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

THE RETURN

It was Sunday and Jack Bracken had been out all the afternoon, hunting for Cap’n Tom as he had been in the morning, when not at church. Hitching up the old horse, the Bishop started out to hunt also.

He did not go far on the road toward Westmoreland, for as Ben Butler plodded sleepily along, he almost ran over a crowd of boys in the public road, teasing what they took to be a tramp, because of his unkempt beard, his tattered clothes, and his old army cap.

They had angered the man and with many gestures he was endeavoring to expostulate with his tormentors, at the same time attempting imprecations which could not be uttered and ended in a low pitiful sound. He shook his fist at them he made violent gestures, but from his mouth came only a guttural sound which had no meaning.

At a word from the Bishop his tormentors vanished, and when he pulled up before the uncouth figure he found him to be a man not yet in his prime, with an open face, now blank and expressionless, overgrown with a black, tangled, and untrimmed beard.

He was evidently a demented tramp.

But at a second look the Bishop started. It was the man’s eyes which startled him. There was in them something so familiar and yet so unknown that the Bishop had to study a while before he could remember.

Then there crept into his face a wave of pitying sorrow as he said to himself:

“Cap’n Tom Cap’n Tom’s eyes.”

And from that moment the homeless and demented tramp had a warm place in the old man’s heart.

The Bishop watched him closely. His tattered cap had fallen off, showing a shock of heavy, uncut hair, streaked prematurely with gray.

“What yo’ name?” asked the Bishop kindly.

The man, flushed and angered, still gesticulated and muttered to himself. But at the sound of the Bishop’s voice, for a moment there flashed into his eyes almost the saneness of returned reason. His anger vanished. A kindly smile spread over his face. He came toward the Bishop pleadingly holding out both hands and striving to speak. Climbing into the buggy, he sat down by the old man’s side, quite happy and satisfied and as a little child.

“Where are you from?” asked the Bishop again.

The man shook his head. He pointed to his head and looked meaningly at the Bishop.

“Can’t you tell me where you’re gwine, then?”

He looked at the Bishop inquisitively, and for a moment, only, the same look almost of intelligence shone in his eyes. Slowly and with much difficulty ay, even as if he were spelling it out, he said:

“A-l-i-c-e”

The old man turned quickly. Then he paled tremblingly to his very forehead. The word itself the sound of that voice sent the blood rushing to his heart.

“Alice? and what does he mean? An’ his voice an’ his eyes Alice my God it’s Cap’n Tom!”

Tenderly, calmly he pulled the cap from off the strange being’s head and felt amid the unkempt locks. But his hands trembled so he could scarcely control them, and the sight of the poor, broken, half demented thing before him so satisfied and happy that he had found a voice he knew this creature, the brave, the chivalrous, the heroic Captain Tom! He could scarcely see for the tears which ran down his cheeks.

But as he felt, in the depth of his shock of hair, his finger slipped into an ugly scar, sinking into a cup-shaped hollow fracture which gleamed in his hair.

“Cap’n Tom, Cap’n Tom,” he whispered “don’t you know me the Bishop?”

The man smiled reassuringly and slipped his hand, as a child might, into that of the old man.

“A-l-i-c-e” he slowly and stutteringly pronounced again, as he pointed down the road toward Westmoreland.

“My God,” said the Bishop as he wiped away the tears on the back of his hand “my God, but that blow has spiled God’s noblest gentleman.” Then there rushed over him a wave of self-reproach as he raised his head heavenward and said:

Almighty Father, forgive me! Only this morning I doubted You; and now, now, You have sent me po’ Cap’n Tom!

“You’ll go home with me, Cap’n Tom!” he added cheerily.

The man smiled and nodded.

“A-l-i-c-e,” again he repeated.

There was the sound of some one riding, and as the Bishop turned Ben Butler around Alice Westmore rode up, sitting her saddle mare with that natural grace which comes only when the horse and rider have been friends long enough to become as one. Richard Travis rode with her.

The Bishop paled again: “My God,” he muttered “but she mustn’t know this is Cap’n Tom! I’d ruther she’d think he’s dead to remember him only as she knowed him last.”

The man’s eyes were riveted on her they seemed to devour her as she rode up, a picture of grace and beauty, sitting her cantering mare with the ease of long years of riding. She smiled and nodded brightly at the Bishop, as she cantered past, but scarcely glanced at the man beside him.

Travis followed at a brisk gait:

“Hello, Bishop,” he said banteringly “got a new boarder to-day?”

He glanced at the man as he spoke, and then galloped on without turning his head.

“Alice! Alice!” whispered the man, holding out his hands pleadingly, in the way he had held them when he first saw the Bishop. “Alice!” but she disappeared behind a turn in the road. She had not noticed him.

The Bishop was relieved.

“We’ll go home, Cap’n Tom you’ll want for nothin’ whilst I live. An’ who knows ay, Cap’n Tom, who knows but maybe God has sent you here to-day to begin the unraveling of the only injustice I’ve ever knowed Him to let go so long. It ’ud be so easy for Him He’s done bigger things than jes’ to straighten out little tangles like that. Cap’n Tom! Cap’n Tom!” he said excitedly “God’ll do it God’ll do it for He is just!”

As he turned to go a negro came up hurriedly: “I was fetchin’ him to you, Marse Hillard been lookin’ for yo’ home all day. I had gone to the spring for water an’ ’lowed I’d be back in a minute.”

“Why, it’s Eph,” said the Bishop. “Come on to my home, Eph, we’ll take keer of Cap’n Tom.”

It was Sunday night. They had eaten their supper, and the old man was taking his smoke before going to bed. Shiloh, as usual, had climbed up into his lap and lay looking at the distant line of trees that girdled the mountain side. There was a flush on her cheeks and a brightness in her eyes which the old man had noticed for several weeks.

Shiloh was his pet his baby. All the affection of his strong nature found its outlet in this little soul this motherless little waif, who likewise found in the old man that rare comradeship of extremes the inexplicable law of the physical world which brings the snow-flower in winter. The one real serious quarrel the old man had had with his stubborn and ignorant old wife had been when Shiloh was sent to the factory. But it was always starvation times with them; and when aroused, the temper and tongue of Mrs. Watts was more than the peaceful old man could stand up against. And as there were a dozen other tots of her age in the factory, he had been forced to acquiesce.

Long after all others had retired long after the evening star had arisen, and now, high overhead, looked down through the chinks in the roof of the cabin on the mountain side, saying it was midnight and past, the patient old man sat with Shiloh on his lap, watching her quick, restless breathing, and fearing to put her to bed, lest he might awaken her.

He put her in bed at last and then slipped into Captain Tom’s cabin before he himself lay down.

To his surprise he was up and reading an old dictionary studying and puzzling over the words. It was the only book except the Bible the Bishop had in his cabin, and this book proved to be Captain Tom’s solace.

After that, day after day, he would sit out under the oak tree by his cabin intently reading the dictionary.

Eph, his body servant, slept on the floor by his side, and Jack Bracken sat near him like a sturdy mastiff guarding a child. Sympathy, pity were written in the outlaw’s face, as he looked at the once splendid manhood shorn of its strength, and from that day Jack Bracken showered on Captain Tom all the affection of his generous soul all that would have gone to little Jack.

“For he’s but a child the same as little Jack was,” he would say.

“Put up yonovel, Cap’n Tom,” said the old man cheerily, when he went in, “an’ let’s have prayers.”

The sound of the old man’s voice was soothing to Captain Tom. Quickly the book was closed and down on their knees went the three men.

It was a queer trio the three kneeling in prayer.

“Almighty God,” prayed the old man “me an’ Cap’n Tom an’ Jack Bracken here, we thank You for bein’ so much kinder to us than we deserves. One of us, lost to his friends, is brought back home; one of us, lost in wickedness but yestiddy, is redeemed to-day; an’ me that doubted You only yestiddy, to me You have fotcht Cap’n Tom back, a reproach for my doubts an’ my disbelief, lame in his head, it is true, but You’ve fotcht him back where I can keer for him an’ nuss him. An’ I hope You’ll see fit, Almighty God, You who made the worl’ an’ holds it in the hollow of Yo’ han’, You, who raised up the dead Christ, to give po’ Cap’n Tom back his reason, that he may fulfill the things in life ordained by You that he should fulfill since the beginning of things.

“An’ hold Jack Bracken to the mark, Almighty God, let him toe the line an’ shoot, hereafter, only for good. An’ guide me, for I need it me that in spite of all You’ve done for me, doubted You but yestiddy. Amen.”

It was a simple, homely prayer, but it comforted even Captain Tom, and when Jack Bracken put him to bed that night, even the outlaw felt that the morning of a new era would awaken them.