Heart of the Blue Ridge
The Illustrations Shown in this Edition are Reproductions of Scenes from the Photo-Play of "Heart of the Blue Ridge," with Clara Kimball Young as the Heroine, Under the Direction of Lewis J. Selznick, to whom The Publishers Desire to Express Their Thanks and Appreciation for Permission to Use the Pictures.
HEART OF THE BLUE RIDGE
ILLUSTRATED WITH SCENES FROM THE PHOTOPLAY, WITH CLARA KIMBALL YOUNG AS THE HEROINE, UNDER THE DIRECTION OF LEWIS J. SELZNICK
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Copyright, 1915, by
W. J. WATT & COMPANY
WITH THE APPRECIATION OF THE AUTHOR
Heart of the Blue Ridge
HEART OF THE BLUE RIDGE
Where the trail bent over a knoll, Zeke halted, and put down from his shoulder the hickory cudgel with its dangling valise of black oilcloth—total of baggage with which he was faring forth into the world. Then, he straightened himself, and looked back over the way he had come.
There, to the east, the dusk of night still lay somberly, hardly touched by the coming dawn. Through the shadows, the mountain masses loomed formidable and mysterious, vaguely outlined against the deeper gloom of valleys. The melancholy of the scene seemed a fit setting for the cottage that rested invisible within the forest, a half-mile distant from him. In imagination, he saw the withered old woman, his mother, still standing on the threshold, looking toward him, even as he looked toward her, her heart warm with love, her every thought a prayer for his happiness. It was borne in on Zeke once again that she would be very lonely in her desolate home, where death had spared to her only this son.... And, now, he was gone from her! A poignant sorrow welled in him.
Zeke thrust the emotion away, lest it unman him. He faced about, drearily enough, and stood with downcast, unseeing eyes, in anxious pondering. And then, presently, assuagement was granted him. He lifted his gaze, and behold! here was another world, all of soft splendors, of throbbing radiance.
The eager beams of the unrisen sun shimmered above the mountain ranges of the horizon, and streamed toward the zenith in a panoply of harmonious hues, colorful promise of the May morning's joyous mood. Of a sudden, under the soothing influence, the watcher became listener as well. His ears noted with delight the glad singing of the birds in the wood around about. His glance caught the white gleam of the tiny belled blossoms that clustered on a crooked sour-wood by the path, and the penetrant perfume of them stirred to life a new and subtler emotion. A flame of tenderness burned in the clear hazel of his eyes, as he stared out over the trail before him. Under the increasing light his gaze could distinguish the line of the valley a mile further on, in which the Siddon cottage lay hidden. His firmly-set lips relaxed abruptly into a smile of wistful softness. He swung stick and bag across his shoulder once again, and set off briskly down the slope of the knoll. His thoughts were no longer gray over the mother who mourned his going: they were roseate with anticipations of beholding the girl he loved. Now, the mood of the morning danced in his blood. The palpitant desire of all nature in the spring thrilled through his heart. His mind was filled with a vision of her gracious young loveliness, so soon to be present before him at their meeting.... Their meeting—their parting! At thought of that corollary, a cold despair clutched the lad, a despair that was nothing like the sedate sorrow over leaving his mother, a despair that was physical sickness, wrenching, nauseating, but passed beyond the physical to rack the deeps of being. For the first time, jealousy surged hideous in him, born of the realization that she must be left exposed to the wooing of other men—she, the utterly desirable! In a fierce impulse of mingled fear and rage, he stopped short, and cried out:
"I'll be damned if they kin steal her! She's mine. She done told me so, and Plutiny wouldn't lie!"
From an ambush of laurel bushes close beside the path, a tall, slender form stood forth, the lissome figure of a girl in the budding charm of womanhood. There was a lithe, curving beauty in the lines that the scant homespun gown outlined so clearly. The swift movement by which she revealed herself was instinct with grace. As she rested motionless, with arms extended in a gesture of appeal, there was a singular dignity in the pose, a distinction of personality that was in no wise marred by bare feet and shapeless gown; not even by the uncouthness of dialect, when she spoke. And winsomeness of form and bearing was crowned by the beauty of her face, in which the insipidity of regular features was redeemed by exquisite coloring of rose and white, and by the dusk brilliance of the eyes. The tender lips were wreathed to playful reproach, as she addressed the lover for whom she thus waited at the dawn:
"Zekie—oh, Zekie! Ye hain't a-cussin' o' me, be ye?"
The young man, surprised, started, and regarded the girl in confusion. The red that had suffused his tanned cheeks deepened to a burning blush of embarrassment, as he realized that his outburst had been overheard by her who had been the cause of it. But his eyes met her quizzical glance with candid directness. After a moment, he spoke. All the harshness was gone from his voice; its soft drawl was vibrant with tenderness.
"No, Honey, I hain't a'cussin' o' you-all. I was jest a-mentionin' some folks. But I hain't a-feared. Nobody hain't a-goin' to steal yer love from me."
"Nobody—never, Zeke!" the girl answered, simply. There was an infinite honesty, an unalterable loyalty, in the curt words.
As he listened, the flush died from the lover's face; contentment shone in his expression.
"I knowed hit, Honey—I knowed hit all the time. I know when I come back I'll find ye waitin'."
"Ye'll come back, I reckon, with fool idees 'bout what yer women-folks ought to wear, like them furriners down below." Her face relaxed into a genial smile, which brought a dimple to shadow the pink bloom of her cheek. But there was a trace of pensiveness; the vague hint of jealousy in the slow tones:
"Yes, I'll be a-waitin' till ye come, Zekie. An' if the wearin' o' shoes an' stockin's 'll make ye any happier, why, I guess I kin stand 'em—an' them ladies' straighteners, too. Yep, I'd wear 'em, if they did squeeze me fit to bust."
Since Plutina had thus come to meet him, there was no need that he should follow further the trail toward the Siddon cabin, which lay out of his course. At the girl's suggestion that she should accompany him a little way on the first stage of his journey out into the world, the two turned back toward the broader path, which led to the southwest until it met the North Wilkesboro' road. The two walked side by side, along this lovers' lane of nature's kindly devising. They went sedately, in all seeming, for the mountain folk are chary in demonstrations of affection. Yet, beneath the austere mask imposed by convention, their hearts were thrilling with the rapture each found in the near presence of the other. The glamour of romance was like a golden mist over all the scene, irradiating each leaf and flower, softening the bird-calls to fairy flutings, draping the nakedness of distant rugged peaks, bearing gently the purling of the limpid brook along which the path ran in devious complacence. Often, indeed, the lovers' way led them into the shallows, through which their bare feet splashed unconcerned. The occasional prismatic flash of a leaping trout in the deeper pools caught their eyes. So, presently, the girl was moved to speak—with visible effort, very shyly, for the expression of her love in words was a thing unfamiliar, difficult.
"I sha'n't have nobody to make flies fer now," she said dully. "I jest hain't a-goin' arter the trout fer fun no more till ye comes back."
Zeke would have answered, but he checked the words at his lips, lest the trembling of his voice might betray a feeling deemed inconsistent with manliness. They went forward in silence, a-quiver with desire each of the other, yet mute with the forced repression of custom. Now, too, the sorrow of the parting so close at hand, colored their mood more and more, so that the golden glamour first dimmed and then changed into a sinister pall which overhung all the loveliness of the morning. At a turn in the path, where it topped a rise, before descending a long slope to the highway, Zeke came to a standstill. The girl paused obediently beside him. He fumbled in a pocket awkwardly, and drew forth a tiny square of coffee-colored stone, roughly lined, which he held out toward his companion. The tracery of the crystal formed a Maltese cross. The girl expressed no surprise. She accepted the token with a grave nod as he dropped it into her palm, and she remained gazing down at it with eyes hidden under the heavy white lids and long, curving lashes of shadowy brown.
Zeke spoke, very earnestly:
"Hit's fer good luck, Tiny—fer good luck to he'p ye while we're apart. Mebby, hit 'll git in hits work by softenin' the hardness o' yer gran'pap's heart agin me."
In truth, the concentration of his thought on the fragment of stone had been enough of itself to give a talisman occult potence. That concentration of desire for the girl's well-being was not merely of this moment. It had been with him constantly during long hours of tedious clambering yesterday, when he followed the channel of Garden Creek through its tortuous course among the ravines of the Blue Ridge, through the narrow defile of the Devil's Garden, sunless, strewn with rubble of boulders, with a chaos of shattered rock masses—debris, superstition said, of cataclysm—of the Crucifixion, when the mountain crests tore themselves asunder, and cast their pinnacles into the abyss for rage and grief. The searcher had climbed on and on, until he reached the nook sacred to the crystals. For concerning these, also, the superstition had its say, and told that the little pieces of stone, with the cross marked on each, were, in fact, the miraculously preserved tears shed by the fairies of these fastnesses in the dread hour of the Saviour's anguish. The lover had sought long for a crystal that should be perfect. Now that it lay within the girl's hand, he was content of his toil. Surely, whatever the truth concerning its origin, it was a holy thing, for the emblem it bore. It would serve to shield her against aught evil that might threaten—even the grandfather's enmity against him, which set a barrier between them and happiness. The crystal would abide with her in sign of his love's endurance, strong to save her and to cherish her against any ill. He sighed with relief, when she raised the crystal, and dropped it within her bosom.
Still, as always, fearful of showing emotion too openly, Zeke hastened to introduce a new topic. He took from a pocket a book of twelve two-cent postage stamps, to secure which he had trudged the four miles from his mother's cabin to the Cherry Lane post-office. The book, in its turn, was proffered to Plutina, who accepted it in mild bewilderment.
The lover explained:
"Honey," he said, without any embarrassment over the fact, "ye knows my ole mammy hain't edicated, an' I want ye to write for her once a month, arter I write to tell ye whar I'll be."
The girl nodded tacit acceptance of the trust, and consigned the stamps to a resting place alongside the crystal. And then, after a little, she spoke heavily:
"I reckon as how you-all better be a-joggin', Zeke."
For answer, the lad caught the girl in his arms, and gave her a kiss on either cheek—the hearty, noisy smacks of the mountaineer's courting. But, in the next instant, he drew her close in an embrace that crushed the two warm bodies to rapture. His lips met hers, and clung, till their beings mingled. Afterward, he went from her voicelessly. Voicelessly, she let him go.... There could be no words to comfort the bitterness of such parting.
When he was come within view of Joines' mill and store on Roaring River, Zeke halted again for a final look back toward the wild home land, which he was now leaving for the first time. The blackness of his mood after parting with the girl had passed, though melancholy still made him its own. The resilience of youth was turning his spirits again toward the hopes that had inspired this going forth from his own familiar little wilderness into the vast and unknown wilderness of the world beyond. As he stared out at the scattered peaks, reared like conning towers over the sprawling medley of ridge and valley, a throb of fondness shook his heart. It was not sprung from esthetic appreciation of the wild and romantic landscape, though this had been sufficient to justify the stir of feeling. His sensibility was aroused by the dear friendliness of all the scene, where hollows and heights had been his constant haunts through all the days of childhood and adolescence until this hour. Of a sudden, he realized as never before a profound tenderness for this country of beetling crags and crystal rivers, of serene spaces and balsamic airs. Hitherto, he had esteemed the neighborhood in some dull, matter-of-course fashion, such as folk ordinarily give to their native territory. But, in this instant of illumination, on the eve of separating himself from the place, love of it surged within him. This was his home, the dwelling of his dear ones. He felt toward it a quick reverence as for something strangely sacred. His eyes went to the great bulk of Stone Mountain, which jutted just before him to the east, its league of naked rock lying like some monstrous guardian of the place. Somehow, the dignity of the massive curving cliffs soothed him, heartened him anew. The immutability of the huge mound of stone was a prophecy. Through the ages, it had maintained its ward steadfastly. So it would remain. A gush of confidence washed away the last of the watcher's depression. He could go on his way undismayed. These things here that were so dear to him would abide his return. The old mother and Plutina would rest secure against his homecoming. The time, after all, would not be long. Meantime, there was the great adventure. Zeke whirled, and trudged blithely onward.
Opportunity had come to Zeke Higgins, and he had not hesitated to seize it. His desire for a larger life than that of the tiny, scrabbly mountain farm had been early excited; it had persisted; it had increased steadily, though the possibility of its realization had seemed remote. Stark poverty demanded that he remain to coax a scant living from the soil for his mother. Yet, his determination was fixed. He got some smattering of education, along with Plutina, from a kindly Quaker who came among the "Boomers" of the Blue Ridge as a missionary school-teacher. Thus, Zeke learned surprisingly much. His thirsty brain took up knowledge as a sponge takes up water. So great was his gratitude to this instructor that, when the stranger was revealed as a revenue officer questing illicit stills, Zeke, despite inherited prejudice, guided the hunted man by secret trails over the mountains into Virginia, and thereby undoubtedly saved a life. Indeed, the disappearance of the officer was so well contrived that the mountaineers themselves for a time did not suspect the fact of the escape. There is a great basin in the rock on the north side of Stone Mountain. It has been hollowed out through centuries by the little stream that comes leaping madly down the ledges. The cauldron has a sinister repute. It is deemed the sepulchre of more than one spy, cast down into the abyss from the mountain's brim. It was generally believed that the false school-teacher was of the number.
Somehow, long afterward, report had it that the man was alive. Rumor implicated Zeke as having had a share in the fellow's escape. Old Dick Siddon, Plutina's grandfather, heard. He had hated the "revenuers" always. Since the death of his only son at their hands, his hatred had become a mania. He was a strong man, fierce in anger. When he bade his grandchild dismiss her favored suitor, she feigned obedience. She, and Zeke as well, knew the futility of fighting the old man's prejudices. But, with the optimism of youth, the lovers hoped for happiness. A little older, they might at least defy the hostile guardian. In the meantime, Zeke was determined to attain material prosperity during the period of waiting.
Then, Richard Sutton came into the mountains of the Blue Ridge. He chanced on Zeke, made use of the lad as a guide. Soon mutual liking and respect developed. Sutton was a manufacturer of tree-nails—the wooden pins used in ships' timbers. Here in the ranges was an abundance of locust timber, the best for his need. And there was much talk of a branch railway to come. His alert business imagination saw that a factory located at the source of supply would be advantageous. He saw, too, the capacity for development in his young friend. Zeke's familiarity with the region might be valuable—more valuable still his popularity and the respect accorded him in the community. Sutton suggested to the young man that he should come to New York presently, there to learn the details of manufacture, with the prospect of return, later on, to manage the business in the mountains. Naturally, the project was splendid to Zeke's ambition. His only fear had been lest his departure be delayed by lack of money, for pride would not let him confess his extremity to Sutton. There must be some cash in hand for his mother's support, until he should be able to send her more. Then, as he fretted, opportunity favored him anew, for a surveying party came to run a railroad branch north to Stone Mountain. He was employed as ax-man and assistant cook. His wages solved the difficulty, so far as his mother's need was concerned. For the rest, he took only a small sum to his own use, since he was minded to work his way north on shipboard from Norfolk. It was in accord with such high hopes that this May morning found him tramping, barefooted, into Joines' store, with the black oilcloth valise slung from his shoulder.
The halt here was a necessary feature in Zeke's itinerary. On a previous visit to the store, he had purchased a pair of serviceable, if rather ungainly, shoes. Since he would have no occasion for their use at home, he had saved himself the trouble of carrying them to and fro.
"I reckon I'll take them-thar shoes o' mine," he said to the grizzled proprietor, after an exchange of friendly greetings with the few loungers present. These were well aware of his planned departure, though ignorant of his definite aims.
"Ye hain't a-goin' to put 'em on yit, be ye?" the storekeeper inquired, solicitously.
"Not till I git to North Wilkesboro'," Zeke answered, to the obvious relief of the assembly, as he opened the bag. While he was busy stowing the shoes, the onlookers commented cynically on the follies of fashion.
"An' I've hearn tell," one concluded, "that durn-nigh everybody done war shoes in the city, all year roun'."
Perhaps the young man felt a pleasant glow of superiority in reflecting on the fact that such following of city fashion would soon distinguish him. But his innocent vanity was not to be unduly flattered.
"Ca'late to stay away till ye've made yer fortin, in course, sonny?" one of the older men suggested. He enjoyed some local reputation as a wag, the maintenance of which so absorbed his energies that his wife, who had lost whatever sense of humor she might once have had, toiled both indoors and out.
"Why, yes, o' course," Zeke replied unsuspectingly.
"Better kiss we-uns good-by, sonny," was the retort. "You-all 'll be gone quite some time."
The sally was welcomed with titters and guffaws. Zeke was red to the ears with mortification and anger, as he shut the valise, shouldered it, and strode to the door. But even in the time of that passing, he mastered his mood in a measure. He had no wish to make his farewell to these neighbors in bitterness of spirit. So, at the door, he turned and grinned amiably on the group.
"I want pleasant things to remember hyarabouts, all thet-thar long time I got to be away," he said, with a quizzical drawl; "so I kain't be a-kissin' o' ye none. My stomick hain't none so strong nohow," he added, with the coarseness that usually flavored the humor of the countryside.
Then, abruptly, the smile left his lips; the lines of his face hardened; the hazel eyes brightened and widened a little. His low, slow voice came firmly, with a note of tense earnestness. It was as if he spoke to himself, rather than to the slouching men, who regarded him curiously.
"I hain't leavin' all this-hyar 'cause I don't love hit," he declared. "I do love hit, an' I aim to come back by-an-bye—I shore do!"
Forthwith, embarrassed anew by this unmeditated outburst, he hurried off, amid an astonished silence which was broken at last by the storekeeper.
"Thet-thar Zeke Higgins," he ventured, somewhat indistinctly through his matting of whiskers, "I swow if he hain't got right feelin's, fer all he's so durn peart." And his cronies nodded assent.
As he pressed onward, the adventurer quickly regained his poise. The novelty of the situation thrilled him agreeably. His thoughts were crowded with imaginings of the strange things to come. Ambitious vision of himself successful among the city's throngs made his pulses beat faster. He felt that he had within him the power to achieve something worth while in the world. Certainly, he would not fail for lack of striving. But no triumph elsewhere could ever wean him from his love for the Blue Ridge—for his home country. Yes, it was as he had said there in the store: He would come back. He would come back to the cabin in the "cove" under the shadows of Stone Mountain—back to the old mother, back to Plutina. A warmth of exquisite tenderness vibrated through him, as his hope leaped to that homecoming, to the time when once again the girl should rest clinging on his bosom. And a great peace lay under all his joy of anticipation. His love knew no doubt. She had given her heart to him. Through his every wandering, whatever might betide, her love would be with him, to comfort him in sorrow, to crown him in happiness. A bird's song recalled the lilt of her laughter. He saw again the tremulous curving of her mouth, red against the fine warm pallor of her face at parting. Passion welled in him. He halted yet once again, and stood with face suffused, gazing back. It was as if he were swayed by a sudden secret sense that warned him of her misery in this hour of his exaltation—her misery where she lay prone under the tangle of laurel by Garden Creek, sobbing out that anguish which is the penalty woman must pay for love.
Zeke's eyes fastened anew on the rounded bulk of Stone Mountain's cliffs. The immutability of them, and the majesty, relieved the tenseness of his mood. He resumed his way serenely.... But Plutina wept on, unassuaged.
When he drew near to North Wilkesboro', where he proposed to make a first essay in railway journeying, Zeke seated himself under the shade of a grove of persimmon-trees by the wayside, there painfully to encumber his feet with the new shoes. As he laced these, he indulged in soliloquy, after a fashion bred of his lonely life, on a subject born of his immediate surroundings.
"I hain't noways superstitious," he mused complacently, "but this grove ain't no nice place, bein' as it must be a nigger cemetery. Uncle Dick Siddon says they's always niggers buried whar they's persimmon-trees, an' he says the niggers come first. An' Uncle Dick, he ought to know, bein' he's eighty-odd-year old. Anyhow, it seems reasonable, 'cause niggers do swaller the stuns when they eats persimmons, an' so, o' course, jest nacher'ly the trees 'll spring up where the niggers git planted. So they'd be ha'nts like's not. But I hain't superstitious—not a mite. Mr. Sutton, he said such things as ha'nts an' witch-doctors an' such was all plumb foolishness. Still, my mammy has seen—"
He fell silent, recalling old wives' tales of fearsome things seen and heard of nights. The shoes adjusted, he took from the black bag a holster, which sheltered a formidable-appearing Colt's revolver. Having made sure that the weapon was loaded and in perfect order, Zeke returned it to the holster, which he put on snugly under the left arm-pit. These final preparations complete, he got up, and hastened into the town.
One bit more of his musings he spoke aloud, just before he entered the main street:
"No, I hain't superstitious. But, by crickey! I'm plumb tickled I giv Plutiny thet fairy cross. They say them stones is shore lucky."
At the railway station, Zeke asked for a ticket to Norfolk.
"Want a return-trip ticket?" the friendly station-agent suggested. He supposed the young mountaineer was taking a pleasure excursion to the city.
But Zeke shook his head defiantly, and spoke with utter forgetfulness of his experience in Joines' store.
"No," he declared stoutly, "I hain't a-comin' back till I've made my fortin."
"You'll be a long time gone from this-here State o' Wilkes," the agent vouchsafed dryly. He would have said more, but his shrewd eyes saw in this young man's expression something that bade him pause, less sceptical. The handsome and wholesome face showed a strength of its own in the resolute curving nose and the firmly-set lips and the grave, yet kindly, eyes, with a light of purposeful intelligence glowing within their clear deeps. The tall form, broad of shoulder, deep of chest, narrow of hip, though not yet come to the fulness of maturity, was of the evident strength fitted to toil hugely at the beck of its owner's will. The agent, conscious of a puny frame that had served him ill in life's struggle, experienced a half-resentment against this youth's physical excellence. He wondered, if, after all, the boast might be justified by the event.
"Train in ten minutes," he said curtly, as he pushed out the ticket.
So, presently, Zeke, found himself seated for the first time on the red plush seat of a railway carriage. The initial stage of his journey was ended; the second was begun.
The right of way from North Wilkesboro' to Greensboro' runs through a region where every vista delights the eye with wild and romantic scenes. The rails follow the course of the upper reaches of the Yadkin River, with swift succession of vicious curves and heavy grades. The twistings of the road-bed, so advantageous for presenting the varied loveliness of the wilds, were by way of being a real torture to the young adventurer, who sat in seeming stolidity near the rear door of the smoking-car, with the black bag between his feet. Even experienced travelers found the lunges of the train trying to their nerves as it shot at speed around "hairpin" bends, or hurled itself to the fall of a steeper descent. To Zeke, who for the first time knew the roar and jolt of such travel, this trip was a fearsome thing. To sit movelessly there, while the car reeled recklessly on the edge of abysses, was a supreme trial of self-control. The racking peril fairly sickened him. A mad impulse of flight surged in him. Yet, not for worlds would he have let anyone guess his miserable alarm.
Nevertheless, one there was who apprehended in some measure the ordeal through which the mountaineer was passing—happily, a kindly observer. An elderly man, across the aisle from Zeke, regarded his fellow passenger with particular intentness. It seemed to him that, in some vague way, the clean-cut face was familiar. His curiosity thus aroused, he perceived the tenseness of expression and attitude, and shrewdly suspected the truth. It was with benevolent intent, rather than for the gratification of inquisitiveness, that he finally got up and seated himself in the vacant place alongside the younger man.
Zeke's perturbation caused him to start nervously at this advent of a stranger, but a single glance into the wrinkled, yet hale, face of the man reassured him. The visitor's amiable character showed plainly in his dim blue eyes, which twinkled merrily. Moreover, there was a sure witness of worth in the empty sleeve, pinned to his left breast, on which showed the cross of honor. The humor lurking in the eyes was grotesquely manifested in his first address:
"This-hyar railroad hain't no fitten one fer beginners," he announced, with a chuckle. "Hit's plumb likely to make a squirrel into a nut."
Zeke smiled, somewhat ruefully. He understood the play on words since "boomer," the mountaineers' own name for the red squirrel, is often applied to themselves. But the distraction afforded by the garrulous veteran was a relief. A new spur was given to their mutual interest when, after telling his name, it was discovered that his father had been a company-mate with Seth Jones, the veteran, in the Twelfth North Carolina Volunteers. The old man's curiosity was highly gratified by this explanation of the inherited likeness that had puzzled him, and he waxed reminiscent and confidential. The diversion was welcome to his listener, where doubtless many another might have found the narrative of by-gone campaigns tedious in this prolix retelling. Ultimately, indeed, the youth's sympathies were aroused by Jones' tale of misfortune in love, wherein his failure to write the girl he left behind him had caused her first to mourn him as dead, and eventually to marry her second choice.
"But I've jest got scrumptious news," he exclaimed, his rheumy eyes suddenly clear and sparkling. "Seems as how Fanny's a widder. So, I'm a-goin' to try my luck, an' no shelly-shallyin', now I've got her located arter a mighty lot o' huntin'. Yes, sir, sonny," he concluded, with a guffaw, "old as I be, I'm a-goin' a-courtin'. If I ever see ye ag'in, I'll tell ye how it comes out. I s'pose I seem plumb old fer sech foolishness to a boy like you be, but some hearts keep young till they stop. I'm pretty spry fer my age, too, if I do say so as shouldn't."
Zeke was not so surprised by the old man's hopes as he might have been, were it not for the example of Plutina's grandfather, who, somewhat beyond four-score, was still scandalously lively, to the delectation of local gossip. But, though after the departure of Jones at a junction, Zeke reflected half-amusedly on the rather sere romances of these two ancient Romeos, he was far from surmising that, at the last, their amorous paths would cross.
There was still further harrowing experience for Zeke after reaching the Southern Railway's terminal on the pier at Pinner's Point, in Virginia, for here he was hurried aboard the ferry-boat, and was immediately appalled by the warning blast of the whistle. Few bear that strident din undismayed. This adventurer had never heard the like—only the lesser warning of locomotives and the siren of a tannery across twenty miles of distance. Now, the infernal belching clamor broke in his very ears, stunning him. He quivered under the impact, stricken to the soul for seconds of shock. But the few careless eyes that chanced to scan the mountaineer noted no faltering in face or form. He stood to all appearance serenely, easily poised, his attitude replete with the grace of physical power, his mouth firmly closed, his widely-set eyes unwavering. Even the cudgel, and the black bag still dangling from it, could not offset a certain aloof dignity that masked distress by stern effort of will.
Nothing further occurred for a little to afflict the traveler's unaccustomed nerves, and he soon found himself pleasurably absorbed in contemplation of the novel surroundings. The boat was nearing the Norfolk landing when his eyes fell on a dog, held in leash by a young woman. Both the beast and its mistress commanded his instant attention, in which wonder was the chief emotion. The dog itself was a Boston bull-terrier, which was a canine species wholly strange to the mountaineer's experience, limited as it had been to hounds and mongrels of unanalyzable genealogy. The brute's face had an uncanny likeness to a snub-nosed, heavy-jowled "boomer" whom Zeke detested, and he eyed the creature askance by reason of the resemblance.
"Hit's plumb man-faced," was his verdict. "I shore prefer 'em jest plain dawg." His eyes went then from the leash to the girl holding it, and he hardly restrained a gasp, in which admiration was mingled with amazement. The ordinary observer would have seen only a pretty girl, of the fluffy blond type, smartly tailored in blue serge, with the skirt decorously slit. But Zeke saw a vision from another world than that of the slatternly mountain women, whose toil left them neither opportunity nor ambition for nicety in dress, which, indeed, was finally prohibited by ignorance as well as poverty. This girl stood out in startling relief, marvelous revelation from the new world he was entering. Slowly, with concentration, the young man scrutinized the vision, noting every detail, from the natty turban with its swaying feather wand to the daintily pointed ties, above which were to be glimpsed trim silk-clad ankles. Yet, the novel charm of her failed utterly to disturb the loyalty of his heart. His hungry soul found exquisite satisfaction in the spectacle of feminine refinement thus presented for the first time, but his devotion to the roughly garbed mountain girl was in no wise imperiled. On the contrary, his imagination busied itself with an effort to picture Plutina thus splendidly arrayed.
"I 'low she's plumb handsome," he meditated. "But, shucks! Tiny beats her holler. In them duds, she'd have her skun a mile.... But thet-thar man-faced dawg! I'd shore hate like pizen to be found daid along with thet ornery pup."
As he mused, no hint came out of the future as to the time when, in very truth, he would be close to death, and that same dog an actor in the drama, one to be deeply esteemed, not contemned. But that time was not yet. In fact, the immediate future was not destined to remove his prejudice against the bull-terrier. On the contrary!
The fixity of Zeke's staring penetrated the girl's consciousness. She turned abruptly, and her blue eyes met his in a cool glance that seemed to pass through him and on, as if he were something quite invisible, altogether beneath notice. Zeke felt the rebuke keenly, though innocent of intentional offense. The instincts of gentlemanly blood from which he was somewhere distantly descended made him realize his fault in manners, though he had had no guidance from experience. The ready blush burned hot on brow and cheeks; he dropped his gaze confusedly to the dog.
Even the beast, he perceived, reprobated his conduct. It was staring up at him fiercely from red eyes, and the hackles stood erect, though it did not growl. Evidently, it resented undue attention to its mistress.
There was a movement forward of the passengers, as the ferry-boat drew into its slip. Zeke advanced with the others, following close behind the girl and the dog, which strained at the leash in order still to stare menacingly at the young man. Then, without warning, the action became swift and violent. The ferry-boat crashed against the yielding walls of the slip. Zeke, unprepared for the shock, was thrown from his balance. One of the heavy new shoes smashed down on a paw. The dog sprang and snapped. The jaws missed, because the girl tugged at the leash in the same second. Zeke instinctively kicked at the brute in self-defense. His foot took the animal fairly in the jaw, and lifted it from the floor, just as the girl turned. She cried out in shrill anger at this rough stranger's wanton attack on her pet, for so she interpreted the event. She maintained her hold on the leash bravely, lest worse follow. But her strength was insufficient to restrain the creature of fighting breed. It lunged forward with such suddenness that both its mistress and its enemy were taken unawares. The girl was dragged in tow. Zeke would have leaped aside, but he was too late to escape the encounter, though he mitigated it. The iron jaws clanged shut, but in the slack of the victim's sturdy jeans, instead of in the flesh. The massive mouth was locked vise-like. Because of the cloth's sturdiness, the dog swung clear of the floor. The girl still strove frantically, though vainly, at the leash, shrieking commands which were unheeded. Zeke, confused, chagrined, ashamed, wrathful, shook himself violently to be free, without avail. The other passengers scurried forth, with a panic cry of "Mad dog!"
Zeke's wrath mounted. He had had little training in self-restraint, and his passions were of the primitive sort. Now, abruptly, the lesser emotions were overwhelmed by the might of his rage. He was conscious only of the humiliating fact that this hideous man-faced dog had fastened itself on him, and there hung. Zeke bent and twisted, his two hands on the creature's jaws. Then he set himself to wrench them apart. His strength, great as it was availed nothing against that remorseless grip. The resistance goaded him to fury. He gave over the effort to prise the teeth apart, and put all his might into a frenzied pull. There were instants of resistance, then the hissing noise of rending cloth. A huge fragment of the stout jeans was torn out bodily. Zeke hurled the animal violently from him. The leash was snapped from the girl's hands. The dog's body shot across the cabin, hurtled against the wall. The indomitable brute tumbled to the floor, and lay there stunned. But even in defeat, he carried down with him between rigid jaws the blue-jeans banner of victory.
With a bound, the girl crossed the space, and fell on her knees beside the inert form, crooning over it pitifully. In the same moment, the gust of anger in Zeke ended. He stood motionless, except for his quickened breathing, with eyes fast on the girl. Remorse stabbed him as he realized her distress, for which he was responsible. He went toward her hesitatingly, forgetful of bag and stick, which had fallen at the outset of the melee. He ventured to address her, stammering confusedly.
"I 'low he hain't daid, nor nothin' like thet," he said; "jest takin' a nap-like." His wrath gave a final flicker, as he looked down at the ugly face cushioned within the girl's hands. "An ornery critter like thet-thar pup ought to be kept shet-up," he concluded spitefully.
The girl lifted a face in which blue eyes were flaming.
"It's you ought to be shut up, you horrible man!" she cried. "And you will be. I'll see to that."
"Now, don't be plumb foolish," Zeke expostulated. "The varmint hain't hurt none—not a mite, ma'am."
"Beast!" the girl ejaculated, concisely.
Zeke retorted with high indignation.
"I jest nacher'ly hain't a-goin' to stand still an' say 'Thank ye!' while I'm bein' et up piecemeal by no dawg—specially one with a face like his'n."
He would have said more, but paused with mouth agape, eyes widening, his expression horror-stricken. For, just then, the bull-terrier snorted loudly, and unclosed its red eyes. The clenched jaws, too, relaxed. Thus released, the broad strip of jeans fluttered to the floor. Its movement caught Zeke's gaze. He recognized the cloth. The ghastly truth burst in his brain. In an agony of embarrassment, he clasped his hands to that portion of his person so fearfully despoiled. Moved by his sudden silence, impressed perhaps by some subtle impact of this new and dreadful emotion on his part, the girl looked up. She, too, had noted subconsciously the fall of the cloth from the dog's jaws. Now as she saw the young man's face of fire and observed his peculiar posture, she understood. Her own crimson cheeks rivaled those of the afflicted one. She turned and bent low over her reviving pet. Her shoulders were shaking, Zeke was shuddering.
The conventions of dress are sometimes pestilential. If any doubt this truth let him remember the nightmares wherein his nudity made torment. And, while remembering the anguish such lack of clothing has occasioned in dreams, let him think with pity on the suffering of Zeke whose plight was real. It was in sooth, a predicament to strain the savoir faire of the most polished courtier. Perhaps, the behavior of the mountaineer was as discreet as any permitted by the unfortunate circumstances, and could hardly have been improved on by the Admirable Crichton himself. He simply retained an immobile pose, facing the girl, with his whole soul concentrated in desire that the earth should split asunder to engulf him. The tide of his misery was at its flood, so that it grew no worse when some deck-hands thrust the forward doors open, and a policeman bounded into the cabin, drawn revolver in hand.
But the bull-terrier was to escape the fate unjustly inflicted on so many of its fellows. The girl, crouching over the dog, barred the policeman's purpose.
"Get away from him, miss," the officer directed. "He ain't safe, even if he's quiet. I know mad dogs. A bullet's the only medicine."
"Chub isn't mad in the least," the girl snapped; "though he's been through enough to make him crazy—and so have I. If you're so anxious to do your duty, officer," she added, bitterly, "why don't you arrest that horrid, hulking man over there?" She pointed a neatly gloved, accusing finger at the motionless Zeke, who was staring fixedly at the point where he hoped the abyss might yawn.
"What's he done?" the policeman inquired gruffly. He was miffed over this lost opportunity. The slayer of a mad dog is always mentioned as a hero in the newspapers.
The girl stood up. The dog, at the end of the leash, also stood up, and shook itself. It had, to all seeming, recovered fully. It regarded Zeke intently from its red eyes. But it did not growl. It was plain that the bull-terrier was thinking deeply, and that Zeke was the center around which thought revolved. But, if the dog did not growl, its mistress showed no lessening of hostility. She explained succinctly to the representative of the law:
"He assaulted my dog—with his feet and his hands."
"And maybe he bit him, too!" the policeman suggested, with heavy sarcasm. He could not forgive this pretty girl for foiling his heroism.
The girl did not heed. Her white brow was wrinkled in a frown. She was recalling, with an effort, her somewhat meager knowledge of legal terms.
"I shall charge him with homicidal assault," she announced firmly.
"I hope you'll tell that to the sarge," the officer chuckled, his pique forgotten in appreciation of the girl's naive announcement. "I'll take this chap to the station-house. You'll appear against him, miss?" The girl nodded emphatically. He turned on Zeke, frowning. "Come on quiet, young feller, if you know what's good for ye." His practiced eye studied the young mountaineer's physique respectfully.
Zeke made no movement, nor answered nor lifted his eyes. The policeman attributed this demeanor to recalcitrancy. He put the revolver in his pocket, drew his club and took a step forward. Yet, he sensed something unfamiliar in the situation; the stiff posture of the arms and hands of the culprit attracted his attention. He felt vaguely that something of a painful nature was toward. He stopped short, puzzled, and spoke:
"What's the matter with ye, anyhow?" he demanded fiercely. "Hain't ye got any tongue?"
Then, at last, Zeke raised his eyes. They went first to the forward door, to make sure that the girl had vanished. There were only two mildly interested deck-hands in the cabin, beside the policeman, though soon the place would be filled with newly arriving passengers. He looked at the officer squarely, with despair in his expression:
"Hit ain't my tongue—hit's my pants!" he said huskily. "Hit's the seat of my pants. Hit's—hit's thar!" He nodded toward the strip of jeans left on the floor by the dog.
The policeman stared at the fragment of cloth, then his gaze returned appreciatively to the victim's hands. He threw his head back and bellowed with laughter, echoed raucously by the deck-hands. Zeke waited grimly until the merriment lessened a little.
"I hain't a-stirrin' nary a step to no jail-house," was his morose announcement, "unless somebody gits me some pants with a seat to 'em."
The policeman liked his ease too well to fight needlessly, and he had an idea that the thews and sinews of the boomer might make a good account of themselves. Moreover, he was by way of being a kindly soul, and he apprehended in a measure the young man's misery.
"Can you dig up a pair of jumpers?" he asked the deck-hands. "You can have 'em back by calling at the station to-morrow."
In this manner, the difficulty was bridged. Clad in the dingy and dirty borrowed garment, the burning shame fell from Zeke, and he was once again his own man. Nevertheless, he avoided looking toward the piece of torn cloth lying on the floor, as he went out with the policeman. He only wished that he might with equal ease leave behind all memory of the lamentable episode.
Zeke's tractability increased the favorable impression already made on the officer by the mountaineer's wholesome face and modest, manly bearing. It was evident that this was no ordinary rake-helly boomer come to town. There was, too, the black bag to witness that the prisoner was an honest voyager. On the way to the station, the constable listened with unusual patience to Zeke's curt account of the misadventure, and the narrative was accepted as truth—the more readily by reason of some slight prejudice against the dog, which had failed as an exploiter of heroism. In consequence, the policeman grew friendly, and promised intercession in his captive's behalf. This was the more effective when, on arrival at the station-house, it was learned that the girl with the dog had not appeared. Nor was there sign of her after a period of waiting. The sergeant at the desk decided that there could be no occasion to hold the prisoner. But he frowned on the deadly weapon, which the usual search had revealed.
"'Twon't do for you to go totin' that cannon promiscuous," he declared. "You shore don't need a gun—you shore do need breeches. What's the answer?... Hock the gun, and buy some pants."
Thus simply did an alert mind solve all difficulties of the situation.
So in the end, Zeke issued safely from his first bout with mischance and found himself well content, for his dress now was more like that of the men about him. The new trousers were full length, which the jeans had not been, and the creases down the legs were in the latest style. The salesman had so stated, and Zeke observed with huge satisfaction that the stiffness of the creases seemed to mark the quality of the various suits visible in the streets. And his own creases were of the most rigid! Zeke for the first time in his life, felt that warm thrill which characterizes any human integer, whether high or low, when conscious of being especially well dressed.
Followed an interval of loitering. The sights of the town formed an endless panorama of wonder to the lad's eager vision. Though he was a year past the age of man's estate, this was his first opportunity of beholding a town of any size, of seeing face to face things of which he had heard a little, had read more. His fresh, receptive mind scanned every detail with fierce concentration of interest, and registered a multitude of vivid impressions to be tenaciously retained in memory.
And ever with him, as he roamed the streets, went a tall slender girl, barefooted, garbed in homespun, with great dark brown eyes that looked tenderly on him from beneath the tumbled bronze masses of her hair. No passer-by saw her, but the mountaineer knew her constant presence, and with her held voiceless communion concerning all things that he beheld. His heart exulted proudly over the bewildering revelations of many women, both beautiful and marvelously clad in fine raiment—for this girl that walked with him was more radiantly fair than any other.
It was late afternoon when, finally, Zeke aroused himself to think of the necessities of his position. Then, after a hasty and economical meal at a lunch counter near the water-front, he made haste to the pier, where his attention was at once riveted on an Old Dominion Liner, which was just backing out into the river. He watched the great bulk, fascinated, while it turned, and moved away down the harbor, to vanish beyond Sewall's Point, on its way toward Hampton Roads. Immediately afterward, his attention was attracted to a much smaller steamer, which drew in on the opposite side of the wharf. There chanced to be no one else near, and, as the boat slid into the slip, a man in the bow hurled a coil of rope toward Zeke, with an aim so accurate that it fell across Zeke's shoulder.
"Don't dodge it, you lubber!" the man roared, in answer to the mountaineer's instinctive movement. "Haul it in, an' make fast to the punchin'."
Zeke obeyed readily enough, hauled in the hawser, and made the loop fast over the piling. At the same moment, he saw two negroes, blacker from soot and grime than nature had made them, who leaped down from the deck, and scampered out of sight. He heard the captain in the pilot-house shouting down the tube.
"There go your——nigger stokers on the run."
Zeke could both see and hear the man in the engine-room, who vowed profanely that he would ship a pair of white men, to sail before ten that night. It seemed to the listener that the situation might develop to his advantage. When, presently, the captain descended to the dock, Zeke made bold to accost that red-faced and truculent-appearing person. Much to his surprise, his request for work met with an amiable reply. The captain verified what Zeke already knew, that the engineer had need of men, and bade the inquirer get aboard and offer himself.
In the engine-room, the harried chief scowled on the intruder.
"What the devil do you want?" he cried harshly.
But Zeke's purpose was too earnest to be put down by mere ungraciousness.
"Work," he replied with a smile.
Something in the applicant's aspect mitigated the engineer's asperity.
"Ever fire a boiler?" he questioned, more affably.
"Yes, an' no," Zeke answered; "not any real steam b'iler. But, when hit comes to keepin' a hick'ry fire under a copper kittle, an' not scorchin' the likker, wall, I 'lows as how I kin do hit. An' when it comes to makin' o' sorghum m'lasses, I hain't never tuk off my hat to nobody yit. Fer the keepin' o' proper temp'rature folks says, I'm 'bout's good's anybody in Wilkes."
"Humph!—boomer," the engineer grunted, and there was silence for a moment. When next he spoke, his manner was kindly.
"Those niggers of mine skedaddled 'cause they're lazy and worthless. But the stoke-hole is hell, all right. It ain't no place for a youngster like you. I'll hustle round to the gin-mills an' get hold of a pair of tough guys. But there's something else," he went on, as Zeke's face fell. "If you can make sorghum molasses and moonshine without scorchin' 'em, you'll fill the bill, I reckon. We cruise off the coast for menhaddin—fat backs—for the oil in 'em. We carry steam-jacket kettles. I've got a green man now who's no good. I'll fire him and take you on. Thirty a month and your board—more by-and-by, if you suit."
Zeke, elated at this opportunity, felt, nevertheless, that honesty required of him some further explanation. But the engineer dismissed consideration of the future.
"A month will give you enough for your fare to New York. If you ain't pressed for time, a voyage will do you good. But don't let the captain get a sight of that black bag, or it'll go overboard. Sailors are afeared of 'em," he chuckled. "The Neuse, my old ship, ran into The Blanche off Creek Beacon, in a fog, and sunk her. We rescued officers and crew, but the captain—Smith, his name was—couldn't stop cussin' 'cause he'd allowed a nigger mammy to go aboard as a passenger along with her old black bag, which was the why of the wreck, 'cording to his way of thinking. Took his friends nigh onto a year, to convince him that The Neuse was to blame for the collision. I suspect he'll always have it on his conscience that he did finally collect damages off our owners." The engineer chuckled again. "Stow your bag under your bunk in the fore peak before the captain comes aboard."
The Bonita was a stanchly built and seaworthy craft with a draft of less than twelve feet under full cargo, which made possible her use of the shorter and smoother inland water-way from Norfolk to Beaufort, North Carolina, where was the factory. Zeke, who would remain idle until the first catch of fish, went early to his bunk the first evening aboard, wearied by the long and exciting day. He had, indeed, scarce time to contemplate a guardian vision of Plutina ere his senses were locked in slumber, and his next consciousness was of a dim morning light struggling into the gloom of the stuffy peak, and the jolting rhythm of the engine, which announced that the voyage was begun. When he hurried on deck, he was at first disappointed to learn that the boat was still some distance from the open sea, for which he longed with all an inlander's curiosity over the mystery of endless waters. The Bonita was now working forward slowly through the old Dismal Swamp Canal, to reach the Pasquotank River and Albemarle Sound. Zeke's astonished eyes perceived in every direction only the level, melancholy expanse of the swamp. His sensitive soul found, nevertheless, a strange charm and beauty in the scene. There was space here, even as in the mountains. Yet this calm was not of strength, he felt vaguely, like that he had known, but the tranquillity of nature in another, a weaker, less-wholesome mood, apathetic, futile. The thickly dotting cypresses and junipers, bedecked with streaming draperies of Spanish moss, touched the vistas with a funereal aspect. The languid movement of the festoons under the breeze was like the sighings of desolation made visible. The dense tangle of the undergrowth stretched everywhere, repellent, unrelieved by the vivid color flashes of the mountain blossoms. Stagnant wastes of amber-hued water emphasized the dreariness.
Zeke's spirits were too exultant to suffer more than a fleeting depression from this first survey of the waste. He realized how unjust his impressions might be when he learned that this seemingly filthy water was highly esteemed. The deck-hand, filling the water barrel from a pail let over the ship's side, explained the swamp water's virtues.
"All the capens fill their barrels with it. Juniper water cures chills an' fever, an' keeps 'em off if ye hain't got 'em. Some says it's better 'n gin for the kidneys." But the deck-hand looked doubtful.
Zeke, still suspicious because of the unlikeness of this liquid to the crystal-clear element of the mountains, essayed an experimental swallow, then spat disgustedly.
"Hit may be all right fer med'cine, or yarb tea," was his verdict, "but it needs real water to wash it down."
The progress was tediously slow, for a strong southwest wind had come on, which lowered the water in the canal, so that The Bonita often went scraping along the bottom, and betimes stuck fast in the mud. When they were come to the Lake Drummond region, Captain Lee decided to tie up until a change or falling of the wind, with its consequent rise of water in the channel. At the point where they finally made fast to the bank, there was an old trail, a woods road long abandoned, running off into the jungle. Zeke promptly set off to explore this, and almost at once espied a wild turkey; a plump gobbler, feeding in the path before him. There could be no doubt as to the acceptability of such food aboard and Zeke hastened back to The Bonita, where the captain gladly loaned him a rifle. Thus equipped, Zeke returned to the wilderness trail. He was not surprised to find that the turkey had vanished, nor disheartened, for he was sure that a little patience would bring him in sight of game, and there was leisure a plenty since an interval must elapse after a change in the wind before the deepening of the water. Within a half-hour, he shot a turkey from its perch in a cypress. With much satisfaction, Zeke swung the gobbler, which was big and fat, over his shoulder, and set out to return. Almost at once, however, his steps were arrested by the faint baying of a hound. As he listened, the sound grew louder, as if the dog drove its quarry toward him. The instinct of the chase dominated the mountaineer. He cast down the turkey, and waited, hopeful that a deer or bear might cross the path within range.
Soon, he heard a noisy crackling of underbrush a little to his right, but near at hand. With the rifle in readiness Zeke peered from the concealment of a cypress trunk. But it was neither the lithe leaping form of a deer, nor the uncouth shambling bulk of swamp bear that broke from the cover a moment later. Instead, there lurched into view a huge negro. The fugitive's clothing hung in shreds, witness of the cat's-briar claws; his face, from the same cause, was torn and bleeding. The breath wheezed loudly through the open mouth; the sweat ran in streams from the face; the eyes rolled whitely. There was terror in his expression. He carried a thick club. Now, as he came to a halt, it was plain to the watcher that the runner's fear had at last driven him to make a stand, when he could flee no further. Zeke had no difficulty in understanding the situation sufficiently well. The negro was undoubtedly a criminal who had fled in the hope of refuge from the law in the swamp's secret lurking places. Now trailed by the dog, he was brought to bay. Zeke determined, as a measure of prudence, to remain inactive until the issue between man and dog should be adjusted. Otherwise, he might find himself engaged against both man and beast with only a single bullet to his aid.
The querulous cries of the dog here and there showed that the scent had been lost where the negro had splashed through some pool. Then, abruptly, a sharp volley announced recovery of the track. A minute later a huge black-and-tan body catapulted from the thicket into the open space of the trail. From his cover, Zeke watched excitedly. The negro, who had stood with club swung back ready for the blow, was caught at disadvantage by the pursuer's emergence at an unexpected point. The branches of the thicket projected to prevent a blow. The dog, silent now, hurled itself straight at the man's throat. But the negro, alert to the peril, avoided the charge by a swift spring to the side. Zeke heard the great jaws of the beast click shut as it shot harmlessly past its foe; he heard the savage growl with which it whirled to renew the attack. As it leaped a second time the negro's club fell true in a mighty stroke—caught the creature fair on the skull, stopped it in midair, dropped it dead to the ground.
Zeke's turn in the action was come, at last. Even as the negro stood gloating over his victory, the mountaineer, with leveled rifle, stepped from the concealment of the cypress, and cried a sharp command:
"Drop thet-thar club, an' stand still whar ye be, if ye don't want to be kilt!"
The effect on the exultant negro was almost pitiful. Where had been the assurance of final escape was now the certainty of capture. The shock of contrasting emotions was too much for the fellow's strength, coarse-fibered and hardened as he was. He stared at Zeke with protruding eyes, his face grown gray. His thrilling joy in the slaying of the dog was lost in the black despair of defeat. The club fell from the trembling fingers, and in the next moment the man himself sagged to the ground and crouched whimpering, whining, in a child-like abandon to fatigue and grief. Then, presently, while the captor watched in some perplexity, the moaning ceased. In its stead came a raucous rhythm—the sleep of utter exhaustion.
A sound of footsteps on the path caught Zeke's ear. He turned, and saw close at hand a short, stockily built, swarthy-complexioned man of middle age, who came swinging forward at a lope. The newcomer halted at sight of the mountaineer.
"Seen anything of a big nigger or a hound passing this way?" he demanded.
Zeke nodded, gravely.
"Ye'll find the two of 'em right thar." He raised the rifle, which the other man now observed for the first time, and with it pointed to where, beyond the cypress-tree, the negro huddled, breathing stertorously, beside the dead body of the dog.
Dun clouds of tragedy, crimson-streaked with sinister romance, shadow the chronicles of the forty-mile square that makes the Dismal Swamp. Thither, aforetime, even as to-day, men fled into the labyrinthine recesses to escape the justice—or the injustice—of their fellows. Runaway slaves sought asylum within its impenetrable and uncharted mazes of thicket and quaking earth, of fetid pool and slithering quicksands. Such fugitives came no more after the emancipation. Instead of slaves, there were black men who had outraged the law, who fled into the steaming, noxious waste in order to evade the penalty for crime. For a time, these evil-doers were hunted through the tortuous trails in the canebrakes with blood-hounds, even as their predecessors had been. But the kennels of the man-hunting dogs were ravaged by the black tongue, soon after the ending of the Civil War. Poisoners, too, took toll of the too intelligent brutes. The strain rapidly grew less—became extinct. Whereat, the criminals of Dismal Swamp rejoiced in unholy glee. Their numbers waxed. Soon, they came to be a serious menace to the peace and safety of the communities that bordered on the infested region.
One sufferer from these conditions so resented the depredations of marauders that he bought in England two splendid stag-hounds, keen of scent, intelligent, faithful to their task, strong enough to throttle their quarry, be it deer or man. By the aid of these creatures, many criminals were captured. Their owner, by the intrepidity of his pursuit, was given a nickname, "Cyclone" Brant. The speed and force and resistlessness of him justified the designation. Together with his dogs, Jack and Bruno, he won local fame for daring and successful exploits against the lurking swamp devils. It was this man who now, canvas-clad, with rifle in hand, looked in the direction indicated by Zeke. He was dripping wet, plastered with slime of the bogs. For a few seconds, he stood staring in silence. Then a little, gasping cry broke from his lips. He strode forward, and fell to his knees beside the body of the dog. He lifted the face of the hound gently in his two hands, and looked down at it for a long time.
There was a film of tears in Brant's eyes when, at last, he put the head of the dog softly back on the earth, and stood up, and turned toward the mountaineer. He made explanation with simple directness. The negro was a notorious outlaw, for whose capture the authorities of Elizabeth City offered a reward of five hundred dollars. Half of this sum would be duly paid to Zeke.
This news stirred the young man to the deeps. To his poverty-stricken experience, the amount was princely. The mere mention of it made privations to vanish away, luxuries to flourish. He had roseate visions of lavish expenditures: a warm coat for the old mother, furbelows for Plutina, "straighteners" even, if she would have them. The dreamer blushed at the intimacy of his thought. It did not occur to his frugal soul that now he need not continue on The Bonita, but might instead go easily to New York by train. He was naively happy in this influx of good fortune, and showed his emotion in the deepened color under the tan of his cheeks and in the dancing lights of the steady eyes.
"I'm shore plumb glad I kotched him," he said eagerly, "if thar's a right smart o' money in hit. If he's as right-down bad as ye says he is, I'm powerfully sorry I didn't wing 'im 'fore he got yer dawg."
Brant shook his head regretfully.
"It's my fault," he confessed. "I oughtn't to have taken the chance with Bruno alone. I should have had Jack along, too. With more than one dog, a man won't stand against 'em. He'll take to a tree." He shook off the depression that descended as he glanced down at the stiffening body of the beast. There was a forced cheerfulness in his tones when he continued: "But how did you get into the swamp? I take you to be from the mountains."
Zeke's manner suddenly indicated no small pride.
"I'm a sailor, suh," he explained, with great dignity. "I'm the cookin' chief on the fishin' steamer, Bonita."
Brant surveyed the mountaineer with quizzically appraising eyes.
"Been a sailor long?" he questioned, innocently.
"Wall, no, I hain't," Zeke conceded. His voice was reluctant. "I was only tuk on las' night. I hain't rightly begun sailorin' yit. Thet's how I c'd come arter thet gobbler." He pointed to the bird lying at the foot of the cypress. Abruptly, his thoughts veered again to the reward. "Oh, cracky! Jest think of all thet money earned in two minutes! Hit's what I come down out o' the mountains fer, an' hit 'pears like I done right. I'd shore be tickled to see all thet-thar money in dimes an' nickels, n' mebby a few quarters thrown in!"
"You're tied up near here?" Brant inquired.
"'Bout a mile over," was the answer. "Will ye take yer nigger thar first?"
"Yes, I know Captain Lee. He'll give me a chance at your gobbler, and then passage to Elizabeth City."
That same afternoon, The Bonita continued her voyage. The captain obligingly made a landing at Elizabeth City, where Brant lodged his prisoner, and where the gratified Zeke stowed in his wallet ten times as much money as he had ever before possessed at one time. Naturally, he was in a mood of much self-complacency, for, in addition to the money gain, his adventure had notably increased his prestige aboard ship, where Brant's praise for his prompt and efficient action was respectfully accepted. Yet, despite his contentment, the mountaineer found himself strangely troubled as he lay in his bunk, after the ship had got under way. It may be that his perturbation had a physical cause, at least in part, for there was more movement now as the vessel slid through the waves of Pamlico Sound. It was while he tossed restlessly, troubled over this unaccustomed inability to sleep, that there came a memory of the black bag:
"I plumb fergot the dum hoodoo!" Zeke muttered, in huge disgust. "An' the chief said I must git another the first chance." Then he grinned vaingloriously into the darkness of the fore-peak. "But I reckon hit hain't put no cuss on me yit—seein' as how I got a job an' a peck o' money right smack off." Presently, however, his nervous mood suggested a sinister possibility. "P'rhaps, it don't work on land—only jest on the sea, or mebby jest whar it happens to be at. Hit wa'n't 'long with me when I ketched the nigger. I 'low I ought to 'a' got rid o' the pesky thing like the chief said."
Zeke realized that sleep was not for him. If he had had any hope otherwise, it was ended when the fog-horn of The Bonita wound its melancholy blasts, and other trumpetings began to sound over the waste from near and far. Already, by dint of many inquiries, Zeke had acquired enough information to know that the mournful noise was the accompaniment of a fog. Curious to see, he rose, and felt his way to the small port-hole, through which he sought to peer out into the night. His vision compassed no more than a few fathom's distance; beyond, all was blackness. The port was open, and the cold mist stealing in chilled him. Zeke shivered, but an inexplicable disturbance of spirit kept him from the warmth of the blankets. He chose rather to slip on his trousers, and then again to gaze blindly out into the mysterious dark of this new world. He found himself hearkening intently for the varied calls of warning that went wailing hither and yon. The mellow, softly booming, yet penetrant notes of the conch-shells blown by the skippers of smaller craft, came almost soothingly to his ears. All the others, harsher, seemed tocsins of terror.
Standing there at the port, with the floating drops of mist drenching his face, Zeke fell into a waking dream. He was again clambering over the scarped cliffs of Stone Mountain; beside him Plutina. His arm was about her waist, and their hands were clasped, as they crept with cautious, feeling steps amid the perils of the path. For over the lofty, barren summit, the mist had shut down in impenetrable veils. Yet, through that murk of vapor, the two, though they moved so carefully, went in pulsing gladness, their hearts singing the old, old, new, new mating song. A mist not born of the sea nor of the mountain, but of the heart, was in the lad's eyes while he remembered and lived again those golden moments in the mountain gloom. It seemed to him for a blessed minute that Plutina was actually there beside him in the tiny, rocking space of the fore-peak; that the warmth of her hand-clasp thrilled into the beating of his pulses. Though the illusion vanished swiftly, the radiance of it remained, for he knew that then, and always, the spirit of the girl dwelt with him.
The mountaineer's interval of peace was rudely ended. A wild volley of blasts from The Bonita's whistle made alarum. Bells clanged frantically in the engine-room close at hand. A raucous fog-horn clamored out of the dark. To Zeke, still dazedly held to thought of the mountains, the next sound was like the crashing down of a giant tree, which falls with the tearing, splitting din of branches beating through underbrush. An evil tremor shook the boat. Of a sudden, The Bonita heeled over to starboard, almost on her beams' ends. Zeke saved himself from falling only by a quick clutch on the open port. From the deck above came a contusion of fierce voices, a strident uproar of shouts and curses. Then, The Bonita righted herself, tremulously, languidly, as one sore-stricken might sit up, very feebly. The sailors in the fore-peak, with a chorus of startled oaths, leaped from the bunks, and fled to the deck. Zeke followed.
Clinging to a stanchion, the mountaineer could distinguish vaguely, in the faint lights of the lanterns, the bows of a three-masted schooner, which had sheared through the port-side of The Bonita. The bowsprit hung far over the smaller ship, a wand of doom. The beating of the waves against the boat's side came gently under the rasping, crunching complaint of timber against timber in combat. The schooner's sails flapped softly in the light breeze. Zeke, watching and listening alertly, despite bewilderment, heard the roaring commands of a man invisible, somewhere above him, and guessed that this must be the captain of the schooner. He saw the crew of The Bonita clambering one after another at speed, up the anchor chain at the bow of the destroyer. He realized that flight was the only road to safety. But, even as he was tensed to dart forward, he remembered his treasure of money under the bunk pillow.
On the instant, he rushed to the fore-peak, seized the wallet and the black bag, and fled again to the deck. At the moment when he reappeared, a gust of quickening breeze filled the schooner's sails. The canvas bellied taut. The grinding, clashing clamor of the timbers swelled suddenly. The schooner wrenched herself free, and slipped, abruptly silent, away into the night and the mist. Ere Zeke reached the rail in his leap, the schooner had vanished. For a minute, he heard a medley of voices. Then, while he stood straining his eyes in despair, these sounds lessened—died. The mountaineer stood solitary and forsaken on the deck of a sinking ship.
Finally, Zeke spoke aloud in self-communion. The words rang a little tremulous, for he realized that he was at grips with death.
"Hit's what I gits fer fergittin'," was his regretful comment. "I reckon, if so be I'd ever got onto thet-thar schooner with this-hyar damn' bag, she'd 'a' sunk, too. Or, leastways, they'd have chucked me overboard like Jonah, fer causin' the hull cussed trouble with this pesky black bag o' mine."
Zeke perceived that the doomed vessel was settling by the head. He surmised that time was short. Nevertheless, he took leisure for one duty he deemed of prime importance. With all his strength in a vicious heave, he cast the black bag from him into the sea.
"I hain't superstitious," he remarked, sullenly; "thet is, not exzackly. An' I reckon I'm gittin' rid o' that conjure satchel a mite late. I guess hit's done hit's damnedest a'ready."
Inquiries during the leisurely voyaging through the canal had given Zeke knowledge concerning the life-belts. Now, he buckled one of them about his body hastily, for even his ignorance could not fail to interpret the steady settling of the vessel into the water. The strain of fighting forebears in the lad set him courageous in the face of death. But his blood was red and all a-tingle with the joy of life, and he was very loath to die. His heart yearned for the girl who loved him. His desire for her was a stabbing agony. The thought of his mother's destitution, deprived of him in her old age, was grievous. But his anguish was over the girl—anguish for himself; yet more for her. The drizzle of the fog on his cheeks brought again a poignant memory of the mist that had enwrapped them on the stark rocks of the mountain. A savage revolt welled in him against the monstrous decree of fate. He cried out roughly a challenge to the elements. Then, in the next instant, he checked the futile outburst, and bethought him how best to meet the catastrophe.
The instinct of flight from the rising waters led Zeke to mount the pilot-house. The lanterns shed a flickering light here, and the youth uttered a cry of joy as his eyes fell on the life-raft. The shout was lost in the hissing of steam as the sea rushed in on the boilers. All the lights were extinguished now, save the running lamps with their containers of oil. Quickly, the noise from the boiler-room died out, and again there was silence, save for the occasional bourdoning of the horns or the mocking caress of the waves that lapped the vessel's sides—like a colossal serpent licking the prey it would devour betimes. In the stillness, Zeke wrought swiftly. He wasted no time over the fastenings. The blade of his knife slashed through the hemp lashings, and the raft lay clear. He made sure that it was free from the possibility of entanglement. Then, as the boat lurched sickeningly, like a drunken man to a fall, Zeke stretched himself face downward lengthwise of the tiny structure, and clenched his hands on the tubes. There was a period of dragging seconds, while The Bonita swayed sluggishly, in a shuddering rhythm. Came the death spasm. The stern was tossed high; the bow plunged for the depths. Down and down—to the oyster rocks of Teach's Hole, in Pamlico Sound. As the vessel sank, the raft floated clear for a moment, then the suction drew it under, buffeted it—spewed it forth. It rode easily on the swirling waters, at last. As the commotion from the ship's sinking ceased, the raft moved smoothly on the surface, rocking gently with the pulse of the sea. Zeke, half-strangled, almost torn from his place by the grip of the water in the plunge, clung to his refuge with all the strength that was in him. And that strength prevailed. Soon, he could breathe fully once again, and the jaws of the sea gave over their gnawing. After the mortal peril through which he had won, Zeke found his case not so evil. The life was still in him, and he voiced a crude phrase of gratefulness to Him who is Lord of the deep waters, even as of the everlasting hills.
Near Teach's Hole, Ocracoke Inlet offers a shallow channel between the dunes from Pamlico Sound to the open sea. Here the varying tides rush angrily, lashed by the bulk of waves behind. To-night, the ebb bore with it a cockle-shell on which a lad clung, shivering. But the soul was still strong in him for all his plight. He dared believe that he would yet return safe to the mountains, to the love that awaited him there.
Once the castaway smiled wryly:
"I hain't superstitious none—leastways, I dunno's I be," he muttered, doubtfully. "But hit's plumb lucky I got rid o' thet-thar dum black bag jest as I did, or I'd 'a' been a goner, shore!"
The days dragged heavily for Plutina, after the departure of her lover. She endured the period of tense waiting as best she might, since endure she must, but this passive loneliness, without a word from the man of her heart, was well-nigh intolerable. She did not weep—after that single passionate outburst while yet her lips were warm from his kiss. She was not of the weak fiber to find assuagement in many tears, nor had she nerves that needed the chemical soothing of flooded eyes. She had, indeed, strength sufficient for the trial. She bore her sorrow bravely enough, but it pierced her through and through. She knew her lover, and she knew herself. Because of that knowledge she was spared the shameful suffering of a woman who fears, with deadly fear, lest her lover be untrue. Plutina had never a doubt as to the faith of the absent one. A natural jealousy sometimes leaped in her bosom, at thought of him exposed to the wiles of women whom she suspected of all wantonness. But she had no cowardly thought that the fairest and most cunning of them could oust her from the shrine of Zeke's heart. Her great grief lay in the failure of any word from the traveler. The days became weeks; almost a month had gone since he held her in his arms, and still no message came. This was, in truth, strange enough to justify alarm. It was with difficulty that she drove back a temptation to imagine evil happenings. She went oftener the six miles to the Cherry Lane post-office.
When she descended the trail toward Thunder Branch this morning, she saw Zeke's mother standing in the doorway of the cabin on the far side of the stream. The bent figure of the old woman rested motionless, with one hand lifted to shade her eyes from the vivid sunlight, as she watched the girl's approach.
"Mornin', Tiny," she said tenderly, as the girl crossed the clearing. "On yer way to the Lane, I reckon?"
"Mornin', Mis' Higgins," came the cheery answer. "Yes, I 'lowed as how ye'd love to hear, an' I c'd git away. The corn's laid by; the sorghum cane's done hoed. Alviry's gone to he'p Gran'pap with a bee-tree. Hit's a big yaller poplar, up 'twixt Ted Hutchins' claim an' the ole mine-hole. Gran'pap 'lows as how hit 'll have to be cut an' split, an' wuth hit—over a hundred pounds, all sour-wood honey, 'cept 'bout ten pounds early poplar. Gran'pap's right-smart tickled. I told Alviry to watch out he don't go an' tote half of it up to thet-thar Widder Brown. You-all must come over an' git what ye kin use o' the honey, Mis' Higgins, afore the widder gits her fingers in the jar."
"Ye don't opine thet-thar gran'pap o' your'n aims to git hitched ag'in at his age, do ye, Tiny? Hit'd be plumb scand'lous—an' him eighty past. At thet age, he's bound to have one foot in the grave, fer all he's so tarnation spry an' peart in his carryin's on."
"Lord knows what he'll do," the girl replied, carelessly. "He's allers been given credit fer havin' fotchin' ways with women. I hope he won't, though. They say, folks what marry upwards o' eighty is mighty short-lived."
The topic led Zeke's mother to broach apprehension of her own:
"Tiny, ye don't have no idee thet our Zeke's gone daffy on some o' them Evish-lookin' critters down below, like ye showed me their picters in the city paper oncet?"
"Naw, no danger o' thet," was the stout assurance. "Zeke's got too much sense. Besides, he hain't had no time to git rich yit. The paper done said as how them kind's arter the coin."
As she went her way, the girl's mind reveled in thoughts of the days to come, when Zeke should be rich in sooth, and his riches for her. She swung her sun-bonnet in vigorous slaps against her bare legs, to scatter the ravenous mosquitoes and yellow flies, swarming from the thickets, and she smiled contentedly.
"P'r'aps, them women's got more edication 'n me," she mused aloud, complacently, "but I kin fill them silk stockin's plumb up." Her face grew brooding with a wistful regret in the sudden droop of the tender red lips. "I 'low I jest orter 'a' swung onto thet-thar neck o' his'n an' hollered fer Parson, and got spliced 'fore he went." She shook her head disconsolately. "Why, if he don't come back, I'll be worse nor the widders. Humph, I knows 'em—cats. They'll say: 'Tiny Siddon didn't never have no chance to git married—her disperzition an' her looks wa'n't compellin' 'nough to ketch a man.'"
The great dark eyes were clouded a little with bitter disappointment, when, two hours later, the girl came swiftly down the steep slopes from Cherry Lane, for once again there had been no letter for her. Despite her courage, Plutina felt a chill of dismay before the mystery of this silence. Though faith was unshaken, bewilderment oppressed her spirit. She could not understand, and because she could not understand, her grief was heavy to bear. Then, presently, she chanced upon a new mystery for her distraction—though this was the easier to her solving.
As she descended into a hollow by Luffman's branch, which joins Thunder Branch a little way above the Higgins' clearing, Plutina's alert ears caught a sound that was not of the tumbling waters. Through all the noises of the stream where it leaped and sprayed in miniature falls over cluttering bowlders and fallen pines, she could distinguish the splashing of quick footsteps in the shallows. Some instinct of caution checked the girl's advance. Instead of going forward openly, she turned aside and approached the bank where crowding alders and ivy formed a screen. Here, she parted the vines stealthily, and peered up the water-course.
A man was descending the run with hurried strides, wading with bare feet, or springing from rock to rock where were the deeper pools. A Winchester nestled in the crook of his left arm; two huge bear-traps, the jaws wickedly fanged, were swung from a rope over his right shoulder; a short-helved ax was thrust within his belt. He wore only a cotton shirt open at the neck, dirty throughout, patched jeans trousers, and a soft hat, green from long use. Beneath the shading brim showed a loutish face, the coarse features swollen from dissipation, the small black eyes bleared, yet alert and penetrating in their darting, furtive glances. It was Dan Hodges, a man of unsavory repute. The girl, though unafraid, blessed the instinct that had guided her to avoid a meeting.
There were two prime factors in Plutina's detestation of Hodges. The first was due to his insolence, as she deemed it, in aspiring for her favor. With little training in conventional ideas of delicacy, the girl had, nevertheless, a native refinement not always characteristic of her more-cultured sister women. There was to her something unspeakably repugnant in the fact that this bestial person should dare to think of her intimately. It was as if she were polluted by his dreaming of her kisses, of her yielding to his caresses. That he had so aspired she knew, for he had told her of his desire with the coarse candor of his kind. Her spurning of the uncouth advances had excited his wrath; it had not destroyed his hopes. He had even ventured to renew his suit, after the news of an engagement between Plutina and Zeke had gone abroad. He had winced under the scourge of the girl' scorn, but he had shown neither penitence nor remorse. Plutina had forborne any account of this trouble to her lover, lest, by bad blood between the two men, a worse thing befall.
The second cause of the girl's feeling was less direct, though of longer standing, and had to do with the death of her father. That Siddon, while yet in his prime, had been slain in a raid on a still by the revenue officers, and that despite the fact that he was not concerned in the affair, save by the unfortunate chance of being present. Plutina, though only a child at the time, could still remember the horror of that event. There was a singular personal guiltiness, too, in her feeling, for, on the occasion of the raid, her grandfather had been looking out from a balcony, and had seen the revenue men urging their horses up the trail, the sunlight glinting on their carbines. He had seized the great horn, to blow a warning to those at the secret still on the mountain above. Plutina could remember yet the grotesque bewilderment on his face, as no sound issued—then the wrath and despair. The children, in all innocence, had stuffed the horn with rags. The prank had thus, in a way, cost two lives—one, that of "Young" Dick Siddon. The owner of the raided still had been Dan Hodges, and him Plutina despised and hated with a virulence not at all Christian, but very human. She had all the old-time mountaineer's antipathy for the extortion, as it was esteemed, of the Federal Government, and her father's death had naturally inflamed her against those responsible for it. Yet, her loathing of Hodges caused her to regret that the man himself had escaped capture thus far, though twice his still had been destroyed, once within the year.
A high, jutting wall of rock hid the stream where it bent sharply a little way from Plutina's shelter. Presently, she became aware that Hodges had paused thus beyond the range of her vision, and was busy there. She heard the blows of the ax. General distrust of the man stirred up in her a brisk curiosity concerning the nature of his action in this place. On a previous day, she had observed that the limpid waters of the brook had been sullied by the milky refuse from a still somewhere in the reaches above. Now, the presence of Dan Hodges was sufficient to prove the hidden still his. But the fact did not explain his business here. That it was something evil, she could not doubt, for the man and his gang were almost outlaws among their own people. They were known, though unpunished, thieves, as well as "moonshiners," and there were whispers of more dreadful things—of slain men vanished into the unsounded depths of the Devil's Cauldron. The gorge of the community—careless as it had been of some laws in the past, and too ready to administer justice according to its own code—had risen against the vicious living of the gang that accepted Hodges as chief. It seemed to Plutina that duty conspired with curiosity to set her spying on the man.
The espionage, though toilsome enough, was not otherwise difficult. Toward the bend, the banks rose sharply on both sides of the stream, forming a tiny canon for the channel. The steep slope on the east side, where the girl now ascended, was closely overgrown with laurel and little thickets of ground pine, through which she was hard beset to force her way—the more since she must move with what noiselessness she might. But her strength and skill compassed the affair with surprising quickness. Presently, she came to the brim of the little cliff, and lying outstretched, cautiously looked down. Already, a hideous idea had entered her mind, but she had rejected it with horror. What she now saw confirmed the thought she had not dared to harbor.
Within this bend of the brook, the lessening volume of the channel had left a patch of rich soil, heavily overgrown with lush grasses and clusters of flowering weeds. A faint trace of passing steps ran across the bit of dry ground, the path of those that followed the stream's course. Fair in this dim trail, near the center of the plot, a stake had been driven deep. At the moment, Hodges was driving into the ground a similar stake, a yard further down. It was evident that the stakes had been previously left here in readiness, since he had not carried them in his descent, and the iron rings bound to them must have been attached in a forge. The two massive traps were lying half-hidden in the luxuriant growth close by. As Plutina watched with affrighted intentness, the man finished driving the second stake. He lifted one of the traps, and carried it to the upper stake. With the aid of a stone for anvil, he succeeded in clumsily riveting the trap's length of chain to the ring on the stake. The like was done with the other trap at the lower stake. Then, the man undertook the setting of the traps. The task was accomplished very quickly for both, though the strength of the jaws taxed his muscles to their utmost. Finally, he strewed leaves, and bent grass, until no least gleam of metal betrayed the masked peril of the trail. Plutina, sick with the treacherous deviltry of the device, heard the grunt of satisfaction with which Hodges contemplated his finished work. Forthwith, he picked up his rifle, thrust the ax-helve within his belt, and set off up the gulch.
There could be no doubt. Those massive traps, with their cruel teeth of steel, meant by the makers for the holding of beasts, had been set here by Hodges for the snaring of men. The contrivance was fiendishly efficient. From her coign of vantage on the cliff top, Plutina could see, on a height above, the brush-covered distillery. A thin, blue column of smoke rose straight in the calm air, witness that the kettle was boiling over hickory logs, that a "run" of the liquor was being made. Plutina recalled that, in a recent raid against Hodges, the still had been captured and destroyed though the gang had escaped. Such loss was disastrous, for the new copper and worm and fermenters meant a cost of a hundred dollars, a sum hard to come on in the mountain coves. Usually, the outfit is packed on the men's backs to hiding in the laurel, afterward shifted to another obscure nook by running water. It was plain that Hodges had grown more than ever venomous over the destruction of his still, and had no scruples as to the means he would employ to prevent a repetition of such catastrophe. No need now to fear lest sentinels be not alert. The natural path to the still was along the course of the stream. The unwary passer over the tiny stretch of greensward on which the girl looked down, would follow the dim trail of footsteps, and so inevitably come within the clutch of the great jaws, which would hurl themselves together, rending and crunching the flesh between. The victim's shrieks of anguish under the assault would be a warning to the lawless men above. They would make ready and flee with their possessions, and be lost in the laurel once again. Yes, the device was simple, diabolically simple, and adequate. It required only that its executant should be without bowels of compassion.
Plutina, strong-nerved as she was, found herself shuddering as she realized the heinousness of this thing. The soft bloom of the roses in her cheeks faded to white; the dark radiance of the eyes was dimmed with horror; the exquisite lips were compressed harshly against their own quivering weakness. For Plutina, despite strength of body and sane poise of soul, was a gentle and tender woman, and the brutal project spread before her eyes was an offense to every sensibility. Then, very soon, the mood of passive distress yielded to another emotion: a lust for vengeance on the man who would insure his own safety thus, reckless of another's cost. A new idea came to the girl. At its first advent, she shrank from it, conscience-stricken, for it outraged the traditions of her people. But the idea returned, once and again. It seemed to her that the evil of the man justified her in any measure for his punishment. She had been bred to hate and despise a spy, but it was borne in on her now that duty required of her to turn informer against Dan Hodges. There was more even than the inflicting of punishment on the outlaw; there was the necessity of safeguarding the innocent from the menace of those hidden man-traps. Any "furriner" from down below might wander here, whipping the stream; or any one of the neighborhood might chance on the spot. The Widow Higgins' heifers sometimes strayed; the old woman might come hither, seeking them. Plutina shuddered again, before the terrible vision of the one who was like a mother to her, caught and mangled by the pointed fangs waiting amid the grasses below.
The question as to her right conduct in the affair remained with the girl, as she descended from the cliff, and made her way slowly homeward. She temporized by a precautionary measure. At the widow's cabin, she secured the old woman's promise not to go beyond the clearing in quest of the cattle. But the difficulty as to her course was not abated. Inclination urged her to advise the authorities concerning the locations of still and traps, and inclination was reinforced by justice. Yet, over against this, there were the powerful influence of her upbringing, the circumstances of her environment, the tragedy of her father's death, the savage resentment of her grandfather, already virulent against her lover—all forces to inspire enmity against the representatives of a law regarded as the violation of inalienable rights. True, there was growing an insidious change in the sentiment of the community. Where all had once been of accord, the better element were now becoming convinced that the illicit liquor-making cursed the mountains, rather than blessed. Undoubtedly, some effect of this had touched the girl herself, without her knowledge, else she had never thought to betray even such a miscreant as Hodges. There was, however, an abiding hate of the informer here, as always among decent folk, though along with it went reprobation of the traffic in moonshine. Plutina felt that she could never justify her action in the sight of her people, should she bring the revenue men into the mountain. Her own grandfather would curse her, and drive her forth. His feeling had been shown clearly in the case of Zeke. So, in her period of uncertainty and stress, there was none of whom the girl could take counsel. But, in the end, she decided that she must give warning to the United States marshal. The task demanded care. On absolute secrecy depended, in all likelihood, her very life.
The trove of honey had come opportunely, since the sale of a portion afforded Plutina plausible excuse for her trip to Joines' store. There, a telephone had been recently installed, and it was the girl's intention to use this means of communication with the marshal. That the danger of detection was great, she was unhappily aware, but, she could devise no plan that seemed less perilous. So, early in the morning of the day following her discovery, she made her way along the North Wilkesboro' road, carrying twenty pounds of the sour-wood honey. At the store, she did her trading, and afterward remained loitering, as is the custom of shoppers in the region. The interval of waiting seemed to her interminable, for trade was brisk. There was always someone near enough the telephone to overhear, for it was unprotected by a booth. But, finally, the customers lessened. The few remaining were in the front of the store, at a safe distance from the instrument which was on a shelf at the back. Plutina believed that her opportunity was come. She knew the amount of the toll, and had the necessary silver in her hand to slip into the box. Then, just as she was about to take down the receiver, her apprehensive glance, roving the room, fell on Ben York, who entered briskly, notwithstanding his seventy years, and came straight toward her. Plutina's lifted hand fell to her side, and dread was heavy on her. For Ben York was the distiller in Hodges' gang.
The old man had a reputation almost as notorious as that of Hodges himself. The girl felt a wave of disgust, mingled with alarm, as she caught sight of the face, almost hidden behind a hoary thicket of whiskers. The fellow was dirty, as always, and his ragged clothes only emphasized the emaciation of his dwarfed form. But the rheumy eyes had a searching quality that disturbed the girl greatly. She knew that the man was distinguished for his intelligence as well as for his general worthlessness. In the experience of years, he had always escaped the raiders, nor had they been able ever to secure any evidence against him. He was, in fact, as adroit of mind as he was tough of body. He had lived hard all his days, either in drunken carouse or lying out in the laurel to escape the summons of the courts. Where, alas! a holier man might have been broken long ago, the aged reprobate thrived, and threatened to infest the land for years to come. Now, he greeted the girl casually enough, made a purchase, and took his departure. He seemed quite unsuspicious, but Plutina felt that his coming on her thus was an evil omen, and, for a moment, she faltered in her purpose.
A hand went to her bosom, and touched the tiny leather bag that hung from a cord about her neck inside the gown. Within it was the fairy crystal. The touch of it strengthened her in some subtle fashion. It was as if to her weakness there came miraculously something vital, something occultly helpful in her need, from the distant lover. The superstition, begotten and nourished always in the fastnesses of the heights, stirred deeply within her, and comforted her. Of a sudden, courage flowed back into her. She took down the receiver.