Read CHAPTER XXIV of The Roof Tree , free online book, by Charles Neville Buck, on ReadCentral.com.

From the shallow porch of a house over which brooded the dismal spirit of neglect and shiftlessness a woman stood looking out with eyes that should have been young, but were old with the age of a heart and spirit gone slack.

Evidences of thrift cast overboard bespoke the dejection that held sway there, and yet the woman had pathetic remnants of a beauty not long wrecked. Her hollow cheeks and lustreless hair, the hopeless mouth with a front tooth missing, served in their unsightliness to make one forget that the features themselves were well modelled, and that the thin figure needed only the filling out of sunken curves to bring back comeliness of proportion.

The woman was twenty-two and looked forty-five, but the small, shawl-wrapped bundle of humanity that she held in her arms was her first child, and two years ago she had been accounted a neighbourhood beauty.

Under her feet the flooring of the porch creaked its complaint of disrepair and the baby in her arms raised a shrill and peevish howl of malnutrition.

As the mother clasped it closer and rocked it against her shrunken breast a second and older woman appeared in the doorway, a witch-faced slattern who inquired in a nasal whine:

“Kain’t ye, no fashion, gentle him ter sleep, Sally?”

The mother shook her head despondently.

“My milk don’t seem ter nourish him none,” she answered, and the voice which had once been sweet carried a haunting whine of tragedy.

Into the lawless tangle of the “laurel-hell” that came down the mountainside to encroach upon the meagre patch reclaimed for human habitation, a man who had crept yard by yard to the thicket’s edge drew back at the sight of the older woman.

This man carried a rifle which he hitched along with him as he made his slow progress, and his clothes were ragged from laboured travel through rocky tangles. Small stains of blood, dried brown on his face and hands, testified to the stinging obstruction of thorned trailer and creeping briar, and his cheeks were slightly hollowed because for two days he had avoided human habitations where adequate food could be obtained.

Now he crouched there, gazing steadfastly at the house, and schooled his patience to keep vigil until the mother should come out or the other woman go away.

At least, Parish Thornton told himself, his sister and her baby were alive.

Out of the house door slouched a year-old hound puppy with shambling feet and lean ribs. It stood for a moment, whining and wagging a disconsolate tail at the woman’s feet, then came suddenly to life and charged a razor-back hog that was rooting at will in what should have been a potato patch.

The hog wheeled with a startled grunt and stampeded into the thicket almost upsetting in its headlong flight the man who was hiding there.

But the dog had stopped and stood rigidly sniffing as human scent proclaimed itself to his nostrils. The bristles rose erect as quills along his neck and shoulders as a deep growl rumbled in his throat.

That engrossment of interest and disquiet held until the woman with the baby in her arms came down the two steps, in curiosity, and crossed the yard.

Then Thornton let his whisper go out to her with an utterness of caution: “Don’t say nothin’, Sally.... Walk back inter ther woods ... outen sight of the house ... it’s me ... it’s yore brother, Ken.”

For an instant she stood as tremulous as though she had seen or heard a ghost, while in her thin and shrunken bosom her heart pounded. Then she said: “I’ll be thar d’reckly. I’ll take ther baby back ter Mirandy.”

“No,” commanded the man, “bring hit with ye. I hain’t nuver saw hit yit.”

Parish Thornton had come safely home, and in forest stretches where fallen leaves lay crisp and thick under foot the razor-backs were fattening on persimmons and mast. Along the horizon slept an ashen mist of violet. “Sugar trees” blazed in rustling torches of crimson and in the sweet-gums awoke colour flashes like those which glint in a goblet of burgundy.

Before the house in the bend of the river the great walnut stood like a high-priest lording it over lesser clerics: a Druid giant of blond maturity, with outstretched arms that seemed to brush the drifting cloud-fleece by day and the stars by night. It whispered with the wandering voices of the little winds in tones of hushed mystery.

Mellow now and tranquil in its day of fruitage it had the seeming of meditation upon the cycles of bud and leaf, sun and storm; the starkness of death and the miracle of resurrection.

Yet the young wife searched its depths of foliage with an eye of anxiety for, though she had not spoken of it, her discernment recognized that the fungus-like blight was spreading through its breadth and height with a contagion of unhealth.

Beneath it Parish and Dorothy were gathering and piling the walnuts that should in due season be beaten out of their thick husks and stored away for winter nights by the blazing hearth, and in their veins, too, was the wine and the fragrance of that brief carnival that comes before the desolation of winter.

Dorothy straightened and, looking off down the road, made sudden announcement.

“Look thar, Cal. Ef hit hain’t a stranger ridin’ up on hoss-back. I wonder now who is he?”

With unhurried deliberation, because there was languor in the air that day, the man rose from his knee, but as soon as he saw the mounted figure his features stiffened and into them came the expression of one who had been suddenly stricken.

Dorothy, still looking outward, with the inquisitiveness of a land to which few strangers come, did not see that recognition of a Nemesis, and quickly, in order that the stranger himself might not see it, the man drew a long breath into his chest and schooled himself to the stoic bearing of one who calmly accepts the inevitable.

By that time the horseman had halted and nodded. He dismounted and threw his rein over a picket, then from the stile he accosted Thornton: “Ken, I reckon ye knows me,” he said, “an’ I reckon ye knows what brought me.”

Parish went forward, but before he reached the stile he turned and in a level voice said, “Dorothy, this hyar man’s Jake Beaver. He’s ther high-sheriff from over in Virginny ... I reckon he seeks ter take me back.”

Dorothy stood with all her pliant sinews inordinately tensed; with her deep eyes wide and terrified, yet voiceless of any outburst or exclamation, and near her, ill at ease, but seeking to treat the affair as an inescapable matter of business, and consequently a commonplace, the sheriff shifted his weight from foot to foot, and fanned himself with his hat.

The exact wording of the warrant was after all of no particular consequence. The announcement of its purport had carried all its necessary significance. Yet, before he spoke again, Kenneth Thornton, also known as Parish Thornton and as Cal Maggard these names being included in the document as aliases read it from preamble to signature and seal at the end.

Then he inquired: “How come ye ter diskiver wh’ar I was at, Jake?”

The officer shook his head. “Thet’s a question I hain’t got ther power ter answer ye, Ken. Somebody over thar got tidin’s somehow and drapped a hint ter ther Commonwealth’s Attorney.”

With a nod of comprehension the man who was wanted accepted that explanation. He had not expected a fuller one.

Then, turning, he complied with the demands of courtesy. “Dorothy,” he asked, “hain’t ye goin’ ter invite Jake ter come in an’ eat him some dinner?”

The woman had not spoken. For her, stoic-bred though she was, it was impossible to separate calmly the personal side of this stranger from the abstract and menacing thing for which he stood. Now she gulped down a hot and inhospitable impulse of refusal and said briefly to her husband, “You kin invite him ef ye’ve a mind ter, Cal. I won’t.”

The officer flushed in embarrassment. Sheriffs, like bloodhounds, are frequently endowed with gentle natures, and this mission was not of Beaver’s own choosing. It was a pursuit he followed with nothing of the sportsman’s zest.

“I reckon I moût es well git over an’ done with all ther onpleasant jobs I’ve got on hand,” he announced, awkwardly, “air ye willin’ ter waive extradition, Ken, or does ye aim ter fight goin’ back? Hit’s jest a matter of time either way but ye’ve got the privilege of choosin’.”

The man he had come after was carefully folding the warrant of arrest along its folded lines as though it were important to preserve the exact creasing of the paper.

“Does I keep this hyar thing, Jake,” he asked, “or give hit back to ye?”

“Keep hit,” replied the sheriff, with an equal gravity. “Hit b’longs ter you.”

There was a brief silence after that then Thornton said:

“This is a right grave matter ter me, Jake. Afore I decides what ter do I’ve got ter hev speech with some of my neighbours.”

The foreign official inclined his head.

“I hain’t drapped no hint ter no man es ter what business brought me hyar,” he volunteered. “I ’lowed ter talk with ye in private fust. I knows full well I’m amongst yore friends over hyar an’ I’ve got ter trust myself in yore hands. This hain’t no welcome task, Ken, any way ye looks at hit.”

“I gives ye my hand, Jake,” the accused reassured his accuser, “no harm hain’t goin’ ter come ter ye. Come on indoors and sot ye a cheer.”

Parish Thornton stood under the black walnut again that afternoon and with his jackknife he was carving a small basket out of one of the walnuts that had fallen at his feet. About him stood a group including the custodian of “the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth of Virginia” and the man who held like responsibility for the state of Kentucky.

Between the two, unexpressed but felt, lay the veiled hostility that had grown up through generations of “crossing the border” to hide out; the hostility of conflicting jurisdictions.

Hump Doane and Jim Rowlett were there, and Aaron Capper and Lincoln Thornton a handful who could speak with the voice of public opinion thereabouts, and while he carved industriously at his watch-charm basket, Parish Thornton glanced at the cripple.

“Mr. Doane,” he said, “once, standin’ on this identical spot, ye asked me a question thet I refused ter answer. This man hes come over hyar, now, ter answer hit fer me. Jake, tell these folks what brought ye hither.”

The sheriff cleared his throat and by way of preface remarked: “I didn’t come of my own choosin’, gentlemen. Ther state of Virginny accuses Parish Thornton of ther wilful murder of John Turk. I’m high-sheriff over in Lee County whar hit tuck place.”

A grave restraint prevented any expression of surprise, but all the eyes were turned upon Thornton himself, and the accused gave back even glance for even glance.

“Now I’m goin’ ter give ye my side of hit,” he began, though to give his side in full justice he would have had to reveal a secret which he had no intent of disclosing.

“My sister, Sally, married John Turk an’ he abused her till she couldn’t endure hit no longer. Her pride was mighty high an’ she’d hev cut her tongue out afore she’d hev told her neighbours ther way she war misused but I knowed hit.” As he paused his eyes darkened into sombre memory. “I reasoned with John an’ he blackguarded me, too, an’ ferbid me ter darken his door.... Deespite thet command I feared fer her life an’ I fared over thar ... I went in at ther door an’ he war a-maltreatin’ her an’ chokin’ her. I railed out ... an’ he hurt her wusser ... hit war his life or her’n. Ef hit war all ter do over ergin I wouldn’t act no different.” He paused again and no one offered a comment; so he resumed his statement: “I hain’t told ye all of hit, but I reckon thet’s enough. Thar warn’t no witnesses ter holp me come cl’ar an’ ther co’te over thar wouldn’t vouchsafe me no justice.... Hit’s jedge b’longed ter John Turk’s kinfolks body an’ soul ... so I come away.”

“I reckon ye’d be plum daft ef ye didn’t stay away,” remarked the Kentucky sheriff with a sharp and bellicose glance at his colleague from another state. “Virginny officers hain’t got no power of arrest in Kaintuck.”

The Virginian bit a trifle nervously from a twist of “natural leaf.”

“Hit’s my bounden duty, though,” he declared, staunchly, “ter call on you ter arrest him an’ hold him till I gits me them extradition papers from Frankfort an’ then hit’s yore bounden duty ter fotch him ter ther state line an’ deliver him over ter me.”

“I’m ther man thet decides what my duty is,” came the swift retort, and Thornton raised a hand to quell incipient argument.

“Thet hain’t ther p’int, men,” he reminded them. “Ther law kin reach in an’ take me out finally. We all knows thet onless I forsook my home hyar an’ lived a refugee, hidin’ out. Atter they once diskivered whar I was, I moût jest es well be thar es hyar.”

“Ther boy’s right,” ruled Hump Doane, judicially. “A man kain’t beat ther law in ther long run.” Then the cripple wheeled on the sheriff.

“Mr. Beaver,” he said, “we hain’t got no quarrel with ye fer doin’ yore plain duty, but whether ye calls this man a criminal over thar in Virginny or not we knows over hyar thet he’s a godly upholder of ther law an’ we don’t aim ter see him made no scape-goat fer unlawful wrath ef we kin hinder hit. In so fur es we kin legally compass hit we stands ready ter fight ther state of Virginny from hell ter breakfast. All he’s got ter do is jest give us ther word.”

“I hain’t seekin’ ter contrary ye none es ter thet, Mr. Doane,” the officer gave ready assurance.

“Ef Mr. Thornton takes my counsel,” went on the deformed leader, “he’ll bid ye go back thar an’ tell them folks ye comes from thet ef they’ll admit him ter bail, an’ pledge him a fa’r day in co’te, he’ll come back thar without no conflict when ye sends fer him. But ye’ve got ter hev ’em agree ter let him stay over hyar till ther co’te sets ter try him. Es fer his bond ye kin put hit at any figger ye likes so long es thar’s land enough an’ money enough amongst us ter kiver hit.”

The Virginia sheriff turned to the Kentucky officer.

“Will ye arrest this man an’ hold him safe till I gits my order?” he demanded, and the Kentuckian in turn inquired of Parish, “Will ye agree to hold yoreself subject ter prompt response?”

Thornton nodded and casually the local officer replied:

“All right, Mr. Beaver. Ye kin ride on home now whenever ye gits ready. I’ve got this prisoner in a custody thet satisfies me right now.”