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

JACK AND THE LITTLE ONES

No one would ever have supposed that the big blacksmith at the village was Jack Bracken. All the week he worked at his trade so full of his new life that it shone continually in his face his face strong and stern, but kindly. With his leathern apron on, his sleeves rolled up, his hairy breast bare and shining in the open collar, physically he looked more like an ancient Roman than a man of to-day.

His greatest pleasure was to entice little children to his shop, talking to them as he worked. To get them to come, he began by keeping a sack of ginger snaps in his pockets. And the villagers used to smile at the sight of the little ones around him, especially after sunset when his work was finished. Often a half dozen children would be in his lap or on his knees at once, and the picture was so beautiful that people would stop and look, and wonder what the big strong man saw in all those noisy children to love.

They did not know that this man had spent his life a hunted thing; that the strong instinct of home and children had been smothered in him, that his own little boy had been taken, and that to him every child was a saint.

But they soon learned that the great kind-hearted, simple man was a tiger when aroused. A small child from the mill, sickly and timid, was among those who stopped one morning to get one of his cakes.

Not knowing it was a mill child on its way to work, Jack detained it in all the kindness of his heart, and the little thing was not in a hurry to go. Indeed, it forgot all about the mill until its father happened along an hour after it should have been at work. His name was Joe Hopper, a ne’er-do-well whose children, by working at the mill, supported him in idleness.

Catching the child, he berated it and boxed its ears soundly. Jack was at work, but turning, and seeing the child chastised, he came at the man with quiet fury. With one huge hand in Joe Hopper’s collar, he boxed his ears until he begged for mercy. “Now go,” said Jack, as he released him, “an’ know hereafter how it feels for the strong to beat the weak.”

Of all things, Jack wanted to talk with Margaret Adams; but he could never make up his mind to seek her out, though his love for this woman was the love of his life. Often at night he would slip away from the old preacher’s cabin and his cot by Captain Tom’s bed, to go out and walk around her little cottage and see that all was safe.

James, her boy, peculiarly interested Jack, but it was some time before he came to know him. He knew the boy was Richard Travis’s son, and that he alone had stood between him and his happiness. That but for him the son of his mother he would never have been the outlaw that he was, and even now but for this son he would marry her. But outlaw that he was, Jack Bracken had no free-booting ideas of love. Never did man revere purity in woman more than he that one thing barred Margaret Adams forever from his life, though not from his heart.

He felt that he would hate James Adams; but instead he took to the lad at once his fine strange ways, his dignity, courage, his very aloofness and the sorrow he saw there, drew him to the strange, silent lad.

One day while at work in his shop he looked up and saw the boy standing in the door watching him closely and with evident admiration.

“Come in, my lad,” said Jack, laying down his big hammer. “What is yo’ name?”

“Well, I don’t know that that makes any difference,” he replied smiling, “I might ask you what is yours.”

Jack flushed, but he pitied the lad.

He smiled: “I guess you an’ I could easily understan’ each other, lad what can I do for you?”

“I wanted you to fix my pistol for me, sir and and I haven’t anything to pay you.”

Jack looked it over the old duelling pistol. He knew at once it was Colonel Jeremiah Travis’s. The boy had gotten it somehow. The hair-spring trigger was out of fix. Jack soon repaired it and said:

“Now, son, she’s all right, and not a cent do I charge you.”

“I didn’t mean that,” said the boy, flushing. “I have no money, but I want to pay you, for I need this pistol need it very badly.”

“To shoot rabbits?” smiled Jack.

The boy did not smile. He ran his hand in his pocket and handed Jack a thin gold ring, worn almost to a wire; but Jack paled, and his hand shook when he took it, for he recognized the little ring he himself had given Margaret Adams years ago.

“It’s my mother’s,” said the boy, “and some man gave it to her once long ago for she is foolish about it. Now, of late, I think I have found out who that man was, and I hate him as I do hell itself. I am determined she shall never see it again. So take it, or I’ll give it to somebody else.”

“If you feel that way about it, little ’un,” said Jack kindly, “I’ll keep it for you,” and he put the precious relic in his pocket.

“Now, look here, lad,” he said, changing the subject, “but do you know you’ve got an’ oncommon ac’rate gun in this old weepon?”

The boy smiled interested.

“It’s the salt of the earth,” said Jack, “an’ I’ll bet it’s stood ’twixt many a gentleman and death. Can you shoot true, little ’un?”

“Only fairly can you?”

“Some has been kind enough to give me that character” he said promptly. “Want me to give you a few lessons?”

The boy warmed to him at once. Jack took him behind the shop, tied a twine string between two trees and having loaded the old pistol with cap and powder and ball, he stepped off thirty paces and shot the string in twain.

“Good,” said the boy smiling, and Jack handed him the pistol with a boyish flush of pride in his own face.

“Now, little ‘un, it’s this away in shootin’ a weepon like this it’s the aim that counts most. But with my Colts now the self-actin’ ones you’ve got to cal’c’late chiefly on another thing a kinder thing that ain’t in the books the instinct that makes the han’ an’ the eye act together an’ ‘lowin’, at the same time, for the leverage on the trigger.” The lad’s face glowed with excitement. Jack saw it and said: “Now I’ll give you a lesson to-day. Would you like to shoot at that tree?” he asked kindly.

“Do you suppose I could hit the string?” asked the boy innocently.

Jack had to smile. “In time little ’un in time you might. You’re a queer lad,” he said again laughing. “You aim pretty high.”

“Oh, then I’ll never hit below my mark. Let me try the string, please.”

To humor him, Jack tied the string again, and the boy stepped up to the mark and without taking aim, but with that instinct which Jack had just mentioned, that bringing of the hand and eye together unconsciously, he fired and the string flew apart.

“You damned little cuss,” shouted Jack enthusiastically, as he grabbed the boy and hugged him “to make a sucker of me that way! To take me in like that!”

“Oh,” said the boy, “I do nothing but shoot this thing from morning till night. It was my great grandfather’s.”

And from that time the two were one.

But another thing happened which cemented the tie more strongly. One Saturday afternoon Jack took a crowd of his boy friends down to the river for a plunge. The afternoon was bright and warm; the frost of the morning making the water delightful for a short plunge. It was great sport. They all obeyed him and swam in certain places he marked off all except James Adams. He boldly swam out into the deep current of the river and came near losing his life. Jack plunged in in time to reach him, but had to dive to get him, he having sunk the third time. It required hard work to revive him on the bank, but the man was strong and swung the lad about by the heels till he got the water out of his lungs, and his circulation started again. James opened his eyes at last, and Jack said, smiling: “That’s all right, little ’un, but I feared onct, you was gone.”

He took the boy home, and then it was that for the first time for fifteen years he saw and talked to the woman he loved.

“Mother,” said the boy, “this is the new blacksmith that I’ve been telling you about, and he is great guns just pulled me out of the bottom of the Tennessee river.”

Jack laughed and said: “The little ’un ca’n’t swim as well as he can shoot, ma’am.”

There was no sign of recognition between them, nothing to show they had ever seen each other before, but Jack saw her eyes grow tender at the first word he uttered, and he knew that Margaret Adams loved him then, even as she had loved him years ago.

He stayed but a short while, and James Adams never saw the silent battle that was waged in the eyes of each. How Jack Bracken devoured her with his eyes, the comely figure, the cleanliness and sweetness of the little cottage his painful hungry look for this kind of peace and contentment the contentment of love.

And James noticed that his mother was greatly embarrassed, even to agitation, but he supposed it was because of his narrow escape from drowning, and it touched him even to caressing her, a thing he had never done before.

It hurt Jack that caress. Richard Travis’s boy she would have been his but for him. He felt a terrible bitterness arising. He turned abruptly to go.

Margaret had not spoken. Then she thanked him and bade James change his clothes. As the boy went in the next room to do this, she followed Jack to the little gate and stood pale and suffering, but not able to speak.

“Good-bye,” he said, giving her his hand “you know, Margaret, my life why I am here, to be near you, how I love you, have loved you.”

“And how I love you, Jack,” she said simply.

The words went through him with a fierce sweetness that shook him.

“My God don’t say that it hurts me so, after what you’ve done.”

“Jack,” she whispered sadly “some day you’ll know some day you’ll understand that there are things in life greater even than the selfishness of your own heart’s happiness.”

“They can’t be,” said Jack bitterly “that’s what all life’s for heart happiness love. Why, hunger and love, them’s the fust things; them’s the man an’ the woman; them’s the law unto theyselves, the animal, the instinct, the beast that’s in us; the things that makes God excuse all else we do to get them we have to have ’em. He made us so; we have to have ’em it’s His own doin’.”

“But,” she said sweetly “suppose it meant another to be despised, reviled, made infamous.”

“They’d have to be,” he said sternly, for he was thinking of Richard Travis “they’d have to be, for he made his own life.”

“Oh, you do not understand,” she cried. “And you cannot now but wait wait, and it will be plain. Then you’ll know all and that I love you, Jack.”

He turned bitterly and walked away.