The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr.
Twice her lips opened soundlessly and, dazed, she could only point dumbly. The old step-mother laughed:
"Jack Hale done that. He pestered yo' pap to let him do it fer ye, an' anything Jack Hale wants from yo' pap, he gits. I thought hit was plum' foolishness, but he's got things to eat planted thar, too, an' I declar hit's right purty."
That wonderful garden! June started for it on a run. There was a broad grass-walk down through the middle of it and there were narrow grass-walks running sidewise, just as they did in the gardens which Hale told her he had seen in the outer world. The flowers were planted in raised beds, and all the ones that she had learned to know and love at the Gap were there, and many more besides. The hollyhocks, bachelor's buttons and marigolds she had known all her life. The lilacs, touch-me-nots, tulips and narcissus she had learned to know in gardens at the Gap. Two rose- bushes were in bloom, and there were strange grasses and plants and flowers that Jack would tell her about when he came. One side was sentinelled by sun-flowers and another side by transplanted laurel and rhododendron shrubs, and hidden in the plant-and- flower-bordered squares were the vegetables that won her step- mother's tolerance of Hale's plan. Through and through June walked, her dark eyes flashing joyously here and there when they were not a little dimmed with tears, with Loretta following her, unsympathetic in appreciation, wondering that June should be making such a fuss about a lot of flowers, but envious withal when she half guessed the reason, and impatient Bub eager to show her other births and changes. And, over and over all the while, June was whispering to herself:
"My garden--my garden!"
When she came back to the porch, after a tour through all that was new or had changed, Dave had brought his horse and Loretta's to the gate. No, he wouldn't come in and "rest a spell"--"they must be gittin' along home," he said shortly. But old Judd Tolliver insisted that he should stay to dinner, and Dave tied the horses to the fence and walked to the porch, not lifting his eyes to June. Straightway the girl went into the house co help her step- mother with dinner, but the old woman told her she "reckoned she needn't start in yit"--adding in the querulous tone June knew so well:
"I've been mighty po'ly, an' thar'll be a mighty lot fer you to do now." So with this direful prophecy in her ears the girl hesitated. The old woman looked at her closely.
"Ye ain't a bit changed," she said.
They were the words Loretta had used, and in the voice of each was the same strange tone of disappointment. June wondered: were they sorry she had not come back putting on airs and fussed up with ribbons and feathers that they might hear her picked to pieces and perhaps do some of the picking themselves? Not Loretta, surely-- but the old step-mother! June left the kitchen and sat down just inside the door. The Red Fox and two other men had sauntered up from the store and all were listening to his quavering chat:
"I seed a vision last night, and thar's trouble a-comin' in these mountains. The Lord told me so straight from the clouds. These railroads and coal-mines is a-goin' to raise taxes, so that a pore man'll have to sell his hogs and his corn to pay 'em an' have nothin' left to keep him from starvin' to death. Them police- fellers over thar at the Gap is a-stirrin' up strife and a-runnin' things over thar as though the earth was made fer 'em, an' the citizens ain't goin' to stand it. An' this war's a-comin' on an' thar'll be shootin' an' killin' over thar an' over hyeh. I seed all this devilment in a vision last night, as shore as I'm settin' hyeh."
Old Judd grunted, shifted his huge shoulders, parted his mustache and beard with two fingers and spat through them.
"Well, I reckon you didn't see no devilment. Red, that you won't take a hand in, if it comes."
The other men laughed, but the Red Fox looked meek and lowly.
"I'm a servant of the Lord. He says do this, an' I does it the best I know how. I goes about a-preachin' the word in the wilderness an' a-healin' the sick with soothin' yarbs and sech."
"An' a-makin' compacts with the devil," said old Judd shortly, "when the eye of man is a-lookin' t'other way." The left side of the Red Fox's face twitched into the faintest shadow of a snarl, but, shaking his head, he kept still.
"Well," said Sam Barth, who was thin and long and sandy, "I don't keer what them fellers do on t'other side o' the mountain, but what air they a-comin' over here fer?"
Old Judd spoke again.
"To give you a job, if you wasn't too durned lazy to work."
"Yes," said the other man, who was dark, swarthy and whose black eyebrows met across the bridge of his nose--"and that damned Hale, who's a-tearin' up Hellfire here in the cove." The old man lifted his eyes. Young Dave's face wore a sudden malignant sympathy which made June clench her hands a little more tightly.
"What about him? You must have been over to the Gap lately--like Dave thar--did you git board in the calaboose?" It was a random thrust, but it was accurate and it went home, and there was silence for a while. Presently old Judd went on:
"Taxes hain't goin' to be raised, and if they are, folks will be better able to pay 'em. Them police-fellers at the Gap don't bother nobody if he behaves himself. This war will start when it does start, an' as for Hale, he's as square an' clever a feller as I've ever seed. His word is just as good as his bond. I'm a-goin' to sell him this land. It'll be his'n, an' he can do what he wants to with it. I'm his friend, and I'm goin' to stay his friend as long as he goes on as he's goin' now, an' I'm not goin' to see him bothered as long as he tends to his own business."
The words fell slowly and the weight of them rested heavily on all except on June. Her fingers loosened and she smiled.
The Red Fox rose, shaking his head.
"All right, Judd Tolliver," he said warningly.
"Come in and git something to eat, Red."
"No," he said, "I'll be gittin' along"--and he went, still shaking his head.
The table was covered with an oil-cloth spotted with drippings from a candle. The plates and cups were thick and the spoons were of pewter. The bread was soggy and the bacon was thick and floating in grease. The men ate and the women served, as in ancient days. They gobbled their food like wolves, and when they drank their coffee, the noise they made was painful to June's ears. There were no napkins and when her father pushed his chair back, he wiped his dripping mouth with the back of his sleeve. And Loretta and the step-mother--they, too, ate with their knives and used their fingers. Poor June quivered with a vague newborn disgust. Ah, had she not changed--in ways they could not see!
June helped clear away the dishes--the old woman did not object to that--listening to the gossip of the mountains--courtships, marriages, births, deaths, the growing hostility in the feud, the random killing of this man or that--Hale's doings in Lonesome Cove.
"He's comin' over hyeh agin next Saturday," said the old woman.
"Is he?" said Loretta in a way that made June turn sharply from her dishes toward her. She knew Hale was not coming, but she said nothing. The old woman was lighting her pipe.
"Yes--you better be over hyeh in yo' best bib and tucker."
"Pshaw," said Loretta, but June saw two bright spots come into her pretty cheeks, and she herself burned inwardly. The old woman was looking at her.
"'Pears like you air mighty quiet, June."
"That's so," said Loretta, looking at her, too.
June, still silent, turned back to her dishes. They were beginning to take notice after all, for the girl hardly knew that she had not opened her lips.
Once only Dave spoke to her, and that was when Loretta said she must go. June was out in the porch looking at the already beloved garden, and hearing his step she turned. He looked her steadily in the eyes. She saw his gaze drop to the fairy-stone at her throat, and a faint sneer appeared at his set mouth--a sneer for June's folly and what he thought was uppishness in "furriners" like Hale.
"So you ain't good enough fer him jest as ye air--air ye?" he said slowly. "He's got to make ye all over agin--so's you'll be fitten fer him."
He turned away without looking to see how deep his barbed shaft went and, startled, June flushed to her hair. In a few minutes they were gone--Dave without the exchange of another word with June, and Loretta with a parting cry that she would come back on Saturday. The old man went to the cornfield high above the cabin, the old woman, groaning with pains real and fancied, lay down on a creaking bed, and June, with Dave's wound rankling, went out with Bub to see the new doings in Lonesome Cove. The geese cackled before her, the hog-fish darted like submarine arrows from rock to rock and the willows bent in the same wistful way toward their shadows in the little stream, but its crystal depths were there no longer--floating sawdust whirled in eddies on the surface and the water was black as soot. Here and there the white belly of a fish lay upturned to the sun, for the cruel, deadly work of civilization had already begun. Farther up the creek was a buzzing monster that, creaking and snorting, sent a flashing disk, rimmed with sharp teeth, biting a savage way through a log, that screamed with pain as the brutal thing tore through its vitals, and gave up its life each time with a ghost-like cry of agony. Farther on little houses were being built of fresh boards, and farther on the water of the creek got blacker still. June suddenly clutched Bud's arms. Two demons had appeared on a pile of fresh dirt above them-- sooty, begrimed, with black faces and black hands, and in the cap of each was a smoking little lamp.
"Huh," said Bub, "that ain't nothin'! Hello, Bill," he called bravely.
"Hello, Bub," answered one of the two demons, and both stared at the lovely little apparition who was staring with such naive horror at them. It was all very wonderful, though, and it was all happening in Lonesome Cove, but Jack Hale was doing it all and, therefore, it was all right, thought June--no matter what Dave said. Moreover, the ugly spot on the great, beautiful breast of the Mother was such a little one after all and June had no idea how it must spread. Above the opening for the mines, the creek was crystal-clear as ever, the great hills were the same, and the sky and the clouds, and the cabin and the fields of corn. Nothing could happen to them, but if even they were wiped out by Hale's hand she would have made no complaint. A wood-thrush flitted from a ravine as she and Bub went back down the creek--and she stopped with uplifted face to listen. All her life she had loved its song, and this was the first time she had heard it in Lonesome Cove since she had learned its name from Hale. She had never heard it thereafter without thinking of him, and she thought of him now while it was breathing out the very spirit of the hills, and she drew a long sigh for already she was lonely and hungering for him. The song ceased and a long wavering cry came from the cabin.
"So-o-o-cow! S-o-o-kee! S-o-o-kee!"
The old mother was calling the cows. It was near milking-time, and with a vague uneasiness she hurried Bub home. She saw her father coming down from the cornfield. She saw the two cows come from the woods into the path that led to the barn, switching their tails and snatching mouthfuls from the bushes as they swung down the hill and, when she reached the gate, her step-mother was standing on the porch with one hand on her hip and the other shading her eyes from the slanting sun--waiting for her. Already kindness and consideration were gone.
"Whar you been, June? Hurry up, now. You've had a long restin'- spell while I've been a-workin' myself to death."
It was the old tone, and the old fierce rebellion rose within June, but Hale had told her to be patient. She could not check the flash from her eyes, but she shut her lips tight on the answer that sprang to them, and without a word she went to the kitchen for the milking-pails. The cows had forgotten her. They eyed her with suspicion and were restive. The first one kicked at her when she put her beautiful head against its soft flank. Her muscles had been in disuse and her hands were cramped and her forearms ached before she was through--but she kept doggedly at her task. When she finished, her father had fed the horses and was standing behind her.
"Hit's mighty good to have you back agin, little gal."
It was not often that he smiled or showed tenderness, much less spoke it thus openly, and June was doubly glad that she had held her tongue. Then she helped her step-mother get supper. The fire scorched her face, that had grown unaccustomed to such heat, and she burned one hand, but she did not let her step-mother see even that. Again she noticed with aversion the heavy thick dishes and the pewter spoons and the candle-grease on the oil-cloth, and she put the dishes down and, while the old woman was out of the room, attacked the spots viciously. Again she saw her father and Bub ravenously gobbling their coarse food while she and her step- mother served and waited, and she began to wonder. The women sat at the table with the men over in the Gap--why not here? Then her father went silently to his pipe and Bub to playing with the kitten at the kitchen-door, while she and her mother ate with never a word. Something began to stifle her, but she choked it down. There were the dishes to be cleared away and washed, and the pans and kettles to be cleaned. Her back ached, her arms were tired to the shoulders and her burned hand quivered with pain when all was done. The old woman had left her to do the last few little things alone and had gone to her pipe. Both she and her father were sitting in silence on the porch when June went out there. Neither spoke to each other, nor to her, and both seemed to be part of the awful stillness that engulfed the world. Bub fell asleep in the soft air, and June sat and sat and sat. That was all except for the stars that came out over the mountains and were slowly being sprayed over the sky, and the pipings of frogs from the little creek. Once the wind came with a sudden sweep up the river and she thought she could hear the creak of Uncle Billy's water-wheel. It smote her with sudden gladness, not so much because it was a relief and because she loved the old miller, but- -such is the power of association--because she now loved the mill more, loved it because the mill over in the Gap had made her think more of the mill at the mouth of Lonesome Cove. A tapping vibrated through the railing of the porch on which her cheek lay. Her father was knocking the ashes from his pipe. A similar tapping sounded inside at the fireplace. The old woman had gone and Bub was in bed, and she had heard neither move. The old man rose with a yawn.
"Time to lay down, June."
The girl rose. They all slept in one room. She did not dare to put on her night-gown--her mother would see it in the morning. So she slipped off her dress, as she had done all her life, and crawled into bed with Bub, who lay in the middle of it and who grunted peevishly when she pushed him with some difficulty over to his side. There were no sheets--not even one--and the coarse blankets, which had a close acrid odour that she had never noticed before, seemed almost to scratch her flesh. She had hardly been to bed that early since she had left home, and she lay sleepless, watching the firelight play hide and seek with the shadows among the aged, smoky rafters and flicker over the strings of dried things that hung from the ceiling. In the other corner her father and stepmother snored heartily, and Bub, beside her, was in a nerveless slumber that would not come to her that night-tired and aching as she was. So, quietly, by and by, she slipped out of bed and out the door to the porch. The moon was rising and the radiant sheen of it had dropped down over the mountain side like a golden veil and was lighting up the white rising mists that trailed the curves of the river. It sank below the still crests of the pines beyond the garden and dropped on until it illumined, one by one, the dewy heads of the flowers. She rose and walked down the grassy path in her bare feet through the silent fragrant emblems of the planter's thought of her--touching this flower and that with the tips of her fingers. And when she went back, she bent to kiss one lovely rose and, as she lifted her head with a start of fear, the dew from it shining on her lips made her red mouth as flower-like and no less beautiful. A yell had shattered the quiet of the world--not the high fox-hunting yell of the mountains, but something new and strange. Up the creek were strange lights. A loud laugh shattered the succeeding stillness--a laugh she had never heard before in Lonesome Cove. Swiftly she ran back to the porch. Surely strange things were happening there. A strange spirit pervaded the Cove and the very air throbbed with premonitions. What was the matter with everything--what was the matter with her? She knew that she was lonely and that she wanted Hale--but what else was it? She shivered--and not alone from the chill night-air--and puzzled and wondering and stricken at heart, she crept back to bed.