Thomas McTair and His Nancy.
fWAS riding slowly along on my tired sorrel nag, for reasons which I thought would be pleasure and I hoped would be profit, traversing the mountains of East Tennessee, not far from Jasper. I was in the very midst of the forest primeval: giant trees stretched their gnarled branches above my head, and scattered their brilliant leaves, weaving a carpet for my horse's feet more gorgeous than kings have trod. Away oif in the lonely Sequatchie I coukl see the slo])ing ridges and spreading spurs, dovetailing into each other their crimson and yellow and purple till all faded alike into the distant blue, as the moulitains lost themselves in the misty west. No sound broke tlie stillness, save now and then the barking of a squirrel cracking nuts in the big chestnut trees, or the late call of a wood-bird for his mate. I was musing on the mighty works of God, and the pitiful efforts of his unworthy creatures as I rode along, and wondering where I should get my supper, for I was what might be called decently hungry and
indecently thirsty. Suddenly, a sharp turn in the trail stuck my horse's nose almost into the very face of a man who sat on a rock by the roadside, staring-straight before him. His head and chest were thrown forward, his chin had dropped below zero, his lank knees spread wide apart like the open jaws of a Louisiana alligator, and his hands hung limp at his side. A suit of brown jeans, so new that they smelt of the walnut-bark dye, clothed his thin stripe of manly form, and a shirt-collar of blue hickory, turned down around a spare neck, to the very verge of which his fadev, straw-colored hair was plastered, sleek as a ball-room floor, with turkey-fat. A more perfect picture of abject misery I never saw before nor since, and I jerked my pony's head out of the man's face and leaned forward in my saddle to look at him. , , , .
'' Got it bad?" I asked at last, when the creaking of his stiff clothes and the snort of his heavy breathing became embarrassingly audible in the (juietude of
^' That's what 1 hev, stranger," he said, lifting his jaw, but still keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead. '' Ketched it in the neck an' the collar-bone an the chist an' the breas'-bone, an' the heart an' «ie stomick an'the lights an' the livers an' the bowils an' the yuther lower regions. Facks er the business is, I ve got it f'um the crownd er my ol' fool head to the soles er my big blamed foot. Got it all over."
'^^Vhat gave it to you?"
He sprang to his seven feet of height with a yell that reverberated on the mountain side, jumped about
a yard from the ground, cracking his heels together as he came down again.
^^ What gin it to me, stranger?'^ he shouted when he had lit, "what gin it to me? Why Nancy, ov course. Who'd you s^pose? Cause why? Cause er these here plague-on clones what you see befo^ you a-kiverin^ this flabber-gasted oV hide er mine. Look at 'em, stranger, look at 'em, fur Gawd's sake, fur their een is nigh at lian'." And the fellow gyrated around among the dry leaves like a materialized whirlwind.
"Clothes?" said I. "What's the matter with your clothes? That's as good a suit as I've seen this side of Pennsylvania."
" Stranger, you don't mean it." he said softly, coming up close beside me, and fetching me a whack across my thigh that tingled all the way up my anatomy, creeping out at the end of my funny-bone. "Sho' now, you don't mean it."
" Yes, I do though, but what does Nancy say about it?" I answered.
"Stranger!" he said, leaning on my pony's neck, and looking up at me confidentially, "you see it's this 'er way. Me an' Nancy thar, 's been keepin' comp'ny ni^h on to three year come the thirteen day er nex' December, an' things had about got*whar thar warn't nairy ornery cuss on the mounting as dared to look at the groun' she walked on. I'm some, stranger, when I gits riled, an' the fellows 'lowed 'twas my deal, an' cl'ared the track. Well, sech was matters tell the twenty-seven day er las' Angus', whenst we was comin' home f'um meetin' down to the cove.
That day I axed an' Nancy spoke the word, and we fixed the time—this here very day, blame it—fur the knot to be tied, the knot which binds but don't ineberate." I saw the feOow's jaw was beginning to quiver, and suddenly he clapped his hands to his face and dropped back on the stone. T thought he was going off into one of those staring trances, perhaps, or worse, so I interposed gently :
"Where was tlie hitch?"
''Right here, durn it all," he shouted, slapping liis narrow pantaloons and flinging (?pen his ample coat front. "These here clo'es, I tell you. Mam made em fur me witli her own ban's, too; that's whar it hurts. 1 can't go back to the cabin an' tell Mam Nancy scorned the clo'es slie made, could you, now, stranger, 't you was nu'? I've knowed Mam longer'n I hev Nancy, an' she hev stood by me th'ough evil as well as th'ough good report, in sickness an' in health"— tlie fellow's eyes were getting set again. " Oh Lordy ! Whatcher reckon make my ol' fool min'keep runnin'on that marridge cer'mony? As 1 aimed to tell you while ago. Mam, she made this here suit out'n-out, cardin' an' spinnin' an' weavin' an' cuttin' an' sewin' and all. She ripped uj) Pap's weddin' suit fur a patron, which Gran'-pap he'd mar'id in'the same befo' him. An' this hickory stripe shirt, she made it, too, an' stranger, what's a fellow to do? I can't go home, s'help me Gawd, an'tell the ol' 'oman Nancy scorned the clo'es she made fer me, but I don't min' tellin' you, seein' you are handy, an' seem kinder soft an' harmless. As I 'lowed the weddin' was to come off to-night, so I got ready an'
went down early, aimiii' to be on han^, an' thinkin^ I could he^p 'roun' mebbe, fetchin' wood an' drawin' cider. I got thar soon arter dinner, an' Nancy^s little sis Ten, she seed me comin', and ranned an' toP the yuthers. An' by gum, whenst I shinned over the fence, an' started up the parth to the house, thar they all was, big as life, come to the door to watch me. Thar was Nancy an' her Mam an' her Dad an' Buck an' Jeems, an' Marthy Ann an' 'Randy Gibbs f um over at Jasper, what had come to stan' up at the weddin', an' that little blame' Tennessee, an' Nancy! Lord, how they seem' to swell thar in the cabin door, as I fumbled up to the house th'ough the dead leaves. Seem' like thar was a plum army of 'em thar, an' Nancy, an' look like my legs tangled up same's a in-terferin' horse, an' my arms growed so long they tetched the groun' an' my feet so big the yearth couldn't hoi' em. My, stranger, but I was hot whenst I did get to that cabin do', which it natchelly seemed to be miles away. Well, whenst I did get thar, thar was Nancy!"
^^^ Thomas McTair,' she said, pyeart-like, steppin' to the front, an' 'Randy Gibbs a-eggin' her on f'um behin'. ' Thomas McTair,' — Pap, his name is Thomas, an' Mara jined on the McTair fur the bishop what uster be down to Nashville—' Thomas McTair,' says Nancy, ^ was you aimin' to marry in them jeans garments?' she says. ^Them was my intentions,' says I, seein' she had spoke so proper. ' Well, Mr. Lane,' she up an' answer, ' if them is your intentions, you'll git some yuther gal to marry you. If a man is too low down to git a pa'r er sto'-bought clo'es to marry
in, why the Lord hev mercy on his soul, fur I won't/ Yes, sir, them's what Nancy's very words war, an' with that the do' slammed, an' w^henst I looked up thar warn'nt no Nancy ! O Lord ! O Lord !"
'^ Stranger," lie began again after a moment, "did you mean them words you spoke about this dad-blamed suiter jeans? Did you now?"
" Well, yes," I answered. ''From my standpoint that is a first-rate suit, straight goods, all wool and a yard wide."
" Thanky, stranger, thanky!" said Thomas Mc-Tair exuberantly, ''blamed ef I don't tell the old lady them words er your'n ; but see here, stranger, would you min' swoppin' ?"
" What ? Suits ?" I asked, smiling at the remembrance of the twelve inches of difference in our heights.
"That's what," he said eagerly. "You see, it's tliiser w^ay : Thar's plenty time yit, fo' the weddin' was to 'a been, an' ef you air a min' to 'commodate me I kin git thar by the time the 'squire'll come, an' bless Gawd, I'll git Nancy !"
"I am afraid your clothes won't fit me," I said, temporizingly.
His face fell. '^ Looker here, stranger," he said, and there were tears in his eyes. " I'mer losin' the chance er Nancy ! You don't know what that means, ea'se you've never sot eyes on that purty face er hern, nur seen her walkin' in the mist uv a mornin' with the dampness curlin that yeller hair uv hern, an'—O Lord, stranger, ain't thar a gal som'ers as vou'd die to git?"
" Right you are there, Thomas/' I said, dismounting. "You've hit the nail on the head, and I'll tell you what I'll do for you. Mam's cooked up a lot of good things, hasn't she, back at the cabin, for you and Nancy to start honey-mooning on ?"
" That's what," he answered.
" Well, shuck off. I'll lend you my suit till the wedding's over, provided you'll put me on the trail to your cabin, and give me supper and a bed. A fellow gets kinder played climbing mountains."
'^ Stranger, you're a trump," cried Thomas with effusion. '^You're a man, ever' inch of you, an' you're treatin' me white. O Lord! Jest to think, I'll git Nancy!"
" I say, Thomas," said I, after we had both disrobed, " you'll have to get that turkey grease out of your hair, or I'm afraid my hat won't stay on your head ; it will slip off, you know."
"Right you air, stranger," he said, eyeing my rough shock, "mebbe a little stragglin' look, as you mought call it, would go better with sto'-bought clo'es. But come down this way a piece."
He picked up my bundle of clothes and his own big boots, which he had been compelled to remove in order to skin his trousers over his feet, and led the way down the trail, clad only in his under-suit of unwashed Sea-island.
We came presently upon a little cove under overhanging ledges of rock whence a spring bubbled, trailing its way noisily down the mountain-side. Before I knew what he was about Thomas McTair had thrown himself forward on the palms of his hands, 6
and was standing feet uppermost over the stream. The ripples gurgled through his long hair, washing the oil out upon the troubled waters.
" Never wet a thread, did I ? " he said, bv and by, as he turned a somersault, and landed on his feet.
By this time I was comfortably habited in his hickory shirt and brown jeans, with about a foot of trousers turned u]) in an English roll around my ankles.
Thomas McTair's dressing proceeded more slowly, converting him into a forked sight. My trousers struck him about the region of his calves, and refused to be coaxed any lower, but this was a minor defect as his cow-hide boot-tops nobly satisfied the deficiency. But up above there were no extenuating circumstances. The button-tab at the end of the shirt-bosom struck him amid seas, and lopped over the low-cut vest. The short sack coat failed to hide the strap and buckle in the rear, and showed a suspicious line of white round the waist places when he raised his arm. About three inches of Sea-island under-shirt formed a cuff })ro-truding beneath the coat sleeve. His wet hair stood out in little weepy wisps all over his head, but the biggest thing in sight was the smile that pervaded his countenance.
" Don't happen to hev a lookin'-glass about you, do you, stranger?" he asked, when his toilet was complete.
" I do just," I said, reaching in my saddle-bags for my traveling case, and the glow of satisfaction that showed in his face at sight of his comical reflection rewarded me for my philanthropic endeavors.
^^ Stranger," he said to me by and by, as he held my hand in his, " you hev been to me a frien' in need with two in the bush, that's what. Now s'long tell I .see you agin. You foller the leadin' er that thar trail th'ough the underbresh, an' fust news you know you'll see the cabin in the cla'rin', an' mo'n likely Mam er milkin' the cow. She's survigrous lookin' Mam is, but she's all right. You jest tell her Thomas McTair sont you, an' your fort'in's made with Mam. The jug sets behin' the do'. S'long : I'm loaded now fur Nancy."
I watched him swing himself down with quick, free strides, and by and by turned my liorse's head up through the underbrush.
The sun was just sinking to rest, and hung like a red ball of fire beyond the murky mountains. I turned for a last long look at him to find myself staring straight down the barrel of a rifle.
''Didn't calklate on this jest, did ye stranger?" asked the old man at the end of the gun as he came out from the underbrush. Be was a long, lean, lank, tough old customer with determination written in boxcar letters all ov^er his hard old face, and I began to feel a little shaky in my bones with that hungry-looking rifle filling up the space between us.
" Well, I believe you are right, old man," I began, circulating through all the grey matter of my brain to produce an appropriate answer.
'^ I 'lowed not, ye dadblasted valley-man ye," the old man interrupted me. '' I could give ye the same as ye sont mebbe, with ol' meat-in-the-pot here, but shootin's too good fur ye. I guess ye'U keep handy
enough, so ye'U 'commodate me by leadin' the way up that there trail whilst me an' ol' meat-in-the-pot brings upm the rear."
'^ No use talking over matters before we get up, is there, old fellow?" I asked, breathing easier at the chance of a respite at least, and finding that the trail was the one pointed out by Thomas McTair. I put two and two together and concluded that my captor was the flitlier of my whilom friend, and that perhaps matters might not prove as disastrous as they looked.
A half hour's steady pull brought us to the clearing which Thomas McTair had described, and sure enough, Mam was at the pen milking. The old man directed mv way up to the rickety rail fence, and called his w'ife to him, speaking to her in husky whispers which I could not understand.
By and by he made me dismount and lead the way into the cabin. " Onload, stranger," he said, motioning me to a seat in the chimney corner by the fire. I gave him mv pistol and empty flask, w^iich were all I had transferred from mv pockets to Thomas McTair's when we changed clothes. Through the open window^ I saw the old woman leading away my tired nag, and I hoped she would give him a good supper. Presently she came in.
'' Bets," said the old man, giving her the rifle, ye set thar by the table, an' keep the gun p'inted plum. Ef the skunk wink his eve onnecessary, why let her go Gallagher. I'd like to keep him tell the boys kin see the fun, but blaze away ef he shows his teeth. I'll g'long down now."
Bets was a " survigrous " old woman, as Thomas
McTair had said, and she gazed at me witli tire in her eye, and her finger on the trigger. I calculated upon the chance of Thomas McTair's probable return to the parental roof, and concluded that for the sake of my health and the welfare of humanity at large, it would be unwise to put off eating and drinking till that time. I looked the old lady straight in her fiery eye, and said with the deliberation of a seed-tick grabbing for keeps, and in the sanctimonious tone of a newly-appointed circuit-rider:
^^ Madam, if I should by chance die of starvation before my friend Thomas McTair returns from the wedding, kindly tell him that it broke my heart to go Avithout seeing him once more in this life, and that I shall hope to meet him in heaven.'' The old woman's hand shook, and I feared the trigger would fall, but it didn't, and I kept on. "Tell my friend, Thomas McTair, that I will and bequeath to him and his heirs forever my plug horse, my saddle-bags, and all that is in them, my six-shooter and my empty flask, and this I do in return for the favor he showed me in so nobly exchanging this excellent and altogether lovely suit of brown Jeans for my own garments which moth and dust doth corrupt, and thieves break thro' and steal. Amen."
By this time the old woman was in tears. She laid the gun on the table, grabbed a pumpkin pie from the shelf behind her with one hand, and about a yard of fried smoked sausage links with the other.
^' Stranger," she said, shaking a tear about the size of a marrowfat pea from the end of her thin nose, " stranger, set to."
She laid a plate upon tlic table as she spoke, flanked it with a bowl of apple sauce, a corn-pone, and about two dozen hard-boiled eggs. ''The cabin's your'n, stranger," she said, as I drew my chair to the board.
''And the jug behind the door? " 1 enquired.
"An' the jug behin' the door," she said, producing a fat, brown demijohn, and a cracked glass.
By and l)y she took the gun and set it over in the corner with a tliump. " Oh ! Tom Lane alius was a born'd fool," she said, emphatically, as she fished her snuffbox and brush from her pocket, and sat down to ruminate.
I had about cleared up everything in sight, and was feeling wonderfully comfortable inside, when I heard a yell like a stray Comanche's and old Lane burst in upon us.
"Thang Gawd I " he said, grabbing my hand and almost crushing it in his own. " Thang Gawd ye air live an' kickiu'. Blamed ef I didn't think ye'd kill my son, Thomas McTair, fur the clothes on his back, blarst my ol' fool hide."
Thomas McTair and Nancy came in soon after.
"By gum, stranger," Paid the big fellow, "but you missed a close call f'um the old man's gun, didn't you. But it's all right now. You're safe, and I've got Nancy."
I staid with them till the sun was high in the heavens next day, and Thomas McTair went down the trail with me a bit to put me in the right road.
" You've been a Gawd-sen' to me, stranger," he said, at parting, " fur you got me Nancy."
The distant tree-tops blazed iu the glory of the noon-day sun as I turned into the rocky mountain road; the grey squirrels Avarmed themselves amid the branches overhead, rattling down chestnut-hulls upon the fallen leaves, and away back in the underbrush I heard the high pitched, happy voice of Thomas Mc-Tair: " O git along, git along, git along Nancy, way down in Rockingham/'