Uncle Abner, Master Of Mysteries

by Melville Davisson Post

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The House of the Dead Man

WE WERE on our way to the Smallwood place-Abner and I. It was early in the morning and I thought we were the first on the road; but at the Three Forks, where the Lost Creek turnpike trails down from the mountains, a horse had turned in before us.

It was a morning out of Paradise, crisp and bright. The spider-webs glistened on the fence rails. The timber cracked. The ragweed was dusted with silver. The sun was moving upward from behind the world. I could have whistled out of sheer joy in being alive on this October morning and the horse under me danced; but Abner rode looking down his nose. He was always silent when he had this trip to make. And he had a reason for it.

The pastureland that we were going on to did not belong to us. It had been owned by the sheriff, Asbury Smallwood. In those days the sheriff collected the county taxes. One night the sheriff's house had been entered, burned over his head and a large sum of the county revenues carried off. No one ever found a trace of those who had done this deed. The sheriff was ruined. He had given up his lands and moved to a neighboring county. His bondsmen had been forced to meet the loss. My father had been one of them; but it was not the loss to my father that bothered Abner.

"The thing does not hurt you, Rufus," he said; "but it cripples Elnathan Stone and it breaks Adam Greathouse."

Stone was a grazier with heavy debts and Greathouse was a little farmer. I remember how my father chaffed Abner when he paid his portion of this loss.

"'The Lord gave,'" he said, "'and the Lord hath taken away'-eh, Abner?"

"But, Rufus," replied Abner, "did the Lord take? We must be sure of that. There are others who take."

It was clear what Abner meant. If the Lord took he would be resigned to it; but if another took he would follow with a weapon in his hand and recover what had been taken. Abner's God was an exacting Overlord and His requisitions were to be met with equanimity; but He did not go halves with thieves and He issued no letters of marque.

When the sheriff failed Abner had put cattle on the land in an effort to make what he could for the bondsmen. It was good grazing land, but it was watered by springs, and we had to watch them. A beef steer does not grow fat without plenty of water. We went every week to give the cattle salt and to watch the springs.

As we rode I presently noticed that Abner was looking down at the horsetrack. And then I saw what I had not noticed before, that there were three horsetracks in the road-two going our way and one returning-but only one of the tracks was fresh. Finally Abner pulled up his big chestnut. We were passing the old burned house. The crumbled foundations and the blasted trees stood at the end of a lane. There had once been a gate before the house at the end of this lane, but it was now nailed up. The horse going before us had entered this lane for a few steps, then turned back into the road.

Abner did not speak. He looked at the track for a moment and then rode on. Presently we came to the bars leading from the road into the pasture. The horse had stopped here and its rider had got out of the saddle and let down the bars. One could see where the horse had gone through and the footprints of the rider were visible in the soft clay. The old horsetrack also went in and came out at these bars.

Abner examined the man's footprints with what I thought was an excess of interest. Travelers were always going through one's land; and, provided they closed the bars behind them, what did it matter? Abner seemed concerned about this traveler however. When we had entered the field he sat for some time in the saddle; and then, instead of going to the hills where the springs were, he rode up the valley toward a piece of woods. There was a little rivulet threading this valley and he watched it as he rode.

Finally, just before the rivulet entered the woods, he stopped and got down out of his saddle. When I came up he was looking at a track on the edge of the little stream. It was the footprint of a man, still muddy where the water had run into it. Abner stood on the bank beside the rivulet, and for a good while I could not imagine what he was waiting for. Then, as he watched the track, I understood. He was waiting for the muddy water to clear so he could see the imprint of the man's foot.

"Uncle Abner," I said, "what do you care about who goes through the field?"

"Ordinarily I do not care," he said, "if the man lays up the fence behind him; but there is something out of the ordinary about this thing. The man who crossed there on foot is the same man who came in on the horse. The footprints here and at the bar show the same plate on the bootheel. He rode a horse that had been here before today, because it remembered the lane and tried to turn in there. Moreover, the man did not wish to be seen, because he came early, hid the horse and went on foot back toward the burned house."

"How do you know that he had hidden the horse, Uncle Abner?"

For answer he beckoned to me and we rode into the woods. The leaves were damp and the horses made no sound. In a few moments Abner stopped and pointed through the beech trees, and I saw a bay horse tied to a sapling. The horse stood with his legs wide apart and his head down.

"The horse is asleep," said Abner; "it has been ridden all night. We must find the rider."

I was now alive with interest. The old story of the robbery floated before me in romantic colors. What innocent person would come here by stealth, ride his horse all night and then hide it in the woods? Moreover, as Abner said, this horse had been to the sheriff's house before today; and it had been there before the house was burned-because it had started to enter the old lane and had been turned back by its rider. We were all familiar with such striking examples of memory in horses. A horse, having once gone over a road and entered at a certain gate, will follow that road on a second trip and again enter that gate.

Then I remembered the old horsetrack that had preceded this one, and the solution of this thing appeared before me. The story had gone about that two men had robbed the sheriff and these evidences tallied with that story. Two men had ridden into that pasture; that one track was older was because one of the men had gone to tell the other to meet him here-had ridden back-and the other had followed. The horse of the first robber was doubtless concealed deeper in the wood. And why had they returned? That was clear enough-they had concealed the booty until now and had just come back for it.

The thrill of adventure tingled in my blood. We were on the trail of the robbers and they could not easily escape us. The one who had ridden this horse could not be far away, since his track in the brook was muddy when we found it; but why had he crossed the brook in the direction of the burned house? The way over the hill toward the house was wholly in the open-clean sod, not even a tree. The man on foot could not have been out of sight of us when we rode across the brook and round the brow of the hill-but he was out of sight. We sat there in our saddles and searched the land, lying smooth and open before us. There was the burned house below, bare as my hand, and the meadows, all open to the eye. A rabbit could not have hidden-where was the rider of that worn-out, sleeping horse?

Abner sat there looking down at this clean, open land. A man could not vanish into the air; he could not hide in a wisp of blue grass; he could not cross three hundred acres of open country while his track in a running brook remained muddy. He could have reached the brow of the hill and perhaps gone down to the house, but he could not have passed the meadows and the pasture field beyond without wings on his shoulders.

The morning was on its way; the air was like lotus. The sun, still out of sight, was beginning to gild the hilltops. I looked up; away on the knob at the summit of the hill there was an old graveyard-that was a curious custom, to put our dead on the highest point of land. A patch of sunlight lay on this village of the dead-and as I looked a thing caught my eye.

I turned in the saddle.

"I saw something flash up there, Uncle Abner."

"Flash," he said-"like a weapon?"

"Glitter," I said. And I caught up the bridle-rein.

But Abner put his hand on the bit.

"Quietly, Martin," he said. "We will ride slowly round the hill, as though we were looking for the cattle, and go up behind that knob; there is a ridge there and we shall not be seen until we come out on the crest of the hill beside the graveyard."

We rode idly away, stopping now and then, like persons at their leisure. But I was afire with interest. All the way to the crest of the hill the blood skipped in my veins. The horses made no sound on the carpet of green sod. And when we came out suddenly beside the ancient graveyard I fully expected to see there a brace of robbers-like some picture in a story-with bloody cloths around their heads and pistols in their belts; or two bewhiskered pirates before a heap of pieces-of-eight.

On the tick of the clock I was disillusioned, however. A man who had been kneeling by a grave rose. I knew him in the twinkling of an eye. He was the sheriff and in the twinkling of an eye I knew why he was there; and I was covered with confusion. His father was buried in this old graveyard. It was a land where men concealed their feelings as one conceals the practice of a crime; and one would have stolen his neighbor's goods before he would have intruded upon the secrecy of his emotions.

I pulled up my horse and would have turned back, pretending that I had not seen him, for I was ashamed; but Abner rode on and presently I followed in amazement. If Abner had cursed his horse or warbled a ribald song I could not have been more astonished. I was ashamed for myself and I was ashamed for Abner. How could he ride in on a man who had just got up from beside his father's grave? My mind flashed back over Abner's life to find a precedent for this conspicuous inconsiderate act; but there was nothing like it in all the history of the man.

When the sheriff saw us he wiped his face with his sleeve and went white as a sheet. And under my own shirt I felt and suffered with the man. I should have gone white like that if one had caught me thus. And in my throat I choked with bitterness at Abner. Had his heart tilted and every generous instinct been emptied out of it? Then I thought he meant to turn the thing with some word that would cover the man's confusion and save his feelings inviolate; but he shocked me out of that.

"Smallwood," said Abner, "you have come back!"

The man blinked as though the sun were in his eyes. He had not yet regained the mastery of himself.

"Yes," he said.

"And why do you come?" said Abner.

A flush of scarlet spread over the man's white face.

"And do you ask me that?" he cried. "It is the tomb of my father!"

"Your father," said Abner, "was an upright man. He lived in the fear of God. I respect his tomb."

"I thank you, Abner," replied the man. "I honor my father's grave."

"You honor it late," said Abner.

"Late!" echoed Smallwood.

"Late," said Abner.

The man spread out his hands with a gesture of resignation.

"You mean that my misfortune has dishonored my father?"

"No," said Abner, "that is not what I mean; by a misfortune no man can be dishonored-neither his father nor his father's father."

"What is it you mean, then?" said the man.

"Smallwood," said Abner, "is it not before you; where you in your ownership allowed the fence around this grave to rot I have rebuilt it, and where you allowed the weeds to grow up I have cut them down?"

It was the truth. Abner had put up a fence and had cleaned the graveyard. Only the myrtle and cinquefoil covered it. I thought the sheriff would be ashamed at that, but his face brightened.

"It is disaster, Abner, that brings' a man back to his duties to the dead. In prosperity we forget, but in poverty we remember."

"The Master," replied Abner, "was not very much concerned about the dead; nor am I. The dead are in God's keeping! It is our duties to the living that should move us. Do you remember, Smallwood, the story of the young man who wished to go and bury his father?"

"I do," said Smallwood, "and I have always held him in honor for it."

"And so, too, the Master would have held him, but for one thing."

"What thing?" said Smallwood.

"That the story was an excuse," replied Abner.

I saw the light go out of the man's face and his lips tremble; and then he said what I was afraid he would say.

"Abner," he said, "if you are determined to gouge this thing out of me, why here it is: I cannot bear to live in this community any longer. I am ashamed to see those upon whom I have brought misfortune-Elnathan Stone, and your brother Rufus, and Adam Greathouse. I have made up my mind to leave the country forever, but I wanted to see the place where my father was buried before I went, because I shall never see it again. You don't understand how a man can feel like that; but I tell you, when a man is in trouble he will remember his father's roof if he is living, and his father's grave if he is dead."

I was so mortified before this confession that Abner's heartless manner had forced out of the man that I reached over and caught my uncle by the sleeve. My horse stood by Abner's chestnut, and I hoped that he would yield to my importunity and ride on; but he turned in his saddle and looked first at me and then down upon the sheriff.

"Martin," he said, "thinks we ought to leave you to your filial devotions."

"It is a credit to the child's heart," replied the man, "and a rebuke to you, Abner. It is a pity that age robs us of charity."

Abner put his hands on the pommel of his saddle and regarded the sheriff.

"I have read St. Paul's epistle on charity," he said, "and, after long reflection, I am persuaded that there exists a greater thing than charity-a thing of more value to the human family. Like charity, it rejoiceth not in iniquity, but it does not bear all things or believe all things, or endure all things; and, unlike charity, it seeketh its own....Do you know what thing I mean, Smallwood? I will tell you. It is Justice."

"Abner," replied the man, "I am in no humor to hear a sermon."

"Those who need a sermon," said Abner, "are rarely in the humor to hear it."

"Abner," cried the man, "you annoy me! Will you ride on?"

"Presently," replied Abner; "when we have talked together a little further. You are about to leave the country. I shall perhaps never see you again and I would have your opinion upon a certain matter."

"Well," said the man, "what is it?"

"It is this," said Abner. "You appear to entertain great filial respect, and I would ask you a question touching that regard: What ought to be done with a man who would use a weapon against his father?"

"He ought to be hanged," said Smallwood.

"And would it change the case," said Abner, "if the father held something which the son had intrusted to him and would not give it up because it belonged to another, and the son, to take it, should come against his father with an iron in his hand?"

The sheriff's face became a land of doubt, of suspicion, of uncertainty and, I thought, of fear.

"Abner," cried the man, "I do not understand; will you explain it?"

"I will explain this thing which you do not understand," replied Abner, "when you have explained a thing which I do not understand. Why was it that you came here last night and again this morning? That was two visits to your father's grave within six hours. I do not understand why you should make two trips-and one upon the heels of the other."

For a moment the man did not reply; then he spoke. "How do you know that I was here last night? Did you see me come or did another see and tell you?"

"I did not see you," replied Abner, "nor did any one tell me that you came; but I know it in spite of that."

"And how do you know it?" said Smallwood.

"I will tell you," said Abner. "On the road this morning I observed two horse-tracks leading this way; they both turned in at the same crossroads and they both came to this place. One was fresh, the other was some hours old-it is easy to tell that on a clay road. I compared those two tracks and the third returning track, and presently I saw that they had been made by the same horse."

Abner stopped and pointed down toward the beech woods.

"Moreover," he continued, "your horse, hidden among those trees, is worn out and asleep. Now you live only some twenty miles away-that journey this morning would not have so fatigued your horse that he would sleep on his feet; but to make two trips-to go all night-to travel sixty miles-would do it."

The sheriff's head did not move, but I saw his eyes glance down. The glance did not escape Abner and he went on.

"I saw the crowbar in the grass there some time ago," he said; "but what has the crowbar to do with your two trips?"

I, too, saw now the iron bar. It was the thing that had glittered in the sun.

The man threw back his shoulders; he lifted his face and stood up. There came upon him the pose and expression of one who steps out at last desperately into the open.

"Yes," he said, "I was here last night. It was my horse that made those tracks in the road and it is my horse that is hidden in the woods now. And that is my crowbar in the grass...And do you want to know why I made those two trips, and why I brought that crowbar, and why I hid my horse?...Well, I'll tell you, since there is no shame in you and no decent feeling, and you are determined to have it....You can't understand, Abner, because you have a heart of stone; but I tell you I wanted to see my father's grave before I left the country forever. I was ashamed to meet the people over here and so I came in the night. When I got here I saw that the heavy slab over my father's grave had settled down and was wedged in against the coping. I tried to straighten it up, but I could not...Well, what would you have done, Abner-gone away and left your father's tomb a ruin?...No matter what you would have done! I went back twenty miles and got that crowbar and came again to lift and straighten the stone over my father's grave before I left it....And now, will you ride on and leave me to finish my work and go?"

"Smallwood," Abner said presently, "how do you know that your house was robbed before it was burned? Might it not be that the county revenues were burned with the house?"

"I will tell you how I know that, Abner," replied the man. "The revenues of the county were all in my deerskin saddle-pockets, under my pillow; when I awoke in the night the house was dark and filled with smoke. I jumped up, seized my clothes, which were on a chair by the bed, and ran downstairs; but, first, I felt under the pillow for my saddle-pockets--and they were gone."

"But, Smallwood," said Abner, "how can you be certain that the money was stolen out of your saddle-pockets if you did not find them?"

"I did find them," replied the sheriff; "I went back into the house and got the saddle-pockets and brought them out-and they were empty."

"That was a brave thing to do, Smallwood," said Abner-"to go back into a burning house filled with smoke and dark. You could have had only a moment."

"You speak the truth, Abner," replied the sheriff. "I had only a moment-the house was a pot of smoke. But the money was in my care, Abner. There was my duty-and what is a man's life against that!"

I saw Abner's back straighten and I heard his feet grind on the iron of his stirrups.

"And now, Smallwood," he said, and his voice was like the menace of a weapon, "will you tell me how it was possible for you to go into a house that was dark and filled with smoke, and thus quickly-in a moment-find those empty saddle-pockets, unless you knew exactly where they were?"

I saw that Abner's question had impaled the man, as one pierces a fly through with a needle; and, like a fly, the man in his confusion fluttered.

"Smallwood," said Abner, "you are a thief and a hypocrite and a liar! And, like all liars, you have destroyed yourself! You not only stole this money but you tried to make your father an accomplice in that robbery. To conceal it, you hid it in this dead man's house. And, behold, the dead man has held his house against you! When you came here last night to carry away the money you found that the slab over your father's grave had fallen and wedged itself in against the limestone coping, and you could not lift it; and so you went back for that crowbar...But who knows, you thief, what influence, though he be dead, a just man has with God! I came in time to help your father hold his house-and against his son, with a weapon in his hand!"

I saw the man cringe and writhe and shiver, as though he were unable to get out of his tracks; then the power came to him, and he vaulted over the fence and ran. He ran in fear down the hill and across the brook and into the wood; and a moment later he came out with his tired horse at a gallop.

Abner looked down from the hilltop on the flying thief, but he made no move to follow.

"Let him go," he said, "for his father's sake. We owe the dead man that much."

Then he got down from his horse, thrust the crowbar under the slab over the grave and lifted it up.

Beneath it were the sheriff's deerskin saddle-pockets and the stolen money!


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