A Warning

Author: Charles Egbert Craddock

It was night on Elm Ridge. So black, so black that the great crags and chasms were hidden, the forest was lost in the encompassing gloom, the valley and the distant ranges were gone,—all the world had disappeared.

There was no wind, and the dark clouds above the dark earth hung low and motionless. Solomon Grow found it something of an undertaking to grope his way back from the little hut of unhewn logs, where he had stabled his father's horse, to the door of the cabin and the home-circle within.

He fumbled for the latchstring, and pulling it carelessly, the door flew open suddenly, and he almost fell into the room.

"Why d' ye come a-bustin' in hyar that thar way, Sol?" his mother demanded rather tartly. "Ef ye hed been raised 'mongst the foxes, ye couldn't show less manners."

"Door slipped out'n my hand," said Sol, a trifle sullenly.

"Waal—air ye disabled anywhar so ez ye can't shet it, eh?" asked his father, with a touch of sarcasm.

Sol shut the door, drew up an inverted tub, seated himself upon it, and looked about, loweringly. He thought he had been needlessly affronted. Still, he held his peace.

Within, there was a great contrast to the black night outside. The ash and hickory logs in the deep fireplace threw blue and yellow flames high up the wide stone chimney. The flickering light was like some genial, cheery smile forever coming and going.

It illumined the circle about the hearth. There sat Sol's mother, idle to-night, for it was Sunday. His grandmother, too, was there, so old that she seemed to confirm the story told of these healthy mountains, to the effect that people are obliged to go down in the valley to die, else they would live forever.

There was Sol's father, a great burly fellow, six feet three inches in height, still holding out his hands to the blaze, chilled through and through by his long ride from the church where he had been to hear the circuit-rider preach on "Forgiveness of Injuries."

He was beginning now to quarrel vehemently with his brother-in-law, Jacob Smith, about the shabby treatment he had recently experienced in the non-payment of work,—for work in this country is a sort of circulating medium; a man will plough a day for another man, on condition that the favor is rigorously reciprocated.

Jacob Smith had been to the still, and apparently had imbibed the spirit there prevailing, to more effect than Sol's father had absorbed the spirit that had been taught in church.

In plain words, Jacob Smith was very drunk, and very quarrelsome, and very unreasonable. The genial firelight that played upon his bloated face played also over objects much pleasanter to look upon,—over the strings of red pepper-pods hanging from the rafters; over the bright variegations of color in the clean patchwork quilt on the bed; over the shining pans and pails set aside on the shelf; over the great, curious frame of the warping-bars, rising up among the shadows on the other side of the room, the equidistant pegs still holding the sized yarn that Solomon's mother had been warping, preparatory to weaving.

On the other side of the room, too, was a little tow-headed child sitting in a cradle, which, small as he was, he had long ago outgrown as a bed.

It was only a pine box placed upon rude rockers, and he used it for a rocking-chair. His bare, fat legs hung out on one side of the box, and as he delightedly rocked back and forth, his grotesque little shadow waved to and fro on the wall, and mocked and flouted him.

What he thought of it, nobody can ever know; his grave eyes were fixed upon it, but he said nothing, and the silent shadow and substance swayed joyously hither and thither together.

The quarrel between the two men was becoming hot and bitter. One might have expected nothing better from Jacob Smith, for when a man is drunk, the human element drops like a husk, and only the unreasoning brute is left.

But had John Grow forgotten all the good words he had heard to-day from the circuit-rider? Had they melted into thin air during his long ride from the church? Were the houseless good words wandering with the rising wind through the unpeopled forest, seeking vainly a human heart where they might find a lodgment?

The men had risen from their chairs; the drunkard, tremulous with anger, had drawn a sharp knife. John Grow was not so patient as he might have been, considering the great advantage he had in being sober, and the good words with which he had started out from the "meet'n'-house."

He laid his heavy hand angrily upon the drunken man's shoulder.

In another moment there would have been bloodshed. But suddenly the dark shadows at the other end of the room swayed with a strange motion; a great creaking sound arose, and the warping-bars tottered forward and fell upon the floor with a crash.

The wranglers turned with anxious faces. No one was near the bars, it seemed that naught could have jarred them; but there lay the heavy frame upon the floor, the pegs broken, and the yarn twisted.

"A warning!" cried Sol's mother. "A warning how you-uns spen' the evenin' o' the Lord's Day in yer quar'lin', an' fightin', an' sech. An' ye, John Grow, jes' from the meet'n'-house!"

She did not reproach her brother,—nobody hopes anything from a drunkard.

"A sign o' bad luck," said the grandmother. "It 'minds me o' the time las' winter that the wind blowed the door in, an' straight arter that the cow died."

"Them signs air ez likely ter take hold on folks ez on cattle," said Jacob Smith, half-sobered by the shock.

There was a look of sudden anxiety on the face of Solomon's mother. She crossed the room to the youngster rocking in the cradle.

"Come, Benny," she said, "ye oughter go ter bed. Ye air wastin' yer strength sittin' up this late in the night. An' ye war a-coughin' las' week. Ye must go ter bed."

Benny clung to his unique rocking-chair with a sturdy strength which promised well for his muscle when he should be as old as his great, strong brother Solomon. He had been as quiet, hitherto, as if he were dumb, but now he lifted up his voice in a loud and poignant wail, and after he was put to bed, he resurrected himself from among the bedclothes, ever and anon, with a bitter, though infantile, jargon of protest.

"I'm fairly afeard o' them bars," said Mrs. Grow, looking down upon the prostrate timbers. "It's comical that they fell down that-a-way. I hopes 'tain't no sign o' bad luck. I wouldn't hev nothin' ter happen fur nothin'. An' Benny war a-coughin' las' week."

She had not even the courage to put her fear into words. And she tenderly admonished tow-headed Benny, who was once more getting out of bed, to go to sleep and save his strength, and remember how he was coughing last week.

"He hed a chicken-bone acrost his throat," said his father. "No wonder he coughed."

Solomon rose and went out into the black night,—so black that he could not distinguish the sky from the earth, or the unobstructed air from the dense forest around.

He walked about blindly, dragging something heavily after him. The weight of concealment it was. He knew something that nobody knew besides.

At the critical moment of the altercation, he had stepped softly among the shadows to the warping-bars,—a strong push had sent the great frame crashing down. He was back in an instant among the others, and by reason of the excitement his agency in the sensation was not detected.

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