Dwellers in the Hills (Chapter 4, page 1 of 5)

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Chapter 4

Old wise men in esoteric idiom, unintelligible to the vulgar, have endeavoured to write down in books how the human mind works in its house,--and I believe they have not succeeded very well. They have broken into this house when it was empty, and laboured to decipher the mystic hieroglyphics written on its walls, and learn to what uses the departed craftsman put the strange, delicate implements which they found fastened so primly in their places.

They have got at but little, as I have heard them say, deploring the brevity of life, and the tremendous magnitude of the labour. The learned, as one put it, had barely time to explain to his successor that he had found the problem unsolvable. I think they might as well have gone about tracking the rainbow, for all they have learned of this mysterious business.

In fewer moments than a singing maid takes to double back on her chorus, I had forgotten all about the ghost. I was sitting idly in the saddle now with the rein over my wrist. Jourdan's message from my brother had given enough to think of. I knew that Ward in the preceding autumn had bought the cattle of two great graziers south of the Valley River, to be taken up during the October month, but I did not know that on a summer afternoon he had sold these cattle to Woodford, binding himself to deliver them within three days after they were demanded.

The trade was fair enough when the two had made it. But now the price of beef cattle was off almost thirty dollars a bullock, and Woodford was in a position to lose more money than his bald-faced cattle-horse could carry in a sack. He had waited all along hoping for the tide to turn. Suddenly, to-day he had demanded his cattle.

To-day, when Ward was on his back and the cattle far to the south across the Valley River. It was the contract, and he had the right to do it, but it was like Woodford. Ward, helpless in his bed, had sent Jourdan on Red Mike to find us somewhere over the Gauley and bid us bring up the cattle if we could. And so the old man had ridden as though the devil were after him.

The proportions of Woodford's plan outlined slowly, and with it came a sense of tremendous responsibility. If we carried out the contract to the letter,--and to the letter it must be with this man,--I knew that Woodford would meet the loss, if it stripped the coat off of his shoulders,--meet it with a smile and some swaggering comment. And I knew as well that, if by any hook or crook he could prevent the contract from being carried out, he would do it with the devil's cleverness.

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