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The purple moccasin.

SYNOPSIS; Jesse ran off from his home and family in Rosy Ridge, Missouri, intent on joining up with Jesse James and Cole Younger. He'd s traveled all day on foot when he met Samuel Sickles, a doctor of science, and his daughter, Flora Katherine, as they were fleeing the property and gunfire of old Mr. Travis. Jesse was sure the Pinkerton men were looking for him, so he told the Sickleses that he had actually traveled from Arkansas. Doctor Sickles and Flora Katherine invited Jesse to spend the night at their camp in the woods-and to risk life and limb by returning with them to Travis' property in search of the mysterious "purple moccasin."

Doctor Sickles planted his shabby boots wide apart, and he slid one hand inside his coat like a lawyer in court. "Our woodlands have been raped," he said. "The fairest flowers have been plucked from full many a tree, until the branches hang withered and barren. God's creatures have been scourged out of the underbrush and slaughtered without discrimination. With my own eyes I have seen the wild pigeons dashed to the ground, an acre at a time. They tell me, too, that the lordly bison are fading before the hunters' guns. Do you remember those stacks of hides we saw in St. Jo, Kitty-cat?"

Flora Katherine nodded and clapped her hands; and I thought I ought to clap, too, because this was marvelous speechifying.

The old man kind of nodded, as though we had pleased him. He picked up the spade which was lying on the ground. "The Lord himself only knows," he said. "I may be an instrument of regeneration, and I may be holding one of the very tools in my hand! Who am I to be balked by a mere Travis and a mere shotgun?" Flora Katherine was dancing up and down with excitement; I tell you, he shed excitement like a sunset sheds paint, the way he stood there so gaunt and grand. "He said he'd shoot you next time, Daddy," the girl cried. "Do you really think he would? Do you really think he'll shoot?" "He had murder in his eyes," said Doctor Sickles solemnly. Her red hair fairly curled with the flames in it. She gasped, "He'll think you came after all that gold, and after the silver spoons. Maybe-." Her father declared, "Stealth, Kitty-cat! We can circumvent murder by stealth. We will go by night-now, this very night, when the ignorant are slumbering and their guns are behind the doors." Well, she screamed in joy, and then she said, "Can Jesse come along with us?" and my heart was heated in my mouth. "Jesse can come, if he will." He came around the fire and put his long bony hand under my chin, and turned my face up until it looked square into his. "My son," he said, and I had the ague down into my toes-"my son, your ambition is to become an outlaw. Will you be content with this strange outlawry of ours?" I mumbled that I'd like to go along with the two of them. "We'll need the spade," Doctor Sickles decided, "and the bucket and the lantern, and we'll need three pairs of hands to manage the deed with due safety and dispatch. Come along," he said, "both of you, and we'll prepare ourselves."

* * * Sometimes it seems as if the deepest shades of night are those in the earliest hours, with the horn-calls of whippoorwills sounding mournful in every brake, and the air fuzzy with June bugs and flying beetles and the plump gray moths that come to the kitchen window when a lamp is there. This is no occasion for ghosts, but a time for human beings to be faring abroad on most mysterious errands. The bridge sounded like a hollow drum under our feet, no matter how dainty we walked. We went into Mr. Travis' timber at about the point where he had chased the Sickleses out with his shotgun; Doctor Sickles led the way, with a sooty lantern in his hand, and little daggers of light pointed hot into the underbrush on every side. Kitty-cat and I stayed to hand, but still we were behind him, and there was chance then for me to question Kitty-cat about Mr. Travis again, and about all the excitement he had bespoken when he talked of silverware and gold.

What she told me set the skin to puckering over my shoulder blades. They had questioned some folks in the neighborhood, and they knew why Mr. Travis hated to have other people step upon his soil. Because it was a soil which he believed to be filled with fortunes, and folks declared him to be a no-account farmer, but a savage man with a gun. During the war, that land had belonged to somebody else, and the somebody else who owned it was rich, and all his money and the costly silverware from his house were hidden away when the Yankees came nigh. It still lay, the story said, buried, unknown and neglected, in some comer of the farm. And Mr. Travis demanded to be left in peace to dig it up, and then he'd be rich himself, and beholden to no one.

It wasn't disturbing of the rabbits or muskrats that dwelt in his underbrush which he dreaded, but the prowling foot, and the hand reaching out for money; and most of all he hated anybody who carried a spade. Already he had dug a hundred holes around his farm, and he concluded that he might have to dig the whole place up, but he was more than willing to do it.

Like enough, he never knew that the purple moccasin was there until the day when Doctor Sickles saw it with his own eyes, and Flora Katherine saw it with hers. And maybe he wasn't even aware of it now. He had ordered them off of his property with his gun ready-cocked; and the second time, as I knew, he plotted to scare them by firing.

I kept imagining how the purple moccasin would look, as we circulated through the thickets. I wondered why it hadn't rotted away long before. Probably the Indians had left it behind them when they were persecuted down into the Ouachita Mountains; I had never heard of anybody finding one of their moccasins before. But I had found arrowheads myself, and Uncle Andrew dug up part of a stone ax when he was punching post holes for his new grate. So it was plumb sensible to consider that a purple moccasin might be important, and with my own ears I had heard Mr. Yeary offer Uncle Andrew 30cts for the ax. Still, Doctor Sickles wasn't one to go hog-wild over money; the whole thing had me perplexed to death.

We went astray a dozen times. The hazel brush scratched our faces, and the berry vines did things to our clothes. "We're off the track, Kittycat," the old man would whisper. "We've gone far afield. Stand by until 1. survey the route again." And then he'd prowl ahead, holding the lantern in front of him and bending his shoulders low, until he thought he saw a familiar trunk or a combination of trees to guide him.

"Are you fearful?" he'd want to know, time and again. "My children, keep your ears receptive for the approach of Mr. Travis."

So we'd listen until our ears fried, and all we could hear was the fluttering of catbirds that we disturbed off their roosts, and the buzzing of unknown critters in the air; and our frightened eyes would start out of our heads whenever we walked into webs of the big black-and-gold spiders that lived there. All the time, we were going deeper and deeper into the hollows; and once a fox yapped on the hill above, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

Then, when at last the talking of the river had faded plumb into the past, we found ourselves at the rim of a twisting gully, and Kitty-cat's hand was perspiring instead of cold, when it clutched mine. "We're here," she whispered. "This is the place, Jesse. This is where we found the purple moccasin," and Doctor Sickles was breathing hard as he tumbled down the steepness ahead of us. We brought up amongst basswood trunks that shone pearl-gray in the lantern light, and I felt my feet go deeper and deeper into the mold of forgotten leaves.

Doctor Sickles was squatting now. His hand shook so that he seemed ready to upset the lantern and maybe bum those woods to ash, and the purple moccasin too. For there it was, directly under our eyes; and at the first second I felt a shiver of disappointment inside me. But the next minute I reckoned that here was something kind of holy, if it could make Doctor Sickles c the wa he was doing.

It was a flower, and it grew tall and straight in its solitary little pocket of wilderness. It was like the lady-slippers I had picked so many times, but instead of being yellow or being pinkish or white, the swollen petals of this flower were as purple as the purplest dress that any lady ever wore. They seemed fashioned of silk and velvet, and of numerous fabrics out of fairy tales; the color was as rich as a crow's-foot violet, and when a little wind came down the hollow, the long pointed leaves seemed to sway w pride.

Doctor Sickles sucked in his breath until it made a steamy sound through his teeth. "Cypripedium," he said. I reckoned that was a new kind of prayer, like the French Catholic said who came to work for my pap one time. "Cypripedium most certainly, Kitty-cat. And I would have said hirsutum from the beginning, but I had no chance to closely observe the corolla before Travis was upon us. Look! Look!"-and he was fair shouting with delight and astonishment, and the noise he made would surely have tweaked a dozen Mr. Travises out of their slumbers.

"Acaule," he said. "Cypripedium acaule. Certainly there must be a close alliance. Winthrop may say that this is aberration, Kitty-cat, and God knows he may be collect. But I believe that here is treasure of the rarest tincture."

And then he sort of sighed, and lifted up his head and surveyed the barrier of darkness. "If I only knew, my children, what other beauties lie buried in yonder fastnesses.... Young Jesse, give me the spade."

He cut deep into the rich, clinging soil, and he took out a generous circle all around that plant. He worked carefully with fingers and blade, and I saw that he had intention of filling the bucket we had brought with all the earth which had nourished that most peculiar flower. And maybe that same earth would nourish it in the future, and let it grow to be a joy forever.

It seemed hours. My throat was dry, a-watching and a-waiting, but there wasn't much that Kitty-cat and I could do, except to hold the lantern and fetch the bucket close when he wanted it. He brought up the whole enormous beauty of the soil in one cake, and it couldn't have been more than the passage of a few moments before the purple moccasin was growing from the bucket as if it had always grown there. Then we crept out of the gully, and this time Kitty-cat was carrying the lantern and I had the spade, and Doctor Samuel Sickles nursed the bucket like it was a cradle with a two days' babe inside.

But the fortune that had attended us began to slip and yield; far away we caught a flicker of light, and a dog barked even closer.

Daddy," asked Flora Katherine, in a weak little voice, "shall I blow out the lantern?"

The old man stood stock-still. He didn't seem to breathe. "May heaven forgive me," I heard him murmur, "if my avarice has brought harm to you." And then he whispered sharply, "No! We must run. The dog would find us, even if we lay in the dark."

We went through that brush as hard as we could pelt. The vines harried us, and I reckon we weren't following the path by which we had come in, for it was no path at all. But we did know our directions; we could catch sight of the Big Dipper high ahead of us, and other stars that anybody might know. The dog bayed and barked, and once he was silent for a long time-so long that he seemed lost in the brambles. But he came forth again, nearer at hand, and we heard the voice of Mr. Travis, urging him on.

It wasn't rapid fleeing that we did. The bucket hung heavy in the old

man's hands, and he had to shield the tall flower from dead limbs that reached out and tried to smash it. I tripped twice and went flat, but was on my feet spunky enough thereafter; and Kitty-cat was the fastest runaway ever I saw, to escape through unfamiliar forests in such a fashion. But the dog and the man were coming closer behind us.

I reckon some kind of angels opened up the underbrush, for it's certain we made more rapid journeying coming out than we had made going in.... Rays of the lantern flew helter-skelter across the rail fence that lined the road. Horses were gallivanting beyond; the light caught their legs; and in all our breathlessness and fear, we could see dark forms of riders atop them.

By this time Mr. Travis' dog was close amongst us, and though he didn't snap nor bite, he outcried in a way to drive us distracted; and Mr. Travis himself was crashing through the final thicket, and I wondered in my agony why he didn't shoot.

A rail scraped my shin. Another took a bite out of my shoulder, and then all at once I was through the fence, and so was Kitty-cat. But poor Doctor Sickles couldn't fly through any fence-not with that bucket, and all the stiffness of his limbs, and his intention of guarding the purple moccasin that nodded and swayed under the bucket's bail.

Doctor Sickles swung around to face his pursuer, and he held up one hand. "Mr. Travis," he cried, "be wary with your shotgun! Don't stain your hands with the blood of these innocent young!"

"They're no more innocent than you be!" yelled Mr. Travis, bursting from the hazel brush like a bear from his den. "I see you've got a bucket full, but you'll never cross that fence with it!" The barrel of the shotgun poked out long and vicious in the dull light.

Those horses in the road had the bits drawn tight in their mouths, and they were rearing with astonishment, and the men who rode them were mighty well astonished too.

"Stop that!" came a voice. "Put down that gun, or I'll drill you quick!" and the rider who had spoken talked as if he had a revolver in his hand.

Slow and uncertain, the barrel of the shotgun went down, and I heard Mr. Travis a-growling.

Doctor Sickles stood there, facing him steadily, with the bucket handle gripped tight. Then a horse crowded against me so close that I could smell his hair, and a wonderful voice cried out, "Jesse! What in time are you doing here?" My knees turned to dough all on a sudden, for I knew that voice; it was my pap, and he was close to hand.

They got down from their horses--three men-and they took the lantern from Flora Katherine. Sure enough, here was pap, and he took hold of my arm, and I liked to feel him doing it.

And nigh to him was Uncle Andrew, and a third man that I couldn't recognize for a moment, as I'd never seen him frequent. He was tall and dark and young, and he had a handsome black mustache that hung low on either side of his mouth. And then I knew him for Mr. Charley Gaffney. Even with the frail light making patterns on his face, I should have been able to recognize him before this: he was sheriff of Barbary County, and a right mean man for anybody to come up against.

"Ben Travis," he said, "you won't commit murder in my presence."

"He's got the gold off of my land!" cried Mr. Travis, pointing at the wooden bucket. "They've been coming after it for days, and they'll only carry it off over my dead body!"

The sheriff chuckled, and then he climbed over the fence most speedily, and bent down to glimpse the burden that Doctor Sickles was carrying.

"He's got a plant, Ben Travis. Some kind of flower. And that's all he seems to have, and a lot of dirt with it.... I reckon it's mighty lucky we happened by here a-searching for this young'un of Henry Bohun's."

Well, the explaining started up, and for a while they couldn't make much out of Doctor Sickles' talk, with all his praise and wonderment about the purple moccasin; and through the whole rigmarole, Ben Travis was still demanding Doctor Sickles' blood, but the sheriff took his shotgun away.

Sheriff Gaffney laughed his head off, and he said that it was astonishing how crazy Mr. Travis acted about that land of his, and he had better look out or they'd lock him up for a lunatic. "Who owned this land during the war, Ben Travis?" he kept demanding.

"Your pappy!" said Travis. "But everybody knows that his slaves buried the treasure at a point unknown to him, and then they skun out when the Yankees rode up, and they never did come back. And with my own ears I heard your pap say that there was gold and silver in this soil, long before he died and long before I ever bought this farm."

But Mr. Sheriff Gaffney just put his arm on Ben's shoulder and begged him to consider reason. "It may be," he said, "that there's a dozen or two teaspoons and $100 in gold stowed under a stump somewhere. But there's no great wealth, Ben Travis. If my father spoke of gold and silver in this earth, he meant the kind that comes from grain and hogs and apple trees, from toil well-performed and duties done honest. That's what he meant, and you'd better put in some crops instead of raring around with a shooting iron."

They had to hear all about Doctor Sickles, too, and whence he came. He told them his wagon was filled with plants, but none so wonderful as the purple moccasin, and he reckoned folks wouldn't believe he had it, when sometime he wandered back to the cities with his little girl, and stopped at the dooryards of men who took interest in such things. He wanted the whole biling of us to come to his camp, and we did have to go, for my bundle. Doctor Sickles wanted us to see his herbs and posies, and others that were squashed flat in big books, and I guess he had written a few books himself And most of all, when they could pull him away from his plants, he marveled at how my pap had ridden all the way from Arkansas to find me.

"Arkansas!" cried out Uncle Andrew, and I had to hang my head then. "Why, this boy ain't more than 14 mile from home this minute. He was born right here in Barbary County, and we all live on Rosy Ridge, and we'd admire to have you come a-visiting us." Uncle Andrew put his hands down and played with Flora Katherine's hair, though I was annoyed with him for doing so.

But Doctor Sickles made another wonderful speech in which he talked about the pigeons and the lordly bison, and the flora which had been despoiled. He said that he had right smart of journeying to do this season, and many more flowers to stow away in his wagon, and that there might be wondrous things as pleasurable to find as a purple moccasin.

So now the time was come when I must say good-bye to the purple moccasin and Doctor Sickles and, most of all, Flora Katherine. I sort of mumbled around; then, quick, I thought how I'd like to kiss her. And I did it, too, before my pap took me up on his horse to ride home through the night.
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Title Annotation:fiction; conclusion
Author:Kantor, MacKinlay
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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