Chapter X
 

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."

"June!"

"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.

"Well, well--she's a quar little critter; mebbe she's mad because you stayed away so long."

At the table June wanted to help ole Hon and wait to eat with her, but Uncle Billy made her sit down with him and Hale, and so shy was she that she hardly ate anything. Once only did she look up from her plate and that was when Uncle Billy, with a shake of his head, said:

"He's a bad un." He was speaking of Rufe Tolliver, and at the mention of his name there was a frightened look in the little girl's eyes, when she quickly raised them, that made Hale wonder.

An hour later they were riding side by side--Hale and June--on through the lights and shadows toward Lonesome Cove. Uncle Billy turned back from the gate to the porch.

"He ain't come back hyeh jes' fer coal," said ole Hon.

"Shucks!" said Uncle Billy; "you women-folks can't think 'bout nothin' 'cept one thing. He's too old fer her."

"She'll git ole enough fer him--an' you menfolks don't think less- -you jes' talk less." And she went back into the kitchen, and on the porch the old miller puffed on a new idea in his pipe.

For a few minutes the two rode in silence and not yet had June lifted her eyes to him.

"You've forgotten me, June."

"No, I hain't, nuther."

"You said you'd be waiting for me." June's lashes went lower still.

"I was."

"Well, what's the matter? I'm mighty sorry I couldn't get back sooner."

"Huh!" said June scornfully, and he knew Uncle Billy in his guess as to the trouble was far afield, and so he tried another tack.

"I've been over to the county seat and I saw lots of your kinfolks over there." She showed no curiosity, no surprise, and still she did not look up at him.

"I met your cousin, Loretta, over there and I carried her home behind me on an old mule"--Hale paused, smiling at the remembrance--and still she betrayed no interest.

"She's a mighty pretty girl, and whenever I'd hit that old---"

"She hain't!"--the words were so shrieked out that Hale was bewildered, and then he guessed that the falling out between the fathers was more serious than he had supposed.

"But she isn't as nice as you are," he added quickly, and the girl's quivering mouth steadied, the tears stopped in her vexed dark eyes and she lifted them to him at last.

"She ain't?"

"No, indeed, she ain't."

For a while they rode along again in silence. June no longer avoided his eyes now, and the unspoken question in her own presently came out:

"You won't let Uncle Rufe bother me no more, will ye?"

"No, indeed, I won't," said Hale heartily. "What does he do to you?"

"Nothin'--'cept he's always a-teasin' me, an'--an' I'm afeered o' him."

"Well, I'll take care of Uncle Rufe."

"I knowed you'd say that," she said. "Pap and Dave always laughs at me," and she shook her head as though she were already threatening her bad uncle with what Hale would do to him, and she was so serious and trustful that Hale was curiously touched. By and by he lifted one flap of his saddle-pockets again.

"I've got some candy here for a nice little girl," he said, as though the subject had not been mentioned before. "It's for you. Won't you have some?"

"I reckon I will," she said with a happy smile.

Hale watched her while she munched a striped stick of peppermint. Her crimson bonnet had fallen from her sunlit hair and straight down from it to her bare little foot with its stubbed toe just darkening with dried blood, a sculptor would have loved the rounded slenderness in the curving long lines that shaped her brown throat, her arms and her hands, which were prettily shaped but so very dirty as to the nails, and her dangling bare leg. Her teeth were even and white, and most of them flashed when her red lips smiled. Her lashes were long and gave a touching softness to her eyes even when she was looking quietly at him, but there were times, as he had noticed already, when a brooding look stole over them, and then they were the lair for the mysterious loneliness that was the very spirit of Lonesome Cove. Some day that little nose would be long enough, and some day, he thought, she would be very beautiful.

"Your cousin, Loretta, said she was coming over to see you."

June's teeth snapped viciously through the stick of candy and then she turned on him and behind the long lashes and deep down in the depth of those wonderful eyes he saw an ageless something that bewildered him more than her words.

"I hate her," she said fiercely.

"Why, little girl?" he said gently.

"I don't know--" she said--and then the tears came in earnest and she turned her head, sobbing. Hale helplessly reached over and patted her on the shoulder, but she shrank away from him.

"Go away!" she said, digging her fist into her eyes until her face was calm again.

They had reached the spot on the river where he had seen her first, and beyond, the smoke of the cabin was rising above the undergrowth.

"Lordy!" she said, "but I do git lonesome over hyeh."

"Wouldn't you like to go over to the Gap with me sometimes?"

Straightway her face was a ray of sunlight.

"Would--I like--to--go--over--"

She stopped suddenly and pulled in her horse, but Hale had heard nothing.

"Hello!" shouted a voice from the bushes, and Devil Judd Tolliver issued from them with an axe on his shoulder. "I heerd you'd come back an' I'm glad to see ye." He came down to the road and shook Hale's hand heartily.

"Whut you been cryin' about?" he added, turning his hawk-like eyes on the little girl.

"Nothin'," she said sullenly.

"Did she git mad with ye 'bout somethin'?" said the old man to Hale. "She never cries 'cept when she's mad." Hale laughed.

"You jes' hush up--both of ye," said the girl with a sharp kick of her right foot.

"I reckon you can't stamp the ground that fer away from it," said the old man dryly. "If you don't git the better of that all-fired temper o' yourn hit's goin' to git the better of you, an' then I'll have to spank you agin."

"I reckon you ain't goin' to whoop me no more, pap. I'm a-gittin' too big."

The old man opened eyes and mouth with an indulgent roar of laughter.

"Come on up to the house," he said to Hale, turning to lead the way, the little girl following him. The old step-mother was again a-bed; small Bub, the brother, still unafraid, sat down beside Hale and the old man brought out a bottle of moonshine.

"I reckon I can still trust ye," he said.

"I reckon you can," laughed Hale.

The liquor was as fiery as ever, but it was grateful, and again the old man took nearly a tumbler full plying Hale, meanwhile, about the happenings in town the day before--but Hale could tell him nothing that he seemed not already to know.

"It was quar," the old mountaineer said. "I've seed two men with the drap on each other and both afeerd to shoot, but I never heerd of sech a ring-around-the-rosy as eight fellers with bead on one another and not a shoot shot. I'm glad I wasn't thar."

He frowned when Hale spoke of the Red Fox.

"You can't never tell whether that ole devil is fer ye or agin ye, but I've been plum' sick o' these doin's a long time now and sometimes I think I'll just pull up stakes and go West and git out of hit--altogether."

"How did you learn so much about yesterday--so soon?"

"Oh, we hears things purty quick in these mountains. Little Dave Tolliver come over here last night."

"Yes," broke in Bub, "and he tol' us how you carried Loretty from town on a mule behind ye, and she jest a-sassin' you, an' as how she said she was a-goin' to git you fer her sweetheart."

Hale glanced by chance at the little girl. Her face was scarlet, and a light dawned.

"An' sis, thar, said he was a-tellin' lies--an' when she growed up she said she was a-goin' to marry---"

Something snapped like a toy-pistol and Bub howled. A little brown hand had whacked him across the mouth, and the girl flashed indoors without a word. Bub got to his feet howling with pain and rage and started after her, but the old man caught him:

"Set down, boy! Sarved you right fer blabbin' things that hain't yo' business." He shook with laughter.

Jealousy! Great heavens--Hale thought--in that child, and for him!

"I knowed she was cryin' 'bout something like that. She sets a great store by you, an' she's studied them books you sent her plum' to pieces while you was away. She ain't nothin' but a baby, but in sartain ways she's as old as her mother was when she died." The amazing secret was out, and the little girl appeared no more until supper time, when she waited on the table, but at no time would she look at Hale or speak to him again. For a while the two men sat on the porch talking of the feud and the Gap and the coal on the old man's place, and Hale had no trouble getting an option for a year on the old man's land. Just as dusk was setting he got his horse.

"You'd better stay all night."

"No, I'll have to get along."

The little girl did not appear to tell him goodby, and when he went to his horse at the gate, he called:

"Tell June to come down here. I've got something for her."

"Go on, baby," the old man said, and the little girl came shyly down to the gate. Hale took a brown-paper parcel from his saddle- bags, unwrapped it and betrayed the usual blue-eyed, flaxen- haired, rosy-cheeked doll. Only June did not know the like of it was in all the world. And as she caught it to her breast there were tears once more in her uplifted eyes.

"How about going over to the Gap with me, little girl--some day?"

He never guessed it, but there were a child and a woman before him now and both answered:

"I'll go with ye anywhar."

     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Hale stopped a while to rest his horse at the base of the big pine. He was practically alone in the world. The little girl back there was born for something else than slow death in that God- forsaken cove, and whatever it was--why not help her to it if he could? With this thought in his brain, he rode down from the luminous upper world of the moon and stars toward the nether world of drifting mists and black ravines. She belonged to just such a night--that little girl--she was a part of its mists, its lights and shadows, its fresh wild beauty and its mystery. Only once did his mind shift from her to his great purpose, and that was when the roar of the water through the rocky chasm of the Gap made him think of the roar of iron wheels, that, rushing through, some day, would drown it into silence. At the mouth of the Gap he saw the white valley lying at peace in the moonlight and straightway from it sprang again, as always, his castle in the air; but before he fell asleep in his cottage on the edge of the millpond that night he heard quite plainly again:

"I'll go with ye--anywhar."