousand things her pore old hands had
done far me 'at I never even thanked her far; and how I loved her
better 'n all the world besides, and would be so lonesome ef she went
away - Lord! I can't tell you what I didn't think and feel and see. And
I knelt down by her, and she whispered then far Steven, and he come,
and we kissed her - and she died - a smilin' like a child - jist like a
child.

Well - well! 'Pears like I'm allus a-runnin' into somepin' else. I
wisht I could tell a story 'thout driftin' off in matters 'at hain't
no livin' thing to do with what I started out with. I try to keep from
thinkin' of afflictions and the like, 'cause sich is bound to come to
the best of us; but a feller's ricollection will bring 'em up, and I
reckon it'd ort 'o be er it wouldn't be; and I've thought, sometimes,
it was done may be to kind o' admonish a feller, as the Good Book
says, of how good a world 'd be 'thout no sorrow in it.

Where was I? Oh, yes, I ricollect; - about Bills a-jinin' church. Well,
sir, ther' wasn't a better-actin' feller and more religious-like in
all the neighberhood. Spoke in meetin's, he did, and tuck a' active
part in all religious doin's, and, in fact, was jist as square a man,
appearantly, as the preacher hisse'f. And about six er eight weeks
after he'd jined, they got up another revival, and things run high.
Ther' was a big excitement, and ever'body was a'tendin' from far and
near. Bills and Ezry got the mill-hands to go, and didn't talk o'
nothin' but religion. People thought awhile 'at old Ezry 'd turn
preacher, he got so interested 'bout church matters. He was easy
excited 'bout anything; and when he went into a thing it was in dead
earnest, shore! - "jist flew off the handle," as I heerd a comical
feller git off onct. And him and Bills was up and at it ever'
night - prayin' and shoutin' at the top o' the'r voice. Them railly did
seem like good times - when ever'body jined together, and prayed and
shouted ho-sanner, and danced around together, and hugged each other
like they was so full o' glory they jist couldn't he'p
theirse'v's - that's the reason I jined; it looked so kind o'
whole-souled-like and good, you understand. But la! I didn't hold out
on'y far a little while, and no wunder!

Well, about them times Bills was tuck down with the agur; first got to
chillin' ever'-other-day, then ever' day, and harder and harder, tel
sometimes he 'd be obleeged to stay away from meetin' on account of
it. And one't I was at meetin' when he told about it, and how when he
couldn't be with 'em he allus prayed at home, and he said 'at he
believed his prayers was answered, far onc't he'd prayed far a new
outpourin' of the Holy Sperit, and that very night ther' was three new
jiners. And another time he said 'at he 'd prayed 'at Wesley Morris
would jine, and lo and behold you! he did jine, and the very night
'at he prayed he would.

Well, the night I'm a-speakin' of he'd had a chill the day afore and
couldn't go that night, and was in bed when Ezry druv past far him;
said he'd like to go, but had a high fever and couldn't. And then
Ezry's woman ast him ef he was too sick to spare Annie; and he said
no, they could take her and the baby: and told her to fix his medicine
so's he could reach it 'thout gittin' out o' bed, and he'd git along
'thout her. And so she tuck the baby and went along with Ezry and his
folks.

I was at meetin' that night and ricollect 'em comin' in. Annie got a
seat jist behind me - Steve give her his'n and stood up; and I
ricollect a-astin' her how Bills was a-gittin' along with the agur;
and little Annie, the baby, kep' a-pullin' my hair and a-crowin' tel
finally she went to sleep; and Steve ast her mother to let him hold
her - cutest little thing you ever laid eyes on, and the very pictur'
of her mother.

Old Daddy Barker preached that night, and a mighty good sermont. His
text, ef I ricollect right, was "workin' out your own salvation;" and
when I listen to preachers nowadays in ther big churches and ther fine
pulpits, I allus think o' Daddy Barker, and kind o' some way wisht the
old times could come agin, with the old log meetin'-house with its
puncheon floor and the chinkin' in the walls, and old Daddy Barker in
the pulpit. He'd make you feel 'at the Lord could make hissef at home
there, and find jist as abundant comfort in the old log house as he
could in any of your fine-furnished churches 'at you can't set down in
'thout payin' far the privilege, like it was a theater.

Ezry had his two little girls jine that night, and I ricollect the
preacher made sich a purty prayer about the Savior a-cotin' from the
Bible 'bout "Suffer little childern to come unto me" and all; and
talked so purty about the jedgment day, and mothers a-meetin' the'r
little ones there and all; and went on tel ther wasn't a dry eye in
the house - and jist as he was a-windin' up, Abe Riggers stuck his head
in at the door and hollered "fire" loud as he could yell. We all
rushed out, a-thinkin' it was the meetin'-house; but he hollered it
was the mill; and shore enough, away off to the southards we could see
the light acrost the woods, and see the blaze a-lickin' up above the
trees. I seed old Ezry as he come a-scufflin' through the crowd; and
we put out together far it. Well, it was two mild to the mill, but by
the time we'd half way got there, we could tell it wasn't the mill
a-burnin', 'at the fire was furder to the left, and that was Ezry's
house; and by the time we got there it wasn't much use. We pitched
into the household goods, and got out the beddin', and the furnitur'
and cheers and the like o' that; saved the clock and a bedstid, and
got the bureau purt' nigh out when they hollered to us 'at the roof
was a cavin' in, and we had to leave it; well, we'd tuck the drawers
out, all but the big one, and that was locked; and it and all in it
went with the buildin', and that was a big loss: All the money 'at
Ezry was a-layin' by was in that-air drawer, and a lot o' keepsakes
and trinkets 'at Ezry's woman said she wouldn't a-parted with far the
world and all.

I never seed a troubleder fambly than they was. It jist 'peared like
old Ezry give clean down, and the women and childern a-cryin' and
a-takin' on. It looked jist awful - shore's you're born! - Losin'
ever'thing they'd worked so hard far - and there it was, purt' nigh
midnight, and a fambly, jist a little while ago all so happy, and now
with no home to go to ner nothin'!

It was arranged far Ezry's to move in with Bills - that was about the
on'y chance - on'y one room and a loft; but Bills said they could
manage some way, far a while anyhow.

Bills said he seed the fire when it first started, and could a-put it
out ef he'd on'y be'n strong enough to git there; said he started
twic't to go, but was too weak and had to go back to bed agin; said it
was a-blazin' in the kitchen roof when he first seed it. So the
gineral conclusion 'at we all come to was - it must a-ketched from the
flue.

It was too late in the Fall then to think o' buildin' even the onryest
kind o' shanty, and so Ezry moved in with Bills. And Bills used to say
ef it had n't a-be'n far Ezry he'd a-never a-had no house, ner
nuthin' to put in it, nuther. You see, all the household goods 'at
Bills had in the world he'd got of Ezry, and he 'lowed he'd be a
triflin' whelp ef he didn't do all in his power to make Ezry perfeckly
at home 's long as he wanted to stay there. And together they managed
to make room far 'em all, by a-buildin' a kind o' shed-like to the
main house, intendin' to build when Spring come. And ever'thing went
along first-rate, I guess; never heerd no complaints - that is,
p'ticular.

Ezry was kind o' down far a long time, though; didn't like to talk
about his trouble much, and didn't 'tend meetin' much, like he used
to; said it made him think 'bout his house burnin', and he didn't feel
safe to lose sight o' the mill. And the meetin's kind o' broke up
altogether that winter. Almost broke up religious doin's, it did. 'S
long as I've lived here I never seed jist sich a slack in religion as
ther' was that winter; and 'fore then, I kin mind the time when ther'
wasn't a night the whole endurin' winter when they didn't have
preachin' er prayer-meetin' o' some kind a-goin' on. W'y, I ricollect
one night in p'ticular - the coldest night, whooh! And somebody had
stold the meetin'-house door, and they was obleeged to preach 'thout
it. And the wind blowed in so they had to hold the'r hats afore the
candles, and then one't-in-a-while they'd git sluffed out. And the
snow drifted in so it was jist like settin' out doors; and they had to
stand up when they prayed - yessir! stood up to pray. I noticed that
night they was a' oncommon lot o' jiners, and I believe to this day
'at most of 'em jined jist to git up wher' the stove was. Lots o'
folks had the'r feet froze right in meetin'; and Steve come home with
his ears froze like they was whittled out o' bone; and he said 'at
Mary Madaline Wells's feet was froze, and she had two pair o' socks on
over her shoes. Oh, it was cold, now I tell you!

They run the mill part o' that winter - part they couldn't. And they
didn't work to say stiddy tel along in Aprile, and then ther' was snow
on the ground yit - in the shadders - and the ground froze, so you
couldn't hardly dig a grave. But at last they got to kind o' jiggin'
along agin. Plenty to do ther' was; and old Ezry was mighty tickled,
too; 'peared to recruit right up like. Ezry was allus best tickled
when things was a-stirrin', and then he was a-gittin' ready far
buildin', you know, wanted a house of his own, he said - and of course
it wasn't adzackly like home, all cluttered up as they was there at
Bills's. They got along mighty well, though, together; and the
women-folks and childern got along the best in the world. Ezry's woman
used to say she never laid eyes on jist sich another woman as Annie
was. Said it was jist as good as a winter's schoolin' far the
childern; said her two little girls had learnt to read, and didn't
know the'r a-b abs afore Annie learnt 'em; well, the oldest one, Mary
Patience, she did know her letters, I guess - fourteen year old, she
was; but Mandy, the youngest, had never seed inside a book afore that
winter; and the way she learnt was jist su'prisin'. She was puny-like
and frail-lookin' allus, but ever'body 'lowed she was a heap smarter
'n Mary Patience, and she was; and in my opinion she railly had more
sense 'n all the rest o' the childern put together, 'bout books and
cipherin' and arethmetic, and the like; and John Wesley, the oldest of
'em, he got to teachin' at last, when he growed up, - but, la! he
couldn't write his own name so 's you could read it. I allus thought
ther was a good 'eal of old Ezry in John Wesley. Liked to romance
'round with the youngsters 'most too well. - Spiled him far teachin', I
allus thought; far instance, ef a scholard said somepin' funny in
school, John-Wes he'd jist have to have his laugh out with the rest,
and it was jist fun far the boys, you know, to go to school to him.
Allus in far spellin'-matches and the like, and learnin' songs and
sich. I ricollect he give a' exhibition onc't, one winter, and I'll
never fergit it, I reckon.

The school-house would on'y hold 'bout forty, comfortable, and that
night ther' was up'ards of a hunderd er more - jist crammed and jammed!
And the benches was piled back so's to make room far the flatform
they'd built to make the'r speeches and dialogues on; and fellers
a-settin' up on them back seats, the'r heads was clean aginst the
j'ist. It was a low ceilin', anyhow, and o' course them 'at tuck a
part in the doin's was way up, too. Janey Thompson had to give up her
part in a dialogue, 'cause she looked so tall she was afeard the
congergation would laugh at her; and they couldn't git her to come out
and sing in the openin' song 'thout lettin' her set down first and git
ready 'fore they pulled the curtain. You see, they had sheets sewed
together, and fixed on a string some way, to slide back'ards and
for'ards, don't you know. But they was a big bother to 'em - couldn't
git 'em to work like. Ever' time they'd git 'em slid 'bout half way
acrost, somepin' would ketch, and they'd have to stop and fool with
'em awhile 'fore they could git 'em the balance o' the way acrost.
Well, finally, t'ords the last, they jist kep' 'em drawed back all the
time. It was a pore affair, and spiled purt nigh ever' piece; but the
scholards all wanted it fixed thataway, the teacher said, in a few
appropert remarks he made when the thing was over. Well, I was a
settin' in the back part o' the house on them high benches, and my
head was jist even with them on the flatform, and the lights was pore,
wher' the string was stretched far the curtain to slide on it looked
like the p'formers was strung on it. And when Lige Boyer's boy was
a-speakin' - kind o' mumbled it, you know, and you couldn't half
hear - it looked far the world like he was a-chawin' on that-air
string; and some devilish feller 'lowed ef he'd chaw it clean in two
it'd be a good thing far the balance. After that they all sung a
sleigh-ridin' song, and it was right purty, the way they got it off.
Had a passel o' sleigh-bells they'd ring ever' onc't-in-a-while, and
it sounded purty - shore!

Then Hunicut's girl, Marindy, read a letter 'bout winter, and what fun
the youngsters allus had in winter-time, a-sleighin' and the like, and
spellin'-matches, and huskin'-bees, and all. Purty good, it was, and
made a feller think o' old times. Well, that was about the best thing
ther' was done that night; but ever'body said the teacher wrote it far
her; and I wouldn't be su'prised much, far they was married not long
afterwards. I expect he wrote it far her. - Wouldn't put it past Wes!

They had a dialogue, too, 'at was purty good. Little Bob Arnold was
all fixed up - had on his pap's old bell-crowned hat, the one he was
married in. Well, I jist thought die I would when I seed that old hat
and called to mind the night his pap was married, and we all got him a
little how-come-you-so on some left-handed cider 'at had be'n a-layin'
in a whisky-bar'l tel it was strong enough to bear up a' egg. I kin
ricollect now jist how he looked in that hat, when it was all new, you
know, and a-settin on the back of his head, and his hair in his eyes;
and sich hair! - as red as git-out - and his little black eyes a-shinin'
like beads. Well sir, you'd a-died to a-seed him a-dancin'. We danced
all night that night, and would a-be'n a-dancin' yit, I reckon, ef the
fiddler hadn't a-give out. Wash Lowry was a-fiddlin' far us; and along
to'rds three or four in the mornin' Wash was purty well fagged out.
You see, Wash could never play far a dance er nothin' 'thout
a-drinkin' more er less, and when he got to a certain pitch you
couldn't git nothin' out o' him but "Barbary Allan;" so at last he
struck up on that, and jist kep' it up and kep' it up, and nobody
couldn't git nothin' else out of him!

Now, anybody 'at ever danced knows 'at "Barbary Allan" hain't no tune
to dance by, no way you can fix it; and, o' course, the boys seed at
onc't the'r fun was gone ef they could n't git him on another
tune. - And they 'd coax and beg and plead with him, and maybe git him
started on "The Wind Blows over the Barley," and 'bout the time they'd
git to knockin' it down agin purty lively, he'd go to sawin' away on
"Barbary Allan" - and I'll-be-switched-to-death ef that feller didn't
set there and play hisse'f sound asleep on "Barbary Allan," and we had
to wake him up afore he'd quit! Now, that's jes' a plum' facts. And
ther' wasn't a better fiddler nowheres than Wash Lowry, when he was at
hisse'f. I've heerd a good many fiddlers in my day, and I never heerd
one yit 'at could play my style o' fiddlin' ekal to Wash Lowry. You
see, Wash didn't play none o' this-here newfangled music - nothin' but
the old tunes, you understand, "The Fork├ęd Deer," and "Old Fat Gal,"
and "Gray Eagle," and the like. Now, them's music! Used to like to
hear Wash play "Gray Eagle." He could come as nigh a-makin' that old
tune talk as ever you heerd! Used to think a heap o' his fiddle - and
he had a good one, shore. I've heard him say, time and time agin, 'at
a five-dollar gold-piece wouldn't buy it, and I knowed him my-se'f to
refuse a calf far it onc't - yessir, a yearland calf - and the feller
offered him a double-bar'l'd pistol to boot, and blame ef he'd take
it; said he'd ruther part with anything else he owned than his
fiddle. - But here I am, clean out o' the furry agin. Oh, yes; I was
a-tellin' about little Bob, with that old hat; and he had on a
swaller-tail coat and a lot o' fixin's, a-actin' like he was 'squire;
and he had him a great long beard made out o' corn-silks, and you
wouldn't a-knowed him ef it wasn't far his voice. Well, he was
a-p'tendin' he was a 'squire a-tryin' some kind o' law-suit, you see;
and John Wesley he was the defendunt, and Joney Wiles, I believe it
was, played like he was the plaintive. And they'd had a fallin' out
'bout some land, and was a-lawin' far p'session, you understand. Well,
Bob he made out it was a mighty bad case when John-Wes comes to
consult him about it, and tells him ef a little p'int o' law was
left out he thought he could git the land far him. And then John-Wes
bribes him, you understand, to leave out the p'int o' law, and the
'squire says he'll do all he kin, and so John-Wes goes out a feelin'
purty good. Then Wiles comes in to consult the 'squire don't you
see. And the 'squire tells him the same tale he told John Wesley.
So Wiles bribes him to leave out the p'int o' law in his favor,
don't you know. So when the case is tried he decides in favor o'
John-Wes, a-tellin' Wiles some cock-and-bull story 'bout havin' to
manage it thataway so 's to git the case mixed so's he could git it
far him shore; and posts him to sue far change of venue er
somepin', - anyway, Wiles gits a new trial, and then the 'squire
decides in his favor, and tells John-Wes another trial will fix it
in his favor, and so on. - And so it goes on tel, anyway, he gits
holt o' the land hisse'f and all ther money besides, and leaves them
to hold the bag! Wellsir, it was purty well got up; and they said it
was John-Wes's doin's, and I 'low it was - he was a good hand at
anything o' that sort, and knowed how to make fun. - But I've be'n a
tellin' you purty much ever'thing but what I started out with, and
I'll try and hurry through, 'cause I know you're tired.

'Long 'bout the beginin' o' summer, things had got back to purty much
the old way. The boys round was a-gittin' devilish, and o' nights
'specially ther' was a sight o' meanness a-goin' on. The mill-hands,
most of'em, was mixed up in it - Coke and Morris, and them 'at had
jined meetin' 'long in the winter, had all backslid, and was
a-drinkin' and carousin' 'round worse 'n ever.

People perdicted 'at Bills would backslide, but he helt on faithful,
to all appearance; said he liked to see a feller when he made up his
mind to do right, he liked to see him do it, and not go back on his
word; and even went so far as to tell Ezry ef they didn't put a stop
to it he'd quit the neighberhood and go some'rs else. And Bills was
Ezry's head man then, and he couldn't a-got along 'thout him; and I
b'lieve ef Bills had a-said the word old Ezry would a-turned off ever'
hand he had. He got so he jist left ever'thing to Bills. Ben Carter
was turned off far somepin', and nobody ever knowed what. Bills and
him had never got along jist right sence the fight.

Ben was with this set I was a-tellin' you 'bout, and they'd got him to
drinkin' and in trouble, o' course. I'd knowed Ben well enough to know
he wouldn't do nothin' onry ef he wasn't agged on, and ef he ever was
mixed up in anything o' the kind Wes Morris and John Coke was at the
bottom of it, and I take notice they wasn't turned off when Ben was.

One night the crowd was out, and Ben amongst 'em, o' course. - Sence
he'd be'n turned off he'd be'n a-drinkin', - and I never blamed him
much; he was so good-hearted like and easy led off, and I allus
b'lieved it wasn't his own doin's.

Well, this night they cut up awful, and ef ther was one fight ther was
a dozend; and when all the devilment was done they could do, they
started on a stealin' expedition, and stold a lot o' chickens and tuck
'em to the mill to roast'em; and, to make a long story short, that
night the mill burnt clean to the ground. And the whole pack of 'em
cologued together aginst Carter to saddle it onto him; claimed 'at
they left Ben there at the mill 'bout twelve o'clock - which was a
fact, far he was dead drunk and couldn't git away. Steve stumbled over
him while the mill was a-burnin' and drug him out afore he knowed what
was a-goin' on, and it was all plain enough to Steve 'at Ben didn't
have no hand in the firm' of it. But I'll tell you he sobered up
mighty suddent when he seed what was a-goin' on, and heerd the
neighbors a-hollerin', and a-threatenin', and a-goin' on! - far it
seemed to be the ginerl idee 'at the buildin' was fired a-purpose. And
says Ben to Steve, says he, "I expect I'll have to say good-bye to
you, far they've got me in a ticklish place! I kin see through it all
now, when it's too late!" And jist then Wesley Morris hollers out,
"Where's Ben Carter?" and started to'rds where me and Ben and Steve
was a-standin'; and Ben says, wild like, "Don't you two fellers ever
think it was my doin's," and whispers "Good-bye," and started off, and
when we turned, Wesley Morris was a-layin' flat of his back, and we
heerd Carter yell to the crowd 'at "that man" - meanin' Morris - "
needed lookin' after worse than he did," and another minute he
plunged into the river and swum acrost; and we all stood and watched
him in the flickerin' light tel he clum out on t'other bank; and 'at
was last anybody ever seed o' Ben Carter!

It must a-be'n about three o'clock in the mornin' by this time, and
the mill then was jist a-smoulderin' to ashes - far it was as dry as
tinder and burnt like a flash - and jist as a party was a-talkin' o'
organizin' and follerin' Carter, we heerd a yell 'at I'll never fergit
ef I'd live tel another flood. Old Ezry, it was, as white as a corpse,
and with the blood a-streamin' out of a gash in his forehead, and his
clothes half on, come a-rushin' into the crowd and a-hollerin' fire
and murder ever' jump. "My house is a-burnin', and my folks is all
a-bein' murdered while you 're a-standin' here! And Bills done it!
Bills done it!" he hollered, as he headed the crowd and started back
far home. "Bills done it! I caught him at it; and he would a-murdered
me in cold blood ef it had n't a-be'n far his woman. He knocked me
down, and had me tied to a bed-post in the kitchen afore I come to.
And his woman cut me loose and told me to run far he'p; and says I,
'Where's Bills?' and she says, 'He's after me by this time.' And jist
then we heerd Bills holler, and we looked, and he was a-standin' out
in the clearin' in front o' the house, with little Annie in his arms;
and he hollered wouldn't she like to kiss the baby good-bye."

"And she hollered My God! far me to save little Annie, and fainted
clean dead away. And I heerd the roof a-crackin', and grabbed her up
and packed her out jist in time. And when I looked up, Bills hollered
out agin, and says, 'Ezry,' he says, 'You kin begin to kind a' git an
idee o' what a good feller I am! And ef you hadn't a-caught me you 'd
a-never a-knowed it, and 'Brother Williams' wouldn't a-be'n called
away to another app'intment like he is.' And says he, 'Now, ef you
foller me I'll finish you shore! - You're safe now, far I hain't got
time to waste on you furder.' And jist then his woman kind o' come to
her senses agin and hollered far little Annie, and the child heerd her
and helt out its little arms to go to her, and hollered 'Mother!
Mother!' And Bills says, Dam your mother! ef it hadn't a-be'n far
her I'd a-be'n all right. And dam you too!' he says to me, - 'This'll
pay you far that lick you struck me; and far you a-startin' reports
when I first come 'at more 'n likely I'd done somepin' mean over east
and come out west to reform! And I wonder ef I didn't do somepin'
mean afore I come here?' he went on; 'kill somebody er somepin'? And I
wonder ef I ain't reformed enough to go back? Good-bye, Annie!' he
hollered; 'and you needn't fret about your baby, I 'll be the same
indulgent father to it I 've allus be'n!' And the baby was a-cryin'
and a-reachin' out its little arms to'rds its mother, when Bills he
turned and struck oft' in the dark to'rds the river."

This was about the tale 'at Ezry told us, as nigh as I can ricollect,
and by the time he finished, I never want to see jist sich another
crowd o' men as was a-swarmin' there. Ain't it awful when sich a crowd
gits together? I tell you it makes my flesh creep to think about it!

As Bills had gone in the direction of the river, we wasn't long in
makin' our minds up 'at he'd have to cross it, and ef he done that
he'd have to use the boat 'at was down below the mill, er wade it at
the ford, a mild er more down. So we divided in three sections,
like - one to go and look after the folks at the house, and another to
the boat, and another to the ford. And Steve and me and Ezry was in
the crowd 'at struck far the boat, and we made time a-gittin' there!
It was awful dark, and the sky was a-cloudin'up like a storm; but we
wasn't long a-gittin' to the p'int where the boat was allus tied; but
ther' wasn't no boat there! Steve kind o' tuck the lead, and we all
talked in whispers. And Steve said to kind o' lay low and maybe we
could hear somepin', and some feller said he thought he heerd somepin'
strange like, but the wind was kind o' raisin' and kep' up sich a
moanin' through the trees along the bank 't we couldn't make out
nothin'. "Listen!" says Steve, suddent like, "I hear somepin!" We was
all still again - and we all heerd a moanin' 'at was sadder 'n the
wind - sounded mournfuller to me 'cause I knowed it in a minute, and I
whispered, "Little Annie." And 'way out acrost the river we could hear
the little thing a-sobbin', and we all was still 's death; and we
heerd a voice we knowd was Bills's say, "Dam ye! Keep still, or I'll
drownd ye!" And the wind kind o' moaned agin and we could hear the
trees a-screechin' together in the dark, and the leaves a-rustlin';
and when it kind o' lulled agin, we heerd Bills make a kind o' splash
with the oars; and jist then Steve whispered far to lay low and be
ready - he was a-goin' to riconnitre; and he tuck his coat and shoes
off, and slid over the bank and down into the worter as slick as a'
eel. Then ever'thing was still agin, 'cept the moanin' o' the child,
which kep' a-gittin' louder and louder; and then a voice whispered to
us, "He's a-comin' back; the crowd below has sent scouts up, and
they're on t' other side. Now watch clos't, and he's our meat." We
could hear Bills, by the moanin' o' the baby, a-comin' nearder and
nearder, tel suddently he made a sort o' miss-lick with the oar, I
reckon, and must a splashed the baby, far she set up a loud cryin; and
jist then old Ezry, who was a-leanin' over the bank, kind o' lost his
grip some way o' nuther, and fell kersplash in the worter like a' old
chunk. "Hello!" says Bills, through the dark, "you're there, too, air
ye?" as old Ezry splashed up the bank agin. And "Cuss you!" he says
then, to the baby - "ef it hadn't be'n far your infernal squawkin' I'd
a-be'n all right; but you've brought the whole neighberhood out, and,
dam you, I'll jist let you swim out to 'em!" And we heerd a splash,
then a kind o' gurglin', and then Steve's voice a-hollerin', "Close in
on him, boys; I've got the baby!" And about a dozend of us bobbed off
the bank like so many bull-frogs, and I'll tell you the worter b'iled!
We could jist make out the shape o' the boat, and Bills a-standin'
with a' oar drawed back to smash the first head 'at come in range. It
was a mean place to git at him. We knowed he was despert, and far a
minute we kind o' helt back. Fifteen foot o' worter 's a mighty
onhandy place to git hit over the head in! And Bills says, "You hain't
afeard, I reckon - twenty men agin one!" "You'd better give your se'f
up!" hollered Ezry from the shore. "No, Brother Sturgiss," says Bills,
"I can't say 'at I'm at all anxious 'bout bein' borned agin, jist yit
awhile," he says; "I see you kind o' 'pear to go in far babtism; guess
you'd better go home and git some dry clothes on; and, speakin' o'
home, you'd ort 'o be there by all means - your house might catch afire
and burn up while you're gone!" And jist then the boat give a suddent
shove under him - some feller'd div under and tilted it - and far a
minute it throwed him off his guard and the boys closed in. Still he
had the advantage, bein' in the boat, and as fast as a feller would
climb in he'd git a whack o' the oar, tel finally they got to pilin'
in a little too fast far him to manage, and he hollered then 'at we'd
have to come to the bottom ef we got him, and with that he div out o'
the end o' the boat, and we lost sight of him; and I'll be blame ef he
didn't give us the slip after all.

Wellsir, we watched far him, and some o' the boys swum on down stream,
expectin' he'd raise, but couldn't find hide ner hair of him; so we
left the boat a-driftin' off down stream and swum ashore, a-thinkin'
he'd jist drownded hisse'f a-purpose. But ther' was more su'prise
waitin' far us yit, - for lo-and-behold-you, when we got ashore ther'
wasn't no trace o' Steve er the baby to be found. Ezry said he seed
Steve when he fetched little Annie ashore, and she was all right on'y
she was purt nigh past cryin'; and he said Steve had lapped his coat
around her and give her to him to take charge of, and he got so
excited over the fight he laid her down betwixt a couple o' logs and
kind o' forget about her tel the thing was over, and he went to look
far her, and she was gone. Couldn't a-be'n 'at she'd a-wundered off
her-own-se'f; and it couldn't a-be'n 'at Steve'd take her, 'thout
a-lettin us know it. It was a mighty aggervatin' conclusion to come
to, but we had to do it, and that was, Bills must a got ashore
unbeknownst to us and packed her off. Sich a thing wasn't hardly
probable, yit it was a thing 'at might be; and after a-talkin' it over
we had to admit 'at it must a-be'n the way of it. But where was Steve?
W'y, we argied, he'd discivvered she was gone, and had put out on
track of her 'thout losin' time to stop and explain the thing. The
next question was, what did Bills want with her agin? He'd tried to
drownd her onc't. We could ast questions enough, but c'rect answers
was mighty skearce, and we jist concluded 'at the best thing to do was
to put out far the ford, far that was the nighdest place Bills could
cross 'thout a boat, and ef it was him tuck the child he was still on
our side o' the river, o' course. So we struck out far the ford,
a-leav-in' a couple o' men to search up the river. A drizzlin' sort o'
rain had set in by this time, and with that and the darkness and the
moanin' of the wind, it made 'bout as lonesome a prospect as a feller
ever wants to go through agin.

It was jist a-gittin' a little gray-like in the mornin' by the time we
reached the ford, but you couldn't hardly see two rods afore you far
the mist and the fog 'at had settled along the river. We looked far
tracks, but couldn't make out nuthin'. Thereckly old Ezry punched me
and p'inted out acrost the river. "What's that?" he whispers. Jist
'bout half way acrost was somepin' white-like in the worter - couldn't
make out what - perfeckly still it was. And I whispered back and told
him I guess it wasn't nothin' but a sycamore snag. "Listen!" says he;
"Sycamore snags don't make no noise like that!" And, shore enough, it
was the same moanin' noise we'd heerd the baby makin' when we first
got on the track. Sobbin' she was, as though nigh about dead. "Well,
ef that's Bills," says I - "and I reckon ther' hain't no doubt but it
is - what in the name o' all that's good and bad's the feller
a-standin' there far?" And a-creep-in' clos'ter, we could make him out
plainer and plainer. It was him; and there he stood breast-high in the
worter, a-holdin' the baby on his shoulder like, and a lookin' up
stream, and a-waitin'.

"What do you make out of it?" says Ezry. "What's he waitin' far?"

And a strainin' my eyes in the direction he was a-lookin' I seed
somepin' a-movin' down the river, and a minute later I'd made out the
old boat a-driftin' down stream; and then of course ever'thing was
plain enough: He was waitin' far the boat, and ef he got that he'd
have the same advantage on us he had afore.

"Boys," says I, "he mustn't git that boat agin! Foller me, and don't
let him git to the shore alive." And in we plunged. He seed us, but he
never budged, on'y to grab the baby by its little legs, and swing it
out at arms-len'th. "Stop, there," he hollered. "Stop jist where you
air! Move another inch and I'll drownd this dam young-un afore your
eyes!" he s

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