Nancy sat at her door in the warm September evening when the twilight was beginning to come earlier than in the August days, and her boy rushed round the corner of the cabin in a boy's habitual breathlessness from running.
"Oh, mother, mother!" he called to her, as if he were a great way off. "Guess what!" He did not wait for her to guess. "The Good Old Man is goin' to leave Leatherwood and go Over the Mountains with the Little Flock, and he says he's goin' to bring down the New Jerusalem at Philadelphy, and all that wants to go up with him kin go. Mr. Hingston's goin' with him, and he's goin' to let Benny. Benny don't know whether he can get to go up in the New Jerusalem or not, but he's goin' to coax his father the hardest kind."
He stopped panting at his mother's knees where she sat on the cabin threshold nearly as high as he stood. She put up her hand and pushed the wet hair from his forehead. "How you do sweat, Joey! Go round and wash your face at the bench. Maybe Jane will give you a drink of the milk, while it's warm yet, before she lets it down in the well. She's just through milkin'."
The boy tore himself away with a shout of "Oh, goody!" and his mother heard him at the well. "Wait a minute, Jane! Mother said I could have a drink before you let it down," and then she heard him, between gulps, recounting to the girl's silence the rumors she had already heard from him. He came running back, with a white circle of milk round his lips. "Mother," he began, "have you ever been Over-the-Mountains?"
"No, I've never been anywhere but just here in the country, and where you was born, back where we moved from."
"Well, mother, how old am I now?"
"You're goin' on twelve, Joey dear."
"Yes, that's what I thought. Benny ain't on'y ten. And he ain't as big for his age as what I am. He's been to the circus, though; his father took him to it at Wheeling that time when he went on the steamboat. I wisht I could go to a circus."
"Well, maybe you kin when you grow up. Circuses ain't everything."
"No," the boy relucted. "Benny says the New Jerusalem will be a good deal like the circus. That's the reason he coaxed his father to let him go. Is Philadelphy as far as Wheeling?"
"A good deal further, from what I've heard tell," his mother said; she smiled at his innocently sinuous approach to his desire.
He broke out with it. "Mother, what's the reason I can't go with Benny, and Mr. Hingston, and the Little Flock? They'd take good care of me, and I wouldn't make Mr. Hingston any trouble. Me 'n' Benny could sleep together. And the Good Old Man he's always been very pleasant to me. Patted my head oncet, and ast me what my name was."
"Did you tell him it was Billings?" his mother asked uneasily.
"No, just Joseph; and he said, well, that was his name, too. Don't you think the Good Old Man is good?"
"We're none of us as good as we ought to be, Joey. No, he ain't a good man, I'm afraid."
"My!" the boy said, and then after a moment: "I don't want to go, Mother, unless you want to let me go."
His mother did not speak for a while, and it seemed as if she were not going to speak at all, so that the boy said, with a little sigh of renunciation, "I didn't expect you would. But I'd be as careful! And even if the Good Old Man ain't so very good, Mr. Hingston is, and he wouldn't let anything happen to me."
The woman put her hand under the boy's chin, and looked into his eager eyes which had not ceased their pleading. At last she said, "You can go, Joey!"
"Mother!" He jumped to his feet from his crouching at hers. "Oh, glory to God!"
"Hush, Joey, you mustn't say things like that. It's like swearing, dear."
"I know it is, and I didn't mean to. Of course it's right, in meetin', and it kind of slipped out when I wasn't thinkin'. But I won't say any bad things, you needn't be afraid. Oh, I'll be as good! But look a'here, mother! Why can't you come, too?"
"And leave your little sister?" She smiled sadly.
"I didn't think of that. But couldn't Jane take care of her? She's always carryin' her around. And Uncle David could come here, and live with them. He wouldn't want to stay there without me, or no one."
"It wouldn't do, Joey dear."
"No," the boy assented.
"You can go and tell Benny I said you might go, if his father will have you."
"Oh, he will; he said so; Benny's ast him! And he said he'd take good care of us both."
"I'm not afraid. You know how to take care of yourself. And, Joey—"
She stopped, and the boy prompted her, "What, mom?"
"When I said the Good Old Man wasn't a good man, I didn't want to set you against him. I want you to be good to him."
"Yes, mother," the boy assented in a puzzle. "But if he ain't good—"
"He ain't, Joey. He's a wicked man. Sometimes I think he's the wickedest man in the world. But I want you to watch out, and if ever you can help him, or do anything for him, remember that I wanted you to do it: a boy can often help a man."
"I will, mother. But I don't see the reason, if he's so very wicked, why—"
"That's the very reason, Joey dear. And go and tell Benny now that I let you go. And—don't tell him what I said about the Good Old Man."
"Oh, I woon't, I woon't, mom! Oh, glory—Oh, I didn't mean to say it, and I didn't, really, did I? But I'm so glad, and Benny'll be, too! Can I tell him now? To-night?"
"Yes. Run along."
He hesitated; then he leaped into the air with a joyful yell and vanished round the corner of the cabin into the dusk.
His mother did not leave her place on the threshold, but sat with her face bowed in her hands. By and by Jane Gillespie came to the door from within, and then Nancy lifted her head and made room for her to sit beside her. She told her what had passed, and Jane said, "If I was a man I would —Well, I know what I would do!"
She did not sit down, but stood behind Nancy and talked down over her shoulder. "Yes," Nancy said, "that's what I used to say when I was a girl. But now I'm glad I ain't a man, for I wouldn't know what to do."
"Well, I wouldn't 'a' left a hair in his head. I'd 'a'—I'd 'a' half killed him! Oh, when I think what a fool that man made of me!"
"Don't let Jim Redfield make a fool of you, then."
"Who said I'm letting him?" the girl demanded fiercely.
"Nobody. But don't."
"Aunt Nancy! If it was anybody but you said such a thing! But I know! It's because you're so set on Hughey Blake. Hughey Blake!" she ended scornfully, and went back into the cabin.
Nancy rose from her place with a sigh. "Oh, I 'spose you're right about my lettin' Joey go. I don't know why I let him."