Search      Hot    Newest Novel
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
 The morning wood-mists were warm, sweet-scented; the wood-birds' song of thanksgiving was glad with the essence of God-given life. But the man astride the dejected and weary horse saw none of the beauties of his surroundings, heard none of the harmony, experienced none of the exhilaration of the life all about him, as he rode slowly down the winding trail between the trees. He sat erect in his saddle, eyes fixed straight before him. His face was strong and seamed with tiny lines. The prominence of his features was accentuated by the thinness of the face. Beady black eyes burned beneath the shadows of heavy brows. A shock of iron-grey hair brushed his shoulders. In one hand he held a leather-bound book, a long thumb fixed on the printed page from which his attention had been momentarily diverted by his survey of the woodland scene.  
"Desolation!" he murmured, "desolation! the natural home of ignorance."
At the sound of his voice the old horse stood still. "Thomas," cried the rider sternly, "did I command you to halt?"
From his leather boot-leg he extracted a long wand of seasoned hickory and brought it down on the bay flank with a cutting swish. The hickory represented the symbol of progress to Mr. George G. Johnston, the new teacher of Scotia school. Certain it was it had the desired effect in this particular instance. The aged horse broke into a jerky gallop which soon carried the rider out into more open country.
Here farms, hemmed in by rude rail-fences, looked up from valley and hillside. Occasionally a house of greater pretensions than its fellows, and built of unplaned lumber, gleamed in the morning sunlight in gay contrast to the dun-colored log ones. But the eternal forest, the primitive offering of earth's first substance, obtruded even here, and the rider's face set in a frown as he surveyed the vista before him.
Descending into a valley he saw that the farm homes, which from the height seemed closely set together, were really quite a distance from each other. He reined up before a small frame house and, dismounting, allowed his hungry horse to crop the grass, as he opened the gate and made up the path. A shaggie collie bounded around the corner of the building and down to meet him, bristles erect and all the antagonism of a bush-dog for a stranger in its bearing. It was followed by a big man and a boy.
"Here you, Joe, come back here and behave yourself," the master thundered and the dog turned and slunk back along the path.
"Mornin', sir," greeted Cobin Keeler.
In one hand he carried a huge butcher-knife, in the other a long whetstone. More big knives glittered in the leather belt about his waist. "Jest sharpenin' my knives ag'in the hog-killin'," he explained, noting the stranger's startled look.
The teacher advanced, his fears at rest. "My name is Johnston," he said, "George G. Johnston. I was directed here, sir. You are Mr. Keeler, are you not, one of the trustees of the school of which I am to have charge?"
Keeler thrust out a huge hand. "That's me," he answered. "You're jest in time fer breakfast. It's nigh ready. Come 'round back an' wash up. Maurice, go put the teacher's horse in the stable an' give him a feed."
The teacher followed his host, gingerly rubbing the knuckles which had been left blue by the farmer's strong grip.
The boy, who had been studying the man before him, turned away to execute his father's order. If he knew anything about teachers—and he did—he and the other lads of the community were in for a high old time, he told himself. He went down to the gate, the dog trotting at his heels.
"Joe," he commanded, "go back home," and the collie lay down on the path, head between his forepaws.
The boy went out through the gate and approached the feeding horse cautiously. His quick eyes appraised its lean sides and noted the long welt made by the hickory on the clearly outlined ribs beneath the bay hide.
"Poor ol' beggar," he said gently.
At the sound of his voice the horse lifted his head and gazed at the boy in seeming surprise. A wisp of grass dangled from his mouth; his ears pricked forward. Perhaps something in the boy's voice recalled a voice he had known far back along his checkered life, when he was a colt and a bare-legged youngster fed him sugar and rode astride his back.
"He ought'a get a taste o' the gad hisself," muttered Maurice. "An' he's goin' to be our teacher, oh, Gash! Well, I kin see where me an' Billy Wilson gets ourn—maybe."
He patted the horse's thin neck. "Come, ol' feller, I'll stuff you with good oats fer once," he promised.
The horse reached forward his long muzzle and lipped one of the boy's ears. "Say horses don't understand!" grinned Maurice. "Gee! I guess maybe they do understand, though."
He gave the horse another pat and led him down the path into the stable. As he unsaddled him Maurice noticed the hickory wand which Mr. Johnston had left inserted between the upper loops of a stirrup.
"Hully gee! ol' feller, look!" Maurice extracted the wand and held it up before the animal's gaze. "Oh, don't put your ears back an' grin at me. I ain't goin' to use it on you," laughed the lad. "Look! This is what I'm goin' to do with that ol' bruiser's pointer." From a trouser's pocket he extracted a jackknife. "Now horsie, jest you watch me close. The next time he makes a cut at you he's goin' to get the surprise of his life. There, see? I've cut it through. Now I'll jest rub on some of this here clay to hide the cut. There you be! If I know anythin' 'bout seasoned hickory that pointer's goin' to split into needles right in his hand. I hope they go through his ol' fist and clinch on t'other side."
Maurice gave the tired horse a feed of oats, tossed a bundle of timothy into the manger, slapped the bay flank once again and went up the path to his breakfast.
Mrs. Keeler, a swarthy woman, almost as broad as she was tall, and with an habitual cloud of gloom on her features, met him at the door. She was very deaf and spoke in the loud, querulous tone so often used by people suffering from that affliction.
"Have you seen him?" she shouted. "What you think of him, Maurice?"
Maurice drew her outside and closed the door. "Come over behind the woodpile, Ma, an' I'll tell you," he answered cautiously.
"No, tell me here."
"Can't. He might hear me."
"Then you ain't took to that new teacher, Maurice?"
"Not what you'd notice, Ma. He ain't any like Mr. Stanhope. His face—I ain't likin' it a bit. Besides, Ma, he flogs his poor horse somethin' awful."
"How do you know that?" asked the mother, eying him sharply.
"Cause he left long welts on him. He's out in the stable. Go see fer yourself."
"No, I ain't got time. I got t' fry some more eggs an' ham. Go 'long in to your breakfast, an' see you keep your mouth shut durin' the meal. An' look here," she admonished, "if I ketch you apullin' the cat's tail durin' after-breakfast prayers I'll wollop you till you can't stand."
Maurice meekly followed his mother inside and slipped into his accustomed place at the table.
Mr. Johnston was certainly doing justice to the crisp ham and eggs on the platter before him. Occasionally he lifted his black eyes to flash a look at his host, who was entertaining him with the history of the settlement and its people.
"You'll find Deacon Ringold a man whose word is as good as his bond," Cobin was saying. "I'm married to his sister, Hannah, but I ain't sayin' this on that account. The deacon is a right good livin' man, fond of his own opinions an' all that, an' close on a bargain, but a good Christian man. He's better off than anybody else in these parts. But what he got he got honest. I'll say that, even if he is my own brother-in-law."
"Yes, yes," spoke Mr. Johnston, impatiently. "No doubt I shall get to know Mr. Ringold very well. Now, sir, concerning your other neighbors?" Mr. Johnston held a dripping yolk of egg poised, peering from beneath his brows at his host.
"Well, there's the Proctors, five families of 'em an' every last one of 'em a brother to the other."
"Meaning, I presume, that there are five brothers by the name of Proctor living in the community."
"By Gosh, you've hit it right on the head. That's what eddication does fer a man—makes him sharp as a razor. Yes, they're brothers an' so much alike all I've got to do is describe one of 'em an' you have 'em all."
"Remarkable," murmured Mr. Johnston. "Remarkable, indeed!"
"Did you say more tea, teacher?" Mrs. Keeler was at his elbow, steaming tea-pot in hand.
"Thank you, I will have another cup," Mr. Johnston answered, and turned his eyes back to Cobin.
"You have a neighbor named Stanhope, my predecessor, I understand," he said slowly.
"I'm proud to say we have, sir," beamed Keeler, "an' a squarer, finer young man never lived. A mighty good teacher he was too, let me tell you."
"I have no doubt. I have heard sterling reports of him; if he erred in his task it was because he was too lenient. Tell me, Mr. Keeler, is there not some history attached to him concerning a will, or property left by a man by the name of Scroggie? I'll admit I have no motive in so questioning save that of curiosity, but one wishes to know all one can learn about the man one is to follow. Is that not so, ma'am?" he asked, turning to the watchful hostess.
"More ham? Certainly." Mrs. Keeler came forward with a platter, newly fried, and scraped two generous slices onto Mr. Johnston's plate. "Now, sir, don't you be affeard to holler out when you want more," said the hospitable housewife.
"Ma's deefness makes her misunderstan' sometimes," Cobin explained in an undertone to the teacher. "But I was jest about to tell you Mr. Stanhope's strange history, sir, an' about ol' Scroggie's will. You sse the Stanhopes was the very first to drop in here an' take up land, father an' son named Frank, who wasn't much more'n a boy, but with a mighty good eddication.
"Roger Stanhope didn't live long but while he lived he was a right good sort of man to foller an' before he died he had the satisfaction of seein' the place in which he was one of the first to settle grow up into a real neighborhood. Young Frank had growed into a big, strappin' feller by this time an' took hold of the work his father had begun, an' I must say he did marvels in the clearin' an' burnin'.
"So things went along fer a few years. Then come a letter from England to Roger Stanhope. Frank read it to me. Seems they wanted Stanhope back home, if he was alive; if not they wanted his son to come. Frank didn't even answer that letter. He says to me, 'Mr. Keeler, this spot's good enough fer me.' An' by gosh! he stayed.
"When this settlement growed big enough fer a school, young Frank, who had a school teacher's di-ploma, offered to teach it. His farm was pretty well cleared by this time, so he got a man named Henry Burke to work it fer him an' Burke's wife to keep house. That was five years ago, an' Frank has taught the Valley School ever since, till now."
Keeler paused, and sighed deeply. "'Course, sir, you've heerd what happened an' how? He was tryin' to save some horses from a burnin' stable. A blazin' beam fell across his face; his eyes they—" Keeler's voice grew husky.
"I've heard," said Mr. Johnston. "His was a brave and commendable act."
"But he did a braver thing than that," cried Cobin. "He giv' up the girl who was to marry him, 'cause, he said, his days from now on must be useless ones, an' he wouldn't bind the woman he loved to his bleakness an' blackness. Them was his very words, sir."
To this Mr. Johnston made no audible reply. He simply nodded, waiting with suspended fork, for his narrator to resume.
"Concerning the purported will of the eccentric Mr. Scroggie?" he ventured at length, his host having lapsed into silence.
Keeler roused himself from his abstraction and resumed: "Right next to the Stanhope farm there stood about a thousand acres of the purtiest hardwoods you ever clap't an eye on, sir. An ol' hermit of a drunken Scotchman, Scroggie by name, owned that land. He lived in a dirty little cabin an' was so mean even the mice was scared to eat the food he scrimped himself on. He had money too, lots an' lots of gold money. I've seen it myself. He kept it hid somewhere.
"When the Stanhopes built their home on the farm, which was then mostly woods, old Scroggie behaved somethin' awful. He threatened to shoot Stanhope. But Stanhope only laughed an' went on with his cuttin' an' stump-pullin'. Scroggie used to swear he'd murder both of 'em, an' he was always sayin' that if he died his ghost would come back an' ha'nt the Stanhopes. Yes, he said that once in my own hearin'.
"One night, two years after Roger Stanhope died, old Scroggie got drunk an' would have froze to death if Frank hadn't found him an' carried him into his own home. Scroggie cursed Frank fer it when he came round but Frank paid no attention to him. After that, Scroggie—who was too sick to be moved—got to takin' long spells of quiet. He would jest set still an' watch Frank nights when the two was alone together.
"After a while the old man got strong enough to go home. Soon after that he disappeared an' stayed away fer nearly three weeks. Then, all at once, he turned up at home ag'in. He came over to Stanhope's house every now an' ag'in to visit with him. One night he says to Frank after they had had supper: 'Frank,' says he, 'I've been over to Cleveland an' I've made my will. I've left you everythin' I own. You're the only decent person I've known since I lost my ol' mother. I want that thousand acre woods to stand jest as God made it as long as I'm alive; when I die you kin do what you like with it.' Then afore Frank could even thank him the old man got up an' hobbled out.
"Next mornin'," continued Cobin, "Frank went over to see old Scroggie. He wanted to hear him say what he told him the night afore, ag'in. It was gettin' along towards spring; the day was warm an' smelled of maple sap. Scroggie's cabin door was standin' ajar, Frank says. The ol' man was sittin' in his chair, a Bible upside down on his knees. He was dead!
"Frank told Mr. Reddick, the preacher who came to bury old Scroggie, all that had passed between him an' the dead man but although they hunted high an' low fer the will, they never found it. Nor did they find any of the money the ol' miser must have left behind—not a solitary cent. That was over a year ago, an' they haven't found money or will yet. But this goes to show what a real feller Frank Stanhope is. He put a fine grave stone up for ol' Scroggie an' had his name engraved on it. Yes he done that, an' all he ever got from the dead man was his curses.
"Well, soon after they put old Scroggie under the sod, along comes a nephew of the dead man. No doubt in the world he was Scroggie's nephew. He looked like him, an' besides he had the papers to prove his claim that he was the dead man's only livin' relative. An' as Scroggie hadn't left no will, this man was rightful heir to what he had left behin', 'cordin' to law. He spent a week er two prowlin' round, huntin' fer the dead man's buried money. At last he got disgusted huntin' an' findin' nuthin' an' went away."
"And he left no address behind?" questioned Mr. Johnston.
"He surely did not," answered Cobin. "Nobody knows where he went—nor cares. But nobody can do anythin' with that timber without his sayso. It's a year or more since ol' Scroggie died. People do say that his ghost floats about the old cabin, at nights, but of course that can't be, sir."
"Superstitious nonsense," scoffed the teacher. "And so the will was never found?"
"No, er the buried money," sighed Cobin.
Mr. Johnston pushed his chair back from the table. "Thank you exceedingly, Mr. Keeler. I have enjoyed your breakfast and your conversation very much indeed. Madam," he said, rising and turning to Mrs. Keeler, "permit me to extend to you my heartfelt gratitude for your share in the splendid hospitality that has been accorded me. I hope to see you again, some day."
"Certainly," returned Mrs. Keeler, "Cobin! Maurice! kneel down beside your chairs. The teacher wants to pray."
Mr. Johnston frowned, then observing his host and hostess fall to their knees, he too got stiffly down beside his chair. He prayed long and fervently and ended by asking God to help him lead these people from the shadow into enlightenment.
It was during that prayer that Maurice, chancing to glance at the window, saw Billy Wilson's pet crow, Croaker, peering in at him with black eyes. Now, as Croaker often acted as carrier between the boys, his presence meant only one thing—Billy had sent him some message. Cautiously Maurice got down on all fours and crept toward the door.
"Now teacher," said Keeler, the prayer over, "you jest set still, an' I'll send Maurice out after your horse."
He glanced around in search of the boy. "Why, bless my soul, he's gone!" he exclaimed. "There's a youngster you'll need to watch close, teacher," he said grimly.
"Well sir, you jest rest easy an' I'll get your horse myself."

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved