THE ROOF TREE
THE ROOF TREE
BY CHARLES NEVILLE BUCK
ILLUSTRATED BY LEE F. CONREY
GARDEN CITY, N. Y., AND TORONTO DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY 1921
BOOKS BY CHARLES NEVILLE BUCK
BATTLE CRY, THE CALL OF THE CUMBERLANDS, THE CODE OF THE MOUNTAINS, THE DESTINY KEY TO YESTERDAY, THE LIGHTED MATCH, THE PAGAN OF THE HILLS, A PORTAL OF DREAMS, THE ROOF TREE, THE TEMPERING, THE TYRANNY OF WEAKNESS, THE WHEN BEAR CAT WENT DRY
COPYRIGHT, 1920, 1921, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
With the wish that it were a richer and worthier tribute, this book is lovingly and gratefully dedicated
TO MY WIFE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"She stood there a little shyly at first; as slender and as gracefully upright as a birch" Frontispiece
"'Hit almost seems like,' she whispered, 'that ther old tree's got a spell in hit—ter bewitch folks with'" 66
"Even Bas Rowlett, whose nerves were keyed for an ordeal, started and almost let the leaning bridegroom fall" 114
"Dorothy flashed past him ... and a few seconds later he heard the clean-lipped snap of the rifle in a double report" 186
THE ROOF TREE
Between the smoke-darkened walls of the mountain cabin still murmured the last echoes of the pistol's bellowing, and it seemed a voice of everlasting duration to the shock-sickened nerves of those within.
First it had thundered with the deafening exaggeration of confined space, then its echo had beaten against the clay-chink wall timbers and rolled upward to the rafters. Now, dwindled to a ghostly whisper, it lingered and persisted.
But the house stood isolated, and outside the laurelled forests and porous cliffs soaked up the dissonance as a blotter soaks ink.
The picture seen through the open door, had there been any to see, was almost as motionless as a tableau, and it was a starkly grim one, with murky shadows against a fitful light. A ray of the setting sun forced its inquisitive way inward upon the semi-darkness of the interior. A red wavering from the open hearth, where supper preparations had been going forward, threw unsteady patches of fire reflection outward. In the pervading smell of dead smoke from a blackened chimney hung the more pungent sharpness of freshly burned gun-powder, and the man standing near the door gazed downward, with a dazed stare, at the floor by his feet, where lay the pistol which gave forth that acrid stench.
Across from him in the dead silence—dead save for the lingering of the echo's ghost—stood the woman, her hands clutched to her thin bosom, her eyes stunned and dilated, her body wavering on legs about to buckle in collapse.
On the puncheon floor between them stretched the woman's husband. The echo had outlasted his life and, because the muzzle had almost touched his breast, he sprawled in a dark welter that was still spreading.
His posture was so uncouth and grotesque as to filch from death its rightful dignity, and his face was turned downward.
The interminability of the tableau existed only in the unfocussed minds of the two living beings to whom the consequence of this moment was not measurable in time. Then from the woman's parted lips came a long, strangling moan that mounted to something like a muffled shriek. She remained a moment rocking on her feet, then wheeled and stumbled toward the quilt-covered four-poster bed in one dark corner of the cabin. Into its feather billows she flung herself and lay with her fingernails digging into her temples and her body racked with the incoherencies of hysteria.
The man stooped to pick up the pistol and walked slowly over to the rough table where he laid it down noiselessly, as though with that quietness he were doing something to offset the fatal blatancy with which it had just spoken. He looked down at the lifeless figure with burning eyes entirely devoid of pity, then went with a soundless tread, in spite of his heavy-soled boots, to the bed and spoke softly to the woman—who was his sister.
"Ye've got ter quit weepin' fer a spell, honey," he announced with a tense authority which sought to recall her to herself. "I'm obleeged ter take flight right speedily now, an' afore I goes thar's things ter be studied out an' sottled betwixt us."
But the half-stifled moan that came from the feather bed was a voice of collapse and chaos, to which speech was impossible.
So the brother lifted her in arms that remained unshaken and sat on the edge of the bed looking into her eyes with an almost hypnotic forcefulness.
"Ef ye don't hearken ter me now, I'm bound ter tarry till ye does," he reminded her, "an' I'm in right tormentin' haste. Hit means life and death ter me."
As if groping her tortured way back from pits of madness, the woman strove to focus her senses, but her wild eyes encountered the dark and crumpled mass on the floor and again a low shriek broke from her. She turned her horrified face away and surrendered to a fresh paroxysm, but at length she stammered between gasps that wrenched her tightened throat:
"Kiver him up first, Ken. Kiver him up ... I kain't endure ter look at him thetaway!"
Although the moments were pricelessly valuable, the man straightened the contorted limbs of the dead body and covered it decently with a quilt. Then he stood again by the bed.
"Ef I'd got hyar a minute sooner, Sally," he said, slowly, and there was a trace of self-accusation in his voice, "hit moutn't hev happened. I war jest a mite too tardy—but I knows ye hed ter kill him. I knows ye acted in self-defence."
From the bed came again the half-insane response of hysterical moaning, and the young mountaineer straightened his shoulders.
"His folks," he said in a level voice, "won't skeercely listen ter no reason.... They'll be hell-bent on makin' somebody pay.... They'll plum hev ter hang SOME person, an' hit kain't be you."
The woman only shuddered and twisted spasmodically as she lay there while her brother went doggedly on:
"Hit kain't be you ... with yore baby ter be borned, Sally. Hit's been punishment enough fer ye ter endure him this long ... ter hev been wedded with a brute ... but ther child's got hits life ter live ... an' hit kain't be borned in no jail house!"
"I reckon—" the response came weakly from the heaped-up covers—"I reckon hit's got ter be thetaway, Ken."
"By God, no! Yore baby's got ter w'ar a bad man's name—but hit'll hev a good woman's blood in hits veins. They'll low I kilt him, Sally. Let 'em b'lieve hit. I hain't got no woman nor no child of my own ter think erbout ... I kin git away an' start fresh in some other place. I loves ye, Sally, but even more'n thet, I'm thinkin' of thet child thet hain't borned yit—a child thet hain't accountable fer none of this."
* * * * *
That had been yesterday.
Now, Kenneth Thornton, though that was not to be his name any longer, stood alone near the peak of a divide, and the mists of early morning lay thick below him. They obliterated, under their dispiriting gray, the valleys and lower forest-reaches, and his face, which was young and resolutely featured, held a kindred mood of shadowing depression. Beneath that miasma cloak of morning fog twisted a river from which the sun would strike darts of laughing light—when the sun had routed the opaqueness suspended between night and day.
In the clear gray eyes of the man were pools of laughter, too, but now they were stilled and shaded under bitter reflections.
Something else stretched along the hidden river-bed, but even the mid-day light would give it no ocular marking. That something which the eye denied and the law acknowledged meant more to this man, who had slipped the pack from his wearied shoulders, than did the river or the park-like woods that hedged the river.
There ran the border line between the State of Virginia and the State of Kentucky and he would cross it when he crossed the river.
So the stream became a Rubicon to him, and on the other side he would leave behind him the name of Kenneth Thornton and take up the less damning one of Cal Maggard.
He had the heels of his pursuers and, once across the state line, he would be beyond their grasp until the Sheriff's huntsmen had whistled in their pack and gone grumbling back to conform with the law's intricate requirements. At that point the man-hunt fell into another jurisdiction and extradition papers would involve correspondence between a governor at Richmond and a governor at Frankfort.
During such an interlude the fugitive hoped with confidence to have lost himself in a taciturn and apathetic wilderness of peak-broken land where his discovery would be as haphazard an undertaking as the accurate aiming of a lightning bolt.
But mere escape from courts and prisons does not assure full measure of content. He had heard all his life that this border line separated the sheep of his own nativity from the goats of a meaner race, and to this narrow tenet he had given unquestioning belief.
"I disgusts Kaintuck'!" exclaimed the refugee half aloud as his strong hands clenched themselves, one hanging free and the other still grasping the rifle which as yet he had no intent of laying aside. "I plum disgusts Kaintuck'!"
The sun was climbing now and its pallid disk was slowly flushing to the wakefulness of fiery rose. The sky overhead was livening to turquoise light and here and there along the upper slopes were gossamer dashes of opal and amethyst, but this beauty of unveiling turrets and gold-touched crests was lost on eyes in which dwelt a nightmare from which there was no hope of awakening.
To-day the sparsely settled countryside that he had put behind him would buzz with a wrath like that of swarming bees along its creek-bed roads, and the posse would be out. To-day also he would be far over in Kentucky.
"I mout hev' tarried thar an' fronted hit out," he bitterly reflected, "fer God in Heaven knows he needed killin'!" But there he broke off into a bitter laugh.
"God in Heaven knows hit ... I knows hit an' she knows hit, but nairy another soul don't know an' ef they did hit wouldn't skeercely make no differ."
He threw back his head and sought to review the situation through the eyes of others and to analyze it all as an outsider would analyze it. To his simplicity of nature came no thought that the assumption of a guilt not his own was a generous or heroic thing.
His sister's pride had silenced her lips as to the brutality of this husband whose friends in that neighbourhood were among the little czars of influence. Her suffering under an endless reign of terror was a well-kept secret which only her brother shared. The big, crudely handsome brute had been "jobial" and suave of manner among his fellows and was held in favourable esteem. Only a day or two ago, when the brother had remonstrated in a low voice against some recent cruelty, the husband's wrath had blazed out. Witnesses to that wordy encounter had seen Thornton go white with a rage that was ominous and then bite off his unspoken retort and turn away. Those witnesses had not heard what was first said and had learned only what was revealed in the indignant husband's raised voice at the end.
"Don't aim ter threaten me, Ken. I don't suffer no man ter do thet—an' don't never darken my door henceforward."
Now it must seem that Thornton had not only threatened but executed, and no one would suspect the wife.
He saw in his mind's eye the "High Court" that would try the alleged slayer of John Turk; a court dominated by the dead man's friends; a court where witnesses and jurors would be terror-blinded against the defendant and where a farce would be staged: a sacrifice offered up.
There had been in that log house three persons. One of them was dead and his death would speak for him with an eloquence louder than any living tongue. There were, also, the woman and Thornton himself. Between them must lie the responsibility. Conscientiously the fugitive summarized the circumstances as the prosecution would marshal and present them.
A man had been shot. On the table lay a pistol with one empty "hull" in its chamber. The woman was the dead man's wife, not long since a bride and shortly to become the mother of his child. If she had been the murdered man's deadly enemy why had she not left him; why had she not complained? But the brother had been heard to threaten the husband only a day or two since. He was in the dead man's house, after being forbidden to shadow its threshold.
"Hell!" cried Thornton aloud. "Ef I stayed she'd hev ter come inter C'ote an' sw'ar either fer me or ergin me—an' like es not, she'd break down an' confess. Anyhow, ef they put her in ther jail-house I reckon ther child would hev hits bornin' thar. Hell—no!"
He turned once more to gaze on the vague cone of a mountain that stood uplifted above its fellows far behind him. He had started his journey at its base. Then he looked westward where ridge after ridge, emerging now into full summer greenery, went off in endless billows to the sky, and he went down the slope toward the river on whose other side he was to become another man.
Kenneth Thornton was pushing his way West, the quarry of a man-hunt, but long before him another Kenneth Thornton had come from Virginia to Kentucky, an ancestor so far lost in the mists of antiquity that his descendant had never heard of him; and that man, too, had been making a sacrifice.
Sprung from a race which had gone to seed like plants in a long-abandoned garden, once splendid and vigorous, old Caleb Harper was a patriarchal figure nearing the sunset of his life.
His forebears had been mountaineers of the Kentucky Cumberlands since the vanguard of white life had ventured westward from the seaboard. From pioneers who had led the march of progress that stock had relapsed into the decay of mountain-hedged isolation and feudal lawlessness, but here and there among the wastage, like survivors over the weed-choked garden of neglect, emerged such exceptions as Old Caleb; paradoxes of rudeness and dignity, of bigotry and nobility.
Caleb's house stood on the rising ground above the river, a substantial structure grown by occasional additions from the nucleus that his ancestor Caleb Parish had founded in revolutionary times, and it marked a contrast with its less provident neighbours. Many cabins scattered along these slopes were dismal and makeshift abodes which appeared to proclaim the despair and squalor of their builders and occupants.
Just now a young girl stood in the large unfurnished room that served the house as an attic—and she held a folded paper in her hand.
She had drawn out of its dusty corner a small and quaintly shaped horsehide trunk upon which, in spots, the hair still adhered. The storage-room that could furnish forth its mate must be one whose proprietors held inviolate relics of long-gone days, for its like has not been made since the life of America was slenderly strung along the Atlantic seaboard and the bison ranged about his salt licks east of the Mississippi.
Into the lock the girl fitted a cumbersome brass key and then for a long minute she stood there breathing the forenoon air that eddied in currents of fresh warmth. The June sunlight came, too, in a golden flood and the soft radiance of it played upon her hair and cheeks.
Outside, almost brushing the eaves with the plumes of its farthest flung branches, stood a gigantic walnut tree whose fresh leafage filtered a mottling of sunlight upon the age-tempered walls.
The girl herself, in her red dress, was slim and colourful enough and dewy-fresh enough to endure the searching illumination of the June morning.
Dark hair crowned the head that she threw back to gaze upward into the venerable branches of the tree, and her eyes were as dark as her hair and as deep as a soft night sky.
Over beetling summits and sunlit valley the girl's glance went lightly and contentedly, but when it came back to nearer distances it dwelt with an absorbed tenderness on the gnarled old veteran of storm-tested generations that stood there before the house: the walnut which the people of her family had always called the "roof tree" because some fanciful grandmother had so named it in the long ago.
"I reckon ye're safe now, old roof tree," she murmured, for to her the tree was human enough to deserve actual address, and as she spoke she sighed as one sighs who is relieved of an old anxiety.
Then, recalled to the mission that had brought her here, she thought of the folded paper that she held in her hand.
So she drew the ancient trunk nearer to the window and lifted its cover.
It was full of things so old that she paused reverently before handling them.
Once the grandmother who had died when she was still a small child had allowed her to glimpse some of these ancient treasures but memory was vague as to their character.
Both father and mother were shadowy and half-mythical beings of hearsay to her, because just before her birth her father had been murdered from ambush. The mother had survived him only long enough to bring her baby into the world and then die broken-hearted because the child was not a boy whom she might suckle from the hatred in her own breast and rear as a zealot dedicated to avenging his father.
The chest had always held for this girl intriguing possibilities of exploration which had never been satisfied. The gentle grandfather had withheld the key until she should be old enough to treat with respect those sentimental odds and ends which his women-folk had held sacred, and when the girl herself had "grown up"—she was eighteen now—some whimsey of clinging to the illusions and delights of anticipation had stayed her and held the curb upon her curiosity. Once opened the old trunk would no longer beckon with its mystery, and in this isolated life mysteries must not be lightly wasted.
But this morning old Caleb Harper had prosaically settled the question for her. He had put that paper into her hand before he went over the ridge to the cornfield with his mule and plow.
"Thet thar paper's right p'intedly valuable, leetle gal," he had told her. "I wants ye ter put hit away safe somewhars." He had paused there and then added reflectively, "I reckon ther handiest place would be in ther old horsehide chist thet our fore-parents fetched over ther mountings from Virginny."
She had asked no questions about the paper itself because, to her, the opening of the trunk was more important, but she heard the old man explaining, unasked:
"I've done paid off what I owes Bas Rowlett an' thet paper's a full receipt. I knows right well he's my trusty friend, an' hit's my notion thet he's got his hopes of bein' even more'n thet ter you—but still a debt sets mighty heavy on me, be hit ter friend or foe, an' hit pleasures me thet hit's sottled."
The girl passed diplomatically over the allusion to herself and the elder's expression of favour for a particular suitor, but without words she had made the mental reservation: "Bas Rowlett's brash and uppety enough withouten us bein' beholden ter him fer no money debt. Like as not he'll be more humble-like a'tter this when he comes a-sparkin'."
Now she sat on a heavy cross-beam and looked down upon the packed contents while into her nostrils crept subtly the odour of old herbs and spicy defences against moth and mould which had been renewed from time to time through the lagging decades until her own day.
First, there came out a soft package wrapped in a threadbare shawl and carefully bound with home-twisted twine and this she deposited on her knees and began to unfasten with trembling fingers of expectancy. When she had opened up the thing she rose eagerly and shook out a gown that was as brittle and sere as a leaf in autumn and that rustled frigidly as the stiffened folds straightened.
"I'll wager now, hit war a weddin' dress," she exclaimed as she held it excitedly up to the light and appraised the fineness of the ancient silk with eyes more accustomed to homespun.
Then came something flat that fell rustling to the floor and spread into a sheaf of paper bound between home-made covers of cloth, but when the girl opened the improvised book, with the presentiment that here was the message out of the past that would explain the rest, she knitted her brows and sat studying it in perplexed engrossment.
The ink had rusted, in the six score years and more since its inscribing, to a reddish faintness which shrank dimly and without contrast into the darkened background, yet difficulties only whetted her discoverer's appetite, so that when, after an hour, she had studied out the beginning of the document, she was deep in a world of romance-freighted history. Here was a journal written by a woman in the brave and tragic days of the nation's birth.
That part which she was now reading seemed to be a sort of preamble to the rest, and before the girl had progressed far she found a sentence which, for her, infused life and the warmth of intimacy into the document.
"It may be that God in His goodenesse will call me to His house which is in Heaven before I have fully written ye matters which I would sett downe in this journall," began the record. "Since I can not tell whether or not I shall survive ye cominge of that new life upon which all my thoughtes are sett and shoulde such judgement be His Wille, I want that ye deare childe shall have this recorde of ye days its father and I spent here in these forest hills so remote from ye sea and ye rivers of our deare Virginia, and ye gentle refinements we put behind us to become pioneers."
There was something else there that she could not make out because of its blurring, and she wondered if the blotted pages had been moistened by tears as well as ink, but soon she deciphered this unusual statement.
"Much will be founde in this journall, touching ye tree which I planted in ye first dayes and which we have named ye roofe tree after a fancy of my owne. I have ye strong faithe that whilst that tree stands and growes stronge and weathers ye thunder and wind and is revered, ye stem and branches of our family also will waxe stronge and robust, but that when it falls, likewise will disaster fall upon our house."
One thing became at once outstandingly certain to the unsophisticated reader.
This place in the days of its founding had been an abode of love unshaken by perils, for of the man who had been its head she found such a portrait as love alone could have painted. He was described as to the modelling of his features, the light and expression of his eyes; the way his dark hair fell over his "broade browe"—even the cleft of his chin was mentioned.
That fondly inspired pen paused in its narrative of incredible adventures and more than Spartan hardships to assure the future reader that, "ye peale of his laugh was as clear and tuneful as ye fox horn with which our Virginia gentry were wont to go afield with horse and hound." There had possibly been a touch of wistfulness in that mention of a renounced life of greater affluence and pleasure for hard upon it followed the observation:
"Here, where our faces are graven with anxieties that besette our waking and sleeping, it seemeth that most men have forgotten ye very fashion of laughter. Joy seemes killed out of them, as by a bitter frost, yet he hath ever kept ye clear peale of merriment in his voice and its flash in his eye and ye smile that showes his white teeth."
Somehow the girl seemed to see that face as though it had a more direct presentment before her eyes than this faded portraiture of words penned by a hand long ago dead.
He must have been, she romantically reflected, a handsome figure of a man. Then naively the writer had passed on to a second description: "If I have any favour of comeliness it can matter naught to me save as it giveth pleasure to my deare husbande, yet I shall endeavour to sette downe truly my own appearance alsoe."
The girl read and re-read the description of this ancestress, then gasped.
"Why, hit mout be me she was a-writin' erbout," she murmured, "save only I hain't purty."
In that demure assertion she failed of justice to herself, but her eyes were sparkling. She knew that hereabout in this rude world of hers her people were accounted both godly and worthy of respect, but after all it was a drab and poverty-ridden world with slow and torpid pulses of being. Here, she found, in indisputable proof, the record of her "fore-parents". Once they, too, had been ladies and gentlemen familiar with elegant ways and circumstances as vague to her as fable. Henceforth when she boasted that hers were "ther best folk in ther world" she would speak not in empty defiance but in full confidence!
But as she rose at length from her revery she wondered if after all she had not been actually dreaming, because a sound had come to her ears that was unfamiliar and that seemed of a piece with her reading. It was the laugh of a man, and its peal was as clear and as merry as the note of a fox horn.
The girl was speedily at the window looking out, and there by the roadside stood her grandfather in conversation with a stranger.
He was a tall young man and though plainly a mountaineer there was a declaration of something distinct in the character of his clothing and the easy grace of his bearing. Instead of the jeans overalls and the coatless shoulders to which she was accustomed, she saw a white shirt and a dark coat, dust-stained and travel-soiled, yet proclaiming a certain predilection toward personal neatness.
The traveller had taken off his black felt hat as he talked and his black hair fell in a long lock over his broad, low forehead. He was smiling, too, and she caught the flash of white teeth and even—since the distance was short—the deep cleft of his firm chin.
Framed there at the window the girl caught her hands to her breast and exclaimed in a stifled whisper, "Land o' Canaan! He's jest walked spang outen them written pages—he's ther spittin' image of that man my dead and gone great-great-great-gran'-mammy married."
It was at that instant that the young man looked up and for a moment their eyes met. The stranger's words halted midway in their utterance and his lips remained for a moment parted, then he recovered his conversational balance and carried forward his talk with the gray-beard.
The girl drew back into the shadow, but she stood watching until he had gone and the bend in the road hid him. Then she placed the receipt that had brought her to the attic in the old manuscript, marking the place where her reading had been interrupted, and after locking the trunk ran lightly down the stairs.
"Gran'pap," she breathlessly demanded, "I seed ye a-talkin' with a stranger out thar. Did ye find out who is he?"
"He give ther name of Cal Maggard," answered the old man, casually, as he crumbled leaf tobacco into his pipe. "He lows he's going ter dwell in ther old Burrell Thornton house over on ther nigh spur of Defeated Creek."
* * * * *
That night while the patriarch dozed in his hickory withed chair with his pipe drooping from his wrinkled lips his granddaughter slipped quietly out of the house and went over to the tree.
Out there magic was making under an early summer moon that clothed the peaks in silvery softness and painted shadows of cobalt in the hollows. The river flashed its response and crooned its lullaby, and like children answering the maternal voice, the frogs gave chorus and the whippoorwills called plaintively from the woods.
The branches of the great walnut were etched against a sky that would have been bright with stars were it not that the moon paled them, and she gazed up with a hand resting lightly on the broad-girthed bole of the stalwart veteran. Often she had wondered why she loved this particular tree so much. It had always seemed to her a companion, a guardian, a personality, when its innumerable fellows in the forest were—nothing but trees.
Now she knew. She had only failed to understand the language with which it had spoken to her from childhood, and all the while, when the wind had made every leaf a whispering tongue, it had been trying to tell her many ancient stories.
"I knows, now, old roof tree," she murmured. "I've done found out erbout ye," and her hand patted the close-knit bark.
Then, in the subtle influence of the moonlight and the night that awoke all the young fires of dreaming, she half closed her eyes and seemed to see a woman who looked like herself yet who—in the phantasy of that moment—was arrayed in a gown of silk and small satin slippers, looking up into the eyes of a man whose hair was dark and whose chin was cleft and whose smile flashed upon white teeth. Only as the dream took hold upon her its spirit changed and the other woman seemed to be herself and the man seemed to be the one whom she had glimpsed to-day.
Then her reveries were broken. In the shallow water of the ford down at the river splashed a horse's hoofs and she heard a voice singing in the weird falsetto of mountain minstrelsy an old ballade which, like much else of the life there, was a heritage from other times.
So the girl brushed an impatient hand over rudely awakened eyes and turned back to the door, knowing that Bas Rowlett had come sparking.
It was a distraite maiden who greeted the visiting swain that night and one so inattentive to his wooing that his silences became long, under discouragement, and his temper sullen. Earlier than was his custom he bade her good-night and took himself moodily away.
Then Dorothy Harper kindled a lamp and hastened to the attic where she sat with her head bowed over the old diary while the house, save for herself, slept and the moon rode down toward the west.
Often her eyes wandered away from the bone-yellow pages of the ancient document and grew pensive in dreamy meditation. This record was opening, for her, the door of intimately wrought history upon the past of her family and her nation when both had been in their bravest youth.
She did not read it all nor even a substantial part of it because between scraps of difficult perusal came long and alluring intervals of easy revery. Had she followed its sequence more steadily many things would have been made manifest to her which she only came to know later, paying for the knowledge with a usury of experience and suffering.
Yet since that old diary not only set out essential matters in the lives of her ancestors but also things integral and germane to her own life and that of the stranger who had to-day laughed in the road, it may be as well to take note of its contents.
The quaint phrasing of the writer may be discarded and only the substance which concerned her narrative taken into account, for her sheaf of yellow pages was a door upon the remote reaches of the past, yet a past which this girl was not to find a thing ended and buried but rather a ghost that still walked and held a continuing dominion.
In those far-off days when the Crown still governed us there had stood in Virginia a manor house built of brick brought overseas from England.
In it Colonel John Parish lived as had his father, and in it he died in those stirring times of a nation's painful birth. He had been old and stubborn and his emotions were so mixed between conflicting loyalties that the pain of his hard choice hastened his end. Tradition tells that, on his deathbed, his emaciated hand clutched at a letter from Washington himself, but that just at the final moment his eyes turned toward the portrait of the King which still hung above his mantel shelf, and that his lips shaped reverent sentiments as he died.
Later that same day his two sons met in the wainscoted room hallowed by their father's books and filled with his lingering spirit—a library noted in a land where books were still few enough to distinguish their owner.
Between them, even in this hour of common bereavement, stood a coolness, an embarrassment which must be faced when two men, bound by blood, yet parted by an unconfessed feud, arrive at the parting of their ways.
Though he had been true to every requirement of honour and punctilio, John the elder had never entirely recovered from the wound he had suffered when Dorothy Calmer had chosen his younger brother Caleb instead of himself. He had indeed never quite been able to forgive it.
"So soon as my father has been laid to rest, I purpose to repair to Mount Vernon," came the thoughtful words of the younger brother as their interview, which had been studiedly courteous but devoid of warmth ended, and the elder halted, turning on the threshold to listen.
"There was, as you may recall, a message in General Washington's letter to my father indicating that an enterprise of moment awaited my undertaking," went on Caleb. "I should be remiss if I failed of prompt response."
* * * * *
Kentucky! Until the fever of war with Great Britain had heated man's blood to the exclusion of all else Virginia had rung with that name.
La Salle had ventured there in the century before, seeking a mythical river running west to China. Boone and the Long Hunters had trod the trails of mystery and brought back corroborative tales of wonder and Ophir richness.
Of these things, General Washington and Captain Caleb Parish were talking on a day when the summer afternoon held its breath in hot and fragrant stillness over the house at Mount Vernon.
On a map the general indicated the southward running ranges of the Alleghanies, and the hinterland of wilderness.
"Beyond that line," he said, gravely, "lies the future! Those who have already dared the western trails and struck their roots into the soil must not be deserted, sir. They are fiercely self-reliant and liberty-loving, but if they be not sustained we risk their loyalty and our back doors will be thrown open to defeat."
Parish bowed. "And I, sir," he questioned, "am to stand guard in these forests?"
George Washington swept out his hand in a gesture of reluctant affirmation.
"Behind the mountains our settlers face a long purgatory of peril and privation, Captain Parish," came the sober response. "Without powder, lead, and salt, they cannot live. The ways must be held open. Communication must remain intact. Forts must be maintained—and the two paths are here—and here."
His finger indicated the headwaters of the Ohio and the ink-marked spot where the steep ridges broke at Cumberland Gap.
Parish's eyes narrowed painfully as he stood looking over the stretches of Washington's estate. The vista typified many well-beloved things that he was being called upon to leave behind him—ordered acres, books, the human contacts of kindred association. It was when he thought of his young wife and his daughter that he flinched. 'Twould go hard with them, who had been gently nurtured.
"Do women and children go, too?" inquired Parish, brusquely.
"There are women and children there," came the swift reply. "We seek to lay foundations of permanence and without the family we build on quicksand."
* * * * *
Endless barriers of wilderness peaks rose sheer and forbidding about a valley through which a narrow river flashed its thin loop of water. Down the steep slopes from a rain-darkened sky hung ragged fringes of cloud-streamer and fog-wraith.
Toward a settlement, somewhere westward through the forest, a drenched and travel-sore cortege was plodding outward. A handful of lean and briar-infested cattle stumbled in advance, yet themselves preceded by a vanguard of scouting riflemen, and back of the beef-animals came ponies, galled of wither and lean of rib under long-borne pack saddles.
Behind lay memories of hard and seemingly endless journeying, of alarms, of discouragement. Ahead lay a precarious future—and the wilderness.
The two Dorothys, Captain Caleb Parish's wife and daughter, were ending their journey on foot, for upon them lay the duties of example and noblesse oblige—but the prideful tilt of their chins was maintained with an ache of effort, and when the cortege halted that the beasts might blow, Caleb Parish hastened back from his place at the front to his wife and daughter.
"It's not far now," he encouraged. "To-night, at least, we shall sleep behind walls—even though they be only those of a block-house—and under a roof tree."
Both of them smiled at him—yet in his self-accusing heart he wondered whether the wife whose fortitude he was so severely taxing would not have done better to choose his brother.
While the halted outfit stood relaxed, there sounded through the immense voicelessness of the wilderness a long-drawn, far-carrying shout, at which the more timid women started flutteringly, but which the vanguard recognized and answered, and a moment later there appeared on the ledge of an overhanging cliff the lithe, straight figure of a boy.
He stood statuesquely upright, waving his coonskin cap, and between his long deerskin leggins and breech clout the flesh of his slim legs showed bare, almost as bronze-dark as that of an Indian.
"That is our herald of welcome," smiled Caleb Parish. "It's young Peter Doane—the youngest man we brought with us—and one of our staunchest as well. You remember him, don't you, child?"
The younger Dorothy at first shook her head perplexedly and sought to recall this youthful frontiersman; then a flash of recognition broke over her face.
"He's the boy that lived on the woods farm, isn't he? His father was Lige Doane of the forest, wasn't he?'
"And still is." Caleb repressed his smile and spoke gravely, for he caught the unconscious note of condescension with which the girl used the term of class distinction. "Only here in Kentucky, child, it is as well to forget social grades and remember that we be all 'men of the forest.' We are all freemen and we know no other scale."
* * * * *
That fall, when the mountains were painted giants, magnificently glorified from the brush and palette of the frost; when the first crops had been gathered, a spirit of festivity and cheer descended on the block-houses of Fort Parish. Then into the outlying cabins emboldened spirits began moving in escape from the cramp of stockade life.
Against the palisades of Wautaga besieging red men had struck and been thrown back. Cheering tidings had come of Colonel William Christian's expedition against the Indian towns.
The Otari, or hill warriors, had set their feet into the out-trail of flight and acknowledged the chagrin of defeat, all except Dragging Canoe, the ablest and most implacable of their chiefs who, sullenly refusing to smoke the pipe, had drawn far away to the south, to sulk out his wrath and await more promising auspices.
Then Caleb Parish's log house had risen by the river bank a half mile distant from the stockade, and more and more he came to rely on the one soul in his little garrison whose life seemed talisman-guarded and whose woodcraft was a sublimation of instinct and acquired lore which even the young braves of the Otari envied.
Young Peter Doane, son of "Lige Doane of the forest," and not yet a man in years, came and went through the wilderness as surely and fleetly as the wild things, and more than once he returned with a scalp at his belt—for in those days the whites learned warfare from their foes and accepted their rules. The little community nodded approving heads and asked no questions. It learned valuable things because of Peter's adventurings.
But when he dropped back after a moon of absence, it was always to Caleb Parish's hearth-stone that Peter carried his report. It was over Caleb Parish's fire that he smoked his silent pipe, and it was upon Caleb Parish's little daughter that he bent his silently adoring glances.
Dorothy would sit silent with lowered lashes while she dutifully sought to banish aloofness and the condescension which still lingered in her heart—and the months rounded into seasons.
The time of famine long known as the "hard winter" came. The salt gave out, the powder and lead were perilously low.
The "traces" to and through the Wilderness road were snow-blocked or slimy with intermittent thaws, and the elder Dorothy Parish fell ill.
Learned physicians might have found and reached the cause of her malady—but there were no such physicians. Perhaps the longings that she repressed and the loneliness that she hid under her smile were costing her too dearly in their levies upon strength and vitality. She, who had been always fearless, became prey to a hundred unconfessed dreads. She feared for her husband, and with a frenzy of terror for her daughter. She woke trembling out of atrocious nightmares. She was wasting to a shadow, and always pretending that the life was what she would have chosen.
It was on a bitter night after a day of blizzard and sleet. Caleb Parish sat before his fire, and his eyes went constantly to the bed where his wife lay half-conscious and to the seated figure of the tirelessly watchful daughter.
Softly against the window sounded a guarded rap. The man looked quickly up and inclined his ear. Again it came with the four successive taps to which every pioneer had trained himself to waken, wide-eyed, out of his most exhausted sleep.
Caleb Parish strode to the door and opened it cautiously. Out of the night, shaking the snow from his buckskin hunting shirt, stepped Peter Doane with his stoical face fatigue drawn as he eased down a bulky pack from galled shoulders.
"Injins," he said, crisply. "Get your women inside the fort right speedily!"
The young man slipped again into the darkness, and Parish, lifting the half-conscious figure from the bed, wrapped it in a bear-skin rug and carried it out into the sleety bluster.
That night spent itself through a tensity of waiting until dawn.
When the east grew a bit pale, Caleb Parish returned from his varied duties and laid a hand on his wife's forehead to find it fever-hot. The woman opened her eyes and essayed a smile, but at the same moment there rode piercingly through the still air the long and hideous challenge of a war-whoop.
Dorothy Parish, the elder, flinched as though under a blow and a look of horror stamped itself on her face that remained when she had died.
* * * * *
Spring again—and a fitful period of peace—but peace with disquieting rumours.
Word came out of the North of mighty preparations among the Six Nations and up from the South sped the report that Dragging Canoe had laid aside his mantle of sullen mourning and painted his face for war.
Dorothy Parish, the wife, had been buried before the cabin built by the river bank, and Dorothy, the daughter, kept house for the father whom these months had aged out of all resemblance to the former self in knee breeches and powdered wig with lips that broke quickly into smiling.
And Peter, watching the bud of Dorothy's childhood swell to the slim charms of girlhood, held his own counsel and worshipped her dumbly. Perhaps he remembered the gulf that had separated his father's log cabin from her uncle's manor house in the old Virginia days, but of these things no one spoke in Kentucky.
Three years had passed, and along the wilderness road was swelling a fuller tide of emigration, hot with the fever of the west.
Meeting it in counter-current went the opposite flow of the faint-hearted who sought only to put behind them the memory of hardship and suffering—but that was a light and negligible back-wash from an onsweeping wave.
Caleb Parish smiled grimly. This spelled the beginning of success. The battle was not over—his own work was far from ended—but substantial victory had been won over wilderness and savage. The back doors of a young nation had suffered assault and had held secure.
Stories drifted in nowadays of the great future of the more fertile tablelands to the west, but Caleb Parish had been stationed here and had not been relieved.
The pack train upon which the little community depended for needed supplies had been long overdue, and at Caleb's side as he stood in front of his house looking anxiously east was his daughter Dorothy, grown tall and pliantly straight as a lifted lance.
Her dark eyes and heavy hair, the poise of her head, her gracious sweetness and gentle courage were, to her father, all powerful reminders of the woman whom he had loved first and last—this girl's mother. For a moment he turned away his head.
"Some day," he said, abruptly, "if Providence permits it, I purpose to set a fitting stone here at her head."
"Meanwhile—if we can't raise a stone," the girl's voice came soft and vibrant, "we can do something else. We can plant a tree."
"A tree!" exclaimed the man, almost irritably. "It sometimes seems to me that we are being strangled to death by trees! They conceal our enemies—they choke us under their blankets of wet and shadow."
But Dorothy shook her head in resolute dissent.
"Those are just trees of the forest," she said, whimsically reverting to the old class distinction. "This will be a manor-house tree planted and tended by loving hands. It will throw shade over a sacred spot." Her eyes began to glow with the growth of her conception.
"Don't you remember how dearly Mother loved the great walnut tree that shaded the veranda at home? She would sit gazing out over the river, then up into its branches—dreaming happy things. She used to tell me that she found my fairy stories there among its leaves—and there was always a smile on her lips then."
The spring was abundantly young and where the distances lengthened they lay in violet dreams.
"Don't you remember?" repeated the girl, but Caleb Parish looked suddenly away. His ear had caught a distant sound of tinkling pony bells drifting down wind and he said devoutly, "Thank God, the pack train is coming."
It was an hour later when the loaded horses came into view herded by fagged woodsmen and piloted by Peter Doane, who strode silently, tirelessly, at their head. But with Peter walked another young man of different stamp—a young man who had never been here before.
Like his fellows he wore the backwoodsman's garb, but unlike them his tan was of newer wind-burning. Unlike them, too, he bowed with a ceremony foreign to the wilderness and swept his coonskin cap clear of his head.
"This man," announced Peter, brusquely, "gives the name of Kenneth Thornton and hears a message for Captain Parish!"
The young stranger smiled, and his engaging face was quickened with the flash of white teeth. A dark lock of hair fell over his forehead and his firm chin was deeply cleft.
"I have the honour of bearing a letter from your brother, Sir," he said, "and one from General Washington himself."
Peter Doane looked on, and when he saw Dorothy's eyes encounter those of the stranger and her lashes droop and her cheeks flush pink, he turned on his heel and with the stiffness of an affronted Indian strode silently away.
"This letter from General Washington," said Caleb Parish, looking up from his reading, "informs me that you have already served creditably with our troops in the east and that you are now desirous to cast your lot with us here. I welcome you, Sir."
Kenneth Thornton was swift to learn and when he went abroad with hunting parties or to swing the axe in the clearings, his stern and exacting task-masters found no fault with his strength or spirit.
Their ardent and humourless democracy detected in him no taint of the patronizing or supercilious, and if he was new to the backwoods, he paid his arrears of knowledge with the ready coin of eagerness.
So Kenneth Thornton was speedily accepted into full brotherhood and became a favourite. The cheery peal of his laugh and his even cordiality opened an easy road to popularity and confidence.
Thornton had been schooled in England until the war clouds lowered, and as he talked of his boyish days there, and of the sights and festivities of London town, he found in Caleb Parish and his daughter receptive listeners, but in young Doane a stiff-necked monument of wordless resentment.
One summer night when the skies had spilt day-long torrents of rain and the sun had set red with the woods still sobbing and chill, a great fire roared on Caleb Parish's hearth. Before it sat the householder with his daughter and Kenneth Thornton; as usual, too, silent and morose yet stubbornly present, was Peter Doane.
Oddly enough they were talking of the minuet, and Kenneth rose to illustrate a step and bow that he had seen used in England.
Suddenly the girl came to her feet and faced him with a curtsey.
Kenneth Thornton bent low from the waist, and, with a stately gesture, carried her fingers to his lips.
"Now, my lord," she commanded, "show the newest steps that they dance at court."
"Your humble servant, Mistress Dorothy," he replied, gravely.
Then they both laughed, and Caleb Parish was divided between smile and tears—but Peter Doane glowered and sat rigid, thinking of freshly reared barriers that democracy should have levelled.
A week later Dorothy led Kenneth Thornton and Peter Doane to a place where beside a huge boulder a "spring-branch" gushed into a natural basin of stone. The ferns grew thick there, and the moss lay deep and green, but over the spot, with branches spreading nobly and its head high-reared, stood an ancient walnut and in the narrow circle of open ground at its base grew a young tree perhaps three feet tall.
"I want to move that baby tree," said Dorothy, and now her voice became vibrant, "to a place where, when it has grown tall, it can stand as a monument over my mother's grave."
She paused, and the two young men offered no comment. Each was watching the glow in her eyes and feeling that, to her, this ceremony meant something more than the mere setting out of a random seedling.
"It will stand guard over our home," she went on, and her eyes took on an almost dreamy far-awayness. "It will be shade in summer and a reminder of coming spring in winter. It will look down on people as they live and die—and are born. At last," she concluded, "when I come to die myself, I want to be buried under it, too."
When the young walnut had been lifted clear and its roots packed with some of its own native earth Kenneth Thornton started away carrying it in advance while Dorothy and Peter followed.
But before they came to the open space young Doane stopped on the path and barred the girl's way. "Dorothy," he began, awkwardly, and with painful embarrassment, "I've got something thet must needs be said—an' I don't rightly know how to say it."
She looked up into his set face and smiled.
"Can I help you say it?" she inquired, and he burst out passionately, "Until he come, you seemed to like me. Now you don't think of nobody else but jest him ... and I hates him."
"If it's hatred you want to talk about," she said, reproachfully, "I don't think I can help you after all."
"Hatred of him," he hastened to explain. "I've done lived in the woods—an' I ain't never learned pretty graces ... but I can't live without you, an' if he comes betwixt us...."
The girl raised a hand.
"Peter," she said, slowly, "we've been good friends, you and I. I want to go on being good friends with you ... but that's all I can say."
"And him," demanded the young man, with white cheeks and passion-shaken voice, "what of him?"
"He asked me an hour ago," she answered, frankly. "We're going to be married."
The face of the backwoodsman worked spasmodically for a moment with an agitation against which his stoic training was no defense. When his passion permitted speech he said briefly, "I wishes ye joy of him—damn him!"
Then he wheeled and disappeared in the tangle.
"I'm sorry, dearest," declared Thornton when she had told him the story and his arms had slipped tenderly about her, "that I've cost you a friend, but I'm proud beyond telling that this tree was planted on the day you declared for me. To me too, it's a monument now."
That night the moon was clouded until late but broke through its shrouding before Dorothy went to bed, and she slipped out to look at the young shoot and perhaps to think of the man who had taken her in his arms there.
But as she approached she saw no standing shape and when she reached the spot she found that the freshly placed earth had been dug up. The tree had been spitefully dragged from its place and left lying with its roots extending up instead of its branches. Plainly it was an act of mean vandalism and Dorothy feared an emblem of deeper threat as well.
Already in the girl's thought this newly planted monument had become a sacred thing. To let it be so soon destroyed would be an evil augury and submission to a desecration. To tell Kenneth Thornton would kindle his resentment and provoke a dangerous quarrel. She herself must remedy the matter. So Dorothy Parish went for her spade, and late into the night she laboured at that second transplanting.
The roots had not had time to dry or burn, because they had been upturned so short a time, and before the girl went to her bed the task was finished, and she dreamed of birds nesting in broad branches and other home-making thoughts more intimate, but also of vague dangers and grudge-bearings.
But the next morning her face blanched when her father roused her before dawn.
"Kenneth Thornton was waylaid and shot last night," he said, briefly. "They fear he's dying. He's been asking for you."
About the door of Thornton's cabin in the gray freshness of that summer dawn stood a clump of silent men in whose indignant eyes burned a sombre light which boded no good for the would-be murderer if he were found. As the girl came up, with her face pale and grief-stricken, they drew back on either side opening passageway for her, and Dorothy went directly to the bed.
Caleb, though, halted at the threshold in response to a hand laid detainingly on his fringed sleeve.
"We hates to accuse a white man of a deed like this," said Jake Rowlett, a time-gnawed old Indian fighter, "but Thornton made a statement to us—under oath. He recognized Peter Doane—and Peter would of scalped him as well as shot him only he heard somebody rustlin' the brush an' got away."
"Peter Doane!" Caleb pressed a shaken hand to his bewildered forehead. "Peter Doane—but I can't credit that! Peter has sat by my hearth night after night ... Peter has eaten my salt ... Peter has been our staunchest reliance!"
Caleb's glance travelled searchingly about the circle of faces and read there unanimous conviction and grim determination.
"Peter has done growed to be half Injin hisself," came the decided answer. "Thornton didn't swear to no lie when he knew he mout be dyin'."
Caleb straightened decisively and his eyes blazed in spurts of wrath.
"Go after him then," he ordered. "It won't do to let him get away."
The pursuit parties that spread into the woods travelled fast and studiously—yet with little hope of success.
No man better than Peter Doane himself would recognize his desperation of plight—and if he had "gone bad" there was but one road for his feet and the security of the colony depended upon his thwarting.
Pioneer chronicles crowned with anathema unspeakable their small but infamous roster of white renegades, headed by the hated name of Samuel Girty; renegades who had "painted their faces and gone to the Indians!"
These were the unforgivably damned!
Now at the council-fires of Yellow-Jacket, even at the war-lodge of Dragging Canoe himself, the voluntary coming of Peter Doane would mean feasting and jubilation and a promise of future atrocities.
Inside Dorothy bent over the bed and saw the eyes of her lover open slowly and painfully. His lips parted in a ghost of his old, flashing smile.
"Is the tree safe?" he whispered.
The girl stooped and slipped an arm under the man's shoulders. The masses of her night-dark hair fell brushing his face in a fragrant cascade and her deep eyes were wide, unmasking to his gaze all the candid fears and intensities of her love. Then as her lips met his in the first kiss she had ever given him, unasked, it seemed to him that a current of exaltation and vitality swept into him that death could not overcome.
"I'm going to get well," he told her. "Life is too full—and without you, heaven would be empty."
The next pack train did not arrive. But several weeks later a single, half-famished survivor stumbled into the fort. His hands were bound, his tongue swollen from thirst, and about his shoulders dangled a hideous necklace of white scalps. When he had been restored to speech he delivered the message for which his life had been spared.
"This is what's left of your pack train," was the insolent word that Peter Doane—now calling himself Chief Mad-dog, had sent back to his former comrades. "The balance has gone on to Yellow Jacket, but some day I will come back for Thornton's scalp—and my squaw."
As the summer waned the young walnut tree sent down its roots to vigour and imperceptibly lifted its crest. Its leaves did not wither but gained in greenness and lustre, and as it prospered so Kenneth Thornton also prospered, until when the season of corn shucking came again, he and Dorothy stood beside it, and Caleb, who had received his credentials as a justice of the peace, read for them the ritual of marriage.
* * * * *
At the adze-smoothed table of a house which, for all its pioneer crudity, reflected the spirit of tradition-loving inhabitants, sat a young woman whose dark hair hung braided and whose dark eyes looked up from time to time in thoughtful reminiscence.
She was writing with a goose-quill which she dipped into an ink-horn, and as she nibbled at the end of her pen one might have seen that whatever she was setting down lay close to her heart.
"Since I can not tell," she wrote, "whether or not I shall survive ye comings of that new life upon which all my thoughts are set and should such judgment be His Wille, I want that ye deare child shall have this record of ye days its father and I spent here in these forest hills so remote from ye sea and ye rivers of our dear Virginia and ye gentle refinements we put behind us to become pioneers. This wish leads me to the writing of a journall."
A shadow in the doorway cut the shaft of sunlight and the woman at the writing table turned. On the threshold stood Kenneth Thornton and by the hand he held a savage-visaged child clad in breech clout and moccasins, but otherwise naked. Its eyes held the beady sharpness of the Indian, and though hardly past babyhood, it stood haughtily rigid and expressionless.
The face of the man was not flashing its smile now, but deeply grave, and as his wife's gaze questioned him he spoke slowly.
"This is Peter Doane's boy," he said, briefly.
Dorothy Thornton shrank back with a gesture of repulsion, and the man went on:
"A squaw with a travelling party of friendly Indians brought him in. Mad-dog Doane is dead. His life ended in a drunken brawl in an Otari village—but before he died he asked that the child be brought back to us."
"Because," Thornton spoke seriously, "blood can't be silenced when death comes. The squaw said Chief Mad-dog wanted his boy raised to be a white brave.... He's half white, of course."
"And he ventured to ask favours of us!" The woman's voice, ordinarily gentle, hardened, and the man led the child over and laid his own hand on her shoulder.
"The child is not to blame," he reminded her. "He's the fruit of madness—but he has human life."
Dorothy rose, inclining her head in reluctant assent.
"I'll fetch him a white child's clothes," she said.
This was the story that the faded pages told and a small part of which Dorothy Harper read as she sat in the lamplight of the attic a century and a quarter later.
The old Thornton house on Defeated Creek had for almost two decades stood vacant save for an occasional and temporary tenant. A long time back a formal truce had been declared in the feud that had split in sharp and bitter cleavage the family connections of the Harpers and the Doanes. Back into the limbo of tradition and vagueness went the origin of that "war".
The one unclouded certainty was that the hatred had grown until even in this land of vendetta its levy of violent deaths had been appalling beyond those of other enmities.
Yet, paradoxically enough, the Harpers in the later feud stages had followed a man named Thornton and the Doanes had fought at the behest of a Rowlett. Now on the same night that Dorothy read in her attic smoke rose from the chimney of the long-empty house and a stranger, whose right of possession no one questioned, was to be its occupant. He sat now, in the moonlight, on the broken mill-stone that served his house as a doorstep—and as yet he had not slept under the rotting roof. About him was a dooryard gone to a weed-jungle and a farm that must be reclaimed from utter wildness. His square jaw was grimly set and the hands that rested on his knees were tensely clenched. His eyes held a far-away and haunted fixity, for they were seeing again the cabin he had left in Virginia with its ugly picture of sudden and violent death and the body of a man he hated lying on the blood-stained floor.
The hysteria-shaken figure of the woman he had left alone with that grisly companionship refused, too, to soften the troubling vividness of its remembered misery.
He himself had not escaped his pursuers by too wide a margin, but he had escaped. He had come by a circuitous course to this place where he hoped to find quiet under his assumed name of Maggard, nor was his choice of refuge haphazard.
A distantly related branch of his own family had once lived here, and the property had passed down to him, but the Thornton who had first owned the place he had never known.
The Kentucky history of his blood was as unfamiliar to him as genealogies on Mars, and while the night voices sounded in tempered cadences about him and the hills stood up in their spectral majesty of moonlight, he sat with a drawn brow. Yet, because the vitality of his youth was strong and resilient, other and less grim influences gradually stole over him and he rose after a while with the scowl clearing from his face.
Into the field of his thoughts, like sunlight into a storm sky, came a new image: the image of a girl in a red dress looking at him from an attic window. The tight lips loosened, softened, and parted in a smile.
"Afore God," he declared in a low voice, "she war a comely gal!"
Kenneth Thornton—now self rechristened Cal Maggard, was up and his coffee pot was steaming on the live coals long before the next morning's sun had pierced its shafts into the gray opaqueness that cloaked the valleys. He squatted on his heels before the fire, honing the ancient blade of the scythe that he had found in the cock loft, and that blade was swinging against the stubborn resistance of weed and briar-trailer before the drench of the dew had begun to dry.
He did not stop often to rest, and before noon he straightened and stood breathing deep but rhythmically to survey a levelled space where he had encountered an impenetrable thicket.
Then Cal Maggard leaned his scythe and axe against a young hickory and went over to the corner of the yard where a spring poured with a crystal flow into a natural basin under the gnarled roots of a sycamore. Kneeling there, stripped to the waist, he began laving his chest and shoulders and dipping his face deep into the cold water.
So intent was he that he failed to hear the light thud of hoofs along the sand-cushioned and half-obliterated road which skirted his dilapidated fence line, and he straightened up at length to see a horseman who had drawn rein there and who now sat sidewise gazing at him with one leg thrown across his pommel.
The horseman, tall and knit for tremendous strength, was clad in jeans overalls and a blue cotton shirt. His unshaven face was swarthy and high of cheekbone and his black hat, though shapeless and weather-stained, sat on his head with a jauntiness that seemed almost a challenge. Eyes, both shrewd and determined, gave the impression of missing nothing, but his voice was pleasant as he introduced himself.
"My name's Bas Rowlett, an' I reckon you're Cal Maggard, hain't ye? I've done heered ye 'lowed ter dwell amongst us."
Maggard nodded. "Come inside an' set ye a cheer," he invited, and the horseman vaulted to the ground as lightly as though he carried no weight, flinging his bridle rein over a picket of the fence.
For a short space when the host had donned his shirt and provided his guest with a chair by the door the conversation ran laggingly between these two newly met sons of a taciturn race, yet beneath their almost morose paucity of words lay an itch of curiosity. They were gauging, measuring, estimating each other under wary mantles of indifference.
Rowlett set down in his appraisement, with a touch of scorn, the clean-shaven face and general neatness of the other, but as against this effeminacy he offset the steady-eyed fearlessness of gaze and the smooth power of shoulders and torso that he had seen stripped.
Maggard's rifle stood leaning against the chinked log wall near to the visitor's hand and lazily he lifted and inspected it, setting its heel-plate to his shoulder and sighting the weapon here and there.
"Thet rifle-gun balances up right nice," he approved, then seeing a red squirrel that sat chattering on a walnut tree far beyond the road he squinted over the sights and questioned musingly, "I wonder now, could I knock thet boomer outen thet thar tree over yon."
"Not skeercely, I reckon. Hit's a kinderly long, onhandy shot," answered Maggard, "but ye mout try, though."
Rowlett had hoped for such an invitation. He knew that it was more than an "unhandy" shot. It was indeed a spectacularly difficult one—but he knew also that he could do it twice out of three times, and he was not averse to demonstrating his master-skill.
The rifle barked and the squirrel dropped, shot through the head, but Maggard said nothing and Rowlett only spat and set the gun down.
After that he relighted his pipe. Had this newcomer from across the Virginia border been his peer in marksmanship, he reasoned, he would not have let the exploit rest there without contest, and his own competitive spirit prompted him to goad the obviously inferior stranger.
"Thar's an old cock-of-the woods hammerin' away atter grubs up yon," he suggested. "Why don't ye try yore own hand at him—jest fer ther fun of ther thing?"
He pointed to a dead tree-top perhaps ten yards more distant than his own target had been, where hung one of those great ivory-billed woodpeckers that are near extinction now except in the solitudes of these wild hills.
Maggard smiled again, as he shook his head noncommittally—yet he reached for the rifle. That silent smile of his was beginning to become provocative to his companion, as though in it dwelt something of quiet self-superiority.
The weapon came to the stranger's shoulder with a cat-like quickness of motion and cracked with seemingly no interval of aim-taking, and the bird fell as the squirrel had done.
Rowlett flushed to his high cheekbones. This was a country of riflemen where skill was the rule and its lack the exception, yet even here few men could duplicate that achievement, or, without seeing it, believe it possible. It had been characterized, too, by the incredible swiftness of a sleight-of-hand performance.
"Hell's red hole," came the visitor's eruptive outburst of amazement. "Ef ther man-person thet used ter dwell in this hyar house, and his kinfolks, hed of shot thet fashion, I reckon mebby ther Rowletts wouldn't never hev run old Burrell Thornton outen these mountings."
"Did they run him out?"
Rowlett studied his companion much as he might have studied someone who calmly admits a stultifying ignorance.
"Hain't ye nuver heered tell of ther Harper-Doane war?" he demanded and Maggard shook an unabashed head.
"I hain't nuver heered no jedgmatic details," he amended, "I knowed thar was sich-like warfare goin' on here one time. My folks used ter dwell in Kaintuck onc't but hit war afore my own day."
"Come on over hyar," prompted Rowlett, and he led the way to the back of the house where half-buried in the tangle that had overrun the place stood the ruins of a heavy and rotting log stockade.
"Old Burrell Thornton dwelt hyar in ther old days," he vouchsafed, "an' old Burrell bore ther repute of being ther meanest man in these parts. He dastn't walk in his own backyard withouten he kept thet log wall betwixt hisself an' ther mounting-side. So long as him an' old Mose Rowlett both lived thar warn't no peace feasible nohow. Cuss-fights an' shootin's an' laywayin's went on without no eend, twell finely hit come on ter be sich a hell-fired mommick thet ther two outfits met up an' fit a master battle in Claytown. Hit lasted nigh on ter two days."
"What war ther upcome of ther matter?" inquired the householder, and the narrator went on:
"Ther Harpers an' Thorntons went inside ther co'te house an' made a pint-blank fort outen hit, an' ther Rowletts tuck up thar stand in ther stores an' streets. They frayed on, thet fashion, twell ther Doanes wearied of hit an' sot ther co'te house afire. Some score of fellers war shot, countin' men an' boys, and old Mose Rowlett, thet was headin' ther Doanes, war kilt dead. Then—when both sides war plum frazzled ragged they patched up a truce betwixt 'em an' ther gist of ther matter war that old Burrell Thornton agreed ter leave Kaintuck an' not never ter come back no more. He war too pizen mean fer folks ter abide him, an' his goin' away balanced up ther deadenin' of Mose Rowlett."
"Ye sez thet old hellion used ter dwell in this hyar house onc't?"
"Yes, sir, thet's what I'm noratin' ter ye. Atter he put out his fire an' called his dawgs an' went away Caleb Harper tuck over ther leadin' of ther Harpers and my uncle Jim Rowlett did likewise fer ther Doanes. Both on 'em war men thet loved law-abidin' right good an' when they struck hands an' pledged a peace they aimed ter see thet hit endured—an' hit did. But till word come thet old Burrell Thornton war dead an' buried, folks didn't skeercely breathe easy nohow. They used ter keep hearin' thet he aimed ter come back an' they knowed ef he did——"
There the speaker broke off and shrugged his powerful shoulders.
A brief silence fell, and through the sunflecks and the deep woodland shadows came the little voices that were all of peace, but into Rowlett's eyes flashed a sudden-born ghost of suspicion.
"How come you ter git possession of ther place hyar?" he demanded. "Ye didn't heir hit from Old Burrell Thornton's folks, did ye?"
The new occupant was prepared for this line of interrogation and he laughed easily.
"Long erbout a year back," he said, "a feller named Thornton thet dwelt over thar in Virginny got inter debt ter me an' couldn't pay out. He give me a lease on this hyar place, but I didn't hev no chanst ter come over hyar an' look at hit afore now."
Rowlett nodded a reassured head and declared heartily:
"I'm right glad ye hain't one of thet thar sorry brood. Nobody couldn't confidence them."
Rowlett, as he rekindled the pipe that had died in the ardour of his narration, studied the other through eyes studiously narrowed against the flare of his match.
The newcomer himself, lost in thought, was oblivious of this scrutiny, and it was as one speaking from revery that he launched his next inquiry.
"Ther gal thet dwells with old man Harper.... She hain't his wife, air she?"
The questioner missed the sudden tensely challenged interest that flashed in the other's eyes and the hot wave of brick-red that surged over the cheeks and neck of his visitor.
But Bas Rowlett was too adroit to betray by more than a single unguarded flash his jealous reaction to mention of the girl and he responded quietly and unemotionally enough.
"She hain't no man's wife ... yit. Old Caleb's her grandpap."
"I've done seed some powerful comely gals in my day an' time," mused Maggard, abstractedly, "but I hain't nuver seed ther like of her afore."
Bas thoughtfully fingered his pipe, and when he spoke his words came soberly.
"Seein' es how ye're a stranger hyarabouts," he suggested, "I reckon hit hain't no more then plain charity ter forewarn ye. She's got a lavish of lovers an' thar's some several amongst 'em that's pizen mean—mean enough ter prove up vi'lent and murderous ter any new man thet comes trespassin'."
"Oh, pshaw, thet's always liable ter happen. Anyhow, I reckon I don't have ter worrit myself 'bout thet yit."
"Suit yoreself." This time the native spoke dryly. "But what ye says sounds unthoughted ter me. Ef a man's mean enough ter foller murderin' somebody over a gal, he's more like ter do hit afore ther feller gits his holt on her then a'tterwards. When did ye see ther gal?"
Maggard shook himself like a dog roused from contented sleep and sat up straight.
"I hain't nuver seed her but jest one time, an' I hain't nuver passed no word of speech with her," he replied. "When I come by ther house an' tarried ter make my manners with ther old man, she was a-standin' in an upstairs winder lookin' out an' I seed her thar through ther branches of that big old walnuck tree. She hed on a dress thet made me think of a red-bird, an' her checks minded me right shrewdly of ivy blooms."
"Does ye aim ter name hit ter her thet she puts ye in mind of—them things?"
"I kinderly hed hit in head ter tell her." Suddenly Maggard's frank laugh broke out disconcertingly as he added an inquiry so direct that it caused the other to flush.
"Rowlett, be ye one of these hyar lavish of lovers ye jest told me erbout?"
The mountaineer is, by nature, secretive to furtiveness, and under so outright a questioning the visitor stiffened with affront. But at once his expression cleared of displeasure and he met frankness with a show of equal candour.
"I'm one of ther fellers thet's seekin' ter wed with her, ef thet's what ye means, albeit hit's my own business, I reckon," he said, evenly. "But I hain't one of them I warned ye erginst on account of meanness. Myself I believes in every person havin' a fair chanst an' ther best man winnin'."
The other nodded gravely.
"I didn't aim at no offense," he hastened to declare. "I hain't nuver met ther gal an' like as not she wouldn't favour me with no second look nohow."
"I loves ter see a man talk out-right," avowed the Kentuckian with cordial responsiveness. "Es fer me, I've done made me some sev'ral right hateful enemies, myself, because I seeks ter wed with her, an' I 'lowed ter warn ye in good time thet ye mout run foul of like perils."
"I'm beholden ter ye fer forewarnin' me," came Maggard's grave response. "Ther old man hes done invited me ter sa'nter over thar an' sot me a cheer some time, though—an' I reckon I'll go."
Rowlett rose and with a good-humoured grin stretched his giant body. In the gesture was all the lazy power of a great cat.
"I hain't got no license ter dissuade ye, ner ter fault ye," he declared, "but I hopes ter Goddlemighty she hain't got no time of day fer ye."
That afternoon Maggard sat before the doorstep of Old Caleb Harper's house when the setting sun was splashing from a gorgeous palette above the ragged crests of the ridges. It was colour that changed and grew in splendour with ash of rose and purpled cloud border and glowing orange streamer. Against those fires the great tree stood with druid dignity, keeping vigil over the roof it sheltered.
At length Maggard heard a rustle and turned his head to see the girl standing in the doorway.
He was a mountain man and mountain men are not schooled in the etiquette of rising when a woman presents herself. Yet now he came to his feet, responding to no dictate of courtesy but lifted as by some nameless exaltation at the sight of her—some impulse entirely new to him and inexplicable.
She stood there a little shyly at first, as slender and as gracefully upright as a birch, and her dark hair caught the fire of the sinking sun with a bronze glow like that of the turkey's wing. Her eyes, over which heavy lashes drooped diffidently, were bafflingly deep, as with rich colour drowned in duskiness.
"This hyar's my gal, Dorothy," announced the old man and then she disappeared.
That night Maggard walked home with a chest rounded to the deep draughts of night air which he was drinking, and a heady elation in the currents of his veins. She had slipped in and out of the room as he had talked with the patriarch, after supper, flitting like some illusive shadow of shyness. He had had hardly a score of words with her, but the future would plentifully mend that famine.
In the brilliant moonlight he vaulted the picket fence of his own place and saw the front of the cube-like house, standing before him, streaked with the dark of the logs and the white of the chinking. About it was the patch of scythe-cleared ground as blue as cobalt in the bright night, and back of it the inky rampart of the mountainside.
But as he approached the door of the cabin the silver bath of light picked out and emphasized a white patch at its centre, and he made out that a sheet of paper was pinned there.
"I reckon Rowlett's done left me some message or other," he reflected as he took the missive down and went inside to light his lantern and build a fire on the hearth—since even the summer nights were shrewdly chilling here in the hills.
When the logs were snapping and he had kicked off his heavy boots and kindled his pipe, he sprawled luxuriously in a back-tilted chair and held his paper to the flare of the blaze to read it.
At first he laughed derisively, then his brows gathered in a frown of perplexity and finally his jaw stiffened into grimness.
The note was set down in crudely printed characters, as though to evade the identifying quality of handwriting, and this was its truculent message:
No trespassin'. The gal ain't fer you. Once more of goin' over yon and they'll find you stretched dead in a creek bed. This is writ with God in Heaven bearin' witness that it's true.
Cal Maggard sat gazing into the blaze that leaped and eddied fitfully under the blackened chimney. In one hand drooped the sheet of paper that he had found fastened to his door and in the other the pipe which had been forgotten and had died.
He looked over his shoulder at the door which he had left ajar. Through its slit he could see a moonlit strip of sky, and rising slowly he circled the room, holding the protection of the shadowy walls until he reached and barred it. That much was his concession to the danger of the threat, and it was the only concession he meant to make.
Into this place he had come unknown and under this roof he had slept only one night. He had injured no man, offended no woman or child, yet the malevolent spirit of circumstance that had made a refugee of him in Virginia seemed to have pursued him and found him out.
Perhaps Rowlett had been right. The Harper girl was, among other mountain women, like a moon among stars. Her local admirers might hate and threaten one another, but against an intruder from elsewhere they would unite as allies. Such a prize would be fought for, murdered for if need be—but one ray of encouragement played among the clouds. Any lover who felt confidence in his own success would not have found such tactics needful—and if she herself were not committed, she was not yet won by any rival. In that conclusion lay solace.
The next morning found Maggard busied about his dooryard, albeit with his rifle standing ready to hand, and to-day he wore his shirt with the arm-pit pistol holster under its cover.
His vigilance, too, was quietly alert, and when a mule came in sight along the trail which looped over the ridge a half mile distant and was promptly swallowed again by the woods, his ears followed its approach by little sounds that would have been silent to a less sensitively trained hearing.
It was a smallish, mouse-coloured mule that emerged at length to view and it looked even smaller than it was because the man who straddled it dwarfed it with his own ponderous stature and a girth which was almost an anomaly in a country of raw-boned gauntness.
The big man slid down, and his thick neck and round face were red and sweat-damp though the day was young and cool.
"I made a soon start this mornin'," he enlightened: "ter git me some gryste ground, an' I didn't eat me no vittles save only a few peanuts. I'm sich a fool 'bout them things thet most folks round hyar calls me by ther name of 'Peanuts.'"
"I reckon I kin convenience ye with some sort of snack," Maggard assured him. "Ef so be ye're hungry—an' kin enjoy what I've got."
Fed and refreshed, "Peanuts" Causey started on again and before he had been long gone Bas Rowlett appeared and sent his long halloo ahead of him in announcement of his coming.
"I jist lowed I'd ride over an' see could I tender ye any neighbourly act," he began affably and Maggard laughed.
"Thet thar's right clever of ye," he declared. "Fer one thing, ye kin tell me who air ther big, jobial-seeming body thet gives ther name of Peanuts Causey. I reckon ye knows him?"
Rowlett grunted. "He's a kind of loaferer thet goes broguein' 'round scatterin' peanut hulls an' brash talk everywhich way an' yon," he gave enlightenment. "Folks don't esteem him no turrible plenty. Hit's all right fer hawgs ter fatten but hit don't become a man none. Myself I disgusts gutty fellers."
Cal Maggard had drawn out his pipe and was slowly filling it. As though the thought were an amusing one he inquired drawlingly:
"Be he one of ther fellers thet seeks ter wed Harper's gal, too?"
At that question Rowlett snorted his disdain.
"Him? Thet tub of fat-meat? Wa'al now ye names hit ter me, I reckon he does loiter 'round thar erbout all he das't—he's ther hang-roundin'est feller ye ever seed—but ther only chanst he's got air fer every other man ter fall down an' die."
"I fared over thar last night," said Maggard with a level glance at his companion, "an' I met ther gal. She seemed right shy-like an' didn't hev much ter say one way ner t'other."
As he spoke he searched the face of his visitor but the only expression that it gave forth in response to the announcement was one of livened and amiable interest. Then, after a brief pause, the Virginian laid a hand on the elbow of his neighbour and lowered his voice.
"I wisht ye'd come inside a minute. Thar's a matter I'd love ter hev ye counsel me erbout."
With a nod of acquiescence the visitor followed the householder through the door, and Maggard's face grew soberly intent as he picked up a sheet of paper from the table and held it out.
"Yestiddy ye forewarned me thet ef I went over thar I'd gain me some enemies," he said. "Hit 'pears like ye made a right shrewd guess ... read thet.... I found hit nailed ter my door when I come home last night."
Hewlett took the paper and corrugated his brows over its vindictive message; then his high cheekbones flushed and from his unshaven lips gushed a cascade of oath-embroidered denunciation.
"Afore God Almighty," he ripped out in conclusion, "kin any man comprehend ther sneakin', low-down meanness of a feller thet seeks ter terrify somebody sich fashion es thet? He don't das't disclose hisself and yit he seeks ter run ye off!"
"He hain't a' goin' ter run me off none—whosoever he be," was the calm rejoinder, and Rowlett looked up quickly.
"Then ye aims ter go right ahead?"
"I aims ter go over thar ergin termorrer evenin'.... I'd go terday only I don't seek ter w'ar my welcome out."
Rowlett nodded. His voice came with convincing earnestness.
"I told ye yestiddy thet I aimed ter wed with thet gal myself ef so be I proved lucky at sweetheartin' her. I hain't got no gay int'rest in aidin' ner abettin' ye, but yit I don't hold with no such bull-dozin' methods. What does ye aim ter do erbout hit?"
"I aims ter pin this hyar answer on ther door whar I found ther letter at," replied Maggard, crisply, "An' ef hit comes ter gun-battlin' in ther bresh—I don't seek ter brag none—but ye seed me shoot yestiddy."
Rowlett took and slowly read the defiant response which the other had pencilled and a grim smile of approval came to his face:
To whoever it consarns. I aim to stay here and go wherever I takes the notion. I aim to be as peaceable as I'm suffered to be—and as warlike as I has to be.
"I wonders, now," mused Rowlett, half-aloud, "who that damn craven mout be?"
Suddenly his swarthy face brightened with an idea and he volunteered: "Let me hev thet thar paper. I won't betray ter no man what's in hit but mebby I mout compare them words with ther handwrite of some fellers I knows—an' git at ther gist of the matter, thet fashion."
It seemed a slender chance yet a possibility. A man who was everywhere acquainted might make use of it, whereas the stranger himself could hardly hope to do so.
But as Maggard thrust the note forward in compliance he took second thought—and withdrew it.
"No," he said, slowly. "I'm obleeged ter ye—but ye mout lose this hyar paper an' like es not, I'll hev need of hit herea'tter."
With evident disappointment Rowlett conceded the argument by a nod of his head.
"Mebby ye're right," he said. "But anyhow we'd better s'arch round about. Ef thar's a shoe-print left anywheres in ther mud or any sich-like thing, I'd be more like ter know what hit denotes then what a stranger would."
Together they went up and down the road, studying the dusty and rock-strewn surface with backwoods eyes to which little things were more illuminating than large print.
They circled back of the ruined stockade and raked the rising laurel tangles with searching scrutiny. Finally Rowlett, who was several paces in advance, beckoned to the other and gave a low whistle of discovery.
Behind a low rock the thick grass was downpressed as though some huge rabbit had been huddled there.
"Some person's done fixed hisself a nestie hyar—ter spy on yore dwellin' house," he confidently asserted, then as he stood studying the spot he reached into the matted tangle and drew out a hand closed on some small object.
For a moment he held it open before his own eyes, then tossed over to Maggard a broken peanut shell.
Neither of them made any comment just then, but as they turned away Rowlett murmured, as though to himself:
"Of course, any feller kin eat peanuts."
All that afternoon Cal Maggard lay hidden in the thicket overlooking his front door and, as a volunteer co-sentinel, Bas Rowlett lay in a "laurel-hell" watching from the rear, but their vigilante was unrewarded.
That night, though, while Maggard sat alone, smoking his pipe by his hearth, two shadowy figures detached themselves, at separate times and points, from the sooty tangle of the mountain woods some mile and a half away, and met at the rendezvous of a deserted cabin whose roof was half collapsed.
They held the shadows and avoided the moonlight and they moved like silhouettes without visible features. They struck no matches and conferred in low and guarded tones, squatting on their heels and haunches in the abandoned interior.
"He went over ter Harper's house yestiddy evenin', an' he's like ter go right soon ergin'," said one.
"All ye've got ter do air ter keep in tech with me—so any time I needs ye I kin git ye. I hain't plum made up my mind yit."
The other shadowy and hunched figure growled unpleasantly, then bit from a tobacco twist and spat before he answered.
"I hain't got no hankerin' fer no more laywayin's," he objected. "Ef ye resolves that he needs killin', why don't ye do hit yoreself? Hit hain't nothin' ter me."
"I've done told ye why I kain't handily do hit myself. Nobody hain't ergoin'ter suspicion you—an' es fer what's in hit fer ye—ef so be I calls on ye—we've done sottled that."
The other remained churlishly silent for awhile. Palpably he had little stomach for this jackal task and it was equally obvious that he feared refusal even more than acceptance of the stewardship.
"Hit hain't like as if I was seekin' ter fo'ce ye ter do suthin' ye hedn't done afore," the persuasive voice reminded him, and again the snarling response growled out its displeasure.
"No, an' ye hain't said nothin' cons'arnin' what ye knows erbout me, nuther. Ye hain't even drapped a hint thet any time ye takes ther notion ter talk out ter ther High-cote ye kin penitenshery me—but thet's jest because ye knows ye don't haf ter. By God, sometimes I think's hit would well-nigh profit me ter layway you an' be shet of ye."
The second voice was purring now, with a hint of the claw-power under the softness.
"Thet would be a right smart pity, though. Thar is one other body thet knows—an' ef so be I got kilt he'd be right speedy ter guess ther man thet done hit—an' ther reason, too. I reckon hit'll profit ye better ter go on bein' friends with me."
Again long silence, then grudgingly the murderer-elect rose to his feet and nodded reluctant assent.
"So be it," he grumbled. "I gives ye my hand ter deaden him whensoever ye says ther word. But afore we parts company let's talk ther matter over a leetle more. I wouldn't love ter hev ye censure me for makin' no error."
"Ther main thing," came the instruction of the employer, "air this: I wants ter be able ter get ye quick an' hev ye ack quick—ef so be I needs ye, no matter when that be."
When Cal Maggard closed and locked his cabin door late the next afternoon he stood regarding with sombre eyes his message of defiance which, it seemed, no one had come to read.
Yet, as he turned his back a smile replaced the scowl, for he was going to see a girl.
At the bend where the trail crossed the shallow creek, and a stray razor-back wallowed at the roadside, Maggard saw a figure leaning indolently against the fence.
"I suspicioned ye'd be right likely ter happen along erbout this time," enlightened Bas Rowlett as he waved his hand in greeting. "So I 'lowed I'd tarry an' santer along with ye."
"I'm beholden ter ye," responded Maggard, but he knew what the other had been too polite to say: That this pretended casualness marked the kindly motive of affording escort because of the danger under which he himself was travelling unfamiliar roads.
Over the crests heavy banks of clouds were settling in ominous piles of blackness and lying still-heaped in the breathlessness that precedes a tempest, but the sun still shone and Rowlett who was leading the way turned into a forest trail.
As they went, single file, through a gorge into which the sun never struck save from the zenith; where the ferns grew lush and the great leaves of the "cucumber tree" hung motionless, they halted without a word and a comprehending glance shot between them.
When two setters, trained to perfect team work, come unexpectedly upon the quail scent in stubble, that one which first catches the nostril-warning becomes rigid as though a breath had petrified him—and at once his fellow drops to the stiff posture of accord.
So now, as if one hand had pulled two strings, Cal Maggard and Bas Rowlett ceased to be upright animals. The sound of a crackled twig off to the right had come to their ears, and it was a sound that carried the quality of furtiveness.
Instantly they had dropped to their bellies and wriggled snake-like away from the spots where they had stood. Instantly, too, they became almost invisible and two drawn weapons were thrust forward.
There they lay for perhaps two minutes, with ears straining into the silence, neither exaggerating nor under-estimating the menace that might have caused that sound in the underbrush. After a while Rowlett whispered, "What did ye hear?"
"'Peared like ter me," responded Maggard, guardedly, "a twig cracked back thar in ther la'rel."
Rowlett nodded but after a space he rose, shaking his head.
"Ef so be thar's anybody a-layin' back thar in ther bresh, I reckon he's done concluded ter wait twell he gits ye by yourself," he decided. "Let's be santerin' along."
So they went forward until they came to a point where they stood on the unforested patch of a "bald knob." There Rowlett halted again and pointed downward. Beneath them spread the valley with the band of the river winding tenuously through the bottoms of the Harper farm. About that green bowl the first voices of the coming storm were already rumbling with the constant growl of thunder.
"Thar's ther house—and thar's ther big tree in front of hit," said Rowlett. "Ef I owned ther place I'd shorely throw ther axe inter hit afore it drawed a lightnin' bolt down on ther roof."
Cal Maggard, who had known walnuts only growing in the forest, gazed down now with something of wonderment at this one which stood alone. A sense of its spreading magnificence was borne in upon him, and though the simile was foreign to his mind, it seemed as distinct and separate from the thousands of other trees that blended in the leagues of surrounding forestry as might a mounted and sashed field marshal in the centre of an army of common soldiery.
Even in the dark atmosphere of gathering storm its spread of foliage held a living, golden quality of green and its trunk an inky blackness that gave a startling vividness.
He did not know that this tree which grows stiff of head and narrow of shoulder in the woods alters its character when man provides it with a spacious setting, and that it becomes the noblest of our native growths. He did not know that when Ovid wrote of folk in the Golden Age, who lived upon: