Uncle Abner, Master Of Mysteries

by Melville Davisson Post

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The Tenth Commandment

THE AFTERNOON sun was hot, and when the drove began to descend the long wooded hill we could hardly keep them out of the timber. We were bringing in our stock cattle. We had been on the road since daybreak and the cattle were tired. Abner was behind the drove and I was riding the line of the wood. The mare under me knew as much about driving cattle as I did, and between us we managed to keep the steers in the road; but finally a bullock broke away and plunged down into the deep wood. Abner called to me to turn all the cattle into the grove on the upper side of the road and let them rest in the shade while we got the runaway steer out of the under-brush. I turned the drove in among the open oak trees, left my mare to watch them and went on foot down through the underbrush. The long hill descending to the river was unfenced wood grown up with thickets. I was perhaps three hundred yards below the road when I lost sight of the steer, and got up on a stump to look.

I did not see the steer, but in a thicket beyond me I saw a thing that caught my eye. The bushes had been cut out, the leaves trampled, and there was a dogwood fork driven into the ground. About fifty feet away there was a steep bank and below it a horse path ran through the wood.

The thing savored of mystery. All round was a dense tangle of thicket, and here, hidden at a point commanding the horse path, was this cleared spot with the leaves trampled and the forked limb of a dogwood driven into the ground. I was so absorbed that I did not know that Abner had ridden down the hill behind me until I turned and saw him sitting there on his great chestnut gelding looking over the dense bushes into the thicket.

He got down out of his saddle, parted the bushes carefully and entered the thicket. There was a hollow log lying beyond the dogwood fork. Abner put his hand into the log and drew out a gun. It was a bright, new, one-barreled fowling-piece-a muzzle-loader, for there were no breech-loaders in that country then. Abner turned the gun about and looked it over carefully. The gun was evidently loaded, because I could see the cap shining under the hammer. Abner opened the brass plate on the stock, but it contained only a bit of new tow and the implement, like a corkscrew, which fitted to the ramrod and held the tow when one wished to clean the gun. It was at this moment that I caught sight of the steer moving in the bushes and I leaped down and ran to head him off, leaving Abner standing with the gun in his hands.

When I got the steer out and across the road into the drove Abner had come up out of the wood. He was in the saddle, his clenched hand lay on the pommel.

I was afraid to ask Abner questions when he looked like that, but my curiosity overcame me.

"What did you do with the gun, Uncle Abner?" "I put it back where it was," he said. "Do you know who the owner is?"

"I do not know who he is," replied Abner without looking in my direction, "but I know what he is-he is a coward!"

The afternoon drew on. The sun moved towards the far-off chain of mountains. Silence lay on the world. Only the tiny creatures of the air moved with the hum of a distant spinner, and the companies of yellow butterflies swarmed on the road. The cattle rested in the shade of the oak trees and we waited. Abner's chestnut stood like a horse of bronze and I dozed in the saddle.

Shadows were entering the world through the gaps and passes of the mountains when I heard a horse. I stood up in my stirrups and looked.

The horse was traveling the path running through the wood below us. I could see the rider through the trees. He was a grazer whose lands lay westward beyond the wood. In the deep, utter silence I could hear the creak of his saddle-leather. Then suddenly as he rode there was the roar of a gun, and a cloud of powder smoke blotted him out of sight.

In that portentous instant of time I realized the meaning of the things that I had seen there in the thicket. It was an ambush to kill this man! The fork in the ground was to hold the gun-barrel so the assassin could not miss his mark.

And with this understanding came an appalling sense of my Uncle Abner's negligence. He must have known all this when he stood there in the thicket, and when he knew it, why had he left that gun there? Why had he put it back into its hiding-place? Why had he gone his way thus unconcernedly and left this assassin to accomplish his murder? Moreover, this man riding there through the wood was a man whom Abner knew. His house was the very house at which Abner expected to stop this night. We were on our way there!

It was in one of those vast spaces of time that a second sometimes stretches over that I put these things together and jerked-my head toward Abner, but he sat there without the tremor of a muscle.

The next second I saw the frightened horse plunging in the path and I looked to see its saddle empty, or the rider reeling with the blood creeping through his coat, or some ghastly thing that clutched and swayed. But I did not see it. The rider sat firmly in his saddle, pulled up the horse, and, looking idly about him, rode on. He believed the gun had been fired by some hunter shooting squirrels. "Oh," I cried, "he missed!"

But Abner did not reply. He was standing in his stirrups searching the wood.

"How could he miss, Uncle Abner," I said, "when he was so near to the path and had that fork to rest his gun-barrel in? Did you see him?"

It was some time before Abner answered, and then his reply was to my final query.

"I did not see him," he said deliberately. "He must have slipped away somehow through the thicket."

That was all he said, and for a good while he was silent, drumming with his fingers on the pommel of his saddle and looking out over the distant treetops.

The sun was touching the mountains before Abner began to move the drove. We got the cattle out of the wood and started the line down the long hill. The road forked at the bottom of the hill-one branch of it, the main road, went on to the house of the grazer with whom we had expected to spend the night and the other turned on through the wood.

I was astonished when Abner turned the drove into this other road, but I said nothing, for I presently understood the reason for this change of plans. One could hardly accept the hospitality of a man when he had negligently stood by to see him murdered.

In half a mile the road came out into the open. There was a big new house on a bit of rising land and, below, fields and meadows. I did not know the crossroad, but I knew this place. The man, Dillworth, who lived here had been sometime the clerk of the county court. He had got this land, it was said, by taking advantage of a defective record, and he had now a suit in chancery against the neighboring grazers for the land about him. He had built this great new house, in pride boasting that it would sit in the center of the estate that he would gain. I had heard this talked about-this boasting, and how one of the grazers had sworn before the courthouse that he would kill Dillworth on the day that the decree was entered. I knew in what esteem Abner held this man and I wondered that he should choose him to stay the night with.

When we first entered the house and while we ate our supper Abner had very little to say, but after that, when we had gone with the man out on to the great porch that overlooked the country, Abner changed-I think it was when he picked up the county newspaper from the table. Something in this paper seized on his attention and he examined it with care. It was a court notice of the sale of lands for delinquent taxes, but the paper had been torn and only half of the article was there. Abner called our host's attention to it.

"Dillworth," he said, "what lands are included in this notice?"

"Are they not there?" replied the man.

"No," said Abner, "a portion of the newspaper is gone. It is torn off at a description of the Jenkins tract"-and he put his finger on the line and showed the paper to the man-"what lands follow after that?"

"I do not remember the several tracts," Dillworth answered, "but you can easily get another copy of the newspaper. Are you interested in these lands?"

"No," said Abner, "but I am interested in this notice."

Then he laid the newspaper on the table and sat down in a chair. And then it was that his silence left him and he began to talk.

Abner looked out over the country. "This is fine pasture land," he said.

Dillworth moved forward in his chair. He was a big man with a bushy chestnut beard, little glimmering eyes and a huge body.

"Why, Abner," he said, "it is the very best land that a beef steer ever cropped the grass on."

"It is a corner of the lands that Daniel Davisson got in a grant from George the Third," Abner continued. "I don't know what service he rendered the crown, but the pay was princely-a man would do king's work for an estate like this."

"King's work he would do," said Dillworth, "or hell's work. Why, Abner, the earth is rich for a yard down. I saw old Hezekiah Davisson buried in it, and the shovels full of earth that the Negroes threw on him were as black as their faces, and the sod over that land is as clean as a woman's hair. I was a lad then, but I promised myself that I would one day possess these lands."

"It is a dangerous thing to covet the possession of another," said Abner. "King David tried it and he had to do-what did you call it, Dillworth?-'hell's work'."

"And why not," replied Dillworth, "if you get the things you want by it?"

"There are several reasons," said Abner, "and one is that it requires a certain courage. Hell's work is heavy work, Dillworth, and the weakling who goes about it is apt to fail."

Dillworth laughed. "King David didn't fail, did he?"

"He did not," replied Abner; "but David, the son of Jesse, was not a coward."

"Well," said Dillworth, "I shall not fail either. My hands are not trained to war like this, but they are trained to lawsuits."

"You got this wedge of land on which your house is built by a lawsuit, did you not?" said Abner.

"I did," replied Dillworth; "but if men do not exercise ordinary care they must suffer for that negligence."

"Well," said Abner, "the little farmer who lived here on this wedge suffered enough for his. When you dispossessed him he hanged himself in his stable with a halter."

"Abner," cried Dillworth, "I have heard enough about that. I did not take the man's life. I took what the law gave me. If a man will buy land and not look up the title it is his own fault."

"He bought at a judicial sale," said Abner, "and he believed the court would not sell him a defective title. He was an honest man, and he thought the world was honest."

"He thought wrong," said Dillworth.

"He did," said Abner.

"Well," cried Dillworth, "am I to blame because there is a fool the less? Will the people never learn that the court does not warrant the title to the lands that it sells in a suit in chancery? The man who buys before the courthouse door buys a pig in a poke, and it is not the court's fault if the poke is empty. The judge could not look up the title to every tract of land that comes into his court, nor could the title to every tract be judicially determined in every suit that involves it. To do that, every suit over land would have to be a suit to determine title and every claimant would have to be a party."

"What you say may be the truth," said Abner, "but the people do not always know it."

"They could know it if they would inquire," answered Dillworth; "why did not this man go before the judge?"

"Well," replied Abner, "he has gone before a greater Judge." Abner leaned back in his chair and his fingers rapped on the table.

"The law is not always justice," he said. "Is it not the law that a man may buy a tract of land and pay down the price in gold and enter into the possession of it, and yet, if by inadvertence, the justice of the peace omits to write certain words into the acknowledgment of the deed, the purchaser takes no title and may be dispossessed of his lands?"

"That is the law," said Dillworth emphatically; "it is the very point in my suit against these grazers. Squire Randolph could not find his copy of Mayo's Guide on the day that the deeds were drawn and so he wrote from memory."

Abner was silent for a moment.

"It is the law," he said, "but is it justice, Dillworth?"

"Abner," replied Dillworth, "how shall we know what justice is unless the law defines it?"

"I think every man knows what it is," said Abner.

"And shall every man set up a standard of his own," said Dillworth, "and disregard the standard that the law sets up? That would be the end of justice."

"It would be the beginning of justice," said Abner, "if every man followed the standard that God gives him."

"But, Abner," replied Dillworth, "is there a court that could administer justice if there were no arbitrary standard and every man followed his own?"

"I think there is such a court," said Abner.

Dillworth laughed.

"If there is such a court it does not sit in Virginia."

Then he settled his huge body in his chair and spoke like a lawyer who sums up his case.

"I know what you have in mind, Abner, but it is a fantastic notion. You would saddle every man with the thing you call a conscience, and let that ride him. Well, I would unsaddle him from that. What is right? What is wrong? These are vexed questions. I would leave them to the law. Look what a burden is on every man if he must decide the justice of every act as it comes up. Now the law would lift that burden from his shoulders, and I would let the law bear it."

"But under the law," replied Abner, "the weak and the ignorant suffer for their weakness and for this ignorance, and the shrewd and the cunning profit by their shrewdness and by their cunning. How would you help that?"

"Now, Abner," said Dillworth, "to help that you would have to make the world over." Again Abner was silent for a while. "Well," he said, "perhaps it could be done if every man put his shoulder to the wheel."

"But why should it be done?" replied Dillworth. "Does Nature do it? Look with what indifference she kills off the weakling. Is there any pity in her or any of your little soft concerns? I tell you these things are not to be found anywhere in Nature-they are man-made."

"Or God-made," said Abner.

"Call it what you like," replied Dillworth, "it will be equally fantastic, and the law would be fantastic to follow after it. As for myself, Abner, I would avoid these troublesome refinements. Since the law will undertake to say what is right and what is wrong I shall leave her to say it and let myself go free. What she requires me to give I shall give, and what she permits me to take I shall take, and there shall be an end of it."

"It is an easy standard," replied Abner, "and it simplifies a thing that I have come to see you about."

"And what have you come to see me about?" said Dillworth; "I knew that it was for something you came." And he laughed a little, dry, nervous laugh. I had observed this laugh breaking now and then into his talk and I had observed his uneasy manner ever since we came. There was something below the surface in this man that made him nervous and it was from that under thing that this laugh broke out.

"It is about your lawsuit," said Abner. "And what about it?"

"This," said Abner: "That your suit has reached the point where you are not the man to have charge of it."

"Abner," cried Dillworth, "what do you mean?"

"I will tell you," said Abner. "I have followed the progress of this suit, and you have won it. On any day that you call it up the judge will enter a decree, and yet for a year it has stood there on the docket and you have not called it up. Why?"

Dillworth did not reply, but again that dry, nervous laugh broke out.

"I will answer for you, Dillworth," said Abner-"you are afraid!" Abner extended his arm and pointed out over the pasture lands, growing dimmer in the gathering twilight, across the river, across the wood to where lights moved and twinkled.

"Yonder," said Abner, "lives Lemuel Arnold; he is the only man who is a defendant in your suit, the others are women and children. I know Lemuel Arnold. I intended to stop this night with him until I thought of you. I know the stock he comes from. When Hamilton was buying scalps on the Ohio, and haggling with the Indians over the price to be paid for those of the women and the children, old Hiram Arnold walked into the conference: 'Scalp-buyer,' he said, 'buy my scalps; there are no little ones among them,' and he emptied out on to the table a bagful of scalps of the king's soldiers. That man was Lemuel Arnold's grandfather and that is the blood he has. You would call him violent and dangerous, Dillworth, and you would be right. He is violent and he is dangerous. I know what he told you before the courthouse door. And, Dillworth, you are afraid of that. And so you sit here looking out over these rich lands and coveting them in your heart-and are afraid to take them."

The night was descending, and I sat on a step of the great porch, in the shadow, forgotten by these two men. Dillworth did not move, and Abner went on.

"That is bad for you, Dillworth, to sit here and brood over a thing like this. Plans will come to you that include 'hell's work'; this is no thing for you to handle. Put it into my hands."

The man cleared his throat with that bit-of nervous laugh.

"How do you mean-into your hands?" he said.

"Sell me the lawsuit," replied Abner.

Dillworth sat back in his chair at that and covered his jaw with his hand, and for a good while he was silent.

"But it is these lands I want, Abner, not the money for them."

"I know what you want," said Abner, "and I will agree to give you a proportion of all the lands that I recover in the suit."

"It ought to be a large proportion, then, for the suit is won."

"As large as you like," said Abner.

Dillworth got up at that and walked about the porch. One could tell the two things that were moving in his mind: That Abner was, in truth, the man to carry the thing through-he stood well before the courts and he was not afraid; and the other thing-How great a proportion of the lands could he demand? Finally he came back and stood before the table.

"Seven-eighths then. Is it a bargain?"

"It is," said Abner. "Write out the contract."

A Negro brought foolscap paper, ink, pens, and a candle and set them on the table. Dillworth wrote, and when he had finished he signed the paper and made his seal with a flourish of the pen after his signature. Then he handed the contract to Abner across the table.

Abner read it aloud, weighing each legal term and every lawyer's phrase in it. Dillworth had knowledge of such things and he wrote with skill. Abner folded the contract carefully and put it into his pocket, then he got a silver dollar out of his leather wallet and flung it on to the table, for the paper read: "In consideration of one dollar cash in hand paid, the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged." The coin struck hard and spun on the oak board. "There," he said, "is your silver. It is the money that Judas was paid in and, like that first payment to Judas, it is all you'll get."

Dillworth got on his feet. "Abner," he said, "what do you drive at now?"

"This," replied Abner: "I have bought your lawsuit; I have paid you for it, and it belongs to me. The terms of that sale are written down and signed. You are to receive a portion of what I recover; but if I recover nothing you can receive nothing."

"Nothing?" Dillworth echoed.

"Nothing!" replied Abner.

Dillworth put his big hands on the table and rested his body on them; his head drooped below his shoulders, and he looked at Abner across the table.

"You mean-you mean--"

"Yes," said Abner, "that is what I mean. I shall dismiss this suit."

"Abner," the other wailed, "this is ruin-these lands-these rich lands!" And he put out his arms, as toward something that one loves. "I have been a fool. Give me back my paper." Abner arose.

"Dillworth," he said, "you have a short memory. You said that a man ought to suffer for his lack of care, and you shall suffer for yours. You said that pity was fantastic, and I find it fantastic now. You said that you would take what the law gives you; well, so shall I."

The sniveling creature rocked his big body grotesquely in his chair.

"Abner," he whined, "why did you come here to ruin me?"

"I did not come to ruin you," said Abner. "I came to save you. But for me you would have done a murder."

"Abner," the man cried, "you are mad. Why should I do a murder?"

"Dillworth," replied Abner, "there is a certain commandment prohibited, not because of the evil in it, but because of the thing it leads to-because there follows it-I use your own name, Dillworth, 'hell's work.' This afternoon you tried to kill Lemuel Arnold from an ambush."

Terror was on the man. He ceased to rock his body. He leaned forward, staring at Abner, the muscles of his face flabby.

"Did you see me?"

"No," replied Abner, "I did not."

The man's body seemed, at that, to escape from some hideous pressure. He cried out in relief, and his voice was like air wheezing from the bellows.

"It's a lie! a lie! a lie!"

I saw Abner look hard at the man, but he could not strike a thing like that.

"It's the truth," he said, "you are the man; but when I stood in the thicket with your weapon in my hand I did not know it, and when I came here I did not know it. But I knew that this ambush was the work of a coward, and you were the only coward that I could think of. No," he said, "do not delude yourself-that was no proof. But it was enough to bring me here. And the proof? I found it in this house. I will show it to you. But before I do that, Dillworth, I will return to you something that is yours."

He put his hand into his pocket, took out a score of buckshot and dropped them on the table. They clattered off and rolled away on the floor.

"And that is how I saved you from murder, Dillworth. Before I put your gun back into the hollow log I drew all the charge in it except the powder."

He advanced a step nearer to the table.

"Dillworth," he said, "a little while ago I asked you a question that you could not answer. I asked you what lands were included in the notice of sale for delinquent taxes printed in that county newspaper. Half of the newspaper had been torn off, and with it the other half of that notice. And you could not answer. Do you remember that question, Dillworth? Well, when I asked it of you I had the answer in my pocket. The missing part of that notice was the wadding over the buckshot!"

He took a crumpled piece of newspaper out of his pocket and joined it to the other half lying before Dillworth on the table.

"Look," he said, "how the edges fit!"

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