The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr.
Hale rode that night under a brilliant moon to the worm of a railroad that had been creeping for many years toward the Gap. The head of it was just protruding from the Natural Tunnel twenty miles away. There he sent his horse back, slept in a shanty till morning, and then the train crawled through a towering bench of rock. The mouth of it on the other side opened into a mighty amphitheatre with solid rock walls shooting vertically hundreds of feet upward. Vertically, he thought--with the back of his head between his shoulders as he looked up--they were more than vertical--they were actually concave. The Almighty had not only stored riches immeasurable in the hills behind him--He had driven this passage Himself to help puny man to reach them, and yet the wretched road was going toward them like a snail. On the fifth night, thereafter he was back there at the tunnel again from New York--with a grim mouth and a happy eye. He had brought success with him this time and there was no sleep for him that night. He had been delayed by a wreck, it was two o'clock in the morning, and not a horse was available; so he started those twenty miles afoot, and day was breaking when he looked down on the little valley shrouded in mist and just wakening from sleep.
Things had been moving while he was away, as he quickly learned. The English were buying lands right and left at the gap sixty miles southwest. Two companies had purchased most of the town-site where he was--his town-site--and were going to pool their holdings and form an improvement company. But a good deal was left, and straightway Hale got a map from his office and with it in his hand walked down the curve of the river and over Poplar Hill and beyond. Early breakfast was ready when he got back to the hotel. He swallowed a cup of coffee so hastily that it burned him, and June, when she passed his window on her way to school, saw him busy over his desk. She started to shout to him, but he looked so haggard and grim that she was afraid, and went on, vaguely hurt by a preoccupation that seemed quite to have excluded her. For two hours then, Hale haggled and bargained, and at ten o'clock he went to the telegraph office. The operator who was speculating in a small way himself smiled when he read the telegram.
"A thousand an acre?" he repeated with a whistle. "You could have got that at twenty-five per--three months ago."
"I know," said Hale, "there's time enough yet." Then he went to his room, pulled the blinds down and went to sleep, while rumour played with his name through the town.
It was nearly the closing hour of school when, dressed and freshly shaven, he stepped out into the pale afternoon and walked up toward the schoolhouse. The children were pouring out of the doors. At the gate there was a sudden commotion, he saw a crimson figure flash into the group that had stopped there, and flash out, and then June came swiftly toward him followed closely by a tall boy with a cap on his head. That far away he could see that she was angry and he hurried toward her. Her face was white with rage, her mouth was tight and her dark eyes were aflame. Then from the group another tall boy darted out and behind him ran a smaller one, bellowing. Hale heard the boy with the cap call kindly:
"Hold on, little girl! I won't let 'em touch you." June stopped with him and Hale ran to them.
"Here," he called, "what's the matter?"
June burst into crying when she saw him and leaned over the fence sobbing. The tall lad with the cap had his back to Hale, and he waited till the other two boys came up. Then he pointed to the smaller one and spoke to Hale without looking around.
"Why, that little skate there was teasing this little girl and--"
"She slapped him," said Hale grimly. The lad with the cap turned. His eyes were dancing and the shock of curly hair that stuck from his absurd little cap shook with his laughter.
"Slapped him! She knocked him as flat as a pancake."
"Yes, an' you said you'd stand fer her," said the other tall boy who was plainly a mountain lad. He was near bursting with rage.
"You bet I will," said the boy with the cap heartily, "right now!" and he dropped his books to the ground.
"Hold on!" said Hale, jumping between them. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," he said to the mountain boy.
"I wasn't atter the gal," he said indignantly. "I was comin' fer him."
The boy with the cap tried to get away from Hale's grasp.
"No use, sir," he said coolly. "You'd better let us settle it now. We'll have to do it some time. I know the breed. He'll fight all right and there's no use puttin' it off. It's got to come."
"You bet it's got to come," said the mountain lad. "You can't call my brother names."
"Well, he is a skate," said the boy with the cap, with no heat at all in spite of his indignation, and Hale wondered at his aged calm.
"Every one of you little tads," he went on coolly, waving his hand at the gathered group, "is a skate who teases this little girl. And you older boys are skates for letting the little ones do it, the whole pack of you--and I'm going to spank any little tadpole who does it hereafter, and I'm going to punch the head off any big one who allows it. It's got to stop now!" And as Hale dragged him off he added to the mountain boy, "and I'm going to begin with you whenever you say the word." Hale was laughing now.
"You don't seem to understand," he said, "this is my affair."
"I beg your pardon, sir, I don't understand."
"Why, I'm taking care of this little girl."
"Oh, well, you see I didn't know that. I've only been here two days. But"--his frank, generous face broke into a winning smile-- "you don't go to school. You'll let me watch out for her there?"
"Sure! I'll be very grateful."
"Not at all, sir--not at all. It was a great pleasure and I think I'll have lots of fun." He looked at June, whose grateful eyes had hardly left his face.
"So don't you soil your little fist any more with any of 'em, but just tell me--er--er--"
"June," she said, and a shy smile came through her tears.
"June," he finished with a boyish laugh. "Good-by sir."
"You haven't told me your name."
"I suppose you know my brothers, sir, the Berkleys."
"I should say so," and Hale held out his hand. "You're Bob?"
"I knew you were coming, and I'm mighty glad to see you. I hope you and June will be good friends and I'll be very glad to have you watch over her when I'm away."
"I'd like nothing better, sir," he said cheerfully, and quite impersonally as far as June was concerned. Then his eyes lighted up.
"My brothers don't seem to want me to join the Police Guard. Won't you say a word for me?"
"I certainly will."
"Thank you, sir."
That "sir" no longer bothered Hale. At first he had thought it a mark of respect to his superior age, and he was not particularly pleased, but when he knew now that the lad was another son of the old gentleman whom he saw riding up the valley every morning on a gray horse, with several dogs trailing after him--he knew the word was merely a family characteristic of old-fashioned courtesy.
"Isn't he nice, June?"
"Yes," she said.
"Have you missed me, June?"
June slid her hand into his. "I'm so glad you come back." They were approaching the gate now.
"June, you said you weren't going to cry any more." June's head drooped.
"I know, but I jes' can't help it when I git mad," she said seriously. "I'd bust if I didn't."
"All right," said Hale kindly.
"I've cried twice," she said.
"What were you mad about the other time?"
"I wasn't mad."
"Then why did you cry, June?"
Her dark eyes looked full at him a moment and then her long lashes hid them.
"Cause you was so good to me."
Hale choked suddenly and patted her on the shoulder.
"Go in, now, little girl, and study. Then you must take a walk. I've got some work to do. I'll see you at supper time."
"All right," said June. She turned at the gate to watch Hale enter the hotel, and as she started indoors, she heard a horse coming at a gallop and she turned again to see her cousin, Dave Tolliver, pull up in front of the house. She ran back to the gate and then she saw that he was swaying in his saddle.
"Hello, June!" he called thickly.
Her face grew hard and she made no answer.
"I've come over to take ye back home."
She only stared at him rebukingly, and he straightened in his saddle with an effort at self-control--but his eyes got darker and he looked ugly.
"D'you hear me? I've come over to take ye home."
"You oughter be ashamed o' yourself," she said hotly, and she turned to go back into the house.
"Oh, you ain't ready now. Well, git ready an' we'll start in the mornin'. I'll be aroun' fer ye 'bout the break o' day."
He whirled his horse with an oath--June was gone. She saw him ride swaying down the street and she ran across to the hotel and found Hale sitting in the office with another man. Hale saw her entering the door swiftly, he knew something was wrong and he rose to meet her.
"Dave's here," she whispered hurriedly, "an' he says he's come to take me home."
"Well," said Hale, "he won't do it, will he?" June shook her head and then she said significantly:
Hale's brow clouded. Straightway he foresaw trouble--but he said cheerily:
"All right. You go back and keep in the house and I'll be over by and by and we'll talk it over." And, without another word, she went. She had meant to put on her new dress and her new shoes and stockings that night that Hale might see her--but she was in doubt about doing it when she got to her room. She tried to study her lessons for the next day, but she couldn't fix her mind on them. She wondered if Dave might not get into a fight or, perhaps, he would get so drunk that he would go to sleep somewhere--she knew that men did that after drinking very much--and, anyhow, he would not bother her until next morning, and then he would be sober and would go quietly back home. She was so comforted that she got to thinking about the hair of the girl who sat in front of her at school. It was plaited and she had studied just how it was done and she began to wonder whether she could fix her own that way. So she got in front of the mirror and loosened hers in a mass about her shoulders--the mass that was to Hale like the golden bronze of a wild turkey's wing. The other girl's plaits were the same size, so that the hair had to be equally divided--thus she argued to herself--but how did that girl manage to plait it behind her back? She did it in front, of course, so June divided the bronze heap behind her and pulled one half of it in front of her and then for a moment she was helpless. Then she laughed--it must be done like the grass-blades and strings she had plaited for Bub, of course, so, dividing that half into three parts, she did the plaiting swiftly and easily. When it was finished she looked at the braid, much pleased--for it hung below her waist and was much longer than any of the other girls' at school. The transition was easy now, so interested had she become. She got out her tan shoes and stockings and the pretty white dress and put them on. The millpond was dark with shadows now, and she went down the stairs and out to the gate just as Dave again pulled up in front of it. He stared at the vision wonderingly and long, and then he began to laugh with the scorn of soberness and the silliness of drink.
"You ain't June, air ye?" The girl never moved. As if by a preconcerted signal three men moved toward the boy, and one of them said sternly:
"Drop that pistol. You are under arrest.' The boy glared like a wild thing trapped, from one to another of the three--a pistol gleamed in the hand of each--and slowly thrust his own weapon into his pocket.
"Get off that horse," added the stern voice. Just then Hale rushed across the street and the mountain youth saw him.
"Ketch his pistol," cried June, in terror for Hale--for she knew what was coming, and one of the men caught with both hands the wrist of Dave's arm as it shot behind him.
"Take him to the calaboose!"
At that June opened the gate--that disgrace she could never stand- -but Hale spoke.
"I know him, boys. He doesn't mean any harm. He doesn't know the regulations yet. Suppose we let him go home."
"All right," said Logan. "The calaboose or home. Will you go home?"
In the moment, the mountain boy had apparently forgotten his captors--he was staring at June with wonder, amazement, incredulity struggling through the fumes in his brain to his flushed face. She--a Tolliver--had warned a stranger against her own blood-cousin.
"Will you go home?" repeated Logan sternly.
The boy looked around at the words, as though he were half dazed, and his baffled face turned sick and white.
"Lemme loose!" he said sullenly. "I'll go home." And he rode silently away, after giving Hale a vindictive look that told him plainer than words that more was yet to come. Hale had heard June's warning cry, but now when he looked for her she was gone. He went in to supper and sat down at the table and still she did not come.
"She's got a surprise for you," said Mrs. Crane, smiling mysteriously. "She's been fixing for you for an hour. My! but she's pretty in them new clothes--why, June!"
June was coming in--she wore her homespun, her scarlet homespun and the Psyche knot. She did not seem to have heard Mrs. Crane's note of wonder, and she sat quietly down in her seat. Her face was pale and she did not look at Hale. Nothing was said of Dave--in fact, June said nothing at all, and Hale, too, vaguely understanding, kept quiet. Only when he went out, Hale called her to the gate and put one hand on her head.
"I'm sorry, little girl."
The girl lifted her great troubled eyes to him, but no word passed her lips, and Hale helplessly left her.
June did not cry that night. She sat by the window--wretched and tearless. She had taken sides with "furriners" against her own people. That was why, instinctively, she had put on her old homespun with a vague purpose of reparation to them. She knew the story Dave would take back home--the bitter anger that his people and hers would feel at the outrage done him--anger against the town, the Guard, against Hale because he was a part of both and even against her. Dave was merely drunk, he had simply shot off his pistol--that was no harm in the hills. And yet everybody had dashed toward him as though he had stolen something--even Hale. Yes, even that boy with the cap who had stood up for her at school that afternoon--he had rushed up, his face aflame with excitement, eager to take part should Dave resist. She had cried out impulsively to save Hale, but Dave would not understand. No, in his eyes she had been false to family and friends--to the clan-- she had sided with "furriners." What would her father say? Perhaps she'd better go home next day--perhaps for good--for there was a deep unrest within her that she could not fathom, a premonition that she was at the parting of the ways, a vague fear of the shadows that hung about the strange new path on which her feet were set. The old mill creaked in the moonlight below her. Sometimes, when the wind blew up Lonesome Cove, she could hear Uncle Billy's wheel creaking just that way. A sudden pang of homesickness choked her, but she did not cry. Yes, she would go home next day. She blew out the light and undressed in the dark as she did at home and went to bed. And that night the little night- gown lay apart from her in the drawer--unfolded and untouched.