Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

A Protegee of Jack Hamlin's by Bret Harte

Part 4 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

"No. I was in Tahiti, Australia, Japan, and China all the time."

"And you never heard from home?"

"No. You see I quo'led with the old man, and ran away."

"And you didn't write to tell them you were coming?"

"No." He hesitated, and then added: "Never thought o' coming till
I saw YOU."

"Me!"

"Yes; you and--the high water."

"Do you mean to say," said the young editor sharply, "that you
brought ME--an utter stranger to you--out of that coach to claim
the hospitality of a father you had quarreled with--hadn't seen for
five years and didn't know if he would receive you?"

"Yes,--you see that's just WHY I did it. You see, I reckoned my
chances would be better to see him along with a cheerful, chipper
fellow like you. I didn't, of course, kalkilate on this," he
added, pointing dejectedly to the ruins.

The editor gasped; then a sudden conception of the unrivaled
absurdity of the situation flashed upon him,--of his passively
following the amiable idiot at his side in order to contemplate, by
the falling rain and lonely night, a heap of sodden ruins, while
the coach was speeding to Summit Springs and shelter, and, above
all, the reason WHY he was invited,--until, putting down his bag,
he leaned upon his stick, and laughed until the tears came to his
eyes.

At which his companion visibly brightened. "I told you so," he
said cheerfully; "I knew you'd be able to take it--and the old man--
in THAT WAY, and that would have fetched him round."

"For Heaven's sake! don't talk any more," said the editor, wiping
his eyes, "but try to remember if you ever had any neighbors about
here where we can stay tonight. We can't walk to Summit Springs,
and we can't camp out on these ruins."

"There didn't use to be anybody nearer than the Springs."

"But that was five years ago, you say," said the editor
impatiently; "and although your father probably moved away after
the house burned down, the country's been thickly settled since
then. That field has been lately planted. There must be another
house beyond. Let's follow the trail a little farther."

They tramped along in silence, this time the editor leading.
Presently he stopped. "There's a house--in there--among the
trees," he said, pointing. "Whose is it?"

The stranger shook his head dubiously. Although apparently
unaffected by any sentimental consideration of his father's
misfortune, the spectacle of the blackened ruins of the homestead
had evidently shaken his preconceived plans. "It wasn't there in
MY time," he said musingly.

"But it IS there in OUR time," responded the editor briskly, "and I
propose to go there. From what you have told me of your father--
even if his house were still standing--our chances of getting
supper and a bed from him would be doubtful! I suppose," he
continued as they moved on together, "you left him in anger--five
years ago?"

"Ye-es."

"Did he say anything as you left?"

"I don't remember anything particular that he SAID."

"Well, what did he DO?"

"Shot at me from the window!"

"Ah!" said the young editor softly. Nevertheless they walked on
for some time in silence. Gradually a white picket fence came into
view at right angles with the trail, and a man appeared walking
leisurely along what seemed to be the regularly traveled road,
beside it. The editor, who had taken matters in his own hands,
without speaking to his companion, ran quickly forward and accosted
the stranger, briefly stating that he had left the stage-coach with
a companion, because it was stopped by high water, and asked,
without entering into further details, to be directed to some place
where they could pass the night. The man quite as briefly directed
him to the house among the trees, which he said was his own, and
then leisurely pursued his way along the road. The young editor
ran back to his companion, who had halted in the dripping shadow of
a sycamore, and recounted his good fortune.

"I didn't," he added, "say anything about your father. You can
make inquiries yourself later."

"I reckon there won't be much need of that," returned his
companion. "You didn't take much note o' that man, did you?"

"Not much," said the editor.

"Well, THAT'S MY FATHER, and I reckon that new house must be his."

II.

The young editor was a little startled. The man he had just
quitted certainly was not dangerous looking, and yet, remembering
what his son had said, there WERE homicidal possibilities. "Look
here," he said quickly, "he's not there NOW. Why don't you seize
the opportunity to slip into the house, make peace with your mother
and sisters, and get them to intercede with your father when he
returns?"

"Thar ain't any mother; she died afore I left. My sister Almiry's
a little girl--though that's four years ago and mebbee she's
growed. My brothers and me didn't pull together much. But I was
thinkin' that mebbee YOU might go in thar for me first, and see how
the land lays; then sorter tell 'em 'bout me in your takin',
chipper, easy way; make 'em laugh, and when you've squared 'em--
I'll be hangin' round outside--you kin call ME in. Don't you see?"

The young editor DID see. Ridiculous as the proposal would have
seemed to him an hour ago, it now appeared practical, and even
commended itself to his taste. His name was well known in the
county and his mediation might be effective. Perhaps his vanity
was slightly flattered by his companion's faith in him; perhaps he
was not free from a certain human curiosity to know the rest;
perhaps he was more interested than he cared to confess in the
helpless home-seeker beside him.

"But you must tell me something more of yourself, and your fortune
and prospects. They'll be sure to ask questions."

"Mebbee they won't. But you can say I've done well--made my pile
over in Australia, and ain't comin' on THEM. Remember--say I
'ain't comin' on them'!"

The editor nodded, and then, as if fearful of letting his present
impulse cool, ran off towards the house.

It was large and respectable looking, and augured well for the
present fortunes of the Wilkes's. The editor had determined to
attack the citadel on its weaker, feminine side, and when the front
door was opened to his knock, asked to see Miss Almira Wilkes. The
Irish servant showed him into a comfortable looking sitting-room,
and in another moment with a quick rustle of skirts in the passage
a very pretty girl impulsively entered. From the first flash of
her keen blue eyes the editor--a fair student of the sex--conceived
the idea that she had expected somebody else; from the second that
she was an arrant flirt, and did not intend to be disappointed.
This much was in his favor.

Spurred by her provoking eyes and the novel situation, he stated
his business with an airy lightness and humor that seemed to
justify his late companion's estimate of his powers. But even in
his cynical attitude he was unprepared for the girl's reception of
his news. He had expected some indignation or even harshness
towards this man whom he was beginning to consider as a kind of
detrimental outcast or prodigal, but he was astounded at the
complete and utter indifference--the frank and heartless unconcern--
with which she heard of his return. When she had followed the
narrator rather than his story to the end, she languidly called her
brothers from the adjoining room. "This gentleman, Mr. Grey, of
the 'Argus,' has come across Jim--and Jim is calculating to come
here and see father."

The two brothers stared at Grey, slightly shrugged their shoulders
with the same utter absence of fraternal sympathy or concern which
the girl had shown, and said nothing.

"One moment," said Grey a little warmly; "I have no desire to
penetrate family secrets, but would you mind telling me if there is
any grave reason why he should not come. Was there any scandalous
conduct, unpardonable offense--let us even say--any criminal act on
his part which makes his return to this roof impossible?"

The three looked at each other with a dull surprise that ended in a
vacant wondering smile. "No, no," they said in one voice. "No,
only"--

"Only what?" asked Grey impatiently.

"Dad just hates him!"

"Like pizon," smiled Almira.

The young editor rose with a slight increase of color. "Look
here," said the girl, whose dimples had deepened as she keenly
surveyed him, as if detecting some amorous artifice under his show
of interest for her brother. "Dad's gone down to the sheepfold and
won't be back for an hour. Yo' might bring--YO' FRIEND--in."

"He ain't wantin' anything? Ain't dead broke? nor nothin', eh?"
suggested one of the brothers dubiously.

Grey hastened to assure them of Jim's absolute solvency, and even
enlarged considerably on his Australian fortune. They looked
relieved but not interested.

"Go and fetch him," said the witch, archly hovering near Grey with
dancing eyes; "and mind YO' come back, too!"

Grey hesitated a moment and then passed out in the dark porch. A
dripping figure emerged from the trees opposite. It was Jim.

"Your sister and brothers will see you," said Grey hastily, to
avoid embarrassing details. "HE won't be here for an hour. But
I'd advise you to make the most of your time, and get the good-will
of your sister." He would have drawn back to let the prodigal pass
in alone, but the man appealingly seized his arm, and Grey was
obliged to re-enter with him. He noticed, however, that he
breathed hard.

They turned slightly towards their relative, but did not offer to
shake hands with him, nor did he with them. He sat down sideways
on an unoffered chair. "The old house got burnt!" he said, wiping
his lips, and then drying his wet hair with his handkerchief.

As the remark was addressed to no one in particular it was some
seconds before the elder brother replied: "Yes."

"Almira's growed."

Again no one felt called upon to answer, and Almira glanced archly
at the young editor as if he might have added: "and improved."

"You've done well?" returned one of the brothers tentatively.

"Yes, I'm all right," said Jim.

There was another speechless interval. Even the conversational
Grey felt under some unhallowed spell of silence that he could not
break.

"I see the old well is there yet," said Jim, wiping his lips again.

"Where dad was once goin' to chuck you down for givin' him back
talk," said the younger brother casually.

To Mr. Grey's relief and yet astonishment, Jim burst into a loud
laugh and rubbed his legs. "That's so--how old times DO come
back!"

"And," said the bright-eyed Almira, there's that old butternut-tree
that you shinned up one day when we set the hounds on you.
Goodness! how you scooted!"

Again Jim laughed loudly and nodded. "Yes, the same old butternut.
How you DO remember, Almira?" This admiringly.

And don't you remember Delia Short?" continued Almira, pleased at
the admiration, and perhaps a little exalted at the singular
attention which the young editor was giving to those cheerful
reminiscences. "She, you know, you was reg'larly sick after, so
that we always allowed she kinder turned yo' brain afore you went
away! Well! all the while you were courtin' her it appears she was
secretly married to Jo--yo' friend--Jo Stacy. Lord! there was a
talk about that! and about yo' all along thinkin' yo' had chances!
Yo' friend here," with an arch glance at Grey, "who's allus puttin'
folks in the newspapers, orter get a hold on that!"

Jim again laughed louder than the others, and rubbed his lips.
Grey, however, offered only the tribute of a peculiar smile and
walked to the window. "You say your father will return in an
hour?" he said, turning to the elder brother.

"Yes, unless he kept on to Watson's."

"Where?" said Jim suddenly.

It struck Grey that his voice had changed--or rather that he was
now speaking for the first time in his natural tone.

"Watson's, just over the bridge," explained his brother. "If he
went there he won't be back till ten."

Jim picked up his India rubber cape and hat, said, "I reckon I'll
just take a turn outside until he gets back," and walked towards
the door. None of his relatives moved nor seemed to offer any
opposition. Grey followed him quickly. "I'll go with you," he
said.

"No," returned Jim with singular earnestness. "You stay here and
keep 'em up cheerful like this. They're doing all this for YOU,
you know; Almiry's just this chipper only on your account."

Seeing the young man was inflexible, Grey returned grimly to the
room, but not until he had noticed, with some surprise, that Jim,
immediately on leaving the house, darted off at a quick run through
the rain and darkness. Preoccupied with this, and perhaps still
influenced by the tone of the previous conversation, he did not
respond readily to the fair Almira's conversational advances, and
was speedily left to a seat by the fire alone. At the end of ten
minutes he regretted he had ever come; when half an hour had passed
he wondered if he had not better try to reach the Summit alone.
With the lapse of an hour he began to feel uneasy at Jim's
prolonged absence in spite of the cold indifference of the
household. Suddenly he heard stamping in the porch, a muttered
exclamation, and the voices of the two brothers in the hall.
"Why, dad! what's up? Yo' look half drowned!"

The door opened upon the sodden, steaming figure of the old man
whom he had met on the road, followed by the two sons. But he was
evidently more occupied and possessed by some mental passion than
by his physical discomfort. Yet strong and dominant over both, he
threw off his wet coat and waistcoat as he entered, and marched
directly to the fire. Utterly ignoring the presence of a stranger,
he suddenly turned and faced his family.

"Half drowned. Yes! and I might have been hull drowned for that
matter. The back water of the Fork is all over Watson's, and the
bridge is gone. I stumbled onto this end of it in the dark, and
went off, head first, into twenty feet of water! Tried to fight my
way out, but the current was agin me. I'd bin down twice, and was
going down for the third time, when somebody grabbed me by the
scruff o' my neck and under the arm--so!--and swam me to the bank!
When I scrambled up I sez: 'I can't see your face,' sez I, 'I don't
know who you are,' sez I, 'but I reckon you're a white man and
clear grit,' sez I, 'and there's my hand on it!' And he grabs it
and sez, 'We're quits,' and scooted out o' my sight. And,"
continued the old man staring at their faces and raising his voice
almost to a scream, "who do you think it was? Why, THAT SNEAKIN'
HOUND OF A BROTHER OF YOURS--JIM! Jim! the scallawag that I booted
outer the ranch five years ago, crawlin', writhin' back again after
all these years to insult his old father's gray hairs! And some of
you--by God--once thought that I was hard on him!"

. . . . . .

The sun was shining brightly the next morning as the young editor
halted the up coach in the now dried hollow. As he was clambering
to a seat beside the driver, his elbow was jogged at the window.
Looking down he saw the face of Jim.

"We had a gay talk last night, remembering old times, didn't we?"
said the prodigal cheerfully.

"Yes, but--where are you going now?"

"Back to Australia, I reckon! But it was mighty good to drop in on
the old homestead once more!"

"Rather," said the editor, clinging to the window and lingering in
mid-air to the manifest impatience of Yuba Bill; "but I say--look
here!--were you QUITE satisfied?"

Jim's hand tightened around the young editor's as he answered
cheerfully, "Yes." But his face was turned away from the window.

Book of the day: