THE HEART OF THE HILLS
By John Fox, Jr.
Author of "The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come," "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," Etc.
With Four Illustrations By F. C. YOHN
IN GRATEFUL MEMORY OF MY FATHER
WHO LOVED THE GREAT MOTHER, HER FORMS, HER MOODS, HER WAYS.
TO THE END SHE LEFT HIM THE JOY OF YOUTH IN THE COMING OF SPRING
June 28, 1912.
THE HEART OF THE HILLS
Twin spirals of blue smoke rose on either side of the spur, crept tendril-like up two dark ravines, and clearing the feathery green crests of the trees, drifted lazily on upward until, high above, they melted shyly together and into the haze that veiled the drowsy face of the mountain.
Each rose from a little log cabin clinging to the side of a little hollow at the head of a little creek. About each cabin was a rickety fence, a patch of garden, and a little cleared hill-side, rocky, full of stumps, and crazily traced with thin green spears of corn. On one hill-side a man was at work with a hoe, and on the other, over the spur, a boy—both barefooted, and both in patched jean trousers upheld by a single suspender that made a wet line over a sweaty cotton shirt: the man, tall, lean, swarthy, grim; the boy grim and dark, too, and with a face that was prematurely aged. At the man's cabin a little girl in purple homespun was hurrying in and out the back door clearing up after the noonday meal; at the boy's, a comely woman with masses of black hair sat in the porch with her hands folded, and lifting her eyes now and then to the top of the spur. Of a sudden the man impatiently threw down his hoe, but through the battered straw hat that bobbed up and down on the boy's head, one lock tossed on like a jetblack plume until he reached the end of his straggling row of corn. There he straightened up and brushed his earth-stained fingers across a dullred splotch on one cheek of his sullen set face. His heavy lashes lifted and he looked long at the woman on the porch— looked without anger now and with a new decision in his steady eyes. He was getting a little too big to be struck by a woman, even if she were his own mother, and nothing like that must happen again.
A woodpecker was impudently tapping the top of a dead burnt tree near by, and the boy started to reach for a stone, but turned instead and went doggedly to work on the next row, which took him to the lower corner of the garden fence, where the ground was black and rich. There, as he sank his hoe with the last stroke around the last hill of corn, a fat fishing-worm wriggled under his very eyes, and the growing man lapsed swiftly into the boy again. He gave another quick dig, the earth gave up two more squirming treasures, and with a joyful gasp he stood straight again—his eyes roving as though to search all creation for help against the temptation that now was his. His mother had her face uplifted toward the top of the spur; and following her gaze, he saw a tall mountaineer slouching down the path. Quickly he crouched behind the fence, and the aged look came back into his face. He did not approve of that man coming over there so often, kinsman though he was, and through the palings he saw his mother's face drop quickly and her hands moving uneasily in her lap. And when the mountaineer sat down on the porch and took off his hat to wipe his forehead, he noticed that his mother had on a newly bought store dress, and that the man's hair was wet with something more than water. The thick locks had been combed and were glistening with oil, and the boy knew these facts for signs of courtship; and though he was contemptuous, they furnished the excuse he sought and made escape easy. Noiselessly he wielded his hoe for a few moments, scooped up a handful of soft dirt, meshed the worms in it, and slipped the squirming mass into his pocket. Then he crept stooping along the fence to the rear of the house, squeezed himself between two broken palings, and sneaked on tiptoe to the back porch. Gingerly he detached a cane fishing-pole from a bunch that stood upright in a corner and was tiptoeing away, when with another thought he stopped, turned back, and took down from the wall a bow and arrow with a steel head around which was wound a long hempen string. Cautiously then he crept back along the fence, slipped behind the barn into the undergrowth and up a dark little ravine toward the green top of the spur. Up there he turned from the path through the thick bushes into an open space, walled by laurel-bushes, hooted three times surprisingly like an owl, and lay contentedly down on a bed of moss. Soon his ear caught the sound of light footsteps coming up the spur on the other side, the bushes parted in a moment more, and a little figure in purple homespun slipped through them, and with a flushed, panting face and dancing eyes stood beside him.
The boy nodded his head sidewise toward his own home, and the girl silently nodded hers up and down in answer. Her eyes caught sight of the bow and arrow on the ground beside him and lighted eagerly, for she knew then that the fishingpole was for her. Without a word they slipped through the bushes and down the steep side of the spur to a little branch which ran down into a creek that wound a tortuous way into the Cumberland.
On the other side, too, a similar branch ran down into another creek which looped around the long slanting side of the spur and emptied, too, into the Cumberland. At the mouth of each creek the river made a great bend, and in the sweep of each were rich bottom lands. A century before, a Hawn had settled in one bottom, the lower one, and a Honeycutt in the other. As each family multiplied, more land was cleared up each creek by sons and grandsons until in each cove a clan was formed. No one knew when and for what reason an individual Hawn and a Honeycutt had first clashed, but the clash was of course inevitable. Equally inevitable was it, too, that the two clans should take the quarrel up, and for half a century the two families had, with intermittent times of truce, been traditional enemies. The boy's father, Jason Hawn, had married a Honeycutt in a time of peace, and, when the war opened again, was regarded as a deserter, and had been forced to move over the spur to the Honeycutt side. The girl's father, Steve Hawn, a ne'erdo-well and the son of a ne'er-do-well, had for his inheritance wild lands, steep, supposedly worthless, and near the head of the Honeycutt cove. Little Jason's father, when he quarrelled with his kin, could afford to buy only cheap land on the Honeycutt side, and thus the homes of the two were close to the high heart of the mountain, and separated only by the bristling crest of the spur. In time the boy's father was slain from ambush, and it was a Hawn, the Honeycutts claimed, who had made him pay the death price of treachery to his own kin. But when peace came, this fact did not save the lad from taunt and suspicion from the children of the Honeycutt tribe, and being a favorite with his Grandfather Hawn down on the river, and harshly treated by his Honeycutt mother, his life on the other side in the other cove was a hard one; so his heart had gone back to his own people and, having no companions, he had made a playmate of his little cousin, Mavis, over the spur. In time her mother had died, and in time her father, Steve, had begun slouching over the spur to court the widow—his cousin's widow, Martha Hawn. Straightway the fact had caused no little gossip up and down both creeks, good-natured gossip at first, but, now that the relations between the two clans were once more strained, there was open censure, and on that day when all the men of both factions had gone to the county-seat, the boy knew that Steve Hawn had stayed at home for no other reason than to make his visit that day secret; and the lad's brain, as he strode ahead of his silent little companion, was busy with the significance of what was sure to come.
At the mouth of the branch, the two came upon a road that also ran down to the river, but they kept on close to the bank of the stream which widened as they travelled—the boy striding ahead without looking back, the girl following like a shadow. Still again they crossed the road, where it ran over the foot of the spur and turned down into a deep bowl filled to the brim with bush and tree, and there, where a wide pool lay asleep in thick shadow, the lad pulled forth the ball of earth and worms from his pocket, dropped them with the fishing-pole to the ground, and turned ungallantly to his bow and arrow. By the time he had strung it, and had tied one end of the string to the shaft of the arrow and the other about his wrist, the girl had unwound the coarse fishing-line, had baited her own hook, and, squatted on her heels, was watching her cork with eager eyes; but when the primitive little hunter crept to the lower end of the pool, and was peering with Indian caution into the depths, her eyes turned to him.
"Watch out thar!" he called, sharply.
Her cork bobbed, sank, and when, with closed eyes, she jerked with all her might, a big shining chub rose from the water and landed on the bank beside her. She gave a subdued squeal of joy, but the boy's face was calm as a star. Minnows like that were all right for a girl to catch and even for him to eat, but he was after game for a man. A moment later he heard another jerk and another fish was flopping on the bank, and this time she made no sound, but only flashed her triumphant eyes upon him. At the third fish, she turned her eyes for approval—and got none; and at the fourth, she did not look up at all, for he was walking toward her.
"You air skeerin' the big uns," he said shortly, and as he passed he pulled his Barlow knife from his pocket and dropped it at her feet. She rose obediently, and with no sign of protest began gathering an apronful of twigs and piling them for a fire. Then she began scraping one of the fish, and when it was cleaned she lighted the fire. The blaze crackled merrily, the blue smoke rose like some joyous spirit loosed for upward flight, and by the time the fourth fish was cleaned, a little bed of winking coals was ready and soon a gentle sizzling assailed the boy's ears, and a scent made his nostrils quiver and set his stomach a-hungering. But still he gave no sign of interest—even when the little girl spoke at last:
He did not look around, for he had crouched, his body taut from head to foot, and he might have been turned suddenly to stone for all the sign of life he gave, and the little girl too was just as motionless. Then she saw the little statue come slowly back to quivering life. She saw the bow bend, the shaft of the arrow drawing close to the boy's paling cheek, there was a rushing hiss through the air, a burning hiss in the water, a mighty bass leaped from the convulsed surface and shot to the depths again, leaving the headless arrow afloat. The boy gave one sharp cry and lapsed into his stolid calm again.
The little girl said nothing, for there is no balm for the tragedy of the big fish that gets away. Slowly he untied the string from his reddened wrist and pulled the arrow in. Slowly he turned and gazed indifferently at the four crisp fish on four dry twigs with four pieces of corn pone lying on the grass near them, and the little girl squatting meekly and waiting, as the woman should for her working lord. With his Barlow knife he slowly speared a corn pone, picking up a fish with the other hand, and still she waited until he spoke.
"Take out, Mavie," he said with great gravity and condescension, and then his knife with a generous mouthful on its point stopped in the air, his startled eyes widened, and the little girl shrank cowering behind him. A heavy footfall had crunched on the quiet air, the bushes had parted, and a huge mountaineer towered above them with a Winchester over his shoulder and a kindly smile under his heavy beard. The boy was startled—not frightened.
"Hello, Babe!" he said coolly. "Whut devilmint you up to now?"
The giant smiled uneasily:
"I'm keepin' out o' the sun an' a-takin' keer o' my health," he said, and his eyes dropped hungrily to the corn pone and fried fish, but the boy shook his head sturdily.
"You can't git nothin' to eat from me, Babe Honeycutt."
"Now, looky hyeh, Jason—"
"Not a durn bite," said the boy firmly, "even if you air my mammy's brother. I'm a Hawn now, I want ye to know, an' I ain't goin' to have my folks say I was feedin' an' harborin' a Honeycutt—'specially you."
It would have been humorous to either Hawn or Honeycutt to hear the big man plead, but not to the girl, though he was an enemy, and had but recently wounded a cousin of hers, and was hiding from her own people, for her warm little heart was touched, and big Babe saw it and left his mournful eyes on hers.
"An' I'm a-goin' to tell whar I've seed ye," went on the boy savagely, but the girl grabbed up two fish and a corn pone and thrust them out to the huge hairy hand eagerly stretched out.
"Now, git away," she said breathlessly, "git away—quick!"
"Mavis!" yelled the boy.
"Shet up!" she cried, and the lips of the routed boy fell apart in sheer amazement, for never before had she made the slightest question of his tyrannical authority, and then her eyes blazed at the big Honeycutt and she stamped her foot.
"I'd give 'em to the meanest dog in these mountains."
The big man turned to the boy.
"Is he dead yit?"
"No, he ain't dead yit," said the boy roughly.
"Son," said the mountaineer quietly, "you tell whutever you please about me."
The curiously gentle smile had never left the bearded lips, but in his voice a slight proud change was perceptible.
"An' you can take back yo' corn pone, honey."
Then dropping the food in his hand back to the ground, he noiselessly melted into the bushes again.
At once the boy went to work on his neglected corn-bread and fish, but the girl left hers untouched where they lay. He ate silently, staring at the water below him, nor did the little girl turn her eyes his way, for in the last few minutes some subtle change in their relations had taken place, and both were equally surprised and mystified. Finally, the lad ventured a sidewise glance at her beneath the brim of his hat and met a shy, appealing glance once more. At once he felt aggrieved and resentful and turned sullen.
"He throwed it back in yo' face," he said. "You oughtn't to 'a' done it."
Little Mavis made no answer.
"You're nothin' but a gal, an' nobody'll hold nothin' agin you, but with my mammy a Honeycutt an' me a-livin' on the Honeycutt side, you mought 'a' got me into trouble with my own folks." The girl knew how Jason had been teased and taunted and his life made miserable up and down the Honeycutt creek, and her brown face grew wistful and her chin quivered.
"I jes' couldn't he'p it, Jason," she said weakly, and the little man threw up his hands with a gesture that spoke his hopelessness over her sex in general, and at the same time an ungracious acceptance of the terrible calamity she had perhaps left dangling over his head. He clicked the blade of his Barlow knife and rose.
"We better be movin' now," he said, with a resumption of his old authority, and pulling in the line and winding it about the cane pole, he handed it to her and started back up the spur with Mavis trailing after, his obedient shadow once more.
On top of the spur Jason halted. A warm blue haze transfused with the slanting sunlight overlay the flanks of the mountains which, fold after fold, rippled up and down the winding river and above the green crests billowed on and on into the unknown. Nothing more could happen to them if they went home two hours later than would surely happen if they went home now, the boy thought, and he did not want to go home now. For a moment he stood irresolute, and then, far down the river, he saw two figures on horseback come into sight from a strip of woods, move slowly around a curve of the road, and disappear into the woods again.
One rode sidewise, both looked absurdly small, and even that far away the boy knew them for strangers. He did not call Mavis's attention to them—he had no need—for when he turned, her face showed that she too had seen them, and she was already moving forward to go with him down the spur. Once or twice, as they went down, each glimpsed the coming "furriners" dimly through the trees; they hurried that they might not miss the passing, and on a high bank above the river road they stopped, standing side by side, the eyes of both fixed on the arched opening of the trees through which the strangers must first come into sight. A ringing laugh from the green depths heralded their coming, and then in the archway were framed a boy and a girl and two ponies—all from another world. The two watchers stared silently—the boy noting that the other boy wore a cap and long stockings, the girl that a strange hat hung down the back of the other girl's head—stared with widening eyes at a sight that was never for them before. And then the strangers saw them—the boy with his bow and arrow, the girl with a fishing-pole—and simultaneously pulled their ponies in before the halting gaze that was levelled at them from the grassy bank. Then they all looked at one another until boy's eyes rested on boy's eyes for question and answer, and the stranger lad's face flashed with quick humor.
"Were you looking for us?" he asked, for just so it seemed to him, and the little mountaineer nodded.
"Yes," he said gravely.
The stranger boy laughed.
"What can we do for you?"
Now, little Jason had answered honestly and literally, and he saw now that he was being trifled with.
"A feller what wears gal's stockings can't do nothin' fer me," he said coolly.
Instantly the other lad made as though he would jump from his pony, but a cry of protest stopped him, and for a moment he glared his hot resentment of the insult; then he dug his heels into his pony's sides.
"Come on, Marjorie," he said, and with dignity the two little "furriners" rode on, never looking back even when they passed over the hill.
"He didn't mean nothin'," said Mavis, "an' you oughtn't—"
Jason turned on her in a fury.
"I seed you a-lookin' at him!"
"'Tain't so! I seed you a-lookin' at HER!" she retorted, but her eyes fell before his accusing gaze, and she began worming a bare toe into the sand.
"Air ye goin' home now?" she asked, presently.
"No," he said shortly, "I'm a-goin' atter him. You go on home."
The boy started up the hill, and in a moment the girl was trotting after him. He turned when he heard the patter of her feet.
"Huh!" he grunted contemptuously, and kept on. At the top of the hill he saw several men on horseback in the bend of the road below, and he turned into the bushes.
"They mought tell on us," explained Jason, and hiding bow and arrow and fishing-pole, they slipped along the flank of the spur until they stood on a point that commanded the broad river-bottom at the mouth of the creek.
By the roadside down there, was the ancestral home of the Hawns with an orchard about it, a big garden, a stable huge for that part of the world, and a meat-house where for three-quarters of a century there had always been things "hung up." The old log house in which Jason and Mavis's great-great-grandfather had spent his pioneer days had been weather-boarded and was invisible somewhere in the big frame house that, trimmed with green and porticoed with startling colors, glared white in the afternoon sun. They could see the two ponies hitched at the front gate. Two horsemen were hurrying along the river road beneath them, and Jason recognized one as his uncle, Arch Hawn, who lived in the county-seat, who bought "wild" lands and was always bringing in "furriners," to whom he sold them again. The man with him was a stranger, and Jason understood better now what was going on. Arch Hawn was responsible for the presence of the man and of the girl and that boy in the "gal's stockings," and all of them would probably spend the night at his grandfather's house. A farm-hand was leading the ponies to the barn now, and Jason and Mavis saw Arch and the man with him throw themselves hurriedly from their horses, for the sun had disappeared in a black cloud and a mist of heavy rain was sweeping up the river. It was coming fast, and the boy sprang through the bushes and, followed by Mavis, flew down the road. The storm caught them, and in a few moments the stranger boy and girl looking through the front door at the sweeping gusts, saw two drenched and bedraggled figures slip shyly through the front gate and around the corner to the back of the house.
The two little strangers sat in cane-bottomed chairs before the open door, still looking about them with curious eyes at the strings of things hanging from the smoke-browned rafters—beans, red pepper-pods, and twists of homegrown tobacco, the girl's eyes taking in the old spinning-wheel in the corner, the piles of brilliantly figured quilts between the foot-boards of the two beds ranged along one side of the room, and the boy's, catching eagerly the butt of a big revolver projecting from the mantel-piece, a Winchester standing in one corner, a long, old-fashioned squirrel rifle athwart a pair of buck antlers over the front door, and a bunch of cane fishing-poles aslant the wall of the back porch. Presently a slim, drenched figure slipped quietly in, then another, and Mavis stood on one side of the fire-place and little Jason on the other. The two girls exchanged a swift glance and Mavis's eyes fell; abashed, she knotted her hands shyly behind her and with the hollow of one bare foot rubbed the slender arch of the other. The stranger boy looked up at Jason with a pleasant glance of recognition, got for his courtesy a sullen glare that travelled from his broad white collar down to his stockinged legs, and his face flushed; he would have trouble with that mountain boy. Before the fire old Jason Hawn stood, and through a smoke cloud from his corn-cob pipe looked kindly at his two little guests.
"So that's yo' boy an' gal?"
"That's my son Gray," said Colonel Pendleton.
"And that's my cousin Marjorie," said the lad, and Mavis looked quickly to little Jason for recognition of this similar relationship and got no answering glance, for little did he care at that moment of hostility how those two were akin.
"She's my cousin, too," laughed the colonel, "but she always calls me uncle."
Old Jason turned to him.
"Well, we're a purty rough people down here, but you're welcome to all we got."
"I've found that out," laughed Colonel Pendleton pleasantly, "everywhere."
"I wish you both could stay a long time with us," said the old man to the little strangers. "Jason here would take Gray fishin' an' huntin', an' Mavis would git on my old mare an' you two could jus' go flyin' up an' down the road. You could have a mighty good time if hit wasn't too rough fer ye."
"Oh, no," said the boy politely, and the girl said:
"I'd just love to."
The Blue-grass man's attention was caught by the names.
"Jason," he repeated; "why, Jason was a mighty hunter, and Mavis— that means 'the songthrush.' How in the world did they get those names?"
"Well, my granddaddy was a powerful b'arhunter in his day," said the old man, "an' I heerd as how a school-teacher nicknamed him Jason, an' that name come down to me an' him. I've heerd o' Mavis as long as I can rickellect. Hit was my grandmammy's name."
Colonel Pendleton looked at the sturdy mountain lad, his compact figure, square shoulders, well-set head with its shock of hair and bold, steady eyes, and at the slim, wild little creature shrinking against the mantel-piece, and then he turned to his own son Gray and his little cousin Marjorie. Four better types of the Blue- grass and of the mountains it would be hard to find. For a moment he saw them in his mind's eye transposed in dress and environment, and he was surprised at the little change that eye could see, and when he thought of the four living together in these wilds, or at home in the Blue-grass, his wonder at what the result might be almost startled him. The mountain lad had shown no surprise at the talk about him and his cousin, but when the stranger man caught his eye, little Jason's lips opened.
"I knowed all about that," he said abruptly.
"Why, that mighty hunter—and Mavis."
"Why, who told you?"
"The what?" Old Jason laughed.
"He means ge-ol-o-gist," said the old man, who had no little trouble with the right word himself. "A feller come in here three year ago with a hammer an' went to peckin' aroun' in the rocks here, an' that boy was with him all the time. Thar don't seem to be much the feller didn't tell Jason an' nothin' that Jason don't seem to remember. He's al'ays a-puzzlin' me by comin' out with somethin' or other that rock-pecker tol' him an'—" he stopped, for the boy was shaking his head from side to side.
"Don't you say nothin' agin him, now," he said, and old Jason laughed.
"He's a powerful hand to take up fer his friends, Jason is."
"He was a friend o' all us mountain folks," said the boy stoutly, and then he looked Colonel Pendleton in the face—fearlessly, but with no impertinence.
"He said as how you folks from the big settlemints was a-comin' down here to buy up our wild lands fer nothin' because we all was a lot o' fools an' didn't know how much they was worth, an' that ever'body'd have to move out o' here an' you'd get rich diggin' our coal an' cuttin' our timber an' raisin' hell ginerally."
He did not notice Marjorie's flush, but went on fierily: "He said that our trees caught the rain an' our gullies gethered it together an' troughed it down the mountains an' made the river which would water all yo' lands. That you was a lot o' damn fools cuttin' down yo' trees an' a-plantin' terbaccer an' a-spittin' out yo' birthright in terbaccer-juice, an' that by an' by you'd come up here an' cut down our trees so that there wouldn't be nothin' left to ketch the rain when it fell, so that yo' rivers would git to be cricks an' yo' cricks branches an' yo' land would die o' thirst an' the same thing 'ud happen here. Co'se we'd all be gone when all this tuk place, but he said as how I'd live to see the day when you furriners would be damaged by wash-outs down thar in the settlements an' would be a-pilin' up stacks an' stacks o' gold out o' the lands you robbed me an' my kinfolks out of."
"Shet up," said Arch Hawn sharply, and the boy wheeled on him.
"Yes, an' you air a-helpin' the furriners to rob yo' own kin; you air a-doin' hit yo'self."
The old man spoke sternly and the boy stopped, flushed and angry, and a moment later slipped from the room.
"Well!" said the colonel, and he laughed good-humoredly to relieve the strain that his host might feel on his account; but he was amazed just the same—the bud of a socialist blooming in those wilds! Arch Hawn's shrewd face looked a little concerned, for he saw that the old man's rebuke had been for the discourtesy to strangers, and from the sudden frown that ridged the old man's brow, that the boy's words had gone deep enough to stir distrust, and this was a poor start in the fulfilment of the purpose he had in view. He would have liked to give the boy a cuff on the ear. As for Mavis, she was almost frightened by the outburst of her playmate, and Marjorie was horrified by his profanity; but the dawning of something in Gray's brain worried him, and presently he, too, rose and went to the back porch. The rain had stopped, the wet earth was fragrant with freshened odors, wood-thrushes were singing, and the upper air was drenched with liquid gold that was darkening fast. The boy Jason was seated on the yard fence with his chin in his hands, his back to the house, and his face toward home. He heard the stranger's step, turned his head, and mistaking a puzzled sympathy for a challenge, dropped to the ground and came toward him, gathering fury as he came. Like lightning the Blue-grass lad's face changed, whitening a little as he sprang forward to meet him, but Jason, motioning with his thumb, swerved behind the chimney, where the stranger swiftly threw off his coat, the mountain boy spat on his hands, and like two diminutive demons they went at each other fiercely and silently. A few minutes later the two little girls rounding the chimney corner saw them—Gray on top and Jason writhing and biting under him like a tortured snake. A moment more Mavis's strong little hand had the stranger boy by his thick hair and Mavis, feeling her own arm clutched by the stranger-girl, let go and turned on her like a fury. There was a piercing scream from Marjorie, hurried footsteps answered on the porch, and old Jason and the colonel looked with bewildered eyes on the little Blue- grass girl amazed, indignant, white with horror; Mavis shrinking away from her as though she were the one who had been threatened with a blow; the stranger lad with a bitten thumb clinched in the hollow of one hand, his face already reddening with contrition and shame; and savage little Jason biting a bloody lip and with the lust of battle still shaking him from head to foot.
"Jason," said the old man sternly, "whut's the matter out hyeh?"
Marjorie pointed one finger at Mavis, started to speak, and stopped. Jason's eyes fell.
"Nothin'," he said sullenly, and Colonel Pendleton looked to his son with astonished inquiry, and the lad's fine face turned bewildered and foolish.
"I don't know, sir," he said at last.
"Don't know?" echoed the colonel. "Well—"
The old man broke in:
"Jason, if you have lost yo' manners an' don't know how to behave when thar's strangers around, I reckon you'd better go on home."
The boy did not lift his eyes.
"I was a-goin' home anyhow," he said, still sullen, and he turned.
"Oh, no!" said the colonel quickly; "this won't do. Come now—you two boys shake hands."
At once the stranger lad walked forward to his enemy, and confused Jason gave him a limp hand. The old man laughed. "Come on in, Jason—you an' Mavis—an' stay to supper."
The boy shook his head.
"I got to be gittin' back home," he said, and without a word more he turned again. Marjorie looked toward the little girl, but she, too, was starting.
"I better be gittin' back too," she said shyly, and off she ran. Old Jason laughed again.
"Jes' like two young roosters out thar in my barnyard," and he turned with the colonel toward the house. But Marjorie and her cousin stood in the porch and watched the two little mountaineers until, without once looking back, they passed over the sunlit hill.
On they trudged, the boy plodding sturdily ahead, the little girl slipping mountain-fashion behind. Not once did she come abreast with him, and not one word did either say, but the mind and heart of both were busy. All the way the frown over-casting the boy's face stayed like a shadow, for he had left trouble at home, he had met trouble, and to trouble he was going back. The old was definite enough and he knew how to handle it, but the new bothered him sorely. That stranger boy was a fighter, and Jason's honest soul told him that if interference had not come he would have been whipped, and his pride was still smarting with every step. The new boy had not tried to bite, or gouge, or to hit him when he was on top—facts that puzzled the mountain boy; he hadn't whimpered and he hadn't blabbed—not even the insult Jason had hurled with eye and tongue at his girl-clad legs. He had said that he didn't know what they were fighting about, and just why they were Jason himself couldn't quite make out now; but he knew that even now, in spite of the hand-shaking truce, he would at the snap of a finger go at the stranger again. And little Mavis knew now that it was not fear that made the stranger girl scream—and she, too, was puzzled. She even felt that the scorn in Marjorie's face was not personal, but she had shrunk from it as from the sudden lash of a whip. The stranger girl, too, had not blabbed but had even seemed to smile her forgiveness when Mavis turned, with no good-by, to follow Jason. Hand in hand the two little mountaineers had crossed the threshold of a new world that day. Together they were going back into their own, but the clutch of the new was tight on both, and while neither could have explained, there was the same thought in each mind, the same nameless dissatisfaction in each heart, and both were in the throes of the same new birth.
The sun was sinking when they started up the spur, and unconsciously Jason hurried his steps and the girl followed hard. The twin spirals of smoke were visible now, and where the path forked the boy stopped and turned, jerking his thumb toward her cabin and his.
"Ef anything happens"—he paused, and the girl nodded her understanding—"you an' me air goin' to stay hyeh in the mountains an' git married."
"Yes, Jasie," she said.
His tone was matter-of-fact and so was hers, nor did she show any surprise at the suddenness of what he said, and Jason, not looking at her, failed to see a faint flush come to her cheek. He turned to go, but she stood still, looking down into the gloomy, darkening ravine below her. A bear's tracks had been found in that ravine only the day before. "Air ye afeerd?" he asked tolerantly, and she nodded mutely.
"I'll take ye down," he said with sudden gentleness.
The tall mountaineer was standing on the porch of the cabin, and with assurance and dignity Jason strode ahead with a protecting air to the gate.
"Whar you two been?" he called sharply.
"I went fishin'," said the boy unperturbed, "an' tuk Mavis with me."
"You air gittin' a leetle too peart, boy. I don't want that gal a- runnin' around in the woods all day."
Jason met his angry eyes with a new spirit.
"I reckon you hain't been hyeh long."
The shot went home and the mountaineer glared helpless for an answer.
"Come on in hyeh an' git supper," he called harshly to the girl, and as the boy went back up the spur, he could hear the scolding going on below, with no answer from Mavis, and he made up his mind to put an end to that some day himself. He knew what was waiting for him on the other side of the spur, and when he reached the top, he sat down for a moment on a long-fallen, moss-grown log. Above him beetled the top of his world. His great blue misty hills washed their turbulent waves to the yellow shore of the dropping sun. Those waves of forests primeval were his, and the green spray of them was tossed into cloudland to catch the blessed rain. In every little fold of them drops were trickling down now to water the earth and give back the sea its own. The dreamy-eyed man of science had told him that. And it was unchanged, all unchanged since wild beasts were the only tenants, since wild Indians slipped through the wilderness aisles, since the half-wild white man, hot on the chase, planted his feet in the footsteps of both and inexorably pushed them on. The boy's first Kentucky ancestor had been one of those who had stopped in the hills. His rifle had fed him and his family; his axe had put a roof over their heads, and the loom and spinning-wheel had clothed their bodies. Day by day they had fought back the wilderness, had husbanded the soil, and as far as his eagle eye could reach, that first Hawn had claimed mountain, river, and tree for his own, and there was none to dispute the claim for the passing of half a century. Now those who had passed on were coming back again—the first trespasser long, long ago with a yellow document that he called a "blanket- patent" and which was all but the bringer's funeral shroud, for the old hunter started at once for his gun and the stranger with his patent took to flight. Years later a band of young men with chain and compass had appeared in the hills and disappeared as suddenly, and later still another band, running a line for a railroad up the river, found old Jason at the foot of a certain oak with his rifle in the hollow of his arm and marking a dead- line which none dared to cross.
Later still, when he understood, the old man let them pass, but so far nobody had surveyed his land, and now, instead of trying to take, they were trying to purchase. From all points of the compass the "furriners" were coming now, the rock-pecker's prophecy was falling true, and at that moment the boy's hot words were having an effect on every soul who had heard them. Old Jason's suspicions were alive again; he was short of speech when his nephew, Arch Hawn, brought up the sale of his lands, and Arch warned the colonel to drop the subject for the night. The colonel's mind had gone back to a beautiful woodland at home that he thought of clearing off for tobacco—he would put that desecration off a while. The stranger boy, too, was wondering vaguely at the fierce arraignment he had heard; the stranger girl was curiously haunted by memories of the queer little mountaineer, while Mavis now had a new awe of her cousin that was but another rod with which he could go on ruling her.
Jason's mother was standing in the door when he walked through the yard gate. She went back into the cabin when she saw him coming, and met him at the door with a switch in her hand. Very coolly the lad caught it from her, broke it in two, threw it away, and picking up a piggin went out without a word to milk, leaving her aghast and outdone. When he came back, he asked like a man if supper was ready, and as to a man she answered. For an hour he pottered around the barn, and for a long while he sat on the porch under the stars. And, as always at that hour, the same scene obsessed his memory, when the last glance of his father's eye and the last words of his father's tongue went not to his wife, but to the white-faced little son across the foot of the death-bed:
"You'll git him fer me—some day."
"I'll git him, pap."
Those were the words that passed, and in them was neither the asking nor the giving of a promise, but a simple statement and a simple acceptance of a simple trust, and the father passed with a grim smile of content. Like every Hawn the boy believed that a Honeycutt was the assassin, and in the solemn little fellow one purpose hitherto had been supreme—to discover the man and avenge the deed; and though, young as he was, he was yet too cunning to let the fact be known, there was no male of the name old enough to pull the trigger, not even his mother's brother, Babe, who did not fall under the ban of the boy's deathless hate and suspicion. And always his mother, though herself a Honeycutt, had steadily fed his purpose, but for a long while now she had kept disloyally still, and the boy had bitterly learned the reason.
It was bedtime now, and little Jason rose and went within. As he climbed the steps leading to his loft, he spoke at last, nodding his head toward the cabin over the spur:
"I reckon I know whut you two are up to, and, furhermore, you are aimin' to sell this land. I can't keep you from doin' it, I reckon, but I do ask you not to sell without lettin' me know. I know somet'n' 'bout it that nobody else knows. An' if you don't tell me—" he shook his head slowly, and the mother looked at her boy as though she were dazed by some spell.
"I'll tell ye, Jasie," she said.
Down the river road loped Arch Hawn the next morning, his square chin low with thought, his shrewd eyes almost closed, and his straight lips closed hard on the cane stem of an unlighted pipe. Of all the Hawns he had been born the poorest in goods and chattels and the richest in shrewd resource, restless energy, and keen foresight. He had gone to the settlements when he was a lad, he had always been coming and going ever since, and the word was that he had been to far-away cities in the outer world that were as unfamiliar to his fellows and kindred as the Holy Land. He had worked as teamster and had bought and sold anything to anybody right and left. Resolutely he had kept himself from all part in the feud—his kinship with the Hawns protecting him on one side and the many trades with old Aaron Honeycutt in cattle and lands saving him from trouble on the other. He carried no tales from one faction to the other, condemned neither one nor the other, and made the same comment to both—that it was foolish to fight when there was so much else so much more profitable to do. Once an armed band of mounted Honeycutts had met him in the road and demanded news of a similar band of Hawns up a creek. "Did you ever hear o' my tellin' the Hawns anything about you Honeycutts?" he asked quietly, and old Aaron had to shake his head.
"Well, if I tol' you anything about them to-day, don't you know I'd be tellin' them something about you to-morrow?"
Old Aaron scratched his head.
"By Gawd, boys—that's so. Let him pass!"
Thus it was that only Arch Hawn could have brought about an agreement that was the ninth wonder of the mountain world, and was no less than a temporary truce in the feud between old Aaron Honeycutt and old Jason Hawn until the land deal in which both leaders shared a heavy interest could come to a consummation. Arch had interested Colonel Pendleton in his "wild lands" at a horse sale in the Blue-grass. The mountaineer's shrewd knowledge of horses had caught the attention of the colonel, his drawling speech, odd phrasing, and quaint humor had amused the Blue-grass man, and his exposition of the wealth of the hills and the vast holdings that he had in the hollow of his hand, through options far and wide, had done the rest—for the matter was timely to the colonel's needs and to his accidental hour of opportunity. Only a short while before old Morton Sanders, an Eastern capitalist of Kentucky birth, had been making inquiry of him that the mountaineer's talk answered precisely, and soon the colonel found himself an intermediary between buried coal and open millions, and such a quick unlooked-for chance of exchange made Arch Hawn's brain reel. Only a few days before the colonel started for the mountains, Babe Honeycutt had broken the truce by shooting Shade Hawn, but as Shade was going to get well, Arch's oily tongue had licked the wound to the pride of every Honeycutt except Shade, and he calculated that the latter would be so long in bed that his interference would never count. But things were going wrong. Arch had had a hard time with old Jason the night before. Again he had to go over the same weary argument that he had so often travelled before: the mountain people could do nothing with the mineral wealth of their hills; the coal was of no value to them where it was; they could not dig it, they had no market for it; and they could never get it into the markets of the outside world. It was the boy's talk that had halted the old man, and to Arch's amazement the colonel's sense of fairness seemed to have been touched and his enthusiasm seemed to have waned a little. That morning, too, Arch had heard that Shade Hawn was getting well a little too fast, and he was on his way to see about it. Shade was getting well fast, and with troubled eyes Arch saw him sitting up in a chair and cleaning his Winchester.
"What's yo' hurry?"
"I ain't never agreed to no truce," said Shade truculently.
"Don't you think you might save a little time—waitin' fer Babe to git tame? He's hidin' out. You can't find him now."
"I can look fer him."
"Shade!"—wily Arch purposely spoke loud enough for Shade's wife to hear, and he saw her thin, worn, shrewish face turn eagerly— "I'll give ye just fifty dollars to stay here in the house an' git well fer two more weeks. You know why, an' you know hit's wuth it to me. What you say?"
Shade rubbed his stubbled chin ruminatively and his wife Mandy broke in sharply:
"Take it, you fool!"
Apparently Shade paid no heed to the advice nor the epithet, which was not meant to be offensive, but he knew that Mandy wanted a cow of just that price and a cow she would have; while he needed cartridges and other little "fixin's," and he owed for moonshine up a certain creek, and wanted more just then and badly. But mental calculation was laborious and he made a plunge:
"Not a cent less'n seventy-five, an' I ain't goin' to argue with ye."
"Split the difference!" he commanded.
A few minutes later Arch was loping back up the river road. Within an hour he had won old Jason to a non-committal silence and straight-way volunteered to show the colonel the outcroppings of his coal. And old Jason mounted his sorrel mare and rode with the party up the creek.
It was Sunday and a holiday for little Jason from toil in the rocky corn-field. He was stirring busily before the break of dawn. While the light was still gray, he had milked, cut wood for his mother, and eaten his breakfast of greasy bacon and corn-bread. On that day it had been his habit for months to disappear early, come back for his dinner, slip quietly away again and return worn out and tired at milking-time. Invariably for a long time his mother had asked:
"Whut you been a-doin', Jason?" And invariably his answer was:
But, by and by, as the long dark mountaineer, Steve Hawn, got in the daily habit of swinging over the ridge, she was glad to be free from the boy's sullen watchfulness, and particularly that morning she was glad to see him start as usual up the path his own feet had worn through the steep field of corn, and disappear in the edge of the woods. She would have a long day for courtship and for talk of plans which she was keeping secret from little Jason. She was a Honeycutt and she had married one Hawn, and there had been much trouble. Now she was going to marry another of the tribe, there would be more trouble, and Steve Hawn over the ridge meant to evade it by straightway putting forth from those hills. Hurriedly she washed the dishes, tidied up her poor shack of a home, and within an hour she was seated in the porch, in her best dress, with her knitting in her lap and, even that early, lifting expectant and shining eyes now and then to the tree-crowned crest of the ridge.
Up little Jason went through breaking mist and flashing dew. A wood-thrush sang, and he knew the song came from the bird of which little Mavis was the human counterpart. Woodpeckers were hammering and, when a crested cock of the woods took billowy flight across a blue ravine, he knew him for a big cousin of the little red-heads, just as Mavis was a little cousin of his. Once he had known birds only by sight, but now he knew every calling, twittering, winging soul of them by name. Once he used to draw bead on one and all heartlessly and indiscriminately with his old rifle, but now only the whistle of a bob-white, the darting of a hawk, or the whir of a pheasant's wings made him whirl the old weapon from his shoulder. He knew flower, plant, bush, and weed, the bark and leaf of every tree, and even In winter he could pick them out in the gray etching of a mountain-side—dog-wood, red-bud, "sarvice" berry, hickory, and walnut, the oaks—white, black, and chestnut— the majestic poplar, prized by the outer world, and the black-gum that defied the lightning. All this the dreamy stranger had taught him, and much more. And nobody, native born to those hills, except his uncle Arch, knew as much about their hidden treasures as little Jason. He had trailed after the man of science along the benches of the mountains where coal beds lie. With him he had sought the roots of upturned trees and the beds of little creeks and the gray faces of "rock-houses" for signs of the black diamonds. He had learned to watch the beds of little creeks for the shining tell-tale black bits, and even the tiny mouths of crawfish holes, on the lips of which they sometimes lay. And the biggest treasure in the hills little Jason had found himself; for only on the last day before the rock-pecker had gone away, the two had found signs of another vein, and the geologist had given his own pick to the boy and told him to dig, while he was gone, for himself. And Jason had dug. He was slipping now up the tiny branch, and where the stream trickled down the face of a water- worn perpendicular rock the boy stopped, leaned his rifle against a tree, and stepped aside into the bushes. A moment later he reappeared with a small pick in his hand, climbed up over a mound of loose rocks and loose earth, ten feet around the rock, and entered the narrow mouth of a deep, freshly dug ditch. Ten feet farther on he was halted by a tall black column solidly wedged in the narrow passage, at the base of which was a bench of yellow dirt extending not more than two feet from the foot of the column and above the floor of the ditch. There had been mighty operations going on in that secret passage; the toil for one boy and one tool had been prodigious and his work was not yet quite done. Lifting the pick above his head, the boy sank it into that yellow pedestal with savage energy, raking the loose earth behind him with hands and feet. The sunlight caught the top of the black column above his head and dropped shining inch by inch, but on he worked tirelessly. The yellow bench disappeared and the heap of dirt behind him was piled high as his head, but the black column bored on downward as though bound for the very bowels of the earth, and only when the bench vanished to the level of the ditch's floor did the lad send his pick deep into a new layer and lean back to rest even for a moment. A few deep breaths, the brushing of one forearm and then the other across his forehead and cheeks, and again he grasped the tool. This time it came out hard, bringing out with its point particles of grayish-black earth, and the boy gave a low, shrill yell. It was a bed of clay that he had struck—the bed on which, as the geologist had told him, the massive layers of coal had slept so long. In a few minutes he had skimmed a yellow inch or two more to the dingy floor of the clay bed, and had driven his pick under the very edge of the black bulk towering above him.
His work was done, and no buccaneer ever gloated more over hidden treasure than Jason over the prize discovered by him and known of nobody else in the world. He raised his head and looked up the shimmering black face of his find. He took up his pick again and notched foot-holes in each side of the yellow ditch. He marked his own height on the face of the column, and, climbing up along it, measured his full length again, and yet with outstretched arm he could barely touch the top of the vein with the tips of his fingers. No vein half that thick had the rock-pecker with all his searching found, and the lad gave a long, low whistle of happy amazement. A moment later he dropped his pick, climbed over the pile of new dirt, emerged at the mouth of the passage, and sat down as if on guard in the grateful coolness of the little ravine. Drawing one long breath, he looked proudly back once more and began shaking his head wisely. They couldn't fool him. He knew what that mighty vein of coal was worth. Other people—fools— might sell their land for a dollar or two an acre, even old Jason, his grandfather, but not the Jason Hawn who had dug that black giant out of the side of the mountain.
"Go away, boy," the rock-pecker had said, "Get an education. Leave this farm alone—it won't run away. By the time you are twenty- one, an acre of it will be worth as much as all of it is now."
No, they couldn't fool him. He would keep his find a secret from every soul on earth—even from his grandfather and Mavis, both of whom he had already been tempted to tell. He rose to his feet with the resolution and crouched suddenly, listening hard. Something was coming swiftly toward him through the undergrowth on the other side of the creek, and he reached stealthily for his rifle, sank behind the bowlder with his thumb on the hammer just as the bushes parted on the opposite cliff, and Mavis stood above him, peering for him and calling his name in an excited whisper. He rose glowering and angry.
"Whut you doin' up here?" he asked roughly, and the girl shrank, and her message stopped at her lips.
"They're comin' up here," she faltered.
The boy's eyes accused her mercilessly and he seemed not to hear her.
"You've been spyin'!"
The dignity of his manhood was outraged, and humbly and helplessly she nodded in utter abasement, faltering again:
"They're comin' up here!"
"Who's comin' up here?"
"Them strangers an' grandpap an' Uncle Arch—an' another rock- pecker."
"Did you tell'em?"
The girl crossed her heart and body swiftly.
"I hain't told a soul," she gasped". I come up to tell you."
"When they comin'?"
The sound of voices below answered for her.
The boy wheeled, alert as a wild-cat, the girl slid noiselessly down the cliff and crept noiselessly after him down the bed of the creek, until they could both peer through the bushes down on the next bend of the stream below. There they were—all of them, and down there they had halted.
"Ain't no use goin' up any furder," said the voice of Arch Hawn; "I've looked all up this crick an' thar ain't nary a blessed sign o' coal."
"All right," said the colonel, who was puffing with the climb. "That suits me—I've had enough."
At Jason's side, Mavis echoed his own swift breath of relief, but as the party turned, the rock-pecker stooped and rose with a black lump in his hand.
"Hello!" he said, "where did this come from?"
The boy's heart began to throb, for once he had started to carry that very lump to his grandfather, had changed his mind, and thoughtlessly dropped it there. The geologist was looking at it closely and then began to weigh it with his hand.
"This is pretty good-looking coal," he said, and he laughed. "I guess we'd better go up a little farther—this didn't come out all by itself."
The boy dug Mavis sharply in the shoulder.
"Git back into the bushes—quick!" he whispered.
The girl shrank away and the boy dropped down into the bed of the creek and slipped down to where the stream poured between two bowlders over which ascent was slippery and difficult. And when the party turned up the bend of the creek, Arch Hawn saw the boy, tense and erect, on the wet black summit of one bowlder, with his old rifle in the hollow of his arm.
"Why, hello, Jason!" he cried, with a start of surprise; "found anything to shoot?"
"Not yit!" said Jason shortly.
The geologist stepped around Arch and started to climb toward the foot of the bowlder.
"You stop thar!"
The ring of the boy's fiery command stopped the man as though a rattlesnake had given the order at his very feet, and he looked up bewildered; but the boy had not moved.
"Whut you mean, boy?" shouted Arch. "We're lookin' for a vein o' coal."
"Well, you hain't a-goin' to find hit up this way."
"Whut you want to keep us from goin' up here fer?" asked the uncle with sarcastic suspicion. "Got a still up here?"
"That's my business," said little Jason.
"Well," shouted Arch angrily again, "this ain't yo' land an' I've got a option on it an' hit's my business to go up here, an' I'm goin'!"
As he pushed ahead of the geologist the boy flashed his old rifle to his shoulder.
"I'll let ye come just two steps more," he said quietly, and old Jason Hawn began to grin and stepped aside as though to get out of range.
"Hol' on thar, Arch," he said; "he'll shoot, shore!" And Arch held on, bursting with rage and glaring up at the boy.
"I've a notion to git me a switch an' whoop the life out o' you." The boy laughed derisively.
"My whoopin' days air over." The amazed and amused geologist put his hand on Arch's shoulder.
"Never mind," he said, and with a significant wink he pulled a barometer out of his pocket and carefully noted the altitude.
"We'll manage it later."
The party turned, old Jason still smiling grimly, the colonel chuckling, the geologist busy with speculation, and Arch sore and angry, but wondering what on earth it was that the boy had found up that ravine. Presently with the geologist he dropped behind the other two and the latter's frowning brow cleared into a smile at his lips. He stopped, looking still at the black lump and weighing it once more in his hand.
"I think I know this coal," he said in a low voice, "and if I'm right you've got the best and thickest vein of coking coal in these mountains. It's the Culloden seam. Nobody ever has found it on this side of the mountain, and it is supposed to have petered out on the way through. That boy has found the Culloden seam. The altitude is right, the coal looks and weighs like it, and we can find it somewhere else under that bench along the mountain. So you better let the boy alone."
Little Jason stood motionless looking after them. Little Mavis crept from her hiding-place. Her face showed no pride in Jason's triumph and few traces of excitement, for she was already schooled to the quiet acquiescence of mountain women in the rough deeds of the men. She had seen Jason going up that ravine, she could simply not help going herself to learn why, she was mystified by what he had done up there, but she had kept his secret faithfully. Now she was beginning to understand that the matter was serious, and for that reason the boy's charge of spying lay heavier on her mind. So she came slowly and shyly and stood behind him, her eyes dark with penitence.
The boy heard her, but he did not turn around.
"You better go home, Mavie," he said, and at his very tone her face flashed with joy. "They mought come back agin. I'm goin' to stay up here till dark. They can't see nothin' then."
There was not a word of rebuke for her; it was his secret and hers now, and pride and gratitude filled her heart and her eyes.
"All right, Jasie," she said obediently, and down the bowlder she stepped lightly, and slipping down the bed of the creek, disappeared. And not once did she look around.
The shadows lengthened, the ravines filled with misty blue, the steep westward spur threw its bulky shadow on the sunlit flank of the opposite hill, and the lonely spirit of night came with the gloom that gathered fast about him in the defile where he lay. A slow wind was blowing up from the river toward him, and on it came faintly the long mellow blast of a horn. It was no hunter's call, and he sprang to his feet. Again the winding came and his tense muscles relaxed—nor was it a warning that "revenues" were coming- -and he sank back to his lonely useless vigil again. The sun dipped, the sky darkened, the black wings of the night rushed upward and downward and from all around the horizon, but only when they were locked above him did he slip like a creature of the gloom down the bed of the stream.
The cabin was unlighted when Jason came in sight of it and apprehension straightway seized him; so that he broke into a run, but stopped at the gate and crept slowly to the porch and almost on tiptoe opened the door. The fire was low, but the look of things was unchanged, and on the kitchen table he saw his cold supper laid for him. His mother had maybe gone over the ridge for some reason to stay all night, so he gobbled his food hastily and, still uneasy, put forth for Mavis's cabin over the hill. That cabin, too, was dark and deserted, and he knew now what had happened—that blast of the horn was a summons to a dance somewhere, and his mother and Steve had answered and taken Mavis with them; so the boy sat down on the porch, alone with the night and the big still dark shapes around him. It would not be very pleasant for him to follow them—people would tease him and ask him troublesome questions. But where was the dance, and had they gone to it after all? He rose and went swiftly down the creek. At the mouth of it a light shone through the darkness, and from it a quavering hymn trembled on the still air. A moment later Jason stood on the threshold of an open door and an old couple at the fireplace lifted welcoming eyes.
"Uncle Lige, do you know whar my mammy is?"
The old man's eyes took on a troubled look, but the old woman answered readily:
"Why, I seed her an' Steve Hawn an' Mavis a-goin' down the crick jest afore dark, an' yo' mammy said as how they was aimin' to go to yo' grandpap's."
It was his grandfather's horn, then, Jason had heard. The lad turned to go, and the old circuit rider rose to his full height.
"Come in, boy. Yo' grandpap had better be a-thinkin' about spreadin' the wings of his immortal sperit, stid o' shakin' them feet o' clay o' his'n an' a-settin' a bad example to the young an' errin'!"
"Hush up!" said the old woman. "The Bible don't say nothin' agin a boy lookin' fer his mammy, no matter whar she is."
She spoke sharply, for Steve Hawn had called her husband out to the gate, where the two had talked in whispers, and the old man had refused flatly to tell her what the talk was about. But Jason had turned without a word and was gone. Out in the darkness of the road he stood for a moment undecided whether or not he should go back to his lonely home, and some vague foreboding started him swiftly on down the creek. On top of a little hill he could see the light in his grandfather's house, and that far away he could hear the rollicking tune of "Sourwood Mountain." The sounds of dancing feet soon came to his ears, and from those sounds he could tell the figures of the dance just as he could tell the gait of an unseen horse thumping a hard dirt road. He leaned over the yard fence—looking, listening, thinking. Through the window he could see the fiddler with his fiddle pressed almost against his heart, his eyes closed, his horny fingers thumping the strings like trip- hammers, and his melancholy calls ringing high above the din of shuffling feet. His grandfather was standing before the fireplace, his grizzled hair tousled and his face red with something more than the spirits of the dance. The colonel was doing the "grand right and left," and his mother was the colonel's partner—the colonel as gallant as though he were leading mazes with a queen and his mother simpering and blushing like a girl. In one corner sat Steve Hawn, scowling like a storm-cloud, and on one bed sat Marjorie and the boy Gray watching the couple and apparently shrieking with laughter; and Jason wondered what they could be laughing about. Little Mavis was not in sight. When the dance closed he could see the colonel go over to the little strangers and, seizing each by the hand, try to pull them from the bed into the middle of the floor. Finally they came, and the boy, looking through the window, and Mavis, who suddenly appeared in the door leading to the porch, saw a strange sight. Gray took Marjorie's right hand with his left and put his right arm around her waist and then to the stirring strains of "Soapsuds Over the Fence" they whirled about the room as lightly as two feathers in an eddy of air. It was a two-step and the first round dance ever seen in these hills, and the mountaineers took it silently, grimly, and with little sign of favor or disapproval, except from old Jason, who, looking around for Mavis, caught sight of little Jason's wondering face over her shoulder, for the boy had left the blurred window-pane and hurried around to the back door for a better view. With a whoop the old man reached for the little girl, and gathered in the boy with his other hand.
"Hyeh!" he cried, "you two just git out thar an' shake a foot!"
Little Mavis hung back, but the boy bounded into the middle of the floor and started into a furious jig, his legs as loose from the hip as a jumping-jack and the soles and heels of his rough brogans thumping out every note of the music with astonishing precision and rapidity. He hardly noticed Mavis at first, and then he began to dance toward her, his eyes flashing and fixed on hers and his black locks tumbling about his forehead as though in an electric storm. The master was calling and the maid answered—shyly at first, coquettishly by and by, and then, forgetting self and onlookers, with a fiery abandon that transformed her. Alternately he advanced and she retreated, and when, with a scornful toss of that night-black head, the boy jigged away, she would relent and lure him back, only to send him on his way again. Sometimes they were back to back and the colonel saw that always then the girl was first to turn, but if the lad turned first, the girl whirled as though she were answering the dominant spirit of his eyes even through the back of her head, and, looking over to the bed, he saw his own little kinswoman answering that same masterful spirit in a way that seemed hardly less hypnotic. Even Gray's clear eyes, fixed at first on the little mountain girl, had turned to Jason, but they were undaunted and smiling, and when Jason, seeing Steve's face at the window and his mother edging out through the front door, seemed to hesitate in his dance, and Mavis, thinking he was about to stop, turned panting away from him, Gray sprang from the bed like a challenging young buck and lit facing the mountain boy and in the midst of a double-shuffle that the amazed colonel had never seen outdone by any darkey on his farm.
"Jenny with a ruff-duff a-kickin' up the dust," clicked his feet.
"Juba this and Juba that! Juba killed a yaller cat! Juba! Juba!"
"Whoop!" yelled old Jason, bending his huge body and patting his leg and knee to the beat of one big cowhide boot and urging them on in a frenzy of delight:
"Come on, Jason! Git atter him, stranger! Whoop her up thar with that fiddle—Heh—ee—dum dee—eede-eedle—dedee-dee!"
Then there was dancing. The fiddler woke like a battery newly charged, every face lighted with freshened interest, and only the colonel and Marjorie showed surprise and mystification. The double-shuffle was hardly included in the curriculum of the colonel's training school for a gentleman, and where, when, and how the boy had learned such Ethiopian skill, neither he nor Marjorie knew. But he had it and they enjoyed it to the full. Gray's face wore a merry smile, and Jason, though he was breathing hard and his black hair was plastered to his wet forehead, faced his new competitor with rallying feet but a sullen face. "The Forked Deer," "Big Sewell Mountain," and "Cattle Licking Salt" for Jason, and the back-step, double-shuffle, and "Jim Crow" for Gray; both improvising their own steps when the fiddler raised his voice in "Comin' up, Sandy," "Chicken in the Dough-Tray," and "Sparrows on the Ash-Bank"; and thus they went through all the steps known to the negro or the mountaineer, until the colonel saw that game little Jason, though winded, would go on till he dropped, and gave Gray a sign that the boy's generous soul caught like a flash; for, as though worn out himself, he threw up his hands with a laugh and left the floor to Jason. Just then there was the crack of a Winchester from the darkness outside. Simultaneously, as far as the ear could detect, there was a sharp rap on a window-pane, as a bullet sped cleanly through, and in front of the fire old Jason's mighty head sagged suddenly and he crumbled into a heap on the floor. Arch Hawn had carried his business deal through. The truce was over and the feud was on again.
Knowing but little of his brother in the hills, the man from the lowland Blue-grass was puzzled and amazed that all feeling he could observe was directed solely at the deed itself and not at the way it was done. No indignation was expressed at what was to him the contemptible cowardice involved—indeed little was said at all, but the colonel could feel the air tense and lowering with a silent deadly spirit of revenge, and he would have been more puzzled had he known the indifference on the part of the Hawns as to whether the act of revenge should take precisely the same form of ambush. For had the mountain code of ethics been explained to him—that what was fair for one was fair for the other; that the brave man could not fight the coward who shot from the brush and must, therefore, adopt the coward's methods; that thus the method of ambush had been sanctioned by long custom—he still could never have understood how a big, burly, kind-hearted man like Jason Hawn could have been brought even to tolerance of ambush by environment, public sentiment, private policy, custom, or any other influence that moulds the character of men.
Old Jason would easily get well—the colonel himself was surgeon enough to know that—and he himself dressed and bandaged the ragged wound that the big bullet had made through one of the old man's mighty shoulders. At his elbow all the time, helping, stood little Jason, and not once did the boy speak, nor did the line of his clenched lips alter, nor did the deadly look in his smouldering eyes change. One by one the guests left, the colonel sent Marjorie and Gray to bed, grandmother Hawn sent Mavis, and when all was done and the old man was breathing heavily on a bed in the corner and grandmother Hawn was seated by the fire with a handkerchief to her lips, the colonel heard the back door open and little Jason, too, was gone—gone on business of his own. He had seen Steve Hawn's face at the window, his mother had slipped out on the porch while he was dancing, and neither had appeared again. So little Jason went swiftly through the dark, over the ridge and up the big creek to the old circuit rider's house, where the stream forked. All the way he had seen the tracks of a horse which he knew to be Steve's, for the right forefoot, he knew, had cast a shoe only the day before.
At the forks the tracks turned up the branch that led to Steve's cabin and not up toward his mother's house. If Steve had his mother behind him, he had taken her to his own home; that, in Mavis's absence, was not right, and, burning with sudden rage, the boy hurried up the branch. The cabin was dark and at the gate he gave a shrill, imperative "Hello!"
In a few minutes the door opened and the tousled head of his cousin was thrust forth.
"Is my mammy hyeh?" he called hotly.
"Yep," drawled Steve.
"Well, tell her I'm hyeh to take her home!" There was no sound from within.
"Well, she ain't goin' home," Steve drawled.
The boy went sick and speechless with fury, but before he could get his breath Steve drawled again:
"She's goin' to live here now—we got married to-night." The boy dropped helplessly against the gate at these astounding words and his silence stirred Steve to kindness.
"Now, don't take it so hard, Jason. Come on in, boy, an' stay all night."
Still the lad was silent and another face appeared at the door.
"Come on in, Jasie."
It was his mother's voice and the tone was pleading, but the boy, with no answer, turned, and they heard his stumbling steps as he made his way along the fence and started over the spur. Behind him his mother began to sob and with rough kindness Steve soothed her and closed the door.
Slowly little Jason climbed the spur and dropped on the old log on which he had so often sat—fighting out the trouble which he had so long feared must come. The moon and the stars in her wake were sinking and the night was very still. His reason told him his mother was her own mistress, and had the right to marry when she pleased and whom she pleased, but she was a Honeycutt, again she had married a Hawn, and the feud was starting again. Steve Hawn would be under suspicion as his own father had been, Steve would probably have to live on the Honeycutt side of the ridge, and Jason's own earlier days of shame he must go through again. That was his first thought, but his second was a quick oath to himself that he would not go through them again. He was big enough to handle a Winchester now, and he would leave his mother and he would fight openly with the Hawns. And then as he went slowly down the spur he began to wonder with fresh suspicion what his mother and Steve might now do, what influence Steve might have over her, and if he might not now encourage her to sell her land. And, if that happened, what would become of him? The old hound in the porch heard him coming and began to bay at him fiercely, but when he opened the gate the dog bounded to him whining with joy and trying to lick his hands. He dropped on the porch and the loneliness of it all clutched his heart so that he had to gulp back a sob in his throat and blink his eyes to keep back the tears. But it was not until he went inside finally and threw himself with his clothes on across his mother's empty bed that he lost all control and sobbed himself to sleep. When he awoke it was not only broad daylight, but the sun was an hour high and streaming through the mud-chinked crevices of the cabin. In his whole life he had never slept so long after daybreak and he sprang up in bed with bewildered eyes, trying to make out where he was and why he was there. The realization struck him with fresh pain, and when he slowly climbed out of the bed the old hound was whining at the door. When he opened it the fresh wind striking his warm body aroused him sharply. He wondered why his mother had not already been over for her things. The chickens were clustered expectantly at the corner of the house, the calf was bawling at the corner of the fence, and the old cow was waiting patiently at the gate. He turned quickly to the kitchen and to a breakfast on the scraps of his last night's supper. He did not know how to make coffee, and for the first time in his life he went without it. Within an hour the cow was milked and fed, bread crumbs were scattered to the chickens, and alone in the lonely cabin he faced the new conditions of his life. He started toward the gate, not knowing where he should go. He drifted aimlessly down the creek and he began to wonder about Mavis, whether she had got home and now knew what had happened and what she thought about it all, and about his grandfather and who it was that had shot him. There were many things that he wanted to know, and his steps quickened with a definite purpose. At the mouth of the creek he hailed the old circuit rider's house, and the old man and his wife both appeared in the doorway.
"I reckon you couldn't help doin' it?"
"No," said the old man. "Thar wasn't no reason fer me to deny 'em."
He looked confused and the old woman gulped, for both were wondering how much the lad knew.
"Right porely I heerd," said the old woman. "The doctor's thar, an' he said that if the bullet had 'a' gone a leetle furder down hit would 'a' killed him."
Again the two old people looked confused, for it was plain that Jason did not know all that had happened.
"I hain't seed her, but somebody said she went by hyeh on her way home about an hour ago. I was thinkin' about goin' up thar right now."
The boy's eyes were shifting now from one to the other and he broke in abruptly:
"Whut's the matter?"
The old man's lips tightened.
"Jason, she's up thar alone. Yo' mammy an' Steve have run away."
The lad looked at the old man with unblinking eyes.
"Don't ye understand, boy?" repeated the old man kindly. "They've run away!"
Jason turned his head quickly and started for the gate.
"Now, don't, Jason," called the old woman in a broken voice. "Don't take on that way. I want ye both to come an' live with us," she pleaded. "Come on back now."
The little fellow neither made answer nor looked back, and the old people watched him turn up the creek, trudging toward Mavis's home.
The boy's tears once more started when he caught sight of Steve Hawn's cabin, but he forced them back. A helpless little figure was sitting in the open doorway with head buried in her arms. She did not hear him coming even when he was quite near, for the lad stepped softly and gently put one hand on her shoulder. She looked up with a frightened start, and at sight of his face she quit her sobbing and with one hand over her quivering mouth turned her head away.
"Come on, Mavie," he said quietly.
Again she looked up, wonderingly this time, and seeing some steady purpose in his eyes rose without a question.
With no word he turned and she followed him back down the creek. And the old couple, sitting in the porch, saw them coming, the boy striding resolutely ahead, the little girl behind, and the faces of both deadly serious—the one with purpose and the other with blind trust. They did not call to the boy, for they saw him swerve across the road toward the gate. He did not lift his head until he reached the gate, and he did not wait for Mavis. He had no need, for she had hurried to his side when he halted at the steps of the porch.
"Uncle Lige," he said, "me an' Mavis hyeh want to git married."
Not the faintest surprise showed in Mavis's face, little as she knew what his purpose was, for what the master did was right; but the old woman and the old man were stunned into silence and neither could smile.
"Have you got yo' license?" the old man asked gravely.
"Whut's a license?"
"You got to git a license from the county clerk afore you can git married, an' hit costs two dollars."
The boy flinched, but only for a moment.
"I kin borrer the money," he said stoutly.
"But you can't git a license—you ain't a man."
"I ain't!" cried the boy hotly; "I GOT to be!"
"Come in hyeh, Jason," said the old man, for it was time to leave off evasion, and he led the lad into the house while Mavis, with the old woman's arm around her, waited in the porch. Jason came out baffled and pale.
"Hit ain't no use, Mavis," he said; "the law's agin us an' we got to wait. They've run away an' they've both sold out an' yo' daddy left word that he was goin' to send fer ye whenever he got whatever he was goin'."
Jason waited and he did not have to wait long.
"I hain't goin' to leave ye," she flashed.
St. Hilda sat on the vine-covered porch of her little log cabin, high on the hill-side, with a look of peace in her big dreaming eyes. From the frame house a few rods below her, mountain children—boys and girls—were darting in and out, busy as bees, and, unlike the dumb, pathetic little people out in the hills, alert, keen-eyed, cheerful, and happy. Under the log foot-bridge the shining creek ran down past the mountain village below, where the cupola of the court-house rose above the hot dirt streets, the ramshackle hotel, and the dingy stores and frame dwellings of the town. Across the bridge her eyes rested on another neat, well- built log cabin with a grass plot around it, and, running alongside and covered with honeysuckle—a pergola! That was her hospital down there—empty, thank God. With a little turn of her strong white chin, her eyes rested on the charred foundation of her school-house, to which some mean hand had applied the torch a month ago, and were lifted up to the mountain-side, where mountain men were chopping down trees and mountain oxen yanking them down the steep slopes to the bank of the creek, and then the peace of them went deeper still, for they could look back on her work and find it good. Nun-like in renunciation, she had given up her beloved Blue-grass land, she had left home and kindred, and she had settled, two days' journey from a railroad, in the hills. She had gone back to the physical life of the pioneers, she had encountered the customs and sentiments of mediaeval days, and no abbess of those days, carrying light into dark places, needed more courage and devotion to meet the hardships, sacrifice, and prejudice that she had overcome. She brought in the first wagon- load of window-panes for darkened homes before she even tapped on the window of a darkened mind; but when she did, no plants ever turned more eagerly toward the light than did the youthful souls of those Kentucky hills. She started with five pupils in a log cabin. She built a homely frame house with five rooms, only to find more candidates clamoring at her door. She taught the girls to cook, sew, wash and iron, clean house, and make baskets, and the boys to use tools, to farm, make garden, and take care of animals; and she taught them all to keep clean. Out in the hills she found good old names, English and Scotch-Irish. She found men who "made their mark" boasting of grandfathers who were "scholards." In one household she came upon a time-worn set of the "British Poets" up to the nineteenth century, and such was the sturdy character of the hillsmen that she tossed the theory aside that they were the descendants of the riffraff of the Old World, tossed it as a miserable slander and looked upon them as the same blood as the people of the Blue-grass, the valleys, and the plains beyond. On the westward march they had simply dropped behind, and their isolation had left them in a long sleep that had given them a long rest, but had done them no real harm. Always in their eyes, however, she was a woman, and no woman was "fitten" to teach school. She was more—a "fotched-on" woman, a distrusted "furriner," and she was carrying on a "slavery school." Sometimes she despaired of ever winning their unreserved confidence, but out of the very depth of that despair to which the firebrand of some miscreant had plunged her, rose her star of hope, for then the Indian-like stoicism of her neighbors melted and she learned the place in their hearts that was really hers. Other neighborhoods asked for her to come to them, but her own would not let her go. Straightway there was nothing to eat, smoke, chew, nor wear that grew or was made in those hills that did not pour toward her. Land was given her, even money was contributed for rebuilding, and when money was not possible, this man and that gave his axe, his horse, his wagon, and his services as a laborer for thirty and sixty days. So that those axes gleaming in the sun on the hillside, those straining muscles, and those sweating brows meant a labor of love going on for her. No wonder the peace of her eyes was deep.