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

The perplexed frown still furrowed Young Denny’s forehead. He felt that the fire had wrought a most remarkably swift cure of all that he had feared, but the anxiety faded from his eyes. White head perked forward, balanced a little on one side, birdlike, Old Jerry was waiting for him to pick up the thread which had been broken so long. And now it was the big-shouldered boy who faltered in his words, uncertain just how to begin.

“I I don’t know just how to ask you,” he started heavily. “I’m I am going away. I’m figuring on being gone quite a while, I think. First, just after I had decided to go, some time last night, I made up my mind to ask you to take care of the stock till I came back. I thought maybe it wouldn’t be too hard for you with you coming by at night, anyhow. There’s just the one cow and the team, and the hens to feed. And then I I got to thinkin’ that maybe, too, you’d be able to do something else for me, if I sort of explained how things were. There there wasn’t anyone else I could think of who’d be likely to want to do me a favor.”

He paused and licked his lips. And Old Jerry, too, furtively touched his with the tip of his tongue. He was waiting breathlessly, but he managed to nod his head a little, encouragingly, as he leaned closer.

“And that was what I was really waiting for,” the slow voice went on ponderously. “I saw this morning anybody could have seen what the Judge meant them all to believe along the street when we drove through. Somehow things have changed in the last twelve hours. I sort of look at some things differently than I did, and so it was funny, just funny to watch him, and I’m not so blind that I don’t know what his story will be tonight down at the Tavern. Not that I care what they say, either. But there is some one who couldn’t help believin’ it couldn’t believe anything else after what happened last night.” He stopped, groping for words to finish. “And so I I waited for you to come,” he went on lamely. “I took you outside and showed you how it really happened, so that so that you could tell her the truth.”

He nodded over his shoulder nodded once out across the valley in the direction of John Anderson’s small drab cottage huddled in the shadow under the hill. And now, once he had fairly begun, all the diffidence, all the self-consciousness went from his voice. It was only big and low and ponderous, as always, as he went back and told the old man, who sat drinking it in, every detail of that night before, when he had stooped and risen and sent the stone jug crashing through the window when he had turned, with blood dripping from his chin, to find Dryad Anderson there in the doorway, eyes wide with horror and loathing. Not until he had reached that point did Old Jerry move or hint at an interruption.

“But why in time didn’t you tell her yourself?” he asked then. “Why didn’t you explain that old Tom hit you a clip out there in the dark?”

Young Denny’s face burned.

“I I tried to,” he explained simply. “I I started toward her, meaning to explain, but I tripped, there on the threshold, and went down on my knees. I must have been a little sick a little giddy. And when I got up again she she was gone.”

Old Jerry nodded his head judicially. He sucked in his lips from sheer delight in the thrill of it all, and nodded his head in profound solemnity.

“Jest like a woman jest like a woman, a-condemnin’ of a man without a bit of mercy! Jest like ’em! I ain’t never been enticed yet into givin’ up my freedom; but many’s the time I’ve said says I ”

The boy’s set face checked him; made him remember. This was no mimic thing. It was real; too real to need play-acting. And with that thought came recollection. All in a flash it dawned on him that this was no man-created situation; it must have something greater than that behind it.

That morning had seen his passing from the circle to which he had belonged as long as the circle had existed. All through that dreary day he had known that he could never go back to it. Just why he could not say, but he felt that that decision was irrevocable. And for that whole day he had been alone more utterly, absolutely alone than he had ever been in his whole life yet here was a place awaiting him, needing him. For some reason it was not quite so hard to look straight back into the eyes of that soul which he had discovered that day; it wasn’t so hard, even though he knew it now for the pitiful old fraud it really was.

His thin, leathery face was working spasmodically. And it was alight aglow with a light that came entirely from within.

“Could you maybe explain,” he quavered hungrily; “could you kinda tell me just why it is you’re a-askin’ me? It it ain’t jest because you hev to, entirely; now, is it? It ain’t because there ain’t nothin’ else left you to do?”

Denny Bolton sensed immediately more than half of what was behind the question. He shook his head.

“No,” he answered steadily. “No, because I’m going to try to tell her again, myself, tonight. It’s only partly because maybe I I won’t be able to see her before I go and part because she she’d believe you, somehow, I think, when she wouldn’t believe any of the rest.”

The white-haired old man sighed. His stiffened body slackened as he shifted his feet against the stove.

“Why why, I kinda hoped it was something like that,” he murmured; and he was talking more to himself than to Denny. “I kinda hoped it was but I never had no reason to believe it.”

His voice lifted until it was its shriller, more natural falsetto.

“I wouldn’t ‘a’ believed myself today, at twelve o’clock noon,” he stated flatly. “No, sir-e-e! After takin’ stock of myself, as you might say, the way I done this morning, I wouldn’t ‘a’ believed myself on oath!”

His feet dropped noisily to the floor, and he sat bolt upright again.

“But she’s a-goin’ to believe me! Godfrey, yes, she’ll believe me when I git through tellin’ her!”

His pale eyes clung to the boy’s face, tinged with astonishment before so much vehemence.

“And ain’t it kinda struck you ain’t it sorta come to you that she wa’n’t quite fair, either, any more than the rest of us, a-thinkin’ a-thinkin’ what she did, without any real proof?”

Young Denny did not have time to reply.

“No, I reckon it ain’t,” Old Jerry rushed on. “And I don’t know’s I’ve got much right criticizing either. Not very much! I’ve been a tidy hand at jedgin’ other folks’ matters until jest lately. Some way I ain’t quite so handy at it as I was. And I kinda expect she’s goin’ to be sorry she even thought it, soon enough, without my tryin’ to make her any more so. She’s goin’ to be mighty uncomfortable sorry, if she’s anything like me!”

He rose and shuffled across to the door, and stopped there. Denny could not understand the new thrill there was in his cracked voice, nor the light in those pale eyes. But he knew that the old man before him had been making something close akin to an eleventh-hour confession; making it out of a profound thankfulness for the opportunity. With the same gesture with which he bade the old man wait, his big hand went inside his shirt, and came out again. And he reached out and pressed something into Old Jerry’s knotty fingers.

“I I was sure you’d do it,” he told him. “I knew you would. And I want you to take this, too, and keep it. I don’t want to go away like this, but I have to. If I didn’t start right now I I might not go at all. I hate to leave her alone in this town. That’s half of what the Judge let me have today on this place. It’s not much, but it’s something if she should need anything while I’m gone. I thought you might see that she was all right till I got back?”

The servant of the “Gov’mint” stood and stared down at the limp little roll of bills in his hand; he stared until something caught in his throat and made him gulp again noisily. But his face was shamelessly defiant of the mist that smarted under his eyelids when he looked up again.

“Take care of her?” he whispered. “Me take care of her for you? Why why, Godfrey why, man ”

He dashed one hand across his eyes.

“I’m a old gossipy fool,” he exclaimed. “Nothin’ but a old gossipy fool; but I reckon you don’t hev to count them bills over before you leave ’em with me. Not unless you want to. I’ve been just an ordinary, common waggle-tongue. That’s what I really come for in such a hurry tonight, once I’d thought of it. Jest to see if I couldn’t nose around into business that wa’n’t no concern of mine. But I’m gittin’ over that I’m gittin’ over that fast! Learning a little dignity of bearin’, too, as you might say. And I don’t deny I ain’t a little curious yet more’n a little curious. But I want to tell you this: There’s some folks that lies mostly for profit, and some that lies largely for their own amusement, and they both do jest about as much damage in the long run, and I ain’t no better, jest because I never made nothin’ outen mine. But if you could kinda drop me a line, maybe once in a while, and tell me how you’re gittin’ on, I’d be mighty glad to hear. An’ it wouldn’t do no harm, either.” He nodded his head, in turn, in the direction of the drab cottage across the valley. “Because because she’s goin’ to be waitin’ to hear she’s goin’ to be sorry, and kinda wonderin’. I know well, jest because I know!”

Still he lingered, with his fingers on the door catch. He shoved out his free hand.

“I I suppose we’d ought to shake hands, hedn’t we,” he faltered; “bein’ as it’s kinda considered the reg’lar and customary thing to do on such occasions?”

Denny was smiling as his hand closed over those clawlike fingers; he was smiling in a way that Old Jerry had never seen before. Because the noise in his throat was growing alarmingly louder every moment, the latter went on talking almost wildly, to cover that weakness which he could not control.

“I hope you git on,” he said. “And I reckon you will. It’s funny it’s more’n that and I don’t know where I got the idea. But it’s kinda come to me, somehow, that maybe it was that account in the paper that story of Jeddy Conway that’s set you to leavin’. It ain’t none of my business, and I ain’t askin’ no questions, but I do want to say that there never was a time when you couldn’t lick the everlastin’ tar outen him. And you’ve growed some since then. Jest a trifle jest a trifle!”

The boy’s smile widened and widened. Then he laughed aloud softly and nodded his head.

“I’ll send you the papers,” he promised. “I’ll send you all of them.”

Old Jerry stood with his outstretched hand poised in midair while he realized that his chance shot had gone home. And suddenly, unaccountably, he began to chuckle; he began to cackle noisily.

“I might ‘a’ knowed it,” he whispered. “I ought to hev knowed it all along. Now, you don’t hev to worry they ain’t one mite of a thing I ain’t a-goin’ to see to while you’re away. You don’t want nothin’ on your mind, because you’re goin’ to hev a considerable somethin’ on your hands. And I got to git along now. Godfrey, but it’s late for me to be up here, ain’t it? I got to hustle, if I ever did; and there ain’t too much time to spare. For tonight tonight, before I git through, I aim to put a spoke in the Jedge’s wheel, down to the Tavern, that’ll make him think the axles of that yello’-wheeled gig of his’n needs greasin’. Jest a trifle jest a trifle!”

He opened the door and slammed it shut behind him even before the boy could reply. Still smiling whimsically, Young Denny stood and listened to the grating of the wheels as the buggy was turned about outside heard the old rig groan once, and then complain shrilly as it started on its way. But no one witnessed Old Jerry’s wild descent to the village that night; no one knew the mad speed he made, save the old mare between the shafts; and she was kept too busy with the lash that whistled over her fat flanks to have given the matter any consistent thought.

Old Jerry drove that scant mile or two this night under the spur of his one greatest inspiration; and while he drove he talked aloud to himself.

“And I was a-goin’ to fix it for him,” he muttered once, “I was a-goin’ to fix that old busted jug in the morning. Godfrey, I must ‘a’ been flustered!” He shrilled in uncontrollable glee at the recollection. And then again, later and far more gravely:

“I’m a-gittin’ more religious every livin’ day. I’m gittin’ more religious jest from standin’ around and kinda watchin’ how things is made to work out right, jest when you’ve about decided that the Lord ain’t payin’ as much attention to details as he might.”

He knew that there had to be a light in the windows of the Tavern office; he knew that he had to be in time. That was the finger of a Something behind the whole day’s developments which was directing it all so masterfully. And because he was so certain of it all because he was positive that he was the agent who had been selected to mete out justice at last he found himself possessed of a greater courage than he had ever known before as he clambered down from his seat and mounted the worn steps.

A rush of chill air swept the group about the sprawling stove as he opened the door and made each member lift his head, each after a fashion that was startlingly indicative of the man himself. For Judge Maynard wheeled sharply as the cold blast struck him wheeled with head flung back challengingly, and a harsh rebuke in every feature while old Dave Shepard turned and merely shivered. He just shivered and flinched a little from the draft, appealingly. The rest registered an ascending scale of emotions betwixt and between.

Just as he knew he would find them they sat. Judge Maynard had the floor; and it was an easy thing to read that he had all but reached the crisis of his recital. Any man could have read that merely from the protest in the faces of the rest. And yet Old Jerry simply stood there and swept the group with serene and dangerous geniality.

“Evenin’, folks,” he saluted them mildly.

His mildness was like a match to the fuse. Judge Maynard pounded his fat knee with a fatter fist, and exploded thunderously:

“Shut that door!” he roared. “Shut that door!”

Old Jerry complied with amazing alacrity. The very panels shivered with the force of the swing that slammed it close. The Judge should have known right there he should have read the writing on the wall and yet he failed to do that thing. Instead, he turned back once more to his audience back to his interrupted tale, and left Old Jerry standing there before the door, ignored.

“As I was sayin’.” He cleared his throat. “As I was sayin’ when this unnecessary interruption occurred, I realized right from the moment when I opened the door and saw him standing there in front of me, grinning, and his chin cut wide open, that there was something wrong. I am a discerning man and I knew! And it didn’t take me long to convince him not very long! that there were other communities which would find him more welcome than this one. Maybe I was harsh maybe I was but harsh cases require harsh remedies. And because he didn’t have the money, I offered to let him have enough to carry him out of town, and something to keep him about as long as he’ll last now, I’m thinking, although that place of his isn’t worth as much as the paper to write the mortgage on.

“I knew it had come at last but, at that, I didn’t get anything that I wanted to call real proof until after we’d drawn up the papers and signed ’em, and were about ready to start back. Then, when we were coming down the steps of the clerk’s office, I got all the proof I wanted, and a little more than that. He he stumbled just about then, and would have gone down on his face if I hadn’t held him up. And he was laughing out loud to himself, chuckling, with one fist full of money fit to draw a crowd. And he pulled away from me just when I was trying to force him into the buggy pulled away and sort of leered up at me, waving that handful of bills right under my nose.

“‘Oh, come now, Judge,’ he sort of hiccoughed, ’this ain’t the way for two old friends to part. This ain’t the way for me to treat an old friend who’s given me this. I want to buy you something I want to buy you at least one drink before I go. Come on, now, Judge. What’ll you have?’ says he.”

They had all forgotten Old Jerry’s interruption; they had forgotten everything else but the Judge’s recital, that was climbing to its climax. That room was very quiet when the speaker paused and waited for his words to sink in very quiet until a half-smothered giggle broke the stillness.

There was an unholy glee in that mirth a mocking, lilting note of actual joy which rang almost profane at such a moment. Man for man it brought that circle erect in the chairs; man for man they sat and stared at the grotesque figure which was rocking now in a paroxysm of laughter too real for simulation. In a breathless hush they turned from the offender back to the judge, waiting, appalled, for the storm to break.

Judge Maynard’s round moon-face went purple. Twice he tried to speak before he sat silent, annihilation in his eyes, until Jerry’s outbreak had subsided. Then he lifted one forefinger and pointed, with all the majesty such a gesture could ever convey, to the empty chair the chair which Old Jerry should have been occupying in becoming silence at that moment.

“Have you gone crazy?” he thundered. “Have you or are you just naturally witless? Or was there something you wanted to say? If there isn’t if you’ve no questions to ask you get over to that chair and sit down where you belong!”

It was then that the rest of the circle realized that something had gone wrong most mightily wrong! According to all precedent, the little, white-haired man should have shrunk back and cowered beneath that verbal lash, and obeyed without a glance. They all realized that there was imminent a climax unforeseen by all all but the Judge; and he was too blind with rage to see.

Very meekly Old Jerry bore his thundered rebuke too meekly. But after the judge had finished he failed to move; he merely stood there, facing the town’s great man. And in his attitude there was something of infantile, derisive, sparrowlike impudence as he peered back into the Judge’s face something that was very like the attitude of an outraged, ruffled old reprobate of a parrot rearing himself erect.

Old Jerry made no haste. It was a thing which required a nice deliberation. And so he waited waited and prolonged the moment to its last, sweetest second. Once more he chuckled, to himself this time just once, before he began to speak. That old Tavern office had never been so deathly still before.

“A question?” he echoed at last, thoughtfully. “A question? Well, Jedge, there was one thing I was a-goin’ to ask you. Jest one triflin’ thing I was kinda curious to know. Why, I was a-goin’ to ask you, back a spell What did you hev? It kinda interested me, wonderin’ about it. But now now that I’ve heard your story in full, I reckon I’ll hev to change that question a mite. I reckon they ain’t nothin’ left but to ask you How many did you hev? How many, Jedge? For, Jedge, you’re talkin’ most mighty wild tonight!”

And that silence endured endured even after the huge man had half-risen, purple features gone white, and then dropped heavily back into his chair before that rigid figure in its sodden garments which had turned from him toward the rest of the circle of regulars.

Old Jerry made his formal exit that night he knew that he was resigning his chair but the thing was very cheap at the price.

“An’ I reckon, too,” he went on deliberately, and there was a wicked fleer of sarcasm tinging the words, “I reckon I’ll hev to kinda apologize to you gentlemen for interruptin’ your evenin’s entertainment, as you might say. I’m sorry I ain’t able to remain, for it’s interestin’. I don’t know’s I’ve ever heard anything that was jest as excitin’ an’ thrillin’, but I’ve got something more important needin’ my attention this evenin’ meanin’ that I ain’t got nothin’ in particular that’s a-callin’ me! But it’s no more’n my plain duty for me to tell you this: You’d ought to follow the papers a mite closer from now on. It’s illuminatin’ it’s broadenin’! What you need, gentlemen, is a trifle wider readin’ jest a trifle jest a trifle! For you ain’t bein’ well posted on facts!”

Nobody moved. Nobody was capable of stirring even. Old Jerry bowed to them from the doorway he bowed till the water trickled in a stream from the brim of his battered hat.

And this time, as he passed out, he closed the door very gently behind him.