IN OLD KENTUCKY
A Story of the Bluegrass and the Mountains Founded on Charles T. Dazey's Play
EDWARD MARSHALL and CHARLES T. DAZEY
Illustrations By CLARENCE ROWE
She saw the stranger break through the undergrowth about the pool. (Frontispiece)
A mighty leap had carried them beyond the blazing barrier.
"No man can cross this bridge, unless—unless—"
"Back! back! I'm a-comin' with Queen Bess!"
"I'm standin' face to face with my own father's murderer—Lem Lindsay."
She was coming, singing, down the side of Nebo Mountain—"Old Nebo"—mounted on an ox. Sun-kissed and rich her coloring; her flowing hair was like spun light; her arms, bare to the elbows and above, might have been the models to drive a sculptor to despair, as their muscles played like pulsing liquid beneath the tinted, velvet skin of wrists and forearms; her short skirt bared her shapely legs above the ankles half-way to the knees; her feet, never pinched by shoes and now quite bare, slender, graceful, patrician in their modelling, in strong contrast to the linsey-woolsey of her gown and rough surroundings, were as dainty as a dancing girl's in ancient Athens.
The ox, less stolid than is common with his kind, doubtless because of ease of life, swung down the rocky path at a good gait, now and then swaying his head from side to side to nip the tender shoots of freshly leaving laurel. She sang:
"Woodpecker pecked as a woodpecker will, Jim thought 'twas a knock on the door of the still, He grabbed up his gun, and he went for to see, The woodpecker laughed as he said: 'Jest me!'"
She laughed, now, not at the song, which was purely automatic, but in sheer joy of living on that wonderful June day in those marvellous Kentucky mountains. Their loneliness did not depress her; indeed, to her, they were not lonely, but peopled by a host of lifelong friends who had greeted her at birth, and would, she had every reason to suppose, speed her when her end came. Their majesty did not overwhelm her, although she felt it keenly, and respected it and loved it with a certain dear, familiar awe. And everywhere about her was the Spring. Laurel blossomed at the trail's sides, filling the whole air with fragrance; the tardier blueberry bushes crowding low about it had begun to show the light green of their bursting buds; young ferns were pushing through the coverlet of last autumn's leaves which had kept them snug against the winter's cold, and were beginning to uncurl their delicate and wondrous spirals; maple and beech were showing their new leaves. The air was full of bird-notes—the plaintively pleading or exultantly triumphant cries of the mating season's joy and passion. Filmy clouds, like scattered, snowy ostrich plumes, floated, far, far up above her on a sea of richest blue; a fainter blue of springtime haze dimmed the depths of the great valley which a wide pass gave her vision of off to the left—and she was rather glad of this, for the haze, while, certainly, it hid from her much beauty, also hid the ugly scars which man was making there on nature's face, the cuts and gashes with which the builders of the new railway were marring the rich pasture lands.
She turned from this to pleasanter and wilder prospects, close at hand, as her path narrowed, and began to sing again in sheer joyousness of spirit.
"Mr. Woodpecker laughed as a woodpecker will, As Jim stood lookin' out of the door of the still, 'Mr. Jim,' he remarked, 'I have come for to ax Ef you'd give me a worm for my revenue tax'!"
The placid ox, plodding slowly down the trail, did not swerve when the bushes parted suddenly at one side, as she finished this verse of her song, but Madge Brierly looked about with a quick alertness. The sound of the rustling leaves and crackling twigs might mean a friend's approach, they might mean the coming of one of the very enemies whom the song had hinted at so lightly, but against whom all the people of the mountains keep perpetual watch, they might even mean a panther, hungry after his short rations of the winter and recklessly determined on a meal at any cost.
But it was Joe Lorey's face which greeted her as she abruptly turned to see. His coon-skin cap, his jerkin and trousers of faded blue-jeans, his high, rusty boots matched perfectly with his primitive environments. As he appeared only the old-fashioned Winchester, which he carried cradled in his crooked elbow, spoke of the Nineteenth century. His face, though handsome in a crudely modelled way, had been weather-beaten into a rough, semi-fierceness by the storms through which he had watched the mountain-passes during the long winter for the raiders who were ever on his trail. The slightly reddened lids of his dark, restless eyes, told of long nights during which the rising fumes of moonshine whisky stealthily brewing in his furtive still, cave-hidden, had made them smart and sting. Even as, smilingly, he came up to the strangely mounted maid, there was on his face the strong trace of that hunted look which furtive consciousness of continual and unrelenting pursuit gives to the lawbreaker—even to the lawbreaker who believes the laws he breaks are wrong and to be violated without sin and righteously.
"That you, Joe?" said the girl. "You skeered me."
"Did I?" he replied, grinning broadly. "Didn't plan to."
From far below there came the crash of bursting powder. Quick and lithe as a panther the man whirled, ready with his rifle. The girl laughed.
"Nothin' but the railroad blastin' down there in the valley," she said with amusement. "Ain't you uset to that, yet?"
"No," said he, "I ain't—an' never will be."
His tone was definitely bitter. Never were the "sounds of progress more ungraciously received than there among the mountains by the folk who had, hedged in by their fastnesses, become almost a race apart, ignorant of the outside world's progressions and distrustful and suspicious of them.
"Where you goin', Madge?" he asked, plodding on beside the lurching ox.
"I ain't tellin'," she said briefly. "But you can go part ways—you can go fur as th' pasture bars."
"Why can't I go as fur as you go?"
"Because," said she, and laughed. "I reckon maybe that th' water's started to warm up down in the pool, ain't it?" she cried, and laughed again.
"Oh!" said he, a bit abashed, and evidently understanding.
They did not pursue the subject.
"What you got there?" he inquired, a few moments later, as they were approaching the old pasture. He pointed to a package carefully wrapped in a clean apron, which she hugged beneath her arm.
"Spellin' book," said Madge, as, just before the bars she slid down from her perch upon the ox. "I'm learnin'."
His lip curled with the mountaineer's contempt for books and all they have to teach.
"What you want to learn for?"
He had gently shouldered her aside as she had stooped to raise the bars back to position, and, with a certain crude gallantry, had done the task himself.
"Bleeged," she said briefly, and then, standing with one brown and rounded arm upon the topmost rail, paused in consideration of an answer to his question.
The ox stopped, dully, close within the closed gap in the rough fence. She went closer to him and patted his side kindly. "Go on, old Buck," she said. "I'm through with you for quite a while. Go on and have some fun or rest, whichever you like best. You certainly can stand a lot of rest! And here is new spring grass, Buck. I should think you would be crazy to git at it."
As if he understood, the old ox turned away, and, slowly, with careful searching for the newest and the tenderest of the forage blades which had pushed up to meet the pleasant sunshine, showed he was well fed at all times.
"What do I want to learn for?" the girl repeated, returning to Joe's question. "Why—why—I don't know, exactly. There's a longin' stirrin' in me.
"While you was over yon" (she waved her hand in a broad sweep to indicate the mountain's other side). "I had to go down into town after—after quite a lot of things." She looked at him somewhat furtively, as if she feared this statement might give rise to some unwelcome questioning, but it did not. "I saw what queer things they are doin'—th' men that work there on that railroad buildin'. Wonderful things, lots of 'em, and the bed-rock of 'em all was learnin'. I watched a gang of 'em for near plum half a day. There wasn't a thing they did that they didn't first read from a sheet of paper about. If they hadn't had them sheets and if they couldn't read what had been written on 'em, why, they couldn't never build no railroad. And not only that—they got all kinds of comfort out of it. They have their books that tell 'em what other men have done before 'em, they have their newspapers that tell 'em—everyday, Joe—what other men are doin', everywhere, fur as th' earth is spread.
"They know things, them men do, and they're heaps happier because of it." She paused, leaning on the old worn fence.
"An' their wimmen knows things," she went on. "I'm goin' to, too. It's th' greatest comfort that they've got. I'm goin' to have that comfort, Joe!"
She patted the new spelling book as if it were a precious thing.
"I'm goin' to have that comfort," she continued. "I'm goin' to know th' ins an' outs o' readin' an'" (she sighed and paused a second, as if this next seemed more appalling) "an' of writin'. Dellaw! That's hard! All sorts of curves an' twists an' ups an' downs an' things, an' ev'ry one means somethin'!"
Joe looked at her, half in admiration, half in apprehension. "You goin' to git too good fer these here mountings?" he inquired.
She gazed about her with a little intake of the breath, a little sign of ecstasy, of her appreciation of the wondrous view.
"Too good for these here mountings?" she said thoughtfully. "Learnin' couldn't make me that! It might show me how to love 'em more. Nothin' in th' world, Joe, could make me love 'em less!"
He became more definite, a bit insistent. It had been plain, for long, that it had required some self-control for him to walk as he had walked, close by her side, without some demonstration of his admiration for her, to stand there with her at the bars without some sign that in her presence he found happiness much greater than he had ever known, could ever know, elsewhere.
"You goin' to git too good fer—me?" he asked.
She turned toward him impulsively. Great friendship shone frankly in her fine eyes. On her face was that expression of complete and understanding comradery which one child chum may show another. Almost she said as much of him as she had said of the surrounding mountains, but there was that upon his face which stopped her. It was too plain that friendship was not what he wanted, would not satisfy him. There was a hungry yearning in his eyes, mute, respectful, worshipful, not for comradery, but for a closer tie. She had watched this grow in him within the recent months, with worry and regret. It seemed to her a tragedy that their old friendship should ever prove inadequate.
"No," she answered gently, "I shall never get too good for you, Joe—for any of my friends."
He looked, almost with aversion, at the book she held so closely. He distrusted books. Instinctively he felt them to be enemies.
"If you get them there ideas about learnin', an' all that, you will!" he gruffly said. "Leastways you'll be goin' off, some day an' leavin' us—me, the mountings an'—an' all yer friends up here."
An expression of great earnestness, of almost fierce intensity grew in his face. "Madge," he said, "Madge Brierly, you're makin' a mistake! You're plannin' things to take you off from here; you're plannin' things to make you suffer, later on. You're gettin' bluegrass notions, an' bluegrass notions never did no mounting-born no good." He stepped closer to her.
The latent fires in his approaching eyes were warning for her and she stepped back hastily. "Joe Lorey, you behave yourself!" said she. "I—"
"Can't ye see I love ye, Madge?" he asked, and then the fires died down, leaving in his eyes the pleading, worried look alone. "Why, Madge, I—"
She tried to make a joke of it. "Joe Lorey," she said, laughing, "I reckon you're plum crazy. An' you ain't givin' me a chance to do what 'twas that I come down for."
"I ain't goin' to listen to another word, to-day," said she, and waved him off.
He went obediently, but slowly and unhappily, his rifle snuggling in the crook of his left elbow, his heavy boots finding firm footing in the rough and rocky trail as if by instinct of their own, without assistance from his brain. A "revenuer," coming up, just then, to bother him about his still and its unlawful product of raw whisky, would have met small mercy at his hands. He would have been a bad man, then, to quarrel with. His temper would have flared at slightest provocation. He would not let it flare at her; but, unseeing any of the beauties which so vividly appealed to her, the bitter foretaste of defeat was in his heart; and in his soul was fierce revolt and disappointment. He had not the slightest thought, however, of accepting this defeat as final.
Madge watched him go with a look of keen distress upon her fresh and beautiful young face. She must not let him say what he had almost said, for she shrank from the thought of wounding him with the answer she felt in her heart that she would have to make. He had slouched off, half-way down the trail and out of sight, before she put the thoughts of the unpleasant situation from her mind and turned again to the great matter which had brought her there, that day.
With a last glance at the gap in the rail fence, to make sure that it had been carefully replaced, so that there could be no danger of finding her ox gone when she returned, she started down the mountain, by a path different from that which Joe had taken.
She had not gone very far, when, from a clump of bunch-grass just in front of her, only partly, yet, renewed by the new season, a hare hopped awkwardly, endeavoring to make off. Its progress was one-sided, difficult.
Instantly she saw that it was wounded and with a little cry she ran toward it and caught it. Instinctively the tiny animal seemed to recognize her as a friend and ceased to struggle. One of its fore legs had been broken, as she quickly saw.
With a little exclamation of compassion, she sat down upon a hummock, tore from her skirt a bit of cloth, found, on the ground, two twigs, made of these crude materials rude splints and bandages, bound the wounded creature, and sent it on its painful way again. She sighed as, after having watched it for a moment, she arose.
"Pears like us human bein's always was a-hurtin' somethin'," she soliloquized, distressed. "Thar some chap has left that rabbit in misery behind him, and here I've sent Joe Lorey down the mountain with a worse hurt than it's got." She sighed. "It certain air a funny world!" she said.
The subject of the wounded rabbit did not leave her mind until she had clambered down the rocky path half-way to the small stream which she sought below. She was ever ready with compassion for the suffering, especially for dumb and helpless suffering animals, and, besides, the episode had puzzled her. Who was there in those mountains who would wound a rabbit? Joe might have shot one, as might any other of the mountain dwellers who chanced to take a sudden fancy for a rabbit stew for supper, but Joe nor any of the other natives would have left it wounded and in suffering behind him. Too sure their markmanship, too careful their use of ammunition, for such a happening as that. Trained in the logic of the woods, the presence of the little suffering animal was a proof to her that strangers were about. The people of the mountains regard all strangers with suspicion. Half-a-dozen times she stopped to listen, half-a-dozen times she started on again without having heard an alien sound. Once, from the far distance, she did catch a faint metallic clinking, as of the striking of a hammer against rock, but it occurred once only, and she finally attributed it to the mysterious doings of the railroad people in the valley.
Down the path she sped, now, rapidly and eagerly. It was plain that something which she planned to do when she reached her destination filled her with anticipation of delight, for her red lips parted in a smile of expectation as charming as a little child's, her breath came in eager pantings not due wholly to the mere exertion of the rapid downward climb. When, beyond a sudden turn in the rude trail, she suddenly saw spread before her the smooth waters of a pool, formed by the creek in a hill-pocket, she cried aloud with pleasure.
"Ah," said she. "Ah! Now here we be!"
But it was not at this first pool she stopped. Leaving the path she skirted its soft edge, instead, and, after having passed down stream some twenty yards or more, pushed her skilled way between the little trees of a dense thicket and into a dim, shadowy woods chamber on beyond, where lay another pool, velvety, en-dusked, save for the flicker of the sunlight through dense foliage.
Here her delight was boundless. She ran forward with the eagerness of a thirsty bird, and, leaning on the bank, supported by bent arms, bent down and drank with keenest relish of the cool spring waters gathered in the "cove," then dabbled her brown slender fingers in the shining depths, watching, with a smile, concentric, widening ripples as they hurried out across the glassy surface, to the ferned bank beyond. A few yards away a hidden cascade murmured musically. Through the sparse and tender foliage of spring above her, the sunlight flickered in bright, moving patches of golden brilliance, falling on the breast of her rough, homespun gown, like decorations given by a fairy queen. Around the water's edges budding plants and deep-hued mosses made a border lovely everywhere, and for long spaces deep and soft as velvet pile. A thrush called softly from the forest depths behind her. From the other side his mate replied in a soft twittering that told of love and confidence and comfort. A squirrel scampered up the trunk of a young beech, near by, and sat in the first crotch to look down at her, chattering. A light breeze sighed among the branches, swaying them in languorous rhythm, rustling them in soft and ceaseless whisperings.
All these familiar, pleasant sights and sounds delighted her. During the long winter she had been shut away from this, her favorite spot among the many lovely bits of wilderness about her, and now its every detail filled her with a fresh and keen delight. She looked and listened greedily, as happy as a city child, seated, for the first time in a space of months, before a brightly lighted stage to watch a pantomime. A dozen times she ran with little, bird-like cries to bend above some opening wild-flower, a space she spent in watching two intently busy king-birds, already fashioning their nest. Another squirrel charmed her beyond measure by sitting, for a moment, on a limb to gaze at her in bright-eyed curiosity, and then, with a swift run down the trunk, quite near to her, as if entirely satisfied that he saw in her a certain friend, scuttling to the water's edge for drink. She had never seen a squirrel drink before—few people have—and she stood, as motionless as might a maid of marble, watching him, until, having had his fill, he gave his tail a saucy flirt and darted back to his beech fortress, to sit again upon his limb and chatter gossip at her.
After he had gone back to his tree she looked carefully about her. It now became apparent that she had come there to the pool for some especial purpose and that she wished to be quite sure of privacy before she put it into execution, for she went first to the path by which she had descended, there to listen long, intently, then, with a lithe spring where the brook narrowed at the pool's mouth, to the other side, where, at some distance in the forest, by another woods-path's edge, she stood again, intent and harkening.
Apparently quite satisfied that so far as human beings went her solitude was quite complete, she returned, now, to the pool's edge and stood gazing down upon its polished surface. Soon she dipped the toe of one brown, slender foot into it, evidently prepared to draw back hastily in case of too low temperature, but tempted, when she found the water warm, she gently thrust the whole foot in, and then, gathering her skirt daintily up to her knees, actually stepped into the water, wading with little shrill screams of delight.
For a moment she stood poised there, both hands busy with her skirt, which was pulled back tight against her knees. Then, after another hasty glance around, she sprang out upon the bank with a quick gesture of determination, and, close by the thicket's edge, disrobed entirely and came back to the water as lovely as the dream of any ancient sculptor, as alluring as the finest fancy of the greatest painter who has ever touched a brush.
Slim, graceful, sinuous, utterly unconscious of her loveliness, but palpitating with the sensuous joy of living, she might have been a wood nymph, issuing vivid, vital, from the fancy of a mediaeval poet. The sunlight flecked her beautiful young body with fluttering patches as of palpitant gold leaf. The crystal water splashed in answer to the play of her lithe limbs and fell about her as in showers of diamonds. Flowers and ferns upon the pool's edge, caught by the little waves of overflow, her sport sent shoreward, bowed to her as in a merry homage to her grace, her fitness for the spot and for the sport to which she now abandoned herself utterly, plunging gaily into the deepest waters of the basin. From side to side of its narrow depths she sped rapidly, the blue-white of the spring water showing her lithe limbs in perfect grace of motion made mystically indefinite and shimmering by refraction through the little rippling waves her progress raised. She raced and strained, from the pure love of effort, as if a stake of magnitude depended on her speed.
Then, suddenly, this fever for fast movement left her and she slowed to languorous movement, no less lovely.
The trout, which had been frightened into hiding by the splashing of her early progress, came timidly, again, from their dim lurking places, to eye this new companion of the bath with less distrust, more curiosity. With sinuous stroke, so slow it scarcely made a ripple, so strong it sent her steadily and firmly on her zig-zag way, she swam, now, back and forth, around about, from side to side and end to end in the deep pool, with keen enjoyment, each movement a new loveliness, each second bringing to her fascinating face some new expression of delight and satisfaction. Behind her streamed her flowing hair, unbound and free to ripple, fan-like, on the water; before her dainty chin a little wave progressed, unbreaking, running back on either hand beside her, V-shaped. Her hands rose in the water, caught it in cupped palms and pushed it down and backward with the splashless pulsing thrust of the truly expert swimmer.
Only the warm blood of perfect health could have endured the temperature of that shaded mountain pool so long, and soon even she felt its chill gripping her young muscles, and, as unconscious of her wholly revealed loveliness as any nymph of old mythology, scrambled from the water to the bank and stood there where a shaft of comfortable sunshine found its welcome way through rifted foliage above. To this she turned first one bare shoulder, then the other, with as evident a sensuous delight as she had shown when the cool water first closed over her. Then, throwing back her head, she stood full in the brilliance, and, inhaling deeply, let the sunlight fall upon the loveliness of her young chest. The delight of this was far too great for voiceless pleasure, and her deep, rich laughter rippled out as liquid and as musical as the tones of the tiny waterfall above the pool. She raised a knee and then the other to let the vitalizing sunlight fall upon them; then, with head drooped forward on her breast, stood with her sturdy but delicious shoulders in its shining path. Her happiness was perfect and she smiled continually, even when she was not giving vent to audible expressions of enjoyment.
Suddenly, however, this idyllic scene was interrupted. In the woods she heard the crashing of an awkward footstep and a muttered word or two in a strange voice, as might come from a lowlander whose face has suffered from the sting of a back-snapping branch.
For an instant she poised, frightened, on the bank. The intruder's crashing progress was bringing him, as her ears plainly told her, steadily in her direction. Panic-stricken, for a moment, she crouched, hugging her bare limbs in an ecstasy of fear. To get her clothes and put them on before he reached the pool would be impossible, a hasty glance about her showed no cover thick enough to flee to.
One concealment only offered perfect hiding—the very pool from which she had so recently emerged. She poised to slip again into the water noiselessly and then caught sight of her disordered clothing on the bank. To leave it there would as certainly reveal her presence as to remain on the bank herself! Hastily she gathered it and the new spelling book into her arms, and, with not ten seconds of spare time to find the cover which she so desperately needed, endeavored to slip quietly into the pool again.
Her certainty of movement failed her, this time, though, and one foot slipped. Into the pool she went, half-falling, and with a splash which, she was certain, would be audible a hundred yards away. Terrified anew by this, she dived quickly to the bottom of the pool and with all a trout's agility and fearlessness, her clothing and beloved book clasped tight against her bosom by her crooked left arm, her right arm sending her with rapid strokes, when she was quite submerged, the full length of the pool to its far end. There a fallen tree, relic of some woodland tempest of years gone by, extended quite from bank to bank, moss-covered, half hidden by small rushes and a little group of other water-plants. She dived beneath this log with the last atom of endurance she possessed and rose, perforce, upon the other side, stifling her gasps, but drawing in the air in long, luxurious breathings. With her mouth not more than half-an-inch above the water and her feet upon hard bottom, she crouched there, watching through the screen of plants, her clothes and book still pressed against her breast.
As she peered across the log between the rushes, she saw the stranger, with a wary step, break through the undergrowth about the pool—cautiously, expectantly. The water heaved a bit about her chin, for her hidden chest was palpitating with the short, sharp intakes of a chuckling laughter.
"Thought I were a b'ar, most likely!" she thought merrily, quite certain of the safety of her hiding place. "Some furriner." All strangers, in the mountains, are spoken of as "foreigners" and regarded with a hundred times the wonder and distrust shown in cities to the native of far lands, remote.
Her guess was shrewd. The stranger had plainly been attracted by the sounds of her delighted splashing and had hurried up with rifle ready for a shot at some big game. Now he stood upon the granite edges of the pool, disappointed even in his instinctive search for footprints, with only the slowly widening circles left upon the surface by her hurried flight to show him that he had not wholly been mistaken in his thought that something most unusual had recently occurred there in the "cove." Eagerly his disappointed glance roved around the circling thicket—nowhere did it see a sign. When it neared the place of her concealment the hidden girl ducked, softly, making no undue commotion in the swiftly running water at the pool's outlet, and the searching glance passed on, quite unsuspecting, before her breath failed and her head emerged again.
"Confound it!" the deeply disappointed youth exclaimed. "I was dead certain I heard something. I did hear something, too." He sighed. "But it is gone, now."
At length he turned away in a bad temper, and presently she heard him crashing awkwardly through brush and brake, departing.
Shivering from her long submersion in the gelid waters of the mountain stream, she cautiously emerged, struggling between light-hearted laughter at the comedy of her escape and rueful worry about the fact that she was not only deeply chilled but had no clothes which were not wet. Her soaked spelling-book, also, gave her much concern. Before she spread her clothing out in the sparse sunlight, she took the dripping volume to the warmest little patch of brilliance on any of the rocks surrounding, and, as she opened its leaves to catch the sunshine, examined it with loving solicitude to find how badly it was damaged.
"Fast color," she said happily, looking at the mighty letters of its coarse black print. "Ain't faded none, nor run, a mite." This plainly give her great relief. Deftly she turned each leaf, using the extremest care to avoid tearing them, handling them with loving touch. Between them she laid little pine cones, so that air might circulate among them and assist the process of their drying. Then, having wrung her clothing till her strong, brown, slender wrists ached, she spread that out in turn, but on less favored rocks, and, as her feeling of security increased, fell into an unconscious dance, born of the necessity of warmth from exercise, but so full of grace, abandon, joy, that a poet might have fancied her a river-nymph, tripping to the reed-born music of the goat-hoofed Pan.
When, later, she had slowly dressed, and was kneeling at the pool's edge, using the now placid surface of the water as a mirror to assist her in rough-fashioning her hair into a graceful knot, she heard again, from a great distance, a metallic "tink, tink-tink," which had caught her ear when she had first stood on the pool's edge. It came, she knew, from far, however, and so did not rouse her apprehension, but, mildly, it aroused her curiosity.
"Hull kentry's 'full o' furriners," she mused. "That railroad buildin' business in the valley brings 'em. Woods ain't private no more." Again the tink, tink-tink. "Sounds like hammerin' on rocks," she thought. "It's nearer than th' railroad builders, too. I wonder what—but then, them furriners are wonderful for findin' out concernin' ev'rythin'."
She hugged her pulpy spelling book against her breast with a little shiver of determination. "I'm goin' to l'arn, too," she said with firm decision as she scrambled up the rough and rocky mountain path.
For a time, as she progressed, her thoughts remained afield, wandering in wonder of what that "furriner" might be up to with the tink-tink of his hammer upon rocks. This soon passed, however, and they dwelt again on the pool episode.
She had never seen a man dressed as the stranger had been. A carefully made shooting-jacket had covered broad and well-poised shoulders which were free of that unlovely stoop which comes so early to the mountaineer's. A peaked cap of similar material had shaded slightly a broad brow with skin as white as hers and whiter. Beneath it, eyes, which, although they were engaged in anxious search when she had seen them, she knew could, upon occasion, twinkle merrily, had gazed, clear, calm, and brown. A carefully trimmed mustache had hidden the man's upper lip, but his chin, again a contrast to the mountaineers' whom she had spent her life among, showed blue from constant and close shaving. Yet, different as he was from her people of the mountains, as she recalled that face she could not hate him or distrust him.
She had never in her life seen any one in knickerbockers and leggins before, and the memory of his amused her somewhat, yet she admitted to herself that they had seemed quite "peart" as she peered at them through the reeds.
But it was the modern up-to-date Winchester which he had held, all poised to fly up to the ready shoulder should he find the splashing animal which had attracted his attention by its noise, which, next to his handsome, clean-cut face, had most aroused her admiration.
"Lordy! Joe'd give his eyes to hev a gun like that," she said.
And then she made a pun, unconscious of what the outer world calls such things, but quite conscious of its humor. "Thought I was a b'ar," she chuckled. "Well, I certainly was b'ar!"
Feeling no further fear of any one, defiant, now that she was fully clothed, of "furriners," rather hoping, as a matter of fact that she might sometime meet this one again, she let her laugh ring out unrestrained. A cat-bird answered it with a harsh cry; a blue-jay answered him with a still harsher note. But then a brown thrush burst into unaccustomed post-meridian song. Even his throbbing trills and thrilling, liquid quaverings, had not more melody in them, however, than had her ringing laughter.
Her laugh, too, roused more than vagrant birds into attention. She had emerged from the abrupt little valley and was entering upon a plateau which had been left comparatively open by the removal of great trees, sacrificed to furnish ties for the new railroad building in the lowlands. The place was littered with the discarded tops of pines and other woodland rubbish and seemed forlorn and wrecked. She swept her eyes about with the glance of a proprietor, for Madge Brierly owned all of this as well as most of the land through which the brook which deepened into the pool of her adventure flowed. Indeed the girl was counted rich among her fellows and owned, also, land down in the valley on which she would not live, but which she rented for an annual sum to her significant, although it would not have kept a lowland belle in caramels.
In the center of the disordered clearing just before her, was the person who, like the birds, had been roused to keen attention by the maiden's ringing laugh. She saw him first while he was peering here and there, astonished, to learn whence the sound had come, and, with the instinctive caution of the mountain-bred, she quickly stepped behind a clump of laurel, through which she peered at him.
He was a man of sixty years, or thereabouts, wiry, tough and well preserved. His hair, of grizzled grey, was longer than most men wore theirs, even among the mountains, where there are few conventionalities in male attire. He was dressed in the ordinary garb of the Kentucky planter of the better class—broad soft hat, flowing necktie, long frock-coat, which formed a striking contrast to the coarse high-boots into the tops of which his trousers had been tucked—and yet he hardly seemed to her to belong to the class of gentlemen to which his dress apparently assigned him. His face was coarse and hard, his eyes, as he peered about in search of her, were "shifty," she assured herself. His hands were large and crudely fashioned.
"'Pears like 'most ev'ry one is roamin' 'round my land to-day," she thought. "I wonder what this one is up to, thar?"
For fully fifteen minutes her curiosity remained unsatisfied, for, startled by the ringing laugh, the stranger spent at least a quarter of an hour in furtive peering, here and there, about the clearing, plainly searching for the laughter. At no time, however, did he approach her hiding place near enough to see her, and, finally, apparently satisfied that his ears had fooled him, or that whoever it had been who had disturbed him with the merry peal had gone away, he went back to his work.
Just what this work could be was what she waited curiously to see. She felt not the least resentment of the trespass it involved, for the land was wild, and on it, as elsewhere in the mountains, any one was free to come and go who did not commit the foolishness of neglecting camp fires, likely to start forests into blaze, or the supreme treachery of giving information to the revenue officials about hidden stills. Her eager curiosity was aroused, more by the mysterious nature of the stranger's operations than by the fact that they were conducted on her land.
Having satisfied himself that no one, now, was near, and, therefore, that he was not watched, the unpleasantly mysterious old man went back to the work which evidently had brought him hither. With utmost care he moved about the place, scrutinizing outcropping rocks, and this, as they were everywhere, meant a minute examination of the land. In his hand he carried a small hammer, and, with this, now and then, after a careful visual examination of a rock, he knicked it, here and there, investigating carefully and even eagerly the scars he made, the bits of rock which were clipped off, now and then even looking at the latter through a magnifying glass, which he took for the purpose from a pocket of his vest.
She had watched these operations, fascinated, for, possibly, a full half hour, despite the discomfort of damp clothing, which had begun to chill her, when she saw signs of violent excitement on the old man's face and in his actions, after he had chipped a rock, from which he first had had to scrape a thin superstratum of light soil.
Like a miner who has found the gold for which, for years, he has been searching, he arose, with the tiny fragments in his hand, to look at them with greedy eyes, in a more comfortable, upright posture. His face had very plainly paled and in his eyes was an expression of such avaricious eagerness and satisfaction as she had never seen before upon a human countenance.
Before he made a sound she knew that he had found that thing for which he had been seeking. His grizzled countenance, intent as any alchemist's of old upon his search, and, as its absorption grew, continually less a pleasant face to contemplate, now twisted, suddenly, into an expression of incredulous joy. He took the fragment he had been examining in both his hands and held it close before his eyes. Then he made a minute search of it with his little magnifying glass. Then he fell upon his knees, and, with his clawlike fingers, scraped more earth from the rock whence he had chipped it.
Satisfied by what he saw there, after he had done this, he rose with a new expression on his face—so crafty, so exultant, and, withal, so evil, that Madge involuntarily shrank back to better screening in her leafy hiding place.
The old man, with sweeping movements of his heavily booted feet, swept the thin earth he had scraped from the rock's surface back into its place, thrust the fragments deep into his pocket, and started hurriedly away, plainly greatly pleased, along the trail which led into the valley. She watched him with a beating heart, much puzzled.
What could it be that he had found, there, on her land? Visions of gold mines and of diamonds, rose within her mind, crude, unformed, childish, based on the imperfect knowledge she had gained of such things from the story-tellers of the mountains. As mountain people go she was, already, a rich woman, but now dreams of mightier wealth swept through her brain tumultuously. Ah, she would buy happiness for all her friends when she had, later on, unearthed the secret treasures of her backwoods clearing! Maybe she would, sometime, have a real silk dress!
She hurried forward in a stooping run to make examination of the place, as soon as the old man had vanished down the mountain side, to see (she thoroughly expected it) the glitter of bright gems or yellow gold beneath the sand which he had with such care spread back upon the little scar which he had made there in the earth. With trembling fingers she pushed back the yellow earth, and found—nothing but black rock, uncouth, and unattractive.
She sat there on the ground in her damp skirts, too disappointed, for a moment, to make an exclamation. In many ways the girl, although well past her sixteenth year, was but a child. The reaction from the mighty dreams of fortune she had built almost unnerved her.
It was her native humor which now saved her. Instead of weeping she burst into sudden laughter.
"Dellaw!" said she, aloud. "Ain't I a fool? The man was just a crazy!"
For some time she sat there in the rocky clearing amidst the litter of pine-tops and small undergrowth, contemplating her own silliness with keen amusement.
"Why, he had me that stirred up," said she, "that I reckoned I was rich a'ready!"
But she put the joke aside, to be told upon herself when the first chance came. Her long hiding in the thicket while she watched the queer proceedings of the stranger had chilled her through and through.
Close to the black rock which had so excited him and which she had uncovered after he had gone, a little forked stick stood upright, and in its fork, with one end slanted to the ground, a twig of green witch-hazel still reposed. Beneath the twig a tiny spiral of arizing smoke showed that here, with these primitive appliances, the treasure seeker had prepared his dinner, later carefully covering his fire.
"No matter how queer he was dressed, or what queer things he did," she told herself, "he sure was mountain-born. This here's a mountain fireplace, sartin sure."
She broke dead branches from a pine-top, not far away, but still far enough so that, with reasonable watching, it would not be endangered by a fire built on this spot (the old man plainly had considered this when he made the fire, for the place was almost the only one in all the clearing free enough from dry pine branches to make fire building safe) and laid them on the coals which he had buried, but which she now had carefully uncovered. She would, she had decided, dry her clothes before she started on the long, cool, woods-road climb up to her cabin.
Kneeling by the coals and blowing on them, skillfully adjusting splinters so that they would catch the draft, she soon had started a small flame. Fed carefully, this grew rapidly. Within five minutes there was burning on the site of the old man's little cooking-fire a cheerful blaze of size. Its rushing warmth was very grateful to her, and she held her hands out to it, then her feet, one after the other, with skirts lifted daintily, so that her chilled limbs might catch the warmth.
Invigorated by the pleasant heat, she once more yielded to the urgings of the bounding spirit of rich youth within her. Even as she had sported in the water ere the interloper came to interrupt her sylvan bath, now she sported there about the fire in an impromptu dance, never for a second uncouth, despite the fact that she was quite untrained; scarcely less graceful than her merrymaking in the water, although then she had not been, as now, hampered in her grace of movement by the unlovely draperies of homespun linsey-woolsey. As she had been a water-nymph, so, now, she might have been some Druid maid dancing by an altar fire. The roughness of the ground did not annoy her—her feet had not known dancing upon polished waxen wood; the lack of spectators did not deter her—those whom she had learned to know and love, the mountains, trees, the squirrels, and birds, were there.
In the very midst of the abandon of this rustic symphony of movement, the thought came to her that the precious spelling-book was lying on the rock, near by, quite soaked, neglected. She sped to it and took it to the fire's edge, where, opening its pages one by one, so that each would get the warmth, she held it as close as she opined was safe. Having dried it until she no longer feared the wetting it had had would seriously harm its usefulness (the lovely smoothness of its magic leaves was gone, alas! beyond recall) she paused there for a moment, herself still far from dry, with a bare foot held out to the blaze, and studied curiously one of the book's pages.
Thereon the letters of the alphabet, large, ominous, suggestive to her mind of nothing in the world but curlycues, loomed, mystifying. For the first time it occurred to her that in securing the small volume she had not, as she had thought to do, solved the problem of an education. The characters, she saw to her dismay, meant nothing to her. In the absence of a teacher she could not learn from them!
Alas, alas! The matter was a tragedy to her. How could she have been so stupid as to fail to think of this at first? She stood there with flushed face, despairing, looking at the mystic symbols with slowly sinking heart.
Suddenly, though the crackling of the fire filled her ears, she was aware, by some subtle sense, that she was now not wholly solitary there. Without a sound to tell her, she was conscious that some other person had within the moment come into the clearing. Hastily she looked about. To her amazement, and, for a moment, to her great dismay, she saw, standing on the clearing's edge, the young man who had, not long before, unknowingly invaded her seclusion at the pool.
Instantly her body became fiercely conscious. Prickling thrills, not due to bonfire heat, shot over it. Shame sent the blood in mantling blushes to her cheeks, although she tried to stop it. Why should she blush at sight of him? True, she had been there in the water, bare as any new-born babe, when he had reached the pool's edge—but he had not seen her. To him she, quite undoubtedly, was a mere strange mountain maid, unrecognized. Self-consciousness then was quite absurd.
And this man was a stranger and was on her land. She must not forget her mountain courtesy and fail to make him welcome.
"Howdy," she said briefly.
"Howdy, little girl?" said he, and looked at her and smiled.
This form of address much amused her. She was not far beyond sixteen, but sixteen is counted womanhood, there in the mountains, and often is an age for wife—and motherhood as well. "Little girl," to her, seemed laughable. But then she suddenly remembered that to stop their flapping, when they were all soaked, against her ankles, she had pinned her skirts up—and she was not tall. The mistake, perhaps, was natural.
"Got a fire here?" he inquired, inanely, for the fire was very much in evidence.
"Looks like it, don't it?" she said somewhat saucily, but robbed the comment of offense by smiling somewhat shyly at him as he stood there.
He was better looking, she reflected, now that she had an unobstructed view of him, even than he had appeared when she had peered at him from her concealment behind the log and barricade of rushes. Of course he was a "foreigner," and, therefore, a mere weakling, not to be considered seriously as a specimen of sturdy manhood (how often had she heard the mountain men speak of the lowlands men with scorn as weaklings?) but, none the less, he interested and attracted her, even if he did not inspire her with respect.
He laughed. "It does," said he, "looks very much like it. Been burning brush?"
"No," she replied, "jest warmin' up a little."
"Why, it's not cold."
"I—I was wet."
"Wet?" said he, astonished.
She saw her slip, and flushed. "Fell in the crik," she answered briefly, hastily and falsely.
"Why, that's too bad," said he, with ready sympathy, unfeigned and real.
All the time the girl was eying him through often-lowered lashes, and the more she looked at him the more she felt that he was not, like many "foreigners," to be distrusted and be held aloof. His clothes did not suggest to her the "revenuer," although they certainly were different from any she had ever seen before on man or beast (his knee breeches gave her some amusement), and he was totally unarmed, having laid his rifle down and left it at a distance, leaning against a stump.
His hands and face were not sunburned—indeed, his hands were delicately fashioned and much whiter than any she had ever seen before on man or woman. His appearance certainly did not, to her, convey the thought of strength—and manhood, there among the mountains, is thought to find its first and last expression through its muscle; yet, for some reason, although her first glance made her think he was a puny creature, she neither scorned nor pitied him. He was, perhaps, too smoothly dressed, too carefully shaved; the gun he had laid down so carelessly had too much "bright work" on it—but on the whole, she liked him. A city maiden might have well been dazzled by the really handsome chap. This simple country girl was not—but, on the whole, she liked him.
Her hand which held the spelling-book dropped, unconsciously, so that the open pages of the volume were revealed, upside down, against her knee.
"Studying your lessons?" he inquired, quite casually, good-naturedly, coming nearer.
Again her disappointment rushed upon her. Impulsively she told him of it.
"Oh," said she, "I don't know how! I bought me this yere book down in th' settlement, an' thought I'd learn things outen it. But how'm I goin' to learn? I can't make nothin' out of it to get a start with."
Instantly the pathos of this situation, not its humor, made appeal to him.
"Isn't there a school here?" he inquired.
"Nearest school is twenty mile acrost, over on Turkey Creek," she said briefly. "Oncet there was a nearer one, but teacher was a Hatfield, and McCoys got him, of course. This was McCoy kentry 'fore they all got so killed off. He ought to 'a' knowed better than come over here to teach."
This casual reference to a famous feud—news of whose infamy had spread far, far beyond the mountains which had hatched it—from the lips of one so young and lovely (for he had long ago admitted to himself that as she stood there she was lovelier than any being he had ever seen before) appalled Frank Layson, son of level regions, graduate of Harvard, casual sportsman, amateur mountaineer, who had come to look over his patrimony and the country round about.
"Ah—yes," said he, and frowned. And then: "It leaves you in hard luck, though, doesn't it, if you want to learn and can't," said he.
"It sartin does, for—oh, I do hanker powerful to learn!"
"May I stay here by the fire with you a while and get warm, too," he asked. (The unaccustomed exercise of tramping through the mountains had kept him in a fever heat all day.)
"An' welcome," she said cordially, moving aside a bit, so that he could approach without the circumnavigation of a mighty stump.
He could not tell whether or not she had made note of many sweat-beads on his brow and wondered at them on a chilly man.
"Perhaps," said he, "I might, in a few minutes, show you a little about what you want to know. I've been lucky. I have had a chance to learn."
She liked the way he said it. There was no hint of superiority about it. He was not "stuck up," in his claim of knowledge. He "had had a chance," and took no credit to himself for it. This pleased her, won her confidence—if, already, that had not been done by his frank face, in spite of his fancy clothes and her assumption that he was a namby-pamby weakling.
"Oh—if you would!" she said, so eagerly that it seemed to him most pitiful.
So, five minutes later, when all her clothing save her heavy outer skirt, had been quite dried there by the fire, and that same fire's abounding warmth had sent his temperature up to high discomfort mark, they sat down, side by side, upon a log, the spelling-book between them, and he began the pleasant task of teaching her her A, B, Cs.
"'A,'" said he, "is this one at the very start."
"The peaked one," said she.
"Yes, that one.
"And 'B,'" he went on, much amused, but with a perfectly grave face, "is this one with two loops fastened, so, to a straight stalk."
"I know where thar is a bee-tree," she remarked, irrelevantly.
"It will help recall this in your mind," said he, maintaining perfect gravity, "imagine it with two big loops of rope fastened to one side of it—"
"Rope wouldn't stick out that-a-way," said she, "it would just droop. They'd have to be of somethin' stiffen"
"Well—" said he, and tried to think of something.
"You could use that railroad-iron that I saw 'em heat red-hot an' bend, down in the valley," she suggested.
"That's it," said he. "Two loops of railroad-iron fastened to a bee-tree" (he pointed) "just as these loops, here, are fastened to the straight black stem. That's 'B.'"
"I won't forget," said she, her beautiful young brow puckered earnestly as she stored the knowledge in her brain.
"And this is 'C,'" said he.
"'C,' 'C'" said she. "Jest take off one of th' loops an' use it by itself."
"That's so," said he. "And here is 'D'"
"Cut off th' top th' tree," said she. "Just cut it plumb off, loop an' all."
He laughed. It was clear that she would be an earnest and quick-thinking pupil to whomever had the task of giving her her education.
As he looked at her, now, he for the first time fully realized her beauty. He had known, from the first, that she was most attractive, most unusual for a mountain maid; but now, laughing, although her head was still bent to the book, her big eyes, sparkling with her merriment, raised frankly to his face, were revelations to him. He had not seen such eyes before, and all the old-time similes for deep-brown orbs sprang instantly to mind. "Fathomless pools," "translucent amber"—no simile would really describe them. Late hours had never dimmed them, illness had never made them heavy, he was sure a lie had never made them shift from their straight gaze for one short second. He had not seen such eyes in cities!
And from careful contemplation of the eyes, he kept on with a careful contemplation of the other beauties of his fair and unexpected pupil. Her homespun gown, always ill-shaped and now unusually protuberant in spots, unusually tight in others, because of its late wetting and impromptu, partial drying, could not hide the sylvan grave of her small-boned and lissome figure, just budding into womanhood. Her feet, crossed on the ground, were as patrician in their nakedness as any bluegrass belle's in satin slippers. Her ankles, scratched by casual thorns and already beginning to blush brown from the June sun's ardent kisses, were as delicate as any he had ever seen enmeshed in silken hose. Her hands, long, slender, taper-fingered, actually dainty, although brown and roughened by hard labor, were, it seemed to him, better fitted for the fingering of a piano's keys than for the coarse and heavy tasks to which he knew they must be well accustomed. He gazed at her in veritable wonder. How had she blossomed, thus, here in this wilderness?
"Where do you live?" he asked, interrupting their scholastic efforts.
"Up thar," she pointed, and, above, he could just see the top of a mud-and-stick chimney rise above a crag between the trees.
"Have you brothers or sisters?"
"Ain't got nobody," she answered, and to her face there came a look of keen resentment rather than of sorrow or of resignation. "I'm all th' feud left," she said simply. She looked at Layson quickly, wondering if he would be surprised that she should not have fought and also died. "Girl cain't fight alone, much," she went on, in hurried explanation, or, rather, quick excuse. "I might take a shot if I should git a chanst, but I ain't had none, an', besides, I guess it air plum wrong to kill, even if there's blood scores to be settled up. I toted 'round a rifle with me till last fall, but then I give it up. They won't git me—but maybe you don't know what feuds are in the mountings, here."
He was looking at her with new interest. All his life he had heard much about the dreadful mountain feuds. As the bogey-man is used in Eastern nurseries, so are the mountaineers used in the nurseries of old Kentucky and of Tennessee to frighten children with. Their family fights, not less persistent or less deadly than the enmities between the warring barons of the Rhine in middle ages, form a magnificent foundation for dire tales.
"Yes," said he, "I know about the feuds, of course. But you—"
It did not seem possible to him, even after her frank statements, that this bright and joyous creature could in any way be joined to such a bloody history as he knew the histories of some of these long feuds to be.
"It's been thirty years an' better," said the girl, "since the Brierlys and Lindsays had some trouble about a claybank filly an' took to shootin' one another—shootin' straight an' shootin' often an' to kill. For years th' fight went on. They fired on sight, an' sometimes 'twas a Lindsay went an' sometimes 'twas a Brierly. Bimeby there was just two men left—my pappy an' Lem Lindsay.
"One day Lem sent word to my pappy to meet him without no weepons an' shake han's an' make it up."
Her face took on a look of bitterness and hate which almost made her hearer shiver, so foreign was it to the fresh, young brightness he had watched till now.
"My daddy come, at th' ap'inted time," she went on slowly, "but dad—he knowed Lem Lindsay, an' never for a minute trusted him. He ast a friend of his, Ben Lorey, to be a hidden witness. Ben hid behind a rock to watch. 'Twas right near here—just over thar." She pointed.
"Soon Lem, he come along, a-smilin' like a Judast, an', after some fine speakin', as daddy offered him his hand, Lem whipped out a knife, an'—an' struck it into my daddy's heart."
The girl's recital had been tense, dramatic, not because she had tried or thought to make it so—she had never learned not to be genuine—but because of the real and tragic drama in the tale she told, the matter-of-course way in which she told it.
It made Layson shudder. What sort of people were these mountaineers who went armed to friendly meetings and struck down the men whose hands they offered to clasp? Where was the other man while his friend's enemy was at this dreadful work?
"But Lorey," said her fascinated listener, "the man who was in hiding as a witness, made him pay for his outrageous act!"
"No," said the girl, with drooping head. "He stepped out from behind the rock where he was hidin', an' he pulled the trigger of his rifle. But luck was dead against us that day. Wet powder—somethin'—nobody knows what. The gun did not go off. Before he got it well down from his shoulder so's to find out what it was that ailed it, Lem Lindsay was upon him like a mountain lion—an' he laid him thar beside my daddy. He didn't mean that there should be no witnesses."
She paused so long that Layson was about to speak, feeling the silence troublesome and painful, but before he had decided what to say in comment on a tale so dreadful, she went on:
"He didn't mean there should be no witnesses, Lem Lindsay didn't, but as it happened there was two. My mother, me clasped in her arms, had stole after my daddy, fearin' that somethin' wicked would come out o' that there meetin' with his old-time enemy. She spoke up sudden, an' surprised th' murderer, standin' there by th' two poor men he'd killed. At first it scared him. I can't remember everythin' about that awful day, but I can see Lem Lindsay's face as she screamed at him, just as plain this minute as I seed it then. I'll never forget that look if I live a thousand years!
"At first he was struck dumb, but then that passed. He give a yell of rage an' started toward us on th' run. She jumped, with me a-hinderin' her. Like a mountain deer she run, in spite of that. She was lighter on her feet than he was upon his, an' soon outdistanced him. He hadn't stopped to pick his rifle up—he only had th' knife he'd done th' killin' with, so he couldn't do what he'd 'a' liked to done—shoot down a woman an' a baby!
"We lived where I live now, alone, an' then, as now, there was a little bridge that took th' footpath over th' deep gully. Them days was wicked ones in these here mountains, an' daddy'd had that foot-bridge fixed so it would raise. My mother just had time to pull it up, when we had crossed, before Lem Lindsay reached there. He stopped, to keep from fallin' in the gully, but stood there, shakin' his bare fist an' swearin' that he'd kill us yet. But that he couldn't do. Folks was mightily roused, and he had to leave th' mountings, then an' thar, an' ain't been in 'em since, so far as anybody knows."
Her brows drew down upon her eyes. Her sweet mouth hardened. "He'd better never come!" she added, grimly.
After a moment's pause she went on, slowly: "So, now, here we be—Joe Lorey, Ben's son, an' me. My mother died, you see, not very many years after Lindsay'd killed my daddy. Seein' of it done, that way, had been too much for her. I reckon seein' it would have killed me, too, if I'd been more'n a baby, but I wasn't, an' lived through it. Ben's lived here, workin' his little mounting farm, an'—an'—"
She hesitated, evidently ill at ease, strangely stammering over an apparently simple and unimportant statement of the condition of her fellow orphan. She changed color slightly. Layson, watching her, decided that the son of the one victim must be the sweetheart of the daughter of the other, and would have smiled had not the very thought, to his surprise, annoyed him unaccountably. Whether that was what had caused her stammering, he could not quite decide, although he gave the matter an absurd amount of thought. She went on quickly:
"He's lived here, workin' of his little mounting farm an'—an'—an' doin' jobs aroun', an' such, an' I've lived here, a-workin' mine, a little, but not much. After my mother died there was some folks down in th' valley took keer of me for a while, but then they moved away, an' I was old enough to want things bad, an' what I wanted was to come back here, where I could see th' place where mother an' my daddy had both loved me an' been happy. I've got some land down in th' valley—fifty acres o' fine pasture—but I never cared to live down there. Th' rent I get for that land makes me rich—I ain't never wanted for a single thing but just th' love an' carin' that my daddy an' my mother would 'a' give me if that wicked man hadn't killed 'em both. For he did kill my mother, just as much as he killed daddy. She died o' that an' that alone."
Again she fell into a silence for a time, looking out at the tremendous prospect spread before them, quite unseeing.
"Oh," she went on, at length, her face again darkened by a frown, her small hands clenched, every muscle of her lithe young body drawn as taut as a wild animal's before a spring. "I sometimes feel as if I'd like to do as other mountain women have been known to do when killin' of that sort has blackened all their lives—I sometimes feel as if I'd like to take a rifle in my elbow an' go lookin' for that man—go lookin' for him in th' mountings, in th' lowlands, anywhere—even if I had to cross th' oceans that they tell about, in order to come up with him!"
Her voice had been intensely vibrant with strong passion as she said this, and her quivering form told even plainer how deep-seated was the hate that gave birth to her words. But soon she put all this excitement from her and dropped her hands in a loose gesture of hopeless relaxation.
"But I know such thoughts are foolish," she said drearily. "He got away. A girl can't carry on a feud alone, nohow. There's nothin' I can do."
Again, now, with a passing thought, her features lighted as another maiden's, whose young life had been cast by fate in gentler places might have lighted at the thought of some great pleasure pending in the future.
"There is a chance, though," she said, with a fierce joy, "that Lem Lindsay, if he is alive, 'll git th' bullet that he earned that day. Joe Lorey's livin'—that's Ben's son—an' he—well, maybe, some time—ah, he can shoot as straight as anybody in these mountings!"
The look of a young tigress was on her face.
It made the young man who was listening to her shudder—the look upon her face, the voice with which she said "And he can shoot as straight as anybody in these mountings!" For a second it revolted him. Then, getting a fairer point of view, he smiled at her with a deep sympathy, and waited.
He had not to wait long before a gentler mood held dominance. It came, indeed, almost at once.
"No," she said slowly, "a girl can't carry on a feud alone, nohow.... And, somehow, when I think of it most times, I really don't want to. It's only now an' then I get stirred up, like this. Most times I'd rather learn than—go on fightin' like we-all always have.... I'd rather learn, somehow.... An'—an'—an' that's been mighty hard—is mighty hard"
"You—haven't had much chance," said he, looking at her pityingly.
She gave him a quick glance. Had she really thought he pitied her she would have bitterly resented it.
"Had th' same chance other mounting girls have," she said quickly, defending, not herself, but her country and her people.
She stood, now, at a distance from the fire, for it was blazing merrily, but her face was flushed by its radiant heat, its lurid blaze made a fine background for the supple, swaying beauty of her slim young body. She raised her arms high, high above her head, with that same genuineness of gesture, graceful and appealing, which he had seen in all her movements from the first and then clasped them at her breast.
"But oh," said she, "somehow, I want to learn, now, terrible!"
"Let me help you while I'm in the mountains," he replied, impulsively. "I'll be glad to help you every day."
"Would you?" she said. "I would be powerful thankful!" Her bright eyes expressed the gratitude she felt.
While they had talked a strange paradox had come about there by the fire without their notice. The long, black outcropping of rock against which they had brought the old man's blaze to life, had, instead of keeping the fire from spreading to the undergrowth, strangely permitted it to pass.
It was the girl who first discovered this. She sprang up from her place with a startled exclamation.
"Oh," said she, "th' fire is spreadin'!"
He rose quickly to his feet.
They were appalled by the predicament in which they found themselves. The thing seemed quite mysterious.
The rock against which the fire had been built was all aglow, as if it had been heated in a furnace till red hot—strange circumstance; one that would have fascinated Layson into elaborate investigation had he had the time to think about it—and, beyond it, evidently communicated through it as a link, the rustling leaves of the past autumn, their surface layers sun-dried, were bursting into glittering little points of flame all about the narrow ledge of rock on which they were standing. As they gazed, before Layson could rush forward to stamp out these sparkling perils, the fire had spread, as the girl, wise in the direful ways of brush-fires, had known at once that it would spread, to the encircling pine-tops, left in a tinder barricade about the clearing by the sawyers and the axemen.
"Oh," she said, distressed, "we're ketched!"
Layson, less conscious of their peril because less well informed as to the almost explosive inflammability of dry pine-tops, took the matter less seriously. "We'll get out, all right," said he. "Don't worry."
"There's times to worry," said the girl, "an' this, I reckon—well, it's one of 'em."
As if to prove the truth of what she said, with a burst almost like that of flame's leap along a powder-line, the fire caught one resinous pine-top after another with a crackling rush which was not only fearfully apparent to the eye, but also ominously audible. Within ten seconds the pair were ringed by sound like that of crackling musketry upon a battlefield, and by a pyrotechnic spectacle of terrifying magnitude. Layson had heard guns pop in untrained volleys at State Guard manoeuvres, and was instantly impressed by the amazing similarity of sound, but he had never in his life seen anything to be compared to the towering ring of flame-wall which almost instantly encircled them. He lost, perhaps, a minute, in astonished contemplation of the situation. Then realization of their peril burst upon him with a rush. To wait there, where they were, too evidently meant certain death. Not only would the pulsing heat from the pine-tops already burning soon become unendurable, but there was enough of tindrous litter strewn about the entire area of the little clearing to make it horribly apparent to him that, in a moment, it would all become a bed of glittering flame. He gazed at the menacing, encroaching fire, appalled.
Madge, understanding the desperation of their situation even better than he did, knowing, too, that a stranger could, indeed, scarce conceive the deadly peril of it, was, at first, the cooler of the two. Her life there in the mountains, where any man she knew might meet, and her own father had met, death stalking with a rifle in his bended elbow, or a knife clutched in his clenched hand, had given her a certain poise in time of peril, an admirable self-control, quick wits, firm nerves. She felt that there was small chance of escape, yet she was not visibly terrified, and made no outcry.
Had she been caught, thus, with a mountaineer (which scarcely could have happened) she would have felt small apprehension. Learned in the perils of the woods, heavy-booted, sturdy-legged, a native, like Joe Lorey, for example, would, she felt quite certain, have been able to effect her rescue. But the chances, she decided, were practically nil, with this untrained "foreigner" as her companion. She had been told that "bluegrass folks" were lacking in strong nerves and prone to panic if real danger threatened. Barefooted as she was, there was little she, herself, could do. She knew that she would quickly fall unconscious from intolerable pain if she so much as tried to make a dash for safety. That she was badly frightened she would have readily admitted, that she was panic-stricken none who looked at her could, for a moment, dream.
She glanced at Layson with a curiosity which was almost calm, as, for a moment quite bewildered, he ran from side to side of their rapidly narrowing space of safety, endeavoring to find a weak spot in the wall of flames through which they might escape, but failing everywhere. For a moment she thought that he had lost his head, and thus proved all too true those tales which she had heard of "foreigners." It was almost as one race gazing at another suffering ordeal in test, that she observed his every movement, each detail of his facial play. While they had sat there on the log, intent upon their work above her spelling-book, she had wondered if the harsh, uncharitable mountain judgment of the "foreigners" had not been too merciless. Now she felt that she began to see its justification. The man, undoubtedly, she thought, showed an unmanly panic.
"No use tryin' to get out that-a-way," she said calmly. "You'd better—"
Even as she spoke, and before her words could possibly have influenced him, she saw a change come over him. The signs of fear, which had so displeased her, faded from his actions and his facial play. Placed in unusual, unexpected circumstances, for a second he had been bewildered, but, as soon as opportunity had come for gathering of wits, he found composure, coolness, nerve. She did not even finish out her sentence. Instead, her thoughts turned to that acme of breeding, nerve, endurance and high spirit dear to all Kentuckians, the race horse. "He's found his feet!" she thought.
The man impressed her, now, even more than when, with courtesy, such as she had never known, tact which had maintained her comfort when she might have felt humiliated, learning which to her seemed marvellous, he had offered her the key to learning's mysteries upon the log. She saw that he had quickly won a mighty victory over self. She thought of tales which she had heard by mountain fireplaces about "bad men," who, when they first had heard a bullet's song, had dodged and whitened, only to recover quickly and be nerved to peril evermore thereafter. Her doubt of Layson fell away completely. Instead of thinking of him as of one whose manhood is inferior to that of the rough mountaineers she knew, perforce she saw in him superiorities. There was not the least sign of bragadocio, of counterfeit, about his new-found calm. It was, she recognized at once, entirely genuine. "Rattled for a minute," she thought, wisely, again amending her first judgment, "but cooler, now, than cucumbers."
She looked gravely at him as he moved about investigating, not excitedly, alertly, full of the necessary business of escape. "Looks bad, don't it?" she said gravely. "Like powder, them thar pine-tops."
"Oh, we'll get out all right," he answered, easily, and now she felt a comfort in the fact that he was intentionally minimizing danger to give confidence to the supposed weakness of her sex.
"Maybe so an' maybe not," said she, discovering, to her disgust, that it was hard, now that he was showing strength, to keep the panic tremolo from her own voice.
The fire had, by this time, encircled them completely, and from a hundred points was running in toward them on tinder lines of dry pine-needles and old leaves, flashing at them viciously along the crisp, dry surface of old moss and lichens on the rocks. A wind had suddenly arisen, born, no doubt, of the fire's own mighty draft. Bits of blazing light wood, small, burning branches, myriads of flaming oak leaves and pine-cones were swept up from the ring of fire about them, in the chimney of the blaze, to lose their impetus only at a mighty height, and then fall slowly, threateningly down within the burning ring. So plentiful were these little, vicious menaces, that, within another minute, they were dodging them continually.
He now took his place close by her side and gazed upon the spectacle, calm-eyed, as if he found it interesting rather more than terrifying.
"Oh, we'll get out, all right," said he, again.
And then he turned to her in frank and unexcited inquiry. To her increased disgust the sobs of growing fear convulsed her throat. She fought them back and listened to his question.
"You know more about woods-fires than I do," he said evenly. "Better tell me what to do, eh?"
This confession of his ignorance strengthened her growing confidence in him instead of weakening it. The fact that he could ask advice so calmly made her think that, probably, he would be calm in taking it if she could offer it. It steadied her and helped her think. And then she saw him spring, and, actually with a smile, strike in the air above her head, diverting from its downward path which would have landed it upon her, a flaming fragment of pine-top fully five feet long. He actually laughed.
"Like handball," he said cheerily. "Don't worry. I won't let anything fall on you. You just—think!"
Her panic, now, had vanished as by magic. Instantly she really ceased to worry. He would not let fire fall on her. He would get her out of that. She was certain of it. She could think—calmly and with care.
But she could not think of a way out—at least she could not think of a way out for her. Barefooted as she was, she scarcely could expect to find, even in her strong young body, strength enough to endure the pain of treading, as she would be forced to if she made a dash, on an almost unbroken bed of glowing coals and smouldering moss ten yards in width. He, with his heavy boots, might manage it. Therefore there was hope for him; but for her to try it would be madness.
Had he been a sturdy mountaineer, she wofully reflected—having found a detail of lowland inferiority which, she was quite certain, would not be dispelled as had some others—he might, in such a desperate case, have summoned strength to "tote" her through, although she scarcely thought Joe Lorey, the best man whom she knew, could really do it; still there would have been the possibility. But no weak-muscled "foreigner," pap-nurtured in the lowlands, could, she knew, of course, accomplish such a feat. It was fine to know things, as he did, but muscle was what counted now! In queer, impersonal reflection, born, doubtless, of a dumb hysteria, she reflected bitterly upon the healthy weight of her own mountain-nourished person.
"If I was only like them triflin' bluegrass gals Joe tells about," she thought, "made up of nothin' or a little less, it wouldn't be no trick to tote me outen this; but dellaw! I'm just as much as that there ox of mine feels right to carry when I got a couple bags o' grist on, back an' front."
She looked around the ring of fire, dull-eyed, disheartened. "Ain't no use," said she, aloud.
He seemed to almost lose his temper. "Use?" said he, "of course there's use! You tell me where the best chance is and we'll fight out, all right."
She did not even answer; the situation seemed to her so wholly hopeless.
He acted, then, without further question. Hastily throwing the loop of his gun over his shoulder, he crooked one arm beneath her much-astonished knees, clasped another tight about her waist, and started for the fire with a determined spring.
"No, no; not there!" she screamed, astonished, terrified, and yet, withal, delighted by the unexpected hardness of the muscles in the arms which held her, the unexpected spring in the apparently not overburdened limbs which bore them up, the unexpected nerve, determination of the man's initiative.
This "foreigner," it seemed, was not so weak, was not so namby-pamby as his class had been described to be. She did not struggle in the circling arms, she only made an explanation.
"That's hard wood, burnin' there," said she. "Burnin' hard wood's harder to break through an' hotter, too. Try some place where it's pine.... But you can't never do it!"
"Where?" said he. "Show me! You know, I don't."
"Well—over thar," she said, and indicated, with a pointing hand, the place in the encircling conflagration where passage seemed least hopeless.
At that moment fire blazed high there, but her knowing eye told her that it was largely flaring needles, brittle twigs, and easily dissipated cones which fed it.
A few great springs, such as she now felt that the quivering, eager limbs which held her, were possessed of the ability to make, might take them through this flimsiest spot in the terrible barricade. The crackling, burning branches of the dead pine-tops would be likely to give way before them, not to trip them up, as oak would, to thrust them, falling, on the bed of glowing coals fast forming on the ground.
"Over thar," said she, again. "I reckon that's the best place—but you cain't—"
With the new respect the knowledge of his trained and ready muscles brought to her, arose in her a towering admiration of him. When she first had seen him, there beside the pool, she definitely had liked him; while they had delved into the mysteries of the alphabet upon the log his patient, willing, helpful kindness had increased her prepossession in his favor. It was only when, after disaster had so swiftly, so unexpectedly, descended on them and she had compared his body, made apparently more slender in comparison to the rude-limbed mountaineers she knew than it was really by tight-fitting knickerbockers and golf-stockings and its well-cut shooting-jacket, that she had lost confidence in him. But now his muscles, closing round her, seemed like thews of steel. She had never heard of athletes, she did not dream that muscle-building is a part of modern education—that alertness on the baseball, polo, football fields, count quite as much, at least in college popularity, as ready tongues and agile wits. The last fibres of destroyed respect for him rebuilt themselves upon the minute. Her confidence returned completely in a sudden flash—quicker than the magic leapings of the fire about them. She knew that he would take her through to safety.
A thought occurred to her, for, suddenly, with the new respect for him the knowledge of his trained and ready muscles gave her, arose a new consideration for him, almost motherly. He would be breasting dreadful peril in the passage of the flames—peril to his eyes and face and clinging, tight-clasped hands especially. And round her limbs there was the means of saving him, in part, from it.
"You let me down for just a minute," she said briefly. "Just a minute. Then I'll let you take me up an' carry me. An' you can do it, too! You're strong, ain't you?"
Wondering, he released his hold on her, and she slid to her feet. Then, with a quick movement, she unbuttoned the waistband of her outer skirt, and, letting it slip down to the ground, stepped out of it.
"Ain't it lucky I got wet?" said she, and smiled. "It ain't more'n half dry yet. The under one is wet, too, and both of 'em are wool—and that don't burn like cotton would.
"Now pick me up again an' I'll just fix this skirt—so—there—now—that's the way. Can you see, now? All right? Well, it'll keep th' fire from catchin' in our hair, an' it'll save your eyes."
He laughed. "That's fine!" said he, and, almost before she realized that they were under way, a mighty leap had taken them close to the blazing barrier, another one had landed them within its very midst, another one had carried them beyond its greatest menace, another had delivered them from actual peril, leaving them on ground where filmy grass, dead leaves, dry needles, had blazed quickly, with a consuming flash, and, utterly and almost instantly destroyed, had left behind them only thin, hot ash, devoid of peril, scarce to be considered.
But he did not let her feet touch ground again until they were even beyond this. Finally, when they reached a rocky "barren," where the little fire had found no fuel, she felt his tautened thews relax.
Instantly she slipped from his encircling arms, and he began to whip the flames in grass and little brush close to them with the dampened skirt. Even on the little isle of safety they found it necessary, still, to agilely avoid innumerable bits of floating "light-wood" brands, and, for a time, to beat, beat at the hungry little flames around them, but, at last, the danger was all over, and they stood there, looking at each other, with a sense of great relief. He smiled, breathing hard, but not exhausted.
"Tight work, eh?" he said cheerfully.
"Jest wonderful!" she answered, with a ready tribute.
Then the memory of his embracing arm, the fact that her own arms had been as tightly clasped about his neck, came to her with a rush, although, while they had raced across the burning strip she had not thought of these things. Shyness stirred in her almost as definitely as it had while she lay hidden at the pool's mouth, watching him and tingling with shamed thrills at thought of her amazing plight there. No man had ever had his arms about her in her life before.
But, even while she blushed and thrilled with this embarrassment, she fought to put it from her. He, evidently, had not thought of it at all, was, now, not thinking of it. What had been done had been a part of the day's work, a quick move, made in an emergency, when nothing else would serve. His attitude restored her own composure.
And gratitude welled in her. She struggled to find words for it.
"I—I'm much obleeged to you," were all she found, and she was conscious of their most complete inadequacy.
"No reason why you should be," he said gayly. "We got caught in a tight place, that's all, and we helped one another out of it."
She laughed derisively. "I helped you out a lot, now didn't I?" she asked.
Again she made a survey of him, standing where he had been when he had loosed his hold of her, unwearied, smiling, and she looked with actual wonder. Good clothes and careful speech were not, of a necessity, the outward signs of weaklings, it appeared!
Joe Lorey, in a dozen talks with her, had told her that they were. She did not understand that this had been a clumsy and short-sighted strategy, that, finding her more difficult than other mountain girls—the handsome, sturdy young hill-dweller had not been without his conquests among the maidens of his kind; only Madge had baffled him—he had feared that, now when the railroad building in the valley had brought so many "foreigners" into the neighborhood, one of them might fascinate her, and it had been to guard against this, as well as he was able, that he had spoken slightingly of the whole class. He had delighted in repeating to her tales belittling them, deriding them, and she, of course, had quite believed his stories.
But her experience with this one had not justified that point of view, and the matter largely occupied her thoughts as they walked slowly through the thickets of a bit of "second-growth" beyond the fire, which, stopped by the rocky "barrens," was dying out behind them. Her companion was, to her, an utterly new sort of being, not better trained in mind alone, but better trained in body than any mountaineer she knew; doubtless ignorant of many details of woods-life which would be known to any child there in the mountains, but, on the other hand, even more resourceful, daring, quick, than mountain men would have been, similarly placed, and, to her amazement, physically stronger, too!
The fact that he had shown himself more thoughtful of and courteous to her than any other man had ever been before, made its impression, but a slighter one. Hers were the instincts of true wisdom, and she valued these things less than many of her city sisters might, although she valued them, of course. She looked slyly, wonderingly at him. He was a very pleasant, very admirable sort of creature—this visitor from the unknown, outside world. She quite decided that she did not even think his knickerbockers foolish, after all.
For a moment, even now, she thrilled unpleasantly with a mean suspicion that he might be a "revenuer," after all, and have done the good things he had done as a part of that infernal craft which revenuers sometimes showed when searching for the hidden stills where "moonshine" whisky is illegally produced among the mountains; but she put this thought out of her heart, indignantly, almost as quickly as it came to her. Instinctively she felt quite certain that duplicity did not form any portion of his nature. They had not been traitor's arms which had so bravely (and so firmly) clasped her for the quick and risky dash across that terrifying belt of fire!
"No," said she, determined to give him fullest measure of due credit, "I didn't help you none. I didn't help you none—an' you did what I don't believe any other man I ever knew could do. I'm—"
Again she paused, again at loss for words, again the quest failed wholly.
"I'm much obleeged," said she.
Then, suddenly, the thought came to her of that other and less prepossessing "foreigner" whom, that day, she had seen there in her mountains. She described him carefully to Layson, and asked if he could guess who he had been and what his business could have been. Descriptions are a sorry basis for the recognition of a person thought to be far miles away, a person unassociated in one's mind with the surroundings he has suddenly appeared in; and, therefore, Layson, who really knew the man and who, had he identified him with the unknown visitor, would have been surprised, intensely curious, and, possibly, suspicious, could offer her no clue to his identity.
That same "foreigner," for a "foreigner," was acting strangely. Surely he was dressed in a garb hitherto almost unknown in the rough mountains, certainly none of the mountaineers whom he had met (and he had met, with plain unwillingness, a few, as he had climbed up to the rocky clearing where his fire had blossomed so remarkably) had recognized him. But, despite all this, it was quite plain that he was traveling through a country of which he found many details familiar. Now and then a little vista caught his view and held him for long minutes while he seemed to be comparing its reality with pictures of it stored within his memory; again he paused when he discovered that some whim of tramping mountaineers or roaming cattle, some landslide born of winter frosts; some blockade of trees storm-felled, had changed the course of an old path. Always, in a case like this, he investigated carefully before he definitely started on the new one.
When he had first come into the neighborhood he had made his way with caution, almost as if fearing to be seen, but now, after the bits of rocks which he had taken from Madge Brierly's clearing, had slipped into his pocket, he used double care in keeping from such routes as showed the marks of many recent footsteps, in sly investigations to make sure the paths he chose were clear of other wayfarers. His nerves evidently on keen edge, he seemed to fear surprise of some unpleasant sort. Each crackling twig, as he passed through the thickets, each rustling of a frightened rabbit as it scuttled from his path, each whir of startled grouse, or sudden call of nesting king-bird, made him pause cautiously until he had quite satisfied himself that it meant nothing to be feared. He was ever carefully alert for danger of some sort.
But not even his continual alarms, his constant watchfulness, could keep his mind away from the rough bits of rock which he had chipped from the outcropping in the clearing. More than once, as he found convenient and safe places—leafy nooks in rocky clefts, glades in dense, impenetrable thickets—he took out the little specimens, turned them over in his hands with loving touches, and gazed at them with an expression of picturesquely avaricious joy. Had any witnessed this procedure they would have found it vastly puzzling, for the specimens seemed merely small, black stones and valueless. But once, while looking at them lovingly, he burst into a harsh and hearty laugh as of great triumph, quite involuntarily; but hushed it quickly, looking, then, about him with an apprehensive glance. Each step he made was, in the main, a cautious one, each pause he made was plainly to look at some familiar, if some slightly altered, vista.
It was quite clear that with the finding of the little bits of rock he had achieved the errand which had brought him to the mountains, and that now he roamed to satisfy his memory's curiosity. Smiles of recognition constantly played upon his grim and grizzled face at sight of some old path, some distant, mist-enshrouded crag, even some mighty pine or oak which had for years withstood the buffeting of tempestuous storms; now and then a little puzzled frown, added its wrinkles to the many which already creased his brow, when, at some spot which he had thought to find as he had left it, long ago, he discovered that time's changes had been notable.
Once only did the man become confused among the woods-paths (where a stranger might have lost himself quite hopelessly in twenty minutes) and that was at a point not far from where Madge Brierly and Layson had, on their way up from the clearing, paused while she told her youthful escort of the grim but simple tragedy of her feud-darkened childhood. Before the old man reached this spot he had been traveling with puzzled caution, for a time, across a slope rough-scarred by some not ancient landslide which had changed the superficial contour of the mountain-side. When, suddenly, he debouched upon the rocky crag, hung, a rustic, natural platform above a gorgeous panorama of the valley, the view came to him, evidently, as a sharp, a startling, most unpleasant shock.
That the place was quite familiar to him none who watched him would have doubted, but no smiles of pleasant memories curved his thin, unpleasant lips as he surveyed it. He did not pause there, happily, communing with his memory in smiling reminiscence as he had at other points along the way. Instead, as the great view burst upon his gaze, he started back as if the outlook almost terrified him. He had been traveling astoop, partly because the burden of his years weighed heavy on his shoulders, partly as if his muscles had unconsciously reverted to the easy, slouching, climbing-stoop of the Kentucky mountaineer. But at sight of this especial spot his attitude changed utterly, the whole expression, not of his face, alone, but of his body, altered. His stoop became a crouch. His hands flew out before him as if, with them, he strove to ward away the charming scene. His feet paused in their tracks, as if struck helpless and immovable by what his eyes revealed to him.
For a full moment, almost without moving, he stood there, fascinated by some old association, plainly, for there was nothing in the prospect which, to an actual stranger, would have seemed more notable than details of a dozen other views which he had peered at through his half-closed, weather-beaten eyes within the hour. Here, clearly, was the arena of some great event in his past life—an arena which he gladly would have never seen again. His face went pale beneath its coat of tan, his shoulders trembled slightly as he tried to shrug them with indifference to brace his courage up. Twice he started from the spot, determined, evidently, to shut away the crowding and unpleasant recollections it recalled to him, twice he returned to it, to carefully, if with evident repugnance, make closer study of some detail of its rugged picturesqueness. More than once, as he lingered there against his will, his hands raised upward to his eyes as if to shut away from them some vivid memory-picture, but each time they fell, with strangely hopeless gesture. The picture which they strove to hide plainly was not before his eyes in the actual scene, but painted in the brain behind them and not to be shut out with screening, claw-curved fingers.
The effect of this especial spot on the old man, indeed, was most remarkable. His lips, as he stood gazing there, moved constantly as if with words unspoken, and, once or twice, the crowding sentences found actual but not articulate voice. Whenever this occurred he started, to look about behind him as if he feared that some one, who might overhear, had crept up upon him slyly. Finally, making absolutely certain that he had not been observed by any human being, and evidently yielding to an impulse almost irresistible, he went over the ground carefully, examining each foot of the little rocky platform with not a loving, but a fascinated observation.
When he finally left the spot a striking change had come upon his features. He had reached the place sly, cunning, and, withal, triumphant, as if he had accomplished, that day, through securing the small stones, some secret thing of a great import. His countenance, as, at length, he went away, was not triumphant but half terrified. It was as if some long-forgotten scene of horror had been brought before his gaze again, to terrify and astonish him.
His footsteps had been slow and leisurely, the footsteps of a contemplative, if a surreptitious sightseer, but now they quickened almost into running, and the intensely disagreeable effect of the mysterious episode had not left him wholly, when, twenty minutes afterward, he had mounted the rocky hill path by a precipitous climb and found himself within a little, cupped inclosure in the rocks, secluded enough and beautiful enough to be a fairies' dancing-floor. There, again, he seemed to recognize old landmarks, but with fewer of unpleasant memories connected with them. Plain curiosity glowed, now, in his narrow, crafty eyes.
"I wonder," he exclaimed, "if it's here yet."
As he spoke his glance flashed swiftly to the far side of the little glade, where, on the face of a dense thicket, a trained eye, such as his, might mark a spot where bushes had been often parted with extreme care not to do them injury and thus reveal the fact that through them lay a thoroughfare. Noting this with a wry smile of malicious satisfaction, he started slowly toward the spot.
The caution of his movements was redoubled, now. While he had worked, back in the clearing, cooking his simple noonday meal and chipping off the little specimens of rock, he had shown that he wished not to have his strange activities observed. On the mountain paths he had plainly been most anxious not to run across chance wayfarers who might ask questions, or (the possibility was most remote, but still a possibility) remember him of old. He had been merely cautious, though, not definitely fearful.
Now, however, actual and obsessive dread showed plainly on his face and in his movements. Such a fear would have induced most men to abandon any enterprise which was not fraught with compelling necessity; with him insistent curiosity seemed to counterbalance it. The man's face, rough, hard, cruel, was, withal, unusually expressive; its deep lines were more than ordinarily mobile, and every one of them, as he proceeded, soft-footed as a cat, amazingly lithe and supple for his years, as competent to find his way unseen through a woods country as an Indian, showed that irresistible and fiercely inquisitive impulse was offsetting in his mind a deadly apprehension.
In one way only, though, in spite of the accelleration of his eager curiosity, did he drop his guard, at all, and this was quite apparently the direct result of high excitement. That he had dropped it he was clearly quite unconscious, but when his lips moved, now, they more than once let fall articulate words.
"Ef th' old still's thar ..." they said at one time; then, after a long pause devoted to worming troublous way through tangled areas of windfall, they muttered, in completion of the sentence: "... it'll be th' son that's runnin' it." Another busy silence, and: "Thar was a girl ... th' daughter of...."
Either a spasmodic contraction of the throat at mere thought of the name—a grimace, almost of pain, which suddenly convulsed the old man's evil face might well have made a stranger think that his muscles had rebelled—or an unusually difficult struggle across a fallen tree-trunk prevented further speech, as, probably, it prevented for the time, consecutive further thought of old-time memories. His mind was tensely concentrated on the work of climbing through the tangle of dead trunks and branches, and, when he had accomplished the hard passage, was turned wholly from the things which he had been considering by a slight crackling, as of some one stepping on a brittle twig, at a distance in advance of him.