Chapter III. A Missing Letter.
 

Auntie Sue's little log house by the river was placed some five hundred yards back from the stream, on a bench of land at the foot of Schoolhouse Hill. From this bench, the ground slopes gently to the river-bank, which, at this point, is sheer and high enough to be well above the water at flood periods. The road, winding down the hill, turns to the right at the foot of the steep grade, and leads away up the river; and between the road and the river, on the up-stream side of the house, was the garden.

At the lower corner of the garden, farthest from the house, the strong current had cut a deep inward curve in the high shore-line, forming thus an eddy, which was margined on one side, at a normal stage of water, by a narrow shelf of land between the water's edge and the foot of the main bank. A flight of rude steps led down from the garden above to this natural landing, which, for three miles up and down the river, was the only point, on Auntie Sue's side of the stream, where one could go ashore from a skiff.

From the porch of the house, one, facing up the river, looked over the gently sloping garden, over the eddy lying under the high bank, and away over a beautiful reach of water known as The Bend,--a wide, sweeping curve which, a mile distant, is lost behind a wooded bluff where, at times, during the vacation or hunting season, one might see the smoke from the stone chimney of a clubhouse which was built and used by people who lived in the big, noisy city many miles from the peaceful Ozark scene. From the shore of The Bend, opposite and above Auntie Sue's place, beyond the willows that fringe the water's edge, the low bottom-lands extend back three-quarters of a mile to the foot of a heavily timbered ridge, beyond which rise the higher hills. But directly across from Auntie Sue's house, this ridge curves sharply toward the stream; while less than a quarter of a mile below, a mighty mountain-arm is thrust out from a shoulder of Schoolhouse Hill, as if to bar the river's way. The high bluff thus formed is known to the natives throughout all that region as Elbow Rock.

The quiet waters of The Bend move so gently on their broad course that from the porch, looking up the stream, the eye could scarcely mark the current. But in front of the little log house, where the restraining banks of the river draw closer together, the lazy current awakens to quickening movement. Looking down the stream, one could see the waters leaving the broad and quiet reaches of The Bend above and rushing away with fast increasing speed between the narrowing banks until, in all their vicious might, they dashed full against the Elbow Rock cliff, where, boiling and tossing in mad fury, they roared away at a right angle and so around the point and on to another quiet stretch below. And many were the tales of stirring adventure and tragic accident at this dangerous point of the river's journey to the far-away sea. Skilled rivermen, by holding their John-boats and canoes close to the far shore, might run the rapids with safety. But no boat, once caught in the vicious grip of the main current between the comparatively still waters of The Bend and that wild, roaring tumult at Elbow Rock, had ever survived.

It was nearing the close of a late summer day, and Auntie Sue, as was her custom, stood on the porch watching the sunset. In the vast field of sky that arched above the softly rounded hills there was not a cloud. No wind stirred the leaves of the far-reaching forests, or marred the bright waters of the quiet Bend that mirrored back the green, tree-fringed banks and blue-shadowed mountains. Faintly, through the hush, from beyond the bottom-lands on the other side of the stream, came the long-drawn "Wh-o-e-e! Wh-o-e-e!" of farmer Jackson calling his hogs. From the hillside, back of the house, sounded the deep, mellow tones of a cowbell, telling Auntie Sue that neighbor Tom's cattle were going home from their woodland pastures. A company of crows crossed the river on leisure wing, toward some evening rendezvous. A waterfowl flapped slowly up the stream. And here and there the swallows wheeled in graceful circles above the gleaming Bend, or dipped, flashlike, to break the silvery surface. As the blue of the mountains deepened to purple, and the rosy light from below the western hills flushed the sky, the silver sheen of the quiet water changed with the changing tints above, and the shadows of the trees along the bank deepened until the shore-line was lost in the dusk of the coming night.

And even as the river gave back the light of the sky and the color of the mountains, so the gentle face of the gray-haired woman, who watched with such loving reverence, reflected the beauty of the scene. The peace and quiet of the evening of her life was as the still loveliness of that twilight hour.

And, yet, there was a suggestion of pathos in the loneliness of the slender figure standing there. Now and again, she clasped her delicate hands to her breast as if moved by emotions of a too-poignant sweetness, while in her eyes shone the soft light of fondest memories and dearest dreams. Several times she turned her head to look about, as if wishing for some one to share with her the beauty that moved her so. At last, she called; and her voice, low and pure-toned, had in it the quality that was in the light of her eyes.

"Judy! Judy, dear! Do come and see this wonderful, wonderful sky!"

From within the house, a shrill, querulous, drawling voice, so characteristic of the Southern "poor-white" mountaineer, answered: "Wha-a-t?"

A quick little smile deepened the crows'-feet at the corners of Auntie Sue's eyes, as she called again with gentle patience: "Do come and see the sunset, Judy, dear! It is so beautiful!" And, this time, in answer, Judy appeared in the doorway.

From appearances, the poor creature's age might have been anywhere from fifteen to thirty-five; for the twisted and misshapen body, angular and hard; the scrawny, wry neck; the old-young face, thin and sallow, with furtive, beady-black eyes, gave no hint of her years. As a matter of fact, I happened to know that Judith Taylor, daughter of the notorious Ozark moonshiner, Jap Taylor, was just past twenty the year she went to live with Auntie Sue.

Looking obliquely at the old gentlewoman, with a curious expression of mingled defiance, suspicion, and affection on her almost vicious face, Judy drawled, "Was you-all a-yellin' for me?"

"Yes, Judy; I want you to help me watch the sunset," Auntie Sue answered, with bright animation; and, turning, she pointed toward the glowing west,--"Look!"

Judy's sly, evasive eyes did not cease to regard the illumined face of her old companion as she returned, in her dry, high-pitched monotone: "I don't reckon as how you-all are a-needin' much help, seein' as how you are allus a-watchin' hit. A body'd think you-all was mighty nigh old 'nough, by now, ter look at hit alone."

Auntie Sue laughed, a low, musical, chuckling laugh, and, with a hint of loving impatience in her gentle voice, replied to Judy's observation: "But, don't you understand, child? It adds so to one's happiness to share lovely scenes like this. It makes it all so much--so much--well,--BIGGER, to have some one enjoy it with you. Come, dear!" And she held out her hand with a gesture of entreaty, and a look of yearning upon her dear old face that no human being could have withstood.

Judy, still slyly watchful, went cautiously nearer; and Auntie Sue, putting an arm lovingly about the crooked shoulders of the mountain girl, pointed again toward the west as she said, in a low voice that vibrated with emotion, "Look, Judy! Look!"

The black eyes shifted, and the old-young, expressionless face turned toward the landscape, which lay before them in all its wondrous beauty of glowing sky and tinted mountain and gleaming river. And there might have been a faint touch of softness, now, in the querulous monotone as Judy said: "I can't see as how hit could be ary bigger. Hain't ary reason, as I kin see, why hit should be ary bigger if hit could. Lord knows there's 'nough of hit as 't is; rough 'nough, too, as you-all 'd sure know if you-all had ter trapse over them there hills all yer life like I've had ter."

"But, isn't it wonderful to-night, Judy? It seems to me I have never seen it so perfect."

"Hit's just like hit's allus been, so far as I kin see, 'ceptin' that the river's higher in the spring an' more muddier," returned the mountain girl. "I was borned over there on yon side that there flat-topped mountain, nigh the mouth of Red Creek. I growed up on the river, mostly;--learned ter swim an' paddle er John-boat 'fore I kin remember. Red Creek, hit heads over there behind that there long ridge, in Injin Holler. There's a still--"

She checked herself suddenly, and shot a fearful sidewise look at Auntie Sue; then turned and pointed in the opposite direction with a pretense of excited interest. "Look down there, ma'm! See how black the old river is where she smashes inter Elbow Rock, an' how white them waves be where the water biles an' throws hitself. Hit'd sure git you if you was ter git ketched in there with er John-boat, wouldn't hit? Listen, ma'm! You kin hear hit a-roarin' like hit was mad, can't you?"

But the older woman turned to face, again, the quiet reaches of The Bend.

"I think I like The Bend best, though, Judy. See how perfectly those trees and hills are mirrored in the river; and how the water holds the color of the sky. Don't you think God is good to make the world so beautiful for us, child?"

"'Beautiful'!" cried poor, deformed Judy, in a voice that shrilled in vicious protest. "If there is a God, like you-all are allus a-talkin' 'bout, an' if He sure 'nough made them things, like you-all sees 'em, He sure hain't toted fair with me."

"Hush, Judy!" pleaded Auntie Sue. "Please don't, child!"

But the mountain girl rebelliously continued: "Look at me! Just look at me! If that there God of your'n is so all-fired good, what did He go an' let my pap git drunk for, an' beat me like he done when I was a baby, an' make me grow up all crooked like what I be? 'Good'? Hell! A dad burned ornery kind of a God I call Him!"

For some time, Auntie Sue did not speak, but stood with her face upturned to the sky. Then the low, gentle voice again broke the silence: "See, Judy, dear; the light is almost gone now, and there is not a cloud anywhere. Yesterday evening, you remember, we could not see the sunset at all, the clouds were so heavy and solid. The moon will be lovely to-night. I think I shall wait for it."

"You-all best set down then," said Judy, speaking again in her querulous, drawling monotone. "I'll fetch a chair." She brought a comfortable rustic rocking-chair from the farther end of the porch; then disappeared into the house, to return a moment later with a heavy shawl. "Hit'll be a-turnin' cold directly, now the sun's plumb down," she said, "an' you-all mustn't get to chillin', nohow."

Auntie Sue thanked her with gentle courtesy, and, reaching up, caught the girl's hand as Judy was awkwardly arranging the wrap about the thin old shoulders. "Won't you bring a chair for yourself, and sit with me awhile, dear?" As she spoke, Auntie Sue patted the hard, bony hand caressingly.

But Judy pulled her hand away roughly, saying: "You-all ain't got no call ter do sich as that ter me. I'll set awhile with you but I ain't a-needin' no chair." And with that, she seated herself on the floor, her back against the wall of the house.

The last of the evening was gone from the sky, now. The soft darkness of a clear, star-light night lay over the land. A gentle breeze stole over the mountains, rustled softly through the forest, and, drifting across the river, touched Auntie Sue's silvery hair.

Judy was first to break the silence: "I took notice neighbor Tom brung you-all a right smart bunch of letter mail this evenin'," she said, curiously.

There was a troubled note in Auntie Sue's gentle voice as she returned, "The letter from the bank did not come, Judy."

"Hit didn't?"

"No; and, Judy, it is nearly four weeks, now, since I sent them that money. I can't understand it."

"I was plumb scared at the time, you oughten ter sent hit just in er letter that a-way. Hit sure looked like a heap of money ter be a-trustin' them there ornery post-office fellers with, even if hit was funny, new-fangled money like that there was. Why, ma'm, you take old Tod Stimson, down at the Ferry, now, an' that old devil'd steal anythin' what warn't too much trouble for him ter lift."

"Argentine notes the money was, Judy. I felt sure that it would be all right because, you know, Brother John sent it just in a letter all the way from Buenos Aires. And, you remember, I folded it up in extra heavy paper, and put it in two envelopes, one over the other, and mailed it at Thompsonville with my own hands."

"Hit sure looks like hit ought ter be safe er nough, so long as hit warn't mailed at the Ferry where old Stimson could git his hands on hit," agreed Judy.

Then, after a silence of several minutes, she added, in a more reassuring voice: "I reckon as how hit'll be all right, ma'm. I wouldn't worry myself, if I was you. That there bank-place, like as not, gits er right smart lot of letters, an' hit stands ter reason the feller just naturally can't write back ter ev'rybody at once."

"Of course," agreed Auntie Sue. "It is just some delay in their acknowledgment, that is all. Perhaps they are waiting to find out if the notes are genuine; or it may be that their letter to me went astray, and will have to be returned to them, and then remailed all over again. I feel sure I shall hear from them in a few days."

So they talked until the moon appeared from behind the dark mountains that, against her light, were silhouetted on the sky. And, as the old gentlewoman watched the queen of the night rising higher and higher on her royal course, and saw the dusky landscape transformed to a fairy-scene of ethereal loveliness, Auntie Sue forgot the letter that had not come.

With the enthusiasm that never failed her, the silvery-haired teacher tried to give the backwoods girl a little of her wealth of vision. But though they looked at the same landscape, the eyes of twenty could not see that which was so clear to the eyes of seventy. Poor Judy! The river, sweeping on its winding way through the hills, from the springs of its far-away beginnings to the ocean of its final endeavor,--in all its varied moods and changes,--in all its beauty and its irresistible power,--the river could never mean to Judy what it meant to Auntie Sue.

"Hit sure is er fine night for to go 'possum huntin'," said the girl, at last, getting to her feet and standing in her twisted attitude, with her wry neck holding her head to one side. "Them there Jackson boys'll sure be out."

Auntie Sue laughed her low chuckling laugh.

From the edge of the timber that borders the fields of the bottom-lands across the river, came the baying of hounds. "There they be now," said Judy. "Hear 'em? The Billingses, 'cross from the clubhouse, 'll be out, too, I reckon. When hit's moonlight, they're allus a-huntin' 'possum an' 'coon. When hit's dark, they're out on the river a-giggin' for fish. Well, I reckon I'll be a-goin' in, now, ma'm," she concluded, with a yawn. "Ain't no use in a body stayin' up when there ain't nothin' ter do but ter sleep, as I kin see."

With an awkward return to Auntie Sue's "Goodnight and sweet dreams, dear," the mountain girl went into the house.

For an hour longer, the old gentlewoman sat on the porch of her little log house by the river, looking out over the moonlit scene. Nor did she now, as when she had watched the sunset, crave human companionship. In spirit, she was far from all earthly needs or cares,--where no troubled thoughts could disturb her serene peace and her dearest dreams were real.

The missing letter was forgotten.