Chapter XVI
 

The in-sweep of the outside world was broadening its current now. The improvement company had been formed to encourage the growth of the town. A safe was put in the back part of a furniture store behind a wooden partition and a bank was started. Up through the Gap and toward Kentucky, more entries were driven into the coal, and on the Virginia side were signs of stripping for iron ore. A furnace was coming in just as soon as the railroad could bring it in, and the railroad was pushing ahead with genuine vigor. Speculators were trooping in and the town had been divided off into lots--a few of which had already changed hands. One agent had brought in a big steel safe and a tent and was buying coal lands right and left. More young men drifted in from all points of the compass. A tent-hotel was put at the foot of Imboden Hill, and of nights there were under it much poker and song. The lilt of a definite optimism was in every man's step and the light of hope was in every man's eye.

And the Guard went to its work in earnest. Every man now had his Winchester, his revolver, his billy and his whistle. Drilling and target-shooting became a daily practice. Bob, who had been a year in a military school, was drill-master for the recruits, and very gravely he performed his duties and put them through the skirmishers' drill--advancing in rushes, throwing themselves in the new grass, and very gravely he commended one enthusiast--none other than the Hon. Samuel Budd--who, rather than lose his position in line, threw himself into a pool of water: all to the surprise, scorn and anger of the mountain onlookers, who dwelled about the town. Many were the comments the members of the Guard heard from them, even while they were at drill.

"I'd like to see one o' them fellers hit me with one of them locust posts."

"Huh! I could take two good men an' run the whole batch out o' the county."

"Look at them dudes and furriners. They come into our country and air tryin' to larn us how to run it."

"Our boys air only tryin' to have their little fun. They don't mean nothin', but someday some fool young guard'll hurt somebody and then thar'll be hell to pay."

Hale could not help feeling considerable sympathy for their point of view--particularly when he saw the mountaineers watching the Guard at target-practice--each volunteer policeman with his back to the target, and at the word of command wheeling and firing six shots in rapid succession--and he did not wonder at their snorts of scorn at such bad shooting and their open anger that the Guard was practising for them. But sometimes he got an unexpected recruit. One bully, who had been conspicuous in the brickyard trouble, after watching a drill went up to him with a grin:

"Hell," he said cheerily, "I believe you fellers air goin' to have more fun than we air, an' danged if I don't jine you, if you'll let me."

"Sure," said Hale. And others, who might have been bad men, became members and, thus getting a vent for their energies, were as enthusiastic for the law as they might have been against it.

Of course, the antagonistic element in the town lost no opportunity to plague and harass the Guard, and after the destruction of the "blind tigers," mischief was naturally concentrated in the high-license saloons--particularly in the one run by Jack Woods, whose local power for evil and cackling laugh seemed to mean nothing else than close personal communion with old Nick himself. Passing the door of his saloon one day, Bob saw one of Jack's customers trying to play pool with a Winchester in one hand and an open knife between his teeth, and the boy stepped in and halted. The man had no weapon concealed and was making no disturbance, and Bob did not know whether or not he had the legal right to arrest him, so he turned, and, while he was standing in the door, Jack winked at his customer, who, with a grin, put the back of his knife-blade between Bob's shoulders and, pushing, closed it. The boy looked over his shoulder without moving a muscle, but the Hon. Samuel Budd, who came in at that moment, pinioned the fellow's arms from behind and Bob took his weapon away.

"Hell," said the mountaineer, "I didn't aim to hurt the little feller. I jes' wanted to see if I could skeer him."

"Well, brother, 'tis scarce a merry jest," quoth the Hon. Sam, and he looked sharply at Jack through his big spectacles as the two led the man off to the calaboose: for he suspected that the saloon-keeper was at the bottom of the trick. Jack's time came only the next day. He had regarded it as the limit of indignity when an ordinance was up that nobody should blow a whistle except a member of the Guard, and it was great fun for him to have some drunken customer blow a whistle and then stand in his door and laugh at the policemen running in from all directions. That day Jack tried the whistle himself and Hale ran down.

"Who did that?" he asked. Jack felt bold that morning.

"I blowed it."

Hale thought for a moment. The ordinance against blowing a whistle had not yet been passed, but he made up his mind that, under the circumstances, Jack's blowing was a breach of the peace, since the Guard had adopted that signal. So he said:

"You mustn't do that again."

Jack had doubtless been going through precisely the same mental process, and, on the nice legal point involved, he seemed to differ.

"I'll blow it when I damn please," he said.

"Blow it again and I'll arrest you," said Hale.

Jack blew. He had his right shoulder against the corner of his door at the time, and, when he raised the whistle to his lips, Hale drew and covered him before he could make another move. Woods backed slowly into his saloon to get behind his counter. Hale saw his purpose, and he closed in, taking great risk, as he always did, to avoid bloodshed, and there was a struggle. Jack managed to get his pistol out; but Hale caught him by the wrist and held the weapon away so that it was harmless as far as he was concerned; but a crowd was gathering at the door toward which the saloon- keeper's pistol was pointed, and he feared that somebody out there might be shot; so he called out:

"Drop that pistol!"

The order was not obeyed, and Hale raised his right hand high above Jack's head and dropped the butt of his weapon on Jack's skull--hard. Jack's head dropped back between his shoulders, his eyes closed and his pistol clicked on the floor.

Hale knew how serious a thing a blow was in that part of the world, and what excitement it would create, and he was uneasy at Jack's trial, for fear that the saloon-keeper's friends would take the matter up; but they didn't, and, to the surprise of everybody, Jack quietly paid his fine, and thereafter the Guard had little active trouble from the town itself, for it was quite plain there, at least, that the Guard meant business.

Across Black Mountain old Dave Tolliver and old Buck Falin had got well of their wounds by this time, and though each swore to have vengeance against the other as soon as he was able to handle a Winchester, both factions seemed waiting for that time to come. Moreover, the Falins, because of a rumour that Bad Rufe Tolliver might come back, and because of Devil Judd's anger at their attempt to capture young Dave, grew wary and rather pacificatory: and so, beyond a little quarrelling, a little threatening and the exchange of a harmless shot or two, sometimes in banter, sometimes in earnest, nothing had been done. Sternly, however, though the Falins did not know the fact, Devil Judd continued to hold aloof in spite of the pleadings of young Dave, and so confident was the old man in the balance of power that lay with him that he sent June word that he was coming to take her home. And, in truth, with Hale going away again on a business trip and Bob, too, gone back home to the Bluegrass, and school closed, the little girl was glad to go, and she waited for her father's coming eagerly. Miss Anne was still there, to be sure, and if she, too, had gone, June would have been more content. The quiet smile of that astute young woman had told Hale plainly, and somewhat to his embarrassment, that she knew something had happened between the two, but that smile she never gave to June. Indeed, she never encountered aught else than the same silent searching gaze from the strangely mature little creature's eyes, and when those eyes met the teacher's, always June's hand would wander unconsciously to the little cross at her throat as though to invoke its aid against anything that could come between her and its giver.

The purple rhododendrons on Bee Rock had come and gone and the pink-flecked laurels were in bloom when June fared forth one sunny morning of her own birth-month behind old Judd Tolliver--home. Back up through the wild Gap they rode in silence, past Bee Rock, out of the chasm and up the little valley toward the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, into which the father's old sorrel nag, with a switch of her sunburnt tail, turned leftward. June leaned forward a little, and there was the crest of the big tree motionless in the blue high above, and sheltered by one big white cloud. It was the first time she had seen the pine since she had first left it, and little tremblings went through her from her bare feet to her bonneted head. Thus was she unclad, for Hale had told her that, to avoid criticism, she must go home clothed just as she was when she left Lonesome Cove. She did not quite understand that, and she carried her new clothes in a bundle in her lap, but she took Hale's word unquestioned. So she wore her crimson homespun and her bonnet, with her bronze-gold hair gathered under it in the same old Psyche knot. She must wear her shoes, she told Hale, until she got out of town, else someone might see her, but Hale had said she would be leaving too early for that: and so she had gone from the Gap as she had come into it, with unmittened hands and bare feet. The soft wind was very good to those dangling feet, and she itched to have them on the green grass or in the cool waters through which the old horse splashed. Yes, she was going home again, the same June as far as mountain eyes could see, though she had grown perceptibly, and her little face had blossomed from her heart almost into a woman's, but she knew that while her clothes were the same, they covered quite another girl. Time wings slowly for the young, and when the sensations are many and the experiences are new, slowly even for all--and thus there was a double reason why it seemed an age to June since her eyes had last rested on the big Pine.

Here was the place where Hale had put his big black horse into a dead run, and as vivid a thrill of it came back to her now as had been the thrill of the race. Then they began to climb laboriously up the rocky creek--the water singing a joyous welcome to her along the path, ferns and flowers nodding to her from dead leaves and rich mould and peeping at her from crevices between the rocks on the creek-banks as high up as the level of her eyes--up under bending branches full-leafed, with the warm sunshine darting down through them upon her as she passed, and making a playfellow of her sunny hair. Here was the place where she had got angry with Hale, had slid from his horse and stormed with tears. What a little fool she had been when Hale had meant only to be kind! He was never anything but kind--Jack was--dear, dear Jack! That wouldn't happen no more, she thought, and straightway she corrected that thought.

"It won't happen any more," she said aloud.

"Whut'd you say, June?"

The old man lifted his bushy beard from his chest and turned his head.

"Nothin', dad," she said, and old Judd, himself in a deep study, dropped back into it again. How often she had said that to herself--that it would happen no more--she had stopped saying it to Hale, because he laughed and forgave her, and seemed to love her mood, whether she cried from joy or anger--and yet she kept on doing both just the same.

Several times Devil Judd stopped to let his horse rest, and each time, of course, the wooded slopes of the mountains stretched downward in longer sweeps of summer green, and across the widening valley the tops of the mountains beyond dropped nearer to the straight level of her eyes, while beyond them vaster blue bulks became visible and ran on and on, as they always seemed, to the farthest limits of the world. Even out there, Hale had told her, she would go some day. The last curving up-sweep came finally, and there stood the big Pine, majestic, unchanged and murmuring in the wind like the undertone of a far-off sea. As they passed the base of it, she reached out her hand and let the tips of her fingers brush caressingly across its trunk, turned quickly for a last look at the sunlit valley and the hills of the outer world and then the two passed into a green gloom of shadow and thick leaves that shut her heart in as suddenly as though some human hand had clutched it. She was going home--to see Bub and Loretta and Uncle Billy and "old Hon" and her step-mother and Dave, and yet she felt vaguely troubled. The valley on the other side was in dazzling sunshine-- she had seen that. The sun must still be shining over there--it must be shining above her over here, for here and there shot a sunbeam message from that outer world down through the leaves, and yet it seemed that black night had suddenly fallen about her, and helplessly she wondered about it all, with her hands gripped tight and her eyes wide. But the mood was gone when they emerged at the "deadening" on the last spur and she saw Lonesome Cove and the roof of her little home peacefully asleep in the same sun that shone on the valley over the mountain. Colour came to her face and her heart beat faster. At the foot of the spur the road had been widened and showed signs of heavy hauling. There was sawdust in the mouth of the creek and, from coal-dust, the water was black. The ring of axes and the shouts of ox-drivers came from the mountain side. Up the creek above her father's cabin three or four houses were being built of fresh boards, and there in front of her was a new store. To a fence one side of it two horses were hitched and on one horse was a side-saddle. Before the door stood the Red Fox and Uncle Billy, the miller, who peered at her for a moment through his big spectacles and gave her a wondering shout of welcome that brought her cousin Loretta to the door, where she stopped a moment, anchored with surprise. Over her shoulder peered her cousin Dave, and June saw his face darken while she looked.

"Why, Honey," said the old miller, "have ye really come home agin?" While Loretta simply said:

"My Lord!" and came out and stood with her hands on her hips looking at June.

"Why, ye ain't a bit changed! I knowed ye wasn't goin' to put on no airs like Dave thar said "--she turned on Dave, who, with a surly shrug, wheeled and went back into the store. Uncle Billy was going home.

"Come down to see us right away now," he called back. "Ole Hon's might nigh crazy to gic her eyes on ye."

"All right, Uncle Billy," said June, "early termorrer." The Red Fox did not open his lips, but his pale eyes searched the girl from head to foot.

"Git down, June," said Loretta, "and I'll walk up to the house with ye."

June slid down, Devil Judd started the old horse, and as the two girls, with their arms about each other's waists, followed, the wolfish side of the Red Fox's face lifted in an ironical snarl. Bub was standing at the gate, and when he saw his father riding home alone, his wistful eyes filled and his cry of disappointment brought the step-mother to the door.

"Whar's June?" he cried, and June heard him, and loosening herself from Loretta, she ran round the horse and had Bub in her arms. Then she looked up into the eyes of her step-mother. The old woman's face looked kind--so kind that for the first time in her life June did what her father could never get her to do: she called her "Mammy," and then she gave that old woman the surprise of her life--she kissed her. Right away she must see everything, and Bub, in ecstasy, wanted to pilot her around to see the new calf and the new pigs and the new chickens, but dumbly June looked to a miracle that had come to pass to the left of the cabin--a flower-garden, the like of which she had seen only in her dreams.