Read CHAPTER I of Once to Every Man , free online book, by Larry Evans, on ReadCentral.com.

The most remarkable thing about the boy was his eyes that is, if any man with his spread of shoulder and masculine grace of flat muscled hips could be spoken of any longer as a boy, merely because his years happened to number twenty-four.

They, however the eyes were gray; not a too light, off-color, gleaming gray, but more the tone of slate, deep when one chanced to find oneself peering deep into them. And they were old. Any spontaneity of youth which might have flashed from them at one time had faded entirely and left a sort of wistful sophistry behind, an almost plaintive hunger which made the pity of his shoulder-stoop still mercifully only a prophecy of what the next twenty years of toil might leave it an even more pitiful thing. His sheer bigness should have been still unspoiled; instead it was already beginning to lose its rebound; it was growing imperceptibly slack, like the springy stride of a colt put too soon to heavy harness.

Late afternoon was giving way to nightfall a long shadowed twilight that was heavy with the scent of spring in spite of the scattered patches of wet snow that still lurked in the swamp holes. As the boy stood, facing toward the east and the town that sprawled in the hollow, his great, shoulder-heavy body loomed almost like a painted figure against the cool red background of the horizon. Even in spite of the pike-pole which he grasped in one hand and the vividly checkered blanket coat that wrapped him, the illusion was undeniable. Stripped of them and equipped instead with a high steeple-crowned hat and wide buckled shoes, his long half-saddened face and lean body might have been a composite of all the Puritan fathers who had wrestled with the rock-strewn acres behind him, two hundred years and more before.

Denny Bolton was waiting Young Denny, the townsfolk preferred to call him, to distinguish him from Old Denny of the former generation. Somehow, although he had never mentioned it to anybody, it seemed to him that he had always been waiting for something he hardly knew just what it was himself just something that was drearily slow in the coming.

His home, the farmhouse of the Boltons, for which the straggling village of Boltonwood below had been named, was nearest of all the outlying places on the post route, yet last of all to be served, for when the rural delivery had been established they had begun delivery at the other end of the circle. Young Denny had never been able to understand quite why it was so but it was, for all that. And with the minister, too, it happened, although not so often, for the minister of Boltonwood called at almost every door on his rounds and stayed longer at each, so sometimes for months at a time he never got around to the shabby place on the hill at all. But the boy believed that he did understand this and often he smiled to himself over it, without any bitterness just smiled half wistfully. He lived alone in the tumble-down old house and did his own cooking and well, even a most zealous man of the gospel might have beamed more heartily upon better cooks than was Denny, without any great qualms of conscience.

One other reason existed, or at least Young Denny imagined that it did, but whenever he stopped to think about it a thing he had come to do more and more often in the last few months he never smiled. Instead, his lips straightened until the wistful quirk at the corners disappeared into a straight line and his eyes smouldered ominously.

There was a select circle of white-haired old men the village old guard which sat in nightly session about the fat-bellied old wood-stove in the Boltonwood Tavern. It convened with the first snowfall of the winter and broke up long after the ice had gone out in the spring; and this circle, when all other topics had been whipped over at fever heat, until all the zest of bitter contradiction was gone from them, always turned at last with a delightful sort of unanimity to the story of the night when Old Denny had died the Bolton of the former generation.

An almost childish enthusiasm tinged their keen relish for the tale. They squirmed and puckered their wrinkled old faces and shivered convulsively, just as a child might have shivered over a Bluebeard horror, as they recalled how Old Denny had moaned in agony one moment that night, and then screamed horribly the next for the old stone demijohn that always stood in the corner of the kitchen. They remembered, with an almost astonishing wealth of detail, that he had frothed at the mouth and blasphemed terribly one instant, and then wept, in the very same breath wept hopelessly, like the uncouth, overgrown, frightened boy who knelt at the bedside.

The strangest part of the whole thing was that not one of them had realized at the time, or ever recalled since, that Old Denny’s eyes were sane when he wept that night and blurred with madness when he cursed. But then, too, that would have smashed the dramatic element of the whole tale to flinters. They never missed a scene or a sob, however, in the re-telling, and they always ended it with an ominous tilt of the head and a little insinuating crook of the neck toward the battered, weather-torn old house where Young Denny had lived on alone since that last bad night. It was very much as though they had said aloud, “He’s the next he’ll go just like the rest.”

Perhaps they never really thought of it, and perhaps it was because Young Denny’s failure to fulfil their prophecy had really embittered them, but the whole village had given the boy plenty of solitude in the last few years in which to become on terms of thorough intimacy with the demijohn which still occupied its place in the kitchen corner.

And yet that stone demijohn was almost the only tangible reminder there was left of the Bolton who had gone before. There were a few in the village who wondered how, in the three intervening years, the big silent, shambling boy had managed to tear from his acres money enough to clear the place of its debt the biggest thing by far in his heritage. Eight hundred dollars was a large sum in Boltonwood and Denny’s acres were mostly rocks. Old Denny would have sold the last scythe and fork in the dilapidated barn to fill the stone jug, save for the fact that fork and scythe had themselves been too dilapidated to find a purchaser.

But the same scythe had an edge now and a polish where the boy’s hands had gripped and swung it, and it took a flawlessly clear-grained piece of ash to make a shaft that would stand the forkfuls of hay which his shoulders heaved, without any apparent effort, into the mow. The clapboards on the house, although still unpainted, no longer whined in the wind; they were all nailed tight. And still the circle around the stove in the Boltonwood Tavern tilted its head tilted it ominously as if to say: “Just wait a bit, he’ll come to it wait now and see!” But the prophecy’s fulfilment, long deferred, was making them still more bitter strangely bitter toward the boy, who stood alone at sundown watching the road that wound up from the village.

All this Young Denny knew, not because he had been told, but because the part of him that was still boy sensed it intuitively. He was just as happy to be let alone, or at least so he told himself, times without end, for it gave him a chance to sleep. And tonight as he stood at the crest of the hill before the dark house, waiting for Old Jerry to come along with the mail, he was glad, too, that his place was the last on the route. It gave him something to look forward to during the day something to expect for although he rarely received a letter or, to be more exact, never, the daily newspaper was, after all, some company. And then there were the new farm implement catalogues and seed books, with their dyspeptic looking fruits and vegetables. They made better reading than nothing at all.

But it was not the usual bundle of papers which came at the end of each week for which Young Denny was waiting. Old Jerry, who drove the post route, and had driven it as long as Denny could remember, was late tonight he was even later than usual for Saturday night and Denny’s hand tightened nervously upon the shaft of the pike-pole as he realized the cause of the delay.

For many weeks he had heard but little else mentioned on the village streets on his infrequent trips after groceries and grain. The winter sledding was over; the snow had gone off a month back with the first warm rain; just that afternoon he had made the last trip behind his heavy team down from the big timber back on the ridges, but during that month the other drivers with whom he had been hauling logs since fall had talked of nothing but the coming event.

From where he stood, looking out across the valley, Young Denny could see the huge bulk of the Maynard homestead Judge Maynard’s great box of a house silhouetted against the skyline, and back of it high piles of timber framing and sheathing for the new barn that was going up. For Judge Maynard was going to give a barn-raising an old-fashioned barn-raising such as the hill country had not seen in twenty years.

Already Young Denny knew that there were to be two team captains who would choose from among the best men that the country boasted, the very pick of strength and endurance and daring. And these, when the word was given, would swarm up with mallet and lock-pin over their half of the allotted work, in the race to drive home the last spike and wedge into place the last scantling. For days now with a grave sort of satisfaction which he hardly understood himself, Young Denny had time after time put all his strength against a reluctant log, skidding timber back on the hillside, and watched the lithe pike-pole bend half double under the steadily increasing strain. Somehow he felt very sure that one or the other of the captains would single him out; they couldn’t afford to pass him by.

But in that one respect only was Judge Maynard’s barn-raising to be like those that had passed down into history a score of years back. Every other detail, as befitted the hospitality of the wealthiest man in the hill country, was planned on a scale of magnificence before unheard of, and Denny Bolton stood and touched furtively with the tip of his tongue lips that were dry with the glamour of it all.

It was to be a masquerade the dance which followed on the wide, clean floors not the kind of a masquerade which the church societies gave from time to time to eke out the minister’s salary and which, while he had never attended, Young Denny had often heard described as “poverty-parties,” because everybody wore the oldest of his old clothes but a marvelously brilliant thing of hired costumes. It did not mean so much to him, this last, and yet as he thought of it his tight lips twisted into a slow smile and his eyes swung from their hungry contemplation of the great Maynard house to a little clump of brushwood which made a darker blot against the black shadow of the hill from the crest of which the Judge’s place dominated the surrounding country. Little by little Denny Bolton’s lean face lost its hint of hardness; the lines that ran from his thin nose to the corners of his lips disappeared as he smiled smiled with whimsical gentleness at the light that glimmered from a single window through the tangled bushes, twinkling back at him unblinkingly.

There was a tiny cottage behind that light, a little drab cottage of a half dozen rooms. It stood, unpainted and unkempt, in a wedge-shaped acre of neglected garden which, between high weeds and uncut shrubbery, had long before gone to straggling ruin. And that wedge-shaped acre which cut a deep fissure in the edge of the immaculate pastures of Boltonwood’s wealthiest citizen was like a barbed thorn in Judge Maynard’s side.

The latter was not a judge in reality; partly the size of the cash balance which rumor whispered he carried at the county bank, partly the fact that he was the only lawyer in that section, had earned him the title. But every trick of his tricky trade which he could invent he had brought against the owner of that little, dilapidated cottage in a vain effort to force him to sell. And yet the acre of neglect and ruin still clung like an unsightly burr to the hem of his smooth-rolling acres.

The people of Boltonwood were given to calling John Anderson a fool, and not alone because he persisted in his senseless antagonism of a man as great in the township as was Judge Maynard. There was at least one other reason. It was almost twenty years now since the day when John Anderson had first appeared in the stern old hill town, bringing with him a frail slip of a woman with great, moist violet-blue eyes and tumbled yellow hair, whose very white and gold prettiness had seemed to their puritanical eyes the flaunting of an ungodly thing. There was a transparent pallor in her white skin and heavy shadows beneath her big dark eyes that made them seem even larger and duskier. A whispered rumor went around that she was not too strong that it was the brisk keen air for which John Anderson had brought her to the hills.

The little drab cottage had been white then and there was scarcely a day but what the passers-by saw the slender girl, in soft fluttering things that contrasted painfully with their dingy calico, the thick gleaming mass of hair that crowned her head wind-tossed into her eyes, standing with her face buried in an armful of crimson blossoms in the same garden where the weeds were now breast high, or running with mad, childish abandon between the high hedgerows. And many a night after it was too dark to see they heard the man’s heavier bass underrunning the light treble of her laughter which, to their sensitive ears, was never quite free from a tinge of mockery.