THE CALL OF THE CUMBERLANDS
CHARLES NEVILLE BUCK
Close to the serried backbone of the Cumberland ridge through a sky of mountain clarity, the sun seemed hesitating before its descent to the horizon. The sugar-loaf cone that towered above a creek called Misery was pointed and edged with emerald tracery where the loftiest timber thrust up its crest plumes into the sun. On the hillsides it would be light for more than an hour yet, but below, where the waters tossed themselves along in a chorus of tiny cascades, the light was already thickening into a cathedral gloom. Down there the "furriner" would have seen only the rough course of the creek between moss-velveted and shaded bowlders of titanic proportions. The native would have recognized the country road in these tortuous twistings. Now there were no travelers, foreign or native, and no sounds from living throats except at intervals the clear "Bob White" of a nesting partridge, and the silver confidence of the red cardinal flitting among the pines. Occasionally, too, a stray whisper of breeze stole along the creek-bed and rustled the beeches, or stirred in the broad, fanlike leaves of the "cucumber trees." A great block of sandstone, to whose summit a man standing in his saddle could scarcely reach his fingertips, towered above the stream, with a gnarled scrub oak clinging tenaciously to its apex. Loftily on both sides climbed the mountains cloaked in laurel and timber.
Suddenly the leafage was thrust aside from above by a cautious hand, and a shy, half-wild girl appeared in the opening. For an instant she halted, with her brown fingers holding back the brushwood, and raised her face as though listening. Across the slope drifted the call of the partridge, and with perfect imitation she whistled back an answer. It would have seemed appropriate to anyone who had seen her that she should talk bird language to the birds. She was herself as much a wood creature as they, and very young. That she was beautiful was not strange. The women of the mountains have a morning-glory bloom—until hardship and drudgery have taken toll of their youth—and she could not have been more than sixteen.
It was June, and the hills, which would be bleakly forbidding barriers in winter, were now as blithely young as though they had never known the scourging of sleet or the blight of wind. The world was abloom, and the girl, too, was in her early June, and sentiently alive with the strength of its full pulse-tide. She was slim and lithely resilient of step. Her listening attitude was as eloquent of pausing elasticity as that of the gray squirrel. Her breathing was soft, though she had come down a steep mountainside, and as fragrant as the breath of the elder bushes that dashed the banks with white sprays of blossom. She brought with her to the greens and grays and browns of the woodland's heart a new note of color, for her calico dress was like the red cornucopias of the trumpet-flower, and her eyes were blue like little scraps of sky. Her heavy, brown-red hair fell down over her shoulders in loose profusion. The coarse dress was freshly briar-torn, and in many places patched; and it hung to the lithe curves of her body in a fashion which told that she wore little else. She had no hat, but the same spirit of childlike whimsey that caused her eyes to dance as she answered the partridge's call had led her to fashion for her own crowning a headgear of laurel leaves and wild roses. As she stood with the toes of one bare foot twisting in the gratefully cool moss, she laughed with the sheer exhilaration of life and youth, and started out on the table top of the huge rock. But there she halted suddenly with a startled exclamation, and drew instinctively back. What she saw might well have astonished her, for it was a thing she had never seen before and of which she had never heard. Now she paused in indecision between going forward toward exploration and retreating from new and unexplained phenomena. In her quick instinctive movements was something like the irresolution of the fawn whose nostrils have dilated to a sense of possible danger. Finally, reassured by the silence, she slipped across the broad face of the flat rock for a distance of twenty-five feet, and paused again to listen.
At the far edge lay a pair of saddlebags, such as form the only practical equipment for mountain travelers. They were ordinary saddlebags, made from the undressed hide of a brindle cow, and they were fat with tight packing. A pair of saddlebags lying unclaimed at the roadside would in themselves challenge curiosity. But in this instance they gave only the prefatory note to a stranger story. Near them lay a tin box, littered with small and unfamiliar-looking tubes of soft metal, all grotesquely twisted and stained, and beside the box was a strangely shaped plaque of wood, smeared with a dozen hues. That this plaque was a painter's sketching palette was a thing which she could not know, since the ways of artists had to do with a world as remote from her own as the life of the moon or stars. It was one of those vague mysteries that made up the wonderful life of "down below." Even the names of such towns as Louisville and Lexington meant nothing definite to this girl who could barely spell out, "The cat caught the rat," in the primer. Yet here beside the box and palette stood a strange jointed tripod, and upon it was some sort of sheet. What it all meant, and what was on the other side of the sheet became a matter of keenly alluring interest. Why had these things been left here in such confusion? If there was a man about who owned them he would doubtless return to claim them. Possibly he was wandering about the broken bed of the creek, searching for a spring, and that would not take long. No one drank creek water. At any moment he might return and discover her. Such a contingency held untold terrors for her shyness, and yet to turn her back on so interesting a mystery would be insupportable. Accordingly, she crept over, eyes and ears alert, and slipped around to the front of the queer tripod, with all her muscles poised in readiness for flight.
A half-rapturous and utterly astonished cry broke from her lips. She stared a moment, then dropped to the moss-covered rock, leaning back on her brown hands and gazing intently. She sat there forgetful of everything except the sketch which stood on the collapsible easel.
"Hit's purty!" she approved, in a low, musical murmur. "Hit's plumb dead beautiful!" Her eyes were glowing with delighted approval.
She had never before seen a picture more worthy than the chromos of advertising calendars and the few crude prints that find their way into the roughest places, and she was a passionate, though totally unconscious, devotee of beauty. Now she was sitting before a sketch, its paint still moist, which more severe critics would have pronounced worthy of accolade. Of course, it was not a finished picture—merely a study of what lay before her—but the hand that had placed these brushstrokes on the academy board was the sure, deft hand of a master of landscape, who had caught the splendid spirit of the thing, and fixed it immutably in true and glowing appreciation. Who he was; where he had gone; why his work stood there unfinished and abandoned, were details which for the moment this half-savage child-woman forgot to question. She was conscious only of a sense of revelation and awe. Then she saw other boards, like the one upon the easel, piled near the paint -box. These were dry, and represented the work of other days; but they were all pictures of her own mountains, and in each of them, as in this one, was something that made her heart leap.
To her own people, these steep hillsides and "coves" and valleys were a matter of course. In their stony soil, they labored by day: and in their shadows slept when work was done. Yet, someone had discovered that they held a picturesque and rugged beauty; that they were not merely steep fields where the plough was useless and the hoe must be used. She must tell Samson: Samson, whom she held in an artless exaltation of hero-worship; Samson, who was so "smart" that he thought about things beyond her understanding; Samson, who could not only read and write, but speculate on problematical matters.
Suddenly she came to her feet with a swift-darting impulse of alarm. Her ear had caught a sound. She cast searching glances about her, but the tangle was empty of humanity. The water still murmured over the rocks undisturbed. There was no sign of human presence, other than herself, that her eyes could discover—and yet to her ears came the sound again, and this time more distinctly. It was the sound of a man's voice, and it was moaning as if in pain. She rose and searched vainly through the bushes of the hillside where the rock ran out from the woods. She lifted her skirts and splashed her bare feet in the shallow creek water, wading persistently up and down. Her shyness was forgotten. The groan was a groan of a human creature in distress, and she must find and succor the person from whom it came.
Certain sounds are baffling as to direction. A voice from overhead or broken by echoing obstacles does not readily betray its source. Finally she stood up and listened once more intently—her attitude full of tense earnestness.
"I'm shore a fool," she announced, half-aloud. "I'm shore a plumb fool." Then she turned and disappeared in the deep cleft between the gigantic bowlder upon which she had been sitting and another—small only by comparison. There, ten feet down, in a narrow alley littered with ragged stones, lay the crumpled body of a man. It lay with the left arm doubled under it, and from a gash in the forehead trickled a thin stream of blood. Also, it was the body of such a man as she had not seen before.
Although from the man in the gulch came a low groan mingled with his breathing, it was not such a sound as comes from fully conscious lips, but rather that of a brain dulled into coma. His lids drooped over his eyes, hiding the pupils; and his cheeks were pallid, with outstanding veins above the temples.
Freed from her fettering excess of shyness by his condition, the girl stepped surely from foothold to foothold until she reached his side. She stood for a moment with one hand on the dripping walls of rock, looking down while her hair fell about her face. Then, dropping to her knees, she shifted the doubled body into a leaning posture, straightened the limbs, and began exploring with efficient fingers for broken bones.
She was a slight girl, and not tall; but the curves of her young figure were slimly rounded, and her firm muscles were capably strong. This man was, in comparison with those rugged types she knew, effeminately delicate. His slim, long-fingered hands reminded her of a bird's claws. The up-rolled sleeves of a blue flannel shirt disclosed forearms well-enough sinewed, but instead of being browned to the hue of a saddle-skirt, they were white underneath and pinkly red above. Moreover, they were scaling in the fashion of a skin not inured to weather beating. Though the man had thought on setting out from civilization that he was suiting his appearance to the environment, the impression he made on this native girl was distinctly foreign. The flannel shirt might have passed, though hardly without question, as native wear, but the khaki riding-breeches and tan puttees were utterly out of the picture, and at the neck of his shirt was a soft-blue tie! —had he not been hurt, the girl must have laughed at that.
A felt hat lay in a puddle of water, and, except for a blond mustache, the face was clean shaven and smooth of skin. Long locks of brown hair fell away from the forehead. The helplessness and pallor gave an exaggerated seeming of frailty.
Despite an ingrained contempt for weaklings, the girl felt, as she raised the head and propped the shoulders, an intuitive friendliness for the mysterious stranger.
She had found the left arm limp above the wrist, and her fingers had diagnosed a broken bone. But unconsciousness must have come from the blow on the head, where a bruise was already blackening, and a gash still trickled blood.
She lifted her skirt, and tore a long strip of cotton from her single petticoat. Then she picked her barefooted way swiftly to the creek-bed, where she drenched the cloth for bathing and bandaging the wound. It required several trips through the littered cleft, for the puddles between the rocks were stale and brackish; but these journeys she made with easy and untrammeled swiftness. When she had done what she could by way of first aid, she stood looking down at the man, and shook her head dubiously.
"Now ef I jest had a little licker," she mused. "Thet air what he needs—a little licker!"
A sudden inspiration turned her eyes to the crest of the rock. She did not go round by the path, but pulled herself up the sheer face by hanging roots and slippery projections, as easily as a young squirrel. On the flat surface, she began unstrapping the saddlebags, and, after a few moments of rummaging among their contents, she smiled with satisfaction. Her hand brought out a leather-covered flask with a silver bottom. She held the thing up curiously, and looked at it. For a little time, the screw top puzzled her. So, she sat down cross-legged, and experimented until she had solved its method of opening.
Then, she slid over the side again, and at the bottom held the flask up to the light. Through the side slits in the alligator-skin covering, she saw the deep color of the contents; and, as she lifted the nozzle, she sniffed contemptuously. Then, she took a sample draught herself—to make certain that it was whiskey.
She brushed her lips scornfully with the back of her hand.
"Huh!" she exclaimed. "Hit hain't nothin' but red licker, but maybe hit mout be better'n nuthin'." She was accustomed to seeing whiskey freely drunk, but the whiskey she knew was colorless as water, and sweetish to the palate.
She knew the "mountain dew" which paid no revenue tax, and which, as her people were fond of saying, "mout make a man drunk, but couldn't git him wrong." After tasting the "fotched-on" substitute, she gravely, in accordance with the fixed etiquette of the hills, wiped the mouth of the bottle on the palm of her hand, then, kneeling once more on the stones, she lifted the stranger's head in her supporting arm, and pressed the flask to his lips. After that, she chafed the wrist which was not hurt, and once more administered the tonic. Finally, the man's lids fluttered, and his lips moved. Then, he opened his eyes. He opened them waveringly, and seemed on the point of closing them again, when he became conscious of a curved cheek, suddenly coloring to a deep flush, a few inches from his own. He saw in the same glance a pair of wide blue eyes, a cloud of brown-red hair that fell down and brushed his face, and he felt a slender young arm about his neck and shoulders.
"Hello!" said the stranger, vaguely. "I seem to have——" He broke off, and his lips smiled. It was a friendly, understanding smile, and the girl, fighting hard the shy impulse to drop his shoulders, and flee into the kind masking of the bushes, was in a measure reassured.
"You must hev fell offen the rock," she enlightened.
"I think I might have fallen into worse circumstances," replied the unknown.
"I reckon you kin set up after a little."
"Yes, of course." The man suddenly realized that although he was quite comfortable as he was, he could scarcely expect to remain permanently in the support of her bent arm. He attempted to prop himself on his hurt hand, and relaxed with a twinge of extreme pain. The color, which had begun to creep back into his cheeks, left them again, and his lips compressed themselves tightly to bite off an exclamation of suffering.
"Thet thar left arm air busted," announced the young woman, quietly. "Ye've got ter be heedful."
Had one of her own men hurt himself, and behaved stoically, it would have been mere matter of course; but her eyes mirrored a pleased surprise at the stranger's good-natured nod and his quiet refusal to give expression to pain. It relieved her of the necessity for contempt.
"I'm afraid," apologized the painter, "that I've been a great deal of trouble to you."
Her lips and eyes were sober as she replied.
"I reckon thet's all right."
"And what's worse, I've got to be more trouble. Did you see anything of a brown mule?"
She shook her head.
"He must have wandered off. May I ask to whom I'm indebted for this first aid to the injured?"
"I don't know what ye means."
She had propped him against the rocks, and sat near-by, looking into his face with almost disconcerting steadiness; her solemn-pupiled eyes were unblinking, unsmiling. Unaccustomed to the gravity of the mountaineer in the presence of strangers, he feared that he had offended her. Perhaps his form of speech struck her as affected.
"Why, I mean who are you?" he laughed.
"I hain't nobody much. I jest lives over yon."
"But," insisted the man, "surely you have a name."
"Then, Miss Sally, I want to thank you."
Once more she nodded, and, for the first time, let her eyes drop, while she sat nursing her knees. Finally, she glanced up, and asked with plucked-up courage:
"Stranger, what mout yore name be?"
"How'd ye git hurt?"
He shook his head.
"I was painting—up there," he said; "and I guess I got too absorbed in the work. I stepped backward to look at the canvas, and forgot where the edge was. I stepped too far."
"Hit don't hardly pay a man ter walk backward in these hyar mountings," she told him. The painter looked covertly up to see if at last he had discovered a flash of humor. He had the idea that her lips would shape themselves rather fascinatingly in a smile, but her pupils mirrored no mirth. She had spoken in perfect seriousness.
The man rose to his feet, but he tottered and reeled against the wall of ragged stone. The blow on his head had left him faint and dizzy. He sat down again.
"I'm afraid," he ruefully admitted, "that I'm not quite ready for discharge from your hospital."
"You jest set where yer at." The girl rose, and pointed up the mountainside. "I'll light out across the hill, and fotch Samson an' his mule."
"Who and where is Samson?" he inquired. He realized that the bottom of the valley would shortly thicken into darkness, and that the way out, unguided, would become impossible. "It sounds like the name of a strong man."
"I means Samson South," she enlightened, as though further description of one so celebrated would be redundant. "He's over thar 'bout three quarters."
"Three quarters of a mile?"
She nodded. What else could three quarters mean?
"How long will it take you?" he asked.
She deliberated. "Samson's hoein' corn in the fur-hill field. He'll hev ter cotch his mule. Hit mout tek a half-hour."
Lescott had been riding the tortuous labyrinths that twisted through creek bottoms and over ridges for several days. In places two miles an hour had been his rate of speed, though mounted and following so-called roads. She must climb a mountain through the woods. He thought it "mout" take longer, and his scepticism found utterance.
"You can't do it in a half-hour, can you?"
"I'll jest take my foot in my hand, an' light out." She turned, and with a nod was gone. The man rose, and made his way carefully over to a mossy bank, where he sat down with his back against a century-old tree to wait.
The beauty of this forest interior had first lured him to pause, and then to begin painting. The place had not treated him kindly, as the pain in his wrist reminded.
No, but the beauty was undeniable. A clump of rhododendron, a little higher up, dashed its pale clusters against a background of evergreen thicket, and a catalpa tree loaned the perfume of its white blossoms with their wild little splashes of crimson and purple and orange to the incense which the elder bushes were contributing.
Climbing fleetly up through steep and tangled slopes, and running as fleetly down; crossing a brawling little stream on a slender trunk of fallen poplar; the girl hastened on her mission. Her lungs drank the clear air in regular tireless draughts. Once only, she stopped and drew back. There was a sinister rustle in the grass, and something glided into her path and lay coiled there, challenging her with an ominous rattle, and with wicked, beady eyes glittering out of a swaying, arrow -shaped head. Her own eyes instinctively hardened, and she glanced quickly about for a heavy piece of loose timber. But that was only for an instant, then she took a circuitous course, and left her enemy in undisputed possession of the path.
"I hain't got no time ter fool with ye now, old rattlesnake," she called back, as she went. "Ef I wasn't in sech a hurry, I'd shore bust yer neck."
At last, she came to a point where a clearing rose on the mountainside above her. The forest blanket was stripped off to make way for a fenced- in and crazily tilting field of young corn. High up and beyond, close to the bald shoulders of sandstone which threw themselves against the sky, was the figure of a man. As the girl halted at the foot of the field, at last panting from her exertions, he was sitting on the rail fence, looking absently down on the outstretched panorama below him. It is doubtful whether his dreaming eyes were as conscious of what he saw as of other things which his imagination saw beyond the haze of the last far rim. Against the fence rested his abandoned hoe, and about him a number of lean hounds scratched and dozed in the sun. Samson South had little need of hounds; but, in another century, his people, turning their backs on Virginia affluence to invite the hardships of pioneer life, had brought with them certain of the cavaliers' instincts. A hundred years in the stagnant back-waters of the world had brought to their descendants a lapse into illiteracy and semi-squalor, but through it all had fought that thin, insistent flame of instinct. Such a survival was the boy's clinging to his hounds. Once, they had symbolized the spirit of the nobility; the gentleman's fondness for his sport with horse and dog and gun. Samson South did not know the origin of his fondness for this remnant of a pack. He did not know that in the long ago his forefathers had fought on red fields with Bruce and the Stuarts. He only knew that through his crudities something indefinable, yet compelling, was at war with his life, filling him with great and shapeless longings. He at once loved and resented these ramparts of stone that hemmed in his hermit race and world.
He was not, strictly speaking, a man. His age was perhaps twenty. He sat loose-jointed and indolent on the top rail of the fence, his hands hanging over his knees: his hoe forgotten. His feet were bare, and his jeans breeches were supported by a single suspender strap. Pushed well to the back of his head was a battered straw hat, of the sort rurally known as the "ten-cent jimmy." Under its broken brim, a long lock of black hair fell across his forehead. So much of his appearance was typical of the Kentucky mountaineer. His face was strongly individual, and belonged to no type. Black brows and lashes gave a distinctiveness to gray eyes so clear as to be luminous. A high and splendidly molded forehead and a squarely blocked chin were free of that degeneracy which marks the wasting of an in-bred people. The nose was straight, and the mouth firm yet mobile. It was the face of the instinctive philosopher, tanned to a hickory brown. In a stature of medium size, there was still a hint of power and catamount alertness. If his attitude was at the moment indolent, it was such indolence as drowses between bursts of white-hot activity; a fighting man's aversion to manual labor which, like the hounds, harked back to other generations. Near-by, propped against the rails, rested a repeating rifle, though the people would have told you that the truce in the "South-Hollman war" had been unbroken for two years, and that no clansman need in these halcyon days go armed afield.
Sally clambered lightly over the fence, and started on the last stage of her journey, the climb across the young corn rows. It was a field stood on end, and the hoed ground was uneven; but with no seeming of weariness her red dress flashed steadfastly across the green spears, and her voice was raised to shout: "Hello, Samson!"
The young man looked up and waved a languid greeting. He did not remove his hat or descend from his place of rest, and Sally, who expected no such attention, came smilingly on. Samson was her hero. It seemed quite appropriate that one should have to climb steep acclivities to reach him. Her enamored eyes saw in the top rail of the fence a throne, which she was content to address from the ground level. That he was fond of her and meant some day to marry her she knew, and counted herself the most favored of women. The young men of the neighboring coves, too, knew it, and respected his proprietary rights. If he treated her with indulgent tolerance instead of chivalry, he was merely adopting the accepted attitude of the mountain man for the mountain woman, not unlike that of the red warrior for his squaw. Besides, Sally was still almost a child, and Samson, with his twenty years, looked down from a rank of seniority. He was the legitimate head of the Souths, and some day, when the present truce ended, would be their war-leader with certain blood debts to pay. Since his father had been killed by a rifle shot from ambush, he had never been permitted to forget that, and, had he been left alone, he would still have needed no other mentor than the rankle in his heart.
But, if Samson sternly smothered the glint of tenderness which, at sight of her, rose to his eyes, and recognized her greeting only in casual fashion, it was because such was the requirement of his stoic code. And to the girl who had been so slow of utterance and diffident with the stranger, words now came fast and fluently as she told her story of the man who lay hurt at the foot of the rock.
"Hit hain't long now tell sundown," she urged. "Hurry, Samson, an' git yore mule. I've done give him my promise ter fotch ye right straight back."
Samson took off his hat, and tossed the heavy lock upward from his forehead. His brow wrinkled with doubts.
"What sort of lookin' feller air he?"
While Sally sketched a description, the young man's doubt grew graver.
"This hain't no fit time ter be takin' in folks what we hain't acquainted with," he objected. In the mountains, any time is the time to take in strangers unless there are secrets to be guarded from outside eyes.
"Why hain't it?" demanded the girl. "He's hurt. We kain't leave him layin' thar, kin we?"
Suddenly, her eyes caught sight of the rifle leaning near-by, and straightway they filled with apprehension. Her militant love would have turned to hate for Samson, should he have proved recreant to the mission of reprisal in which he was biding his time, yet the coming of the day when the truce must end haunted her thoughts. Heretofore, that day had always been to her remotely vague—a thing belonging to the future. Now, with a sudden and appalling menace, it seemed to loom across the present. She came close, and her voice sank with her sinking heart.
"What air hit?" she tensely demanded. "What air hit, Samson? What fer hev ye fetched yer gun ter the field?"
The boy laughed. "Oh, hit ain't nothin' pertic'ler," he reassured. "Hit hain't nothin' fer a gal ter fret herself erbout, only I kinder suspicions strangers jest now."
"Air the truce busted?" She put the question in a tense, deep-breathed whisper, and the boy replied casually, almost indifferently.
"No, Sally, hit hain't jest ter say busted, but 'pears like hit's right smart cracked. I reckon, though," he added in half-disgust, "nothin' won't come of hit."
Somewhat reassured, she bethought herself again of her mission.
"This here furriner hain't got no harm in him, Samson," she pleaded. "He 'pears ter be more like a gal than a man. He's real puny. He's got white skin and a bow of ribbon on his neck—an' he paints pictchers."
The boy's face had been hardening with contempt as the description advanced, but at the last words a glow came to his eyes, and he demanded almost breathlessly:
"Paints pictchers? How do ye know that?"
"I seen 'em. He was paintin' one when he fell offen the rock and busted his arm. It's shore es beautiful es—" she broke off, then added with a sudden peal of laughter—"es er pictcher."
The young man slipped down from the fence, and reached for the rifle. The hoe he left where it stood.
"I'll git the nag," he announced briefly, and swung off without further parley toward the curling spiral of smoke that marked a cabin a quarter of a mile below. Ten minutes later, his bare feet swung against the ribs of a gray mule, and his rifle lay balanced across the unsaddled withers. Sally sat mountain fashion behind him, facing straight to the side.
So they came along the creek bed and into the sight of the man who still sat propped against the mossy rock. As Lescott looked up, he closed the case of his watch, and put it back into his pocket with a smile.
"Snappy work, that!" he called out. "Just thirty-three minutes. I didn't believe it could be done."
Samson's face was mask-like, but, as he surveyed the foreigner, only the ingrained dictates of the country's hospitable code kept out of his eyes a gleam of scorn for this frail member of a sex which should be stalwart.
"Howdy?" he said. Then he added suspiciously: "What mout yer business be in these parts, stranger?"
Lescott gave the odyssey of his wanderings, since he had rented a mule at Hixon and ridden through the country, sketching where the mood prompted and sleeping wherever he found a hospitable roof at the coming of the evening.
"Ye come from over on Crippleshin?" The boy flashed the question with a sudden hardening of the voice, and, when he was affirmatively answered, his eyes contracted and bored searchingly into the stranger's face.
"Where'd ye put up last night?"
"Red Bill Hollman's house, at the mouth of Meeting House Fork; do you know the place?"
Samson's reply was curt.
"I knows hit all right."
There was a moment's pause—rather an awkward pause. Lescott's mind began piecing together fragments of conversation he had heard, until he had assembled a sort of mental jig-saw puzzle.
The South-Hollman feud had been mentioned by the more talkative of his informers, and carefully tabooed by others—notable among them his host of last night. It now dawned on him that he was crossing the boundary and coming as the late guest of a Hollman to ask the hospitality of a South.
"I didn't know whose house it was," he hastened to explain, "until I was benighted, and asked for lodging. They were very kind to me. I'd never seen them before. I'm a stranger hereabouts."
Samson only nodded. If the explanation failed to satisfy him, it at least seemed to do so.
"I reckon ye'd better let me holp ye up on thet old mule," he said; "hit's a-comin' on ter be night."
With the mountaineer's aid, Lescott clambered astride the mount, then he turned dubiously.
"I'm sorry to trouble you," he ventured, "but I have a paint box and some materials up there. If you'll bring them down here, I'll show you how to pack the easel, and, by the way," he anxiously added, "please handle that fresh canvas carefully—by the edge—it's not dry yet."
He had anticipated impatient contempt for his artist's impedimenta, but to his surprise the mountain boy climbed the rock, and halted before the sketch with a face that slowly softened to an expression of amazed admiration. Finally, he took up the square of academy board with a tender care of which his rough hands would have seemed incapable, and stood stock still, presenting an anomalous figure in his rough clothes as his eyes grew almost idolatrous. Then, he brought the landscape over to its creator, and, though no word was spoken, there flashed between the eyes of the artist, whose signature gave to a canvas the value of a precious stone and the jeans-clad boy whose destiny was that of the vendetta, a subtle, wordless message. It was the countersign of brothers-in-blood who recognize in each other the bond of a mutual passion.
The boy and the girl, under Lescott's direction, packed the outfit, and stored the canvas in the protecting top of the box. Then, while Sally turned and strode down creek in search of Lescott's lost mount, the two men rode up stream in silence. Finally. Samson spoke slowly and diffidently.
"Stranger," he ventured, "ef hit hain't askin' too much, will ye let me see ye paint one of them things?"
"Gladly," was the prompt reply.
Then, the boy added covertly:
"Don't say nothin' erbout hit ter none of these folks. They'd devil me."
The dusk was falling now, and the hollows choking with murk. Over the ridge, the evening star showed in a lonely point of pallor. The peaks, which in a broader light had held their majestic distances, seemed with the falling of night to draw in and huddle close in crowding herds of black masses. The distant tinkling of a cow-bell came drifting down the breeze with a weird and fanciful softness.
"We're nigh home now," said Samson at the end of some minutes' silent plodding. "Hit's right beyond thet thar bend."
Then, they rounded a point of timber, and came upon a small party of men whose attitudes even in the dimming light conveyed a subtle suggestion of portent. Some sat their horses, with one leg thrown across the pommel. Others stood in the road, and a bottle of white liquor was passing in and out among them. At the distance they recognized the gray mule, though even the fact that it carried a double burden was not yet manifest.
"Thet you, Samson?" called an old man's voice, which was still very deep and powerful.
"Hello, Unc' Spicer!" replied the boy.
Then, followed a silence unbroken until the mule reached the group, revealing that besides the boy another man—and a strange man—had joined their number.
"Evenin', stranger," they greeted him, gravely; then again they fell silent, and in their silence was evident constraint.
"This hyar man's a furriner," announced Samson, briefly. "He fell offen a rock, an' got hurt. I 'lowed I'd fotch him home ter stay all night."
The elderly man who had hailed the boy nodded, but with an evident annoyance. It seemed that to him the others deferred as to a commanding officer. The cortege remounted and rode slowly toward the house. At last, the elderly man came alongside the mule, and inquired:
"Samson, where was ye last night?"
"Thet's my business."
"Mebbe hit hain't." The old mountaineer spoke with no resentment, but deep gravity. "We've been powerful oneasy erbout ye. Hev ye heered the news?"
"What news?" The boy put the question non-committally.
"Jesse Purvy was shot soon this morning."
The boy vouchsafed no reply.
"The mail-rider done told hit.... Somebody shot five shoots from the laurel.... Purvy hain't died yit.... Some says as how his folks has sent ter Lexington fer bloodhounds."
The boy's eyes began to smolder hatefully.
"I reckon," he spoke slowly, "he didn't git shot none too soon."
"Samson!" The old man's voice had the ring of determined authority. "When I dies, ye'll be the head of the Souths, but so long es I'm a-runnin' this hyar fam'ly, I keeps my word ter friend an' foe alike. I reckon Jesse Purvy knows who got yore pap, but up till now no South hain't never busted no truce."
The boy's voice dropped its softness, and took on a shrill crescendo of excitement as he flashed out his retort.
"Who said a South has done busted the truce this time?"
Old Spencer South gazed searchingly at his nephew.
"I hain't a-wantin' ter suspicion ye, Samson, but I know how ye feels about yore pap. I heered thet Bud Spicer come by hyar yistiddy plumb full of liquor, an' 'lowed he'd seed Jesse an' Jim Asberry a-talkin' tergether jest afore yore pap was kilt." He broke off abruptly, then added: "Ye went away from hyar last night, an' didn't git in twell atter sun-up—I just heered the news, an' come ter look fer ye."
"Air you-all 'lowin' thet I shot them shoots from the laurel?" inquired Samson, quietly.
"Ef we-all hain't 'lowin' hit, Samson, we're plumb shore thet Jesse Purvy's folks will 'low hit. They're jest a-holdin' yore life like a hostage fer Purvy's, anyhow. Ef he dies, they'll try ter git ye."
The boy flashed a challenge about the group, which was now drawing rein at Spicer South's yard fence. His eyes were sullen, but he made no answer.
One of the men who had listened in silence now spoke:
"In the fust place, Samson, we hain't a-sayin' ye done hit. In the nex' place, ef ye did do hit, we hain't a-blamin' ye—much. But I reckon them dawgs don't lie, an', ef they trails in hyar, ye'll need us. Thet's why we've done come."
The boy slipped down from his mule, and helped Lescott to dismount. He deliberately unloaded the saddlebags and kit, and laid them on the top step of the stile, and, while he held his peace, neither denying nor affirming, his kinsmen sat their horses and waited.
Even to Lescott, it was palpable that some of them believed the young heir to clan leadership responsible for the shooting of Jesse Purvy, and that others believed him innocent, yet none the less in danger of the enemy's vengeance. But, regardless of divided opinion, all were alike ready to stand at his back, and all alike awaited his final utterance.
Then, in the thickening gloom, Samson turned at the foot of the stile, and faced the gathering. He stood rigid, and his eyes flashed with deep passion. His hands, hanging at the seams of his jeans breeches, clenched, and his voice came in a slow utterance through which throbbed the tensity of a soul-absorbing bitterness.
"I knowed all 'bout Jesse Purvy's bein' shot.... When my pap lay a-dyin' over thar at his house, I was a little shaver ten years old ... Jesse Purvy hired somebody ter kill him ... an' I promised my pap that I'd find out who thet man was, an' thet I'd git 'em both—some day. So help me, God Almighty, I'm a-goin' ter git 'em both—some day!" The boy paused and lifted one hand as though taking an oath.
"I'm a-tellin' you-all the truth.... But I didn't shoot them shoots this mornin'. I hain't no truce-buster. I gives ye my hand on hit.... Ef them dawgs comes hyar, they'll find me hyar, an' ef they hain't liars, they'll go right on by hyar. I don't 'low ter run away, an' I don't 'low ter hide out. I'm agoin' ter stay right hyar. Thet's all I've got ter say ter ye."
For a moment, there was no reply. Then, the older man nodded with a gesture of relieved anxiety.
"Thet's all we wants ter know, Samson," he said, slowly. "Light, men, an' come in."
In days when the Indian held the Dark and Bloody Grounds a pioneer, felling oak and poplar logs for the home he meant to establish on the banks of a purling water-course, let his axe slip, and the cutting edge gashed his ankle. Since to the discoverer belongs the christening, that water-course became Cripple-shin, and so it is to-day set down on atlas pages. A few miles away, as the crow flies, but many weary leagues as a man must travel, a brother settler, racked with rheumatism, gave to his creek the name of Misery. The two pioneers had come together from Virginia, as their ancestors had come before them from Scotland. Together, they had found one of the two gaps through the mountain wall, which for more than a hundred miles has no other passable rift. Together, and as comrades, they had made their homes, and founded their race. What original grievance had sprung up between their descendants none of the present generation knew—perhaps it was a farm line or disputed title to a pig. The primary incident was lost in the limbo of the past; but for fifty years, with occasional intervals of truce, lives had been snuffed out in the fiercely burning hate of these men whose ancestors had been comrades.
Old Spicer South and his nephew Samson were the direct lineal descendants of the namer of Misery. Their kinsmen dwelt about them: the Souths, the Jaspers, the Spicers, the Wileys, the Millers and McCagers. Other families, related only by marriage and close association, were, in feud alignment, none the less "Souths." And over beyond the ridge, where the springs and brooks flowed the other way to feed Crippleshin, dwelt the Hollmans, the Purvies, the Asberries, the Hollises and the Daltons—men equally strong in their vindictive fealty to the code of the vendetta.
By mountain standards, old Spicer South was rich. His lands had been claimed when tracts could be had for the taking, and, though he had to make his cross mark when there was a contract to be signed, his instinctive mind was shrewd and far seeing. The tinkle of his cow-bells was heard for a long distance along the creek bottoms. His hillside fields were the richest and his coves the most fertile in that country. His house had several rooms, and, except for those who hated him and whom he hated, he commanded the respect of his fellows. Some day, when a railroad should burrow through his section, bringing the development of coal and timber at the head of the rails, a sleeping fortune would yawn and awake to enrich him. There were black outcrop-pings along the cliffs, which he knew ran deep in veins of bituminous wealth. But to that time he looked with foreboding, for he had been raised to the standards of his forefathers, and saw in the coming of a new regime a curtailment of personal liberty. For new-fangled ideas he held only the aversion of deep-rooted prejudice. He hoped that he might live out his days, and pass before the foreigner held his land, and the Law became a power stronger than the individual or the clan. The Law was his enemy, because it said to him, "Thou shalt not," when he sought to take the yellow corn which bruising labor had coaxed from scattered rock-strewn fields to his own mash-vat and still. It meant, also, a tyrannous power usually seized and administered by enemies, which undertook to forbid the personal settlement of personal quarrels. But his eyes, which could not read print, could read the signs of the times He foresaw the inevitable coming of that day. Already, he had given up the worm and mash-vat, and no longer sought to make or sell illicit liquor. That was a concession to the Federal power, which could no longer be successfully fought. State power was still largely a weapon in factional hands, and in his country the Hollmans were the officeholders. To the Hollmans, he could make no concessions. In Samson, born to be the fighting man, reared to be the fighting man, equipped by nature with deep hatreds and tigerish courage, there had cropped out from time to time the restless spirit of the philosopher and a hunger for knowledge. That was a matter in which the old man found his bitterest and most secret apprehension.
It was at this house that George Lescott, distinguished landscape painter of New York and the world-at-large, arrived in the twilight. His first impression was received in shadowy evening mists that gave a touch of the weird. The sweep of the stone-guarded well rose in a yard tramped bare of grass. The house itself, a rambling structure of logs, with additions of undressed lumber, was without lights. The cabin, which had been the pioneer nucleus, still stood windowless and with mud -daubed chimney at the center. About it rose a number of tall poles surmounted by bird-boxes, and at its back loomed the great hump of the mountain.
Whatever enemy might have to be met to-morrow, old Spicer South recognized as a more immediate call upon his attention the wounded guest of to-day. One of the kinsmen proved to have a rude working knowledge of bone-setting, and before the half-hour had passed, Lescott's wrist was in a splint, and his injuries as well tended as possible, which proved to be quite well enough.
By that time, Sally's voice was heard shouting from the stile, and Sally herself appeared with the announcement that she had found and brought in the lost mule.
As Lescott looked at her, standing slight and willowy in the thickening darkness, among the big-boned and slouching figures of the clansmen, she seemed to shrink from the stature of a woman into that of a child, and, as she felt his eyes on her, she timidly slipped farther back into the shadowy door of the cabin, and dropped down on the sill, where, with her hands clasped about her knees, she gazed curiously at himself. She did not speak, but sat immovable with her thick hair falling over her shoulders. The painter recognized that even the interest in him as a new type could not for long keep her eyes from being drawn to the face of Samson, where they lingered, and in that magnetism he read, not the child, but the woman.
Samson was plainly restive from the moment of her arrival, and, when a monosyllabic comment from the taciturn group threatened to reveal to the girl the threatened outbreak of the feud, he went over to her, and inquired:
"Sally, air ye skeered ter go home by yeself?"
As she met the boy's eyes, it was clear that her own held neither nervousness nor fear, and yet there was something else in them—the glint of invitation. She rose from her seat.
"I hain't ter say skeered," she told him, "but, ef ye wants ter walk as fur as the stile, I hain't a-keerin'."
The youth rose, and, taking his hat and rifle, followed her.
Lescott was happily gifted with the power of facile adaptation, and he unobtrusively bent his efforts toward convincing his new acquaintances that, although he was alien to their ways, he was sympathetic and to be trusted. Once that assurance was given, the family talk went on much as though he had been absent, and, as he sat with open ears, he learned the rudiments of the conditions that had brought the kinsmen together in Samson's defense.
At last, Spicer South's sister, a woman who looked older than himself, though she was really younger, appeared, smoking a clay pipe, which she waved toward the kitchen.
"You men kin come in an' eat," she announced; and the mountaineers, knocking the ashes from their pipes, trailed into the kitchen.
The place was lit by the fire in a cavernous hearth where the cooking was still going forward with skillet and crane. The food, coarse and greasy, but not unwholesome, was set on a long table covered with oilcloth. The roughly clad men sat down with a scraping of chair legs, and attacked their provender in businesslike silence.
The corners of the room fell into obscurity. Shadows wavered against the sooty rafters, and, before the meal ended, Samson returned and dropped without comment into his chair. Afterward, the men trooped taciturnly out again, and resumed their pipes.
A whippoorwill sent his mournful cry across the tree-tops, and was answered. Frogs added the booming of their tireless throats. A young moon slipped across an eastern mountain, and livened the creek into a soft shimmer wherein long shadows quavered. The more distant line of mountains showed in a mist of silver, and the nearer heights in blue -gray silhouette. A wizardry of night and softness settled like a benediction, and from the dark door of the house stole the quaint folklore cadence of a rudely thrummed banjo. Lescott strolled over to the stile with every artist instinct stirred. This nocturne of silver and gray and blue at once soothed and intoxicated his imagination. His fingers were itching for a brush.
Then, he heard a movement at his shoulder, and, turning, saw the boy Samson with the moonlight in his eyes, and, besides the moonlight, that sparkle which is the essence of the dreamer's vision. Once more, their glances met and flashed a countersign.
"Hit hain't got many colors in hit," said the boy, slowly, indicating with a sweep of his hand the symphony about them, "but somehow what there is is jest about the right ones. Hit whispers ter a feller, the same as a mammy whispers ter her baby." He paused, then eagerly asked: "Stranger, kin you look at the sky an' the mountings an' hear 'em singin'—with yore eyes?"
The painter felt a thrill of astonishment. It seemed incredible that the boy, whose rude descriptives reflected such poetry of feeling, could be one with the savage young animal who had, two hours before, raised his hand heavenward, and reiterated his oath to do murder in payment of murder.
"Yes," was his slow reply, "every painter must do that. Music and color are two expressions of the same thing—and the thing is Beauty."
The mountain boy made no reply, but his eyes dwelt on the quivering shadows in the water; and Lescott asked cautiously, fearing to wake him from the dreamer to the savage:
"So you are interested in skies and hills and their beauties, too, are you?"
Samson's laugh was half-ashamed, half-defiant.
"Sometimes, stranger," he said, "I 'lows that I hain't much interested in nothin' else."
That there dwelt in the lad something which leaped in response to the clarion call of beauty, Lescott had read in that momentary give and take of their eyes down there in the hollow earlier in the afternoon. But, since then, the painter had seen the other and sterner side, and once more he was puzzled and astonished. Now, he stood anxiously hoping that the boy would permit himself further expression, yet afraid to prompt, lest direct questions bring a withdrawal again into the shell of taciturnity. After a few moments of silence, he slowly turned his head, and glanced at his companion, to find him standing rigidly with his elbows resting on the top palings of the fence. He had thrown his rough hat to the ground, and his face in the pale moonlight was raised. His eyes under the black mane of hair were glowing deeply with a fire of something like exaltation, as he gazed away. It was the expression of one who sees things hidden to the generality; such a light as burns in the eyes of artists and prophets and fanatics, which, to the uncomprehending, seems almost a fire of madness. Samson must have felt Lescott's scrutiny, for he turned with a half-passionate gesture and clenched fists. His face, as he met the glance of the foreigner was sullen, and then, as though in recognition of a brother-spirit, his expression softened, and slowly he began to speak.
"These folks 'round hyar sometimes 'lows I hain't much better'n an idjit because—because I feels that-away. Even Sally"—he caught himself, then went on doggedly—"even Sally kain't see how a man kin keer about things like skies and the color of the hills, ner the way ther sunset splashes the sky clean acrost its aidge, ner how the sunrise comes outen the dark like a gal a-blushin'. They 'lows thet a man had ought ter be studyin' 'bout other things."
He paused, and folded his arms, and his strong fingers grasped his tensed biceps until the knuckles stood out, as he went on:
"I reckon they hain't none of them thet kin hate harder'n me. I reckon they hain't none of 'em thet is more plumb willin' ter fight them thet's rightful enemies, an' yit hit 'pears ter me as thet hain't no reason why a man kain't feel somethin' singin' inside him when Almighty God builds hills like them"—he swept both hands out in a wide circle— "an' makes 'em green in summer, an' lets 'em blaze in red an' yaller in ther fall, an' hangs blue skies over 'em an' makes ther sun shine, an' at night sprinkles 'em with stars an' a moon like thet!" Again, he paused, and his eyes seemed to ask the corroboration which they read in the expression and nod of the stranger from the mysterious outside world. Then, Samson South spread his hands in a swift gesture of protest, and his voice hardened in timbre as he went on:
"But these folks hyarabouts kain't understand thet. All they sees in the laurel on the hillside, an' the big gray rocks an' the green trees, is breshwood an' timber thet may be hidin' their enemies, or places ter hide out an' lay-way some other feller. I hain't never seen no other country. I don't know whether all places is like these hyar mountings er not, but I knows thet the Lord didn't 'low fer men ter live blind, not seein' no beauty in nothin'; ner not feelin' nothin' but hate an' meanness—ner studyin' 'bout nothin' but deviltry. There hain't no better folks nowhar then my folks, an' thar hain't no meaner folks nowhar then them damned Hollmans, but thar's times when hit 'pears ter me thet the Lord Almighty hain't plumb tickled ter death with ther way things goes hyar along these creeks and coves."
Samson paused, and suddenly the glow died out of his eyes. His features instantly reshaped themselves into their customary mold of stoical hardness. It occurred to him that his outburst had been a long one and strangely out of keeping with his usual taciturnity, and he wondered what this stranger would think of him.
The stranger was marveling. He was seeing in the crude lad at his side warring elements that might build into a unique and strangely interesting edifice of character, and his own speech as he talked there by the palings of the fence in the moonlight was swiftly establishing the foundations of a comradeship between the two.
"Thar's something mighty quare about ye, stranger," said the boy at last, half-shyly. "I been wonderin' why I've talked ter ye like this. I hain't never talked that-away with no other man. Ye jest seemed ter kind of compel me ter do hit. When I says things like thet ter Sally, she gits skeered of me like ef I was plumb crazy, an', ef I talked that- away to the menfolks 'round hyar they'd be sartain I was an idjit."
"That," said Lescott, gravely, "is because they don't understand. I do."
"I kin lay awake nights," said Samson, "an' see them hills and mists an' colors the same es ef they was thar in front of my eyes—an' I kin seem ter hear 'em as well as see 'em."
The painter nodded, and his voice fell into low quotation:
"'The scarlet of the maple can shake me like the cry "Of bugles going by.'"
The boy's eyes deepened. To Lescott, the thought of bugles conjured up a dozen pictures of marching soldiery under a dozen flags. To Samson South, it suggested only one: militia guarding a battered courthouse, but to both the simile brought a stirring of pulses.
Even in June, the night mists bring a touch of chill to the mountains, and the clansmen shortly carried their chairs indoors. The old woman fetched a pan of red coals from the kitchen, and kindled the logs on the deep hearth. There was no other light, and, until the flames climbed to roaring volume, spreading their zone of yellow brightness, only the circle about the fireplace emerged from the sooty shadows. In the four dark corners of the room were four large beds, vaguely seen, and from one of them still came the haunting monotony of the banjo.
Suddenly, out of the silence, rose Samson's voice, keyed to a stubborn note, as though anticipating and challenging contradiction.
"Times is changin' mighty fast. A feller thet grows up plumb ign'rant ain't a-goin' ter have much show."
Old Spicer South drew a contemplative puff at his pipe.
"Ye went ter school twell ye was ten year old, Samson. Thet's a heap more schoolin' then I ever had, an' I've done got along all right."
"Ef my pap had lived"—the boy's voice was almost accusing—"I'd hev lamed more then jest ter read an' write en figger a little."
"I hain't got no use fer these newfangled notions." Spicer spoke with careful curbing of his impatience. "Yore pap stood out fer eddycation. He had ideas about law an' all that, an' he talked 'em. He got shot ter death. Yore Uncle John South went down below, an' got ter be a lawyer. He come home hyar, an' ondertook ter penitentiary Jesse Purvy, when Jesse was High Sheriff. I reckon ye knows what happened ter him."
Samson said nothing and the older man went on:
"They aimed ter run him outen the mountings."
"They didn't run him none," blazed the boy. "He didn't never leave the mountings."
"No." The family head spoke with the force of a logical climax. "He'd done rented a house down below though, an' was a-fixin' ter move. He staid one day too late. Jesse Purvy hired him shot."
"What of hit?" demanded Samson.
"Yore cousin, Bud Spicer, was eddicated. He 'lowed in public thet Micah Hollman an' Jesse Purvy was runnin' a murder partnership. Somebody called him ter the door of his house in the night-time ter borry a lantern—an' shot him ter death."
"What of hit?"
"Thar's jist this much of hit. Hit don't seem ter pay the South family ter go a-runnin' attar newfangled idees. They gets too much notion of goin' ter law—an' thet's plumb fatal. Ye'd better stay where ye b'longs, Samson, an' let good enough be."
"Why hain't ye done told about all the rest of the Souths thet didn't hev no eddication," suggested the youngest South, "thet got killed off jest as quick as them as had hit?"
While Spicer South and his cousins had been sustaining themselves or building up competences by tilling their soil, the leaders of the other faction were basing larger fortunes on the profits of merchandise and trade. So, although Spicer South could neither read nor write, his chief enemy, Micah Hollman, was to outward seeming an urbane and fairly equipped man of affairs. Judged by their heads, the clansmen were rougher and more illiterate on Misery, and in closer touch with civilization on Crippleshin. A deeper scrutiny showed this seeming to be one of the strange anomalies of the mountains.
Micah Hollman had established himself at Hixon, that shack town which had passed of late years from feudal county seat to the section's one point of contact with the outside world; a town where the ancient and modern orders brushed shoulders; where the new was tolerated, but dared not become aggressive. Directly across the street from the court-house stood an ample frame building, on whose side wall was emblazoned the legend: "Hollman's Mammoth Department Store." That was the secret stronghold of Hollman power. He had always spoken deploringly of that spirit of lawlessness which had given the mountains a bad name. He himself, he declared, believed that the best assets of any community were tenets of peace and brotherhood. Any mountain man or foreigner who came to town was sure of a welcome from Judge Micah Hollman, who added to his title of storekeeper that of magistrate.
As the years went on, the proprietor of the "Mammoth Department Store" found that he had money to lend and, as a natural sequence, mortgages stored away in his strong box. To the cry of distress, he turned a sympathetic ear. His infectious smile and suave manner won him fame as "the best-hearted man in the mountains." Steadily and unostentatiously, his fortune fattened.
When the railroad came to Hixon, it found in Judge Hollman a "public- spirited citizen." Incidentally, the timber that it hauled and the coal that its flat cars carried down to the Bluegrass went largely to his consignees. He had so astutely anticipated coming events that, when the first scouts of capital sought options, they found themselves constantly referred to Judge Hollman. No wheel, it seemed, could turn without his nod. It was natural that the genial storekeeper should become the big man of the community and inevitable that the one big man should become the dictator. His inherited place as leader of the Hollmans in the feud he had seemingly passed on as an obsolete prerogative.
Yet, in business matters, he was found to drive a hard bargain, and men came to regard it the part of good policy to meet rather than combat his requirements. It was essential to his purposes that the officers of the law in his county should be in sympathy with him. Sympathy soon became abject subservience. When a South had opposed Jesse Purvy in the primary as candidate for High Sheriff, he was found one day lying on his face with a bullet-riddled body. It may have been a coincidence which pointed to Jim Asberry, the judge's nephew, as the assassin. At all events, the judge's nephew was a poor boy, and a charitable Grand Jury declined to indict him.
In the course of five years, several South adherents, who had crossed Hollman's path, became victims of the laurel ambuscade. The theory of coincidence was strained. Slowly, the rumor grew and persistently spread, though no man would admit having fathered it, that before each of these executions star-chamber conferences had been held in the rooms above Micah Hollman's "Mammoth Department Store." It was said that these exclusive sessions were attended by Judge Hollman, Sheriff Purvy and certain other gentlemen selected by reason of their marksmanship. When one of these victims fell, John South had just returned from a law school "down below," wearing "fotched-on" clothing and thinking "fotched-on" thoughts. He had amazed the community by demanding the right to assist in probing and prosecuting the affair. He had then shocked the community into complete paralysis by requesting the Grand Jury to indict not alone the alleged assassin, but also his employers, whom he named as Judge Hollman and Sheriff Purvy. Then, he, too, fell under a bolt from the laurel.
That was the first public accusation against the bland capitalist, and it carried its own prompt warning against repetition. The Judge's High Sheriff and chief ally retired from office, and went abroad only with a bodyguard. Jesse Purvy had built his store at a cross roads twenty-five miles from the railroad. Like Hollman, he had won a reputation for open -handed charity, and was liked—and hated. His friends were legion. His enemies were so numerous that he apprehended violence not only from the Souths, but also from others who nursed grudges in no way related to the line of feud cleavage. The Hollman-Purvy combination had retained enough of its old power to escape the law's retribution and to hold its dictatorship, but the efforts of John South had not been altogether bootless. He had ripped away two masks, and their erstwhile wearers could no longer hold their old semblance of law-abiding philanthropists. Jesse Purvy's home was the show place of the country side. To the traveler's eye, which had grown accustomed to hovel life and squalor, it offered a reminder of the richer Bluegrass. Its walls were weather-boarded and painted, and its roof two stories high. Commodious verandahs looked out over pleasant orchards, and in the same enclosure stood the two frame buildings of his store—for he, too, combined merchandise with baronial powers. But back of the place rose the mountainside, on which Purvy never looked without dread. Twice, its impenetrable thickets had spat at him. Twice, he had recovered from wounds that would have taken a less-charmed life. And in grisly reminder of the terror which clouded the peace of his days stood the eight-foot log stockade at the rear of the place which the proprietor had built to shield his daily journeys between house and store. But Jesse Purvy was not deluded by his escapes. He knew that he was "marked down." For years, he had seen men die by his own plotting, and he himself must in the end follow by a similar road. Rumor had it that he wore a shirt of mail, certain it is that he walked in the expectancy of death.
"Why don't you leave the mountains?" strangers had asked; and to each of them Purvy had replied with a shrug of his shoulders and a short laugh: "This is where I belong."
But the years of strain were telling on Jesse Purvy. The robust, full- blooded face was showing deep lines; his flesh was growing flaccid; his glance tinged with quick apprehension. He told his intimates that he realized "they'd get him," yet he sought to prolong his term of escape.
The creek purled peacefully by the stile; the apple and peach trees blossomed and bore fruit at their appointed time, but the householder, when he walked between his back door and the back door of the store, hugged his stockade, and hurried his steps.
Yesterday morning, Jesse Purvy had risen early as usual, and, after a satisfying breakfast, had gone to his store to arrange for the day's business. One or two of his henchmen, seeming loafers, but in reality a bodyguard, were lounging within call. A married daughter was chatting with her father while her young baby played among the barrels and cracker boxes.
The daughter went to a rear window, and gazed up at the mountain. The cloudless skies were still in hiding behind a curtain of mist. The woman was idly watching the vanishing fog wraiths, and her father came over to her side. Then, the baby cried, and she stepped back. Purvy himself remained at the window. It was a thing he did not often do. It left him exposed, but the most cautiously guarded life has its moments of relaxed vigilance. He stood there possibly thirty seconds, then a sharp fusillade of clear reports barked out and was shattered by the hills into a long reverberation. With a hand clasped to his chest, Purvy turned, walked to the middle of the floor, and fell.
The henchmen rushed to the open sash. They leaped out, and plunged up the mountain, tempting the assassin's fire, but the assassin was satisfied. The mountain was again as quiet as it had been at dawn. Its impenetrable mask of green was blank and unresponsive. Somewhere in the cool of the dewy treetops a squirrel barked. Here and there, the birds saluted the sparkle and freshness of June. Inside, at the middle of the store, Jesse Purvy shifted his head against his daughter's knee, and said, as one stating an expected event:
"Well, they've got me."
An ordinary mountaineer would have been carried home to die in the darkness of a dirty and windowless shack. The long-suffering star of Jesse Purvy ordained otherwise. He might go under or he might once more beat his way back and out of the quicksands of death. At all events, he would fight for life to the last gasp.
Twenty miles away in the core of the wilderness, removed from a railroad by a score of semi-perpendicular miles, a fanatic had once decided to found a school. The fact that the establishment in this place of such a school as his mind pictured was sheer madness and impossibility did not in the least deter him. It was a thing that could not be done, and it was a thing that he had done none the less.
Now a faculty of ten men, like himself holding degrees of Masters of Dreams, taught such as cared to come such things as they cared to learn. Substantial two-and three-storied buildings of square-hewn logs lay grouped in a sort of Arts and Crafts village around a clean-clipped campus. The Stagbone College property stretched twenty acres square at the foot of a hill. The drone of its own saw-mill came across the valley. In a book-lined library, wainscoted in natural woods of three colors, the original fanatic often sat reflecting pleasurably on his folly. Higher up the hillside stood a small, but model, hospital, with a modern operating table and a case of surgical instruments, which, it was said, the State could not surpass. These things had been the gifts of friends who liked such a type of God-inspired madness. A "fotched-on" trained nurse was in attendance. From time to time, eminent Bluegrass surgeons came to Hixon by rail, rode twenty miles on mules, and held clinics on the mountainside.
To this haven, Jesse Purvy, the murder lord, was borne in a litter carried on the shoulders of his dependents. Here, as his steadfast guardian star decreed, he found two prominent medical visitors, who hurried him to the operating table. Later, he was removed to a white bed, with the June sparkle in his eyes, pleasantly modulated through drawn blinds, and the June rustle and bird chorus in his ears—and his own thoughts in his brain.
Conscious, but in great pain, Purvy beckoned Jim Asberry and Aaron Hollis, his chiefs of bodyguard, to his bedside, and waved the nurse back out of hearing.
"If I don't get well," he said, feebly, "there's a job for you two boys. I reckon you know what it is?"
They nodded, and Asberry whispered a name:
"Yes," Purvy spoke in a weak whisper; but the old vindictiveness was not smothered. "You got the old man, I reckon you can manage the cub. If you don't, he'll get you both one day."
The two henchmen scowled.
"I'll git him to-morrer," growled Asberry. "Thar hain't no sort of use in a-waitin'."
"No!" For an instant Purvy's voice rose out of its weakness to its old staccato tone of command, a tone which brought obedience. "If I get well, I have other plans. Never mind what they are. That's my business. If I don't die, leave him alone, until I give other orders." He lay back and fought for breath. The nurse came over with gentle insistence, ordering quiet, but the man, whose violent life might be closing, had business yet to discuss with his confidential vassals. Again, he waved her back.
"If I get well," he went on, "and Samson South is killed meanwhile, I won't live long either. It would be my life for his. Keep close to him. The minute you hear of my death—get him." He paused again, then supplemented, "You two will find something mighty interestin' in my will."
It was afternoon when Purvy reached the hospital, and, at nightfall of the same day, there arrived at his store's entrance, on stumbling, hard -ridden mules, several men, followed by two tawny hounds whose long ears flapped over their lean jaws, and whose eyes were listless and tired, but whose black muzzles wrinkled and sniffed with that sensitive instinct which follows the man-scent. The ex-sheriff's family were instituting proceedings independent of the Chief's orders. The next morning, this party plunged into the mountain tangle, and beat the cover with the bloodhounds in leash.
The two gentle-faced dogs picked their way between the flowering rhododendrons, the glistening laurels, the feathery pine sprouts and the moss-covered rocks. They went gingerly and alertly on ungainly, cushioned feet. Just as their masters were despairing, they came to a place directly over the store, where a branch had been bent back and hitched to clear the outlook, and where a boot heel had crushed the moss. There one of them raised his nose high into the air, opened his mouth, and let out a long, deep-chested bay of discovery.
George Lescott had known hospitality of many brands and degrees. He had been the lionized celebrity in places of fashion. He had been the guest of equally famous brother artists in the cities of two hemispheres, and, since sincere painting had been his pole-star, he had gone where his art's wanderlust beckoned. His most famous canvas, perhaps, was his "Prayer Toward Mecca," which hangs in the Metropolitan. It shows, with a power that holds the observer in a compelling grip, the wonderful colors of a sunset across the desert. One seems to feel the renewed life that comes to the caravan with the welcome of the oasis. One seems to hear the grunting of the kneeling camels and the stirring of the date palms. The Bedouins have spread their prayer-rugs, and behind them burns the west. Lescott caught in that, as he had caught in his mountain sketches, the broad spirit of the thing. To paint that canvas, he had endured days of racking camel -travel and burning heat and thirst. He had followed the lure of transitory beauty to remote sections of the world. The present trip was only one of many like it, which had brought him into touch with varying peoples and distinctive types of life. He told himself that never had he found men at once so crude and so courteous as these hosts, who, facing personal perils, had still time and willingness to regard his comfort.
They could not speak grammatically; they could hardly offer him the necessities of life, yet they gave all they had, with a touch of courtliness.
In a fabric soiled and threadbare, one may sometimes trace the tarnished design that erstwhile ran in gold through a rich pattern. Lescott could not but think of some fine old growth gone to seed and decay, but still bearing at its crest a single beautiful blossom while it held in its veins a poison.
Such a blossom was Sally. Her scarlet lips and sweet, grave eyes might have been the inheritance gift of some remote ancestress whose feet, instead of being bare and brown, had trod in high-heeled, satin slippers. When Lord Fairfax governed the Province of Virginia, that first Sally, in the stateliness of panniered brocades and powdered hair, may have tripped a measure to the harpsichord or spinet. Certain it is she trod with no more untrammeled grace than her wild descendant. For the nation's most untamed and untaught fragment is, after all, an unamalgamated stock of British and Scottish bronze, which now and then strikes back to its beginning and sends forth a pure peal from its corroded bell-metal. In all America is no other element whose blood is so purely what the Nation's was at birth.
The coming of the kinsmen, who would stay until the present danger passed, had filled the house. The four beds in the cabin proper were full, and some slept on floor mattresses. Lescott, because a guest and wounded, was given a small room aside. Samson, however, shared his quarters in order to perform any service that an injured man might require. It had been a full and unusual day for the painter, and its incidents crowded in on him in retrospect and drove off the possibility of sleep. Samson, too, seemed wakeful, and in the isolation of the dark room the two men fell into conversation, which almost lasted out the night. Samson went into the confessional. This was the first human being he had ever met to whom he could unburden his soul.
The thirst to taste what knowledge lay beyond the hills; the unnamed wanderlust that had at times brought him a restiveness so poignant as to be agonizing; the undefined attuning of his heart to the beauty of sky and hill; these matters he had hitherto kept locked in guilty silence. To the men of his clan these were eccentricities bordering on the abnormal; frailties to be passed over with charity, as one would pass over the infirmities of an afflicted child. To Samson they looked as to a sort of feud Messiah. His destiny was stern, and held no place for dreams. For him, they could see only danger in an insatiable hunger for learning. In a weak man, a school-teacher or parson sort of a man, that might be natural, but this young cock of their walk was being reared for the pit—for conflict. What was important in him was stamina, and sharp strength of spur. These qualities he had proven from infancy. Weakening proclivities must be eliminated.
So, the boy had been forced to keep throttled impulses that, for being throttled, had smoldered and set on fire the inner depths of his soul. During long nights, he had secretly digested every available book. Yet, in order to vindicate himself from the unspoken accusation of growing weak, of forgetting his destiny, he had courted trouble, and sought combat. He was too close to his people's point of view for perspective. He shared their idea that the thinking man weakens himself as a fighting man. He had never heard of a Cyrano de Bergerac, or an Aramis. Now had come some one with whom he could talk: a man who had traveled and followed, without shame, the beckoning of Learning and Beauty. At once, the silent boy found himself talking intimately, and the artist found himself studying one of the strangest human paradoxes he had yet seen.
In a cove, or lowland pocket, stretching into the mountainside, lay the small and meager farm of the Widow Miller. The Widow Miller was a "South"; that is to say she fell, by tie of marriage, under the protection of the clan-head. She lived alone with her fourteen-year-old son and her sixteen-year-old daughter. The daughter was Sally. At sixteen, the woman's figure had been as pliantly slim, her step as light as was her daughter's now. At forty, she was withered. Her face was hard, and her lips had forgotten how to smile. Her shoulders sagged, and she was an old woman, who smoked her pipe, and taught her children that rudimentary code of virtue to which the mountains subscribe. She believed in a brimstone hell and a personal devil. She believed that the whale had swallowed Jonah, but she thought that "Thou shalt not kill" was an edict enunciated by the Almighty with mental reservations.
The sun rose on the morning after Lescott arrived, the mists lifted, and the cabin of the Widow Miller stood revealed. Against its corners several hogs scraped their bristled backs with satisfied grunts. A noisy rooster cocked his head inquiringly sidewise before the open door, and, hopping up to the sill, invaded the main room. A towsled -headed boy made his way to the barn to feed the cattle, and a red patch of color, as bright and tuneful as a Kentucky cardinal, appeared at the door between the morning-glory vines. The red patch of color was Sally.
She made her way, carrying a bucket, to the spring, where she knelt down and gazed at her own image in the water. Her grave lips broke into a smile, as the reflected face, framed in its mass of reflected red hair, gazed back at her. Then, the smile broke into a laugh.
"Hello, Sally Miller!" she gaily accosted her picture-self. "How air ye this mornin', Sally Miller?"
She plunged her face deep in the cool spring, and raised it to shake back her hair, until the water flew from its masses. She laughed again, because it was another day, and because she was alive. She waded about for a while where the spring joined the creek, and delightedly watched the schools of tiny, almost transparent, minnows that darted away at her coming. Then, standing on a rock, she paused with her head bent, and listened until her ears caught the faint tinkle of a cowbell, which she recognized. Nodding her head joyously, she went off into the woods, to emerge at the end of a half-hour later, carrying a pail of milk, and smiling joyously again—because it was almost breakfast time.
But, before going home, she set down her bucket by the stream, and, with a quick glance toward the house to make sure that she was not observed, climbed through the brush, and was lost to view. She followed a path that her own feet had made, and after a steep course upward, came upon a bald face of rock, which stood out storm-battered where a rift went through the backbone of the ridge. This point of vantage commanded the other valley. From its edge, a white oak, dwarfed, but patriarchal, leaned out over an abrupt drop. No more sweeping or splendid view could be had within miles, but it was not for any reason so general that Sally had made her pilgrimage. Down below, across the treetops, were a roof and a chimney from which a thread of smoke rose in an attenuated shaft. That was Spicer South's house, and Samson's home. The girl leaned against the gnarled bowl of the white oak, and waved toward the roof and chimney. She cupped her hands, and raised them to her lips like one who means to shout across a great distance, then she whispered so low that only she herself could hear:
"Hello, Samson South!"
She stood for a space looking down, and forgot to laugh, while her eyes grew religiously and softly deep, then, turning, she ran down the slope. She had performed her morning devotions.
That day at the house of Spicer South was an off day. The kinsmen who had stopped for the night stayed on through the morning. Nothing was said of the possibility of trouble. The men talked crops, and tossed horseshoes in the yard; but no one went to work in the fields, and all remained within easy call. Only young Tamarack Spicer, a raw-boned nephew, wore a sullen face, and made a great show of cleaning his rifle and pistol. He even went out in the morning, and practised at target -shooting, and Lescott, who was still very pale and weak, but able to wander about at will, gained the impression that in young Tamarack he was seeing the true type of the mountain "bad-man." Tamarack seemed willing to feed that idea, and admitted apart to Lescott that, while he obeyed the dictates of the truce, he found them galling, and was straining at his leash.
"I don't take nothin' offen nobody," he sullenly confided. "The Hollmans gives me my half the road."
Shortly after dinner, he disappeared, and, when the afternoon was well advanced, Samson, too, with his rifle on his arm, strolled toward the stile. Old Spicer South glanced up, and removed his pipe from his mouth to inquire:
"Whar be ye a-goin'?"
"I hain't a-goin' fur," was the non-committal response.
"Meybe hit mout be a good idea ter stay round clost fer a spell." The old man made the suggestion casually, and the boy replied in the same fashion.
"I hain't a-goin' ter be outen sight."
He sauntered down the road, but, when he had passed out of vision, he turned sharply into the woods, and began climbing. His steps carried him to the rift in the ridge where the white oak stood sentinel over the watch-tower of rock. As he came over the edge from one side, his bare feet making no sound, he saw Sally sitting there, with her hands resting on the moss and her eyes deeply troubled. She was gazing fixedly ahead, and her lips were trembling. At once Samson's face grew black. Some one had been making Sally unhappy. Then, he saw beyond her a standing figure, which the tree trunk had hitherto concealed. It was the loose-knitted figure of young Tamarack Spicer.
"In course," Spicer was saying, "we don't 'low Samson shot Jesse Purvy, but them Hollmans'll 'spicion him, an' I heered just now, thet them dawgs was trackin' straight up hyar from the mouth of Misery. They'll git hyar against sundown."
Samson leaped violently forward. With one hand, he roughly seized his cousin's shoulder, and wheeled him about.
"Shet up!" he commanded. "What damn fool stuff hev ye been tellin' Sally?"
For an instant, the two clansmen stood fronting each other. Samson's face was set and wrathful. Tamarack's was surly and snarling. "Hain't I got a license ter tell Sally the news?" he demanded.
"Nobody hain't got no license," retorted the younger man in the quiet of cold anger, "ter tell Sally nothin' thet'll fret her."
"She air bound ter know, hit all pretty soon. Them dawgs——"
"Didn't I tell ye ter shet up?" Samson clenched his fists, and took a step forward. "Ef ye opens yore mouth again, I'm a-goin' ter smash hit. Now, git!"
Tamarack Spicer's face blackened, and his teeth showed. His right hand swept to his left arm-pit. Outwardly he seemed weaponless, but Samson knew that concealed beneath the hickory shirt was a holster, worn mountain fashion.
"What air ye a-reachin' atter, Tam'rack?" he inquired, his lips twisting in amusement.
"Thet's my business."
"Well, get hit out—or git out yeself, afore I throws ye offen the clift."
Sally showed no symptoms of alarm. Her confidence in her hero was absolute. The boy lifted his hand, and pointed off down the path. Slowly and with incoherent muttering, Spicer took himself away. Then only did Sally rise. She came over, and laid a hand on Samson's shoulder. In her blue eyes, the tears were welling.
"Samson," she whispered, "ef they're atter ye, come ter my house. I kin hide ye out. Why didn't ye tell me Jesse Purvy'd done been shot?"
"Hit tain't nothin' ter fret about, Sally," he assured her. He spoke awkwardly, for he had been trained to regard emotion as unmanly. "Thar hain't no danger."
She gazed searchingly into his eyes, and then, with a short sob, threw her arms around him, and buried her face on his shoulder.
"Ef anything happens ter ye, Samson," she said, brokenly, "hit'll jest kill me. I couldn't live withouten ye, Samson. I jest couldn't do hit!"