Dwellers in the Hills
By Melville Davisson Post
Author of "Randolph Mason", "The Man of Last Resort," etc.
G. P. Putnam's Sons New York and London The Knickerbocker Press 1901
Copyright, 1901 By MELVILLE DAVISSON POST
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
TO MY MOTHER
I.—THE OCTOBER LAND
II.—THE PETTICOAT AND THE PRETENDER
III.—THE PASSING OF AN ILLUSION
IV.—CONCERNING HAWK RUFE
VI.—THE MAID AND THE INTRUDERS
VII.—THE MASTER BUILDERS
VIII.—SOME REMARKS OF SAINT PAUL
IX.—CHRISTIAN THE BLACKSMITH
X.—ON THE CHOOSING OF ENEMIES
XI.—THE WARDENS OF THE RIVER
XII.—THE USES OF THE MOON
XIII.—THE SIX HUNDRED
XIV.—RELATING TO THE FIRST LIARS
XV.—WHEN PROVIDENCE IS PAGAN
XVI.—THROUGH THE BIG WATER
XVII.—ALONG THE HICKORY RIDGES
XVIII.—BY THE LIGHT OF A LANTERN
XIX.—THE ORBIT OF THE DWARFS
XX.—ON THE ART OF GOING TO RUIN
XXI.—THE EXIT OF THE PRETENDER
DWELLERS IN THE HILLS
THE OCTOBER LAND
I sat on the ground with my youthful legs tucked under me, and the bridle rein of El Mahdi over my arm, while I hammered a copper rivet into my broken stirrup strap. A little farther down the ridge Jud was idly swinging his great driving whip in long, snaky coils, flicking now a dry branch, and now a red autumn leaf from the clay road. The slim buckskin lash would dart out hissing, writhe an instant on the hammered road-bed, and snap back with a sharp, clear report.
The great sorrel was oblivious of this pastime of his master. The lash whistled narrowly by his red ears, but it never touched them. In the evening sunlight the Cardinal was a horse of bronze.
Opposite me in the shadow of the tall hickory timber the man Ump, doubled like a finger, was feeling tenderly over the coffin joints and the steel blue hoofs of the Bay Eagle, blowing away the dust from the clinch of each shoe-nail and pressing the flat calks with his thumb. No mother ever explored with more loving care the mouth of her child for evidence of a coming tooth. Ump was on his never-ending quest for the loose shoe-nail. It was the serious business of his life.
I think he loved this trim, nervous mare better than any other thing in the world. When he rode, perched like a monkey, with his thin legs held close to her sides, and his short, humped back doubled over, and his head with its long hair bobbing about as though his neck were loose-coupled somehow, he was eternally caressing her mighty withers, or feeling for the play of each iron tendon under her satin skin. And when we stopped, he glided down to finger her shoe-nails.
Then he talked to the mare sometimes, as he was doing now. "There is a little ridge in the hoof, girl, but it won't crack; I know it won't crack." And, "This nail is too high. It is my fault. I was gabbin' when old Hornick drove it."
On his feet, he looked like a clothes-pin with the face of the strangest old child. He might have been one left from the race of Dwarfs who, tradition said, lived in the Hills before we came.
His mare was the mother of El Mahdi. I remember how Ump cried when the colt was born, and how he sat out in the rain, a miserable drenched rat, because his dear Bay Eagle was in the mysterious troubles of maternity, and because she must be very unhappy at being on the north side of the hill among the black hawthorn bushes, for that was a bad sign—the worst sign in the world—showing the devil would have his day with the colt now and then.
I used, when I was little, to hear talk once in a while of some very wonderful person whom men called a "genius," and of what it was to be a genius. The word puzzled me a good deal, because I could not understand what was meant when it was explained to me. I used to ponder over it, and hope that some day I might see one, which would be quite as wonderful, I had no doubt, as seeing the man out of the moon. Then, when El Mahdi came into his horse estate and our lives began to run together, I would lie awake at night trying to study out what sort of horse it was that deliberately walked off the high banks along the road, or pitched me out into the deep blue-grass, or over into the sedge bushes, when it occurred to him that life was monotonous, tumbling me upside down like a girl, although I could stick in my brother's big saddle when the Black Abbot was having a bad day,—and everybody knew the Black Abbot was the worst horse in the Hills.
Wondering about it, the suggestion came that perhaps El Mahdi was a "genius." Then I pressed the elders for further data on the word, and studied the horse in the light of what they told me. He fitted snug to the formula. He neither feared God, nor regarded man, so far as I could tell. He knew how to do things without learning, and he had no conscience. The explanation had arrived. El Mahdi was a genius. After that we got on better; he yielded a sort of constructive obedience, and I lorded it over him, swaggering like a king's governor. But deep down in my youthful bosom, I knew that this obedience was only pretended, and that he obeyed merely because he was indifferent.
He stood by while I hammered the stirrup, with his iron grey head held high in the air, looking away over the hickory ridge across the blue hills, to the dim wavering face of the mountains. He was almost seventeen hands high, with deep shoulders, and flat legs trim at the pastern as a woman's ankle, and a coat dark grey, giving one the idea of good blue steel. He was entirely, I may say he was abominably, indifferent, except when it came into his broad head to wipe out my swaggering arrogance, or when he stood as now, staring at the far-off smoky wall of the Hills, as though he hoped to find there, some day farther on, a wonderful message awaiting him, or some friend whom he had lost when he swam Lethe, or some ancient enemy.
I finished with the stirrup, buckled it back into its leather and climbed into the saddle. It was one of the bitter things that my young legs were not long enough to permit me to drive my foot deep into the wide, wooden stirrup and swing into the saddle as Jud did with the Cardinal, or as my brother did when the Black Abbot was in a hurry and he was not. I explained it away, however, by pointing out, like a boy, not that my legs were short, but that El Mahdi, the False Prophet, was a very high horse.
Jud had not dismounted, and Ump was on the Bay Eagle like a squirrel, by the time I had fairly got into the saddle. Then we started again in a long, swinging trot, El Mahdi leading, the Cardinal next, and behind him the Bay Eagle. The road trailed along the high ridge beside the tall shell-bark hickories, now the granary of the grey squirrel, and the sumach bushes where the catbirds quarrelled, and the dry old poplars away in the blue sky, where the woodpecker and the great Indian hen hammered like carpenters.
The sun was slipping through his door, and from far below us came a trail of blue smoke and a smell of wood ashes where some driver's wife had started a fire, prepared her skillet, and moved out her scrubbed table,—signs that the supper was on its way, streaked bacon, potatoes, sliced and yellow, and the blackest coffee in the world. Now and then on the hillside, in some little clearing, the fodder stood in loose, bulging shocks bound with green withes, while some old man or half-grown lad plied his husking-peg in the corn spread out before him, working with the swiftness and the dexterity of a machine, ripping the husk with one stroke of the wooden peg bound to his middle finger, and snapping the ear at its socket, and tossing it into the air, where it gleamed like a piece of gold.
Below was the great, blue cattle land, rising in higher and higher hills to the foot of the mountains. The road swept around the nose of the ridge and plunged into the woods, winding in and out as it crawled down into the grass hills. The flat curve at the summit of the ridge was bare, and, looking down, one could see each twist of the road where it crept out on the bone of the hill to make its turn back into the woods.
As I passed over the brow of the ridge, I heard Jud call, and, turning my head, saw that both he and Ump were on the ground, looking down at the road below. Jud stood with his broad shoulders bent forward, and Ump squatted, peering down under the palm of his hand. I rode back just in time to catch the flash of wheels sweeping into the wood from one of the bare turns of the road. Yet even in that swift glimpse, I thought I knew who was below, and so I did not ask, but waited until they should come into the open space again farther down. I sat with the bridle rein loose on El Mahdi's neck and my hands resting idly on the horn of the saddle. I think I must have been smiling, for when Ump looked up at me, his wizened face was so serious that I burst out into a loud laugh.
"Well," I said, "it's Cynthia, isn't it? At half a mile she oughtn't to be so very terrible." And I opened my mouth to laugh again. But that laugh never came into the world. Just then a big horse with a man's saddle on him and the reins tied to the horn trotted out into the open, and behind him Cynthia's bay cob and her high, trim cart, and beside Cynthia on the seat was a man.
I saw the red spokes of the wheel, the silver on the harness, the flash of the grey feather in Cynthia's hat, and even the bit of ribbon half-way out the long whip-staff. Then they vanished again, while up the wind came a peal of laughter and the rumble of wheels, and the faint hammering of horses in the iron road. On the instant, my heart gave a great thump, and grew very bitter, and my face hardened and clouded. "Who was it, Jud?" I said. And my jaws felt stiff. "It was surely Miss Cynthia," he began, "an' it was surely a Woodford cattle-horse." Then he stopped with his mouth open, and began to rub his chin. I turned to Ump. "What Woodford?" I asked.
The hunchback twisted his shaggy head around in his collar like a man who wishes to have a little more air in his throat. Then he said: "He was a big, brown horse with a bald face, an' he struck out with his knees when he trotted. Them's the Woodford horses. The saddle was black with long skirts, an' it had only one girth. Them's the Woodford saddles. An' the stirrups was iron, an' there are only one Woodford who rides with his feet in iron."
I looked at Jud, searching his face for some trace of doubt on which to hang a little hoping, but it was all bronze and very greatly troubled. Then he saw what I wanted, and began to stammer. "May be the horse was tender, an' that was the reason." But Ump piped in, scattering the little cloud, "That horse ain't lame. He trots square as a dog."
Jud looked away and swung up in his saddle. "May be," he stammered, "may be the horse throwed him, an' that was the reason." Again Ump, the destroyer of little hopes, answered from the back of the Bay Eagle, "No horse ever throwed Hawk Rufe."
I sucked in the air over my bit lips when Ump named him. Rufe Woodford with Cynthia! I thought for an instant that I should choke. Then I kicked my heels against El Mahdi and swung him around down-hill. He galloped from the jump, and behind him thundered the Cardinal, and the Bay Eagle, with her silk nostrils stretched, jumping long and low like a great cat.
THE PETTICOAT AND THE PRETENDER
Not least among the things which the devil's imps ought to know from watching the world is this: that hatred is always big when one is young. Then, if the heart is bitter, it is bitter through and through. It is terribly just, and terribly vindictive against the stranger who hurts us with a cruel word, against our brother when we have misunderstood his heart, against the traitor who owes us love because we loaned him love. It is strange, too, how that hatred becomes a great force, pressing out the empty places of the heart, and making the weak, strong, and the simple, crafty.
El Mahdi ran with his jaws set on the bit, jumping high and striking the earth with his legs half stiff, the meanest of all the mean whims of this eccentric horse. On the level it was a hard enough gait; and on the hill road none could have stood the intolerable jamming but one long schooled in the ugly ways of the False Prophet. Along the skirts of the saddle, running almost up to the horn, were round, quilted pads of leather prepared against this dangerous habit. I rode with my knees doubled and wedged in against the pads, catching the terrible jar where there was bone and tendon and leather to meet and break it, and from long custom I rode easily, unconscious of my extraordinary precautions against the half-bucking jump.
The fence rushed past. The trees, as they always do, seemed to wait until we were almost upon them, and then jump by. Still the horse was not running fast. He wasted the value of his legs by jumping high in the air like a goat, instead of running with his belly against the earth like every other sensible horse whose business is to shorten distance.
He swept around the bare curves with the most reckless, headlong plunges, and I caught the force of the great swing, now with the right, and now with the left knee, throwing the whole weight of my body against the horse's shoulder next to the hill. Once in a while the red nose of the Cardinal showed by my stirrup and dropped back, but Jud was holding his horse well and riding with his whole weight in the stirrups and the strain on the back-webbed girth of his saddle where it ought to be. It was a dangerous road if the horse fell, only El Mahdi never fell, although he sometimes blundered like a cow; and the Cardinal never fell when he ran, and the Bay Eagle, who knew all that a horse ever learned in the world,—we would as soon have expected to see her fly up in the air as to fall in the road.
We were a mile down the long hill, thundering like a drove of mad steers, when I caught through the tree-tops a glimpse of Cynthia's cart, and wrenched the bit out of El Mahdi's teeth. He was not inclined to stop, and plunged, ploughing long furrows in the clay road. But a stiff steel bit is an unpleasant thing with which to take issue, and he finally stopped, sliding on his front feet.
We turned the corner in a slow, deliberate trot, and there, as calmly as though it were the most natural thing in the world, was Cynthia, sitting as straight as a sapling on the high seat, with the reins held close in her left hand, and beside her Woodford, and jogging along before the cart was the bald-faced cattle-horse.
A pretty picture in the cool shade of the golden autumn woods. Of course, Cynthia was the most beautiful woman in the world. My brother thought so, and that was enough for us. It was true that Ward observed her from a point of view wonderfully subject to a powerful bias, but that was no business of ours. Ward said it, and there the matter ended. If Ward had said that Cynthia was ugly, a trim, splendid figure, brown hair, and a manner irresistible would not have saved Cynthia from being eternally ugly so far as we were concerned; and although Cynthia had lands and Polled-Angus cattle and spent her winters in France, she must have remained eternally ugly.
So, when we knew Ward's opinion, from that day Cynthia was moved up to the head of the line of all the women we had ever heard of, and there she remained.
Our opinion of Woodford was equally clear. In every way he was our rival. His lands joined ours, stretching from the black Stone Coal south to the Valley River. His renters and drivers were as numerous and as ugly a set as ours.
Besides, he was Ward's rival among the powerful men of the Hills, ten years older, shrewd, clear-headed, and in his business a daring gambler. Sometimes he would cross the Stone Coal and buy every beef steer in the Hills, and sometimes Ward bought. It was a stupendous gamble, big with gain, or big with loss, and at such times the Berrys of Upshur, the Alkires of Rock Ford, the Arnolds of Lewis, the Coopmans of Lost Creek, and even the Queens of the great Valley took the wall, leaving the road to Woodford and my brother Ward. And when they put their forces in the field and man[oe]uvred in the open, there were mighty times and someone was terribly hurt.
I think Woodford lacked the inspiration and something of the swift judgment of my brother, but he stopped at nothing, and was misled by no illusions. Woodford and my brother never joined their forces. Ward did not trust him, and Woodford trusted no man on the face of the earth. There is an old saying that "the father's rival is the son's enemy"; and we hated Woodford with the healthy, illimitable hatred of a child.
I was young, and the arrogance of pride was very great as I pulled up by the tall cart. I had Cynthia red-handed, and wanted to gloat over the stammer and the crimson flush of the traitor. I assumed the attitude of the very terrible. Sharp and jarring and without premonition are the surprises of youth. This straight young woman turned, for a moment her grey eyes rested on the False Prophet and me, then a smile travelled from her red mouth out through the land of dimples, and she laughed like a blackbird.
"Of all the funny little boys! Dear me!" And she laughed again.
I know that the bracing influence of a holy cause has been tremendously overrated, for under the laugh I felt myself pass into a status of universal shrinking until I feared that I might entirely disappear, leaving a wonder about the empty saddle. And the blush and the stammer,—will men be pleased never to write in books any more, how these things are marks of the guilty? For here was Cynthia, as composed as the October afternoon, and here was I stammering and red.
"Quiller!" she pealed, "what a little savage! Do look!" And she put her grey glove on her companion's arm.
Woodford clapped his hand on his knee, and broke out into a jeering chuckle. "Why!" he said, "it's little Quiller. I thought it must be some bold, bad robber."
The jeer of the enemy helped me a little, but not enough. The reply went in a stammer. "You are all out of breath," said Cynthia; "a hill is no place to run. The horse might have fallen."
I gathered my jarred wits and answered. "Our horses don't fall." It was the justification of the horse first. Woodford stroked his clean-cut jaw, tanned like leather. "Your brother," he said, "tumbled out of the saddle some days ago. It is said his horse fell."
My courage flared. "Do you know how the Black Abbot came to fall?" I answered.
"An awkward rider, little Quiller," he said. "Is it a good guess?"
"You know all about it," I began, breaking out in my childish anger. "You know how that furrow as long as a man's finger got on the Black Abbot's right knee. You know—" I stopped suddenly. Cynthia's eyes were resting on me, and there was something in their grey depths that made me stop.
But Woodford went on. "My great aunt," he said, "was thrown day before yesterday, but she did not take to her bed over it. How is your brother?"
"Able to take care of himself," I said.
"Perhaps," he responded slowly, "to take care of himself." And he glanced suggestively at Cynthia.
The innuendo was intolerable. I gaped at the slim, brown-haired girl. Surely she would resent this. Traitor if she pleased, she was still a woman. But she only looked up wistfully into Woodford's face and smiled as artless, winning, merry a smile as ever was born on a woman's mouth.
In that instant the picture of Ward came up before me. His pale face with its black hair framed in pillows; his hand, always so suggestive of unlimited resource, lying on the white coverlid, so helpless that old Liza moved it in her great black palm as though it were a little child's; and across on the mantle shelf, where he could see it when his eyes were open, was that old picture of Cynthia with the funny little curls.
I felt a great flood rising up from the springs of life, a hot, rebellious flood of tears. A moment I held them back at the gateway of the eyepits, then they gushed through, and I struck the False Prophet over his iron grey withers, and we passed in a gallop.
THE PASSING OF AN ILLUSION
El Mahdi wanted to run, and I let him go. The swing of the horse and the rush of fresh, cool air was good. Nothing in all the world could have helped me so well. The tears were mastered, but I had a sense of tremendous loss. I had jousted with the first windmill, riding up out of youth's golden country, and I had lost one of the splendid illusions of that enchanted land. I was cruelly hurt. How cruelly, any man will know when he recalls his first jamming against the granite door-posts of the world.
Of love and all its mysterious business, I knew nothing. But of good faith and fair dealing I had a child's conception, the terrible justness of which is but dimly understood. The new point of view was ugly and painful. From the time when I toddled about in little dresses and Ward carried me on his shoulder in among the cattle or hoisted me up on the broad horn of his saddle, I had looked upon him as a big, considerate Providence. I did not understand how there could be anything that he could not do, nor anything in the world worth having at all that he could not get, if he tried. So when he told me of Cynthia, I considered that she belonged to us, and passed on to the next matter claiming my youthful attention. It never occurred to me that Cynthia could be other than happy to pass under the suzerainty of my big brother. True, I never thought very much about it, since it was so plainly a glorious privilege. Still, why had she made her promise, if she could not keep her shoulder to it like a man? We did not like it when Ward told us. We did not think much of women, Ump and Jud and I, except old Liza, who was another of those splendid Providences. Now it was clear that we were right.
It all went swimmingly when Ward was by, but no sooner was he stretched out with a dislocated shoulder from that mysterious blunder of the Black Abbot, than here was Cynthia trailing over the country with Hawk Rufe.
I stopped at the old Alestock mill where Ben's Run goes trickling into the Stone Coal, climbed down from El Mahdi and washed my face in the water, and then passed the rein under my arm and sat down in the road to await the arrival of my companions. The echo of the horses' feet was already coming, carried downward across the pasture land, and soon the head of the Cardinal arose above the little hill behind me, and then the Bay Eagle, and in a moment more Ump and Jud were sitting with me in the road.
We usually dismounted and sat on the earth when we had grave matters to consider. It was an unconscious custom like that which takes the wise man into the mountains and the lover under the moon. I think the Arab Sheik long and long ago learned this custom as we had learned it,—perhaps from a dim conception of some aid to be had from the great earth when one's heart is very deeply troubled.
I knew well enough that my companions had not passed Woodford without running the gauntlet of some interrogation, and I waited to hear what they had to say. I think it was Jud who spoke first, and his face was full of shadows. "I wouldn't never a believed it of Miss Cynthia," he began, "I wouldn't never a believed it."
"Don't talk about her," I broke in angrily. "What did Hawk Rufe say?"
Jud studied for a moment as though he were slowly arranging the proper sequence of some distant memory. Then he went on. "He wanted to know where I got that big red horse, an' if Mr. Ward's men ever walked any, an' he—" The man's open mouth closed on the broken sentence, and Ump answered for him, sitting under the Bay Eagle with his arm around her slim front leg. "An' he wanted to know what we did with little Quiller when he cried."
I thought I should die of the intolerable shame. I had cried—blubbered away as though I were a red-cheeked little girl in a clean calico petticoat.
After the dead line which Ump had crossed for him with the brutal frankness that went along with his dwarfed body, Jud continued with his report. "He asked me where we was goin', an' I told him we was goin' home. He asked me if we had had any word from Mr. Ward to-day, an' I told him we hadn't had any. Then he said we had better take the Hacker's Creek road because the Gauley was up from the mountain rains, an' runnin' logs, an' if we got in there in the night we would git you killed."
"An'," interrupted Ump, turning round under the Bay Eagle, "an' then Miss Cynthia looked up sharp at him like a catbird, an' she laughed, an' she said how that advice wasn't needed, because little boys always went home by the safest road."
The taunt sank in as oil sinks into a cloth. I may have blushed and stammered, and I may have blubbered like a milksop, but it was not because I was afraid. I would show Woodford and I would show this fickle Miss Gadabout that I did not need any advice about roads. If my life had been then in jeopardy, I would not have taken it burdened with a finger's weight of obligation to Rufus Woodford or Cynthia Carper. It might have gone out over the sill of the world, for good and all.
I arose and put the bridle rein over El Mahdi's head while I stood, my right hand reaching up on his high withers. Jud and Ump got into their saddles and turned down toward the ford of the Stone Coal on the Hacker's Creek road, which Woodford had suggested. But under the coat my heart was stewing, and I would not have gone that way if the devil and his imps had been riding the other. I climbed into the saddle and shouted down to them. They turned back at the water of the ford. "Where are you going?" I called.
"Home. Where else?" replied the dwarfed Ump.
"It's a nice roundabout way you're taking," I said. "The Overfield road is three miles shorter."
"But the Gauley's boomin'," answered Jud; "Woodford said not to go that way."
"It's the first time," I shouted, "that any of our people ever took directions from Hawk Rufe. As for me, I'm going by the Gauley." And I turned El Mahdi into the wooded road on the left of the turnpike.
For a moment the two hesitated, discussing something which I could not hear. Then they rode up out of the Stone Coal and came clattering after me.
It is wonderful how swiftly the night comes in among the boles of the great oak trees. The dark seems to rise upward from the earth. The sounds of men and beasts carry over long distance, drifting in among the trees, and the loneliness of the vast, empty earth comes back to us,—what is forgotten in the rush of the sunshine,—the constant loom of the mystery. One understands then why the early men feared the plains when it was dark, and huddled themselves together in the hills. Who could say what ugly, dwarfish things, what evil fairies, what dangerous dead men might climb up over the rim of the world? A man was not afraid of the grey wolf, or even the huge beast that trumpeted in the morass by the great water when the light was at his back, but when the world was darkened old men had seen strange shapes running by the wolf's muzzle, or groping with the big mastodon in the marsh land, and against these a stone axe was a little weapon.
Of all animals, man alone has this fear of the dark. Neither the horse nor the steer is afraid of shadows, and from these, as he travels through the night, a man may feed the springs of his courage. I have been scared when I was little, stricken with panic when night caught me on the hills, and have gone down among the cattle and stood by their great shoulders until I felt the fear run off me like water, and have straightway marched out as brave as any trooper of an empress. And from those earliest days when I rode, with the stirrups crossed on my brother's saddle, after some kind old straying ox, I was always satisfied to go where the horse would go. He could see better than I, and he could hear better, and if he tramped peacefully, the land was certainly clear of any evil thing.
We crossed the long wooded hill clattering like a troop of the queen's cavalry, and turned down toward the great level bow which the road makes before it crosses the Gauley. There was a dim light rising beyond the flat lands where the crooked elves toiled with their backs against the golden moon. But they were under the world yet, with only the yellow haze shining through the door. This was the acre of ghosts. Tale after tale I had heard, sitting on the knee of the old grey negro Clabe, about the horrors of this haunted "bend" in the Gauley. There, when I was a child, had lived old Bodkin in a stone house, now a ruin, by the river,—a crooked, mean old devil with a great hump, and eyes like a toad. He came to own the land through some suspicious will about which there clung the atmosphere of crime, as men said. When I saw him first, I was riding behind my brother, and he stopped us and tried to induce Ward to buy his land. He was mounted on a red roan horse, and looked like an old knotty spider.
I can still remember how frightened I was, and how I hid my face against my brother's coat and hugged him until my arms ached. When Ward inquired why he wished to sell, he laughed in a sort of cackle, and replied that he was going to marry a wife and go to the moon.
Now, tradition told that he had married many a wife, but that they died quickly in the poisoned chamber of this spider. Ward looked the bridegroom over from his twisted feet to his hump, and there must have been some merry shadow in his face, for Bodkin leaned over the horn of his saddle and stretched out his hand, a putty-coloured hand, with long, bony fingers. "Do you see that?" he croaked. "If I ever get that hand on a woman, she's mine."
Then I began to cry, and Ward wished the old man a happy voyage to the cloud island, and we rode on.
He did marry a wife, and one morning, but little afterwards, two of my brother's drivers found her hanging to the limb of a dead apple tree with a bridle rein knotted to her neck, and her bare feet touching the tops of the timothy grass. When they came to look for Bodkin, he had disappeared with his red roan horse. Ward explained that he had ridden through the gap of the mountains into the South, but I thought, with the negroes, that someone ought to have seen him if he had gone that way; besides, I had heard him say that he was going to the moon. Later, old Bart and Levi Dillworth, returning from some frolic, had seen Bodkin riding his horse in a terrible gallop, with the dead woman across the horn of his saddle, on his way to the moon.
It was true that both Bart and Levi were long in the bow arm, and men who loved truth less than they loved laurels. Still the tale had splendid conditions precedent, and old Clabe arose to its support with many an eloquent wag of his head.
I was running through this very ghost story when El Mahdi stopped in the road and pricked up his ears. At the same moment Jud and Ump pulled up beside me. Perhaps their minds were in the same channel. We listened for full a minute. Far down in the marsh land I could hear the frogs chanting their mighty chorus to the stars, and the little screech-owl whining from some tree-top far up against the hill. I was about to ride on when Jud caught at the rein and put up his hand. Then I heard the sound that the horse was listening to, but at the great distance it was only a sound, a faint, wavering, indefinite echo, coming up from the far-away bend of the Gauley. The rim of the moon was rising now out of the under world, and I watched the road trailing away into a deep shadow by the river. As I watched, I saw something rise out of this gloom and sweep down the dim road. It passed for a moment through a belt of moonlight, and I saw that it was a horse ridden by a shadow.
Then we clearly heard long, heavy galloping. Jud dropped my rein and wrenched the Cardinal around on his haunches. He was not afraid of the living, but he was afraid of the dead. As the horse reared, Ump caught the bit under his jaw and, throwing the Bay Eagle against him, wedged the horse and Jud in between El Mahdi and himself. Ump was neither afraid of the living nor the dead. He called to me, and I seized the Cardinal's bit on my side, gripping the iron shank with my fingers through the rein rings.
Panic was on the giant Jud, and he lifted the horse into the air, dragging Ump and myself half out of our saddles. Men in their hopeless egotism have far underestimated the good sense of the horse. The Cardinal was in no wise frightened. At once, it seemed to me, he recognised the irresponsibility of his rider. In some moment of the struggle the bit slipped forward, and the horse clamped his powerful jaws on it and set the great muscles in his neck to help us hold.
The horses rocked and plunged, but we held them together. The Bay Eagle, quick-witted as any woman, crowded the Cardinal close, throwing her weight against his shoulders, and El Mahdi, indifferent, but stubborn as an ox, held his ground as though he were bolted to the road.
I heard Ump cursing, now Jud for his cowardice, now the ghost for its infernal riding. "Damn you, fool! Stay an' see it. Stay an' see it." And then, "Damn Bodkin an' his dead wife! If he rides this way, he stops here or he goes under to hell."
As for me, I was afraid. Only the swing and jamming of the struggle held me. The gallop of the advancing horse was now loud, clear, hammering like an anvil. It passed for a moment out of sight in a hollow of the road below. In the next instant it would be on us. The giant Jud made one last mighty effort. The Cardinal went straight into the air. I clung to the bit, dragged up out of the saddle. I felt my foot against the pommel, my knee against the steel shoulder of the great horse, my face under the Cardinal's wide red throat.
I heard the reins snap on both sides of the bit—pulled in two. And then the loud, harsh laugh of the man Ump.
"Hell! It's Jourdan an' Red Mike."
CONCERNING HAWK RUFE
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.
Only, I knew that the hand of Woodford would never rise against us in the open. We might be balked by sudden providences of God, planned shrewdly like those which a great churchman ruling France sometimes called to his elbow.
For such gentle business, not old Richelieu was better fitted with a set of arrant scoundrels. There was the cunning right hand of Hawk Rufe, the slick, villainous intriguer, Lem Marks. No diplomatic imp, serving his master in the kingdoms of the world, moved with more unscrupulous smoothness. There was Malan with his clubfoot, owned by the devil, the drovers said, and leased to Woodford for a lifetime. And there was Parson Peppers, singing the hymns of the Lord up the Stone Coal and down the Stone Coal. As stout a bunch of rogues as ever went trooping to the eternal bonfire, handy gentlemen to his worship Woodford.
It was preposterous overmatching for a child. Hawk Rufe had laughed well when I had heard him laughing last. If Ward were only back in the saddle of the Black Abbot! But he was stretched out over yonder with the night shining through his window, and there was on the turning world no one but me to strip to this duel.
Still, I had better horses, and perhaps better men than Woodford. Jud was one of the strongest men in the Hills, afraid of the dead, as I have written, but not afraid of any living thing on the face of the earth. They knew this over the Stone Coal; the club-footed giant Malan had a lot of scars under his shirt that were not born on him. And there was Ump, a crooked thing of a man truly, but a crooked thing of a man that would hobnob with the king of all the fiends, banter for banter, and in whose breast cowardice was as dead as Judas.
I looked down at the humble giant, shamefaced in the moonlight, tying his broken bridle reins back in their rings, and drawing the knots tight with his bronzed fingers that looked like the coupling-pins of a cart,—and then at the hunchback doubled up in his saddle. Maybe,—and my blood began to rise with it,—maybe when we looked close, the odds were not so terrible after all. Here was bone and sinew tougher than Malan's, and such cunning as might cry Marks a merrier run than he had gone for many a day.
Then, as by some sharp turn, I caught a new light on the two hours already gone. Man alive! We had been in the game for all of those two blessed hours with our eyes sealed up tight as the lid of a jar.
"How high was the Gauley?" I almost shouted, pointing my finger at Red Mike.
"'Mid sides," answered Jourdan, turning around in his saddle.
"'Mid sides!" I echoed; "and the logs? Was it running logs?"
"Nothin' but brush an' a few old rails. You can see the water mark on Red Mike right here at the bottom of the saddle skirt." And the old man reached down and put his finger on the smoking horse. "The Gauley ain't up to stop nothin'."
I clapped my teeth together. So much for the solicitous care of Hawk Rufe. If we had gone by the Hacker's Creek road we should have missed Jourdan and lost the good half of a day. Woodford knew that Ward would send by the shortest road. It was the first gleam of the wolf tooth shining for a moment behind the woolly face of the sheepskin.
I looked down at Ump. The hunchback put his elbow on the horn of his saddle and rested his jaw in the hollow of his hand.
"Old Granny Lanum," he said, "her that's buried back on the Dolan Knob, used to say that God saw for the little pup when it was blind, but after that it was the little pup's business. An' I reckon she knowed what she said."
Wiser heads than mine have pondered that problem since the world began its swinging,—but with greater elegance, but scarcely more clearly than Ump had put it. Old Liza used to tell me when I was very little that if I fought with those who were smaller than myself, I was fighting the wards of the Father in heaven, and it was a lot better to get a broken head from some sturdy urchin who was big enough to look out for himself. And I have always thought that old Liza was about as close to the Ruler of Events as any one of us is likely to get. Anyway I doubted not that if the good God rode in the Hills, He was far from stirrup by stirrup with Woodford.
Red Mike was beginning to shiver in his wet coat, and Jourdan gathered up his reins.
"Mr. Ward," he said, "told me to tell you to stay with old Simon Betts to-night, an' git an early start in the mornin'." Then he rode away, and we watched him disappear in the hollow out of which he had come carrying so much terror.
We were a sobered three as we turned back into the woods. Ghosts and all the rumours of ghosts had fled to the chimney corners. No witch rode and there walked no spirit from among the dead. Above us the oaks knitted their fantastic tops, but it made no fairy arch for the dancing minions of Queen Mab. The thicket sang, but with the living voices of the good crickets, and the owl yelled again, diving across the road, but his piping notes had lost their eerie treble.
There is something in the creak of saddle-leather that has a way of putting heart in a man. To hear the hogskin rubbing its yellow elbows is a good sound. It means action. It means being on the way. It means that all the idle talking, planning, doubting is over and done with. Sir Hubert has cut it short with an oath and a blow of his clenched hand that made the glasses rattle, and every swaggering cutthroat has his foot in the stirrup.
It is good, too, when one feels the horse holding his bit as a man might hold a child by the fingers. No slave this, but a giant ally, leading the way up into the enemy's country. Out of the road, weakling!
We travelled slowly back toward the Stone Coal. Far away a candle in some driver's window twinkled for a moment and was shut out by the trees. In the low land a fog was rising, a climbing veil of grey, that seemed to feel its path along the sloping hillside.
I heard the boom of the Stone Coal tumbling over the welts in its bedding as we turned down toward the old Alestock mill. The clouds had packed together in the sky, and the moon dipped in and out like a bobbin. As we swept into the turnpike by the long ford, Ump stopped, and, tossing his rein to Jud, slipped down into the road. El Mahdi stopped by the Cardinal. When I looked, the hunchback was on his knees.
"What are you doing?" I said.
Ump laughed. "I'm lookin' for hawks' feathers. Where they fly thick, there ought to be feathers."
He nosed around on the road for some minutes like a dog, and then disappeared over the bank into the willow bushes. The Stone Coal lay like a sheet of silver, broken into long hissing ridges, where it went driving over the ragged strata. On the other side, the Hacker's Creek road lifted out of the ford and went trailing away through the hills. In the moonlight it was a giant's ribbon.
I had no idea of what Ump was up to, but I should learn no earlier by a volley of questions. So I thrust my hands into my pockets and waited.
Presently he came clambering up the bank and got into his saddle.
"Well," I said; "did you find any feathers?"
"I did," he answered; "fresh ones from the meanest bird of the flock, an' he's flyin' low. I think that first turn into the Stone Coal fooled him. But he will know better by midnight."
Then I understood it was horse tracks he had been looking for.
"How do you know he's trailing us?" I asked.
"Quiller," he answered, "when Come-an'-go-fetch-it rides up an' down, he's lookin' for somethin'. An' I reckon we're are about ready to be looked for."
We were clattering up the turnpike while Ump was speaking. All at once, rising out of the far away hills, I heard a voice begin to bellow:
"They put John on the island. Fare ye well, fare ye well. An' they put him there to starve him. Fare ye well, fare ye well."
It was Parson Peppers, and of his reverence be it said that no Brother of the Coast, rollicking drunk on a dead man's chest, ever owned a finer bellow.
I turned around in my saddle. "Peppers!" I cried. "Man alive! How did you know that it was the old bell-wether's horse?"
Ump chuckled. "I saw her shod once. A number six shoe an' a toe-piece."
A spring of eternal youthfulness gushing somewhere under the bed of the mountains, was a dream of the Spanish Main, sought long and found not, as the legends run. But it is no dream that some of us carry our inheritance of youthfulness shoulder to shoulder with Eld into No Man's Country. Such an one was Simon Betts the waggon-maker.
I sat by his smouldering fire of shavings and hickory splinters, and wondered at the old man in the chimney corner. He was eighty, and yet his back was straight, his hair was scarcely grey, and his hands, resting on the arms of his huge wooden chair, were as unshrunken and powerful, it seemed to me, as the hands of any man of middle life.
Eighty! It was a tremendous hark back to that summer, long and long ago, when Simon came through the gap of the mountains into the Hills. The land was full of wonders then. The people of the copper faces prowled with the wolf and whooped along the Gauley. The Dwarfs lurked in the out-of-the-way corners of the mountains, trooping down in crooked droves to burn and kill for the very joy of doing evil. And who could say what unearthly thing went by when the wind shouted along the ridges? The folk then were but few in the Hills, and each busy with keeping the life in him. The land was good, broad waters and rich hill-tops, where the blue-grass grew though no man sowed it. A land made ready for a great people when it should come. With Simon came others from the south country, who felled the forest and let in the sunlight, and made wide pastures for the bullock, and so elbowed out the wandering and the evil.
High against the chimney, on two dogwood forks, rested the long rifle with its fishtail sight and the brass plate on the stock for the bullets and the "patching." Below it hung the old powder-horn, its wooden plug dangling from a string,—tools of the long ago. Closing one's eyes one could see the tall grandsires fighting in the beech forest, a brown patch of hide sighted over the brass knife-blade bead, and death, and to load again with the flat neck of the bullet set in the palm of the hand and covered with powder.
That yesterday was gone, but old Simon was doing with to-day. On two benches was a cart wheel, with its hickory spokes radiating like fingers from the locust hub, and on the floor were the mallet and the steel chisel with its tough oak handle. Stacked up in the corner were bundles of straight hickory, split from the butt of the great shell-bark log; round cuts of dry locust, and long timbers of white and red oak, and quarters of the tough sugars, seasoning, hard as iron. With these were the axe, the wedge, the dogwood gluts, and the mauls made with no little labour from the curled knots of the chestnut oak, and hooped with an iron tire-piece.
It was said on the country side that old Simon knew lost secrets of woodcraft taught by the early man;—in what moon to fell the shingle timber that it might not curl on the roof; on what face of the hill the sassafras root was red; how to know the toughest hickory by hammering on its trunk; when twigs cut from the forest would grow, if thrust in the earth; and that secret day of all the year when an axe, stuck into the bark of a tree, would deaden it to the root.
Simon Betts was not a man of many words. He smoked in the corner, stopping now and then to knock the ashes from his pipe, or to put some brief query. Jud and Ump had come in from the old man's log stable, throwing their saddles down by the door and spreading the bridles out on the hearth so that the iron bits would be warm in the morning.
"How will the day be to-morrow?" I asked of the waggon-maker.
"Dry," he responded; "great rains in the mountains, but none here for a week; then storms."
"Isn't it early for the storms?"
"Yes," he answered; "but the wild geese have gone over, and the storms follow."
Then he asked me where we were riding, and I explained that we were going to bring up Ward's cattle from beyond the Valley River. He said that we would find dry roads but high rivers. The gates of the mountains would be gushing with rains. The old man studied the fire.
Presently he said, "Mr. Ward is a good man. I have seen him buy a poor scoundrel's heifers and wink his eye when the scoundrel salted them the night before they were weighed, and then drove them to the scales in the morning around by the water trough."
I laughed. This was a trick originated long ago by one Columbus, an old grazing thief of the Rock Ford country, who went ever afterward by the name of "Water Lum." It was a terrible breach of the cattle code.
Again the old man relapsed into silence. His eyes ran over the shoulders of the big Jud who squatted by the fire, sewing his broken bridle reins with a shoemaker's wax-end.
"Are you the strong man?" he said.
The giant chuckled and grinned and drew out the end of his thread.
"Well," continued the waggon-maker, "Mr. Ward spoiled a mighty good blacksmith when he put you on a horse." Then he turned to me. "Is he the one that throwed Woodford's club-footed nigger in the wrastle at Roy's tavern?"
"Yes," I said, "but one time it was a dog-fall, and Lem Marks says that Malan slipped the other time."
"But he didn't slip," put in Jud. "He tried to lift me, an' I knee-locked him. Then I could a throwed him if he'd been as big as a Polled-Angus heifer."
"Was you wrastling back-holts or breeches-holts?" asked old Simon, getting up from his chair.
"Back-holts," replied Jud.
The waggon-maker nodded his head. Doubtless in the early time he had occasion to learn the respective virtues of these two celebrated methods.
"That's best if your back's best," he said; "but I reckon you ain't willing to let it go with a dog-fall. You might get another chance at him to-morrow. I saw him go up the road about noon."
Behind the old man Ump held up two fingers and made a sweeping gesture. The waggon-maker went back to the corner of his house for some bedding. Ump leaned over. "Two flyin'," he said. "One went east, an' one went west, an' one went over the cuckoo's nest. If I knowed where that cuckoo's nest was, we'd have the last one spotted."
"What do you think they're up to?" said I.
Ump laughed. "Oh ho, I think they're out lookin' for the babes in the woods!" And the fancy pleased him so well that he rubbed his hands and chuckled in his crooked throat until old Simon returned.
It was late, and the waggon-maker began his preparations for the night. He gave me a home-made mattress of corn husks and a hand-made quilt, heavy and warm as a fur robe. From a high swinging shelf he got two heifer hides, tanned with the hair on them, soft as cloth. In these Jud and Ump rolled themselves and, putting the saddles under their heads, were presently sleeping like the illustrious Seven. The old man fastened his door with a wooden bar, took off his shoes, and sat down by the fire.
I went to sleep with the picture fading into my dream,—the smoked rafters, the red wampus of the old waggon-maker, and the burning splinters crumbling into a heap of rosy ash. A moment later, as things come and go in the land of Nod, Cynthia and Hawk Rufe were also sitting by this fire. Cynthia held the old picture with the funny curls,—the one that stands on the mantel shelf at home,—and she was trying to rub out the curls with her thumb, moistening it in her red mouth. But somehow they would not rub out, and she showed the picture to Woodford, who began to count on his outspread fingers, "Eaney, meany, miny mo." Only the words were names somehow, although they sounded like these words.
Then the dream changed, and I was on El Mahdi in a press of fighting cattle, driven round and round by black Malan and Parson Peppers bellowing like the very devil.
When I awoke the fire was blazing and the grey light of the earliest dawn was creeping in through the chinks of the log wall. Ump and Jud had gone to the stable and the old waggon-maker was busy with the breakfast. On the hearth a mighty cake of corn-meal was baking itself brown; potatoes roasted in the ashes, and on a little griddle about as big as a man's hat a great cut of half-dried beef was broiling.
Famous chefs have spent a lifetime fitting beef for the royal table, and a king of France slighted the business of an empire for the acquirement of this art, and a king of England knighted a roast; but they all died and were buried without tasting beef as it ought to go into a man's mouth. I write it first. A Polled-Angus heifer, fed and watered and cared for like a child, should be killed suddenly without fright, and butchered properly; let the choice pieces hang from a rafter by green withes and be smoked with hickory logs until the fibres begin to dry in them, then cut down and broil.
I arose and went out of doors to wash the night off. Between the house and the log stable, under a giant sugar tree a spring of water bubbled out through the limestone stratum, ran laughing down a long sapling spout, and splashed into a huge old moss-covered trough.
With such food and such water, and the air of the Hills, is it any wonder that Simon Betts was a man at eighty? Hark ye! my masters of the great burgs, drinking poison in your smoky holes.
I plunged my head into the water, and my arms up to the elbows, then came out dripping and wiped it off on a homespun linen towel which the old man had given me when I left the house. As I stood rubbing my arms on the good linen, Ump and Jud came down from the stable and stopped to dip a drink in the long gourd that hung by the spring. They were about to pass on, when Ump suddenly stopped and pointed out a man's footprints leading from the stable path over the wet sod to the road. There were only one or two of these prints in the damp places below the spring, but they were fresh, and made by a foot smaller far than the wide one of old Simon Betts.
We followed Ump to the road. A horse had been hitched to the "rider" of the rail fence, and there were his tracks stamped in the hard clay. There was not light enough to see very clearly, so we struck matches and got down on the bank to study the details of the tracks. I saw that the horse had been one of medium size,—a saddle horse, shod with a "store" shoe, remodelled by some smith. But this knowledge gave no especial light.
Ump and Jud lay on their bellies with their noses to the earth searching the shoe marks. "It's no use," I said, "we can't tell." And I sat up. The two neither answered nor paid the slightest attention. No bacteriologist plodding in his eccentric orbit ever studied the outlines of a new-found germ with deeper or more painstaking care. Presently they began to compare their discoveries.
"He was a Hambletonian," began Jud; "don't you see how long the shoe is from the toe to the cork?" Ump nodded. "An' he was curbed," Jud went on; "his feet set too close under him fer a straight-legged horse. Still, that ain't enough."
"Put this to it," said the hunchback, "an' you've got your hand on him. Them's store nails hammered into a store shoe, an' the corks are beat squat. That's Stone's shoein'. Now you know him."
Then I knew him too. Lem Marks rode a curbed Hambletonian, and Stone was Woodford's blacksmith.
Jud got up and waved his great hand towards the south country.
"They're all ridin'," he said, "every mother's son of the gang. An' they know where we are."
"With rings on their fingers, an' bells on their toes," gabbled Ump; "an' we know where they are."
Then I heard the voice of the old waggon-maker calling us to breakfast.
THE MAID AND THE INTRUDERS
There are mornings that cling in the memory like a face caught for a moment in some crowded street and lost; mornings when no cloud curtains the doorway of the sun; when the snaffle-chains rattle sharp in the crisp air and the timber cracks in the frost. They are good to remember when the wrist has lost its power and the bridle-fingers stiffen, and they are clear with a mystic clearness, the elders say, when one is passing to the ghosts.
It was such a morning when I stood in the doorway of the old waggon-maker's house. The light was driving the white fogs into the north. A cool, sweet air came down from the wooded hill, laden with the smell of the beech leaves, and the little people of the bushes were beginning to tumble out of their beds.
We asked old Simon if he had heard a horse in the night, and he replied that he had heard one stop for a few moments a little before dawn and presently pass on up the road in a trot. Doubtless, he insisted, the rider had dismounted for a drink of his celebrated spring water. We kept our own counsels. If the henchmen of Woodford hunted water in the early morning, it would be, in the opinion of Ump, "when the cows come home."
We went over every inch of the horses from their hocks to their silk noses, and every stitch of our riding gear, to be sure that no deviltry had been done. But we found nothing. Evidently Marks was merely spying out the land. Then we led the horses out for the journey. El Mahdi had to duck his head to get under the low doorway. It was good to see him sniff the cool air, his coat shining like a maid's ribbons, and then rise on his hind legs and strike out at nothing for the sheer pleasure of being alive on this October day. And it was good to see him plunge his head up to the eyepits into the sparkling water and gulp it down, and then blow the clinging drops out of his nostrils.
El Mahdi, if beyond the stars somewhere in those other Hills of the Undying I am not to find you, I shall not care so very greatly if the last sleep be as dreamless as the wise have sometimes said it is.
I spread the thick saddle-blanket and pulled it out until it touched his grey withers, and taking the saddle by the horn swung it up on his back, straightened the skirts and drew the two girths tight, one of leather and one of hemp web. Then I climbed into the saddle, and we rode out under the apple trees.
Simon Betts stood in his door as we went by, and called us a "God speed." Straight, honourable old man. He was a lantern in the Hills. He was good to me when I was little, and he was good to Ward. In the place where he is gone, may the Lord be good to him!
We stopped to open the old gate, an ancient landmark of the early time, made of locust poles, and swinging to a long beam that rested on a huge post in perfect balance. Easily pushed open, it closed of its own weight. A gate of striking artistic fitness, now long crumbled with the wooden plough and the quaint pack-saddles of the tall grandsires.
We rode south in the early daylight. Jud whistled some old song the words of which told about a jolly friar who could not eat the fattest meat because his stomach was not first class, but believed he could drink with any man in the Middle Ages,—a song doubtless learned at Roy's tavern when the Queens and the Alkires and the Coopmans of the up-country got too much "spiked" cider under their waistbands. I heard it first, and others of its kidney, on the evening that old Hiram Arnold bet his saddle against a twenty-dollar gold piece, that he could divide ninety cattle so evenly that there would not be fifty pounds difference in weight between the two droves, and did it, and with the money bought the tavern dry. And the crowd toasted him:
"Here's to those who have half joes, and have a heart to spend 'em; But damn those who have whole joes, and have no heart to spend 'em."
On that night, in my youthful eyes, old Hiram was a hero out of the immortal Iliad.
We passed few persons on that golden morning. I remember a renter riding his plough horse in its ploughing gears; great wooden hames, broad breeching, and rusty trace chains rattling and clanking with every stride of the heavy horse; the renter in his patched and mud-smeared clothes,—work-harness too. A genius might have painted him and gotten into his picture the full measure of relentless destiny and the abominable indifference of nature.
Still it was not the man, but the horse, that suggested the tremendous question. One felt that somehow the man could change his station if he tried, but the horse was a servant of servants, under man and under nature. The broad, kindly, obedient face! It was enough to break a body's heart to sit still and look down into it. No trace of doubt or rebellion or complaint, only an appealing meekness as of one who tries to do as well as he can understand. Great simple-hearted slave! How will you answer when your master is judged by the King of Kings? How will he explain away his brutality to you when at last One shall say to him, "Why are these marks on the body of my servant?"
The Good Book tells us on many a page how, when we meet him, we shall know the righteous, but nowhere does it tell more clearly than where it says, he is merciful to his beast. In the Hills there was no surer way to find trouble than to strike the horse of the cattle-drover. I have seen an indolent blacksmith booted across his shop because he kicked a horse on the leg to make him hold his foot up. And I have seen a lout's head broken because the master caught him swearing at a horse.
As we rode, the day opened, and leaf and grass blade glistened with the melting frost. The partridge called to his mate across the fields. The ground squirrel, in his striped coat, hurried along the rail fence, bobbing in and out as though he were terribly late for some important engagement. The blackbirds in great flocks swung about above the corn fields, man[oe]uvring like an army, and now and then a crow shouted in his pirate tongue as he steered westward to a higher hill-top.
All the people of the earth were about their business on this October morning. Sometimes an urchin passed us on his way to the grist mill, astride a bag of corn, riding some ancient patriarchal horse which, out of a wisdom of years, refused to mend his gait for all the kicking of the urchin's naked heels. And we hailed him for a cavalier.
Sometimes a pair of oxen, one red, one white, clanked by, dragging, hooked in the yoke-ring, a log chain that made a jerky trail in the road, like the track of a broken-backed snake, and we spoke to the driver, inquiring which one was the saddle horse, and if the team worked single of a Sunday. And he answered with some laughing jeer that set us shaking in our saddles.
We had passed the flat lands, and were half way up Thornberg's Hill, a long gentle slope, covered with vines and underbrush and second-growth poplar saplings, when I heard a voice break out in a merry carol,—a voice free, careless, bubbling with the joy of golden youth, that went laughing down the hillside like the voice of the happiest bird that was ever born. It rang and echoed in the vibrant morning, and we laughed aloud as we caught the words of it:
"Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Can she bake a cherry pie, charming Billy? She can bake a cherry pie quick as a cat can wink its eye, She's a young thing and can't leave her mother."
It required splendid audacity to fling such rippling nonsense at the feathered choirs in the sassafras thickets, but they were all listening with the decorous attitude of a conventional audience. I marked one dapper catbird, perched on a poplar limb, who cocked his head and heard the singer through, and then made that almost imperceptible gesture with which a great critic indicates his approval of a novice. "Not half bad," he seemed to say,—this blase old habitue of the thicket music-halls. "I shouldn't wonder if something could be made of that voice if it were trained a trifle."
We broke into a trot and, rounding a corner of the wood, came upon the singer. She was a stripling of a girl in a butternut frock, standing bolt upright on a woman's saddle, tugging away at a tangle of vines, her mouth stained purple with the big fox-grapes, her round white arms bare to the elbows, and a pink calico sun-bonnet dangling on her shoulders, held only by the broad strings around her throat.
The horse under her was smoking wet to the fetlocks. This piping miss had been stretching his legs for him. It was Patsy, a madcap protegee of Cynthia Carper, the biggest tomboy that ever climbed a tree or ran a saddle-horse into "kingdom come." She slipped down into the saddle when she saw us, and flung her grapes away into the thicket. We stopped in the turnpike opposite to the cross road in which her horse was standing and hailed her with a laugh.
She looked us over with the dimples changing around her funny mouth. "You are a mean lot," she said, "to be laughing at a lady."
"We are not laughing at a lady," I answered; "we're laughing at the fun your horse has been having. He's tickled to death."
"Well," she said, looking down at the steaming horse, "I had to get here."
"You had to get here?" I echoed. "Goodness alive! Nobody but a girl would run a horse into the thumps to get anywhere."
"Stupid," she said, "I've just had to get here,—there, I didn't mean that. I meant I had to get where I was going."
"You were in a terrible hurry a moment ago," said I.
"The horse had to rest," she pouted.
"You might have thought of that," I said, "a little earlier in your seven miles' run." Then I laughed. The idea of resting the horse was so delicious that Ump and Jud laughed too.
The horse's knees were trembling and his sides puffing like a bellows. Here was Brown Rupert, the fastest horse in the Carper stable, a horse that Cynthia guarded as a man might guard the ball of his eye, run literally off his legs by this devil-may-care youngster. I would have wagered my saddle against a sheepskin that she had started Brown Rupert on the jump from the horse-block and held him to a gallop over every one of those seven blessed miles.
"Well," she said, "are you going to ride on? Or are you going to sit there like a lot of grinning hoodlums?"
Ump pulled off his hat and swept a laughable bow over his saddle horn. "Where are you goin', my pretty maid?" he chuckled.
She straightened in the saddle, then dropped him a courtesy as good as he had sent, and answered, "Fair sir, I ride 'cross country on my own business." And she gathered up the bridle in her supple little hand.
Jud laughed until the great thicket roared with the echo. Sir Questioner had caught it on the jaw.
"My dear Miss Touch-me-not," I put in, "let me give you a piece of advice. That horse is winded. If you start him on the gallop, you'll burst him."
She lifted her chin and looked me in the eye. "A thousand thank you's," she said, "and for advice to you, sir, don't believe anything you hear." Then she turned Brown Rupert and rode down the way she had come, sitting as straight in the saddle as an empress. For a moment the sunlight filtering through the poplar branches made queer mottled spots of gold on her curly head, then the trees closed in, and we lost her.
I doubled over the pommel of my saddle and laughed until my sides ached. Jud slapped his big hand on the leg of his breeches. "I hope I may die!" he ejaculated. It was his mightiest idiom. But the crooked Ump was as solemn as a lord. He sat looking down his nose.
I turned to him when I got a little breath in me. "Don't be glum," I said. "The little spitfire is an angel. You're not hurt."
The hunchback rubbed his chin. "Quiller," he said, "don't the Bible tell about a man that met an angel when he was a goin' somewhere?"
"Yes," I laughed.
"What was that man's name?" said he.
"Balaam," said I.
"Well," said he, "that man Balaam was the second ass that saw an angel, an' you're the third one."
THE MASTER BUILDERS
The road running into the south lands crosses the Valley River at two places,—at the foot of Thornberg's Hill and twenty miles farther on at Horton's Ferry. At the first crossing, the river bed is piled with boulders, and the river boils through, running like a millrace, a swift, roaring water without a ford. At Horton's Ferry the river runs smooth and wide and deep, a shining sheet of clear water, making a mighty bend, still ford-less, but placid enough to be crossed by a ferry, running with a heavy current when swollen by the rains, except in the elbow of the bend where it swings into a tremendous eddy.
Over the river, where the road meets it first, is a huge wooden bridge with one span. It is giant work, the stone abutment built out a hundred feet on either side into the bed of the plunging water, neither rail nor wall flanking this stone causeway, but the bare unguarded width of the road-bed leading up into the bridge.
On the lips of the abutment, the builders set two stone blocks, smooth and wide, and cut places in them for the bridge timbers. It was a piece of excellent judgment, since the great stones could not be broken from the abutment, and they were mighty enough to bear the weight of a mountain. The bridge rests on three sills, each a log that, unhewn, must have taken a dozen oxen to drag it. I have often wondered at the magnitude of this labour; how these logs were thrown across the boiling water by any engines known to the early man. It was a work for Pharaoh. On these three giant sleepers the big floor was laid, the walls raised, and the whole roofed, so that it was a covered road over the Valley.
The shingle roof and the boarded sides protected the timber framework from the beating of the elements. Dry, save for the occasional splash of the hissing water far below, the great bones of this bridge hardened and lasted like sills of granite. The shingle roof curled, cracked, and dropped off into the water; the floor broke through, the sides rotted, and were all replaced again and again. But the powerful grandsires who had come down from the Hills to lay a floor over the Valley were not intending to do that work again, and went about their labour like the giants of old times.
Indeed, a legend runs that these sills were not laid by men at all, but by the Dwarfs. As evidence of this folklore tale, it is pointed out that these logs have the mark of a rough turtle burned on their under surface like the turtle cut on the great stones in the mountains. And men differ about what wood they are of, some declaring them to be oak and others sugar, and still others a strange wood of which the stumps only are now found in the Hills. It is true that no mark of axe can be found on them, but this is no great wonder since the bark was evidently removed by burning, an ancient method of preserving the wood from rot.
We swung down Thornberg's Hill in a long trot, and on to the bridge. The river was swollen, a whirling mass of yellow water that surged and pounded and howled under the timber floor as though the mad spirits of the river still resented the work of the Dwarfs. It was the Valley's business to divide the land, and it had done it well, leaving the sons of Eve to bite their fingers until, on a night, the crooked people came stumbling down to take a hand in the matter.
We clattered through, and down a long abutment. It almost made one dizzy to look over. A rail or a tree limb would ride down into this devil's maw, or a log would come swimming, its back bobbing in the muddy water, and then strike the smooth nose of a boulder and go to splinters.
Beyond the mad river the mild morning world was a land of lazy quiet. The sky was as blue as a woman's eye, and the sun rose clear in his flaming cart. Along the roadside the little purple flowers of autumn peeped about under the green briers. The fields were shaggy with ragweed and dead whitetop and yellow sedge. The walnut and the apple trees were bare, and the tall sycamore stood naked in its white skin. Sometimes a heron flapped across the land, taking a short cut to a lower water, or a woodpecker dived from the tall timber, or there boomed from the distant wooded hollow the drum of some pheasant lover, keeping a forgotten tryst.
It was now two hours of midday, and the October sun was warm. Tiny streaks of dampness were beginning to appear on the sleek necks of the Cardinal and El Mahdi, and the Bay Eagle was swinging her head, a clear sign that the good mare was not entirely comfortable.
I turned to Ump. "There's something wrong with that bridle," I said. "Either the brow-band or the throat-latch. The mare's fidgety."
He looked at me in astonishment, like a man charged suddenly with a crime, and slid his long hand out under her slim throat, and over her silk foretop; then he growled. "You don't know your A, B, C's, Quiller. She wants water; that's all."
Jud grinned like a bronzed Bacchus. "The queen might wear Spanish needles in her shirt," he said, "an' be damned. But the Bay Eagle will never wear a tight throat-latch or a pinchin' brow-band, or a rough bit, or a short headstall, while old Mr. Ump warms the saddle seat."
The hunchback was squirming around, craning his long neck. If the Bay Eagle were dry, water must be had, and no delay about it. Love for this mare was Ump's religion. I laughed and pointed down the road. "We are almost at Aunt Peggy's house. Don't stop to dig a well." And we broke into a gallop.
Aunt Peggy was one of the ancients, a carpet-weaver, pious as Martin Luther, but a trifle liberal with her idioms. The tongue in her head wagged like a bell-clapper. Whatever was whispered in the Hills got somehow into Aunt Peggy's ears, and once there it went to the world like the secret of Midas.
If one wished to publish a bit of gossip, he told Aunt Peggy, swore her to secrecy, and rode away. But as there is often a point of honour about the thief and a whim of the Puritan about the immoral, Aunt Peggy could never be brought to say who it was that told her. One could inquire as one pleased. The old woman ran no farther than "Them as knows." And there it ended and you might be damned.
The house was a log cottage covered with shingles and whitewash, set by the roadside under a great chestnut tree, its door always open in the daytime. As we drew rein by this open door, the old woman dropped her shuttle, tossed her ball of carpet rags over into the weaving frame, and came stumbling to the threshold in her long linsey dress that fell straight from her neck to the floor.
She pulled her square-rimmed spectacles down on her nose and squinted up at us. When she saw me, she started back and dropped her hands. "Great fathers!" she ejaculated, "I hope I may go to the blessed God if it ain't Quiller gaddin' over the country, an' Mister Ward a-dyin'."
It seemed to me that the earth lurched as it swung, and every joint in my body went limber as a rag. I caught at El Mahdi's mane, then I felt Jud's arm go round me, and heard Ump talking at my ear. But they were a long distance away. I heard instead the bees droning, and Ward's merry laugh, as he carried me on his shoulder a babbling youngster in a little white kilt. It was only an instant, but in it all the good days when I was little and Ward was father and mother and Providence, raced by.
Then I heard Ump. "It's a lie, Quiller, a damn lie. Don't you remember what Patsy said? Not to believe anything you hear? Do you think she ran that horse to death for nothin'? It was to tell you, to git to you first before Woodford's lie got to you. Don't you see? Oh, damn Woodford! Don't you see the trick, boy?"
Then I saw. My heart gave a great thump. The sunlight poured in and I was back in the road by the old carpet-weaver's cottage.
The old woman was alarmed, but her curiosity held like a cable.
"What's he sayin'," she piped; "what's he sayin'?"
"That it's all a lie, Aunt Peggy," replied Jud.
She turned her squint eyes on him. "Who told you so?" she said.
"Who told you?" growled Ump.
"Them as knows," she said. And the curiosity piped in her voice. "Did they lie?"
"They did," said Ump; "Mister Ward's hurt, but he ain't dangerous."
"Bless my life," cried the old woman, "an' they lied, did they? I think a liar is the meanest thing the Saviour died for. They said Mister Ward was took sudden with blood poison last night, an' a-dyin', the scalawags! I'll dress 'em down when I git my eyes on 'em."
"Who were they, Aunt Peggy?" I ventured.
She made a funny gesture with her elbows, and then shook her finger at me. "You know I can't tell that, Quiller," she piped, "but the blessed God knows, an' I hope He'll tan their hides for 'em."
"I know, too," said Ump.
The old woman leaned out of the door. "Hey?" she said; "what's that? You know? Then maybe you'll tell why they come a-lyin'."
"Can you keep a secret?" said Ump, leaning down from his saddle.
The old woman's face lighted. She put her hand to her ear and craned her neck like a turtle. "Yes," she said, "I can that."
"So can I," said Ump.
The old carpet-weaver snorted. "Humph," she said, "when you git dry behind the ears you won't be so peart." Then she waved her hand to me. "Light off," she said, "an' rest your critters, an' git a tin of drinkin' water."
After this invitation she went back to her half-woven carpet with its green chain and its copperas-coloured widths, and we presently heard the hum of the wooden shuttle and the bang of the loom frame. We rode a few steps farther to the well, and Jud dismounted to draw the water. The appliance for lifting the bucket was of the most primitive type. A post with a forked top stood planted in the ground. In this fork rested a long, slender sapling with a heavy butt, and from the small end, high in the air, hung a slim pole, to the lower end of which the bucket was tied.
Jud grasped the pole and lowered the bucket into the well, and then, while one watched by the door, the others watered the horses in the old carpet-weaver's bucket. It was the only thing to drink from, and if Aunt Peggy had caught us with the "critters'" noses in it we should doubtless have come in for a large share of that "dressing down" which she was reserving for Lemuel Marks.
She came to the door as we were about to ride away and looked over the sweaty horses. "Sakes alive," she said, "you little whelps ride like Jehu. You'll git them horses ga'nted before you know it."
"You can't ga'nt a horse if he sweats good," said Ump; "but if he don't sweat, you can ga'nt him into fiddle strings."
"They're pretty critters," said the old woman, running her eyes over the three horses. "Be they Mister Ward's?"
"We all be Mister Ward's," answered Ump, screwing his mouth to one side and imitating the old carpet-weaver's voice.
"Bless my life," said the old woman, looking us up and down, "Mister Ward has a fine chance of scalawags."
We laughed and the old woman's face wrinkled into smiles. Then she turned to me. "Which way did you come, Quiller?" she asked.
"Over the bridge," said I. Now there was no other way to come, and the old carpet-weaver turned the counter with shrewd good-nature.
"Maybe you know how the bridge got there," she said.
"I've heard that the Dwarfs built it," said I, "but I reckon it's talk."
"Well, it ain't talk," said the old woman. "A long time ago, folks lived on the other side of the river, and the Dwarfs lived on this side, an' the folks tried to git acrost, but they couldn't, an' they talked to the Dwarfs over the river, an' asked them to build a bridge, an' the Dwarfs said they couldn't build it unless the river devils was bought off. Then the folks asked how to buy off them river devils, an' the Dwarfs said to throw in a thimble full of human blood an' spit in the river. So, one night the folks done it, an' next morning them logs was acrost."
The spectacles of the old woman were fastened around her head with a shoestring. She removed them by lifting the shoestring over her head, polished them for a moment on her linsey dress and set them back on her nose.
"Then," she went on, "the devilment was done. Just like it allers is when people gits smarter than the blessed God. The Dwarfs crost over an' rid the horses in the night an' sucked the cows, an' made faces at the women so the children was cross-eyed. An' the folks tried to throw down the bridge an' couldn't do it because the Dwarfs had put a spell on them logs."
She stopped and jerked her thumb toward the river. "Did you ever hear tell of old Jimmy Radcliff?" she asked.
We had heard of the old-time millwright, and said so.
"Well," she went on, "they was a-layin' a floor in that bridge oncet, an' old Jimmy got tight on b'iled cider, an' 'low'd he'd turn one of them logs over. So he chucked a crowbar under one of 'em an' begun a-pryin', an' all at oncet that crowbar flew out of his hand an' old Jimmy fell through, an' the men cotched him by his wampus an' it took four of 'em to pull him up, because, they said, it felt like somethin' was a-holdin' his legs."
"I reckon," said Ump, "it was the cider in Jimmy's legs. If there had been anything holdin', they could have seen it."
"'Tain't so certain," said Aunt Peggy, wagging her head, "'tain't so certain. There's many a thing a-holdin' in the world that you can't see." And she turned around in the door and went stumping back to her loom.
We rode south in no light-hearted mood. Again we had met the far-sighted cunning of Hawk Rufe, in a trap baited by a master, and had slipped from under it by no skill of ours. Had we missed those last words of Patsy, flung back like an angry taunt, I should have believed the tale about my brother and hurried north, if all the cattle in the Hills had gone to the devil. It was a master move, that lie, and I began to see the capacity of these dangerous men. This was merely an outpost strategy, laid as they passed along. What would it be when we came to the serious business of the struggle?
And how came that girl on Thornberg's Hill? Cynthia was shoulder to shoulder with Woodford. We had seen that with our own eyes. Had Patsy turned traitor to Cynthia?
I looked over at Ump. "What did that little girl mean?" I said.
"I give it up," said he.
"I don't understand women," said I.
"If you did," said he, "they'd have you in a side-show."
SOME REMARKS OF SAINT PAUL
A great student of men has written somewhere about the fear that hovers at the threshold of events. And a great essayist, in a dozen lines, as clean-cut as the work of a gem engraver, marks the idleness of that fear when above the trembling one are only the gods,—he alone, with them alone.
The first great man is seeing right, we know. The other may be also seeing right, but few of us are tall enough to see with him, though we stand a-tiptoe. We sleep when we have looked upon the face of the threatening, but we sleep not when it crouches in the closet of the to-morrow. Men run away before the battle opens, who would charge first under its booming, and men faint before the surgeon begins to cut, who never whimper after the knife has gone through the epidermis. It is the fear of the dark.
It sat with me on the crupper as we rode into Roy's tavern. Marks and Peppers and the club-footed Malan were all moving somewhere in our front. Hawk Rufe was not intending to watch six hundred black cattle filing into his pasture with thirty dollars lost on every one of their curly heads. Fortune had helped him hugely, or he had helped himself hugely, and this was all a part of the structure of his plan. Ward out of the way first! Accident it might have been, design I believed it was. Yet, upon my life, with my prejudice against him I could not say.
That we could not tell the whims of chance from the plans of Woodford was the best testimonial to this man's genius. One moved a master when he used the hands of Providence to lift his pieces. The accident to Ward was clear accident, to hear it told. At the lower falls of the Gauley, the road home runs close to the river and is rough and narrow. On the opposite side the deep laurel thickets reach from the hill-top to the water. Here, in the roar of the falls, the Black Abbot had fallen suddenly, throwing Ward down the embankment. It was a thing that might occur any day in the Hills. The Black Abbot was a bad horse, and the prediction was common that he would kill Ward some day. But there was something about this accident that was not clear. Mean as his fame put him, the Black Abbot had never been known to fall in all of his vicious life. On his right knee there was a great furrow, long as a man's finger and torn at one corner. It was scarcely the sort of wound that the edge of a stone would make on a falling horse.
Ump and Jud and old Jourdan examined this wound for half a night, and finally declared that the horse had been shot. They pointed out that this was the furrow of a bullet, because hair was carried into the wound, and nothing but a bullet carries the hair with it. The fibres of the torn muscle were all forced one way, a characteristic of the track of a bullet, and the edge of the wound on the inside of the horse's knee was torn. This was the point from which a bullet, if fired from the opposite side of the river, would emerge; and it is well known that a bullet tears as it comes out. At least this is always true with a muzzle-loading rifle. Ward expressed no opinion. He only drew down his dark eyebrows when the three experts went in to tell him, and directed them to swing Black Abbot in his stall, and bandage the knee. But I talked with Ump about it, and in the light of these after events it was tolerably clear.
At this point of the road, the roar of the falls would entirely drown the report of a rifle, and the face of any convenient rock would cover the flash. The graze of a bullet on the knee would cause any horse to fall, and if he fell here, the rider was almost certain to sustain some serious injury if he were not killed. True, it was a piece of good shooting at fifty yards, but both Peppers and Malan could "bark" a squirrel at that distance.
If this were the first move in Woodford's elaborate plan, then there was trouble ahead, and plenty of trouble. The horses came to a walk at a little stream below Roy's tavern, and we rode up slowly.
The tavern was a long, low house with a great porch, standing back in a well-sodded yard. We dismounted, tied the horses to the fence, and crossed the path to the house. As I approached, I heard a voice say, "If the other gives 'em up, old Nicholas won't." Then I lifted the latch and flung the door open.
I stopped with my foot on the threshold. At the table sat Lem Marks, his long, thin legs stretched out, and his hat over his eyes. On the other side was Malan and, sitting on the corner of the table, drinking cider from a stone pitcher, was Parson Peppers,—the full brood.
The Parson replaced the pitcher and wiped his dripping mouth on his sleeve. Then he burst out in a loud guffaw. "I quote Saint Paul," he cried. "Do thyself no harm, for we are all here."
Marks straightened in his chair like a cat, and the little eyes of Malan slipped around in his head. For a moment, I was undecided, but Ump pushed through and I followed him into the room.
There was surprise and annoyance in Marks's face for a moment. Then it vanished like a shadow and he smiled pleasantly. "You're late to dinner," he said; "perhaps you were not expected."
"I think," said I, "that we were not expected, but we have come."
"I see," said Marks.
Peppers broke into a hoarse laugh and clapped his hand on Marks's shoulder. "You see, do you?" he roared; "you see now, my laddie. Didn't I tell you that you couldn't stop runnin' water with talk?"
The suggestion was dangerously broad, and Marks turned it. "I recall," he said, "no conversation with you about running water. That cider must be up in your hair."
"Lemuel, my boy," said the jovial Peppers, "the Lord killed Ananias for lyin' an' you don't look strong."
"I'm strong enough to keep my mouth shut," snapped Marks.
"Fiddle-de-dee," said Peppers, "the Lord has sometimes opened an ass's mouth when He wanted to."
"He didn't have to open it in your case," said Marks.
"But He will have to shut it in my case," replied Peppers; "you're a little too light for the job."
The cider was reaching pretty well into the Reverend Peppers. This Marks saw, and he was too shrewd to risk a quarrel. He burst into a laugh. Peppers began to hammer the table with his stone pitcher and call for Roy.
The tavern-keeper came in a moment, a short little man with a weary smile. Peppers tossed him the pitcher. "Fill her up," he roared, "I follow the patriarch Noah. He was the only one of the whole shootin' match who stood in with the Lord, an' he got as drunk as a b'iled owl."
Then he turned to us. "Will you have a swig, boys?"
We declined, and he struck the table with his fist. "Ho! ho," he roared; "is every shingle on the meetin'-house dry?" Then he marked the hunchback sitting by the wall, and pointed his finger at him. "Come, there, you camel, wet your hump."
That a fight was on, I had not the slightest doubt in the world. I caught my breath in a gasp. I saw Jud loosen his arm in his coat-sleeve. Ump was as sensitive as any cripple, and he was afraid of no man. To my astonishment he smiled and waved his hand. "I'm cheek to your jowl, Parson," he said; "set out the O-be-joyful."
"Hey, Roy!" called Peppers, "bring another pitcher for Humpty Dumpty." Then he kicked the table with his great cowhide boots and began to bellow:
"Zaccheus he clum a tree His Lord an' Master for to see; The limb did break an' he did fall, An' he didn't git to see his Lord at all."
Ump and I were seated by the wall, tilted back in the tavern-keeper's split-bottom chairs, while Jud leaned against the door.
The rhyme set the Parson's head to humming, and he began to pat his leg. Then he spied Jud. "Hey, there! Beelzebub," he roared, "can you dust the puncheons?"
"When the devil's a-fiddlin'," said Jud.
"Ho, the devil," hummed the Parson.
"As I set fiddlin' on a tree The devil shot his gun at me. He missed my soul an' hit a limb, An' I don't give a damn for him."
He slapped his leg to emphasise the "damn." At this moment Roy came in with the two stone pitchers, handed one to Ump and put the other down by the boisterous Parson.
Peppers turned to him. "Got a fiddle?" he asked.
"I think there's an old stager about," said Roy.
"Bring her in," said Peppers. Then he seized the pitcher by its stone handle and raised it in the air. "Wine's a mocker," he began, "an' strong drink is ragin', but old Saint Paul said, 'A little for your stomach's sake.' Here's lookin' at you, Humpty Dumpty. May you grow until your ears drag the ground."
The hunchback lifted his pitcher. "Same to you, Parson," he said, "an' all your family." Then they thrust their noses into the stone pitchers. Peppers gulped a swallow, then he lowered his pitcher and looked at Ump.
"Humpty Dumpty," he said, speaking slowly and turning down his thumb as he spoke, "when you git your fall, it'll be another job for them king's horses."
"Parson," said Ump, "I know how to light."
"How?" said Peppers.
"Easy," said Ump.
Peppers roared. "You ain't learned it any too quick," he said. "What goes up, has got to come down, an' you're goin' up end over appetite."
"When do I hit the ground, Parson?" asked Ump, with his nose in the pitcher.
Peppers spread out two of his broad fingers. "To-day is to-day," he said, "an' to-morrow is to-morrow. Then—" But the cunning Marks was on his feet before the sentence was finished.
"Peppers," he snapped, "you clatter like a feed-cutter. What are you tryin' to say? Out with it. Let's hear it."
It was a bold effort to throw us off the scent. Peppers saw the lead, and for a moment he was sober.
"I was a-warnin' the lost sinner," he said, "like Jonah warned the sinners in Nineveh. I'm exhortin' him about the fall. Adam fell in the Garden of Eden." Then the leer came back into his face. "Ever hear of the Garden of Eden, Lemuel?"
"Yes," said Marks, glad to divert the dangerous drunkard.
"You ought," said Peppers. "Your grandpap was there, eatin' dirt an' crawlin' on his belly."
We roared, and while the tavern was still shaking with it, Roy came in carrying an old and badly battered fiddle under his arm. "Boys," he said timidly, "furse all you want to, but don't start nothin'." Then he gave the fiddle to Peppers, and came over to where we were seated. "Quiller," he said, "I reckon you all want a bite o' dinner."
I answered that we did. "Well," he apologised, "we didn't have your name in the pot, but we'll dish you up something, an' you can give it a lick an' a promise." Then he gathered up some empty dishes from a table and went out.
Peppers was thumping the fiddle strings with his thumb, and screwing up the keys. His sense of melody was in a mood to overlook many a defect, and he presently thrust the fiddle under his chin and began to saw it. Then he led off with a bellow,
"Come all ye merry maidens an' listen unto me."
But the old fiddle was unaccustomed to so vigorous a virtuoso, and its bridge fell with a bang. The Parson blurted an expletive, inflected like the profane. Then he straightened the bridge, gave the fiddle a tremendous saw, and resumed his bellow. But with the accident, his first tune had gone glimmering, and he dropped to another with the agility of an acrobat.