“Good dog—seek him! What is it, old boy?” Pettigrass came up, patted the hound, and sat down on the flat stone to look on curiously while the dog coursed back and forth among the dead leaves. “Find him, Caesar; find him, boy!” encouraged Japheth; and finally the hound pointed a sensitive nose toward the rift in the side of the great boulder and yelped conclusively.
“D’ye reckon he climm up thar’, Caesar?” Pettigrass unfolded his long legs and stood up on the flat stone to attain an eye-level with the interior of the little cavern. Tom crushed Nan into the farthest cranny, and flattened himself lizard-like against the nearer side wall. The horse-trader looked long and hard, and they could hear him still talking to the dog.
“You’re an old fool, Caesar—that’s about what you are—and Solomon allowed thar’ wasn’t no fool like an old one. But you needn’t to swaller that whole, old boy; I’ve knowed some young ones in my time—sometimes gals, sometimes boys, sometimes both. But thar’ ain’t no ’possum up yonder, Caesar; you’ve flew the track this time, for certain. Come on, old dog; let’s be gettin’ down the mountain.”
The baying dog and the whistling man were still within hearing when Tom swung Nan lightly to the ground and dropped beside her. No word was spoken until she had emptied and refilled her bucket at the spring, then Tom said, with the bickering tang still on his tongue:
“Say, Nan, I want to know who it is that’s going to kill you if he happens to find you talking to me.”
She shook her head despondently. “I cayn’t nev’ tell you that, Tom-Jeff.”
“I’d like to know why you can’t.”
“Because he’d shore kill me then.”
“Then I’ll find out some other way.”
“What differ’ does it make to you?” she asked; and again the dark eyes searched him till he was fain to look away from her.
“I reckon it doesn’t make any difference, if you don’t want it to. But one time you were willing enough to tell me your troubles, and—”
“And I’ll nev’ do it nare ’nother time; never, never. And let me tell you somethin’ else, Tom-Jeff Gordon: if you know what’s good for you, don’t you nev’ come anigh me again. One time we usen to be a boy and a girl together; you’re nothin’ but a boy yet, but I—oh, God, Tom-Jeff—I’m a woman!”
And with that saying she snatched her bucket and was gone before he could find a word wherewith to match it.
ABSALOM, MY SON!
Three days after the episode at the barrel-spring, Tom went afield again, this time to gather plunging courage for the confession to his mother—a thing which, after so many postponements, could be put off no longer.
It was more instinct than purpose that led him to avoid the mountain. Thinking only of the crying need for solitude, he crossed the pike and the creek and rambled aimlessly for an hour or more over that farther hill ground beyond the country-house colony where he had once tried to break the Dabney spirit in a weary, bedraggled little girl with colorless lips and saucer-like eyes.