WEST PETERS had just dodged a skilfully hurled stick of fire-wood, the initial impulse of which had been supplied by the hand of his brother North. The chunk of hickory crashed into the door of the kitchen and West seized it with an oath almost before it touched the door.
"You will, will you?" he sputtered, fairly strangled by his anger. He turned, with club upraised, only to confront North Peters armed with the heavy iron poker. North sneered in his face.
"Drop it, you hound dog," he growled. "Drop it, or I'll brain you."
Instead of obeying, West opened the door and retreated outside. A contemptuous laugh followed him and he shook his fist at the house as he made for the barn, hurling the stick of hickory at the wood-pile as he passed.
They were a singular pair, these two brothers. It was well known that they quarreled and fought like wildcats, though no outsider had ever caught them actually engaged. The Peters' pride took care of that. Old man Peters had never displayed his eccentricity to better advantage than when he named his four boys Northrup, Easton, Southey, and Westlake. East and South died young, and North and West inherited the farm on the old man's death, North being some ten years the older.
There had been a daughter, too, the youngest of all, but she had run away to marry a circus acrobat, and the old man had promptly shut her out of his memory and cut her off in his will.
North Peters, now approaching forty, was a sour, black, heavy-browed hulk of a man. Almost incredible stories were told in the township of his stupendous strength, and his appearance went far to hear them out. Over six feet tall, thick-necked as a bull, with lumbering shoulders and a mighty chest, he looked the Hercules he was reputed to be. West, the youngest of the original four, as North was the oldest, was cast in much the same mold as his elder, being, however, not quite so tall and a little better looking, with gray eyes for his brother's black. They bated one another with cordiality and intensity.
The trouble grew originally out of their inheritance. The farm was large enough for two, but they could never agree upon a division because each wanted the home orchard. The breach widened through North's contemptuous condescension toward the younger man and West's reciprocal disregard of the elder's judgment.
One other thing they inherited in common from the old man besides the farm: this was the stiff-necked Peters' pride. Though their eyes might speak murder outright, no outsider had ever heard either publicly malign the other. It was well known that they occupied separate wings of the house, ate their meals at different hours, and worked opposite halves of the farm without reciprocity or consultation.
Conditions were such that no woman would stay with them and each man, therefore, did his own cooking. Each had outside help for his plowing or harvesting as he felt the need, quite as though the farm were actually legally divided, but between them, at once a bond of union and a cause of discord, lay the home orchard, an acre or so of gnarled old pear and apple trees cursed with each recurring season by the coddling moth till the fruit was hardly worth the gathering.
The acute unpleasantness this particular evening arose out of the fact that North was late at his supper and West had invaded the kitchen before the elder brother had made an end. Followed speedily the fire-wood and poker and West's ignominious retreat to the barn.
Here, sitting on the feed-box, he wasted some breath in hearty curses on his brother. Cold and hungry, it seemed to him that the limit of endurance had been reached. Hurling aside the restraining hand of the Peters' pride, he resolved that the law should be invoked to decide between them. He would start partition proceedings to-morrow.
This decision reached, he returned to the house. The kitchen was now dark, showing that the coast was clear, and he entered and prepared his own meal. He had finished eating and was in the act of lighting his pipe when there came a rap at the door, a sturdy, solid rap.
"Come in," cried West, without moving from his chair.
The door opened and a small boy appeared. He entered and closed the door behind him; then standing solidly on his two feet he looked around the room with a pair of sharp, black eyes which came finally to rest on the face of West Peters.
"Is this the Peters' farm?" he asked.
"Yes," said West. "What do you want?" The tone was not as forbidding as the words would imply.
"I - I've come to see you," said the boy, swallowing painfully. Something, recollection or present circumstances, seemed to overwhelm him and tears began to well into his eyes. He fought them manfully, winking and swallowing in the effort to control himself. West Peters rose and pulled a chair up to the stove.
"Sit down, son," he said kindly, and the boy came forward and took the proffered seat. "Cold, ain't you?" asked West. "Kind o' raw outside."
"You're Uncle West, aren't you?" said the boy.
West's eyes opened wide and he searched the lad's face.
"What's your name?" he demanded.
"Andrew Peters Boyd," answered the lad promptly.
There was a sharp contracting of the man's eyes and a tightening about the lips. He forgave no more readily than his father before him.
"You're Eliza's boy, eh?" he said. "Where's your mother?" The tone was uncompromisingly hard.
Again the tears showed in the boy's eyes and were sturdily fought down.
"Mother's dead," he said. "She told me to come here."
It was not a Peters' trait to show emotion and West's start of surprise at the news was the only evidence that he heard it. But his next question disclosed some concern.
"What was the trouble?" he asked. "What did your mother die of?"
"I don't know, sir," said the boy. "Father went away and didn't come back, and then mother got sick."
West loosed an oath under his breath. "Deserted her after all," he said to himself.
"How did you get here?" he asked the boy.
"I walked from Trenton," answered the youngster.
"The devil you did!" said West. "Why, that's thirty miles. Had any supper?"
"Like bread and milk?"
The boy ate ravenously while West Peters sat by the stove and watched him, wondering what under the stars he was going to do with him.
"This here is no place for him," he said to himself with entire conviction, with North throwin' cordwood around and cussin'." While he thus catalogued the motes in his brother's eye he was not unmindful of the beams in his own.
On the other hand, this was Eliza's boy. There was no doubt of that. He looked like her around the eyes and mouth, and the Peters' pride made West glad the lad was more Peters than Boyd.
"Can't send him to the poorhouse," thought the uncle; "he's Eliza's boy."
His thoughts ended in no further decision than to give the boy a bed overnight, and when Andrew had finished his second large bowl of bread and milk and pronounced himself satisfied, West took him to his own room and told him to go to bed.
He himself returned to the kitchen, where he again lit his pipe and, with his feet on the stove, considered this remarkable evening. Thus employed, he was presently interrupted by the appearance of his brother North, who took his own seat opposite, lit his pipe, put his feet on the stove, and lapsed into immobility. It was their invariable custom in cold weather, this glowering stiff contiguity in the kitchen in the evening, without companionship save such as each could draw from his pipe.
For half an hour they smoked in a blank silence, broken only by the gurgle of the pipes and the occasional shifting of West in his chair. Then he leaned forward, knocked out his pipe into the coal-scuttle, cleared his throat heavily, and spoke:
"Eliza's dead, North," he said.
The elder brother moved not a muscle at the news. He continued to smoke quite as though he were alone in the kitchen. West waited a time.
"Her boy came this evening - walked from Trenton. He says the damned scoundrel deserted her and she took sick and died."
The elder brother's black brows drew down a bit, his eyes contracting to mere slits, but he did not speak. West waited some moments.
"We'll have to keep him, I suppose," he said then.
"We!" said North.
"We can't send him to the poor-house," said West.
"We!" again said North.
"You're as much interested as I am," returned West. "It ain't my kid."
"I've got nothing to do with it," said North firmly. "Is he here now?"
"In my bed," answered West. "Nice little chap, too. Looks like Eliza."
North Peters replaced the pipe in his mouth and began smoking with elaborate unconcern. West stood it for some time.
"Well," he burst out finally, "haven't you got anything to say?"
"Me?" said North. "It's none of my affairs. You took him in. I'm not worryin' about what you're to do with him," and again he returned to his pipe.
West flushed angrily and his mouth opened for an explosion. Then, with a glance toward the door of his bedroom, he checked himself. "See here, North," he said in a quiet, reasoning tone. "He's Eliza's kid. He's your nephew as much as mine. Eliza's dead and his father's deserted him, and dead, too, I hope. We've got to take him in."
He stopped at the sneering smile on North's face.
"We've got to, eh?" said the elder brother. "I tell you it's none of my funeral. If you want to take the brat in you can do it, I suppose. But count me out."
West rose and looked his brother over from head to foot and back again. "By the Lord, North," he said, "you are a skunk," and he turned his back and entered his own room.
West and Andrew had breakfast together next morning, and when they sat down the small boy ducked his head above his oatmeal and waited expectantly. West's first impulse was to laugh. His second was a frantic desire to escape. Then he bent his own head and with a blazing face said a very halting grace. That over the boy pitched into his food with voracious zest and neither spoke till the first pangs were blunted.
"Doesn't Uncle North live here?" asked the boy presently. "Mother said -"
"Yes," said West, "but he eats his breakfast early."
"Do you have a horse here?" was the next question.
"Yes, four of them," and the man smiled at the wonder in the boy's face.
"And cows?" he asked.
"And pigs and chickens?"
After that the boy could hardly finish his meal for keen desire to be up and seeing. West lingered to clean and put away the dishes, and Andrew hastened into the yard on exploration bent.
The chickens clucked about the door-yard, but these were small game to him now, and he hurried on toward the barn. It was a crisp November morning with a white frost on roofs and fences. In the barn-yard the boy saw a huge black-bearded man leading a horse to the watering trough. Andrew eyed the proceeding from a little distance, then, as the horse dipped his nose in the cold water and began sucking in long draughts, curiosity overcame him and he drew near.
"Are you Uncle North?" he asked suddenly, almost from between the big man's boots.
North Peters started so violently that the horse was frightened and threw up his head with a toss that spattered water over man and boy alike. The youngster stood his ground manfully, merely putting up his fists to ward off attack. Instead of cursing, as he started to do, North Peters suddenly laughed.
"Well, I'll be - blessed," he said. "He won't hurt you, sonny." The tone was pleasant. It seemed as though, taken thus off his guard, the man had forgotten his pose, and acted on a natural impulse. But he recollected himself immediately and his face grew sternly forbidding.
"Are you Uncle North?" repeated the boy.
"I suppose I be," said North.
"Can I ride the horse, Uncle North?" asked the boy with childish irrelevance.
The man seemed unable to adjust his assumed attitude to this novel set of circumstances. There was something singularly appealing about the sturdy little chap and his utter confidence disarmed the man, long accustomed to sour looks from all he met.
"Can you stick on?" he asked.
"Yes," cried the youngster eagerly, and North swung him up to the broad back of old Tom, where his legs stuck out almost straight and he had to lean forward to grasp the horse's mane. That was how West found them, Andy yelling like an Indian from sheer delight, North chuckling good-naturedly, and old Tom evidently scandalized. West watched the cavalcade disappear through the barn-door and then followed to attend to his own horses. If any question had existed in his mind as to what was to he done with the boy, the events of the morning had dissipated it. He had feared the outcome of North's meeting the lad and had held himself in readiness to interpose in the boy's behalf, but it was evidently unnecessary. North, it seemed, had surrendered at discretion.
Indeed, he was so astonished at the turn events had taken that he forgot the quarrel of the preceding evening and his intention to begin suit for partition. But if North had succumbed to the attraction of the small boy, he was far from extending the olive-branch to his brother. They came face to face in the barn and North glowered upon West with all his accustomed ugliness.
Andrew watched the brothers at work, asked incessant questions first of one, then of the other, fell out of the loft and got up grinning though he struck hard, insisted on riding each horse as it was led to water, and avowed he was not scared when Billy, the colt, kicked up his heels in the fresh, brisk air and nearly unseated him. West took notice that the oaths which ordinarily slipped unheeded from North's lips were bitten in two in the middle or suppressed entirely. That night, as they sat by the fire smoking their pipes, they came nearer to a friendly conversation than they had come for more than a year. It was West who began it. "Are we going to keep him?" he asked out of a dense cloud of smoke.
There was no answer for a moment. Then North's big, rough voice came out of a similar cloud on his side of the stove. "He's Eliza's boy," he said. "I suppose we'll have to."
That was all, but it signified much. West made no more than a mental comment on the "we" in his brother's speech and they smoked out their pipes and went to bed in a stiff silence, which none the less seemed to lack that quality of sullen hostility which had characterized their evenings hitherto.
The boy never showed the slightest preference for either of his uncles. He seemed to take his reception by both as a matter of course. His mother had told him to come and naturally he had been taken in and made to feel at home. That it might have been otherwise fortunately he never dreamed. It is not beyond suspicion, however, that a certain jealousy grew up between the two men as the winter passed, each a bit fearful lest the other should supplant him in the boy's regard, yet each shamefacedly unwilling to admit the fact even to himself. Certainly Andrew never received a nickel from one uncle without being able to collect a dime from the other by a mere display of the first gift.
Christmas approached, and one evening the brothers held a consultation.
"He says he wants a tree," announced West. "Says his mother always had one for him."
North stared a moment, half inclined to sneer, half to acquiesce. "We'll look pretty, fixing up a Christmas-tree," he said finally.
"Yes," agreed West, "but the kid wants it and it ain't anybody's business but our own. If you'll cut the tree, I'll go to town and get the fixings."
"All right," agreed North. "If he wants it he might as well have it."
They trimmed the tree together Christmas eve after Andrew was in bed, these two gruff men. It was not an artistic performance. Neither of them had so much as seen a Christmas-tree for close on thirty years, but your small boy is not over critical and the two men felt amply repaid next morning when Andrew spied it. There was a sled from North and a pair of skates from West, besides candy, pop-corn, and nuts enough to satisfy even a small boy.
But the main result of the Christmas celebration was the bringing together of the two brothers. Men cannot cooperate for such a purpose without first laying aside their mutual antagonisms. Not since Andrew's arrival had the home orchard been mentioned between them, and from the very first there had been a tacit understanding that in the boy's presence there should he no renewal of the feud. So quite insensibly there had come a better feeling between the two men. Their evenings together became less and less periods of sullen silence, and as the winter passed it found them discussing the business of the farm very much as two brothers should.
When spring came it happened, neither knew exactly how, that they went about their work on the farm not as separate owners of conflicting inheritances, but as joint tenants. There was no open settlement of the breach, no "making up," but the understanding grew that by-gones should be by-gones and until further provocation they would live in peace.
It was in April that the boy failed one day to appear after school. West, at work near the house, noticed the fact, but took it for granted that he had arrived unseen and slipped across to the lower field where North was plowing. North came in toward evening without the boy, and an immediate search of the place, in which both brothers joined, revealed no trace of him. West came from the barn as North left the house.
"No sign of him here," said the elder brother.
"I'll go down, I guess, and find out where he went after school, said West, putting a light air on his evident anxiety.
At the gate a passing neighbor pulled up his team and accosted him. "Jim Boyd's back, I see," he called.
West halted in his tracks and big North came hurrying up. "Where'd you see him?" he demanded.
"Saw him makin' for the hobo camp about an hour ago. Had the boy in tow. I suppose if he wanted him you had to let him take him."
North turned to his brother and their eyes met. Without a word they turned and made for the barn. Five minutes later they rode out of the yard together, North on old Tom, West on Billy, the colt. These two were silent men at best, and this was no time for talk. They rode with hardly a word, while the grim solidity of their jaws and the straight look in their eyes spelled trouble for any one who tried to balk them.
Their way led south through the town and on over the plank bridge which marked the borough limits. Two miles beyond lay a strip of scrub pine, cut by gullies and ravines which afforded shelter from the wind. Year after year this place was used as a rendezvous by tramps in their passage north or south. In the spring and again in the fall there were frequently as many as thirty of these Ishmaelites harboring in the pines for a few days before continuing their travels. From time to time they were cleared out by officers of the law, compelled to move hurriedly on or jailed for a few days under the vagrancy act. But for some reason known only to the under world the spot remained attractive and the year after such a raid invariably found it quite as populous as ever.
The two brothers tethered their horses at the nearest point on the road and, making their way through the low pines, strode into the assembly while supper was in process of preparation. There were perhaps twenty hoboes in the place and at sight of the two big men here and there a tramp rose quickly and slipped into the brush, deeming discretion to be the safest policy in case of doubt.
Most of them, however, stuck to their places, merely eying the intruders with sidelong glances. The two brothers advanced till they could make out the faces of the tramps by the light of the fires, then halting, with North a trifle in the lead, they scanned the assembly, searching for the man they sought. Up the gully, farthest of all from the two, was a fire about which sat five men. When his eye lighted on this group, North started forward.
"There he is, the drunken dog," he growled, and made straight for the group. A black-headed man rose as they approached and stepping forward held out his hand.
"How are you, North?" he said.
The big man ignored the extended hand and stepped up till he towered above the other. "Where's the boy?" he demanded, and the tone was ugly.
"Andy?" said Boyd. "I don't know, North. I supposed you were taking care of him. I ain't seen him."
North dropped a hand on the man's shoulder that rocked him on his feet. "Where is he?" he demanded.
Boyd let out an oath: "Take your hands off me," he blustered. "If I wanted the boy I'd come and get him, and you couldn't stop me. I'm his daddy, I guess."
North kept his hand where it was. There ain't a court in the United States would let you take him, you drunken hobo," he said. "Where is he?"
"Take your hands off me," cried Boyd again, and aimed a blow at the big man's face. North met it with a swing which nearly broke the fellow's arm.
Meanwhile two of the other tramps had risen and were edging round behind. West wheeled in time to avoid a blow from a club and, yelling to his brother, sprang at his assailant, smashing right and left with fists that looked and must have felt like veritable sledges. Then the fight became general.
It was only two to one, however, for the fifth member of the group fled at the first sign of battle, and the sons of rest squatting about the other fires made no motion to interfere. It was not their battle, and the cardinal motto of the tramp is to expend no energy except under compulsion. They viewed the conflict with the same intense interest they would have devoted to a dog-fight or a cock-main, but lent no active support to either side. The two brothers, who had fought each other so often, fought now back to back with a silent fury that meant nothing short of manslaughter if victory demanded it. West's first straight shoulder lunge caught one of the tramps fair in the face and sent him reeling backward till he tumbled in a heap.
North, busied with Boyd, who had all the agility of the professional acrobat, was attacked from the flank by a burly Irishman who swore mightily in a thick brogue from the beginning of the conflict to its very end. The two brothers uttered not a sound. North clinched with the Irishman and, wrapping his mighty arms about him, put forth all his strength. The breath went out of the tramp in choking gasps, his ribs buckled under the strain, and his curses changed to howls for mercy. North flung him from him and turned to meet Boyd, who had picked up a club and was rushing to the attack. Dodging the descending club, the giant leaped in and seized his man by the throat with one huge hand while he sequestered the club with the other.
West, meantime, had pummeled his two foes into utter submission. One, struck by a smashing swing on the left side of his head, in falling had struck the right side against a tree-bole, and between the two immediately lost all interest in mundane affairs. As West started for his other antagonist the fellow turned and fled into the woods. West swung about to find the Irishman struggling to his feet, a string of oaths pouring from his lips, and stark murder in his eye. The younger brother interposed between him and North, who was choking Boyd into submission, and as the Irishman got his feet and came boring blindly in, West swung right and left to the jaw, smashing through the fellow's careless guard, and dropped him in his tracks.
That ended it. 0f the original five, two had fled, two were senseless, and North stood, holding Boyd at arm's --length, alternately choking him till his tongue stuck out and shaking him till his teeth rattled, while with monotonous insistence he inquired, "Where is he? Where's the boy?"
This was big medicine with a vengeance and Boyd very quickly capitulated. North relaxed his grip enough to let the man articulate, and Boyd pointed up the gully.
"He's up there," he said sullenly.
"Lead the way," said North, his iron fingers emphasizing the command. West hooked his right hand in the fellow's collar, North loosened his grip, and they went up the gully perhaps twenty yards to a point where a narrow ravine cut through at right angles. There they found the boy. He was tied hand and foot and nearly choked by a gag in his mouth. North gathered him up and led the way back to the fire, while West followed, dragging the reluctant Boyd. There were traces of tears on Andy's cheeks, but he grinned gamely when North removed the gag.
"I knew you'd come, Uncle North," he said. "I don't want to go with him."
"Don't you worry," West reassured him, "you're not going with him."
North said not a word as he cut the cords on the lad's wrists and ankles, but the look in his face as he turned on the boy's father made the latter shrink before him. The big man took a step forward, his hands clenching and opening at his sides. "Get out of here before I hurt you," he said suddenly, and as West loosed him Boyd turned and fled into the cover of the pines. West swung the boy to his shoulder and the two brothers strode through the crowd of tramps and made their way out of the gully to their horses.
"They were going to make you pay to get me back," said Andy, perched in front of West on Billy the colt. "I heard them talking about it."
North chuckled deep in his throat. "I guess they won't bother you any more," he said grimly.
The boy was in bed, and as usual the two brothers sat smoking in the kitchen that evening. After a long period of silence West spoke. "North," he said, "suppose we adopt him?"
"It'll be safer," admitted North, and another long silence followed.
"And, North," said West again, "we better quit thinking about dividing the place. It makes a better farm as it is."
"Yes," said North, "it's better as it is."
Followed another silence, broken only by the sputtering of their pipes. West finally blew out a vast cloud of vapor, and veiled behind it, spoke again. "Suppose we call it quits, North," he said, "and - and bury the hatchet," he added with an embarrassed laugh.
"All right, West," said the elder brother, and the Peters' feud was over.