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

That drearily bleak day which was to witness the temporary passing of the last of the line of Boltons from the town which had borne their name longer even than the oldest veteran in the circle of regulars which nightly flanked the cracked wood-stove in the Tavern office could recall, brought with it a succession of thrills not second even to those that had been occasioned by the advent of the plump newspaper man from the metropolis, and all his promised works.

And yet, so far as he himself was concerned, Young Denny Bolton was totally oblivious, or at least apparently so, to the very audible hum of astonishment which ripped along behind them when they he and Judge Maynard of all men whirled down the main street of the village that morning through the gray mist already heavy as fine rain, to stop with a great flourish of glittering harness buckles and stamping of hoofs before the post-office doors.

It was the busiest hour which the straggling one-story shops along the unpaved thoroughfare knew, this one directly following the unshuttering of the specked, unwashed show-windows, known distinctly as “mail time” a very certain instant when Old Jerry’s measured passage from the office doors to his dilapidated rig at the edge of the boardwalk heralded the opening of the general delivery window within.

It was Old Jerry’s hour the one hour of the day in which his starved appetite for notoriety ever supped of nourishment that moment when the small knot of loiterers upon the sidewalk, always, face for face, composed of the same personnel as the unvarying nightly circle about the Tavern stove, gave way before him and the authority of the “Gov’mint” which he personified.

Since that first morning, years back, which had hailed his initial appearance with the mail bags slung over one thin shoulder, he had made the most of that daily entrance upon the stage of publicity. There was always a haughty aloofness in his eyes that killed any word of greeting upon the lips of these same beholders with whom, a few hours later, he was to sit and wrangle in bitterest intimacy; a certain brisk importance of step which was a palpable rebuke to their purposeless unemployment.

Just once this haughty reserve had been assailed. It happened that same first morning when Old Dave Shepard, white of head and womanishly mild of voice, alike the circle’s patriarch and most timid member, had stepped forward and laid one unsteady hand upon his arm, some embarrassed word of congratulation trembling on his lips. Old Jerry’s bearing upon that one occasion had precluded for all time the possibility of its recurrence. He had stepped back a pace, out of reach of those detaining fingers, and fastened the offender with a stare of such baleful resentment that the latter drew off in pitiful haste for self-effacement. And Jerry’s words on that one occasion were still current history.

“I warn you, Mister Shepard,” he had shrilled, “that it’s a state’s prison offense to interfere with a Gov’mint official in the performance of his duty and if you’ve got any complaints to make they’ll have to be set down reg’lar in writin’, so’s I can give ’em due consideration!”

Dating from that day Old Jerry’s daily appearance had taken on, at least in the eyes of the Tavern regulars, a ceremonious importance that demanded their personal attendance, and although it still lacked a few moments of the hour for which they were waiting, a roll-call would have found their number complete when the yellow-wheeled buckboard of Boltonwood’s most important citizen, with its strangely assorted pair of passengers, flashed into view. Denny Bolton was totally oblivious to the stir which their appearance created, but if he was too engrossed with other things to be aware of the breathless hush which followed it, the huge, moon-faced man who occupied the seat of the buckboard with him was conscious of it all to a degree sufficient for both.

From the moment when he had himself answered the summons at the front door of his great, boxlike house on the hill, and found Young Denny standing there, Judge Maynard had sensed a sensation. With unerring judgment he read it in the very carriage of the big-shouldered boy before him, who for the first time in his life failed to uncover his head, with a due amount of reverence, in the presence of the town’s great man.

Perhaps with his mind set upon other things that morning Young Denny forgot it, perhaps there was an even deeper reason for his remissness, but the Judge, while he stood and listened to the boy’s tersely short explanation of his errand, was himself too taken up with other thoughts to note the omission. He was already formulating the rounded sentences with which he would introduce the subject that night to the circle in the Tavern office.

There was much of the dramatic in the whole situation much that needed only proper staging and elaboration to make of it a tremendous triumph, a personal triumph, the extent of which he began to foresee with Denny’s opening words. And the greater became his consciousness of Denny Bolton’s strange new bearing, the clearer he saw all the possibilities of the situation.

To cap it all, the one big, irrefutable fact about which he could build his climax was there all ready before him, ripe for exploitation. It was with an actual effort of the will that the Judge held his brain sufficiently attentive to the boy’s words to grasp the reason for his early morning visit, in the face of the fascination which that great, ragged bruise across Denny’s chin had for him. Properly displayed, properly played up, the possibilities of that raw, unbandaged wound were incalculable, and the Judge started almost guiltily from his greedy scrutiny of it to a sudden realization that the boy before him had paused in his recital and was waiting in almost insulting self-possession for a reply.

Many men and some few women had rung boldly at the Judge’s front door or, more often, tapped timidly at the entrance in the rear of the house, all bent upon the same errand. For it was a country-wide secret that no one had ever been turned away from those doors with a refusal. If any of those same visitors ever awakened to a realization that the terms of their bargain were far harder to bear than a refusal might have been, they nursed that knowledge in secret.

The Judge was a first mortgage financier, and he scanned each new addition to his already extensive collection with all the elaborate care which a matcher of precious stones might have exercised in the assembling of a fabulous priced string of pearls. It was his practice to scrutinize each transaction from every possible angle, in every degree of light and shade, but in his eagerness that morning he forgot to don for Denny the air of gracious understanding that was half paternal, half deprecating, which he always wore to set the others more at their ease. He even forgot to clear his throat judicially when he asked the boy before him if he had considered sufficiently the gravity of such a step as the placing in pawn of the roof that sheltered him and the ground that gave him food. It may have been because Young Denny, as he stood quietly waiting for his answer, came under neither classification he was neither pitifully timid nor more pitifully bold that the Judge omitted the usual pompous formula, or merely that in his eager contemplation of the boy’s hurt face he forgot for once his perfectly rehearsed part.

No preoccupation, however, marred the businesslike statement of his terms, but even while he named the amount which he was willing to risk upon Young Denny’s arid, rocky acres, and the rate of interest which he felt compelled to demand, his brain was racing far ahead of the matter in hand. It was the Judge himself who engineered the half hour’s delay which resulted in the fullest possible audience for their appearance that morning. While he had never attended it himself, except now and then by chance, he knew too well the infallibility of that little knot of regulars who watched Old Jerry’s daily departure to have any fears that the first of that day’s many thrills would go unseen or unsung. And he timed their arrival to a second.

Old Jerry was in the doorway, ready for his straight-backed descent of the worn steps, when Judge Maynard pulled his smooth gaited pair to a restive standstill before the office and gave the reins into Young Denny’s keeping. The throng of old men upon the sidewalk was at the point of opening ranks to allow him to pass through to his tattered buggy, which stood at the roadside, a bare half-length ahead of the Judge’s polished equipage. And now those same ranks broke in wild disorder and then closed tighter even than before, while they shifted and struggled for a better view.

They forgot the ceremonious solemnity of the moment and the little, birdlike figure upon the top step trying not to show too plainly upon his face a sense of his own importance they forgot everything but the portend of the scene which the Judge was handling in so masterful a fashion.

The latter’s descent from his seat to the ground was deliberate, even for him; his silent nod to those wide-eyed, loose-jawed old men upon the sidewalk was the very quintessence of secretive dignity, and yet had he taken up his position there on the corner of the uneven boardwalk and cried aloud his sensation, like a bally-hoo advertising the excellence of his own particular side-show, he could not have equaled the results which the very profundity of his silence achieved.

There was a momentous promise in his gravity, a hint of catastrophe in the tilt of his head. Like two receding waves the tight ranks opened before him, clearing a path for his heavy-footed advance to the post-office doors a lane of bulging eyes and clicking tongues such as Old Jerry in all his days had never provoked. And the latter stood there stock still in the middle of the entrance, too dazed at first to grasp the whole meaning of the situation, until he, too, was swept aside, without so much as a glance or a word, by one majestic sweep of the Judge’s hand.

Old Jerry’s sparrowlike, thinly, wistful face flamed red, and then faded a ghastly white, but no one seemed conscious at that moment of the ignominy of it all. It was hours later that they recalled it and realized that they had looked upon history in the making. No one noticed the old man’s faltering descent of the steps, or saw that he paused in his slow way to the buggy to turn back and stand looking about him in a kind of bewildered desperation. For the gaze of all had swung from the Judge’s broad, disappearing back to the face of the boy who was sitting in the buckboard, totally unconscious of that battery of eyes, smiling to himself.

He even chuckled aloud once Young Denny did a muffled, reasonless sort of a chuckle, as if he did not even know they were there. It was almost as though he were playing straight into the Judge’s own plan, for the effect of the mirth upon the group on the walk was electrical. It sent a shiver of anticipation through it from end to end. And then, like the eyes of one man, their eyes swung back again from the ragged bruise across the boy’s chin to meet the Judge as he reappeared.

Yet not one of them so much as dared to whisper the question that was quivering upon the lips of all and burning hungrily in their faded eyes. Once more the wide lane opened magically for him but again Judge Maynard’s measured progress was momentarily barred. Curiosity may have prompted it, and then again it may have been that he was betrayed by the very fury of his desperate, eleventh hour effort to assert his right to the center of that stage the right of long-established precedent yet even those two long files of old men gasped aloud their dismay at his temerity when Old Jerry thrust his way forward and planted himself for a second time squarely in the great man’s path.

Half way from the office doors to the yellow-wheeled buckboard, in the very middle of the walk, he stood and stretched out a tentatively restraining hand, just as mild-voiced, white-haired Dave had done years before. And in his high, cracked falsetto, that was tremulously bitter for all that he struggled to lift it to a plane of easy jocularity, he exclaimed:

“Now see here, Jedge; what’s the meanin’ of all this? You ain’t turned kidnapper, hev you?”

There came a heavy hush, while the Judge stood and stared down at the thin face trying to smile confidently up at him a hush that endured while Judge Maynard swept him from head to foot with one shriveling glare and then walked around him without a word walked around him just as he might have walked around the hitching post at the roadside, or any other object that chanced to bar his way! And this time Old Jerry’s face twitched and went whiter even than before.

Nobody laughed, not even after the yellow-wheeled buckboard with its strangely assorted pair of passengers had sped from sight toward the county seat and a legal adjustment of still another mortgage on the Bolton acres. Not a word was spoken until Old Jerry, too, had clambered silently into his own creaking buggy and crawled slowly off up the hill, with a squealing accompaniment of ungreased axles.

And even then, in the argument which began with a swirl of conjecture and ended, hours later, in a torrent of bitter personalities farthest of all from the first question under consideration, they avoided a mention of that regrettable incident just as for some time after its occurrence they avoided each other’s eyes, as if they felt somehow that theirs was, after all, the real guilt.

Upon one point alone did they agree; they were unanimous that if Young Denny Bolton’s bearing that morning the angle at which he held his chin, and the huge cut that adorned it, and his causeless mirth was not entirely damning, it was at least suspicious enough to require more than a little explanation. But that verdict, too, was none other than the very one which the Judge had already planned for them.