Already, in the third decade of the nineteenth century, the settlers in the valley of Leatherwood Creek had opened the primeval forest to their fields of corn and tobacco on the fertile slopes and rich bottom-lands. The stream had its name from the bush growing on its banks, which with its tough and pliable bark served many uses of leather among the pioneers; they made parts of their harness with it, and the thongs which lifted their door-latches, or tied their shoes, or held their working clothes together. The name passed to the settlement, and then it passed to the man, who came and went there in mystery and obloquy, and remained lastingly famed in the annals of the region as the Leatherwood God.
At the time he appeared the community had become a center of influence, spiritual as well as material, after a manner unknown to later conditions. It was still housed, for the most part, in the log cabins which the farmers built when they ceased to be pioneers, but in the older clearings, and along the creek a good many frame dwellings stood, and even some of brick. The population, woven of the varied strains from the North, East and South which have mixed to form the Mid-Western people, enjoyed an ease of circumstance not so great as to tempt their thoughts from the other world and fix them on this. In their remoteness from the political centers of the young republic, they seldom spoke of the civic questions stirring the towns of the East; the commercial and industrial problems which vex modern society were unknown to them. Religion was their chief interest and the seriousness which they had inherited from their Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Moravian ancestry was expressed in their orderly and diligent lives; but the general prosperity had so far relaxed the stringency of their several creeds that their distinctive public rite had come to express a mutual toleration. The different sects had their different services; their ceremonies of public baptism, their revivals, their camp-meetings; but they gathered as one Christian people under the roof of the log-built edifice, thrice the size of their largest dwelling, which they called the Temple.
A storm of the afternoon before had cleared the mid-August air. The early sun was hot, but the wind had carried away the sultry mists, and infused fresh life into the day. Where Matthew Braile sat smoking his corncob pipe in the covered porchway between the rooms of his double-log cabin he insensibly shared the common exhilaration, and waited comfortably for the breakfast of bacon and coffee which his wife was getting within. As he smoked on he inhaled with the odors from her cooking the dense rich smell of the ripening corn that stirred in the morning breeze on three sides of the cabin, and the fumes of the yellow tobacco which he had grown, and cured, and was now burning. His serenity was a somewhat hawklike repose, but the light that came into his narrowed eyes was of rather amused liking, as a man on a claybank horse rode up before the cabin in the space where alone it was not hidden by the ranks of the tall corn. The man sat astride a sack with a grist of corn in one end balanced by a large stone in the other, and he made as if he were going on to the mill without stopping; but he yielded apparently to a temptation from within, since none had come from without. "Whoa!" he shouted at the claybank, which the slightest whisper would have stayed; and then he called to the old man on the porch, "Fine mornun', Squire!"
Braile took out his pipe, and spat over the edge of the porch, before he called back, "Won't you light and have some breakfast?"
"Well, no, thank you, Squire," the man said, and at the same time he roused the claybank from an instant repose, and pushed her to the cabin steps. "I'm just on my way down to Brother Hingston's mill, and I reckon Sally don't want me to have any breakfast till I bring back the meal for her to git it with; anyway that's what she said when I left." Braile answered nothing, and the rider of the claybank added, with a certain uneasiness as if for the effect of what he was going to say, "I was up putty late last night, and I reckon I overslep'," he parleyed. Then, as Braile remained silent, he went on briskly, "I was wonderin' if you hearn about the curious doun's last night at the camp-meetun'."
Braile, said, without ceasing to smoke, "You're the first one I've seen this morning, except my wife. She wasn't at the camp-meeting." His aquiline profile, which met close at the lips from the loss of his teeth, compressed itself further in leaving the whole burden of the affair to the man on the claybank, and his narrowed eyes were a line of mocking under the thick gray brows that stuck out like feathers above them.
"Well, sir, it was great doun's," the other said, wincing a little under the old man's indifference. Braile relented so far as to ask, "Who was at the bellows?"
The other answered with a certain inward deprecation of the grin that spread over his face, and the responsive levity of his phrase, "There was a change of hands, but the one that kep' the fire goun' the hardes' and the hottes' was Elder Grove."
Braile made "Hoonck!" in the scornful guttural which no English spelling can represent.
"Yes, sir," the man on the claybank went on, carried forward by his own interest, but helpless to deny himself the guilty pleasure of falling in with Braile's humor, "he had 'em goun' lively, about midnight, now I tell you: whoopun' and yellun', and rippun' and stavun', and fallun' down with the jerks, and pullun' and haulun' at the sinners, to git 'em up to the mourners' bench, and hurrahun' over 'em, as fast as they was knocked down and drug out. I never seen the beat of it in all my born days."
"You don't make out anything very strange, Abel Reverdy," Braile said, putting his pipe back into his mouth and beginning to smoke it again into a lost activity.
"Well, I hain't come to it yit," Reverdy apologized. "I reckon there never was a bigger meetun' in Leatherwood Bottom, anywhere. Folks there from twenty mile round, just slathers; I reckon there was a thousand if there was one."
"Hoonch!" Braile would not trouble to take out his pipe in making the sound now; the smoke got into his lungs, and he coughed.
Reverdy gained courage to go on, but he went on in the same strain, whether in spite of himself or not. "There was as many as four exhorters keepun' her up at once to diff'rent tunes, and prayun' and singun' everywhere, so you couldn't hear yourself think. Every exhorter had a mourners' bench in front of him, and I counted as many as eighty mourners on 'em at one time. The most of 'em was settun' under Elder Grove, and he was poundun' the kingdom into 'em good and strong. When the Spirit took him he roared so that he had the Hounds just flaxed out; you couldn't ketch a yelp from 'em."
"Many Hounds?" Braile asked, in a sort of cold sympathy with the riotous outlaws known to the religious by that name.
"Mought been 'fore I got there. But by that time I reckon they was most of 'em on the mourners' benches. They ought to tar and feather some of them fellers, or ride 'em on a rail anyway, comun' round, and makun' trouble on the edge of camp-meetun's. I didn't hear but one toot from their horns, last night, and either because the elder had shamed 'em back into the shadder of the woods, or brought 'em forwards into the light, there wasn't a Hound, not to call a Hound, anywheres. I tell you it was a sight, Squire; you ought to 'a' been there yourself." Reverdy grinned at his notion. "They had eight camp-fires goun' instead o' four, on top of the highest stageun's yit, so the whole place was lit up as bright as day; and when the elder stopped short and sudden, and the other exhorters held back their tommyhawks, and all the saints and sinners left off their groanun' and jerkun' to see what was comun', now it was a great sight, I tell you, Squire. The elder he put up his hand and says he, 'Let us pray!' and the blaze from all them stageun's seemed to turn itself right onto him, and the smoke and the leaves hung like a big red cloud over him, and everybody had their eyes fastened tight on his face, like they couldn't turn 'em anywhere else if they tried. But he didn't begin prayun' straight off. He seemed to stop, and then says he, 'What shall we pray for?' and just then there came a kind of a snort, and a big voice shouted out, 'Salvation!' and then there come another snort, —'Hooff!'—like there was a scared horse got loose right in there among the people; and some of 'em jumped up from their seats, and tumbled over the benches, and some of 'em bounced off, and fell into fits, and the women screeched and fainted, thick as flies. It give me about the worst feelun' I ever had in my life: went through me like a ax, and others said the same; some of 'em said it was like beun' scared in the dark, or more like when you think you're just goun' to die."
Abel Reverdy stopped for the effect on Braile, who had been smoking tranquilly throughout, and who now asked quietly, "And what was it?"
"What was it? A man! A stranger that nobody seen before, and nobody suspicioned was there till they hearn him give that kind of snort, and they seen him standun' right in front of the mourners' bench under Elder Grove's pulpit. He was in his bare head, and he had a suit of long, glossy, jet-black hair hengun down back of his ears clean to his shoulders. He was kind of pale like, and sad-lookun', and he had a Roman nose some like yourn, and eyes like two coals, just black fire, kind of. He was putty thickset, round the shoulders, but he slimmed down towards his legs, and he stood about six feet high. But the thing of it," Reverdy urged, seeing that Braile remained outwardly unmoved, "was the way he was dressed. I s'pose the rest beun' all in brown jeans, and linsey woolsey, made us notice it more. He was dressed in the slickest kind of black broadcloth, with a long frock-coat, and a white cravat. He had on a ruffled shirt, and a tall beaver hat, the color of the fur, and a pair of these here high boots, with his breeches strapped down under 'em."
Braile limbered himself from his splint-bottom chair, and came forward to the edge of the porch, as if to be sure of spitting quite under the claybank's body. Not until he had folded himself down into his seat again and tilted it back did he ask, "Goin' to order a suit?"
"Oh, well!" said Reverdy, with a mingling of disappointed hope, hurt vanity, and involuntary pleasure.
If he had been deeply moved by the incident which he had tried to make Braile see with his own sense of its impressiveness, it could not have been wholly with the hope of impressing Braile that he had stopped to tell it. His notion might have been that Braile would ridicule it, and so help him throw off the lingering hold which it had upon him. His pain and his pleasure both came from Braile's leaving the incident alone and turning the ridicule upon him. That was cruel, and yet funny, Reverdy had inwardly to own, as it touched the remoteness from a full suit of black broadcloth represented by his hickory shirt and his butternut trousers held up by a single suspender passing over his shoulder and fastened before and behind with wooden pegs. His straw hat, which he had braided himself, and his wife had sewed into shape the summer before, was ragged round the brim, and a tuft of his yellow hair escaped through a break in the crown. It was as far from a tall hat of fur-colored beaver as his bare feet were from a pair of high boots such as the stranger at the camp-meeting had worn, though his ankles were richly shaded in three colors from the road, the field, and the barnyard. He liked the joke so well that the hurt of it could hardly keep him from laughing as he thumped his mare's ribs with his naked heels and bade her get up.
She fetched a deep sigh, but she did not move.
"Better light," Braile said; "you wouldn't get that corn ground in time for breakfast, now."
"I reckon," Reverdy said aloud, but to himself, rather than Braile, and with his mind on his wife in the log cabin where he had left her in high rebellion which she promised him nothing but a bag of cornmeal could reduce, "she don't need to wait for me, exactly. She could grate herself some o' the new corn, and she's got some bacon, anyway."
"Better light," Braile said again.
The sound of frying which had risen above their voices within had ceased, and after a few quick movements of feet over the puncheon floor, with some clicking of knives and dishes, the feet came to the door opening on the porch and a handsome elderly woman looked out.
She was neatly dressed in a home-woven linsey-woolsey gown, with a blue check apron reaching to its hem in front, and a white cloth passed round her neck and crossed over her breast; she had a cap on her iron gray hair.
Braile did not visibly note her presence in saying, "The woman will want to hear about it."
"Hear about what?" his wife asked, and then she said to Reverdy, "Good morning, Abel. Won't you light and have breakfast with us? It's just ready. I reckon Sally will excuse you."
"Well, she will if you say so, Mrs. Braile." Reverdy made one action of throwing his leg over the claybank's back to the ground, and slipping the bridle over the smooth peg left from the limb of the young tree-trunk which formed one of the posts of the porch. "My!" he said, as he followed his hostess indoors, "you do have things nice. I never come here without wantun' to have my old shanty whitewashed inside like yourn is, and the logs plastered outside; the mud and moss of that chinkun' and daubun' keeps fallun' out, and lettun' all the kinds of weather there is in on us, and Sally she's at me about it, too; she's wuss'n I am, if anything. I reckon if she had her say we'd have a two-room cabin, too, and a loft over both parts, like you have, Mis' Braile, or a frame house, even. But I don't believe anybody but you could keep this floor so clean. Them knots in the puncheons just shine! And that chimbly-piece with that plaster of Paris Samuel prayin' in it; well, if Sally's as't me for a Samuel once I reckon she has a hundred times; and that clock! It's a pictur'." He looked about the interior as he took the seat offered him at the table, and praised the details of the furnishing with a reference to the effect of each at home. In this he satisfied that obscure fealty of the husband who feels that such a connection of the absent wife with some actual experience of his is equivalent to their joint presence. It was not so much to praise Mrs. Braile's belongings to her as to propitiate the idea of Mrs. Reverdy that he continued his flatteries. In the meantime Braile, who came in behind him, stood easing himself from one foot to the other, with an ironical eye slanted at Reverdy from under his shaggy brows; he dropped his head now, and began walking up and down the room while he listened in a sort of sarcastic patience.
"Ain't you goin' to have anything to eat, Mr. Braile?" his wife demanded, with plaintive severity.
Braile pulled at his cob-pipe which muttered responsively, "Not so long as I've got anything to smoke. Gets up," he explained to Reverdy, "and jerks it out of my mouth, when we haven't got company."
"I reckon Abel knows how much to believe of that," Mrs. Braile commented, and Reverdy gave the pleased chuckle of a social inferior raised above his level by amiable condescension. But as if he thought it safest to refuse any share in this intimacy, he ended his adulations with the opinion, "I should say that if these here two rooms was th'owed together they'd make half as much as the Temple."
Braile stopped in his walk and bent his frown on Reverdy, but not in anger. "This is the Temple: Temple of Justice—Justice of the Peace. Do you people think there's only one kind of temple in Leatherwood?"
Reverdy gave his chuckle again. "Well, Squire, I ought to know, anyway, all the log-rollin' I done for you last 'lection time. I didn't hardly believe you'd git in, because they said you was a infidel."
"Well, you couldn't deny it, could you?" Braile asked, with increasing friendliness in his frown.
"No, I couldn't deny it, Squire. But the way I told 'em to look at it was, Mis' Braile was Christian enough for the whole family. Said you knowed more law and she knowed more gospel than all the rest of Leatherwood put together."
"And that was what elected the family, was it?" Braile asked. "Well, I hope Mrs. Braile won't refuse to serve," he said, and he began his walk again. "Tell her about that horse that broke into the meetin' last night, and tried to play man."
Reverdy laughed, shaking his head over his plate of bacon and reaching for the corn-pone which Mrs. Braile passed him. "You do beat all, Squire, the way you take the shine off of religious experience. Why," he addressed himself to Mrs. Braile, "it wasn't much, as fur as anybody could make out. It was just the queerness of the whole thing." Reverdy went over the facts again, beginning with deprecation for the Squire but gathering respect for them in the interest they seemed to have for Mrs. Braile.
She listened silently, and then she asked, "And what became of him?"
"Well, that's where you got me, Mrs. Braile. Don't anybody know what become of him. Just kind of went out like a fire, when the Power was workun' the hardest, and wasn't there next time you looked where he been. Kind o' th'owed cold water on the meetun' and folks begun goun' home, and breakun' up and turnun' in; well it was pretty nigh sun-up, anyway, by that time. I don't know! Made me feel all-overish. Seemed like I'd been dreamun' and that man was a Vision." Reverdy had lifted an enraptured face, but at sight of Braile pausing in sarcastic pleasure, he dropped his head with a snicker. "I know the Squire'll laugh. But that's the way it was."
"He'll laugh the other side of his mouth, some day, if he keeps on," Mrs. Braile said with apparent reproof and latent pride. "Was Sally at the meetin' with you?"
"Well, no, she wasn't," Reverdy began, and Braile asked:
"And did you wake her up and tell her about it?"
"Well, no, I didn't, Squire, that's a fact. She woke me up. I just crep' in quiet and felt out the soft side of a puncheon for a nap, and the firs' thing I know was Sally havin' me by the shoulder, and wantun' to know about gittun' that corn groun' for breakfas'. My! I don't know what she'll say, when I do git back." Reverdy laughed a fearful pleasure, but his gaiety was clouded by a shadow projected from the cabin door.
"Well, I mought 'a' knowed it!" a voice at once fond and threatening called to Reverdy's quailing figure. The owner of the voice was a young woman unkempt as to the pale hair which escaped from the knot at her neck, and stuck out there and dangled about her face in spite of the attempts made to gather it under the control of the high horn comb holding its main strands together. The lankness of her long figure showed in the calico wrapper which seemed her sole garment; and her large features were respectively lank in their way, nose and chin and high cheek bones; her eyes wabbled in their sockets with the sort of inquiring laughter that spread her wide, loose mouth. She was barefooted, like Reverdy, on whom her eyes rested with a sort of burlesque menace, so that she could not turn them to Mrs. Braile in the attention which manners required of her, even when she added, "I just 'spicioned that he'd 'a' turned in here, soon's I smelt your breakfas', Mrs. Braile; and the dear knows whether I blame him so much, nuther."
"Then you'd better draw up too, Sally," Mrs. Braile said, without troubling herself to rise from her own chair in glancing toward another for Mrs. Reverdy.
"Oh, no, I couldn't, Mrs. Braile. I on'y just meant how nice it smelt. I got me somepin at home before I left, and I ain't a bit hungry."
"Well, then, you eat breakfast for me; I'm hungry," the Squire said. "Sit down! You couldn't get Abel away now, not if you went on an hour. Don't separate families!"
"Well, just as you say, Squire," Mrs. Reverdy snickered, and she submitted to pull up the chair which Mrs. Braile's glance had suggested. "It beats all what a excitement there is in this town about the goun's on at the camp-meetun', last night. If I've heard it from one I've heard it from a dozen. I s'pose Abel's tol' you?"—she addressed herself impartially to Mrs. Braile across the table and to the Squire tilted against the wall in his chair, smoking behind his wife.
"Not a word," the Squire said, and his wife did not trouble herself to protest; Reverdy opened his mouth in a soundless laugh at the Squire's humor, and then filled it with bacon and corn-pone, and ducked his head in silence over his plate. "What goings on?"
"Why, that man that came in while Elder Grove was snatchun' the brands from the burnun', and snorted like a horse—But I know Abel's tol' you! It's just like one of your jokes, Squire Braile; ain't it, Mrs. Braile?" Sally referred herself to one and the other.
"You won't get either of us to say, Sally," Mrs. Braile let the Squire answer for both. "You'd better go on. I couldn't hear too often about a man that snorted like a horse, if Abel did tell. What did the horses hitched back of the tents think about it? Any of 'em try to shout like a man?"
"Well, you may laugh, Squire Braile," Sally said with a toss of her head for the dignity she failed of. She slumped forward with a laugh, and when she lifted her head she said through the victual that filled her mouth, "I dunno what the horses thought, but the folks believe it was a apostle, or somepin."
"Who said so? Abel?" "Oh, pshaw! D'you suppose I b'lieve anythin' Abel Reverdy says?" and this gave Reverdy a joy which she shared with him; he tried to impart it to Mrs. Braile, impassively pouring him a third cup of coffee. "I jes' met Mis' Leonard comun' up the crossroad, and she tol' me she saw our claybank hitched here, and I s'picioned Abel was'nt fur off, and that's why I stopped."
The husband and wife looked across the table in feigned fear and threat that gave them pleasure beyond speech.
"She didn't say it was your claybank that snorted?" the Squire gravely inquired.
"Squire Braile, you surely will kill me," and the husband joined the wife in a shout of laughter. "Now I can't hardly git back to what she did say. But, I can tell you, it wasn't nawthun' to laugh at. Plenty of 'em keeled over where they sot, and a lot bounced up and down like it was a earthquake and pretty near all the women screamed. But he stood there, straight as a ramrod, and never moved a eye-winker. She said his face was somepin awful: just as solemn and still! He never spoke after that one word 'Salvation,' but every once in a while he snorted. Nobody seen him come in, or ever seen him before till he first snorted, and then they didn't see anybody else. The preacher, he preached along, and tried to act like as if nowthun' had happened, but it was no use; nobody didn't hardly pay no attention to him 'ceptun' the stranger himself; he never took his eyes off Elder Grove; some thought he was tryun' to charm him, like a snake does a bird; but it didn't faze the elder."
"Elder too old a bird?" the Squire suggested.
"Yes, I reckon he mought been," Sally innocently assented.
"And when he gave the benediction, the snorter disappeared in a flash, with a strong smell of brimstone, I suppose?"
"Why, that was the thing of it, Squire. He just stayed, and shuck hands with everybody, pleasant as a basket of chips; and he went home with David Gillespie. He was just as polite to the poorest person there, but it was the big bugs that tuck the most to him."
"Well," the Squire summed up, "I don't see but what your reports agree, and I reckon there must be some truth in 'em. Who's that up there at the pike-crossing?" He did not trouble himself to do more than frown heavily in the attempt to make out the passer. Mrs. Reverdy jumped from her chair and ran out to look.
"Well, as sure as I'm alive, if it ain't that Gillespie girl! I bet she'll know all about it. I'll just ketch up with her and git the news out of her, if there is any. Say, say, Jane!" she called to the girl, as she ran up the road with the cow-like gait which her swirling skirt gave her. The girl stopped for her; then in apparent haste she moved on again, and Sally moved with her out of sight; her voice still made itself heard in uncouth cries and laughter.
Braile called into the kitchen where Reverdy had remained in the enjoyment of Mrs. Braile's patient hospitality, "Here's your chance, Abel!"
"Chance?" Reverdy questioned back with a full mouth.
"To get that corn of yours ground, and beat Sally home."
"Well, Squire," Reverdy said, "I reckon you're right." He came out into the open space where Braile sat. "Well, I won't fergit this breakfast very soon," he offered his gratitude to Mrs. Braile over his shoulder, as he passed through the door.
"You're welcome, Abel," she answered kindly, and when he had made his manners to the impassive Squire and mounted his claybank and thumped the horse into motion with his naked heels, she came out into the porch and said to her husband, "I don't know as I liked your hinting him out of the house that way."
Braile did not take the point up, but remained thoughtfully smiling in the direction his guest had taken. "The idea is that most people marry their opposites," he remarked, "and that gives the children the advantage of inheriting their folly from two kinds of fools. But Abel and Sally are a perfect pair, mental and moral twins; the only thing they don't agree in is their account of what became of that snorting exhorter. But the difference there isn't important. If an all-wise Providence has kept them from transmitting a double dose of the same brand of folly to posterity, that's one thing in favor of Providence." He took up his wife's point now. "If I hadn't hinted him away, he'd have stayed to dinner; you wouldn't have hinted him away if he'd stayed to supper."
"Well, are you going to have some breakfast?" his wife asked. "I'll get you some fresh coffee."
"Well, I would like a little—with the head on—Martha, that's a fact. Have I got time for another pipe?"
"No, I don't reckon you have," his wife said, and she passed into the kitchen again, where she continued to make such short replies as Braile's discourse required of her.
He knocked his pipe out on the edge of his still uptilted chair, as he talked. "One fool like Abel I can stand, and I was just going to come in when Sally came in sight; and then I knew that two fools like Abel would make me sick. So I waited till the Creator of heaven and earth could get a minute off and help me out. But He seemed pretty busy with the solar system this morning, and I had about given up when He sent that Gillespie girl in sight. I knew that would fetch Sally; but it was an inspiration of my own to suggest Abel's chance to him; I don't want to put that on your Maker, Martha."
"It was your inspiration to get him to stay in the first place," Mrs.
Braile said within.
"No, Martha; that was my unfailing obedience to the sacred laws of hospitality; I didn't expect to fall under their condemnation a second time, though." Mrs. Braile did not answer, and by the familiar scent from within, Braile knew that his coffee must be nearly ready. As he dropped his chair forward, he heard a sound of frying, and "Pshaw, Martha!" he called. "You're not getting me some fresh bacon?"
"Did you suppose there'd be some left?" she demanded, while she stepped to and fro at her labors. Her steps ceased and she called, "Well, come in now, Matthew, if you don't want _every_thing to get cold, like the pone is."
Braile obeyed, saying, "Oh, I can stand cold pone," and at sight of the table with the coffee and bacon renewed upon it, he mocked tenderly, "Now just to reward you, Martha, I've got half a mind to go with you to the next meeting in the Temple."
"I don't know as I'm goin' myself," she said, pouring the coffee.
"I wish you would, just to please me," he teased.