Chapter X. Brian Kent Decides.
 

Brian had walked along the river-bank below the house to a spot just above the point where the high bluff jutting out into the river-channel forms Elbow Rock.

The bank here is not so high above the roaring waters of the rapids, for the spur of the mountain which forms the cliff lies at a right angle to the river, and the greater part of the cliff is thus on the shore, with its height growing less and less as it merges into the main slope of the mountain-side. From the turn in the road, in front of the house, a footpath leads down the bank of the river to the cliff, and, climbing stairlike up the face of the steep bluff, zigzags down the easier slope of the down-river side, to come again into the road below. The road itself, below Elbow Rock, is forced by the steep side of the mountain-spur and the precipitous bluff to turn inland from the river, and so, climbing by an easier grade up past Tom Warden's place, crosses the ridge above the schoolhouse, and comes back down the mountain again in front of Auntie Sue's place, to its general course along the stream. The little path forms thus a convenient short cut for any one following the river road on foot.

Brian, seated on the river-bank a little way from the path where it starts up the bluff, was trying to decide whether it would be better for him to follow his desire and stay with Auntie Sue for a few weeks or months, or whether he should not, in spite of the land he might clear for her, return to the world where he could more quickly earn the money to pay back that which he had stolen.

And as he sat there, the man was conscious that he had reached one of those turning-points that are found in every life where results, momentous and far-reaching, are dependent upon comparatively unimportant and temporary issues. He could not have told why, and yet he felt a certainty that, for him, two widely separated futures were dependent upon his choice. Nor could he, by thinking, discover what those futures held for him, nor which he should choose. Even as his boat that night had hung on the edge of the eddy,--hesitating on the dividing-line between the two currents,--so the man himself now felt the pull of his life-currents, and hesitated,--undecided.

Looking toward the house, he thought how like the life offered by Auntie Sue was to the quiet waters of The Bend, and--his mind finished the simile--how like the life to which he would go was to the rapids at Elbow Rock; and, yet, he reflected, the waters could never reach the sea without enduring the turmoil of the rapids. And, again, the thought came, "The Bend is just as much the river as the troubled passage around the rock."

When he had given up life, and, to all intent and purpose, had left life behind him, the river, without his will or knowledge, had mysteriously elected to save him from the death he had chosen as his only refuge from the utter ruin that had seemed so inevitable. As the currents of the river had carried his boat to the eddy at the foot of Auntie Sue's garden, the currents of life had mysteriously brought him to the saving influence of Auntie Sue herself. Should he push out again into the stream to face the danger he knew beset such a course? or should he wait for a season in the secure calm of the harbor she offered until he were stronger? Brian Kent knew, instinctively, that there was in the wisdom and love of Auntie Sue's philosophy and faith a strength that would, if he could make it his, insure his safe passage through every danger of life, and yet--The man's meditations were interrupted by a chance look toward the bluff which towered above him.

Judy was climbing the steep trail.

Curiously, Brian watched the deformed mountain girl as she made her way up the narrow, stairlike path, and her cutting words came back to him: "God-A'mighty and my drunken pap made me like I am. But you,--damn you!--you made yourself what you be." And Auntie Sue had said that the all-important thing in life was not to DO something, but to BE something.

The girl, who had gained a point halfway to the top of the bluff, paused to look searchingly about, and Brian, who was half-hidden by the bushes, started to call to her, thinking she might be looking for him; but some impulse checked him and he remained silently watching her. Climbing hurriedly a little higher up the path Judy again stopped to look carefully around, as if searching the vicinity for some one. Then, once more, she went on until she stood on top of the cliff; and now, as she looked about over the surrounding country, she called: "Mr. Burns! Oh, Mr. Burns! Who-o-e-e! Mr. Burns!"

Brian's lips were parted to answer the call when something happened on top of the bluff which held him for the moment speechless.

From beyond where Judy stood on the brink of the cliff, a man's head and shoulders appeared. Brian saw the girl start and turn to face the newcomer as if in sudden fear. Then she whirled about to run. Before she could gain the point where the path starts down from the top, the man caught her and dragged her roughly back, so that the two disappeared from Brian's sight. Brian was halfway up the bluff when he heard the girl's shrill scream.

There was no sign of weakness, now, in the man that Judy had dragged from the river. He covered the remaining distance to the top in a breath. From among the bushes, a little way down the mountainside, came the sound of an angry voice mingled with Judy's pleading cries.

An instant more, and Brian reached the spot where poor Judy was crouching on the ground, begging the brute, who stood over her with menacing fists, not to hit her again.

The man was a vicious-looking creature, dressed in the rough garb of the mountaineer; dirty and unkempt, with evil, close-set eyes, and a scraggly beard that could not hide the wicked, snarling mouth.

He stood for a second looking at Brian, as if too surprised by the latter's sudden appearance to move; then he went down, felled by as clean a knockout as was ever delivered by an Irish fist.

"Are you hurt, Judy?" demanded Brian, as he lifted the girl to her feet. "Did he strike you?"

"He was sure a-fixin' ter lick me somethin' awful when you-all put in," returned the poor girl, trembling with fear. "I know, 'cause he's done hit to me heaps er times before. He's my pap."

"Your father!" exclaimed Brian.

Judy nodded;--then screamed: "Look out! He'll git you, sure!"

Judy's rescuer whirled, to see the man on the ground drawing a gun. A vigorous, well-directed kick, delivered in the nick of time, sent the gun whirling away into the bushes and rendered the native's right arm useless.

"Get up!" commanded Brian.

The man rose to his feet, and stood nursing his damaged wrist and scowling at Judy's companion.

"Are you this girl's father?"

"I reckon I am," came the sullen reply. "I'm Jap Taylor, an' you-all are sure goin' to find that you can't come between a man an' his lawful child in these here mountains, mister,--if you-all be from the city."

"And you will find that you can't strike a crippled girl in my presence, even if she is your daughter,--in these mountains or anywhere else," retorted Brian. "What are you trying to do with her, anyway?"

"I aim ter take her back home with me, where she belongs."

"Well, why didn't you go to the house for her like a man, instead of jumping on her out here in the woods!"

"Hit ain't none of your dad burned business as I can see," came the sullen reply.

"I am making it my business, just the same," returned Brian.

He turned to the girl, who had drawn back a little behind him. "Judy," he said, kindly, "I think perhaps you better tell me about this."

"Pap, he was a-layin' for me in the bresh 'cause he dassn't come to the house ter git me," said the girl, fearfully.

"But, why does he fear to come to the house?" persisted Brian.

"'Cause he done give me ter Auntie Sue."

"Gave you to Auntie Sue?" repeated the puzzled Brian.

Jap Taylor interrupted with, "I didn't sign ary paper, an'--"

"Shut up, you!" snapped Brian. "Go on, Judy."

"Hit was a year last corn-plantin'," explained the girl. "My maw, she died. He used ter whip her, too. An' Auntie Sue was there helpin' weuns; an' Tom Warden an' some other folks they was there, too; an' they done fixed hit so that I was ter go an' live with Auntie Sue; an' pap, he give me ter her. He sure did, Mr. Burns, an' I ain't a-wantin' ter go with him, no more."

The poor girl's shrill monotone broke, and her twisted body shook with her sobs.

"I didn't sign ary paper," repeated Judy's father, with sullen stubbornness. "An' what's more, I sure ain't a-goin' ter. I 'lows as how she'll just go home an' work for me, like she ort, 'stead of livin' with that there old-maid schoolma'am. I'm her paw, I am, an' I reckon I got rights."

He started toward the girl, who drew closer to Brian, and begged piteously: "Don't let him tech me! 'Fore God, Mr. Burns, he'll kill me, sure!"

Brian drew the girl behind him as he faced the father with a brief, "Get out!"

The mountaineer hesitated.

Brian went one step toward him: "Do you hear? Get out! And if you ever show your dirty face in this vicinity again, I'll not leave a whole bone in your worthless carcass!"

And Jap Taylor saw something in those Irish blue eyes that caused him to start off down the mountain toward the river below Elbow Rock.

When he had placed a safe distance between himself and the man who appeared so willing and able to make good his threat, Judy's father turned, and, shaking his uninjured fist at Brian, delivered a volley of curses, with: "I'll sure git you-all for this! Jap Taylor ain't a-lettin' no man come between him an' his'n. I'll fix you, an' I'll fix that there schoolma'am, too! She's nothin' but a damned old--"

But Brian started toward him, and Jap Taylor beat a hasty retreat.

"Never mind, Judy," said Brian, when the native had disappeared in the brush and timber that covered the steep mountain-side. "I'll not let him touch you. Come, let us sit down and talk a little until you are yourself again. Auntie Sue must not see you like this. We don't want to let her know anything about it. You won't tell her, will you?"

"I ain't aimin' ter tell nobody," said Judy, between sobs. "I sure ain't a-wantin' ter make no trouble,--not for Auntie Sue, nohow. She's been powerful good ter me."

When they were seated on convenient rocks at the brink of the cliff overlooking the river, Judy gradually ceased crying, and presently said, in her normal, querulous monotone: "Did you-all mind what pap 'lowed he'd do ter Auntie Sue, Mr. Burns?"

"Yes, Judy; but don't worry, child. He is not going to harm any one while I am around."

"You-all are aimin' ter stay then, be you? I'm sure powerful glad," said Judy, simply.

Brian started. A new factor had suddenly been injected into his problem.

"I was powerful scared you-all was aimin' ter go away," continued Judy. "Hit was that I was a-huntin' you-all to tell you 'bout, when pap he ketched me."

"What were you going to tell me, Judy?"

"I 'lowed ter tell you-all 'bout Auntie Sue. She'd sure be powerful mad if she know'd I'd said anythin' ter you, but she's a-needin' somebody like you ter help her, mighty bad. She--she's done lost a heap of money, lately: hit was some she sent--"

Brian interrupted: "Wait a minute, Judy. You must not tell me anything about Auntie Sue's private affairs; you must not tell any one. Anything she wants me to know, she will tell me. Do you understand?" he finished with a reassuring smile.

"Yes, sir; I reckon you-all are 'bout right, an' I won't tell nobody nothin'. But 'tain't a-goin' ter hurt none ter say as how you-all ort ter stay, I reckon."

"And why do you think I ought to stay, Judy?"

"'Cause of what Auntie Sue's done for you-all,--a-nursin' you when you was plumb crazy an' plumb dangerous from licker, an' a lyin' like she did ter the Sheriff an' that there deteckertive man," returned Judy stoutly; "an' 'cause she's so old an' is a-needin' you-all ter help her; an' 'cause she is a-lovin' you like she does, an' is a-wantin' you-all ter stay so bad hit's mighty nigh a-makin' her plumb sick."

Brian Kent did not answer. The mountain girl's words had revealed to him the selfishness of his own consideration of his problem so clearly that he was stunned. Why had he not, in his thinking, remembered the dear old gentlewoman who had saved him from a shameful death?

Judy went on: "Hit looks ter me like somebody just naturally's got ter take care of Auntie Sue, Mr. Burns. All her whole life she's a-been takin' care of everybody just like she tuck me, an' just like she tuck you-all, besides a heap of other ways; an' now she's so old and mighty nigh plumb wore out, hit sure looks like hit was time somebody was a-fixin' ter do somethin' for her. That was what I was a-huntin' you-all ter tell you when pap ketched me, Mr. Burns."

"I am glad you told me, Judy;--very glad. You see, I was not thinking of things in just that way."

"I 'lowed maybe you mightn't. Seems like folks mostly don't."

"But it's all right, now!" Brian cried heartily. "You have settled it. I'll stay. We'll take care of Auntie Sue,--you and I, Judy. Come on, now; let's go to the house, and tell her. But we won't say anything about your father, Judy;--that would only make her unhappy; and we must never make Auntie Sue unhappy--never." He was as eager and enthusiastic, now, as a schoolboy.

"'Course," said Judy, solemnly; "'course you just naturally got ter stay an' take care of her now, after what pap's done said he'd do."

"Yes, Judy; I've just naturally got to stay," returned Brian.

Together they went down the steep cliff trail and to the little log house by the river to announce Brian's decision to Auntie Sue. They found the dear old lady in her favorite spot on the porch overlooking the river.

"Why, of course you will stay," she returned, when Brian had told her. "The river brought you to me, and you know, my dear boy, the river is never wrong. Oh, yes, I know there are cross-currents and crooked spots and sand-bars and rocks and lots of places where it SEEMS to us to be wrong. But, just the same, it all goes on, all the time, toward the sea for which it starts when it first begins at some little spring away over there somewhere in the mountains. Of course you will stay with me, Brian,--until the river carries you on again."