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Chapter 15

In the middle of the forest there was a dense thicket of lower growths on a piece of dry land lifted above the waters of a swamp. The place was the lair of such small wild things as still survived in the wilderness once the haunt of the wolf and the wild cat, and the resort of the bear allured by the profusion of the huckleberries which grew there. But, except in the early fall when the annual squirrel-hunt swept over the whole country side and the summer drought had made the swamp easily passable to the gunners, the place was unmolested. Even the country boy who seeks the bounty of nature wherever she offers it, and makes the outlying property of man his prey where nature has been dispossessed, did not penetrate the thicket in his search for hazelnuts or chinquapins; it was proofed against his venture by its repute of rattlesnakes and copperheads and the rumor of ghosts and witches. Few, of men or boys, knew the approach to the interior by the narrow ridge of dry land lifted above the marsh, and Dylks did not stop in his flight till he reached the thicket and saw in it his hope of securer refuge. He walked round it through the pools which the frog and turtle haunted, twice before he found this path, overhung by a tangle of grapevines. There his foot by the instinct which the foot has where the eye fails of a path, divined the scarcely trodden way, and he found himself in a central opening among the thickly growing bushes. It was warm there, without the close heat of the woodland, and dry except for the spring of clear water that bubbled up in the heart of it, and trickled out over green mosses into the outer waters of the swamp.

The man stooped over and drank his fill, and then made his greedy breakfast on the berries that grew abundantly round, and nodded hospitably to his hand. All the time he wept, and moaned to himself in the self-pity of a hunted, fearful wretch. Then he drank again from the spring, and without rising from his knees pushed himself back a little from it, and fell over in an instant sleep.

He slept through the whole day, and at night, falling early in the shadows of the forest which thickened over his retreat, he supped, as he had breakfasted, on the wild berries and spring water, but with protesting from a stomach habitually flattered by the luxury of fried chicken and ham, and corn-pone and shortened biscuit, and hot coffee, which his adorers put before him when he laid aside his divinity and descended to the gratification of his carnal greed. He was a gross feeder, and in the midst of his fear and the joy of his escape, he thought of these things and lusted for them with a sort of thankless resentment.

He looked about for something he might kill, and he found a wounded pigeon which had fluttered into his refuge from the shot of some gunner. But he could not bring himself to eat it raw, and if he could have kindled a fire to cook it, he reflected, it would have betrayed him to his pursuers who must now be searching the woods for him. He wrung the pigeon's neck and flung it into the bushes, and then fell down and wept with his face in the grass. He had slept so long that now he could not sleep, and when his tears would come no more, he sat up and watched the night through till the dawn grayed the blue-black sky. The noises of the noiseless woods made themselves heard: the cry of a night hawk, the hooting of an owl, the whirring note of the whip-poor-will; the long, plunging down-rush of a dead branch breaking the boughs below it; even the snapping of twigs as if under the pressure of stealthy feet. These sounds, the most delicate of the sounds he heard, shook him most with fear and hope, and then with despair. The feet could be the feet of his enemies seeking him out, or of his friends coming to succor and save him; then they resolved themselves into the light pressure from little paws, the paws of the wildcat, or the coon, and there was nothing to be feared or hoped from them. The constellations wheeled over him in the clear sky, and the planets blazed. He made out the North Star from the lower lines of the Dipper; the glowing and fading of the August meteors that flitted across the heavens seemed to leave a black trace on his straining eyes. Texts of Scripture declaring how the splendors of the day and night showed forth the glory of the Being whose name he had usurped to the deceit and shame of those who trusted him, glowed and faded in his mind like those shooting stars in the sky. At one time he thought he had cried aloud for destruction in the sin which could not be forgiven, but it was only a dull, inarticulate moan bursting from his tortured breast.

The place where the hair had been torn from his head burned like fire; it burned like the wound of a man whom he had once heard tell how it felt to be scalped by an Indian; the man had recovered, but the wound had always hurt; and Dylks pitied himself that it should be so with him, and cursed himself for his unguarded boast that any one who touched a hair of his head should perish. He promised that if God would show him a little mercy, and send a raven with something for him to eat, something warm, or send him a cup of coffee, somehow, or even a raw egg, he would go forth before the people; he would get up in the Temple amidst his believers and declare himself a false prophet and a false god. He would not care what they did to him if only he had something cooked to eat, something hot to drink.

Towards morning he slept, and then for days and nights, how many he did not know, it seemed to him that he did not wake but dreamed through a changing time when he was dimly aware of contending voices: voices of his believers, the Little Flock, and voices of his unbelievers, the Herd of the Lost, pleading and threatening in the forest round his place of refuge. His followers were trying to bring him food and raiment, and his enemies were preventing them and boasting that they would keep guard over his refuge till they starved him out. Then all again was a blur, a texture of conscious and unconscious misery till a night came when the woof broke and trailed away from him, and he lifted himself on his elbow and after he had drunk a long draft from the spring, found tremulous strength to get to his feet. He tried some steps in the open space, where the light of the full moon fell, and found that he could walk. He reached the tangled entrance to his covert, and stealthily put the vines aside. He peered out into the shadows striped with moonshine and could see no one, and he was going to venture farther, when he stopped stone still at the figure of a man crouched in the middle of the causeway. The man's head was fallen forward and his gun lay across his lap; he must be one of the guards that his enemies had set on his refuge to keep him there and starve him out; and he must be asleep. Dylks stooped and peered into his face and knew the man for one of the Hounds who had often disturbed his meetings, and now he looked about in the rage that surged up through his penitence and self-pity for a stone or a club to strike him senseless, or dead if need be. But there was no such weapon that he could see, and the risk of a struggle was greater than the risk of trying to pass the man without waking him. After long doubt he tried with one foot and then another and the man did not wake; then he crept slowly by, and then with softly dragging steps he got farther from the sleeper and pushed on through the woods in the direction of the turnpike, as he imagined it. But he came out in a clearing where a new log cabin showed clear in the open under the moon.

In the single room of the house a woman lay sleeping with a little child in its cradle beside her bed. She rose up and put out her hand instinctively to still the child, but it was sleeping quietly, and then she started up awake, and listened for the voice which she had dreamt was calling her. There was no voice, and then there was a voice calling hoarsely, weakly, "Nancy! Nancy!"

In her dream she had thought it was the voice of her husband stealing back to her in the night, and it was in the terror of her dream that she now sprang from her bed, with her heart aching for pity of him, to forbid him and rebuke him for breaking his promise, and to scold him away. But as she stood listening, and the voice came again she knew it was not the voice of Laban. She ran to the ladder which led to the cabin loft, and called up through the open trapdoor, "Jane! Jane! Come down here to the baby, will you? I've got to leave her a minute."

"What for?" the girl answered sleepily. Then, "Oh, I'll come. She ain't sick, is she, Aunt Nancy? Oh, I do hope she ain't sick!"

"No. She ain't sick," Nancy said, as she put her hands up to help the girl place her feet aright on the rungs of the ladder. "But—listen!" she whispered as the voice outside called again. "It's that miser'ble wretch! It's Joseph Dylks! I've got to go to him! Don't you say a word, Jane Gillespie! He's Joey's father, and he must be at death's door, or he wouldn't come to mine."

She left the girl standing dazed, and ran out and round the cabin. In the shadow that it cast in the moon, Dylks crouched close in the angle made by the chimney.

"Oh, Nancy!" he implored her, "do give me something to eat! Something warm. Coffee, if you've got it. I've been sick, and I'm starving."

She knew without seeing it in the shadow how he was stretching out pleading hands to her, and she had mercy upon him. But she said stonily, "Wait a minute. Don't be a cry-baby," and ran back to the door, and called to the girl within, "Rake open the fire, Jane, and set the kittle on." Then she ran back to Dylks and stood over him. "Where you been? Don't you know they'll kill you if they ketch you?"

"Yes, I know it, Nancy. But I knew this would be the last place they would come for me. Will the coffee be ready soon? Oh, I'm so faint! I reckon I'm going to die, Nancy,"

"I reckon you ain't goin' to die before you get your coffee. It'll be ready as soon as the kittle boils."

She stood looking grimly down at him, while he brokenly told, so far as he knew it, the story of the days he had passed in hiding.

"I reckon," she said, with bitter scorn, "that I could have fetched you out. I'd 'a' brought you some hot coffee to the door of your den, and you'd 'a' come when you smelt it."

"Yes, that's true," he owned in meek acceptance of her scorn.

The child cried, and she went in, but she had no need to comfort it except with a word. Jane had come to the little one, and was stooping above it, and cooing to it motherwise, and cuddling it to her body while it drowsed away to silence.

"You mind her, Jane," the mother said, and she lifted the pot of coffee from the bed of coals, sending a dim glow into the room to meet the dawn at the open door. She put some sugar into the bowl she got from its shelf, and covered it with a piece of cold corn-pone, and then went out to Dylks who had remained on his knees, and now stretched out his trembling hands toward her.

She did not speak, but poured the bowl full of the steaming coffee, and watched him while he gulped half of it down. Then he reached eagerly for the bread. "Is it hot?" he asked.

"No, it ain't," the woman said. "You can eat cold pone, I reckon, can't you?"

"Oh, yes; oh, yes, and glad to get it. Only I thought—" He stopped and washed down the mouthful he had torn from the cake with a draft of the coffee which emptied the bowl. She filled it mechanically from the pot in her hand, and he drank again more slowly, and devoured the pone as he drank.

"Now," he said, "I should be all right if it wasn't for my head where they tore out my hair. It burns like fire."

She bent over him and looked at the wound unflinchingly. "I can't see very good in this light; if I only had some goose-grease—but I reckon hog's lard will do. Hold on till I can wash it."

"Oh, Nancy," he moaned gratefully.

She was gone rather long and there was talk within and the cooing and babble of the child. When she came out with a basin of warm water and some lard in a broken saucer in her hands, and a towel caught under her arm, he suggested, "I heard you talking with some one, Nancy."

"And I suppose it scared you," she answered unsparingly. "Well, you may thank your stars it wasn't Laban. I do believe he'd kill you, meek as he is."

Dylks drew a quivering breath. "Yes, I reckon he would. I suppose you must have told him about me."

"Of course, I did. Here! Hold still!" She had begun to wash his wound, very gently, though she spoke so roughly, while he murmured with the pain and with the comfort of the pain. "If you want to know," she continued, "it's Jane. She's been with me ever since that night they caught you. You made her ashamed before her father, and between her shame and his pride her and him don't speak, or hain't, since then. She stays with me and Joey stays with him."

"Our Joey?" he asked plaintively.

"My Joey!" she returned, and she involuntarily twitched at the hair she was smoothing.

"Oh!" he cried from the pain, but she did not mind his pain.

"There!" she said, beginning to put on the lard. Then she bound over the wound the soft pledget of old linen she had brought, and tied round his head a cotton rag to hold the dressing in place. She said, "There!" again, "I reckon that will do."

He moaned gratefully. "It's the first time I've been out of pain for I don't know how many days and nights. Nancy!" he burst out in all recognition of her goodness, "I oughtn't to have left you."

She had been kneeling before him in dressing his hurt, and then in critically regarding her handiwork, she got to her feet. "I know you oughtn't," she retorted, "but I'm glad you done it. And I'm thankful every breath I draw. And now I want you to go. And don't you think I done what I done out of love for you, Joseph Dylks. I'd 'a' done it for any hurt or hungry dog."

Dylks got to his feet too, with little moans for the stiffness in his joints. "I know you would, Nancy," he said humbly, "but all the same I won't forget it. If there was anything I could do to show—"

"There's something you could do besides drownin' yourself in the creek, which I don't ask you: in the first place because I don't want your death on my hands, and in the next place because you're the un-fittin'est man to die that I can think of; but there's something else, and you know it without my tellin' you, and that is to stop all this, now and forever. Don't you pretend you don't know what I mean!"

"I know what you mean, Nancy, and the good Lord knows I would be glad enough to do it if I could. But I wouldn't know how to begin."

"Begin," she said with a scornful glance at the long tangle of his hair, "begin by cuttin' off that horse's tail of yours, and then stop snortin' like a horse."

He shook his head hopelessly. "It wouldn't do, Nancy. They wouldn't let me draw back now. They would kill me."

"They?"

"The—the—Little Flock," he answered shamefacedly.

"The Herd of the Lost will kill you if you don't." She said it not in mocking, but in realization of the hopeless case, and not without pity. But at his next words, she hardened her heart again.

"I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go. I have nowhere to lay my head."

"Don't you use them holy words, you wicked wretch! And if you're hintin' at hidin' in my house, you can't do it—not with Jane here—she would kill you, I believe—and not without her."

"No, Nancy. I can see that. But where can I go? Even that place in the woods, they're watching that, and they would have me if I tried to go back."

From an impulse as of indifference rather than consideration she said, "Go to Squire Braile. He let you off; let him take care of you."

"Nancy!" he exclaimed. "I thought of that."

She gathered up the basin and the towel she brought, and without looking at him again she said, "Well, go, then," and turned and left him where he stood.

William Dean Howells

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