Buddies

The Patriarch sat on the store porch. An old cob pipe, the smoke oozing
lazily from its mouth, protruded from the recesses of his white beard.
His eyes were fixed on the mountains over whose sides the black, sharp
shadows of the clouds were wandering. His mood was so pensive as to
awaken the curiosity of the Storekeeper, who had been watching the old
man sitting upright on the bench, his gaze fastened on the distant hills.

“What are ye thinkin’ of, Gran’pap?” the young man asked.

“I was thinkin’ o’ Hen Wheedle. I hain’t thot o’ him fer a year, so I
sais to meself to-day, I sais, ‘You otter think o’ Hen Wheedle!’ An’ I
set right down, an’ a mighty good time I’ve hed a medytatin’ over him.”

The Miller laid the county paper over his knees and smoothed it out. Then
he looked at the Patriarch.

“My souls!” he cried. “Why, Hen’s ben over the mo’ntain nigh onto forty
year.”

“That’s jest the pint,” was the rejoinder. “‘Hen folks is gone ye otter
think on ’em.”

To the old man there was nothing beyond the mountains but infinite space.
To him the world was bounded by the green range before him and the range
back by the river. The two sprang out of the blue at a point some nine
miles to the north, went their own ways some fifteen miles to the south,
joined, and made the valley and the world. To go over the mountain to him
meant voluntary annihilation. He would step off into space beyond and
become nothingness. In the seventy-five years of his life he had known
men to return, but it was as though they had arisen from the dead.

“You uns knowd Hen Wheedle?” he inquired.

“He was afore my time but I’ve heard o’ him,” replied the Miller.

The Chronic Loafer looked up from the steps, where he had been sitting,
whittling a piece of soft white pine.

“I s’posn you’ve heard o’ Bill Siler?” he asked, in a pleasant, alluring
tone.

“Bill Siler,” repeated the Miller. He laid his forefinger against his
forehead and thought a minute. “I think I hev. His name’s wery famil’ar.
But why did ye ast?”

“Oh, jest because I’ve noticed that most everybody was afore your time
an’ you’ve heard o’ ’em. I never knowd Bill Siler. His name was jest
ginirated in my head, an’ I thot ye might tell me who he was.”

“You thot ye’d ketch me, heigh,” cried the other. “Ye thot ye’d be smart
an’—-”

“Boys, boys,” the Patriarch shook his stick at his companions. “Don’t
quarrel–don’t. Mebbe some day one o’ ye’ll go over the mo’ntain an’
then every mean word ye ever sayd’ll come back. Mean words is like
them wooden balls on a ’lastic string that they sells the children at
the county fair. The harder they is an’ the wiolenter ye th’ow ’em the
quicker they bounces home to ye an’ the more they hurt. I otter know.
Hen Wheedle otter know. Why every time he thinks o’ me his conscience
must jest roll around inside o’ him.” The light in the old man’s pipe
had gone out. He applied a sulphur match to it and sneezed violently.
“But I’ve forgot the wrong Hen done me. He must ’a’ suffered innardly fer
it. Ef he ever returns I’ll put this right hand in hisn an’ say, ’Hen,
you done wrong, but you’ve suffered innardly an’ I fergive ye.’ They’s
a heap o’ difference ’tween plain, ord’nary sufferin’ inside o’ ye, an’
sufferin’ innardly. Fer the first ye takes bitters, stops smokin’ an’ in
a day you’re all right. But ’hen the conscience gits out o’ order all the
bitters in the world an’ all the stoppin’ smokin’ in creation’ll give ye
no ease. That’s what I sais, an’ I otter know, fer I can jest see how Hen
Wheedle feels.”

No sulphurous fume was blazing around the Patriarch’s nose, but he
sneezed again and choked himself with a piece of canton-flannel that
served him as a handkerchief.

“Hen an’ me was raised on joinin’ farms. From the time we was big enough
to gether eggs we was buddies. At school the boy that licked me had to
lick both; the boy that was licked be one was licked be both. It was a
reg’lar caset o’ David an’ Joshuay all over agin.

“They’s only one thing in the world’ll separate buddies like me an’ him
was. A crow-bar won’t do it; a gun won’t; nothin’ won’t but a combination
o’ yeller hair an’ dreamy blue eyes an’ pink cheeks. Melissy Flower hed
’em all. But what she done she didn’t do intentional. I didn’t want her
without Hen hevin’ her; he didn’t want her without me hevin’ her–so they
was a hitch. We used to go over to her house together allus, an’ we’d
sing duets to her melodium playin’. He sung tenor an’ I bass. At the
eend of each piece she distributed her praise jest equal. ’Hen we wasn’t
hevin’ music we’d be on the settee, all three, first him, then her, then
me. Ef Hen was so fortnit ez to catch the sparkle o’ her eyes, she’d turn
her head my way an’ give me a chancet too.

“Now things went on this way tell one night we was comin’ home from her
house together. We reached the covered bridge where the road dewided,
one fork goin’ to his placet an’ one to mine. How clear I remembers it!

“‘Henry,’ I sais, lookin’ right inter his eyes–it was moonlight an’
I could almost read his thots, ’Henry, it seems to me like you’ve ben
thinkin’ more ’an usual o’ Melissy lately.’

“‘I was thinkin’ the same of you,’ sais he.

“‘You’re right,’ I answers. ‘But I won’t treat no buddy o’ mine mean.’

“‘An’ the same with me,’ sais he.

“We was quiet a piece. Then I sais, ’Henry, ef ever I finds I can’t stand
it no longer I’ll tell you.’

“‘An’ ef ever I gits the same way I’ll tell you,’ sais he.

“We shook hands an’ went home.

“I s’pose things ’ud ’a’ gone on ez they was fer a good many year hed
not a young town felly from up the walley come drivin’ down in slick
clothes an’ in a slick buggy. You uns hev all heard the old sayin’ that
it ain’t the clothes that makes the man. Ye never heard the proverb that
it ain’t the paint that makes the house, did ye? I guess ye didn’t, yit
it’s jest ’bout ez sensible. It ain’t the paint that makes the house,
but it’s the paint that keeps the boards from rottin’ an’ the hull thing
from fallin’ to pieces out o’ pure bein’ ashamed o’ itself. Solerman was
the wisest man that ever lived, yit the Bible sais that he allus run to
fine raiment. He hed a thousand an’ odd wives an’ knowd well enough that
he wouldn’t hev no peace with ’em ef he run ’round in his bare feet an’
overalls. ’Hen the Queen o’ Sheby called on him ye can bet your bottom
dollar she didn’t find him settin’ on the throne with a hickory shirt
’thout no collar, an’ his second-best pants held up be binder-twine
galluses.”

The old man had been talking very fast and was out of breath. He paused
to gather the threads of his story.

The School Teacher seized the opportunity to remark: “An’ yet Solerman in
all his glory was restless an’ unhappy.”

“He knowd too much,” drawled the Loafer, looking up from his stick. “An’
Gran’pap, with all of his wisdom, with all the good uns he sayd, Solerman
never knowd what it was to light his ole pipe an’ set plumb down on the
wood-pile an’ play with the dog. Why, he’d sp’iled his gown.”

“Boys,” resumed the Patriarch, “slick clothes an’ a slick hoss an’ a
slick buggy goes ten times furder with a woman then a slick brain. She
can see a man’s clothes; she can see his hoss; she can see his buggy. But
it takes her fifty year to git her eyes adjusted so she can see his mind.
That’s why I got worrit ’hen this here Perry felly got to drivin’ down to
wisit Melissy. He come oncet; he come agin, an’ I begin thinkin’ more o’
him then I did o’ the girl. Sometimes it seemed like I was goin’ mad yit
I couldn’t do nawthin’ on Hen’s account. Many an afternoon I set here
on this wery porch rewolvin’ it over an’ over: ‘Ef I don’t git her I’ll
die; ef I git her Hen’ll die; ef Perry gits her both on us’ll die.’ It
was a hard puzzle. A couple o’ times I was near solvin’ it be leavin’ the
main part o’ the sufferin’ to the other fellys, but then I minded how Hen
looked at me that night ez we parted at the fork o’ the road, an’ I sais,
‘I’ll treat no buddy o’ mine mean. Git behind me, Satan, an’ make yerself
comf’table tell I need ye.’

“But one afternoon ’hen I was feelin’ petickler low in sperrits, oneasy,
onrastless, I seen Perry drivin’ th’oo, his hoss curried tell his coat
was smooth ez silk, his buggy shinin’ like it ’ud blind me, an’ him
settin’ inside in a full new suit o’ clothes. I knowd she couldn’t stand
all that wery long. So after supper I went right over to Wheedle’s
to git Hen, ’lowin’ we’d go down to Flower’s an’ let Melissy settle
the business be choosin’. He wasn’t een. His ma sayd he’d jest left,
but she s’posed he’d be right hum agin. So I fixed meself on the pump
trough an’ waited. My, but them hours did drag! The sun set an’ it got
dark. I could look down the hill to Flower’s placet an’ see a light
twinklin’ in the best room where I knowd she was with Perry. I pictured
her at the melodium twiddlin’ her fingers soft-like over the keys while
he leaned over her singin’, ‘Thine eyes so blue an’ tender.’ Boys, it
was terrible–terrible. The lamp was allus a-twinklin’ to me to hurry
up. Then final it seemed to git tired an’ went out. It was only eight
o’clock. Now I pictured ’em settin’ in the dark. I wanted to leave right
there an’ run down the hill, but I sais, ‘No; I’ll treat no buddy o’ mine
mean.’

“By an’ by the moon come up an’ the chickens in the barn quit cluckin’
at the rats. I begin to git dozy an’ leaned my head agin the pump. ’Hen
I come to me senses the roosters was crowin’ an’ the light was creepin’
over the ridges yander. I went home. Ez I come ’round the corner o’ the
house, there I see Hen Wheedle sound asleep on the back stoop.

“‘Hen,’ sais I, ‘what hev you ben doin’?’

“‘Waitin’ fer you,’ he answers, ez he gits up an’ rubs his eyes. ‘I come
over last night to git you an’ go over to Flower’s. Perry’s there.’

“I told him how I’d waited all night fer him, an’ he jest groaned. He had
’em wery bad. I mind oncet readin’ in the weemen’s column in the paper
how spilt milk could be sopped up with a sponge. It seemed jest ez tho’
that was what we was doin’ ’hen we went over to Flower’s that mornin’. It
was wery early an’ we’d a long time to wait ’fore Melissy come down to
git breakfast. Then Hen an’ me stepped inter the kitchen.

“I thot she’d faint.

“‘Why, you’re airly,’ she sais.

“‘We’ve come airly a purpose, Melissy,’ sais I. ‘We wants you to choose
atween us.’

“That girl must ’a’ thot a heap o’ one o’ we two–which un I don’t know,
but one sure, fer she kind o’ fell agin the table, graspin’ it fer
support. She raised her apron over her face an’ gasped like.

“‘Take whichever one ye want,’ sais Hen kind o’ soft.

“She didn’t answer.

“‘Don’t keep us een suspenders,’ sais I.

“Then the apron fell from her face, showin’ it all a rosy red, an’ she
tells us, ‘Boys, I’m awful sorry, but you’re late. I tuk Perry last
night.’

“Hen an’ me turned on our heels an’ walked out. We didn’t say nawthin’
tell we come to the fork in the road.

“Hen stopped an’ wentured, ‘We’ve ben fools.’

“‘We hev,’ I sais.

“‘Them town fellys doesn’t last long,’ sais he after a spell. ‘She’s like
to be a widdy.’

“‘In which caset,’ sais I, our agreement stands. We notify each other
’fore we ast her.’

“‘It does,’ he answers, quiet an’ wery solemn. ‘We’ve allus ben buddies,
you an’ me, an’ we allus will be.’

“Melissy Flower become a widdy ez Hen ’lowed an’ a mighty nice un, too.
Perry was hardly cold tell me an’ Wheedle was over singin’ duets with
her. The ole trouble come on agin fer me worse than ever, but this time I
made up me mind I wouldn’t be fooled. ’Hen I could stand it no longer,
I walks one night over to Wheedle’s to notify him. He wasn’t there.
I’d ’a’ gone on to Flower’s but I minded our agreement an’ was true.
It was a temptation, but I’d never treat no buddy o’ mine mean. I was
true. It come twelve o’clock an’ they was no sign o’ him, so I went back
home feelin’ a leetle heavy here.” The old man laid his hand across the
watch-pocket of his waistcoat. “Next day they was a postal in the mail
fer me. It was from Hen, an’ it run like this: ‘I’m on me way to Flower’s
to ast her. I drop this in the box to notify you ez I promised.’

“That’s the way he give me notice. While I was waitin’ to notify him
right, he was astin’ her. He done wrong. His conscience was agin him, fer
’hen I went over to his placet to give him an idee what I thot, I found
him an’ she hed gone–gone over the mo’ntain yander.”

The Patriarch arose and shook his stick angrily at the distant hills. He
shook it until his strength had given out and his anger had ebbed away.

“That was forty year ago,” he said after a long silence, “but ef ever Hen
Wheedle comes back I’ll lay this here right hand in hisn an’ say, ’Hen,
you done wrong, but you’ve suffered innardly. I fergive ye.’”