THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE
JOHN FOX, JR.
ILLUSTRATED BY F. C. YOHN
To F. S.
THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE
She sat at the base of the big tree—her little sunbonnet pushed back, her arms locked about her knees, her bare feet gathered under her crimson gown and her deep eyes fixed on the smoke in the valley below. Her breath was still coming fast between her parted lips. There were tiny drops along the roots of her shining hair, for the climb had been steep, and now the shadow of disappointment darkened her eyes. The mountains ran in limitless blue waves towards the mounting sun—but at birth her eyes had opened on them as on the white mists trailing up the steeps below her. Beyond them was a gap in the next mountain chain and down in the little valley, just visible through it, were trailing blue mists as well, and she knew that they were smoke. Where was the great glare of yellow light that the "circuit rider" had told about—and the leaping tongues of fire? Where was the shrieking monster that ran without horses like the wind and tossed back rolling black plumes all streaked with fire? For many days now she had heard stories of the "furriners" who had come into those hills and were doing strange things down there, and so at last she had climbed up through the dewy morning from the cove on the other side to see the wonders for herself. She had never been up there before. She had no business there now, and, if she were found out when she got back, she would get a scolding and maybe something worse from her step-mother—and all that trouble and risk for nothing but smoke. So, she lay back and rested—her little mouth tightening fiercely. It was a big world, though, that was spread before her and a vague awe of it seized her straightway and held her motionless and dreaming. Beyond those white mists trailing up the hills, beyond the blue smoke drifting in the valley, those limitless blue waves must run under the sun on and on to the end of the world! Her dead sister had gone into that far silence and had brought back wonderful stories of that outer world: and she began to wonder more than ever before whether she would ever go into it and see for herself what was there. With the thought, she rose slowly to her feet, moved slowly to the cliff that dropped sheer ten feet aside from the trail, and stood there like a great scarlet flower in still air. There was the way at her feet—that path that coiled under the cliff and ran down loop by loop through majestic oak and poplar and masses of rhododendron. She drew a long breath and stirred uneasily—she'd better go home now—but the path had a snake-like charm for her and still she stood, following it as far down as she could with her eyes. Down it went, writhing this way and that to a spur that had been swept bare by forest fires. Along this spur it travelled straight for a while and, as her eyes eagerly followed it to where it sank sharply into a covert of maples, the little creature dropped of a sudden to the ground and, like something wild, lay flat.
A human figure had filled the leafy mouth that swallowed up the trail and it was coming towards her. With a thumping heart she pushed slowly forward through the brush until her face, fox-like with cunning and screened by a blueberry bush, hung just over the edge of the cliff, and there she lay, like a crouched panther-cub, looking down. For a moment, all that was human seemed gone from her eyes, but, as she watched, all that was lost came back to them, and something more. She had seen that it was a man, but she had dropped so quickly that she did not see the big, black horse that, unled, was following him. Now both man and horse had stopped. The stranger had taken off his gray slouched hat and he was wiping his face with something white. Something blue was tied loosely about his throat. She had never seen a man like that before. His face was smooth and looked different, as did his throat and his hands. His breeches were tight and on his feet were strange boots that were the colour of his saddle, which was deep in seat, high both in front and behind and had strange long-hooded stirrups. Starting to mount, the man stopped with one foot in the stirrup and raised his eyes towards her so suddenly that she shrank back again with a quicker throbbing at her heart and pressed closer to the earth. Still, seen or not seen, flight was easy for her, so she could not forbear to look again. Apparently, he had seen nothing—only that the next turn of the trail was too steep to ride, and so he started walking again, and his walk, as he strode along the path, was new to her, as was the erect way with which he held his head and his shoulders.
In her wonder over him, she almost forgot herself, forgot to wonder where he was going and why he was coming into those lonely hills until, as his horse turned a bend of the trail, she saw hanging from the other side of the saddle something that looked like a gun. He was a "raider"—that man: so, cautiously and swiftly then, she pushed herself back from the edge of the cliff, sprang to her feet, dashed past the big tree and, winged with fear, sped down the mountain—leaving in a spot of sunlight at the base of the pine the print of one bare foot in the black earth.
He had seen the big pine when he first came to those hills—one morning, at daybreak, when the valley was a sea of mist that threw soft clinging spray to the very mountain tops: for even above the mists, that morning, its mighty head arose—sole visible proof that the earth still slept beneath. Straightway, he wondered how it had ever got there, so far above the few of its kind that haunted the green dark ravines far below. Some whirlwind, doubtless, had sent a tiny cone circling heavenward and dropped it there. It had sent others, too, no doubt, but how had this tree faced wind and storm alone and alone lived to defy both so proudly? Some day he would learn. Thereafter, he had seen it, at noon—but little less majestic among the oaks that stood about it; had seen it catching the last light at sunset, clean-cut against the after-glow, and like a dark, silent, mysterious sentinel guarding the mountain pass under the moon. He had seen it giving place with sombre dignity to the passing burst of spring—had seen it green among dying autumn leaves, green in the gray of winter trees and still green in a shroud of snow—a changeless promise that the earth must wake to life again. The Lonesome Pine, the mountaineers called it, and the Lonesome Pine it always looked to be. From the beginning it had a curious fascination for him, and straightway within him—half exile that he was—there sprang up a sympathy for it as for something that was human and a brother. And now he was on the trail of it at last. From every point that morning it had seemed almost to nod down to him as he climbed and, when he reached the ledge that gave him sight of it from base to crown, the winds murmured among its needles like a welcoming voice. At once, he saw the secret of its life. On each side rose a cliff that had sheltered it from storms until its trunk had shot upwards so far and so straight and so strong that its green crown could lift itself on and on and bend—blow what might—as proudly and securely as a lily on its stalk in a morning breeze. Dropping his bridle rein he put one hand against it as though on the shoulder of a friend.
"Old Man," he said, "You must be pretty lonesome up here, and I'm glad to meet you."
For a while he sat against it—resting. He had no particular purpose that day—no particular destination. His saddle-bags were across the cantle of his cow-boy saddle. His fishing rod was tied under one flap. He was young and his own master. Time was hanging heavy on his hands that day and he loved the woods and the nooks and crannies of them where his own kind rarely made its way. Beyond, the cove looked dark, forbidding, mysterious, and what was beyond he did not know. So down there he would go. As he bent his head forward to rise, his eye caught the spot of sunlight, and he leaned over it with a smile. In the black earth was a human foot-print—too small and slender for the foot of a man, a boy or a woman. Beyond, the same prints were visible—wider apart—and he smiled again. A girl had been there. She was the crimson flash that he saw as he started up the steep and mistook for a flaming bush of sumach. She had seen him coming and she had fled. Still smiling, he rose to his feet.
On one side he had left the earth yellow with the coming noon, but it was still morning as he went down on the other side. The laurel and rhododendron still reeked with dew in the deep, ever-shaded ravine. The ferns drenched his stirrups, as he brushed through them, and each dripping tree-top broke the sunlight and let it drop in tent-like beams through the shimmering undermist. A bird flashed here and there through the green gloom, but there was no sound in the air but the footfalls of his horse and the easy creaking of leather under him, the drip of dew overhead and the running of water below. Now and then he could see the same slender foot-prints in the rich loam and he saw them in the sand where the first tiny brook tinkled across the path from a gloomy ravine. There the little creature had taken a flying leap across it and, beyond, he could see the prints no more. He little guessed that while he halted to let his horse drink, the girl lay on a rock above him, looking down. She was nearer home now and was less afraid; so she had slipped from the trail and climbed above it there to watch him pass. As he went on, she slid from her perch and with cat-footed quiet followed him. When he reached the river she saw him pull in his horse and eagerly bend forward, looking into a pool just below the crossing. There was a bass down there in the clear water—a big one—and the man whistled cheerily and dismounted, tying his horse to a sassafras bush and unbuckling a tin bucket and a curious looking net from his saddle. With the net in one hand and the bucket in the other, he turned back up the creek and passed so close to where she had slipped aside into the bushes that she came near shrieking, but his eyes were fixed on a pool of the creek above and, to her wonder, he strolled straight into the water, with his boots on, pushing the net in front of him.
He was a "raider" sure, she thought now, and he was looking for a "moonshine" still, and the wild little thing in the bushes smiled cunningly—there was no still up that creek—and as he had left his horse below and his gun, she waited for him to come back, which he did, by and by, dripping and soaked to his knees. Then she saw him untie the queer "gun" on his saddle, pull it out of a case and—her eyes got big with wonder—take it to pieces and make it into a long limber rod. In a moment he had cast a minnow into the pool and waded out into the water up to his hips. She had never seen so queer a fishing-pole—so queer a fisherman. How could he get a fish out with that little switch, she thought contemptuously? By and by something hummed queerly, the man gave a slight jerk and a shining fish flopped two feet into the air. It was surely very queer, for the man didn't put his rod over his shoulder and walk ashore, as did the mountaineers, but stood still, winding something with one hand, and again the fish would flash into the air and then that humming would start again while the fisherman would stand quiet and waiting for a while—and then he would begin to wind again. In her wonder, she rose unconsciously to her feet and a stone rolled down to the ledge below her. The fisherman turned his head and she started to run, but without a word he turned again to the fish he was playing. Moreover, he was too far out in the water to catch her, so she advanced slowly—even to the edge of the stream, watching the fish cut half circles about the man. If he saw her, he gave no notice, and it was well that he did not. He was pulling the bass to and fro now through the water, tiring him out—drowning him—stepping backward at the same time, and, a moment later, the fish slid easily out of the edge of the water, gasping along the edge of a low sand-bank, and the fisherman reaching down with one hand caught him in the gills. Then he looked up and smiled—and she had seen no smile like that before.
"Howdye, Little Girl?"
One bare toe went burrowing suddenly into the sand, one finger went to her red mouth—and that was all. She merely stared him straight in the eye and he smiled again.
"Cat got your tongue?"
Her eyes fell at the ancient banter, but she lifted them straightway and stared again.
"You live around here?"
She stared on.
"What's your name, little girl?"
And still she stared.
"Oh, well, of course, you can't talk, if the cat's got your tongue."
The steady eyes leaped angrily, but there was still no answer, and he bent to take the fish off his hook, put on a fresh minnow, turned his back and tossed it into the pool.
He looked up again. She surely was a pretty little thing—and more, now that she was angry.
"I should say not," he said teasingly. "What did you say your name was?"
"What's YO' name?"
The fisherman laughed. He was just becoming accustomed to the mountain etiquette that commands a stranger to divulge himself first.
"An' mine's—Jill." She laughed now, and it was his time for surprise—where could she have heard of Jack and Jill?
His line rang suddenly.
"Jack," she cried, "you got a bite!"
He pulled, missed the strike, and wound in. The minnow was all right, so he tossed it back again.
"That isn't your name," he said.
"If 'tain't, then that ain't your'n?"
"Yes 'tis," he said, shaking his head affirmatively.
A long cry came down the ravine:
"J-u-n-e! eh—oh—J-u-n-e!" That was a queer name for the mountains, and the fisherman wondered if he had heard aright—June.
The little girl gave a shrill answering cry, but she did not move.
"Thar now!" she said.
"Who's that—your Mammy?"
"No, 'tain't—hit's my step-mammy. I'm a goin' to ketch hell now." Her innocent eyes turned sullen and her baby mouth tightened.
"Good Lord!" said the fisherman, startled, and then he stopped—the words were as innocent on her lips as a benediction.
"Have you got a father?" Like a flash, her whole face changed.
"I reckon I have."
"Where is he?"
"Hyeh he is!" drawled a voice from the bushes, and it had a tone that made the fisherman whirl suddenly. A giant mountaineer stood on the bank above him, with a Winchester in the hollow of his arm.
"How are you?" The giant's heavy eyes lifted quickly, but he spoke to the girl.
"You go on home—what you doin' hyeh gassin' with furriners!"
The girl shrank to the bushes, but she cried sharply back:
"Don't you hurt him now, Dad. He ain't even got a pistol. He ain't no—"
"Shet up!" The little creature vanished and the mountaineer turned to the fisherman, who had just put on a fresh minnow and tossed it into the river.
"Purty well, thank you," he said shortly. "How are you?"
"Fine!" was the nonchalant answer. For a moment there was silence and a puzzled frown gathered on the mountaineer's face.
"That's a bright little girl of yours—What did she mean by telling you not to hurt me?"
"You haven't been long in these mountains, have ye?"
"No—not in THESE mountains—why?" The fisherman looked around and was almost startled by the fierce gaze of his questioner.
"Stop that, please," he said, with a humourous smile. "You make me nervous."
The mountaineer's bushy brows came together across the bridge of his nose and his voice rumbled like distant thunder.
"What's yo' name, stranger, an' what's yo' business over hyeh?"
"Dear me, there you go! You can see I'm fishing, but why does everybody in these mountains want to know my name?"
"You heerd me!"
"Yes." The fisherman turned again and saw the giant's rugged face stern and pale with open anger now, and he, too, grew suddenly serious.
"Suppose I don't tell you," he said gravely. "What—"
"Git!" said the mountaineer, with a move of one huge hairy hand up the mountain. "An' git quick!"
The fisherman never moved and there was the click of a shell thrown into place in the Winchester and a guttural oath from the mountaineer's beard.
"Damn ye," he said hoarsely, raising the rifle. "I'll give ye—"
"Don't, Dad!" shrieked a voice from the bushes. "I know his name, hit's Jack—" the rest of the name was unintelligible. The mountaineer dropped the butt of his gun to the ground and laughed.
"Oh, air YOU the engineer?"
The fisherman was angry now. He had not moved hand or foot and he said nothing, but his mouth was set hard and his bewildered blue eyes had a glint in them that the mountaineer did not at the moment see. He was leaning with one arm on the muzzle of his Winchester, his face had suddenly become suave and shrewd and now he laughed again:
"So you're Jack Hale, air ye?"
The fisherman spoke. "JOHN Hale, except to my friends." He looked hard at the old man.
"Do you know that's a pretty dangerous joke of yours, my friend—I might have a gun myself sometimes. Did you think you could scare me?" The mountaineer stared in genuine surprise.
"Twusn't no joke," he said shortly. "An' I don't waste time skeering folks. I reckon you don't know who I be?"
"I don't care who you are." Again the mountaineer stared.
"No use gittin' mad, young feller," he said coolly. "I mistaken ye fer somebody else an' I axe yer pardon. When you git through fishin' come up to the house right up the creek thar an' I'll give ye a dram."
"Thank you," said the fisherman stiffly, and the mountaineer turned silently away. At the edge of the bushes, he looked back; the stranger was still fishing, and the old man went on with a shake of his head.
"He'll come," he said to himself. "Oh, he'll come!"
That very point Hale was debating with himself as he unavailingly cast his minnow into the swift water and slowly wound it in again. How did that old man know his name? And would the old savage really have hurt him had he not found out who he was? The little girl was a wonder: evidently she had muffled his last name on purpose—not knowing it herself—and it was a quick and cunning ruse. He owed her something for that—why did she try to protect him? Wonderful eyes, too, the little thing had—deep and dark—and how the flame did dart from them when she got angry! He smiled, remembering—he liked that. And her hair—it was exactly like the gold-bronze on the wing of a wild turkey that he had shot the day before. Well, it was noon now, the fish had stopped biting after the wayward fashion of bass, he was hungry and thirsty and he would go up and see the little girl and the giant again and get that promised dram. Once more, however, he let his minnow float down into the shadow of a big rock, and while he was winding in, he looked up to see in the road two people on a gray horse, a man with a woman behind him—both old and spectacled—all three motionless on the bank and looking at him: and he wondered if all three had stopped to ask his name and his business. No, they had just come down to the creek and both they must know already.
"Ketching any?" called out the old man, cheerily.
"Only one," answered Hale with equal cheer. The old woman pushed back her bonnet as he waded through the water towards them and he saw that she was puffing a clay pipe. She looked at the fisherman and his tackle with the naive wonder of a child, and then she said in a commanding undertone.
"Go on, Billy."
"Now, ole Hon, I wish ye'd jes' wait a minute." Hale smiled. He loved old people, and two kinder faces he had never seen—two gentler voices he had never heard.
"I reckon you got the only green pyerch up hyeh," said the old man, chuckling, "but thar's a sight of 'em down thar below my old mill." Quietly the old woman hit the horse with a stripped branch of elm and the old gray, with a switch of his tail, started.
"Wait a minute, Hon," he said again, appealingly, "won't ye?" but calmly she hit the horse again and the old man called back over his shoulder:
"You come on down to the mill an' I'll show ye whar you can ketch a mess."
"All right," shouted Hale, holding back his laughter, and on they went, the old man remonstrating in the kindliest way—the old woman silently puffing her pipe and making no answer except to flay gently the rump of the lazy old gray.
Hesitating hardly a moment, Hale unjointed his pole, left his minnow bucket where it was, mounted his horse and rode up the path. About him, the beech leaves gave back the gold of the autumn sunlight, and a little ravine, high under the crest of the mottled mountain, was on fire with the scarlet of maple. Not even yet had the morning chill left the densely shaded path. When he got to the bare crest of a little rise, he could see up the creek a spiral of blue rising swiftly from a stone chimney. Geese and ducks were hunting crawfish in the little creek that ran from a milk-house of logs, half hidden by willows at the edge of the forest, and a turn in the path brought into view a log-cabin well chinked with stones and plaster, and with a well-built porch. A fence ran around the yard and there was a meat house near a little orchard of apple-trees, under which were many hives of bee-gums. This man had things "hung up" and was well-to-do. Down the rise and through a thicket he went, and as he approached the creek that came down past the cabin there was a shrill cry ahead of him.
"Whoa thar, Buck! Gee-haw, I tell ye!" An ox-wagon evidently was coming on, and the road was so narrow that he turned his horse into the bushes to let it pass.
"Whoa—Haw!—Gee—Gee—Buck, Gee, I tell ye! I'll knock yo' fool head off the fust thing you know!"
Still there was no sound of ox or wagon and the voice sounded like a child's. So he went on at a walk in the thick sand, and when he turned the bushes he pulled up again with a low laugh. In the road across the creek was a chubby, tow-haired boy with a long switch in his right hand, and a pine dagger and a string in his left. Attached to the string and tied by one hind leg was a frog. The boy was using the switch as a goad and driving the frog as an ox, and he was as earnest as though both were real.
"I give ye a little rest now, Buck," he said, shaking his head earnestly. "Hit's a purty hard pull hyeh, but I know, by Gum, you can make hit—if you hain't too durn lazy. Now, git up, Buck!" he yelled suddenly, flaying the sand with his switch. "Git up—Whoa—Haw—Gee, Gee!" The frog hopped several times.
"Whoa, now!" said the little fellow, panting in sympathy. "I knowed you could do it." Then he looked up. For an instant he seemed terrified but he did not run. Instead he stealthily shifted the pine dagger over to his right hand and the string to his left.
"Here, boy," said the fisherman with affected sternness: "What are you doing with that dagger?"
The boy's breast heaved and his dirty fingers clenched tight around the whittled stick.
"Don't you talk to me that-a-way," he said with an ominous shake of his head. "I'll gut ye!"
The fisherman threw back his head, and his peal of laughter did what his sternness failed to do. The little fellow wheeled suddenly, and his feet spurned the sand around the bushes for home—the astonished frog dragged bumping after him. "Well!" said the fisherman.
Even the geese in the creek seemed to know that he was a stranger and to distrust him, for they cackled and, spreading their wings, fled cackling up the stream. As he neared the house, the little girl ran around the stone chimney, stopped short, shaded her eyes with one hand for a moment and ran excitedly into the house. A moment later, the bearded giant slouched out, stooping his head as he came through the door.
"Hitch that 'ar post to yo' hoss and come right in," he thundered cheerily. "I'm waitin' fer ye."
The little girl came to the door, pushed one brown slender hand through her tangled hair, caught one bare foot behind a deer-like ankle and stood motionless. Behind her was the boy—his dagger still in hand.
"Come right in!" said the old man, "we are purty pore folks, but you're welcome to what we have."
The fisherman, too, had to stoop as he came in, for he, too, was tall. The interior was dark, in spite of the wood fire in the big stone fireplace. Strings of herbs and red-pepper pods and twisted tobacco hung from the ceiling and down the wall on either side of the fire; and in one corner, near the two beds in the room, hand-made quilts of many colours were piled several feet high. On wooden pegs above the door where ten years before would have been buck antlers and an old-fashioned rifle, lay a Winchester; on either side of the door were auger holes through the logs (he did not understand that they were port-holes) and another Winchester stood in the corner. From the mantel the butt of a big 44-Colt's revolver protruded ominously. On one of the beds in the corner he could see the outlines of a figure lying under a brilliantly figured quilt, and at the foot of it the boy with the pine dagger had retreated for refuge. From the moment he stooped at the door something in the room had made him vaguely uneasy, and when his eyes in swift survey came back to the fire, they passed the blaze swiftly and met on the edge of the light another pair of eyes burning on him.
"Howdye!" said Hale.
"Howdye!" was the low, unpropitiating answer.
The owner of the eyes was nothing but a boy, in spite of his length: so much of a boy that a slight crack in his voice showed that it was just past the throes of "changing," but those black eyes burned on without swerving—except once when they flashed at the little girl who, with her chin in her hand and one foot on the top rung of her chair, was gazing at the stranger with equal steadiness. She saw the boy's glance, she shifted her knees impatiently and her little face grew sullen. Hale smiled inwardly, for he thought he could already see the lay of the land, and he wondered that, at such an age, such fierceness could be: so every now and then he looked at the boy, and every time he looked, the black eyes were on him. The mountain youth must have been almost six feet tall, young as he was, and while he was lanky in limb he was well knit. His jean trousers were stuffed in the top of his boots and were tight over his knees which were well-moulded, and that is rare with a mountaineer. A loop of black hair curved over his forehead, down almost to his left eye. His nose was straight and almost delicate and his mouth was small, but extraordinarily resolute. Somewhere he had seen that face before, and he turned suddenly, but he did not startle the lad with his abruptness, nor make him turn his gaze.
"Why, haven't I—?" he said. And then he suddenly remembered. He had seen that boy not long since on the other side of the mountains, riding his horse at a gallop down the county road with his reins in his teeth, and shooting a pistol alternately at the sun and the earth with either hand. Perhaps it was as well not to recall the incident. He turned to the old mountaineer.
"Do you mean to tell me that a man can't go through these mountains without telling everybody who asks him what his name is?"
The effect of his question was singular. The old man spat into the fire and put his hand to his beard. The boy crossed his legs suddenly and shoved his muscular fingers deep into his pockets. The figure shifted position on the bed and the infant at the foot of it seemed to clench his toy-dagger a little more tightly. Only the little girl was motionless—she still looked at him, unwinking. What sort of wild animals had he fallen among?
"No, he can't—an' keep healthy." The giant spoke shortly.
"Well, if a man hain't up to some devilment, what reason's he got fer not tellin' his name?"
"That's his business."
"Tain't over hyeh. Hit's mine. Ef a man don't want to tell his name over hyeh, he's a spy or a raider or a officer looking fer somebody or," he added carelessly, but with a quick covert look at his visitor—"he's got some kind o' business that he don't want nobody to know about."
"Well, I came over here—just to—well, I hardly know why I did come."
"Jess so," said the old man dryly. "An' if ye ain't looking fer trouble, you'd better tell your name in these mountains, whenever you're axed. Ef enough people air backin' a custom anywhar hit goes, don't hit?"
His logic was good—and Hale said nothing. Presently the old man rose with a smile on his face that looked cynical, picked up a black lump and threw it into the fire. It caught fire, crackled, blazed, almost oozed with oil, and Hale leaned forward and leaned back.
"Pretty good coal!"
"Hain't it, though?" The old man picked up a sliver that had flown to the hearth and held a match to it. The piece blazed and burned in his hand.
"I never seed no coal in these mountains like that—did you?"
"Not often—find it around here?"
"Right hyeh on this farm—about five feet thick!"
"An' no partin'."
"No partin'"—it was not often that he found a mountaineer who knew what a parting in a coal bed was.
"A friend o' mine on t'other side,"—a light dawned for the engineer.
"Oh," he said quickly. "That's how you knew my name."
"Right you air, stranger. He tol' me you was a—expert."
The old man laughed loudly. "An' that's why you come over hyeh."
"No, it isn't."
"Co'se not,"—the old fellow laughed again. Hale shifted the talk.
"Well, now that you know my name, suppose you tell me what yours is?"
"Tolliver—Judd Tolliver." Hale started.
"Not Devil Judd!"
"That's what some evil folks calls me." Again he spoke shortly. The mountaineers do not like to talk about their feuds. Hale knew this—and the subject was dropped. But he watched the huge mountaineer with interest. There was no more famous character in all those hills than the giant before him—yet his face was kind and was good-humoured, but the nose and eyes were the beak and eyes of some bird of prey. The little girl had disappeared for a moment. She came back with a blue-backed spelling-book, a second reader and a worn copy of "Mother Goose," and she opened first one and then the other until the attention of the visitor was caught—the black-haired youth watching her meanwhile with lowering brows.
"Where did you learn to read?" Hale asked. The old man answered:
"A preacher come by our house over on the Nawth Fork 'bout three year ago, and afore I knowed it he made me promise to send her sister Sally to some school up thar on the edge of the settlements. And after she come home, Sal larned that little gal to read and spell. Sal died 'bout a year ago."
Hale reached over and got the spelling-book, and the old man grinned at the quick, unerring responses of the little girl, and the engineer looked surprised. She read, too, with unusual facility, and her pronunciation was very precise and not at all like her speech.
"You ought to send her to the same place," he said, but the old fellow shook his head.
"I couldn't git along without her."
The little girl's eyes began to dance suddenly, and, without opening "Mother Goose," she began:
"Jack and Jill went up a hill," and then she broke into a laugh and Hale laughed with her.
Abruptly, the boy opposite rose to his great length.
"I reckon I better be goin'." That was all he said as he caught up a Winchester, which stood unseen by his side, and out he stalked. There was not a word of good-by, not a glance at anybody. A few minutes later Hale heard the creak of a barn door on wooden hinges, a cursing command to a horse, and four feet going in a gallop down the path, and he knew there went an enemy.
"That's a good-looking boy—who is he?"
The old man spat into the fire. It seemed that he was not going to answer and the little girl broke in:
"Hit's my cousin Dave—he lives over on the Nawth Fork."
That was the seat of the Tolliver-Falin feud. Of that feud, too, Hale had heard, and so no more along that line of inquiry. He, too, soon rose to go.
"Why, ain't ye goin' to have something to eat?"
"Oh, no, I've got something in my saddlebags and I must be getting back to the Gap."
"Well, I reckon you ain't. You're jes' goin' to take a snack right here." Hale hesitated, but the little girl was looking at him with such unconscious eagerness in her dark eyes that he sat down again.
"All right, I will, thank you." At once she ran to the kitchen and the old man rose and pulled a bottle of white liquid from under the quilts.
"I reckon I can trust ye," he said. The liquor burned Hale like fire, and the old man, with a laugh at the face the stranger made, tossed off a tumblerful.
"Gracious!" said Hale, "can you do that often?"
"Afore breakfast, dinner and supper," said the old man—"but I don't." Hale felt a plucking at his sleeve. It was the boy with the dagger at his elbow.
"Less see you laugh that-a-way agin," said Bub with such deadly seriousness that Hale unconsciously broke into the same peal.
"Now," said Bub, unwinking, "I ain't afeard o' you no more."
Awaiting dinner, the mountaineer and the "furriner" sat on the porch while Bub carved away at another pine dagger on the stoop. As Hale passed out the door, a querulous voice said "Howdye" from the bed in the corner and he knew it was the step-mother from whom the little girl expected some nether-world punishment for an offence of which he was ignorant. He had heard of the feud that had been going on between the red Falins and the black Tollivers for a quarter of a century, and this was Devil Judd, who had earned his nickname when he was the leader of his clan by his terrible strength, his marksmanship, his cunning and his courage. Some years since the old man had retired from the leadership, because he was tired of fighting or because he had quarrelled with his brother Dave and his foster-brother, Bad Rufe—known as the terror of the Tollivers—or from some unknown reason, and in consequence there had been peace for a long time—the Falins fearing that Devil Judd would be led into the feud again, the Tollivers wary of starting hostilities without his aid. After the last trouble, Bad Rufe Tolliver had gone West and old Judd had moved his family as far away as possible. Hale looked around him: this, then, was the home of Devil Judd Tolliver; the little creature inside was his daughter and her name was June. All around the cabin the wooded mountains towered except where, straight before his eyes, Lonesome Creek slipped through them to the river, and the old man had certainly picked out the very heart of silence for his home. There was no neighbour within two leagues, Judd said, except old Squire Billy Beams, who ran a mill a mile down the river. No wonder the spot was called Lonesome Cove.
"You must ha' seed Uncle Billy and ole Hon passin'," he said.
"I did." Devil Judd laughed and Hale made out that "Hon" was short for Honey.
"Uncle Billy used to drink right smart. Ole Hon broke him. She followed him down to the grocery one day and walked in. 'Come on, boys—let's have a drink'; and she set 'em up an' set 'em up until Uncle Billy most went crazy. He had hard work gittin' her home, an' Uncle Billy hain't teched a drap since." And the old mountaineer chuckled again.
All the time Hale could hear noises from the kitchen inside. The old step-mother was abed, he had seen no other woman about the house and he wondered if the child could be cooking dinner. Her flushed face answered when she opened the kitchen door and called them in. She had not only cooked but now she served as well, and when he thanked her, as he did every time she passed something to him, she would colour faintly. Once or twice her hand seemed to tremble, and he never looked at her but her questioning dark eyes were full upon him, and always she kept one hand busy pushing her thick hair back from her forehead. He had not asked her if it was her footprints he had seen coming down the mountain for fear that he might betray her, but apparently she had told on herself, for Bub, after a while, burst out suddenly:
"June, thar, thought you was a raider." The little girl flushed and the old man laughed.
"So'd you, pap," she said quietly.
"That's right," he said. "So'd anybody. I reckon you're the first man that ever come over hyeh jus' to go a-fishin'," and he laughed again. The stress on the last words showed that he believed no man had yet come just for that purpose, and Hale merely laughed with him. The old fellow gulped his food, pushed his chair back, and when Hale was through, he wasted no more time.
"Want to see that coal?"
"Yes, I do," said Hale.
"All right, I'll be ready in a minute."
The little girl followed Hale out on the porch and stood with her back against the railing.
"Did you catch it?" he asked. She nodded, unsmiling.
"I'm sorry. What were you doing up there?" She showed no surprise that he knew that she had been up there, and while she answered his question, he could see that she was thinking of something else.
"I'd heerd so much about what you furriners was a-doin' over thar."
"You must have heard about a place farther over—but it's coming over there, too, some day." And still she looked an unspoken question.
The fish that Hale had caught was lying where he had left it on the edge of the porch.
"That's for you, June," he said, pointing to it, and the name as he spoke it was sweet to his ears.
"I'm much obleeged," she said, shyly. "I'd 'a' cooked hit fer ye if I'd 'a' knowed you wasn't goin' to take hit home."
"That's the reason I didn't give it to you at first—I was afraid you'd do that. I wanted you to have it."
"Much obleeged," she said again, still unsmiling, and then she suddenly looked up at him—the deeps of her dark eyes troubled.
"Air ye ever comin' back agin, Jack?" Hale was not accustomed to the familiar form of address common in the mountains, independent of sex or age—and he would have been staggered had not her face been so serious. And then few women had ever called him by his first name, and this time his own name was good to his ears.
"Yes, June," he said soberly. "Not for some time, maybe—but I'm coming back again, sure." She smiled then with both lips and eyes—radiantly.
"I'll be lookin' fer ye," she said simply.
The old man went with him up the creek and, passing the milk house, turned up a brush-bordered little branch in which the engineer saw signs of coal. Up the creek the mountaineer led him some thirty yards above the water level and stopped. An entry had been driven through the rich earth and ten feet within was a shining bed of coal. There was no parting except two inches of mother-of-coal—midway, which would make it but easier to mine. Who had taught that old man to open coal in such a way—to make such a facing? It looked as though the old fellow were in some scheme with another to get him interested. As he drew closer, he saw radiations of some twelve inches, all over the face of the coal, star-shaped, and he almost gasped. It was not only cannel coal—it was "bird's-eye" cannel. Heavens, what a find! Instantly he was the cautious man of business, alert, cold, uncommunicative.
"That looks like a pretty good—" he drawled the last two words—"vein of coal. I'd like to take a sample over to the Gap and analyze it." His hammer, which he always carried—was in his saddle pockets, but he did not have to go down to his horse. There were pieces on the ground that would suit his purpose, left there, no doubt, by his predecessor.
"Now I reckon you know that I know why you came over hyeh."
Hale started to answer, but he saw it was no use.
"Yes—and I'm coming again—for the same reason."
"Shore—come agin and come often."
The little girl was standing on the porch as he rode past the milk house. He waved his hand to her, but she did not move nor answer. What a life for a child—for that keen-eyed, sweet-faced child! But that coal, cannel, rich as oil, above water, five feet in thickness, easy to mine, with a solid roof and perhaps self-drainage, if he could judge from the dip of the vein: and a market everywhere—England, Spain, Italy, Brazil. The coal, to be sure, might not be persistent—thirty yards within it might change in quality to ordinary bituminous coal, but he could settle that only with a steam drill. A steam drill! He would as well ask for the wagon that he had long ago hitched to a star; and then there might be a fault in the formation. But why bother now? The coal would stay there, and now he had other plans that made even that find insignificant. And yet if he bought that coal now—what a bargain! It was not that the ideals of his college days were tarnished, but he was a man of business now, and if he would take the old man's land for a song—it was because others of his kind would do the same! But why bother, he asked himself again, when his brain was in a ferment with a colossal scheme that would make dizzy the magnates who would some day drive their roadways of steel into those wild hills. So he shook himself free of the question, which passed from his mind only with a transient wonder as to who it was that had told of him to the old mountaineer, and had so paved his way for an investigation—and then he wheeled suddenly in his saddle. The bushes had rustled gently behind him and out from them stepped an extraordinary human shape—wearing a coon-skin cap, belted with two rows of big cartridges, carrying a big Winchester over one shoulder and a circular tube of brass in his left hand. With his right leg straight, his left thigh drawn into the hollow of his saddle and his left hand on the rump of his horse, Hale simply stared, his eyes dropping by and by from the pale-blue eyes and stubbly red beard of the stranger, down past the cartridge-belts to the man's feet, on which were moccasins—with the heels forward! Into what sort of a world had he dropped!
"So nary a soul can tell which way I'm going," said the red-haired stranger, with a grin that loosed a hollow chuckle far behind it.
"Would you mind telling me what difference it can make to me which way you are going?" Every moment he was expecting the stranger to ask his name, but again that chuckle came.
"It makes a mighty sight o' difference to some folks."
"But none to me."
"I hain't wearin' 'em fer you. I know YOU."
"Oh, you do." The stranger suddenly lowered his Winchester and turned his face, with his ear cocked like an animal. There was some noise on the spur above.
"Nothin' but a hickory nut," said the chuckle again. But Hale had been studying that strange face. One side of it was calm, kindly, philosophic, benevolent; but, when the other was turned, a curious twitch of the muscles at the left side of the mouth showed the teeth and made a snarl there that was wolfish.
"Yes, and I know you," he said slowly. Self-satisfaction, straightway, was ardent in the face.
"I knowed you would git to know me in time, if you didn't now."
This was the Red Fox of the mountains, of whom he had heard so much—"yarb" doctor and Swedenborgian preacher; revenue officer and, some said, cold-blooded murderer. He would walk twenty miles to preach, or would start at any hour of the day or night to minister to the sick, and would charge for neither service. At other hours he would be searching for moonshine stills, or watching his enemies in the valley from some mountain top, with that huge spy-glass—Hale could see now that the brass tube was a telescope—that he might slip down and unawares take a pot-shot at them. The Red Fox communicated with spirits, had visions and superhuman powers of locomotion—stepping mysteriously from the bushes, people said, to walk at the traveller's side and as mysteriously disappearing into them again, to be heard of in a few hours an incredible distance away.
"I've been watchin' ye from up thar," he said with a wave of his hand. "I seed ye go up the creek, and then the bushes hid ye. I know what you was after—but did you see any signs up thar of anything you wasn't looking fer?"
"Well, I've been in these mountains long enough not to tell you, if I had."
The Red Fox chuckled.
"I wasn't sure you had—" Hale coughed and spat to the other side of his horse. When he looked around, the Red Fox was gone, and he had heard no sound of his going.
"Well, I be—" Hale clucked to his horse and as he climbed the last steep and drew near the Big Pine he again heard a noise out in the woods and he knew this time it was the fall of a human foot and not of a hickory nut. He was right, and, as he rode by the Pine, saw again at its base the print of the little girl's foot—wondering afresh at the reason that led her up there—and dropped down through the afternoon shadows towards the smoke and steam and bustle and greed of the Twentieth Century. A long, lean, black-eyed boy, with a wave of black hair over his forehead, was pushing his horse the other way along the Big Black and dropping down through the dusk into the Middle Ages—both all but touching on either side the outstretched hands of the wild little creature left in the shadows of Lonesome Cove.
Past the Big Pine, swerving with a smile his horse aside that he might not obliterate the foot-print in the black earth, and down the mountain, his brain busy with his big purpose, went John Hale, by instinct, inheritance, blood and tradition—pioneer.
One of his forefathers had been with Washington on the Father's first historic expedition into the wilds of Virginia. His great-grandfather had accompanied Boone when that hunter first penetrated the "Dark and Bloody Ground," had gone back to Virginia and come again with a surveyor's chain and compass to help wrest it from the red men, among whom there had been an immemorial conflict for possession and a never-recognized claim of ownership. That compass and that chain his grandfather had fallen heir to and with that compass and chain his father had earned his livelihood amid the wrecks of the Civil War. Hale went to the old Transylvania University at Lexington, the first seat of learning planted beyond the Alleghanies. He was fond of history, of the sciences and literature, was unusually adept in Latin and Greek, and had a passion for mathematics. He was graduated with honours, he taught two years and got his degree of Master of Arts, but the pioneer spirit in his blood would still out, and his polite learning he then threw to the winds.
Other young Kentuckians had gone West in shoals, but he kept his eye on his own State, and one autumn he added a pick to the old compass and the ancestral chain, struck the Old Wilderness Trail that his grandfather had travelled, to look for his own fortune in a land which that old gentleman had passed over as worthless. At the Cumberland River he took a canoe and drifted down the river into the wild coal-swollen hills. Through the winter he froze, starved and prospected, and a year later he was opening up a region that became famous after his trust and inexperience had let others worm out of him an interest that would have made him easy for life.
With the vision of a seer, he was as innocent as Boone. Stripped clean, he got out his map, such geological reports as he could find and went into a studious trance for a month, emerging mentally with the freshness of a snake that has shed its skin. What had happened in Pennsylvania must happen all along the great Alleghany chain in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee. Some day the avalanche must sweep south, it must—it must. That he might be a quarter of a century too soon in his calculations never crossed his mind. Some day it must come.
Now there was not an ounce of coal immediately south-east of the Cumberland Mountains—not an ounce of iron ore immediately north-east; all the coal lay to the north-east; all of the iron ore to the south-east. So said Geology. For three hundred miles there were only four gaps through that mighty mountain chain—three at water level, and one at historic Cumberland Gap which was not at water level and would have to be tunnelled. So said Geography.
All railroads, to east and to west, would have to pass through those gaps; through them the coal must be brought to the iron ore, or the ore to the coal. Through three gaps water flowed between ore and coal and the very hills between were limestone. Was there any such juxtaposition of the four raw materials for the making of iron in the known world? When he got that far in his logic, the sweat broke from his brows; he felt dizzy and he got up and walked into the open air. As the vastness and certainty of the scheme—what fool could not see it?—rushed through him full force, he could scarcely get his breath. There must be a town in one of those gaps—but in which? No matter—he would buy all of them—all of them, he repeated over and over again; for some day there must be a town in one, and some day a town in all, and from all he would reap his harvest. He optioned those four gaps at a low purchase price that was absurd. He went back to the Bluegrass; he went to New York; in some way he managed to get to England. It had never crossed his mind that other eyes could not see what he so clearly saw and yet everywhere he was pronounced crazy. He failed and his options ran out, but he was undaunted. He picked his choice of the four gaps and gave up the other three. This favourite gap he had just finished optioning again, and now again he meant to keep at his old quest. That gap he was entering now from the north side and the North Fork of the river was hurrying to enter too. On his left was a great gray rock, projecting edgewise, covered with laurel and rhododendron, and under it was the first big pool from which the stream poured faster still. There had been a terrible convulsion in that gap when the earth was young; the strata had been tossed upright and planted almost vertical for all time, and, a little farther, one mighty ledge, moss-grown, bush-covered, sentinelled with grim pines, their bases unseen, seemed to be making a heavy flight toward the clouds.
Big bowlders began to pop up in the river-bed and against them the water dashed and whirled and eddied backward in deep pools, while above him the song of a cataract dropped down a tree-choked ravine. Just there the drop came, and for a long space he could see the river lashing rock and cliff with increasing fury as though it were seeking shelter from some relentless pursuer in the dark thicket where it disappeared. Straight in front of him another ledge lifted itself. Beyond that loomed a mountain which stopped in mid-air and dropped sheer to the eye. Its crown was bare and Hale knew that up there was a mountain farm, the refuge of a man who had been involved in that terrible feud beyond Black Mountain behind him. Five minutes later he was at the yawning mouth of the gap and there lay before him a beautiful valley shut in tightly, for all the eye could see, with mighty hills. It was the heaven-born site for the unborn city of his dreams, and his eyes swept every curve of the valley lovingly. The two forks of the river ran around it—he could follow their course by the trees that lined the banks of each—curving within a stone's throw of each other across the valley and then looping away as from the neck of an ancient lute and, like its framework, coming together again down the valley, where they surged together, slipped through the hills and sped on with the song of a sweeping river. Up that river could come the track of commerce, out the South Fork, too, it could go, though it had to turn eastward: back through that gap it could be traced north and west; and so none could come as heralds into those hills but their footprints could be traced through that wild, rocky, water-worn chasm. Hale drew breath and raised in his stirrups.
"It's a cinch," he said aloud. "It's a shame to take the money."
Yet nothing was in sight now but a valley farmhouse above the ford where he must cross the river and one log cabin on the hill beyond. Still on the other river was the only woollen mill in miles around; farther up was the only grist mill, and near by was the only store, the only blacksmith shop and the only hotel. That much of a start the gap had had for three-quarters of a century—only from the south now a railroad was already coming; from the east another was travelling like a wounded snake and from the north still another creeped to meet them. Every road must run through the gap and several had already run through it lines of survey. The coal was at one end of the gap, and the iron ore at the other, the cliffs between were limestone, and the other elements to make it the iron centre of the world flowed through it like a torrent.
"Selah! It's a shame to take the money."
He splashed into the creek and his big black horse thrust his nose into the clear running water. Minnows were playing about him. A hog-fish flew for shelter under a rock, and below the ripples a two-pound bass shot like an arrow into deep water.
Above and below him the stream was arched with beech, poplar and water maple, and the banks were thick with laurel and rhododendron. His eye had never rested on a lovelier stream, and on the other side of the town site, which nature had kindly lifted twenty feet above the water level, the other fork was of equal clearness, swiftness and beauty.
"Such a drainage," murmured his engineering instinct. "Such a drainage!" It was Saturday. Even if he had forgotten he would have known that it must be Saturday when he climbed the bank on the other side. Many horses were hitched under the trees, and here and there was a farm-wagon with fragments of paper, bits of food and an empty bottle or two lying around. It was the hour when the alcoholic spirits of the day were usually most high. Evidently they were running quite high that day and something distinctly was going on "up town." A few yells—the high, clear, penetrating yell of a fox-hunter—rent the air, a chorus of pistol shots rang out, and the thunder of horses' hoofs started beyond the little slope he was climbing. When he reached the top, a merry youth, with a red, hatless head was splitting the dirt road toward him, his reins in his teeth, and a pistol in each hand, which he was letting off alternately into the inoffensive earth and toward the unrebuking heavens—that seemed a favourite way in those mountains of defying God and the devil—and behind him galloped a dozen horsemen to the music of throat, pistol and iron hoof.
The fiery-headed youth's horse swerved and shot by. Hale hardly knew that the rider even saw him, but the coming ones saw him afar and they seemed to be charging him in close array. Hale stopped his horse a little to the right of the centre of the road, and being equally helpless against an inherited passion for maintaining his own rights and a similar disinclination to get out of anybody's way—he sat motionless. Two of the coming horsemen, side by side, were a little in advance.
"Git out o' the road!" they yelled. Had he made the motion of an arm, they might have ridden or shot him down, but the simple quietness of him as he sat with hands crossed on the pommel of his saddle, face calm and set, eyes unwavering and fearless, had the effect that nothing else he could have done would have brought about—and they swerved on either side of him, while the rest swerved, too, like sheep, one stirrup brushing his, as they swept by. Hale rode slowly on. He could hear the mountaineers yelling on top of the hill, but he did not look back. Several bullets sang over his head. Most likely they were simply "bantering" him, but no matter—he rode on.
The blacksmith, the storekeeper and one passing drummer were coming in from the woods when he reached the hotel.
"A gang o' those Falins," said the storekeeper, "they come over lookin' for young Dave Tolliver. They didn't find him, so they thought they'd have some fun"; and he pointed to the hotel sign which was punctuated with pistol-bullet periods. Hale's eyes flashed once but he said nothing. He turned his horse over to a stable boy and went across to the little frame cottage that served as office and home for him. While he sat on the veranda that almost hung over the mill-pond of the other stream three of the Falins came riding back. One of them had left something at the hotel, and while he was gone in for it, another put a bullet through the sign, and seeing Hale rode over to him. Hale's blue eye looked anything than friendly.
"Don't ye like it?" asked the horseman.
"I do not," said Hale calmly. The horseman seemed amused.
"Well, whut you goin' to do about it?"
"Nothing—at least not now."
"All right—whenever you git ready. You ain't ready now?"
"No," said Hale, "not now." The fellow laughed.
"Hit's a damned good thing for you that you ain't."
Hale looked long after the three as they galloped down the road. "When I start to build this town," he thought gravely and without humour, "I'll put a stop to all that."
On a spur of Black Mountain, beyond the Kentucky line, a lean horse was tied to a sassafras bush, and in a clump of rhododendron ten yards away, a lean black-haired boy sat with a Winchester between his stomach and thighs—waiting for the dusk to drop. His chin was in both hands, the brim of his slouch hat was curved crescent-wise over his forehead, and his eyes were on the sweeping bend of the river below him. That was the "Bad Bend" down there, peopled with ancestral enemies and the head-quarters of their leader for the last ten years. Though they had been at peace for some time now, it had been Saturday in the county town ten miles down the river as well, and nobody ever knew what a Saturday might bring forth between his people and them. So he would not risk riding through that bend by the light of day.
All the long way up spur after spur and along ridge after ridge, all along the still, tree-crested top of the Big Black, he had been thinking of the man—the "furriner" whom he had seen at his uncle's cabin in Lonesome Cove. He was thinking of him still, as he sat there waiting for darkness to come, and the two vertical little lines in his forehead, that had hardly relaxed once during his climb, got deeper and deeper, as his brain puzzled into the problem that was worrying it: who the stranger was, what his business was over in the Cove and his business with the Red Fox with whom the boy had seen him talking.
He had heard of the coming of the "furriners" on the Virginia side. He had seen some of them, he was suspicious of all of them, he disliked them all—but this man he hated straightway. He hated his boots and his clothes; the way he sat and talked, as though he owned the earth, and the lad snorted contemptuously under his breath:
"He called pants 'trousers.'" It was a fearful indictment, and he snorted again: "Trousers!"
The "furriner" might be a spy or a revenue officer, but deep down in the boy's heart the suspicion had been working that he had gone over there to see his little cousin—the girl whom, boy that he was, he had marked, when she was even more of a child than she was now, for his own. His people understood it as did her father, and, child though she was, she, too, understood it. The difference between her and the "furriner"—difference in age, condition, way of life, education—meant nothing to him, and as his suspicion deepened, his hands dropped and gripped his Winchester, and through his gritting teeth came vaguely:
"By God, if he does—if he just does!"
Away down at the lower end of the river's curving sweep, the dirt road was visible for a hundred yards or more, and even while he was cursing to himself, a group of horsemen rode into sight. All seemed to be carrying something across their saddle bows, and as the boy's eyes caught them, he sank sidewise out of sight and stood upright, peering through a bush of rhododendron. Something had happened in town that day—for the horsemen carried Winchesters, and every foreign thought in his brain passed like breath from a window pane, while his dark, thin face whitened a little with anxiety and wonder. Swiftly he stepped backward, keeping the bushes between him and his far-away enemies. Another knot he gave the reins around the sassafras bush and then, Winchester in hand, he dropped noiseless as an Indian, from rock to rock, tree to tree, down the sheer spur on the other side. Twenty minutes later, he lay behind a bush that was sheltered by the top boulder of the rocky point under which the road ran. His enemies were in their own country; they would probably be talking over the happenings in town that day, and from them he would learn what was going on.
So long he lay that he got tired and out of patience, and he was about to creep around the boulder, when the clink of a horseshoe against a stone told him they were coming, and he flattened to the earth and closed his eyes that his ears might be more keen. The Falins were riding silently, but as the first two passed under him, one said:
"I'd like to know who the hell warned 'em!"
"Whar's the Red Fox?" was the significant answer.
The boy's heart leaped. There had been deviltry abroad, but his kinsmen had escaped. No one uttered a word as they rode two by two, under him, but one voice came back to him as they turned the point.
"I wonder if the other boys ketched young Dave?" He could not catch the answer to that—only the oath that was in it, and when the sound of the horses' hoofs died away, he turned over on his back and stared up at the sky. Some trouble had come and through his own caution, and the mercy of Providence that had kept him away from the Gap, he had had his escape from death that day. He would tempt that Providence no more, even by climbing back to his horse in the waning light, and it was not until dusk had fallen that he was leading the beast down the spur and into a ravine that sank to the road. There he waited an hour, and when another horseman passed he still waited a while. Cautiously then, with ears alert, eyes straining through the darkness and Winchester ready, he went down the road at a slow walk. There was a light in the first house, but the front door was closed and the road was deep with sand, as he knew; so he passed noiselessly. At the second house, light streamed through the open door; he could hear talking on the porch and he halted. He could neither cross the river nor get around the house by the rear—the ridge was too steep—so he drew off into the bushes, where he had to wait another hour before the talking ceased. There was only one more house now between him and the mouth of the creek, where he would be safe, and he made up his mind to dash by it. That house, too, was lighted and the sound of fiddling struck his ears. He would give them a surprise; so he gathered his reins and Winchester in his left hand, drew his revolver with his right, and within thirty yards started his horse into a run, yelling like an Indian and firing his pistol in the air. As he swept by, two or three figures dashed pell-mell indoors, and he shouted derisively:
"Run, damn ye, run!" They were running for their guns, he knew, but the taunt would hurt and he was pleased. As he swept by the edge of a cornfield, there was a flash of light from the base of a cliff straight across, and a bullet sang over him, then another and another, but he sped on, cursing and yelling and shooting his own Winchester up in the air—all harmless, useless, but just to hurl defiance and taunt them with his safety. His father's house was not far away, there was no sound of pursuit, and when he reached the river he drew down to a walk and stopped short in a shadow. Something had clicked in the bushes above him and he bent over his saddle and lay close to his horse's neck. The moon was rising behind him and its light was creeping toward him through the bushes. In a moment he would be full in its yellow light, and he was slipping from his horse to dart aside into the bushes, when a voice ahead of him called sharply:
"That you, Dave?"
It was his father, and the boy's answer was a loud laugh. Several men stepped from the bushes—they had heard firing and, fearing that young Dave was the cause of it, they had run to his help.
"What the hell you mean, boy, kickin' up such a racket?"
"Oh, I knowed somethin'd happened an' I wanted to skeer 'em a leetle."
"Yes, an' you never thought o' the trouble you might be causin' us."
"Don't you bother about me. I can take keer o' myself."
Old Dave Tolliver grunted—though at heart he was deeply pleased.
"Well, you come on home!"
All went silently—the boy getting meagre monosyllabic answers to his eager questions but, by the time they reached home, he had gathered the story of what had happened in town that day. There were more men in the porch of the house and all were armed. The women of the house moved about noiselessly and with drawn faces. There were no lights lit, and nobody stood long even in the light of the fire where he could be seen through a window; and doors were opened and passed through quickly. The Falins had opened the feud that day, for the boy's foster-uncle, Bad Rufe Tolliver, contrary to the terms of the last truce, had come home from the West, and one of his kinsmen had been wounded. The boy told what he had heard while he lay over the road along which some of his enemies had passed and his father nodded. The Falins had learned in some way that the lad was going to the Gap that day and had sent men after him. Who was the spy?
"You TOLD me you was a-goin' to the Gap," said old Dave. "Whar was ye?"
"I didn't git that far," said the boy.
The old man and Loretta, young Dave's sister, laughed, and quiet smiles passed between the others.
"Well, you'd better be keerful 'bout gittin' even as far as you did git—wharever that was—from now on."
"I ain't afeered," the boy said sullenly, and he turned into the kitchen. Still sullen, he ate his supper in silence and his mother asked him no questions. He was worried that Bad Rufe had come back to the mountains, for Rufe was always teasing June and there was something in his bold, black eyes that made the lad furious, even when the foster-uncle was looking at Loretta or the little girl in Lonesome Cove. And yet that was nothing to his new trouble, for his mind hung persistently to the stranger and to the way June had behaved in the cabin in Lonesome Cove. Before he went to bed, he slipped out to the old well behind the house and sat on the water-trough in gloomy unrest, looking now and then at the stars that hung over the Cove and over the Gap beyond, where the stranger was bound. It would have pleased him a good deal could he have known that the stranger was pushing his big black horse on his way, under those stars, toward the outer world.
It was court day at the county seat across the Kentucky line. Hale had risen early, as everyone must if he would get his breakfast in the mountains, even in the hotels in the county seats, and he sat with his feet on the railing of the hotel porch which fronted the main street of the town. He had had his heart-breaking failures since the autumn before, but he was in good cheer now, for his feverish enthusiasm had at last clutched a man who would take up not only his options on the great Gap beyond Black Mountain but on the cannel-coal lands of Devil Judd Tolliver as well. He was riding across from the Bluegrass to meet this man at the railroad in Virginia, nearly two hundred miles away; he had stopped to examine some titles at the county seat and he meant to go on that day by way of Lonesome Cove. Opposite was the brick Court House—every window lacking at least one pane, the steps yellow with dirt and tobacco juice, the doorway and the bricks about the upper windows bullet-dented and eloquent with memories of the feud which had long embroiled the whole county. Not that everybody took part in it but, on the matter, everybody, as an old woman told him, "had feelin's." It had begun, so he learned, just after the war. Two boys were playing marbles in the road along the Cumberland River, and one had a patch on the seat of his trousers. The other boy made fun of it and the boy with the patch went home and told his father. As a result there had already been thirty years of local war. In the last race for legislature, political issues were submerged and the feud was the sole issue. And a Tolliver had carried that boy's trouser-patch like a flag to victory and was sitting in the lower House at that time helping to make laws for the rest of the State. Now Bad Rufe Tolliver was in the hills again and the end was not yet. Already people were pouring in, men, women and children—the men slouch-hatted and stalking through the mud in the rain, or filing in on horseback—riding double sometimes—two men or two women, or a man with his wife or daughter behind him, or a woman with a baby in her lap and two more children behind—all dressed in homespun or store-clothes, and the paint from artificial flowers on her hat streaking the face of every girl who had unwisely scanned the heavens that morning. Soon the square was filled with hitched horses, and an auctioneer was bidding off cattle, sheep, hogs and horses to the crowd of mountaineers about him, while the women sold eggs and butter and bought things for use at home. Now and then, an open feudsman with a Winchester passed and many a man was belted with cartridges for the big pistol dangling at his hip. When court opened, the rain ceased, the sun came out and Hale made his way through the crowd to the battered temple of justice. On one corner of the square he could see the chief store of the town marked "Buck Falin—General Merchandise," and the big man in the door with the bushy redhead, he guessed, was the leader of the Falin clan. Outside the door stood a smaller replica of the same figure, whom he recognized as the leader of the band that had nearly ridden him down at the Gap when they were looking for young Dave Tolliver, the autumn before. That, doubtless, was young Buck. For a moment he stood at the door of the court-room. A Falin was on trial and the grizzled judge was speaking angrily:
"This is the third time you've had this trial postponed because you hain't got no lawyer. I ain't goin' to put it off. Have you got you a lawyer now?"
"Yes, jedge," said the defendant.
"Well, whar is he?"
"Over thar on the jury."
The judge looked at the man on the jury.
"Well, I reckon you better leave him whar he is. He'll do you more good thar than any whar else."
Hale laughed aloud—the judge glared at him and he turned quickly upstairs to his work in the deed-room. Till noon he worked and yet there was no trouble. After dinner he went back and in two hours his work was done. An atmospheric difference he felt as soon as he reached the door. The crowd had melted from the square. There were no women in sight, but eight armed men were in front of the door and two of them, a red Falin and a black Tolliver—Bad Rufe it was—were quarrelling. In every doorway stood a man cautiously looking on, and in a hotel window he saw a woman's frightened face. It was so still that it seemed impossible that a tragedy could be imminent, and yet, while he was trying to take the conditions in, one of the quarrelling men—Bad Rufe Tolliver—whipped out his revolver and before he could level it, a Falin struck the muzzle of a pistol into his back. Another Tolliver flashed his weapon on the Falin. This Tolliver was covered by another Falin and in so many flashes of lightning the eight men in front of him were covering each other—every man afraid to be the first to shoot, since he knew that the flash of his own pistol meant instantaneous death for him. As Hale shrank back, he pushed against somebody who thrust him aside. It was the judge:
"Why don't somebody shoot?" he asked sarcastically. "You're a purty set o' fools, ain't you? I want you all to stop this damned foolishness. Now when I give the word I want you, Jim Falin and Rufe Tolliver thar, to drap yer guns."
Already Rufe was grinning like a devil over the absurdity of the situation.
"Now!" said the judge, and the two guns were dropped.
"Put 'em in yo' pockets."
"Drap!" All dropped and, with those two, all put up their guns—each man, however, watching now the man who had just been covering him. It is not wise for the stranger to show too much interest in the personal affairs of mountain men, and Hale left the judge berating them and went to the hotel to get ready for the Gap, little dreaming how fixed the faces of some of those men were in his brain and how, later, they were to rise in his memory again. His horse was lame—but he must go on: so he hired a "yaller" mule from the landlord, and when the beast was brought around, he overheard two men talking at the end of the porch.
"You don't mean to say they've made peace?"
"Yes, Rufe's going away agin and they shuk hands—all of 'em." The other laughed.
"Rufe ain't gone yit!"
The Cumberland River was rain-swollen. The home-going people were helping each other across it and, as Hale approached the ford of a creek half a mile beyond the river, a black-haired girl was standing on a boulder looking helplessly at the yellow water, and two boys were on the ground below her. One of them looked up at Hale:
"I wish ye'd help this lady 'cross."
"Certainly," said Hale, and the girl giggled when he laboriously turned his old mule up to the boulder. Not accustomed to have ladies ride behind him, Hale had turned the wrong side. Again he laboriously wheeled about and then into the yellow torrent he went with the girl behind him, the old beast stumbling over the stones, whereat the girl, unafraid, made sounds of much merriment. Across, Hale stopped and said courteously:
"If you are going up this way, you are quite welcome to ride on."
"Well, I wasn't crossin' that crick jes' exactly fer fun," said the girl demurely, and then she murmured something about her cousins and looked back. They had gone down to a shallower ford, and when they, too, had waded across, they said nothing and the girl said nothing—so Hale started on, the two boys following. The mule was slow and, being in a hurry, Hale urged him with his whip. Every time he struck, the beast would kick up and once the girl came near going off.
"You must watch out, when I hit him," said Hale.
"I don't know when you're goin' to hit him," she drawled unconcernedly.
"Well, I'll let you know," said Hale laughing. "Now!" And, as he whacked the beast again, the girl laughed and they were better acquainted. Presently they passed two boys. Hale was wearing riding-boots and tight breeches, and one of the boys ran his eyes up boot and leg and if they were lifted higher, Hale could not tell.
"Whar'd you git him?" he squeaked.
The girl turned her head as the mule broke into a trot.
"Ain't got time to tell. They are my cousins," explained the girl.
"What is your name?" asked Hale.
"Loretty Tolliver." Hale turned in his saddle.
"Are you the daughter of Dave Tolliver?"
"Then you've got a brother named Dave?"
"Yes." This, then, was the sister of the black-haired boy he had seen in the Lonesome Cove.
"Haven't you got some kinfolks over the mountain?"
"Yes, I got an uncle livin' over thar. Devil Judd, folks calls him," said the girl simply. This girl was cousin to little June in Lonesome Cove. Every now and then she would look behind them, and when Hale turned again inquiringly she explained:
"I'm worried about my cousins back thar. I'm afeered somethin' mought happen to 'em."
"Shall we wait for them?"
"Oh, no—I reckon not."
Soon they overtook two men on horseback, and after they passed and were fifty yards ahead of them, one of the men lifted his voice jestingly:
"Is that your woman, stranger, or have you just borrowed her?" Hale shouted back:
"No, I'm sorry to say, I've just borrowed her," and he turned to see how she would take this answering pleasantry. She was looking down shyly and she did not seem much pleased.
"They are kinfolks o' mine, too," she said, and whether it was in explanation or as a rebuke, Hale could not determine.
"You must be kin to everybody around here?"
"Most everybody," she said simply.
By and by they came to a creek.
"I have to turn up here," said Hale.
"So do I," she said, smiling now directly at him.
"Good!" he said, and they went on—Hale asking more questions. She was going to school at the county seat the coming winter and she was fifteen years old.
"That's right. The trouble in the mountains is that you girls marry so early that you don't have time to get an education." She wasn't going to marry early, she said, but Hale learned now that she had a sweetheart who had been in town that day and apparently the two had had a quarrel. Who it was, she would not tell, and Hale would have been amazed had he known the sweetheart was none other than young Buck Falin and that the quarrel between the lovers had sprung from the opening quarrel that day between the clans. Once again she came near going off the mule, and Hale observed that she was holding to the cantel of his saddle.
"Look here," he said suddenly, "hadn't you better catch hold of me?" She shook her head vigorously and made two not-to-be-rendered sounds that meant:
"Well, if this were your sweetheart you'd take hold of him, wouldn't you?"
Again she gave a vigorous shake of the head.
"Well, if he saw you riding behind me, he wouldn't like it, would he?"
"She didn't keer," she said, but Hale did; and when he heard the galloping of horses behind him, saw two men coming, and heard one of them shouting—"Hyeh, you man on that yaller mule, stop thar"—he shifted his revolver, pulled in and waited with some uneasiness. They came up, reeling in their saddles—neither one the girl's sweetheart, as he saw at once from her face—and began to ask what the girl characterized afterward as "unnecessary questions": who he was, who she was, and where they were going. Hale answered so shortly that the girl thought there was going to be a fight, and she was on the point of slipping from the mule.
"Sit still," said Hale, quietly. "There's not going to be a fight so long as you are here."
"Thar hain't!" said one of the men. "Well"—then he looked sharply at the girl and turned his horse—"Come on, Bill—that's ole Dave Tolliver's gal." The girl's face was on fire.
"Them mean Falins!" she said contemptuously, and somehow the mere fact that Hale had been even for the moment antagonistic to the other faction seemed to put him in the girl's mind at once on her side, and straightway she talked freely of the feud. Devil Judd had taken no active part in it for a long time, she said, except to keep it down—especially since he and her father had had a "fallin' out" and the two families did not visit much—though she and her cousin June sometimes spent the night with each other.
"You won't be able to git over thar till long atter dark," she said, and she caught her breath so suddenly and so sharply that Hale turned to see what the matter was. She searched his face with her black eyes, which were like June's without the depths of June's.
"I was just a-wonderin' if mebbe you wasn't the same feller that was over in Lonesome last fall."
"Maybe I am—my name's Hale." The girl laughed. "Well, if this ain't the beatenest! I've heerd June talk about you. My brother Dave don't like you overmuch," she added frankly. "I reckon we'll see Dave purty soon. If this ain't the beatenest!" she repeated, and she laughed again, as she always did laugh, it seemed to Hale, when there was any prospect of getting him into trouble.
"You can't git over thar till long atter dark," she said again presently.
"Is there any place on the way where I can get to stay all night?"
"You can stay all night with the Red Fox on top of the mountain."
"The Red Fox," repeated Hale.
"Yes, he lives right on top of the mountain. You can't miss his house."
"Oh, yes, I remember him. I saw him talking to one of the Falins in town to-day, behind the barn, when I went to get my horse."
"You—seed—him—a-talkin'—to a Falin AFORE the trouble come up?" the girl asked slowly and with such significance that Hale turned to look at her. He felt straightway that he ought not to have said that, and the day was to come when he would remember it to his cost. He knew how foolish it was for the stranger to show sympathy with, or interest in, one faction or another in a mountain feud, but to give any kind of information of one to the other—that was unwise indeed. Ahead of them now, a little stream ran from a ravine across the road. Beyond was a cabin; in the doorway were several faces, and sitting on a horse at the gate was young Dave Tolliver.
"Well, I git down here," said the girl, and before his mule stopped she slid from behind him and made for the gate without a word of thanks or good-by.
"Howdye!" said Hale, taking in the group with his glance, but leaving his eyes on young Dave. The rest nodded, but the boy was too surprised for speech, and the spirit of deviltry took the girl when she saw her brother's face, and at the gate she turned:
"Much obleeged," she said. "Tell June I'm a-comin' over to see her next Sunday."
"I will," said Hale, and he rode on. To his surprise, when he had gone a hundred yards, he heard the boy spurring after him and he looked around inquiringly as young Dave drew alongside; but the boy said nothing and Hale, amused, kept still, wondering when the lad would open speech. At the mouth of another little creek the boy stopped his horse as though he was to turn up that way. "You've come back agin," he said, searching Hale's face with his black eyes.
"Yes," said Hale, "I've come back again."
"You goin' over to Lonesome Cove?"
The boy hesitated, and a sudden change of mind was plain to Hale in his face. "I wish you'd tell Uncle Judd about the trouble in town to-day," he said, still looking fixedly at Hale.
"Did you tell the Red Fox that day you seed him when you was goin' over to the Gap last fall that you seed me at Uncle Judd's?"
"No," said Hale. "But how did you know that I saw the Red Fox that day?" The boy laughed unpleasantly.
"So long," he said. "See you agin some day." The way was steep and the sun was down and darkness gathering before Hale reached the top of the mountain—so he hallooed at the yard fence of the Red Fox, who peered cautiously out of the door and asked his name before he came to the gate. And there, with a grin on his curious mismatched face, he repeated young Dave's words:
"You've come back agin." And Hale repeated his:
"Yes, I've come back again."
"You goin' over to Lonesome Cove?"
"Yes," said Hale impatiently, "I'm going over to Lonesome Cove. Can I stay here all night?"
"Shore!" said the old man hospitably. "That's a fine hoss you got thar," he added with a chuckle. "Been swappin'?" Hale had to laugh as he climbed down from the bony ear-flopping beast.
"I left my horse in town—he's lame."
"Yes, I seed you thar." Hale could not resist: "Yes, and I seed you." The old man almost turned.
"Whar?" Again the temptation was too great.
"Talking to the Falin who started the row." This time the Red Fox wheeled sharply and his pale-blue eyes filled with suspicion.
"I keeps friends with both sides," he said. "Ain't many folks can do that."
"I reckon not," said Hale calmly, but in the pale eyes he still saw suspicion.
When they entered the cabin, a little old woman in black, dumb and noiseless, was cooking supper. The children of the two, he learned, had scattered, and they lived there alone. On the mantel were two pistols and in one corner was the big Winchester he remembered and behind it was the big brass telescope. On the table was a Bible and a volume of Swedenborg, and among the usual strings of pepper-pods and beans and twisted long green tobacco were drying herbs and roots of all kinds, and about the fireplace were bottles of liquids that had been stewed from them. The little old woman served, and opened her lips not at all. Supper was eaten with no further reference to the doings in town that day, and no word was said about their meeting when Hale first went to Lonesome Cove until they were smoking on the porch.
"I heerd you found some mighty fine coal over in Lonesome Cove."
"Young Dave Tolliver thinks you found somethin' else thar, too," chuckled the Red Fox.
"I did," said Hale coolly, and the old man chuckled again.
"She's a purty leetle gal—shore."
"Who is?" asked Hale, looking calmly at his questioner, and the Red Fox lapsed into baffled silence.
The moon was brilliant and the night was still. Suddenly the Red Fox cocked his ear like a hound, and without a word slipped swiftly within the cabin. A moment later Hale heard the galloping of a horse and from out the dark woods loped a horseman with a Winchester across his saddle bow. He pulled in at the gate, but before he could shout "Hello" the Red Fox had stepped from the porch into the moonlight and was going to meet him. Hale had never seen a more easy, graceful, daring figure on horseback, and in the bright light he could make out the reckless face of the man who had been the first to flash his pistol in town that day—Bad Rufe Tolliver. For ten minutes the two talked in whispers—Rufe bent forward with one elbow on the withers of his horse but lifting his eyes every now and then to the stranger seated in the porch—and then the horseman turned with an oath and galloped into the darkness whence he came, while the Red Fox slouched back to the porch and dropped silently into his seat.
"Who was that?" asked Hale.
"Bad Rufe Tolliver."
"I've heard of him."
"Most everybody in these mountains has. He's the feller that's always causin' trouble. Him and Joe Falin agreed to go West last fall to end the war. Joe was killed out thar, and now Rufe claims Joe don't count now an' he's got the right to come back. Soon's he comes back, things git frolicksome agin. He swore he wouldn't go back unless another Falin goes too. Wirt Falin agreed, and that's how they made peace to-day. Now Rufe says he won't go at all—truce or no truce. My wife in thar is a Tolliver, but both sides comes to me and I keeps peace with both of 'em."
No doubt he did, Hale thought, keep peace or mischief with or against anybody with that face of his. That was a common type of the bad man, that horseman who had galloped away from the gate—but this old man with his dual face, who preached the Word on Sundays and on other days was a walking arsenal; who dreamed dreams and had visions and slipped through the hills in his mysterious moccasins on errands of mercy or chasing men from vanity, personal enmity or for fun, and still appeared so sane—he was a type that confounded. No wonder for these reasons and as a tribute to his infernal shrewdness he was known far and wide as the Red Fox of the Mountains. But Hale was too tired for further speculation and presently he yawned.
"Want to lay down?" asked the old man quickly.
"I think I do," said Hale, and they went inside. The little old woman had her face to the wall in a bed in one corner and the Red Fox pointed to a bed in the other:
"Thar's yo' bed." Again Hale's eyes fell on the big Winchester.
"I reckon thar hain't more'n two others like it in all these mountains."
"What's the calibre?"
"Biggest made," was the answer, "a 50 x 75."
"Rim," said the Red Fox.
"Gracious," laughed Hale, "what do you want such a big one for?"
"Man cannot live by bread alone—in these mountains," said the Red Fox grimly.
When Hale lay down he could hear the old man quavering out a hymn or two on the porch outside: and when, worn out with the day, he went to sleep, the Red Fox was reading his Bible by the light of a tallow dip. It is fatefully strange when people, whose lives tragically intersect, look back to their first meetings with one another, and Hale never forgot that night in the cabin of the Red Fox. For had Bad Rufe Tolliver, while he whispered at the gate, known the part the quiet young man silently seated in the porch would play in his life, he would have shot him where he sat: and could the Red Fox have known the part his sleeping guest was to play in his, the old man would have knifed him where he lay.
Hale opened his eyes next morning on the little old woman in black, moving ghost-like through the dim interior to the kitchen. A wood-thrush was singing when he stepped out on the porch and its cool notes had the liquid freshness of the morning. Breakfast over, he concluded to leave the yellow mule with the Red Fox to be taken back to the county town, and to walk down the mountain, but before he got away the landlord's son turned up with his own horse, still lame, but well enough to limp along without doing himself harm. So, leading the black horse, Hale started down.
The sun was rising over still seas of white mist and wave after wave of blue Virginia hills. In the shadows below, it smote the mists into tatters; leaf and bush glittered as though after a heavy rain, and down Hale went under a trembling dew-drenched world and along a tumbling series of water-falls that flashed through tall ferns, blossoming laurel and shining leaves of rhododendron. Once he heard something move below him and then the crackling of brush sounded far to one side of the road. He knew it was a man who would be watching him from a covert and, straightway, to prove his innocence of any hostile or secret purpose, he began to whistle. Farther below, two men with Winchesters rose from the bushes and asked his name and his business. He told both readily. Everybody, it seemed, was prepared for hostilities and, though the news of the patched-up peace had spread, it was plain that the factions were still suspicious and on guard. Then the loneliness almost of Lonesome Cove itself set in. For miles he saw nothing alive but an occasional bird and heard no sound but of running water or rustling leaf. At the mouth of the creek his horse's lameness had grown so much better that he mounted him and rode slowly up the river. Within an hour he could see the still crest of the Lonesome Pine. At the mouth of a creek a mile farther on was an old gristmill with its water-wheel asleep, and whittling at the door outside was the old miller, Uncle Billy Beams, who, when he heard the coming of the black horse's feet, looked up and showed no surprise at all when he saw Hale.
"I heard you was comin'," he shouted, hailing him cheerily by name. "Ain't fishin' this time!"
"No," said Hale, "not this time."
"Well, git down and rest a spell. June'll be here in a minute an' you can ride back with her. I reckon you air goin' that a-way."
"Shore! My, but she'll be glad to see ye! She's always talkin' about ye. You told her you was comin' back an' ever'body told her you wasn't: but that leetle gal al'ays said she KNOWED you was, because you SAID you was. She's growed some—an' if she ain't purty, well I'd tell a man! You jes' tie yo' hoss up thar behind the mill so she can't see it, an' git inside the mill when she comes round that bend thar. My, but hit'll be a surprise fer her."
The old man chuckled so cheerily that Hale, to humour him, hitched his horse to a sapling, came back and sat in the door of the mill. The old man knew all about the trouble in town the day before.
"I want to give ye a leetle advice. Keep yo' mouth plum' shut about this here war. I'm Jestice of the Peace, but that's the only way I've kept outen of it fer thirty years; an' hit's the only way you can keep outen it."
"Thank you, I mean to keep my mouth shut, but would you mind—"
"Git in!" interrupted the old man eagerly. "Hyeh she comes." His kind old face creased into a welcoming smile, and between the logs of the mill Hale, inside, could see an old sorrel horse slowly coming through the lights and shadows down the road. On its back was a sack of corn and perched on the sack was a little girl with her bare feet in the hollows behind the old nag's withers. She was looking sidewise, quite hidden by a scarlet poke-bonnet, and at the old man's shout she turned the smiling face of little June. With an answering cry, she struck the old nag with a switch and before the old man could rise to help her down, slipped lightly to the ground.
"Why, honey," he said, "I don't know whut I'm goin' to do 'bout yo' corn. Shaft's broke an' I can't do no grindin' till to-morrow."
"Well, Uncle Billy, we ain't got a pint o' meal in the house," she said. "You jes' got to LEND me some."
"All right, honey," said the old man, and he cleared his throat as a signal for Hale.
The little girl was pushing her bonnet back when Hale stepped into sight and, unstartled, unsmiling, unspeaking, she looked steadily at him—one hand motionless for a moment on her bronze heap of hair and then slipping down past her cheek to clench the other tightly. Uncle Billy was bewildered.
"Why, June, hit's Mr. Hale—why—-"
"Howdye, June!" said Hale, who was no less puzzled—and still she gave no sign that she had ever seen him before except reluctantly to give him her hand. Then she turned sullenly away and sat down in the door of the mill with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands.
Dumfounded, the old miller pulled the sack of corn from the horse and leaned it against the mill. Then he took out his pipe, filled and lighted it slowly and turned his perplexed eyes to the sun.
"Well, honey," he said, as though he were doing the best he could with a difficult situation, "I'll have to git you that meal at the house. 'Bout dinner time now. You an' Mr. Hale thar come on and git somethin' to eat afore ye go back."
"I got to get on back home," said June, rising.
"No you ain't—I bet you got dinner fer yo' step-mammy afore you left, an' I jes' know you was aimin' to take a snack with me an' ole Hon." The little girl hesitated—she had no denial—and the old fellow smiled kindly.
"Come on, now."
Little June walked on the other side of the miller from Hale back to the old man's cabin, two hundred yards up the road, answering his questions but not Hale's and never meeting the latter's eyes with her own. "Ole Hon," the portly old woman whom Hale remembered, with brass-rimmed spectacles and a clay pipe in her mouth, came out on the porch and welcomed them heartily under the honeysuckle vines. Her mouth and face were alive with humour when she saw Hale, and her eyes took in both him and the little girl keenly. The miller and Hale leaned chairs against the wall while the girl sat at the entrance of the porch. Suddenly Hale went out to his horse and took out a package from his saddle-pockets.
"I've got some candy in here for you," he said smiling.
"I don't want no candy," she said, still not looking at him and with a little movement of her knees away from him.
"Why, honey," said Uncle Billy again, "whut IS the matter with ye? I thought ye was great friends." The little girl rose hastily.
"No, we ain't, nuther," she said, and she whisked herself indoors. Hale put the package back with some embarrassment and the old miller laughed.