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and Ezry to assist their father in raising the younger ones, confiding to Blant's special care the week-old baby, "your paw being too puny to set up with it of nights." After the two big boys there was a gap in the family caused by the death of four children from typhoid; then followed Nucky, who was eleven, and the five younger children. Blant and Ezry accepted their trust with sincere devotion. Their father was able to do a good deal of the cooking and housework, but they assisted him even in this, and, when not at work outside, tirelessly and tenderly minded the children. At night "the babe" always slept at Blant's side,-or, rather, the first three colic months it did not sleep, and Blant patiently walked the floor with it, jolted it on his knees, toasted its little feet before the fire, warmed its bottle, gave it generous doses of corn liquor, and, as Nucky said, “made it sugar-teats and soot-tea as good as a woman."
During the latter part of this colic-time, Mr. Marrs became so desperate by reason of being constantly disturbed in his sleep that he concluded there was nothing for it but to get a woman in the house; and one evening he sadly and secretly started off across Elbow Mountain to propose to a capable widow over in Sassafras Hollow. On the very summit of the mountain, he was confronted by his wife's spirit, which, with denunciation and warning, turned him back, trembling and repentant, to renew his promise to the children that they should never have a stepmaw, and from that day to settle down to the lonely estate of a "widow-man."
From all accounts, Nucky's mother had been a woman of remarkable mind and heart, worthy of the rare affection her children cherished for her. Nucky was proud of telling that, although she had never seen the inside of a school-house, she had yet been a "scholar," and able to read, write, and figure, her great-grandfather, when a very old man of nearly a hundred, and unable to do anything but sit by the fire, having imparted to her a portion of his own learning. She had proved such an apt, eager pupil that, on his death, he had left her his most valued possessions-a few ancient books. One of these was a Bible, another a story-book, with pictures, "about a man by the name of Christian, that fit with devils, and come
near being et up by a jont ten times as big as him." The latter book had been the chief delight of Nucky's infancy. All this was most interesting to Miss Loring, as being another proof that the early settlers were men of an education which isolation and the hard struggle for existence made impossible to their descendants.
Nucky was continually expecting Blant and Ezry over to visit him at the school, and getting word from passers-by that they aimed to come soon; and Miss Loring and the cottage boys were most eager to see the heroes materialize. But it appeared that, although the babe was now more than a year old and done with colic, Blant was still unable to make up his mind to leave it overnight.
The autumn passed, and almost any story Miss Loring read or told Nucky would be able to match with performances of Blant and Ezry and their best friend Richard Tarrant, who always assisted them in their undertakings. Blant, however, was the star actor on every occasion. When, for instance, along in December, they were reading the story of Ulysses, and reached the place where the hero and his friends escape from the cave of Polyphemus, Nucky told of the last time Blant had been arrested for necessarily killing a Cheever (when a Cheever and a Marrs met it was only a question of the quickest trigger), and how, on the way to the county-seat afterward, the officers and prisoner were overtaken by darkness and compelled to stop all night at a wayside house. Blant went to bed in an upper room, handcuffed, between the sheriff and a deputy, each of whom retired with a loaded revolver in his hand. In the morning, when the officers awoke, the prisoner was gone, while the quilt that had covered the three swung from the window, and beneath it, on the ground, lay the two revolvers, placed neatly side by side.
Christmas came and went, and still no Blant and Ezry appeared. The children had returned from their holiday visits home, and the first Saturday evening thereafter, which happened to be the fifth of January, Miss Loring and her boys sat around the fire, again reading Ulysses. There was a violent interruption, however, when Ulysses permits Scylla to snatch six of his friends out of the ship for a meal. "Dad burn him! I 'm
done with him!" "Why n't he grab his ax and chop off them six heads when he seed 'em a-coming?" "Any man can't fight for his friends better be dead!" "Ongrateful 's worse 'n pizen!" "Don't want to hear no more about no such pukestocking as him!" "Better shet up the book!" were some of the sentiments. Miss Loring bowed to the storm and shut the book, and conversation finally simmered down to smoother levels, touching upon the adventures of the boys themselves during the holidays. These seemed to Miss Loring exciting enough; but nearly every boy was bewailing the fact that he had had to return to the school before Old Christ
"I've heard you boys speak of Old Christmas a number of times," said Miss Loring. "Now, what on earth is it?"
"Old Christmas is sure-enough Christmas," replied Taulbee, gravely. "You brought-on women thinks New Christmas is Christmas, but it ain't. Real Christmas comes to-morrow, on the sixth of January; and to-night is real Christmas eve."
"What makes you think so?"
"Well, all the old folks says so, for one thing, and I think they knows better than young ones; and, for another, I think the beastes and plants knows better still. Tonight 's the night when the elder blossoms out and the cattle kneels down and prays. You can hear 'em a-lowing and a-mowing at midnight if you stay awake and listen."
Miss Loring had some recollection of the English calendar having been set forward eleven days in the middle of the eighteenth century, and of the refusal of many of the people to accept the new dates, and specially the new-style Christmas. This survival in the mountain country seemed to her as wonderful as that of the old English ballads, and the good old Shaksperian words, obsolete elsewhere.
"What do people do on Old Christmas? Do they give presents?" she asked.
"No, indeed," said Taulbee. "They never heared tell of such a new-fangle thing. The old folks they cook up a week or two beforehand, and lay in a good stock of cider and liquor, for hospitality, so 's they can offer a-plenty to eat and drink, and then when Christmas comes they set around and hold their hands all day (it would be a sin to work then), and
tries to keep the young folks from antikin' around too much, for they claim it 's a solemn season. But the girls they mostly gets out and visits and sees what little fun they can (th' ain't no real fun no time, though, for women), and the boys they take their nags and pistols and jugs and rides up and down the road or the creek, hollering and shooting and making what noise they able to. It's what you might call a dangerous time to be out in."
Miss Loring and the boys all agreed to wake up at midnight that night and hear the cattle "lowing and mowing"; but they failed to set the alarm-clock, and unfortunately slept through the miraculous hour.
On the Tuesday following, Miss Loring was passing through the school-yard on her way to dinner at noon when she saw a crowd rapidly gathering at the fence. A man on horseback outside was talking and gesticulating. As she joined the crowd, he was telling how, on Old Christmas morning, Blant and Ezry Marrs, Rich Tarrant, and a lot of the boys, were galloping up and down Powderhorn, drinking, shooting, and celebrating the day, when Rich recklessly and foolishly dashed out on Blant from behind a large rock, and Blant, with his everready instinct for the Cheevers made more keen by liquor, fired on the instant, before he saw who it really was, killing Rich dead. Blant, said the news-bearer, was in a deplorable state of mind, first attempting to end his own life, and, foiled in this, sending word to the sheriff to come and arrest him. Though Blant lived in Boyne, the shooting had occurred on the lower reaches of Powderhorn, in Kent County, and the sheriff and deputies were now bringing both Blant and Ezry to the jail. in the village near the school, Ezry having opposed Blant's surrender and fired into the posse when it arrived, and being arrested for "contempt."
All the rest of that day, with pale face and straining eyes, Nucky watched the road; and the other boys kept just as near the front fence as possible. A little before. dark, the cavalcade came along. Between two armed men rode Blant, his face rigid with misery and horror; Ezry, sullen and defiant of aspect, was behind, between two others. Nucky leaped into Blant's stirrup and rode along with him to the jail, the
faces of both as white and unseeing as the dead.
Thereafter Nucky spent every possible moment with his brothers in the jail, and several times Miss Loring stopped in with him. Blant's anguish was terrible to see. In vain Nucky and Miss Loring, Ezry and the other prisoners, and even the jailkeeper, argued with him and tried to convince him he should not reproach himself so bitterly or give way to such utter despair and grief. His one reply was: "I have killed my best friend. My heart is broke'. Life has no more charms for me. I hope to God the law will kill me and put me out of my misery." The strange fact also developed that he had had a forewarning of Rich's death. For three consecutive days before Old Christmas, once when he was riving boards for the roof, once when he was climbing the mountain in search of a lost cow, once when he was sitting with the babe in his arms before the fire, he had had visions of Rich standing beside him, headless; and so strong had been the impression that he had told Rich the first thing when they met Christmas morning, and had warned him to be specially careful what he did that day.
For weeks he was thus inconsolable and desperate. The first relief came one Saturday when Nucky and Miss Loring were at the jail. A neighbor from over on Trigger stopped his nag at the jail window, and told Blant, through the bars, that "the babe just whimped and cried day and night for him, and could n't be pacified noway." At this Blant laid his head on the table where the other prisoners were playing cards and wept, the first tears he had shed, and they seemed to wash away some of his burden. A day or two later, a message came from Powderhorn which should certainly have comforted him some: Mrs. Tarrant, Rich's mother, sent word to him that though he had "darkened the light of the sunball" for her, she freely forgave him.
The following Friday, Nucky asked and received permission to make a visit home over the week-end; and the next afternoon Miss Loring was surprised to see him out in the road in front of the cottage, on his paw's nag, with a small bundle carried very carefully on one arm. This he unwrapped to show Miss Loring.
It was the babe, a beautiful little girl, with big, gray eyes like Nucky's and Blant's, and such a tiny, white face, and so pathetic and patient a smile, that Miss Loring's heart was wrung within her.
"Seem' like it 'll pine to death if it don't get to see Blant," explained Nucky; "so I brung it over."
"Please bring it back to spend the night with me!" implored Miss Loring.
But Blant would by no means consent to this; not for an instant should it depart from his arms during the time it had to stay. Nucky reported afterward: "It just grabbed aholt of him the minute it seed him, and laid its head on his breast, and would n't turn him a-loose even to eat or sleep. All the other boys tried to get it to come to them, but it would n't go even to Ezry. And Blant he set up and helt it in his arms all night."
The process of separating the babe from Blant next day was such a painful one that there was not a dry eye in the jail.
Court was not to sit until the middle of March, when the trial of Blant and Ezry would come off. Of course Ezry would be acquitted,-"contempt" was nothing,
and at first it was hoped that Blant would be acquitted, too, the absence of intention in his killing of Rich was so patent, and his grief so cruel and overwhelming a punishment in itself. But as the weeks passed on there was a growing sentiment among the solid men of the county that a short penitentiary sentence in his case would be a very good thing, and would make all the young men in the region more careful with their guns in the future. Of course if Blant had killed a Cheever, it would not be so imperative for the law to step in, -the Cheevers were perfectly able to attend to their own affairs, but this thing of shooting wild and killing the wrong man was a menace to the whole community, and ought not to go unpunished. Also, Kent County was, and prided itself on being, more law-abiding than Boyne; and this chance to make an object-lesson of a Boyne boy was not to be overlooked.
These various rumors as to public opinion were carried to Blant by passers-by, callers, and the jail-keeper himself; while from Trigger came more and more distressing news every day. The Cheevers, taking advantage of the situation, were
marauding, shooting hogs, burning fodderstacks, etc. Mr. Marrs was worn out and distracted in his mind by the unaccustomed load of cares, and as for the babe, its grief was working on it to a dangerous extent. "It's fairly pindling away," "Nothing but a pitiful little passel of bones," "Some days don't touch ary morsel of victuals," "Favors a little picked bird," "Aiming to die if he don't get back to it soon," were successive messages that reached the jail.
The situation was freely discussed by Blant and Ezry and the other prisoners, mostly nice boys, arrested for only slight offenses, such as moonshining and celebrating Christmas too enthusiastically, and by the jail-keeper; and one day Blant expressed his mind as follows:
"Yes, I don't know as I like the notion of going down there to Frankfort very well. If the law would just hang me, I'd feel better. But I reckon there ain't no hopes of that; I ought to have recollected the prejudice they got again' hanging in this country. The way I look at it, a life for a life is just common justice. But what good or justice it will do anybody to coop me up in Frankfort for a couple of year' or more when I'm so bad' needed at home, I fail to see. Here I am, with a living to make for the folks, and the outdacious manoeuvers of the Cheevers to keep down, and the babe to raise,-you might say with my hands running-over full,-and now they aim to shut me up where I can't do none of it! It ain't reasonable. Now, if they was to send me off to the Philippynes or somewheres to fight for 'em, I could see some sense in that, because then I'd do 'em a heap of good. But just to shut me up where I can't never see no sunshine, or do nothing but set and think, why, seems like it's more than I want to face."
"You ought to have thought of that sooner," admonished the keeper. "You done a mighty near-sighted job when you sent for the sheriff; I would n't have believed it of you, Blant. Nobody would n't have thought of arrestin' you; they 'd 'a' knowed you never meant no harm to Rich. But I reckon your mind was clean unhinged by misery. And now you 've made your bed, you got to lay in it. Whatever you do, take warnin' and don't try no tricks here on me. Because, whatever
happens, and however well I like you, law is law, and I'm obligated by my oath, and aimin' to do my whole duty. I really think a heap of you, Blant, and I 'd hate right smart to have to kill you."
One Tuesday morning early in March, Miss Loring started down to the village post-office. When she reached that place in the road where it was necessary to walk the fence some distance on account of the frightful mud-holes, she was surprised and delighted to see that a gang of men were working the road, and to recognize in them Blant and Ezry and the other prisoners. They were picking the shale from the mountain-side, and shoveling it into the bottomless holes. All appeared happy to feel the warm sunshine and breathe the fresh air again, and worked with a will, talking merrily with chance passers-by, the keeper, who leaned on his rifle, entering amiably into the conversation. Miss Loring was relieved to see Blant's face relaxed and almost cheerful, and to know that time was in a measure healing his sorrow. She hoped that the last news she had had from Trigger-that the babe was nothing but a feather and would soon blow away-had not reached him.
The two succeeding days the cottage boys made every excuse to go up the road and exchange words with the road-gang. By great good fortune, Nucky had the kitchen-job, and, running errands for the housekeeper to and from the village, had frequent chances to see his big brothers. Friday noon he brought word that the mud-holes were filled, and the boys were now preparing to blast out rock and widen the road at a point still nearer the school. All that afternoon heavy detonations rent the air, and puffs of smoke were visible from the school-garden, where it was almost impossible for Miss Loring to keep her boys at work.
Saturday, too, the blasting continued at intervals. About two in the afternoon the wash-girls had finished their labors and were out "passing the ball" in the schoolyard, and the boys, under Miss Loring's supervision, were washing the last windows and scrubbing the last floor in the cottage. Joab, on his knees, plying a scrubbing-brush, with an occasional droll glance at Miss Loring, was chanting monotonously,
"Let the women do the work, do the work, do the work,
Let the men do the laying around,"
when several loud, near-by gunshots sent everybody flying to the front yard. Up the steep mountain-side facing the cottage two men were leaping, while down in the road below ran a third, stopping only to aim and fire.
"It 's Blant and Ezry!" called out a dozen voices. "Go it, boys! Run! oh, Run! oh, run!"
All the school was by this time at the fence, breathlessly watching the hard ascent. The mountain was cleared half-way up, not a tree or a rock affording shelter. The keeper, selecting a vantage-ground just outside the cottage gate, took his stand there, and grimly proceeded to do his "whole duty," firing calmly, swiftly, and surely at the flying figures. In running accompaniment to the gunshots, Nucky's voice rang out sharp and clear. "Keep to the right a little grain!" "Drap down in the swag there, so 's he can't hit you so easy!" "Make for the timber!" Bullets raised tiny clouds of dust about the feet of the fugitives, and in the slope just ahead of them. The seconds seemed ages; the watchers' hearts stood still. Once Blant stopped short, clutching his left arm; then he ran on again more swiftly than ever, the arm dangling strangely. Nucky's voice, edged with agony, faltered no more than did the bullets. "Can't you move no quicker 'n that? Once you reach them trees, he'll never hit you. Oh, hurry! hurry! Seems like I could crawl faster. You 're getting near now. The trees!
the trees! the trees! Oh, God, they 're to 'em! They 're safe!"
After a few parting shots into the timber, the keeper shook his head, philosophically shouldered his gun, and turned to the other prisoners, who had come down the road behind him. "Well, boys," he remarked, "I done my best, as the law required. But they got too good a start on me. It was right pyeert of 'em to stand on the far side from me when that last blast went off, and gain that much of a start. That was as plucky a race for life as ever I see; and I hain't sorry I never killed 'em. I put Blant's arm out of business for a while, but I'm free to say I'm glad it was n't no vital. Yes, sir, I don't know when I ever made the acquaintance of two nicer, cleverer boys than them; and I think it was mighty sensible of 'em not to stay and stand trial. That 'ere Blant is as perfect a gentleman as ever I seed, and hain't got a criminal bone in him. To send him to Frankfort would be just plumb ridiculous and scandalous. He never ought to have give' himself up when he killed Rich; that was the dad-burn foolishest thing ever I beheld. But of course he was momentarily distracted by grief and not accountable. Well, I hope it has learnt him a lesson to think twice in future. And now I reckon he 'll lay out in the woods a spell, though I'm sure nobody would n't be low-down enough to hunt him, and it 's again' the law, anyhow, that a man's life shall be twice in jeopardy for the same offense, and then he 'll go home, and settle the Cheevers, and cheer up his pap, and raise what 's left of that pore little babe."