Chapter XII
 

June did not have to be awakened that morning. At the first clarion call of the old rooster behind the cabin, her eyes opened wide and a happy thrill tingled her from head to foot--why, she didn't at first quite realize--and then she stretched her slender round arms to full length above her head and with a little squeal of joy bounded out of the bed, dressed as she was when she went into it, and with no changes to make except to push back her tangled hair. Her father was out feeding the stock and she could hear her step-mother in the kitchen. Bub still slept soundly, and she shook him by the shoulder.

"Git up, Bub."

"Go 'way," said Bub fretfully. Again she started to shake him but stopped--Bub wasn't going to the Gap, so she let him sleep. For a little while she looked down at him--at his round rosy face and his frowsy hair from under which protruded one dirty fist. She was going to leave him, and a fresh tenderness for him made her breast heave, but she did not kiss him, for sisterly kisses are hardly known in the hills. Then she went out into the kitchen to help her step-mother.

"Gittin' mighty busy, all of a sudden, ain't ye," said the sour old woman, "now that ye air goin' away."

"'Tain't costin' you nothin'," answered June quietly, and she picked up a pail and went out into the frosty, shivering daybreak to the old well. The chain froze her fingers, the cold water splashed her feet, and when she had tugged her heavy burden back to the kitchen, she held her red, chapped hands to the fire.

"I reckon you'll be mighty glad to git shet o' me." The old woman sniffled, and June looked around with a start.

"Pears like I'm goin' to miss ye right smart," she quavered, and June's face coloured with a new feeling towards her step-mother.

"I'm goin' ter have a hard time doin' all the work and me so poorly."

"Lorrety is a-comin' over to he'p ye, if ye git sick," said June, hardening again. "Or, I'll come back myself." She got out the dishes and set them on the table.

"You an' me don't git along very well together," she went on placidly. "I never heerd o' no step-mother and children as did, an' I reckon you'll be might glad to git shet o' me."

"Pears like I'm going to miss ye a right smart," repeated the old woman weakly.

June went out to the stable with the milking pail. Her father had spread fodder for the cow and she could hear the rasping of the ears of corn against each other as he tumbled them into the trough for the old sorrel. She put her head against the cow's soft flank and under her sinewy fingers two streams of milk struck the bottom of the tin pail with such thumping loudness that she did not hear her father's step; but when she rose to make the beast put back her right leg, she saw him looking at her.

"Who's goin' ter milk, pap, atter I'm gone?"

"This the fust time you thought o' that?" June put her flushed cheek back to the flank of the cow. It was not the first time she had thought of that--her step-mother would milk and if she were ill, her father or Loretta. She had not meant to ask that question--she was wondering when they would start. That was what she meant to ask and she was glad that she had swerved. Breakfast was eaten in the usual silence by the boy and the man--June and the step-mother serving it, and waiting on the lord that was and the lord that was to be--and then the two females sat down.

"Hurry up, June," said the old man, wiping his mouth and beard with the back of his hand. "Clear away the dishes an' git ready. Hale said he would meet us at the Pine an' hour by sun, fer I told him I had to git back to work. Hurry up, now!"

June hurried up. She was too excited to eat anything, so she began to wash the dishes while her step-mother ate. Then she went into the living-room to pack her things and it didn't take long. She wrapped the doll Hale had given her in an extra petticoat, wound one pair of yarn stockings around a pair of coarse shoes, tied them up into one bundle and she was ready. Her father appeared with the sorrel horse, caught up his saddle from the porch, threw it on and stretched the blanket behind it as a pillion for June to ride on.

"Let's go!" he said. There is little or no demonstrativeness in the domestic relations of mountaineers. The kiss of courtship is the only one known. There were no good-bys--only that short "Let's go!"

June sprang behind her father from the porch. The step-mother handed her the bundle which she clutched in her lap, and they simply rode away, the step-mother and Bub silently gazing after them. But June saw the boy's mouth working, and when she turned the thicket at the creek, she looked back at the two quiet figures, and a keen pain cut her heart. She shut her mouth closely, gripped her bundle more tightly and the tears streamed down her face, but the man did not know. They climbed in silence. Sometimes her father dismounted where the path was steep, but June sat on the horse to hold the bundle and thus they mounted through the mist and chill of the morning. A shout greeted them from the top of the little spur whence the big Pine was visible, and up there they found Hale waiting. He had reached the Pine earlier than they and was coming down to meet them.

"Hello, little girl," called Hale cheerily, "you didn't fail me, did you?"

June shook her head and smiled. Her face was blue and her little legs, dangling under the bundle, were shrinking from the cold. Her bonnet had fallen to the back of her neck, and he saw that her hair was parted and gathered in a Psyche knot at the back of her head, giving her a quaint old look when she stood on the ground in her crimson gown. Hale had not forgotten a pillion and there the transfer was made. Hale lifted her behind his saddle and handed up her bundle.

"I'll take good care of her," he said.

"All right," said the old man.

"And I'm coming over soon to fix up that coal matter, and I'll let you know how she's getting on."

"All right."

"Good-by," said Hale.

"I wish ye well," said the mountaineer. "Be a good girl, Juny, and do what Mr. Hale thar tells ye."

"All right, pap." And thus they parted. June felt the power of Hale's big black horse with exultation the moment he started.

"Now we're off," said Hale gayly, and he patted the little hand that was about his waist. "Give me that bundle."

"I can carry it."

"No, you can't--not with me," and when he reached around for it and put it on the cantle of his saddle, June thrust her left hand into his overcoat pocket and Hale laughed.

"Loretta wouldn't ride with me this way."

"Loretty ain't got much sense," drawled June complacently. "'Tain't no harm. But don't you tell me! I don't want to hear nothin' 'bout Loretty noway." Again Hale laughed and June laughed, too. Imp that she was, she was just pretending to be jealous now. She could see the big Pine over his shoulder.

"I've knowed that tree since I was a little girl--since I was a baby," she said, and the tone of her voice was new to Hale. "Sister Sally uster tell me lots about that ole tree." Hale waited, but she stopped again.

"What did she tell you?"

"She used to say hit was curious that hit should be 'way up here all alone--that she reckollected it ever since she was a baby, and she used to come up here and talk to it, and she said sometimes she could hear it jus' a whisperin' to her when she was down home in the cove."

"What did she say it said?"

"She said it was always a-whisperin' 'come--come--come!'" June crooned the words, "an' atter she died, I heerd the folks sayin' as how she riz up in bed with her eyes right wide an' sayin' "I hears it! It's a-whisperin'--I hears it--come--come--come'!" And still Hale kept quiet when she stopped again.

"The Red Fox said hit was the sperits, but I knowed when they told me that she was a thinkin' o' that ole tree thar. But I never let on. I reckon that's one reason made me come here that day." They were close to the big tree now and Hale dismounted to fix his girth for the descent.

"Well, I'm mighty glad you came, little girl. I might never have seen you."

"That's so," said June. "I saw the print of your foot in the mud right there."

"Did ye?"

"And if I hadn't, I might never have gone down into Lonesome Cove." June laughed.

"You ran from me," Hale went on.

"Yes, I did: an' that's why you follered me." Hale looked up quickly. Her face was demure, but her eyes danced. She was an aged little thing.

"Why did you run?"

"I thought yo' fishin' pole was a rifle-gun an' that you was a raider." Hale laughed--"I see."

"'Member when you let yo' horse drink?" Hale nodded. "Well, I was on a rock above the creek, lookin' down at ye. An' I seed ye catchin' minners an' thought you was goin' up the crick lookin' fer a still."

"Weren't you afraid of me then?"

"Huh!" she said contemptuously. "I wasn't afeared of you at all, 'cept fer what you mought find out. You couldn't do no harm to nobody without a gun, and I knowed thar wasn't no still up that crick. I know--I knowed whar it was." Hale noticed the quick change of tense.

"Won't you take me to see it some time?"

"No!" she said shortly, and Hale knew he had made a mistake. It was too steep for both to ride now, so he tied the bundle to the cantle with leathern strings and started leading the horse. June pointed to the edge of the cliff.

"I was a-layin' flat right thar and I seed you comin' down thar. My, but you looked funny to me! You don't now," she added hastily. "You look mighty nice to me now--!"

"You're a little rascal," said Hale, "that's what you are." The little girl bubbled with laughter and then she grew mock-serious.

"No, I ain't."

"Yes, you are," he repeated, shaking his head, and both were silent for a while. June was going to begin her education now and it was just as well for him to begin with it now. So he started vaguely when he was mounted again:

"June, you thought my clothes were funny when you first saw them-- didn't you?"

"Uh, huh!" said June.

"But you like them now?"

"Uh, huh!" she crooned again.

"Well, some people who weren't used to clothes that people wear over in the mountains might think them funny for the same reason-- mightn't they?" June was silent for a moment.

"Well, mebbe, I like your clothes better, because I like you better," she said, and Hale laughed.

"Well, it's just the same--the way people in the mountains dress and talk is different from the way people outside dress and talk. It doesn't make much difference about clothes, though, I guess you will want to be as much like people over here as you can--"

"I don't know," interrupted the little girl shortly, "I ain't seed 'em yit."

"Well," laughed Hale, "you will want to talk like them anyhow, because everybody who is learning tries to talk the same way." June was silent, and Hale plunged unconsciously on.

"Up at the Pine now you said, 'I seed you when I was a-layin on the edge of the cliff'; now you ought to have said, 'I saw you when I was lying--'"

"I wasn't," she said sharply, "I don't tell lies--" her hand shot from his waist and she slid suddenly to the ground. He pulled in his horse and turned a bewildered face. She had lighted on her feet and was poised back above him like an enraged eaglet--her thin nostrils quivering, her mouth as tight as a bow-string, and her eyes two points of fire.

"Why--June!"

"Ef you don't like my clothes an' the way I talk, I reckon I'd better go back home." With a groan Hale tumbled from his horse. Fool that he was, he had forgotten the sensitive pride of the mountaineer, even while he was thinking of that pride. He knew that fun might be made of her speech and her garb by her schoolmates over at the Gap, and he was trying to prepare her--to save her mortification, to make her understand.

"Why, June, little girl, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. You don't understand--you can't now, but you will. Trust me, won't you? I like you just as you are. I love the way you talk. But other people--forgive me, won't you?" he pleaded. "I'm sorry. I wouldn't hurt you for the world."

She didn't understand--she hardly heard what he said, but she did know his distress was genuine and his sorrow: and his voice melted her fierce little heart. The tears began to come, while she looked, and when he put his arms about her, she put her face on his breast and sobbed.

"There now!" he said soothingly. "It's all right now. I'm so sorry--so very sorry," and he patted her on the shoulder and laid his hand across her temple and hair, and pressed her head tight to his breast. Almost as suddenly she stopped sobbing and loosening herself turned away from him.

"I'm a fool--that's what I am," she said hotly.

"No, you aren't! Come on, little girl! We're friends again, aren't we?" June was digging at her eyes with both hands.

"Aren't we?"

"Yes," she said with an angry little catch of her breath, and she turned submissively to let him lift her to her seat. Then she looked down into his face.

"Jack," she said, and he started again at the frank address, "I ain't never goin' to do that no more."

"Yes, you are, little girl," he said soberly but cheerily. "You're goin' to do it whenever I'm wrong or whenever you think I'm wrong." She shook her head seriously.

"No, Jack."

In a few minutes they were at the foot of the mountain and on a level road.

"Hold tight!" Hale shouted, "I'm going to let him out now." At the touch of his spur, the big black horse sprang into a gallop, faster and faster, until he was pounding the hard road in a swift run like thunder. At the creek Hale pulled in and looked around. June's bonnet was down, her hair was tossed, her eyes were sparkling fearlessly, and her face was flushed with joy.

"Like it, June?"

"I never did know nothing like it."

"You weren't scared?"

"Skeered o' what?" she asked, and Hale wondered if there was anything of which she would be afraid.

They were entering the Gap now and June's eyes got big with wonder over the mighty up-shooting peaks and the rushing torrent.

"See that big rock yonder, June?" June craned her neck to follow with her eyes his outstretched finger.

"Uh, huh."

"Well, that's called Bee Rock, because it's covered with flowers-- purple rhododendrons and laurel--and bears used to go there for wild honey. They say that once on a time folks around here put whiskey in the honey and the bears got so drunk that people came and knocked 'em in the head with clubs."

"Well, what do you think o' that!" said June wonderingly.

Before them a big mountain loomed, and a few minutes later, at the mouth of the Gap, Hale stopped and turned his horse sidewise.

"There we are, June," he said.

June saw the lovely little valley rimmed with big mountains. She could follow the course of the two rivers that encircled it by the trees that fringed their banks, and she saw smoke rising here and there and that was all. She was a little disappointed.

"It's mighty purty," she said, "I never seed"--she paused, but went on without correcting herself--"so much level land in all my life."

The morning mail had just come in as they rode by the post-office and several men hailed her escort, and all stared with some wonder at her. Hale smiled to himself, drew up for none and put on a face of utter unconsciousness that he was doing anything unusual. June felt vaguely uncomfortable. Ahead of them, when they turned the corner of the street, her eyes fell on a strange tall red house with yellow trimmings, that was not built of wood and had two sets of windows one above the other, and before that Hale drew up.

"Here we are. Get down, little girl."

"Good-morning!" said a voice. Hale looked around and flushed, and June looked around and stared--transfixed as by a vision from another world--at the dainty figure behind them in a walking suit, a short skirt that showed two little feet in laced tan boots and a cap with a plume, under which was a pair of wide blue eyes with long lashes, and a mouth that suggested active mischief and gentle mockery.

"Oh, good-morning," said Hale, and he added gently, "Get down, June!"

The little girl slipped to the ground and began pulling her bonnet on with both hands--but the newcomer had caught sight of the Psyche knot that made June look like a little old woman strangely young, and the mockery at her lips was gently accentuated by a smile. Hale swung from his saddle.

"This is the little girl I told you about, Miss Anne," he said. "She's come over to go to school." Instantly, almost, Miss Anne had been melted by the forlorn looking little creature who stood before her, shy for the moment and dumb, and she came forward with her gloved hand outstretched. But June had seen that smile. She gave her hand, and Miss Anne straightway was no little surprised; there was no more shyness in the dark eyes that blazed from the recesses of the sun-bonnet, and Miss Anne was so startled when she looked into them that all she could say was: "Dear me!" A portly woman with a kind face appeared at the door of the red brick house and came to the gate.

"Here she is, Mrs. Crane," called Hale.

"Howdye, June!" said the Widow Crane kindly. "Come right in!" In her June knew straightway she had a friend and she picked up her bundle and followed upstairs--the first real stairs she had ever seen--and into a room on the floor of which was a rag carpet. There was a bed in one corner with a white counterpane and a washstand with a bowl and pitcher, which, too, she had never seen before.

"Make yourself at home right now," said the Widow Crane, pulling open a drawer under a big looking-glass--"and put your things here. That's your bed," and out she went.

How clean it was! There were some flowers in a glass vase on the mantel. There were white curtains at the big window and a bed to herself--her own bed. She went over to the window. There was a steep bank, lined with rhododendrons, right under it. There was a mill-dam below and down the stream she could hear the creaking of a water-wheel, and she could see it dripping and shining in the sun--a gristmill! She thought of Uncle Billy and ole Hon, and in spite of a little pang of home-sickness she felt no loneliness at all.

"I knew she would be pretty," said Miss Anne at the gate outside.

"I told you she was pretty," said Hale.

"But not so pretty as that," said Miss Anne. "We will be great friends."

"I hope so--for her sake," said Hale.

     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Hale waited till noon-recess was nearly over, and then he went to take June to the school-house. He was told that she was in her room and he went up and knocked at the door. There was no answer-- for one does not knock on doors for entrance in the mountains, and, thinking he had made a mistake, he was about to try another room, when June opened the door to see what the matter was. She gave him a glad smile.

"Come on," he said, and when she went for her bonnet, he stepped into the room.

"How do you like it?" June nodded toward the window and Hale went to it.

"That's Uncle Billy's mill out thar."

"Why, so it is," said Hale smiling. "That's fine."

The school-house, to June's wonder, had shingles on the outside around all the walls from roof to foundation, and a big bell hung on top of it under a little shingled roof of its own. A pale little man with spectacles and pale blue eyes met them at the door and he gave June a pale, slender hand and cleared his throat before he spoke to her.

"She's never been to school," said Hale; "she can read and spell, but she's not very strong on arithmetic."

"Very well, I'll turn her over to the primary." The school-bell sounded; Hale left with a parting prophecy--"You'll be proud of her some day"--at which June blushed and then, with a beating heart, she followed the little man into his office. A few minutes later, the assistant came in, and she was none other than the wonderful young woman whom Hale had called Miss Anne. There were a few instructions in a halting voice and with much clearing of the throat from the pale little man; and a moment later June walked the gauntlet of the eyes of her schoolmates, every one of whom looked up from his book or hers to watch her as she went to her seat. Miss Anne pointed out the arithmetic lesson and, without lifting her eyes, June bent with a flushed face to her task. It reddened with shame when she was called to the class, for she sat on the bench, taller by a head and more than any of the boys and girls thereon, except one awkward youth who caught her eye and grinned with unashamed companionship. The teacher noticed her look and understood with a sudden keen sympathy, and naturally she was struck by the fact that the new pupil was the only one who never missed an answer.

"She won't be there long," Miss Anne thought, and she gave June a smile for which the little girl was almost grateful. June spoke to no one, but walked through her schoolmates homeward, when school was over, like a haughty young queen. Miss Anne had gone ahead and was standing at the gate talking with Mrs. Crane, and the young woman spoke to June most kindly.

"Mr. Hale has been called away on business," she said, and June's heart sank--"and I'm going to take care of you until he comes back."

"I'm much obleeged," she said, and while she was not ungracious, her manner indicated her belief that she could take care of herself. And Miss Anne felt uncomfortably that this extraordinary young person was steadily measuring her from head to foot. June saw the smart close-fitting gown, the dainty little boots, and the carefully brushed hair. She noticed how white her teeth were and her hands, and she saw that the nails looked polished and that the tips of them were like little white crescents; and she could still see every detail when she sat at her window, looting down at the old mill. She saw Mr. Hale when he left, the young lady had said; and she had a headache now and was going home to lie down. She understood now what Hale meant, on the mountainside when she was so angry with him. She was learning fast, and most from the two persons who were not conscious what they were teaching her. And she would learn in the school, too, for the slumbering ambition in her suddenly became passionately definite now. She went to the mirror and looked at her hair--she would learn how to plait that in two braids down her back, as the other school-girls did. She looked at her hands and straightway she fell to scrubbing them with soap as she had never scrubbed them before. As she worked, she heard her name called and she opened the door.

"Yes, mam!" she answered, for already she had picked that up in the school-room.

"Come on, June, and go down the street with me."

"Yes, mam," she repeated, and she wiped her hands and hurried down. Mrs. Crane had looked through the girl's pathetic wardrobe, while she was at school that afternoon, had told Hale before he left and she had a surprise for little June. Together they went down the street and into the chief store in town and, to June's amazement, Mrs. Crane began ordering things for "this little girl."

"Who's a-goin' to pay fer all these things?" whispered June, aghast.

"Don't you bother, honey. Mr. Hale said he would fix all that with your pappy. It's some coal deal or something--don't you bother!" And June in a quiver of happiness didn't bother. Stockings, petticoats, some soft stuff for a new dress and tan shoes that looked like the ones that wonderful young woman wore and then some long white things.

"What's them fer?" she whispered, but the clerk heard her and laughed, whereat Mrs. Crane gave him such a glance that he retired quickly.

"Night-gowns, honey."

"You sleep in 'em?" said June in an awed voice.

"That's just what you do," said the good old woman, hardly less pleased than June.

"My, but you've got pretty feet."

"I wish they were half as purty as--"

"Well, they are," interrupted Mrs. Crane a little snappishly; apparently she did not like Miss Anne.

"Wrap 'em up and Mr. Hale will attend to the bill."

"All right," said the clerk looking much mystified.

Outside the door, June looked up into the beaming goggles of the Hon. Samuel Budd.

"Is this the little girl? Howdye, June," he said, and June put her hand in the Hon. Sam's with a sudden trust in his voice.

"I'm going to help take care of you, too," said Mr. Budd, and June smiled at him with shy gratitude. How kind everybody was!

"I'm much obleeged," she said, and she and Mrs. Crane went on back with their bundles.

June's hands so trembled when she found herself alone with her treasures that she could hardly unpack them. When she had folded and laid them away, she had to unfold them to look at them again. She hurried to bed that night merely that she might put on one of those wonderful night-gowns, and again she had to look all her treasures over. She was glad that she had brought the doll because he had given it to her, but she said to herself "I'm a-gittin' too big now fer dolls!" and she put it away. Then she set the lamp on the mantel-piece so that she could see herself in her wonderful night-gown. She let her shining hair fall like molten gold around her shoulders, and she wondered whether she could ever look like the dainty creature that just now was the model she so passionately wanted to be like. Then she blew out the lamp and sat a while by the window, looking down through the rhododendrons, at the shining water and at the old water-wheel sleepily at rest in the moonlight. She knelt down then at her bedside to say her prayers--as her dead sister had taught her to do--and she asked God to bless Jack--wondering as she prayed that she had heard nobody else call him Jack--and then she lay down with her breast heaving. She had told him she would never do that again, but she couldn't help it now--the tears came and from happiness she cried herself softly to sleep.