Chapter XVIII
 

Pausing at the Pine to let his big black horse blow a while, Hale mounted and rode slowly down the green-and-gold gloom of the ravine. In his pocket was a quaint little letter from June to "John Hail"; thanking him for the beautiful garden, saying she was lonely, and wanting him to come soon. From the low flank of the mountain he stopped, looking down on the cabin in Lonesome Cove. It was a dreaming summer day. Trees, air, blue sky and white cloud were all in a dream, and even the smoke lazing from the chimney seemed drifting away like the spirit of something human that cared little whither it might be borne. Something crimson emerged from the door and stopped in indecision on the steps of the porch. It moved again, stopped at the corner of the house, and then, moving on with a purpose, stopped once more and began to flicker slowly to and fro like a flame. June was working in her garden. Hale thought he would halloo to her, and then he decided to surprise her, and he went on down, hitched his horse and stole up to the garden fence. On the way he pulled up a bunch of weeds by the roots and with them in his arms he noiselessly climbed the fence. June neither heard nor saw him. Her underlip was clenched tight between her teeth, the little cross swung violently at her throat and she was so savagely wielding the light hoe he had given her that he thought at first she must be killing a snake; but she was only fighting to death every weed that dared to show its head. Her feet and her head were bare, her face was moist and flushed and her hair was a tumbled heap of what was to him the rarest gold under the sun. The wind was still, the leaves were heavy with the richness of full growth, bees were busy about June's head and not another soul was in sight

"Good morning, little girl!" he called cheerily.

The hoe was arrested at the height of a vicious stroke and the little girl whirled without a cry, but the blood from her pumping heart crimsoned her face and made her eyes shine with gladness. Her eyes went to her feet and her hands to her hair.

"You oughtn't to slip up an' s-startle a lady that-a-way," she said with grave rebuke, and Hale looked humbled. "Now you just set there and wait till I come back."

"No--no--I want you to stay just as you are."

"Honest?"

Hale gravely crossed heart and body and June gave out a happy little laugh--for he had caught that gesture--a favourite one-- from her. Then suddenly:

"How long?" She was thinking of what Dave said, but the subtle twist in her meaning passed Hale by. He raised his eyes to the sun and June shook her head.

"You got to go home 'fore sundown."

She dropped her hoe and came over toward him.

"Whut you doin' with them--those weeds?"

"Going to plant 'em in our garden." Hale had got a theory from a garden-book that the humble burdock, pig-weed and other lowly plants were good for ornamental effect, and he wanted to experiment, but June gave a shrill whoop and fell to scornful laughter. Then she snatched the weeds from him and threw them over the fence.

"Why, June!"

"Not in my garden. Them's stagger-weeds--they kill cows," and she went off again.

"I reckon you better c-consult me 'bout weeds next time. I don't know much 'bout flowers, but I've knowed all my life 'bout weeds." She laid so much emphasis on the word that Hale wondered for the moment if her words had a deeper meaning--but she went on:

"Ever' spring I have to watch the cows fer two weeks to keep 'em from eatin'--those weeds." Her self-corrections were always made gravely now, and Hale consciously ignored them except when he had something to tell her that she ought to know. Everything, it seemed, she wanted to know.

"Do they really kill cows?"

June snapped her fingers: "Like that. But you just come on here," she added with pretty imperiousness. "I want to axe--ask you some things--what's that?"

"Scarlet sage."

"Scarlet sage," repeated June. "An' that?"

"Nasturtium, and that's Oriental grass."

"Nas-tur-tium, Oriental. An' what's that vine?"

"That comes from North Africa--they call it 'matrimonial vine.'"

"Whut fer?" asked June quickly.

"Because it clings so." Hale smiled, but June saw none of his humour--the married people she knew clung till the finger of death unclasped them. She pointed to a bunch of tall tropical-looking plants with great spreading leaves and big green-white stalks.

"They're called Palmae Christi."

"Whut?"

"That's Latin. It means 'Hands of Christ,'" said Hale with reverence. "You see how the leaves are spread out--don't they look like hands?'

"Not much," said June frankly. "What's Latin?"

"Oh, that's a dead language that some people used a long, long time ago."

"What do folks use it nowadays fer? Why don't they just say 'Hands o' Christ'?"

"I don't know," he said helplessly, "but maybe you'll study Latin some of these days." June shook her head.

"Gettin' your language is a big enough job fer me," she said with such quaint seriousness that Hale could not laugh. She looked up suddenly. "You been a long time git--gettin' over here."

"Yes, and now you want to send me home before sundown."

"I'm afeer--I'm afraid for you. Have you got a gun?" Hale tapped his breast-pocket.

"Always. What are you afraid of?"

"The Falins." She clenched her hands.

"I'd like to see one o' them Falins tech ye," she added fiercely, and then she gave a quick look at the sun.

"You better go now, Jack. I'm afraid fer you. Where's your horse?" Hale waved his hand.

"Down there. All right, little girl," he said. "I ought to go, anyway." And, to humour her, he started for the gate. There he bent to kiss her, but she drew back.

"I'm afraid of Dave," she said, but she leaned on the gate and looked long at him with wistful eyes.

"Jack," she said, and her eyes swam suddenly, "it'll most kill me- -but I reckon you better not come over here much." Hale made light of it all.

"Nonsense, I'm coming just as often as I can." June smiled then.

"All right. I'll watch out fer ye."

He went down the path, her eyes following him, and when he looked back from the spur he saw her sitting in the porch and watching that she might wave him farewell.

Hale could not go over to Lonesome Cove much that summer, for he was away from the mountains a good part of the time, and it was a weary, racking summer for June when he was not there. The step- mother was a stern taskmistress, and the girl worked hard, but no night passed that she did not spend an hour or more on her books, and by degrees she bribed and stormed Bub into learning his A, B, C's and digging at a blue-back spelling book. But all through the day there were times when she could play with the boy in the garden, and every afternoon, when it was not raining, she would slip away to a little ravine behind the cabin, where a log had fallen across a little brook, and there in the cool, sun-pierced shadows she would study, read and dream--with the water bubbling underneath and wood-thrushes singing overhead. For Hale kept her well supplied with books. He had given her children's books at first, but she outgrew them when the first love-story fell into her hands, and then he gave her novels--good, old ones and the best of the new ones, and they were to her what water is to a thing athirst. But the happy days were when Hale was there. She had a thousand questions for him to answer, whenever he came, about birds, trees and flowers and the things she read in her books. The words she could not understand in them she marked, so that she could ask their meaning, and it was amazing how her vocabulary increased. Moreover, she was always trying to use the new words she learned, and her speech was thus a quaint mixture of vernacular, self-corrections and unexpected words. Happening once to have a volume of Keats in his pocket, he read some of it to her, and while she could not understand, the music of the lines fascinated her and she had him leave that with her, too. She never tired hearing him tell of the places where he had been and the people he knew and the music and plays he had heard and seen. And when he told her that she, too, should see all those wonderful things some day, her deep eyes took fire and she dropped her head far back between her shoulders and looked long at the stars that held but little more wonder for her than the world of which he told. But each time he was there she grew noticeably shyer with him and never once was the love-theme between them taken up in open words. Hale was reluctant, if only because she was still such a child, and if he took her hand or put his own on her wonderful head or his arm around her as they stood in the garden under the stars--he did it as to a child, though the leap in her eyes and the quickening of his own heart told him the lie that he was acting, rightly, to her and to himself. And no more now were there any breaking-downs within her--there was only a calm faith that staggered him and gave him an ever-mounting sense of his responsibility for whatever might, through the part he had taken in moulding her life, be in store for her.

When he was not there, life grew a little easier for her in time, because of her dreams, the patience that was built from them and Hale's kindly words, the comfort of her garden and her books, and the blessed force of habit. For as time went on, she got consciously used to the rough life, the coarse food and the rude ways of her own people and her own home. And though she relaxed not a bit in her own dainty cleanliness, the shrinking that she felt when she first arrived home, came to her at longer and longer intervals. Once a week she went down to Uncle Billy's, where she watched the water-wheel dripping sun-jewels into the sluice, the kingfisher darting like a blue bolt upon his prey, and listening to the lullaby that the water played to the sleepy old mill--and stopping, both ways, to gossip with old Hon in her porch under the honeysuckle vines. Uncle Billy saw the change in her and he grew vaguely uneasy about her--she dreamed so much, she was at times so restless, she asked so many questions he could not answer, and she failed to ask so many that were on the tip of her tongue. He saw that while her body was at home, her thoughts rarely were; and it all haunted him with a vague sense that he was losing her. But old Hon laughed at him and told him he was an old fool and to "git another pair o' specs" and maybe he could see that the "little gal" was in love. This startled Uncle Billy, for he was so like a father to June that he was as slow as a father in recognizing that his child has grown to such absurd maturity. But looking back to the beginning--how the little girl had talked of the "furriner" who had come into Lonesome Cove all during the six months he was gone; how gladly she had gone away to the Gap to school, how anxious she was to go still farther away again, and, remembering all the strange questions she asked him about things in the outside world of which he knew nothing--Uncle Billy shook his head in confirmation of his own conclusion, and with all his soul he wondered about Hale--what kind of a man he was and what his purpose was with June--and of every man who passed his mill he never failed to ask if he knew "that ar man Hale" and what he knew. All he had heard had been in Hale's favour, except from young Dave Tolliver, the Red Fox or from any Falin of the crowd, which Hale had prevented from capturing Dave. Their statements bothered him--especially the Red Fox's evil hints and insinuations about Hale's purposes one day at the mill. The miller thought of them all the afternoon and all the way home, and when he sat down at his fire his eyes very naturally and simply rose to his old rifle over the door--and then he laughed to himself so loudly that old Hon heard him.

"Air you goin' crazy, Billy?" she asked. "Whut you studyin' 'bout?"

"Nothin'; I was jest a-thinkin' Devil Judd wouldn't leave a grease-spot of him."

"You air goin' crazy--who's him?"

"Uh--nobody," said Uncle Billy, and old Hon turned with a shrug of her shoulders--she was tired of all this talk about the feud.

All that summer young Dave Tolliver hung around Lonesome Cove. He would sit for hours in Devil Judd's cabin, rarely saying anything to June or to anybody, though the girl felt that she hardly made a move that he did not see, and while he disappeared when Hale came, after a surly grunt of acknowledgment to Hale's cheerful greeting, his perpetual espionage began to anger June. Never, however, did he put himself into words until Hale's last visit, when the summer had waned and it was nearly time for June to go away again to school. As usual, Dave had left the house when Hale came, and an hour after Hale was gone she went to the little ravine with a book in her hand, and there the boy was sitting on her log, his elbows dug into his legs midway between thigh and knee, his chin in his hands, his slouched hat over his black eyes--every line of him picturing angry, sullen dejection. She would have slipped away, but he heard her and lifted his head and stared at her without speaking. Then he slowly got off the log and sat down on a moss- covered stone.

"'Scuse me," he said with elaborate sarcasm. "This bein' yo' school-house over hyeh, an' me not bein' a scholar, I reckon I'm in your way."

"How do you happen to know hit's my school-house?" asked June quietly.

"I've seed you hyeh."

"Jus' as I s'posed."

"You an' him."

"Jus' as I s'posed," she repeated, and a spot of red came into each cheek. "But we didn't see you." Young Dave laughed.

"Well, everybody don't always see me when I'm seein' them."

"No," she said unsteadily. "So, you've been sneakin' around through the woods a-spyin' on me--sneakin' an' spyin'," she repeated so searingly that Dave looked at the ground suddenly, picked up a pebble confusedly and shot it in the water.

"I had a mighty good reason," he said doggedly. "Ef he'd been up to some of his furrin' tricks---" June stamped the ground.

"Don't you think I kin take keer o' myself?"

"No, I don't. I never seed a gal that could--with one o' them furriners."

"Huh!" she said scornfully. "You seem to set a mighty big store by the decency of yo' own kin." Dave was silent." He ain't up to no tricks. An' whut do you reckon Dad 'ud be doin' while you was pertecting me?"

"Air ye goin' away to school?" he asked suddenly. June hesitated.

"Well, seein' as hit's none o' yo' business--I am."

"Air ye goin' to marry him?"

"He ain't axed me." The boy's face turned red as a flame.

"Ye air honest with me, an' now I'm goin' to be honest with you. You hain't never goin' to marry him."

"Mebbe you think I'm goin' to marry you." A mist of rage swept before the lad's eyes so that he could hardly see, but he repeated steadily:

"You hain't goin' to marry him." June looked at the boy long and steadily, but his black eyes never wavered--she knew what he meant.

"An' he kept the Falins from killin' you," she said, quivering with indignation at the shame of him, but Dave went on unheeding:

"You pore little fool! Do ye reckon as how he's ever goin' to axe ye to marry him? Whut's he sendin' you away fer? Because you hain't good enough fer him! Whar's yo' pride? You hain't good enough fer him," he repeated scathingly. June had grown calm now.

"I know it," she said quietly, "but I'm goin' to try to be."

Dave rose then in impotent fury and pointed one finger at her. His black eyes gleamed like a demon's and his voice was hoarse with resolution and rage, but it was Tolliver against Tolliver now, and June answered him with contemptuous fearlessness.

"You hain't never goin' to marry him."

"An' he kept the Falins from killin' ye."

"Yes," he retorted savagely at last, "an' I kept the Falins from killin' him," and he stalked away, leaving June blanched and wondering.

It was true. Only an hour before, as Hale turned up the mountain that very afternoon at the mouth of Lonesome Cove, young Dave had called to him from the bushes and stepped into the road.

"You air goin' to court Monday?" he said.

"Yes," said Hale.

"Well, you better take another road this time," he said quietly. "Three o' the Falins will be waitin' in the lorrel somewhar on the road to lay-way ye."

Hale was dumfounded, but he knew the boy spoke the truth.

"Look here," he said impulsively, "I've got nothing against you, and I hope you've got nothing against me. I'm much obliged--let's shake hands!"

The boy turned sullenly away with a dogged shake of his head.

"I was beholden to you," he said with dignity, "an' I warned you 'bout them Falins to git even with you. We're quits now."

Hale started to speak--to say that the lad was not beholden to him--that he would as quickly have protected a Falin, but it would have only made matters worse. Moreover, he knew precisely what Dave had against him, and that, too, was no matter for discussion. So he said simply and sincerely:

"I'm sorry we can't be friends."

"No," Dave gritted out, "not this side o' Heaven--or Hell."