JUDITH OF THE CUMBERLANDS
Author of "The Wiving of Lance Cleaverage," "The Last Word," "Huldah," "Return," Etc.
With Illustrations in Colour by George Wright
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, New York
Copyright, 1908 by Alice MacGowan
This edition is issued under arrangement with the publishers, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London
To my mountain friends, dwellers in lonely cabins, on winding horseback trails and steep, precarious roads; or in the tiny settlements that nestle in the high-hung inner valleys; lean brown hunters on remote paths in the green shadowed depths of the free forest, light-stepping, keen-eyed, humorous-lipped, hitting the point as aptly with an instance as with the old squirrel gun they carry; wielders of the axe by many a chip pile, where the swinging blade rests readily to answer query or offer advice; tanned, lithely moving lads following the plough, turning over the shoulder a countenance of dark beauty; grave, shy girls, pail in hand, at the milking-bars in dawn or dusk; young mothers in the doorway, looking out, babe on hip; big-eyed, bare-footed mountain children clinging hand in hand by the roadside, or clustered like startled little partridges in the shelter of the dooryard; knitters in the sun and grandams by the hearth; tellers and treasurers all of tales and legends couched in racy old Elizabethan English; I dedicate this—their book and mine.
I have been so frequently asked how I, a woman, came by my intimate acquaintance with life in the more remote districts of the southern Appalachians, particularly in the matter of illicit distilling, that I think it not amiss to here set down a few words as to my sources of knowledge.
I have always lived in a small city in the heart of the Cumberlands, and a portion of each year was spent in the mountains themselves. The speech of Judith and her friends and kin has been familiar to me from childhood; their point of view, their customs and possessions as well known to me as my own. Then when I began to write, I was one summer at Roan Mountain, on the North Carolina-Tennessee line, probably less than two hundred miles from Chattanooga by the railway, and Gen. John T. Wilder, who had campaigned all through the fastnesses of that inaccessible region, suggested to me that I buy a mountain-bred saddle horse, and ride such a route as he would give me, bringing up, after about a thousand miles of it, at my home. To follow the itinerary that the old soldier marked out on the map for me was to leave railroads and modern civilisation as we know it, penetrate the wild heart of the region, and, depending on the wayside dwellers for hospitality and lodging from night to night, be forcibly thrust into an intimate comprehension of a phase of American life which is perhaps the most primitive our country affords.
I was more than eight weeks making this trip, carrying with me all necessary baggage on my capacious, cowgirl saddle with its long and numerous buckskin tie-strings. At first I shrank very much from riding up to a cabin—a young woman, alone, with garments and outfit that must challenge the attention and curiosity of these people—in the dusk of evening or in a heavy rain-storm, and asking in set terms for lodging. But it took only a few days for me to find that here I was never to be stared at, wondered at, nor questioned; and that, proffering my request under such conditions, I was met by instant hospitality, and a grave, uninquiring courtesy unsurpassed and not always equalled in the best society, and I seemed to evoke a swift tenderness that was almost compassion.
During this journey I became acquainted with some features of mountain life which I might never have known otherwise. My best friends in the mountains in the neighbourhood of my own home had always been a little shy of discussing moonshine whiskey and moonshiners; but here I earned a dividend upon my misfortunes, being more than once taken for a revenue spy; and in the apologetic amenities of those who had misjudged me, which followed my explanations and proofs of innocence, I have been shown in a spirit of atonement, illicit still and "hideout." I have heard old Jephthah Turrentine make his protest against the government's attitude toward the mountain man and his "blockaded still." I have foregathered with the revenuers in the settlements at the foot of the circling purple ranges, and been shown the specially made axes and hooks they carry with them for breaking up and destroying the simple appurtenances of the illicit manufacture. Knowing that Blatch Turrentine's still must have cost him three hundred dollars, I cannot wonder that a mountain man, a thrifty fellow like Blatch, should have lingered, even in great danger, over the project of carrying it with him.
These dwellers in the southern mountain region, the purest American strain left to us, hold the interest and appeal of a changing, vanishing type. The tide of enlightenment and commercial prosperity must presently sweep in and absorb them. And so I might hope that a faithful picture of the life and manners I have sought to represent in Judith of the Cumberlands would be the better worth while.
A. Mac G.
CHAPTER PAGE I. Spring 1 II. At "The Edge" 20 III. Suitors 47 IV. Building 64 V. The Red Rose and the Briar 83 VI. The Play-Party 99 VII. Kisses 112 VIII. On the Doorstone 124 IX. Foeman's Bluff 135 X. A Spy 152 XI. The Warning 161 XII. In the Lion's Den 181 XIII. In the Night 199 XIV. The Raid 207 XV. Council of War 221 XVI. A Message 235 XVII. The Old Cherokee Trail 244 XVIII. Bitter Parting 261 XIX. Cast Out 273 XX. A Conversion 282 XXI. The Baptising 302 XXII. Ebb-Tide 315 XXIII. The Dumb Supper 326 XXIV. A Case of Walking Typhoid 340 XXV. A Perilous Passage 360 XXVI. His Own Trap 371 XXVII. Love's Guerdon 382 XXVIII. A Prophecy 393
Judith of the Cumberlands
"Won't you be jest dressed to kill an' cripple when you get that on! Don't it set her off, Jeffy Ann?"
The village milliner fell back, hands on hips, thin lips screwed up, and regarded the possible purchaser through narrowed eyes of simulated ecstasy.
"I don't know," debated the brown beauty, surveying herself in a looking-glass by means of an awkwardly held hand-mirror. "'Pears to me this one's too little. Hit makes me look like I was sent for and couldn't come. But I do love red. I think the red on here is mightly sightly."
Instantly the woman of the shop had the hat off the dark young head and in her own hands.
"This is a powerful pretty red bow," she assented promptly. "I can take it out just as easy as not, and tack it onto that big hat you like. I believe you're right; and red certainly does go with yo' hair and eyes." Again she gazed with languishing admiration at her customer.
And Judith Barrier was well worth it, tall, justly proportioned, deep-bosomed, long-limbed, with the fine hands and feet of the true mountaineer. The thick dusk hair rose up around her brow in a massive, sculptural line; her dark eyes—the large, heavily fringed eyes of a dryad—glowed with the fires of youth, and with a certain lambent shining which was all their own; the stain on her cheeks was deep, answering to the ripe red of the full lips.
In point of fact Mrs. Rhody Staggart the milliner considered her a big, coarse country girl, and thought that a pair of stout corsets well pulled in would improve her crude figure; but she dealt out compliments without ceasing as she exchanged the red bow for the blue, and laboriously pinned the headgear upon the bronze-brown coils, admonishing gravely, "Far over to one side, honey—jest the way they're a-wearin' them in New York this minute."
The buyer once more studied her mirror, and its dumb honesty told her that she was beautiful. Then she looked about for some human eyes to make the same communication.
"What's a-goin' on over yon at the Co't House?" she inquired with languid interest, looking across the open square.
"They's a political speakin'," explained the other. "Creed Bonbright he wants to be elected jestice of the peace and go back to the Turkey Tracks and set up a office. Fool boy! You know mighty well an' good they'll run him out o' thar—or kill him, one."
Although the girl had herself ridden down from Turkey Track Mountain that morning, and the old Bonbright farm adjoined her own, the news held no interest for her. She wished the gathering might have been something more to her purpose; but she solemnly paid for the hat, and with the cheap finery on her stately young head, which had been more appropriately crowned with a chaplet of vine leaves, moved to the door. She hoped that standing there, waiting for the boys to bring her horse, she might attract some attention by her recently acquired splendour.
She looked up at the Court House steps. The building was humbly in the Greek manner, as are so many of the public structures in the South. Between its great white pillars, flaking paint and half-heartedly confessing their woodland genesis, stood a tall young man, bareheaded. The doubtful sunlight of a March day glinted on his uncovered yellow hair. He was speaking rapidly in a fervid fashion that seemed beyond the occasion; in his blue eyes shone something of the fanatic's passion; his bearing was that of a man who conceives himself to have a mission and a message.
Judith looked at him. She heard no word of what he was saying—but him she heard. She heard the high, vibrant voice, saw the fair hair on the upflung head, the rapt look in the blue eyes with their quick-expanding pupils. Suddenly her world turned over. In a smother of strange, uncomprehended emotions, she was gropingly glad she had the new hat—glad she had it on now, and that Mrs. Staggart herself had adjusted it. On blind impulse she edged around into plainer view, pushing freely in amongst the fringe of men and boys, an unheard-of thing for a well taught mountain girl to do, but Judith was for the moment absolutely unconscious of their humanity.
"You never go a-nigh my people," cried Bonbright in that clear thrilling tenor that is like a trumpet call, "you never go a-nigh them with the statute—with government—except when the United States marshal takes a posse up and raids the stills and brings down his prisoners. That's all the valley knows of the mountain folks. The law's never carried to anybody up there except the offenders and criminals. The Turkey Track neighbourhoods, Big and Little, have got a mighty bad name with you-all. But you ought to understand that violence must come when every man is obliged to take the law into his own hands. I admit that it's an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth with us now—what else could it be? And yet we are as faithful to each other, as virtuous, and as God-fearing a race as those in the valley. I am a mountain man, born and bred in the Turkey Tracks; and I ask you to send me back to my neighbours with the law, that they may learn to be good citizens, as they are already good men and women."
Upon the word, there broke out at the farthest corner of the square an abrupt splatter of sound, oaths, cries, punctuated by the swift staccato of running feet. The ringing voice came to a sudden halt. Out of a little side street which descended from the mountain, a young fellow burst into view, running in long leaping bounds, his hands up. Behind him lumbered Dan Haley the United States marshal, a somewhat heavy-set man, puffing and panting, yelling, "Halt! halt! halt!" and finally turning loose a fusillade of shots aimed high over the fleeing lad's head. There was a drawing back and a scattering in every direction.
"Hey, Bonbright!" vociferated a man leaping up from the last step where he had been sitting, pointing to where the marshal's deputy followed behind herding five or six prisoners from the mountains, "Hey, Bonbright! There's some of your constituency—some God-fearing Turkey-Trackers—now, but I reckon you won't own 'em."
"I will!" shouted Bonbright, whirling upon him, and one got suddenly the blue fire of his hawk-like eye with the slant brow above. "They are my people, and the way they're treated is what I've been trying to talk to you-all about."
"Well, you better go and take them fellers some law right now," jeered his interlocutor. "Looks like to me they need it mighty bad."
"That's just what I'm about," answered Bonbright. "God knows they'll get no justice unless I do. That's my job," and without another word or a look behind him he made his way bareheaded through the group on the steps and down the street.
Meantime the pursued had turned desperately and dodged into the millinery store whence Judith Barrier had emerged a little earlier. Instantly there came out to the listeners the noise of falling articles and breaking glass, and the squeals and scufflings of the women. The red-faced marshal dived in after his quarry, and emerged a moment later holding him by one elbow, swearing angrily. Creed Bonbright came up at the instant, and Haley, needing some one to whom he could express himself, explained in voluble anger:
"The damned little shoat! Said if I'd let him walk a-loose he'd give me information. You can't trust none of them."
Bonbright laid a reassuring touch on the fugitive's shoulder as Haley fumbled after the handcuffs.
"I ain't been into no stillin', Creed!" panted the squirming boy.
"Well, don't run then," admonished Bonbright. "You've got no call to. I'll see that you get justice."
While he spoke there wheeled into the square, from a nearby waggon-yard, two young mountaineers on mules, one leading by the bridle-rein a sorrel horse with a side-saddle on it. At sight of the marshal and those with him, an almost imperceptible tremor went through the pair. There was a flicker of nostril, a rounding of eye, as their glance ran swiftly from one to another of Haley's prisoners. They were like wild game that winds the hunter.
"St! You Pony Card, is that them?" whispered Haley, sharply nudging the prisoner he held. "Turn him a-loose, Bonbright; I've got him handcuffed now."
The boy—he was not more than sixteen—choked, reddened, held down his head, studying the marshal's face anxiously from beneath lowered flax-coloured brows.
"Yes, them's Andy and Jeff Turrentine," Bonbright heard the husky, reluctant whisper. "Now cain't I go?"
The newcomers were beyond earshot, but the by-play was ominous to them. The lean young bodies stiffened in their saddles, the reins came up in their hands. For a moment it seemed as if they would turn and run for it. But it was too late. Without making any reply Haley shoved his prisoner into the hands of the deputy and with prompt action intercepted the two and placed them under arrest. Bonbright observed one of the boys beckon across the heads of the gathering crowd before he dismounted, and noted that some one approached from the direction of the Court House steps and received the three riding animals. In the confusion he did not see who this was. Haley spoke to his deputy, and then drew their party sharply off toward the jail, which could be used temporarily for the detention of United States prisoners. To the last the young Turrentines muttered together and sent baleful glances toward Bonbright, whom they plainly conceived to be the author of their troubles. Poor Pony Card plodded with bent head mutely behind them, a furtive hand travelling now and again to his eyes.
Such crowd as the little village had collected was following, Bonbright with the rest, when he encountered the girl who had come from the milliner's shop. She stood now alone by the sorrel horse with the side-saddle on it, holding the bridle-reins of the two mules, and there was a bewildered look in her dark eyes as the noisy throng swept past her which brought him—led in the hand of destiny—instantly to her side.
"What's the matter?" he asked her. "Can I help you?" And Judith who, in her perturbation, had not seen him before, started violently at the words and tone.
"They've tuck the boys," she hesitated, in a rich, broken contralto, that voice which beyond all others moves the hearts of hearers, "I—I don't know how I'm a-goin' to get these here mules home. Pete he won't lead so very well."
"Oh, were you with the men Haley arrested?" ejaculated Bonbright.
"Yes, they're my cousins. I don't know what he tuck 'em for," the young, high-couraged head turned jailward; the dark eyes flashed a resentful look after the retiring posse.
"It looks like to me, from what Haley said, that there's nothing against them," Bonbright reassured her. "But they're likely to be held as witnesses—that's the worst about this business.
"I was going over there right now to see what can be done about it—being a sort of lawyer. But let me help you first. I'm Creed Bonbright—reckon you know the name—born and raised on Big Turkey Track."
Judith's heart beat to suffocation, the while she answered in commonplace phrase, "I shorely do. My name is Judith Barrier; I live with Uncle Jephthah Turrentine, on my farm. Hit's right next to the old Bonbright place. We've been livin' thar more'n four years. I hate to go back and tell Uncle Jep of the boys bein' tuck; and that big mule, Pete, I don't know how I'm a-goin' to git him out o' the settlement, he's that mean and feisty about town streets."
"I reckon I can manage him," Bonbright suggested, looking about. "Oh, Givens!" he called to a man hurrying past. "When you get over there ask Haley not to take any definite action—I reckon he wouldn't anyhow. I'm going to represent the prisoners, and I'll be there inside of half an hour. Now let me put you on your horse, Miss Judith, and I'll lead the mules up the road a piece for you."
And so it came about that Judith sprang to the back of the sorrel nag from Creed Bonbright's hand. Creed, still bareheaded, and wholly unconscious of the fact, walked beside her leading the mules. They passed slowly up the street towards the mountainward edge of Hepzibah, talking as they went in the soft, low, desultory fashion of their people.
The noises of the village, aroused from its usual dozing calm, died away behind them. Beyond the last cabin they entered a sylvan world all their own. While he talked, questioning and replying gravely and at leisure, the man was revolving in his mind just what action would be best for the prisoners whose cause he had espoused. As for Judith, she had forgotten that such persons existed, that such trivial mischance as their arrest had just been; she was concerned wholly with the immediate necessity to charm, to subjugate the man.
A rustic belle and beauty, used to success in such enterprises, in the limited time at her command she brought out for Creed's subduing her little store of primitive arts. She would know, Pete suggesting the topic, if he didn't despise a mule, adding encouragingly that she did. The ash, it seemed, was the tree of her preference; didn't he think it mighty sightly now when it was just coming into bloom? His favourite season of the year, his favoured colour, of such points she made inquiry, giving him, in an elusive feminine fashion, ample opportunity to relate himself to her. And always he answered. When all was spoken, and at the first sharp rise she drew rein for the inevitable separation, she could not have said that she had failed; but she knew that she had not succeeded.
"Ye can jest turn Pete a-loose now," she told him gently. "He'll foller from here on."
Bonbright, on his part, was not quite aware why he paused here, yet it seemed cold and unfriendly to say good-bye at once, Again he assured her that he would go immediately to the jail and find what could be done for her cousins. There was no more to be said now—yet they lingered.
It was a blowy, showery March day, its lips puckered for weeping or laughter at any moment, the air full of the dainty pungencies of new life. Winged ants, enjoying their little hour of glory, swarmed from their holes and turned stone or stump to a flickering, moving grey. About them where they stood was the awakening world of nature. Great, pale blue bird-foot violets were blooming on favoured slopes, and in protected hollows patches of eyebright made fairy forests on the moss, while under tatters of dead leaves by the brookside arbutus blushed. Above their heads the tracery of branches was a lace-work overlaid with fanlike budding green leaves, except where the maples showed scarlet tassels, or the Judas tree flaunted its bold, lying, purple-pink promise of fruitage never to be fulfilled.
Could two young creatures be wiser than nature's self? It was the new time; all the gauzy-winged ephemerae in the moist March woods were throbbing with it, buzzing or flashing about seeking mates and nectar. The earth had wakened from her winter sleep and set her face toward her ancient, ardent lover, the sun. In the soul of Judith Barrier—Judith the nature woman—all this surged strongly. As for the man, he had sent forth his spirit in so general a fashion, he conceived himself to have a mission so impersonal, that he scarce remembered what should or should not please or attract Creed Bonbright.
Judith dreaded lest he make his farewells before she had from him some earnest of a future meeting. He could not say good-bye and let her leave him so! It seemed to her that if he did she should die before she reached the mountain-top. Dark, rich, earth-born, earth-fast, material, she looked down at Creed where he stood beside her, his hand on the sorrel's neck, his calm blue eyes raised to hers. Her gaze lingered on the fair hair flying in the March breeze, above a face selfless as that of some young prophet. Her eager, undisciplined nature found here what it craved. Coquetry had not availed her; it had fallen off him unrecognised—this man who answered it absently, and thought his own thoughts. And with the divine pertinacity of life itself she delved in the ancient wisdom of her sex for a lure to make him rise and follow her. It was not bright eyes nor red lips that could move or please him? But she had seen him moved, aroused. The hint was plain. Instantly abandoning her personal siege, she espoused the cause of her bodiless rival.
"I—I heard you a-speakin' back there," she said with a little catch in her breath.
Bonbright's eyes returned from the far distances to which they had travelled after giving her—Judith Barrier, so worthy of a blue-eyed youth's respectful attention—a passing glance. She replied to his gaze with one full of a meaning to him at that time indecipherable; nevertheless it was an ardent, compelling look which he must needs answer with some confession of himself.
"You wouldn't understand what I was trying to tell about," he began gently. "Since I've been living in the valley, where folks get rich and see a heap of what they call pleasure, I've had many a hard thought about the lives of our people up yonder in the mountains. I want to go back to my people with—I want to tell them—"
The girl leaned forward in her saddle, burning eyes fixed on his intent face, red lips apart.
"Yes—what?" she breathed. "What is it you want to say to the folks back home? You ort to come and say it. We need it bad."
"Do you think so?" asked Bonbright doubtfully. "Do you reckon they would listen to me? I don't know. Sometimes I allow maybe I'd better stay here where the Judge wants me to till I'm an older man and more experienced."
He studied the beautiful, down-bent face greedily now, but it was not the eye of a man looking at a maid. His thoughts were with the work he hoped to do. Judith's heart contracted with fear, and then set off beating heavily. Wait till he was an old man? Would love wait? Somebody else would claim him—some town girl would find the way to charm him. In sheer terror she put down her hand and laid it upon his.
"Don't you never think it," she protested. "You're needed right now. After a while will be too late. Why, I come a-past your old home in the rain last Wednesday, and I could 'a' cried to see the winders dark, and the grass all grown up to the front door. You come back whar you belong—" she had almost said "honey"—"and you'll find there is need a-plenty for folks like you."
"Well, they all allow that I'll be elected next Thursday," Creed assented, busying himself over the lengthening of Beck's bridle, that she might lead the mule the more handily. "And if I am I'll be in the Turkey Tracks along in April and find me a place to set up an office. If I'm elected——"
"Elected! An' ef yo'r not?" she cried, filled with scorn of such a paltry condition. What difference could it make whether or not he were elected? Wouldn't his hair be just as yellow, his eyes as blue? Would his voice be any less the call to love?
He smiled at her tolerantly, handing up the lengthened strap.
"Well, I don't just rightly know what I will do, then," he debated.
"But you're a-comin' up to the Turkey Tracks anyhow, to—to see yo' folks," persisted Judith with a rising triumph in her tone.
"Yes," acquiesced Bonbright, "I'll come up in April anyhow."
And with this assurance the girl rode slowly away, leading Beck, the now resigned Pete following behind. All the sounds from the valley were gathered as in a vast bowl and flung upward, refined by distance. A moment she halted listening, then breasted the first rise and entered that deep silence which waits the mountain dweller. The great forest closed about her.
Creed Bonbright stood for a moment in the open road looking after her. Something she had conveyed to him, some call sent forth, which had not quite reached the ear of his spirit, and yet which troubled his calm. He lifted his gaze toward the bulk of the big mountain looming above him. He passed his hand absently through his fair hair, then tossed his head back with a characteristic motion. It was good to know he was needed up there. It was good to know he would be welcomed. So far the girl had made her point. After this the mountains and Judith Barrier would mean one thing in the young man's mind. As the shortest way to them both, he turned and walked swiftly down toward the settlement and to the undertaking which there awaited him.
At "The Edge"
The girl on the sorrel nag and the two riderless animals toiled patiently up the broad, timbered flank of Big Turkey Track, following the raw red gash in the greenery that was the road.
She gazed with wondering eyes at the familiar landmarks of the trail. All was just as it had been when she rode down it at dawn that morning, Andy and Jeff ahead on their mules whistling, singing, skylarking like two playful bear cubs. It was herself that was changed. She pushed the cheap hat off her hot forehead and tried to win to some coherence of thought and—so far had she already come on a new, strange path—looked back with wondering uncomprehension, as upon the beliefs and preferences of a crude primitive ancestress, to the girl who had cared that this hat cost a dollar and a half instead of a dollar and a quarter—only a few hours since when she bought it at the store. She went over the bits of talk that had been between her and Creed Bonbright. What had he said his favourite colour was? Memory brought back his rapt young face when she put the question to him. She trembled with delight at the recollection. His eyes were fixed upon the sky, and he had answered her absently, "blue."
Blue! What a fool—what a common thickheaded fool she had been all her days! She let the sorrel take his own gait, hooked his bridle-rein and Beck's upon the saddle-horn, and lifting her arms withdrew the hatpins and took off the unworthy headgear. For a moment she regarded savagely the cheap red ribbon which had appeared so beautiful to her; then with strong brown fingers tore it loose and flung it in the dust of the road, where Pete shied at it, and the stolid Beck coming on with flapping ears set hoof upon it.
What vast world forces move with our movements, pluck us uncomprehending from the station we had struggled for, and make our sorrowful meat of our attained desires! The stars in their courses pivot and swing on these subtle attractions, ancient as themselves. Judith Barrier, tearing the gaudy ribbon from her hat and casting it upon the road under her horse's feet, stood to learn what the priests of Isis knew thousands of years ago, that red is the symbol of pleasure and of mere animal comfort, while blue is the colour of pure reason.
Halfway up the trail they rode into a cloud that rested trembling on the mountain-side, passed through it and emerged upon fitful sunlight. Near the top there came a sudden shower which descended with the souse of an overturned bucket. It won small attention from Judith, but Pete and Beck resented it in mule fashion, with a laying back of ears and lashing out of heels. These amenities were exchanged for the most part across the intervening sorrel nag and his rider, and Selim replied promptly and in kind, almost unseating Judith.
"You Selim!" she cried jerking the rein. "You feisty Pete! You no-account Beck! What ails you-all? Cain't you behave?" and once more she lapsed into dreaming. It was Selim who, wise and old, stopped at Aunt Nancy Card's gate and gave Judith an opportunity to descend if such were her preference.
On the porch of the cabin sat a tall, lean, black-eyed old man smoking his pipe, Jephthah Turrentine himself. Nancy Card, a dry, brown little sparrow of a woman, occupied a chair opposite him, and negotiated a pipe quite as elderly and evil-smelling as his own.
The kerchief folded about her neck was notably white; her clean check-apron rustled with starch; but the half-grey hair crinkling rebelliously from its loose coil was never confined by anything more rigorous than a tucking comb. In moments of stress this always slipped down, and had to be vigorously replaced, so that stray strands were apt to be tossing about her eyes—fearless, direct blue eyes, that looked out of her square, wrinkled, weather-beaten little face with the sincere gaze of an urchin. Back of her chair lay a bundle of white-oak splits for use in her by-trade of basket-weaver; above them hung bundles of drying herbs, for Nancy was a sick-nurse and a bit of an herb-doctor. She had made a hard and a more or less losing fight against poverty—the men folk of these hardy, valiant little women seem predestined to be shiftless.
It came back to Judith dimly as she looked at them—she was in a mood to remember such things—that her uncle had courted Nancy Card when these two were young people, that they had quarrelled, both had married, reared families, and been widowed; and they were quarrelling still! Acrimonious debate with Nancy was evidently such sweet pain that old Jephthah sought every opportunity for it, and the sudden shower in the vicinity of her cabin had offered him an excuse to-day.
Nancy did not confine her practice to what she would have called humans, but doctored a horse or a cow with equal success. One cold spring a little chicken had its feet frozen in the wet barnyard so badly that it lost one of them, and Nancy, who had taken the poor mite into the house and nursed it till she loved it, constructed for it a wooden leg consisting of a small, light peg strapped to the stump. And thereafter Nicodemus, a rooster who must now belie the name since he could not cling to a perch with his single foot, became an institution in the Card household.
Jephthah Turrentine was a natural bone-setter, and was sent for far and near to reduce a dislocation or bandage a broken limb. In the pursuit of this which came to be almost a profession, he acquired a good knowledge of tending upon the sick, and the bitterness of rival practitioners was added to the score between him and Nancy. The case of Nicodemus furnished the man with a chance to call the woman a chicken doctor, and the name appealing to the humorous side of mountain character stuck to her, greatly to her disgust.
Aunt Nancy's dooryard was famous for its flowers, being a riot of pied bloom from March till December. Even now fire-in-the-bush and bridal wreath made gay the borders.
"Good land, Jude Barrier!" called Nancy herself. "You're as wet as a drownded rat. 'Light and come in."
Old Turrentine permitted his niece to clamber from Selim, and secure him and both mules.
"Whar's the boys?" he inquired in a great, sonorous bass, the deep, true-pitched voice promised by the contours of strong bony arches under heavy brows and the strong nose-bridge.
"In jail," responded Judith laconically, turning to enter the gate. Then, as she walked up the hard-trodden clay path between the tossing, dripping heads of daffodils, "Uncle Jep, did you know Creed Bonbright's daddy?"
"In jail!" echoed Nancy Card, making a pretence of trying to suppress a titter, and thereby rendering it more offensive. "Ain't they beginnin' ruther young?"
Tall old Jephthah got to his feet, knocked the ashes from his pipe and put it in his pocket.
"Who tuck 'em?" he inquired briefly, but with a fierce undernote in his tones. "What was they tuck fer?"
"I never noticed," said Judith, standing on the step before them, wringing the wet from her black calico riding skirt. "Nobody named it to me what they was tuck fer. I was talkin' to Creed Bonbright, and he 'lowed to find out. He said that was his business."
"Creed Bonbright," echoed her uncle; "what's he got to do with it? He's been livin' down in Hepzibah studyin' to be a lawyer—did he have Jeff and Andy jailed?"
Judith shook her head. "He didn't have nothing to do with it," she answered. "He 'lowed they would be held for witnesses against some men Haley had arrested. But he's goin' to come back and live on Turkey Track," she added, as though that were the only thing of importance in the world. "He says we-all need law in the mountings, and he's a-goin' to bring it to us."
"Well, he'd better let my boys alone if he don't want trouble," growled old Jephthah but half appeased.
"I reckon a little touch of law now an' agin won't hurt yo' boys," put in Nancy Card smoothly. "My chaps always tuck to law like a duck to water. I reckon I ain't got the right sympathy fer them that has lawless young 'uns."
"Yo' Pony was arrested afore Andy and Jeff," Judith remarked suddenly, without any apparent malice. "He was the first one I seen comin' down the road, and Dan Haley behind him a-shootin' at him."
Jephthah Turrentine forebore to laugh. But he deliberately drew out his old pipe again, filled it and stepped inside for a coal with which to light it.
"Mebbe yo' sympathies will be more tenderer for me in my afflictions of lawless sons after this, Nancy," he called derisively over his shoulder.
"Hit's bound to be a mistake 'bout Pony," declared the little old woman in a bewildered tone. "Pone ain't but risin' sixteen, and he's the peacefullest child——"
"Jest what I would have said about my twin lambs," interrupted old Jephthah with twinkling eye, as he appeared in the doorway drawing mightily upon the newly lighted pipe, tossing his great beard from side to side of his mighty chest. "My chaps is all as peaceful as kittens; but some old woman gits to talkin' and gives 'em a bad name, and it goes from lip to lip that the Turrentine boys is lawless. Hit's a sad thing when a woman's tongue is too long and limber, and hung in the middle so it works at both ends; the reppytations hit can destroy is a sight."
"But a body's own child—they' son! They' bound to stan' up for him, whether he's in the right or the wrong," maintained Nancy stoutly.
"Huh," grunted Jephthah, "offspring is cur'ous. Sometimes hit 'pears like you air kin to them, and they ain't kin to you. That Pony boy of your'n is son to a full mealsack; he's plumb filial and devoted thataway to a dollar, if so be he thinks you've got one in yo' pocket. The facts in the business air, Nancy, that you've done sp'iled him tell he's plumb rotten, and a few of the jailings that you so kindly ricommend for my pair won't do him no harm."
Nancy tossed up her head to reply; but at the moment a small boy, followed by a smaller girl, coming around the corner of the house, created a diversion. The girl, a little dancing imp with a frazzle of flying red hair and red-brown eyes, catching sight of Judith ran to her and flung herself head foremost in the visitor's lap, where Judith cooed over her and cuddled her, rumpling the bright hair, rubbing her crimson cheek against the child's peachy bloom.
"Little Buck and Beezy," said Nancy Card, addressing them both, "Yo' unc' Pony's in jail. What you-all goin' to do about it?"
The small brown man of six stopped, his feet planted wide on the sward, his freckled face grave and stern as became his sex.
"Ef the boys goes down for to git him out, I'm goin' along," Little Buck announced seriously. "Is they goin', granny?"
"I'll set my old rooster on the jail man, an' hit'll claw 'im," announced Beezy, reckless of distance and likelihood. "My old rooster can claw dest awful, ef he ain't got but one leg."
Nancy chuckled. These grandchildren were the delight of her heart.
The rain had ceased for the moment; the old man moved to the porch edge, sighting at the sky.
"I don't know whar Blatch is a-keepin' hisself," he observed. "Mebbe I better be a-steppin'."
But even as he spoke a tall young mountaineer swung into view down the road, dripping from the recent rain, and with that resentful air the best of us get from aggressions of the weather. Blatchley Turrentine, old Jephthah's nephew, was as brown as an Indian, and his narrow, glinting, steel-grey eyes looked out oddly cold and alien from under level black brows, and a fell of stiff black hair.
When the orphaned Judith, living in her Uncle Jephthah's family, was fourteen, the household had removed from the old Turrentine place—which was rented to Blatchley Turrentine—to her better farm, whose tenant had proved unsatisfactory. Well hidden in a gulch on the Turrentine acres there was an illicit still, what the mountain people call a blockade still; and it had been in pretty constant operation in earlier years. When Jephthah abandoned those stony fields for Judith's more productive acres, he definitely turned his own back upon this feature, but Blatch Turrentine revived the illegal activities and enlisted the old man's boys in them. Jeff and Andy had a tobacco patch in one corner where the ground suited, and in another field Jim Cal raised a little corn. Aside from these small ventures, the place was given over entirely to the secret still. The father held scornfully aloof; his attitude was characteristic.
"Ef I pay no tax I'll make no whiskey," he declared. "You-all boys will find yourselves behind bars many a time when you'd ruther be out squirrel-huntin'. Ef you make blockade whiskey every fool that gits mad at you has got a stick to hold over you. You are good-Lord-good-devil to everybody, for fear they'll lead to yo' still; or else you mix up with folks about the business and kill somebody an' git a bad name. These here blockaded stills calls every worthless feller in the district; most o' the foolishness in this country goes on around 'em when the boys gits filled up. I let every man choose his callin', but I don't choose to be no moonshiner, and ef you boys is wise you'll say the same."
As Blatchley came up now and caught sight of the animals tethered at the fence he began irritably:
"What in the name of common sense did Andy and Jeff leave they' mules here for? I can't haul any corn till I get the team and the waggon together."
"Looks like you've hauled too many loads of corn that nobody knows the use of," broke out the irrepressible Nancy. "Andy and Jeff's in jail, and some fool has tuck my little Pone along with the others."
Blatch flung a swift look at his uncle; but whatever his private conviction, to dishonour a member of his tribe in the face of the enemy, on the heels of defeat, was not what Jephthah Turrentine would do.
"The boys is likely held for witnesses, Jude allows," the elder explained briefly. "You take one mule and I'll ride 'tother," he added. "I'll he'p ye with the corn."
This was a great concession, and as such Blatchley accepted it.
"All right," he returned. "Much obliged."
Then he glanced unconcernedly at Judith, and, instead of making that haste toward the corn-hauling activities which his manner had suggested, moved loungingly up the steps. Beezy, from her sanctuary in Judith's lap, viewed him with contemptuous disfavour. Her brother, not so safely situated, made to pass the intruder, going wide like a shying colt.
With a sudden movement Blatchley caught the child by the shoulders. There was a pantherlike quickness in the pounce that was somehow daunting from an individual of this man's size and impassivity.
"Hold on thar, young feller," the newcomer remarked. "Whar you a-goin' to, all in sech haste?"
"You turn me a-loose," panted the child. "I'm a-goin' over to my Jude."
"Oh, she's yo' Jude, is she? Well they's some other folks around here thinks she's their Jude—what you goin' to do about it?"
All this time he held the small, dignified atom of humanity in a merciless grip that made Little Buck ridiculous before his beloved, and fired his childish soul to a very ecstasy of helpless rage.
"I'll—kill—you when I git to be a man!" the child gasped, between tears and terror. "I'll thest kill you—and I'll wed Jude. You turn me a-loose—that's what you do."
Blatch laughed tauntingly and raised the little fellow high in air.
"Ef I was to turn you a-loose now hit'd bust ye," he drawled.
"I don't keer. I——"
Around the corner of the cabin drifted Nicodemus, the wooden-legged rooster, stumping gravely with his dot-and-carry-one gait.
"Lord, Nancy, thar comes the one patient ye ever cured!" chuckled old Jephthah. "I don't wonder yo're proud enough of him to roof him and affectionate him for the balance of his life."
"I reckon you'd do the same, ef so be ye should ever cure one," snapped Nancy, rising instantly to the bait, and turning her back on the others. "As 't is, ef they hilt the buryin' from the house of the feller that killed the patient I reckon Jude wouldn't have nothin' to do but git up funeral dinners."
Little Buck, despairing of granny's interference, began to cry. At the sound Judith came suddenly out of a revery to spring up and catch him away from the hateful restraining hands.
"I don't know what the Lord's a-thinkin' about to let sech men as you live, Blatch Turrentine!" she said almost mechanically. "Ef I was a-tendin' to matters I'd 'a' had you dead long ago. Ef you're good for anything on this earth I don't know what it is."
"Oh, yes you do," Blatchley returned as the old man started down the steps. "I'd make the best husband for you of any feller in the two Turkey Tracks—and you'll find it out one of these days."
The girl answered only with a contemptuous glance.
"Come again—when you ain't got so long to stay," Nancy sped them sourly. "Jude, you'd better set awhile and get your skirts dry." She looked after Blatch as he moved up the road, then at little Buck, so ashamed of his trembling lip. Her face darkened angrily. She turned slowly to Judith.
"What you gwine to do with that feller, Jude?" she queried significantly.
"Do? Why, nothin'. He ain't nothin' to me," responded the girl indifferently.
"He ain't, hey? Well, he's bound to marry ye, honey," said the older woman.
"Huh, he ain't the first—and won't be the last, I reckon," assented Judith easily.
"Ye'd better watch out fer that man, Jude," persisted Nancy, after a moment's silence. "He'll git ye, yet. I know his kind. He ain't a-keerin' fer yo' ruthers—whether you want him or no. He jest aims to have you."
"Well, I reckon he'll about have to aim over agin," observed the unmoved Judith.
"An' Elder Drane? Air ye gwine to take him?—I know he's done axed ye," pursued Nancy hesitantly.
"'Bout 'leven times," agreed Judith with perfect seriousness. "No—I wouldn't have the man, not ef he's made of pure gold." She added with a sudden little smile and a catch of the breath: "Them's awful nice chaps o' his; I'd most take him to git them. The baby now—hit's the sweetest thing!" And she tumbled Beezy tumultuously in her lap, then suddenly inquired, apparently without any volition of her own, "Aunt Nancy, did you know Creed Bonbright's folks?"
"Good Lord, yes!" returned old Nancy. "But come on inside and set, Jude. This sun ain't a-goin' to dry yo' skirt. Come in to the fire. Don't take that thar cheer, the behime legs is broke, an' it's apt to lay you sprawling. I've knowed Creed Bonbright sence he wasn't knee-high to a turkey, and I knowed his daddy afore him, and his grand-daddy, for the matter of that."
Avoiding the treacherous piece of furniture against which she had been warned, Judith slipped out of her wet riding-skirt and arranged it in front of the fire to dry, turning then and seating herself on the broad hearth at Nancy's knee, where she prompted feverishly,
"And is all the Bonbrights moved out of the neighbourhood?"
The old woman drew a few meditative whiffs on her pipe.
"All gone," she nodded; "some of 'em killed up in the big feud, and some moved away—mostly to Texas." Presently she added:
"That there Bonbright tribe is a curious nation of folks. They're always after great things, and barkin' their shins against rocks in the way. Creed's mammy—she was Judge Gillenwaters's sister, down in Hepzibah—died when he was no bigger'n Little Buck, and his pappy never wedded again. We used to name him and Creed Big 'Fraid and Little 'Fraid; they was always round together, like a man and his shadder. Then the feuds broke out mighty bad, and the Blackshearses got Esher Bonbright one night in a mistake for some of my kin—or so it was thort. Anyhow, the man was dead, and Creed lived with me fer a spell till his uncle down in Hepzibah wanted him to come and learn to be a lawyer."
"Lived right here—in this house?" inquired Judith, looking around her, as she rose and turned the riding-skirt.
"Lord, yes—why not? You would a-knowed all about it, only your folks never moved in from the Fur Cove neighbourhood till the year Creed went down to the settlement."
The girl sank back on the hearth, but continued to gaze about her, and the tell-tale expression in her eyes seemed to afford Nancy Card much quiet amusement.
"Do you reckon he'll live with you again when he comes back into the mountains?" she inquired finally.
"I reckon he'll be weddin' one of them thar town gals and fetchin' a wife home to his own farm over by yo' house," suggested the inveterate tease.
Judith went suddenly white, and then red. "You don't know of anybody—you hain't heard he was promised, have you?" she hesitated.
"I ain't hearn that he was, and I ain't hearn that he wasn't," returned Nancy serenely. "The gal that gits Creed Bonbright'll be doin' mighty well; but also she may not find hit right easy for to trap him. I'll promise ef he does come up hyer again I'll speak a good word for you, Jude. The Lord knows I don't see how you make out to live with that thar old man. You'll deserve a crown and a harp o' gold sot with diamonds ef you stan' it much longer."
Judith put on the now thoroughly dried riding-skirt, and the two women went outside together.
"Well, good-bye, Aunt Nancy," she said, as she led the sorrel nag to the edge of the porch and made ready to mount. "I'll be over and bring the pieces for you to start me out on that Risin' Sun quilt a-Wednesday."
It was late afternoon as she took her homeward way across the level of the broad mountain-top to the Turrentine place. She left the main-travelled road and struck directly into a forest short-cut. After the rain earth and sky were newly washed; the clear, sweetened air was full of the scent of damp loam and new-ploughed fields; the colours about her were freshened and glad, and each distant bird-note rang clear and vivid. To Mrs. Rhody Staggart and her likes at Hepzibah she might be a crude, awkward country girl; here she was a princess in her own domain; and it was a noble realm through which she moved as she went forward under the great trees that rose straight and tall from a black soil, making pillared aisles away from her on every side. The fern was thick under foot—it would brush her saddle-girth, come midsummer. Down the long vistas under the greening trees, where the moist air hung thick, her bemused eyes caught the occasional roseflash of azalea through the pearly mist, her nostril was greeted by their wandering, intensely sweet perfume, with its curious undernote of earth smell.
She smiled vaguely at the first butterfly she had seen, and again as she noted the earliest lizard basking in the sun-warmed hollow of a big rock. Absently her gaze sought for cinnamon fern in low woods, sweet fern in the thickets, and exquisite maidenhair just beginning to uncurl from the black leaf mould of dripping brakes.
Like a woman in a dream she made her progress, riding through the wonderful stillness of the vast wild land, an ocean on which each littlest sound was afloat, so that each was given its true value almost like a musical tone. An awful, beautiful silence this, brooding back of every sound; nothing in such a place gives forth mere senseless noise; the ripple of frogs in marsh and spring branch fall upon the sense as sweet as bird-songs. The clamour of little falls, the solemn suggestion of wind in the pines, the sweet broken jangle of cow-bells, a catbird in a tree—a continuous yet zigzag sort of warble, silver and sibilant notes alternating,—the rare wild turkey's call along a deeply embowered creek—one by one all these came to Judith's dreaming ears, clear, perfect, individual, on the majestic sea of silence about her.
She turned Selim's head at a little intersecting trail, and rode considerably out of her way to pass the old Bonbright place and brood upon its darkened windows and grass-besieged doorstone. Some day all that would be changed. Still in her waking dream she unsaddled Selim at the log barn, and turned him loose in his open pasture. She laid off her town attire, put on her cotton working-dress, kindled afresh the fire on the broad hearthstone and got supper. Her Uncle Jephthah and Blatch Turrentine came in late, weary from their work of hauling corn to that destination which old Nancy had announced as disreputably indefinite. The second son of the family, Wade, a man of perhaps twenty-four, was with them, and had already been told of the mishap to Andy and Jeff.
Old Jephthah sat at the head of the board, his black beard falling to his lap, his finely domed brow relieved against a background of shadows. Judith needed the small brass lamp at the hearthstone, and a tallow candle rather inadequately lit the supper-table. The corners of the room were in darkness; only the cloth and dishes, the faces and hands of those about the table showed forth in sudden light or motion.
Hung on the rough walls, and glimpsed in occasional flickers only, were Judith's big maple bread-bowl, the churn-dash, spurtle, sedge-broom, and a round glass bottle for rolling piecrust; cheek by jowl with old Jephthah's bullet moulds and the pot-hooks he had forged for Judith. There were strings of dried pumpkin, too, and of shining red peppers. On a low shelf, scarce visible at all in the dense shadow, stood a keg of sorghum, and one beside it of vinegar, flanked by the butter-keeler and the salt piggin with its cedar staves and hickory hoops. And there, too, was the broken coffee-pot in which garden seeds were hoarded.
"What's all this I hear about Andy and Jeff bein' took?" inquired a plaintive voice from the darkened doorway whose door, with its heavy, home-made latch, swung back against the wall on its great, rude, wooden hinges, as abruptly out of the shadow appeared a man who set a plump hand on either jamb and stared into the room with a round, white, anxiously inquiring face. It was Jim Cal, eldest of the sons of Jephthah Turrentine, married, and living in a cabin a short distance up the slope. "Who give the information?" he asked as soon as he had peered all about the room and found no outsider present.
"Well, we hearn that you did, podner," jeered Blatch.
"Come in and set," invited the head of the household, with the mountaineer's unforgetting hospitality. "Draw up—draw up. Reach and take off."
"Well—I—I might," faltered the fleshy one, sidling toward the table and getting himself into a seat. Without further word his father passed the great dish of fried potatoes, then the platter of bacon. Judith brought hot coffee and corn pone for him. She did not sit down with the men, having quite enough to do to get the meal served.
Unheedingly she heard the matter discussed at the table; only when Creed Bonbright's name came up was she moved to listen and put in her word. Something in her manner of describing the assistance Bonbright offered seemed to go against Blatch's grain.
"Got to look out for these here folks that's so free with their offers o' he'p," he grunted. "Man'll slap ye on the back and tell ye what a fine feller ye air whilst he's feelin' for your pocket-book—that's town ways."
The girl was like one hearkening for a finer voice amid all this distracting noise; she could hear neither. She made feverish haste to clear away and wash her dishes, that she might creep to her own room under the eaves. Through her open casement came up to her the sounds of the April night: a heightened chorus of little frogs in a rain-fed branch; nearer in the dooryard a half-dozen tree-toads trilling plaintively as many different minors; with these, scents of growing, sharpened and sweetened by the dark. And all night the cedar tree which stood close to the porch edge below moved in the wind of spring, and, chafing against the shingles, spoke through the miniature music in its deep, muffled legato, a soft baritone note like a man's voice—a lover's voice—calling to her beneath her window.
It roused her from fitful slumbers to happy waking, when she lay and stared into the dark, and painted for herself on its sombre background Creed Bonbright's figure, the yellow uncovered head close to her knee as he stood and talked at the foot of the mountain trail. And the voice of the tree in the eager spring airs said to her waiting heart—whispered it softly, shouted and tossed it abroad so that all might have heard it had they been awake and known the shibboleth, murmured it in tones of tenderness that penetrated her with bliss—that Creed was coming—coming—coming to her, through the April woods.
April was in the mountains. All the vast timbered slopes and tablelands of the Cumberlands were one golden dapple, as yet differentiated by darker greens and heavier shadows only where some group of pine or cedar stood. April in the Cumberlands is the May or early June of New England. Here March has the days of shine and shower; while to February belongs the gusty turbulence usually attributed to March. Now sounded the calls of the first whippoorwills in the dusk of evening; now the first mocking-bird sang long before day, very sweetly and softly, and again before moonrise; hours of sun he filled with bolder rejoicings, condescending in his more antic humour to mimic the hens that began to cackle around the barn. Every thicket by the water-courses blushed with azaleas; all the banks were gay with wild violets.
Throughout March's changeful emotional season, night after night in those restless vehement impassioned airs, the cedar tree talked ardently to Judith. Through April's softer nights she wakened often to listen to it. It went fondly over its first assurances. And the time of Creed Bonbright's advent was near at hand now. Thought of it made light her step as she went about her work.
"Don't you never marry a lazy man, Jude."
The wife of Jim Cal Turrentine halted on the doorstep, a coarse white cup containing the coffee she had come to borrow poised in her hand as she turned to harangue the girl in the kitchen.
"I ain't aimin' to wed no man. Huh, I say marry! I'm not studyin' about marryin'," promptly responded Judith in the mountain girl's unfailing formula; but she coloured high, and bent, pot-hooks in hand, to the great hearth to shift the clumsy Dutch oven that contained her bread.
"That's what gals allers says," commented Iley Turrentine discontentedly. "Huldy's forever singin' that tune. But let a good-lookin' feller come in reach and I 'low any of you will change the note. Huldy's took her foot in her hand and put out—left me with the whole wash to do, and Jim Cal in the bed declarin' he's got a misery in his back. Don't you never wed a lazy man."
"Whar's Huldy gone?" inquired Judith, sauntering to the door and looking out on the glad beauty of the April morning with fond brooding eyes. The grotesque bow-legged pot-hooks dangled idly in her fingers.
"Over to Nancy Cyard's to git her littlest spinnin' wheel—so she said. I took notice that she had a need for that wheel as soon as ever she hearn tell that Creed Bonbright was up from Hepzibah stayin' at the Cyards's."
Had not Iley been so engrossed with her own grievances, the sudden heat of the look Judith turned upon her must have enlightened her.
"Huldy knowed him right well when she was waitin' on table at Miz. Huffaker's boarding-house down at Hepzibah," the woman went on. "I ain't got no use for these here fellers that's around tendin' to the whole world's business—they' own chil'en is mighty apt to go hongry. But thar, what does a gal think of that by the side o' curly hair and soft-spoken ways?"
For Judith Barrier at once all the light was gone out of the spring morning. The bird in the Rose of Sharon bush that she had taken for a thrush—why, the thing cawed like a crow. She could have struck her visitor. And then, with an uncertain impulse of gratitude, she was glad to be told anything about Creed, to be informed that others knew his hair was yellow and curly.
"Gone?" sounded old Jephthah's deep tones from within, as Mrs. Jim Cal made her reluctant way back to a sick husband and a house full of work and babies. "Lord, to think of a woman havin' the keen tongue that Iley's got, and her husband keepin' fat on it!"
"Uncle Jep," inquired Judith abruptly, "did you know Creed Bonbright was at Nancy Card's—stayin' there, I mean?"
"No," returned the old man, seeing in this a chance to call at the cabin, where, beneath the reception that might have been offered an interloper, even a duller wit than his might have divined a secret cordial welcome. "I reckon I better find time to step over that way an' ax is there anything I can do to he'p 'em out."
"I wish 't you would," assented Judith so heartily that he turned and regarded her with surprise. "An' ef you see Huldy over yon tell her she's needed at home. Jim Cal's sick, and Iley can't no-way git along without her."
"I reckon James Calhoun Turrentine ain't got nothin' worse 'n the old complaint that sends a feller fishin' when the days gits warm," opined Jim Cal's father. "I named that boy after the finest man that ever walked God's green earth—an' then the fool had to go and git fat on me! To think of me with a fat son! I allers did hold that a fat woman was bad enough, but a fat man ort p'intedly to be led out an' killed."
"Jude, whar's my knife," came the call from the window in a masculine voice. "Pitch it out here, can't you?"
Judith took the pocket-knife from the mantel, and going to the window tossed it to her cousin Wade Turrentine, who was shaping an axe helve at the chip pile.
"Do you know whar Huldy's gone?" she inquired, setting her elbows on the sill and staring down at the young fellow accusingly.
"Nope—an' don't care neither," said Wade, contentedly returning to his whittling. He was expecting to marry Huldah Spiller, Iley's younger sister, within a few months, and the reply was thus conventional.
"Well, you'd better care," urged Judith. "You better make her stay home and behave herself. She's gone over to Nancy Card's taggin' after Creed Bonbright. I wouldn't stand it ef I was you."
"I ain't standin'—I'm settin'," retorted Wade with rather feeble wit; but the girl noted with satisfaction the quick, fierce spark of anger that leaped to life in his clear hazel eyes, the instant stiffening of his relaxed figure. Like a child playing with fire, she was ready to set alight any materials that came within reach of her reckless fingers, so only that she fancied her own ends might be served. Now she went uneasily back to the hearthstone. Her uncle, noting that she appeared engrossed in her baking, gave a surreptitious glance into the small ancient mirror standing on the high mantel, made a half-furtive exchange of coats, and prepared to depart.
Up at the crib Blatch Turrentine was loading corn, and Jim Cal came creeping across from his own cabin whence Iley had ejected him. He stood for a while, humped, hands in pockets, watching the other's strong body spring lithely to its task. Finally he began in his plaintive, ineffectual voice.
"Blatch, I take notice that you seem to be settin' up to Jude. Do ye think hit's wise?"
The other grunted over a particularly heavy sack, swung it to the waggon bed, straightened himself suddenly, and faced his questioner with a look of dark anger.
"I'd like to see the feller that can git her away from me!" he growled.
"I wasn't a-meanin' that," said Jim Cal, patiently but uneasily shifting from the right foot to the left. "I'll admit—an' I reckon everybody on the place will say the same—that she's always give you mo' reason than another to believe she'd have ye. Not but what that's Jude's way, an' she's hilt out sech hopes to a-many. What pesters me is how you two would make out, once you was wed. Jude's mighty pretty, but then again she's got a tongue."
"Her farm hain't," chuckled Blatch, pulling a sack into place; "and I 'low Jude wouldn't have after her and me had been wed a short while."
"I don't know, Blatch," maintained the fleshy one, timid yet persisting. "You're a great somebody for havin' yo' own way, an' Jude's mighty high sperrity—why, you two would shorely fuss."
"Not more than once, we wouldn't," returned Blatch with a meaning laugh. "The way to do with a woman like Jude is to give her a civil beatin' to start out with and show her who's boss—wouldn't be no trouble after that. Jude Barrier has got a good farm. She's the best worker of any gal that I know, and I aim for to have her—an' this farm."
Within the house now Judith, her cheeks glowing crimson as she bent above the heaped coals, was going with waxing resentment over the catalogue of Huldah Spiller's personal characteristics. Her hair, huh! she was mighty particular to call it "aurbu'n," but a body might as well say red when they were namin' it, because red was what it was. If a man admired a turkey egg he would be likely to see beauty in Huldah's complexion—some folks might wear a sunbonnet to bed, and freckle they would! A vision of the laughing black eyes and white flashing teeth that went with Huldah Spiller's red ringlets and freckles, and made her little hatchet face brilliant when she smiled or laughed, suddenly put Judith on foot and running to the door.
"Uncle Jep," she called after the tall receding form, "Oh, Uncle Jep!"
He turned muttering, "I hope to goodness Jude ain't goin' to git the hollerin' habit. There's Iley never lets Jim Cal git away from the house without hollerin' after him as much as three times, and the thing he'd like least to have knowed abroad is the thing she takes up with for the last holler."
"Uncle Jep," came the clear hail from the doorway, "don't you fail to find Huldy and send her straight home. Tell her Iley's nigh about give out, and Jim Cal's down sick in the bed—hear me?"
He nodded and turned disgustedly. What earthly difference did it make about Jim Cal and Huldah and Iley? Why should Judith suddenly care? And then, being a philosopher and in his own manner an amateur of life, he set to work to analyze her motives, and guessed obliquely at them.
The sight of his broad, retreating back evidently spurred Judith to fresh effort. "Uncle Jep!" she screamed, cupping her hands about her red lips to make the sound carry. "Ef you see Creed Bonbright tell him—howdy—for me!"
The sound may not have carried to the old man's ears, but it reached a younger pair. Blatch Turrentine was just crossing through the grassy yard toward the "big road," and Broyles's mill over on Clear Fork, where his load of corn would be ground to meal with which to feed that blockaded still on the old Turrentine place which sometimes flung a delicate trail of smoke out over the flank of the slope across the gulch. As he heard Judith's bantering cry, Blatch pulled up his team with a muttered curse. He looked down at her through narrowed eyes, jerking his mules savagely and swearing at them in an undertone. He was a well-made fellow with a certain slouching grace about him as he sat on his load of corn; but there were evil promising bumps on either side of his jaws that spoke of obstinacy, even of ferocity; and there was something menacing in his surly passivity of attitude. He looked at the girl and his lip lifted with a peculiar sidelong sneer.
"Holler a little louder an' Bonbright hisself'll hear ye," he commented as he started up his team and rattled away down the steep, stony road.
Sunday brought its usual train of visitors. The Turrentine place was within long walking distance of Brush Arbor church, and whenever there was preaching they could count on a considerable overflow from that direction. The Sunday after Creed Bonbright put in an appearance at Nancy Card's, there was preaching at Brush Arbor, but Judith, nourishing what secret hopes may be conjectured, refused to make any preparation for attending service.
"An' ye think ye won't go to meeting this fine sunshiny Sabbath mornin', Sister Barrier?" Elder Drane put the query, standing anxious and carefully attired in his best before Judith on the doorstep of her home.
She shook her dark head, and looked past the Elder toward the distant ranges.
"I jest p'intedly cain't git away this morning," she said carelessly.
The Elder combed his sandy whiskers with a thoughtful forefinger. Not thus had Judith been wont to reply to him. Always before, if there had been denial, there were too, reasons adduced, shy looks from the corners of those dark eyes and tender inquiries as to the health of his children.
"Is they—is they some particular reason that you cain't go this morning?" the widower inquired cautiously.
There was, and that particular reason lay as far afield as the Edge and Nancy Card's place, but Judith Barrier did not see fit to name it to this one of her suitors, who had brought her perhaps more glory than any other. She was impatient to be rid of him. Like her mother Earth, having occupied her time for lo! these several years in the building of an ideal from such unpromising materials as were then at hand, she was ready to sweep those tentative makings—confessed failures now that she found the type she really wanted—swiftly, ruthlessly to the limbo of oblivion.
Elihu Drane stood high among his neighbours; he was a man of some education as well as comfortable means. His attention had been worth retaining once; now she smiled at him with a vague, impersonal sweetness, and repeated her statement that she couldn't go to church.
"I've got too much to do," she qualified finally. "Looks like the work in this house never is finished. And there's chicken and dumplin's to cook for dinner."
The Elder's pale blue eyes brightened. "Walk down to the gate with me, won't you?" he said hopefully, "I've got somethin' to talk to you about."
When they were out of earshot of the house, he began eagerly, "Sister Barrier you're workin' yourse'f to death here, in the sweet days of your youth. I did promise the last time that I never would beg you again to wed me, but looks like I can't stand by and hold my peace. If you was to trust yourse'f to me things would be different. I never did hold with a woman killin' herse'f with hard work. My first and second had everything that they could wish for, and I was good and ready to do more any time they named what it was. I've got a crank churn. None of these old back-breaking, up-and-down dashers for me. I hired a woman whenever my wife said the word. I don't think either of mine ever killed a chicken or cut a stick of firewood from the time they walked in the front door as a bride till they was carried out of it in their coffins."
He stared eagerly into the downcast face beside him, but somewhere Judith found strength to resist even these dazzling propositions.
"I ain't studyin' about gittin' wedded," she told him most untruthfully. "Looks like I'm a mighty cold-hearted somebody, Elder Drane. I jest can't fix it no way but to live here with my Uncle Jep and take care of him in his old days. Oh, would you wait a minute?" as they reached the horse-block and the Elder began to untie his mount with a discouraged countenance. "Jest let me run back to the house—I won't keep you a second. I got some little sugar cookies for Mart and Lucy."
Mart and Lucy were the Elder's children. He stood looking after her as she ran lithely up the path, and wondered why she could love them so much and him so little. She came back laughing and a bit out of breath.
"I expect we'll have company to-day," she told him comfortably. "We always do when there's preaching at the church, and I 'low I'd better stay home and see to the dinner."
The Elder had scarcely made his chastened adieux when the Lusk girls came through the grove walking on either side of a young man.
The Lusk girls were Judith's nearest neighbours—if you excepted Huldah Spiller at Jim Cal's cabin, and at the present Judith certainly was in the mind to make an exception of her. The sisters were seldom seen apart; narrow shouldered, short waisted, thin limbed young creatures, they were even at seventeen bowing to a deprecating stoop. Their little faces were alike, short-chinned with pink mouths inclined to be tremulous, the eyes big, blue, and half-frightened in expression, and the drab hair drawn away from the small foreheads so tightly that it looked almost grey. They inevitably reminded one of a pair of blue and white night-moths, scarcely fitted for a daylight world, and continually afraid of it.
"Cousin Lacey's over from the Far Cove," called Pendrilla before they reached Judith. "Ain't it fine? Ef we-all can git up a play-party he says he'll shore come ef we let him know in time."
The young fellow with them, their cousin Lacey Rountree, showed sufficient resemblance to mark the family type, but his light eyes were lit with reckless fires, and his short chin was carried with a defiant tilt.
"What you foolin' along o' that old feller for, Judith?" he asked jerking an irreverent thumb after the departing Elder.
"I wasn't fooling with him," returned Judith, her red lips demure, her brown eyes laughing above them through their thick fringe of lashes. "Elder Drane was consulting me about church matters—sech as children like you have no call to meddle with."
Young Rountree smiled, "I'll bet he was!" picking up a stone and firing it far into the blue in sheer exuberance of youthful joy. "Did he name anything about a weddin' in church?"
"Elder Drane is a mighty fine man," asserted Judith, suddenly sober. "Any gal might be glad to git him. But its my belief and opinion that his heart is buried with his first—or his second," and she laughed out suddenly at the unintentional humorous conclusion she had made.
"See here, Jude," the boy put it boldly as the four young people strolled toward the house, "you're too pretty and sweet to be anybody's thirdly. Next time old man Drane comes pesterin' round you, you tell him that you're promised to me—hear?"
Again Judith laughed. It is impossible to talk seriously to a boy with whom one has played hat-ball and prisoner's base, whose hair one has pulled, and who has, in retort courteous, rolled one in the dust.
"I'm in earnest if I ever was in my life," asserted Lacey, taking it quite as a matter of course that Cliantha and Pendrilla should be made party to his courting.
And the two little old maids of seventeen looked with wondering admiration at Judith's management of all this masculine attention—her careless, discounting smile for their swaggering young cousin, her calm acceptance of imposing Elder Drane's humble and persistent wooing.
Judith awakened that morning with the song of the first thrush sounding in her ears. Day was not yet come, but she knew instantly it was near dawn, so soon as she heard the keen, cool, unmatched thrush voice. Not elaborate the song like the bobolink, nor passionate like the nightingale, nor with the bravura of the oriole; but low or loud, its pure tones are always penetrating, piercing the heart of their hearer with exquisite sweetness.
The girl lay long in the dark listening, and it seemed to her half awakened consciousness that this voice in the April dawn was like Creed Bonbright. These notes, lucid, passionless, that yet always stirred her heart strangely, and the selfless personality, the high-purposed soul that spoke in him, they were akin. The crystal tones flowed on; Judith harkened, the ear of her spirit alert for a message. Yes, Creed was like that. And her feeling for him too, it partook of the same quality, a thing to climb toward rather than concede.
And then after all her tremulous hopes, her plannings, the dozen times she had taken a certain frock from its peg minutely inspecting and repairing it, that it might be ready for wear on the great occasion, the first meeting with Creed found Judith unprepared, happening in no wise as she would have chosen. She was at the milking lot, clad in the usual dull blue cotton gown in which the mountain woman works. She had filled her two pails and set them on the high bench by the fence while she turned the calves into the small pasture reserved for them and let old Red and Piedy out.
He approached across the fields from the direction of his own house, and naturally saw her before she observed him. It was early morning. The sky was blue and wide and high, with great shining piles of white cloud swimming lazily at the horizon, cutting sharply against its colour. Around the edges of the cow-lot peach trees were all in blossom and humming with bees, their rich, amethystine rose flung up against the gay April sky in a challenge of beauty and joy. The air was full of the promises of spring, keen, bracing, yet with an undercurrent of languorous warmth. There was a ragged fleece of bloom, sweet and alive with droning insects, over a plum thicket near the woods,—half-wild, brambly things, cousin on the one hand to the cultivated farm, and on the other to the free forest,—while beyond, through the openings of the timber, dogwood flamed white in the sun.
Judith came forward and greeted the newcomer, all unaware of the picture she made, tall and straight and pliant in her simple blue cotton, under the wonderful blue-and-white sky and the passionate purple pink of the blossoms, with the scant folds of her frock outlining the rounded young body, its sleeves rolled up on her fine arms, its neck folded away from the firm column of her throat, the frolic wind ruffling the dark locks above her shadowy eyes. There were strange gleams in those dark eyes; her red lips were tremulous whether she spoke or not. It was as though she had some urgent message for him which waited always behind her silence or her speech.
"I thought I'd come over and get acquainted with my neighbours," Bonbright began in his impersonal fashion.
"Uncle Jep and the boys has gone across to the far place ploughing to-day," said Judith. "They's nobody at home but Jim Cal and his wife—and me." She forebore to add the name of Huldah Spiller, though her angry eye descried that young woman ostentatiously hanging wash on a line back of the Jim Cal cabin.
"I won't stop then this morning," said Bonbright. "I'll get along over to the far place. I wanted to have speech with your uncle. He was at Aunt Nancy's the other day and we had some talk; he knows more about what I'm aiming at up here then I do. A man of his age and good sense can be a sight of help to me."
"Uncle Jep will be proud to do anything he can," said Judith softly. "Won't you come in and set awhile?"
She dreaded that the invitation might hurry him away, and now made hasty use of the first diversion that offered. He had broken a blooming switch from the peach-tree beneath which he stood, and she reproached him fondly.
"Look at you. Now there won't never be no peaches where them blossoms was."
He twisted the twig in his fingers and smiled down at her, conscious of a singular and personal kindness between them, aware too, for the first time, that she was young, beautiful, and a woman; before, she had been merely an individual to him.
"My mother used to say that to me when I would break fruit blows," he said meditatively. "But father always pruned his trees when they were in blossom—they can't any of them bear a peach for every bloom."
She shook her head as though giving up the argument, since it was after all a matter of sentiment. Her dark, rich-coloured beauty glowed its contrast to his cool, northern type.
At present neither spoke more than a few syllables of the spiritual language of the other, yet so powerful was the attraction between them that even Creed began to feel it, while Judith, the primitive woman, all given over to instinct, promptly laid about her for something to hold and interest him.
"The young folks is a-goin' to get up a play-party at our house sometime soon," she hazarded. "I reckon you wouldn't come to any such as that, would you?"
"I'd be proud to come," returned Creed at once. But he spoiled it by adding, "I've got to get acquainted with people all over again, it's so long since I lived here; and looks like I'm not a very good mixer."
"Will you sure come?" inquired Judith insistently, as she saw him preparing to depart.
"I sure will."
"You could stay over night in your own house then—ain't you comin' back, ever, to live there?"
"Why, yes, I reckon I might stay there over night, but it's too far from the main road for a justice's office."
"Well, if you're going to try to sleep in the house, it ort to be opened up and sunned a little; you better let me have the key now," observed Judith, assuming airs of proprietorship over his inept masculinity.
Smiling, he got the key from his pocket and handed it to her. "Help yourself to anything you want for the party, or any other time," he said in mountain fashion.
She looked down at that key with the pride of one to whom had been given the freedom of a city. Its possession enabled her to bear it with a fair degree of equanimity when Huldah Spiller, having "jest slung her clothes anyway onto that line," as Judith phrased it to herself, came panting and laughing across the slope between the two houses and called a gay "Howdy!" to the visitor. The lively little red haired flirt professed greatly to desire news of certain persons in Hepzibah, and as Creed was departing sauntered unconcernedly beside him as far as the draw-bars, detaining him in conversation there as long as possible. She had an instinctive knowledge that Judith, looking on, was deeply disturbed.
Creed set his justice's office about a hundred yards from Nancy Card's cabin, on the main road that led through the two Turkey Track neighbourhoods out to Rainy Gap and the Far Cove settlement. The little shack was built of the raw yellow boards which the new saw-mill was ripping out of pine trees over on the shoulder of Big Turkey Track above Garyville. Most of the mountain dwellers still preferred log houses, and the lumber was sent down the mountain by means of a little gravity railway, whose car was warped up after each trip by a patient old mule working in a circular treadmill.
God knows with what high hopes the planks of that humble shanty were put in place, with what visions sill and window-frame were shaped and joined, Aunt Nancy going out and in at her household tasks calling good counsel over to him; Beezy, the irrepressible, adding shaving curls to her red frazzle; Little Buck, furnished with hammer and tacks, gravely assisting, pounding his fingers only part of the time. Hens were coming off. Old Nancy had a great time with notionate mothers hatching out broods under the floor or in the stable loft, and the plaintive cheep-cheep! of the "weedies" added its note to the chorus of sounds as the children followed them about, now and then catching up a ball of fluff to pet it, undeterred by indignant clucks from the parent.
As Creed whistled over his work, he saw a shadowy train coming down the road, the people whom he should help, his people, to whose darkness he should bring light and counsel. They knew so little, and needed so much. True, his own knowledge was not great; but it was all freely at their service. His heart swelled with good-will as he prepared to open his modest campaign of usefulness.
To come into leadership naturally a man should be the logical outgrowth of his class and time, and this Creed knew he was not. Yet he had pondered the matter deeply, and put it thus to himself: The peasant of Europe can only rise through stages of material prosperity to a point of development at which he craves intellectual attainment, or spiritual growth. But the mountaineer is always a thinker; he has even in his poverty a hearty contempt for luxury, for material gain at the expense of personality. With his disposition to philosophy, fostered by solitude and isolation, he readily overleaps those gradations, and would step at once from obscurity to the position of a man of culture were the means at hand.
"Bonbright," remonstrated Jephthah Turrentine, in the first conversation the two held upon the subject, "Ye cain't give people what they ain't ready to take. Ef our folks wanted law and order, don't you reckon they'd make the move to get it?"