Read THE BOLL: CHAPTER XI of The Bishop of Cottontown A Story of the Southern Cotton Mills , free online book, by John Trotwood Moore, on ReadCentral.com.

A MIDNIGHT BURIAL

It was growing late when the old preacher left Westmoreland and rode leisurely back toward the cabin on Sand Mountain. The horse he was riding a dilapidated roan was old and blind, but fox-trotted along with the easy assurance of having often travelled the same road.

The bridle rested on the pommel of the saddle. The old man’s head was bent in deep thought, and the roan, his head also down and half dreaming, jogged into the dark shadows which formed a wooded gulch, leading into the valley and from thence into the river.

There is in us an unnameable spiritual quality which, from lack of a more specific name, we call mental telepathy. Some day we shall know more about it, just as some day we shall know what unknown force it is which draws the needle to the pole.

It is the border land of the spiritual a touch of it, given, to let us know there is more and in great abundance in the country to which we ultimately shall go, a glimpse of the kingdom which is to be.

To-night, this influence was on the old man. The theme of his thoughts was, Captain Tom. Somehow he felt that even then Captain Tom was near him. How where why he could not tell. He merely felt it.

And so the very shadows of the trees grew uncanny to him as he rode by them and the slight wind among them mourned Captain Tom Captain Tom.

It was a desolate place in the narrow mountain road and scarcely could the old man see the white sand which wound in and through it, and then out again on the opposite side into the clearing beyond the scraggy side of Sand Mountain. But the horse knew every foot of the way, and though it was always night with him, instinct had taught him a sure footing.

Suddenly the rider was awakened from his reverie by the old horse stopping so suddenly as almost to unseat him. With a snort the roan had stopped and had thrown up his head, quivering with fear, while with his nose he was trying to smell out the queer thing which stood in his path.

The moon broke out from behind a cloud at the same moment, and there, in the middle of the road, not ten yards from him, stood a heavily built, rugged, black-bearded man in a ragged slouched hat and pointing a heavy revolver at the rider’s head.

“Hands up, Hillard Watts!”

The old man looked quietly into the muzzle of the revolver and said, with a laugh:

“This ain’t ‘zactly my benediction time, Jack Bracken, an’ I’ve no notion of h’istin’ my arms an’ axin’ a blessin’ over you an’ that old pistol. Put it up an’ tell me what you want,” he said more softly.

“Well, you do know me,” said the man, coming forward and thrusting his pistol into its case. “I wa’nt sho’ it was you,” he said, “and I wa’nt sho’ you’d kno’ me if it was. In my business I have to be mighty keerful,” he added with a slight laugh.

He came up to the saddle-skirt and held out his hand, half hesitatingly, as he spoke.

The Bishop as every one knew him glanced into the face before him and saw something which touched him quickly. It was grief-stricken, and sorrow sat in the fierce eyes, and in the shadows of the dark face. And through it all, a pleading, beseeching appeal for sympathy ran as he half doubtingly held out his hand.

“Why, yes , I’ll take it, Jack, robber that you are,” said the old man cheerily. “You may not be as bad as they say, an’ no man is worse than his heart. But what in the worl’ do you want to hold up as po’ a man as me an’ if I do say it, yo’ frien’ when you was a boy?”

“I know,” said the other “I know. I don’t want yo’ money, even if you had it. I want you. You’ve come as a God-send. I I couldn’t bury him till you’d said somethin’.”

His voice choked he shook with a suppressed sob.

The bishop slid off his horse: “What is it, Jack? You hain’t kilt anybody, have you?”

“No no” said the other “it’s little little Jack he’s dead.”

The Bishop looked at him inquiringly. He had never before heard of little Jack.

“I I dunno’, Jack,” he said. “You’ll have to tell me all. I hain’t seed you sence you started in your robber career after the war sence I buried yo’ father,” he added. “An’ a fine, brave man he was, Jack a fine, brave man an’ I’ve wondered how sech a man’s son could ever do as you’ve done.”

“Come,” said the other “I’ll tell you. Come, an’ say a prayer over little Jack fust. You must do it” he said almost fiercely “I won’t bury him without a prayer him that was an angel an’ all I had on earth. Hitch yo’ hoss just outer the road, in the thicket, an’ follow me.”

The Bishop did as he was told, and Jack Bracken led the way down a rocky gulch under the shaggy sides of Sand Mountain, furzed with scraggy trees and thick with underbrush and weeds.

It was a tortuous path and one in which the old man himself, knowing, as he thought he did, every foot of the country around, could easily have been lost. Above, through the trees, the moon shone dimly, and no path could be seen under foot. But Jack Bracken slouched heavily along, in a wabbling, awkward gait, never once looking back to see if his companion followed.

For a half mile they went through what the Bishop had always thought was an almost impenetrable cattle trail. At last they wound around a curve on the densely wooded side of the mountain, beyond which lay the broad river breathing out frosty mist and vapor from its sleeping bosom.

Following a dry gulch until it ended abruptly at the river’s bluff, around the mouth of which great loose rocks lay as they had been washed by the waters of many centuries, and bushes grew about, the path terminated abruptly. It overlooked the river romantically, with a natural rock gallery in front.

Jack Bracken stopped and sat down on one of the rocks. From underneath he drew forth a lantern and prepared to light it. “This is my home,” he said laconically.

The Bishop looked around: “Well, Jack, but this is part of my own leetle forty-acre farm. Why, thar’s my cabin up yander. We’ve wound in an’ aroun’ the back of my place down by the river! I never seed this hole befo’.”

“I knew it was yo’s,” said the outlaw quietly. “That’s why I come here. Many a Sunday night I’ve slipped up to the little church winder an’ heard you preach me an’ po’ little Jack. Oh, he loved to hear the Bible read an’ he never forgot nothin’ you ever said. He knowed all about Joseph an’ Moses an’ Jesus, an’ last night when he died o’ that croup befo’ I c’ud get him help or anything, he wanted you, an’ he said he was goin’ to the lan’ where you said Jesus was ”

He broke down he could not say it.

Stepping into the mouth of the cave, he struck a match, when out of sight of the entrance way, and stepping from stone to stone he guided the Bishop down some twenty feet, following the channel the water had cut on its way underground to the river. Here another opening entered into the dry channel, and into it he stepped.

It was a nicely turned cave a natural room, arched above with beautiful white lime-rock, the stalactites hanging in pointed clusters, their starry points twinkling above like stars in a winter sky. Underneath, the soft sand made a clean, warm floor, and the entire cave was so beautiful that the old man could do nothing but look and admire, as the light fell on stalagmite and ghostly columns and white sanded floors.

“Beautiful,” he said “Jack, you cudn’t he’p gettin’ relig’un here.”

“Little Jack loved ’em,” said the outlaw. “He’d lay here ev’y night befo’ he’d go to sleep an’ look up an’ call it his heaven; an’ he said that big column thar was the great white throne, an’ them big things up yander with wings was angels. He had all them other columns named for the fellers you preached about Moses an’ Aaron an’ Joseph an’ all of ’em, an’ that kind o’ double one lookin’ like a woman holding her child, he called Mary an’ little Jesus.”

“He’s gone to a prettier heaven than this,” said the Bishop looking down on the little figure, with face as pale and white as any of the columns around him, neatly dressed and wrapped, save his face, in an old oil cloth and lying on the little bed that sat in a corner.

The old man sat down very tenderly by the little dead boy and, pulling out a testament from his pocket, read to the outlaw, whose whole soul was centered in all he said, the comforting chapter which Miss Alice had that night read to the old negro: “Let not your hearts be troubled....

He explained as he read, and told the father how little Jack was now in one of the many mansions and far better off than living in a cave, the child of an outlaw, for the Bishop did not mince his words. He dwelt on it, that God had taken the little boy for love of him, and to give him a better home and perhaps as a means of changing the father, and when he said the last prayer over the dead child asking for forgiveness for the father’s sins, that he might meet the little one in heaven, the heart of the outlaw burst with grief and repentance within him.

He fell at the old man’s feet, on his knees he laid his big shaggy head in the Bishop’s lap and wept as he had never wept before.

“There can’t be you don’t mean,” he said “that there is forgiveness for me that I can so live that I’ll see little Jack again!”

“That’s just what I mean, Jack,” said the old man “here it all is here in a book that never lies, an’ all vouched for by Him who could walk in here to-night and lay His sweet hands on little Jack an’ tell him to rise an’ laugh agin, an’ he’d do it. You turn about now an’ see if it ain’t so an’ that you’ll be better an’ happier.”

“But my God, man you don’t know you don’t understan’. I’ve robbed, I’ve killed. Men have gone down befo’ my bullets like sheep. They was shootin’ at me, too but I shot best. I’m a murderer.”

The old Bishop looked at him calmly.

“So was Moses and David,” he replied “men after God’s own heart. An’ so was many another that’s now called a saint, from old Hickory Jackson up.”

“But I’m a robber a thief” began Jack Bracken.

“We all steal,” said the old man sadly shaking his head “it’s human nature. There’s a thief in every trade, an’ every idle hand is a robber, an’ every idle tongue is a thief an’ a liar. We all steal. But there’s somethin’ of God an’ divinity in all of us, an’ in spite of our shortcomin’ it’ll bring us back at last to our Father’s home if we’ll give it a chance. God’s Book can’t lie, an’ it says: ‘Tho’ your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow!’ ... an’ then agin, shall have life everlasting!

“Life everlastin’,” repeated the outlaw. “Do you believe that? Oh, if it was only so! To live always up there an’ with little Jack. How do you know it ain’t lyin’? It’s too gran’ to be so. How do you know it ain’t lyin’, I say? Hillard Watts, are you handin’ it out to me straight about this here Jesus Christ?” he cried bitterly.

“Well, it’s this way, Jack,” said the old man, “jes’ this away an’ plain as the nose on yo’ face: Now here’s me, ain’ it? Well, you know I won’t lie to you. You believe me, don’t you?”

The outlaw nodded.

“Why?” asked the Bishop.

“Because you ain’t never lied to me,” said the other. “You’ve allers told me the truth about the things I know to be so.”

“But now, suppose,” said the old man, “I’d tell you about somethin’ you had never seed that, for instance, sence you’ve been an outcast from society an’ a livin’ in this cave, I’ve seed men talk to each other a hundred miles apart, with nothin’ but a wire betwix’ ’em.”

“That’s mighty hard to believe,” said the outlaw grimly.

“But I’ve seed it done,” said the Bishop.

“Do you mean it?” asked the other.

“As I live, I have,” said the Bishop.

“Then it’s so,” said Jack.

“Now that’s faith, Jack an’ common sense, too. We know what’ll be the earthly end of the liar, an’ the thief, an’ the murderer, an’ him that’s impure because we see ’em come to thar end all the time. It don’t lie when it tells you the good are happy, an’ the hones’ are elevated an’ the mem’ry of the just shall not perish, because them things we see come so. Now, if after tellin’ you all that, that’s true, it axes you to believe when it says there is another life a spiritual life, which we can’t conceive of, an’ there we shall live forever, can’t you believe that, too, sence it ain’t never lied about what you can see, by your own senses? Why ever’ star that shines, an’ ever’ beam of sunlight fallin’ on the earth, an’ ever’ beat of yo’ own heart by some force that we know not of, all of them is mo’ wonderful than the telegraph, an’ the livin’ agin of the spirit ain’t any mo’ wonderful than the law that holds the stars in their places. You’ll see little Jack agin as sho’ as God lives an’ holds the worl’ in His hand.”

The outlaw sat mute and motionless, and a great light of joy swept over his face.

“By God’s help I’ll do it” and he bowed his head in prayer the first he had uttered since he was a boy.

It was wonderful to see the happy and reconciled change when he arose and tenderly lifted the dead child in his arms. His face was transformed with a peace the old man had never seen before in any human being.

Strong men are always strong in crime in sin. When they reform it is the reformation of strength. Such a change came over Jack Bracken, the outlaw.

He carried his dead child to the next room: “I’ve got his grave already chiseled out of the rocks. I’ll bury him here right under the columns he called Mary and little Jesus, that he loved to talk of so much.”

“It’s fitten” said the old man tenderly “it’s fitten an’ beautiful. The fust burial we know of in the Bible is where Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah for to bury Sarah, his wife. And as Abraham bought it of Ephron, the Hittite, and offered it to Abraham for to bury his dead out of his sight, so I give this cave to you, Jack Bracken, forever to be the restin’ place of little Jack.”

And so, tenderly and with many kisses did they bury little Jack, sinless and innocent, deep in the pure white rock, covered as he was with purity and looking ever upwards toward the statue above, wherein Nature’s chisel had carved out a Madonna and her child.