The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr.
The boom started after its shadow through the hills now, and Hale watched it sweep toward him with grim satisfaction at the fulfilment of his own prophecy and with disgust that, by the irony of fate, it should come from the very quarters where years before he had played the maddening part of lunatic at large. The avalanche was sweeping southward; Pennsylvania was creeping down the Alleghanies, emissaries of New York capital were pouring into the hills, the tide-water of Virginia and the Bluegrass region of Kentucky were sending in their best blood and youth, and friends of the helmeted Englishmen were hurrying over the seas. Eastern companies were taking up principalities, and at Cumberland Gap, those helmeted Englishmen had acquired a kingdom. They were building a town there, too, with huge steel plants, broad avenues and business blocks that would have graced Broadway; and they were pouring out a million for every thousand that it would have cost Hale to acquire the land on which the work was going on. Moreover they were doing it there, as Hale heard, because they were too late to get control of his gap through the Cumberland. At his gap, too, the same movement was starting. In stage and wagon, on mule and horse, "riding and tying" sometimes, and even afoot came the rush of madmen. Horses and mules were drowned in the mud holes along the road, such was the traffic and such were the floods. The incomers slept eight in a room, burned oil at one dollar a gallon, and ate potatoes at ten cents apiece. The Grand Central Hotel was a humming Real-Estate Exchange, and, night and day, the occupants of any room could hear, through the thin partitions, lots booming to right, left, behind and in front of them. The labour and capital question was instantly solved, for everybody became a capitalistócarpenter, brick-layer, blacksmith, singing teacher and preacher. There is no difference between the shrewdest business man and a fool in a boom, for the boom levels all grades of intelligence and produces as distinct a form of insanity as you can find within the walls of an asylum. Lots took wings sky-ward. Hale bought one for June for thirty dollars and sold it for a thousand. Before the autumn was gone, he found himself on the way to ridiculous opulence and, when spring came, he had the world in a sling and, if he wished, he could toss it playfully at the sun and have it drop back into his hand again. And the boom spread down the valley and into the hills. The police guard had little to do and, over in the mountains, the feud miraculously came to a sudden close.
So pervasive, indeed, was the spirit of the times that the Hon. Sam Budd actually got old Buck Falin and old Dave Tolliver to sign a truce, agreeing to a complete cessation of hostilities until he carried through a land deal in which both were interested. And after that was concluded, nobody had time, even the Red Fox, for deviltry and private vengeance--so busy was everybody picking up the manna which was dropping straight from the clouds. Hale bought all of old Judd's land, formed a stock company and in the trade gave June a bonus of the stock. Money was plentiful as grains of sand, and the cashier of the bank in the back of the furniture store at the Gap chuckled to his beardless directors as he locked the wooden door on the day before the great land sale:
"Capital stock paid in--thirteen thousand dollars;
"Deposits--three hundred thousand;
"Loans--two hundred and sixty thousand--interest from eight to twelve per cent." And, beardless though those directors were, that statement made them reel.
A club was formed and the like of it was not below Mason and Dixon's line in the way of furniture, periodicals, liquors and cigars. Poker ceased--it was too tame in competition with this new game of town-lots. On the top of High Knob a kingdom was bought. The young bloods of the town would build a lake up there, run a road up and build a Swiss chalet on the very top for a country club. The "booming" editor was discharged. A new paper was started, and the ex-editor of a New York Daily was got to run it. If anybody wanted anything, he got it from no matter where, nor at what cost. Nor were the arts wholly neglected. One man, who was proud of his voice, thought he would like to take singing lessons. An emissary was sent to Boston to bring back the best teacher he could find. The teacher came with a method of placing the voice by trying to say "Come!" at the base of the nose and between the eyes. This was with the lips closed. He charged two dollars per half hour for this effort, he had each pupil try it twice for half an hour each day, and for six weeks the town was humming like a beehive. At the end of that period, the teacher fell ill and went his way with a fat pocket-book and not a warbling soul had got the chance to open his mouth. The experience dampened nobody. Generosity was limitless. It was equally easy to raise money for a roulette wheel, a cathedral or an expedition to Africa. And even yet the railroad was miles away and even yet in February, the Improvement Company had a great land sale. The day before it, competing purchasers had deposited cheques aggregating three times the sum asked for by the company for the land. So the buyers spent the night organizing a pool to keep down competition and drawing lots for the privilege of bidding. For fairness, the sale was an auction, and one old farmer who had sold some of the land originally for a hundred dollars an acre, bought back some of that land at a thousand dollars a lot.
That sale was the climax and, that early, Hale got a warning word from England, but he paid no heed even though, after the sale, the boom slackened, poised and stayed still; for optimism was unquenchable and another tide would come with another sale in May, and so the spring passed in the same joyous recklessness and the same perfect hope.
In April, the first railroad reached the Gap at last, and families came in rapidly. Money was still plentiful and right royally was it spent, for was not just as much more coming when the second road arrived in May? Life was easier, too--supplies came from New York, eight o'clock dinners were in vogue and everybody was happy. Every man had two or three good horses and nothing to do. The place was full of visiting girls. They rode in parties to High Knob, and the ring of hoof and the laughter of youth and maid made every dusk resonant with joy. On Poplar Hill houses sprang up like magic and weddings came. The passing stranger was stunned to find out in the wilderness such a spot; gayety, prodigal hospitality, a police force of gentlemen--nearly all of whom were college graduates--and a club, where poker flourished in the smoke of Havana cigars, and a barrel of whiskey stood in one corner with a faucet waiting for the turn of any hand. And still the foundation of the new hotel was not started and the coming of the new railroad in May did not make a marked change. For some reason the May sale was postponed by the Improvement Company, but what did it matter? Perhaps it was better to wait for the fall, and so the summer went on unchanged. Every man still had a bank account and in the autumn, the boom would come again. At such a time June came home for her vacation, and Bob Berkley came back from college for his. All through the school year Hale had got the best reports of June. His sister's letters were steadily encouraging. June had been very homesick for the mountains and for Hale at first, but the homesickness had quickly worn off--apparently for both. She had studied hard, had become a favourite among the girls, and had held her own among them in a surprising way. But it was on June's musical talent that Hale's sister always laid most stress, and on her voice which, she said, was really unusual. June wrote, too, at longer and longer intervals and in her letters, Hale could see the progress she was making--the change in her handwriting, the increasing formality of expression, and the increasing shrewdness of her comments on her fellow-pupils, her teachers and the life about her. She did not write home for a reason Hale knew, though June never mentioned it--because there was no one at home who could read her letters--but she always sent messages to her father and Bub and to the old miller and old Hon, and Hale faithfully delivered them when he could.
From her people, as Hale learned from his sister, only one messenger had come during the year to June, and he came but once. One morning, a tall, black-haired, uncouth young man, in a slouch hat and a Prince Albert coat, had strode up to the school with a big paper box under his arm and asked for June. As he handed the box to the maid at the door, it broke and red apples burst from it and rolled down the steps. There was a shriek of laughter from the girls, and the young man, flushing red as the apples, turned, without giving his name, and strode back with no little majesty, looking neither to right nor left. Hale knew and June knew that the visitor was her cousin Dave, but she never mentioned the incident to him, though as the end of the session drew nigh, her letters became more frequent and more full of messages to the people in Lonesome Cove, and she seemed eager to get back home. Over there about this time, old Judd concluded suddenly to go West, taking Bud with him, and when Hale wrote the fact, an answer came from June that showed the blot of tears. However, she seemed none the less in a hurry to get back, and when Hale met her at the station, he was startled; for she came back in dresses that were below her shoe-tops, with her wonderful hair massed in a golden glory on the top of her head and the little fairy-cross dangling at a woman's throat. Her figure had rounded, her voice had softened. She held herself as straight as a young poplar and she walked the earth as though she had come straight from Olympus. And still, in spite of her new feathers and airs and graces, there was in her eye and in her laugh and in her moods all the subtle wild charm of the child in Lonesome Cove. It was fairy-time for June that summer, though her father and Bud had gone West, for her step-mother was living with a sister, the cabin in Lonesome Cove was closed and June stayed at the Gap, not at the Widow Crane's boarding-house, but with one of Hale's married friends on Poplar Hill. And always was she, young as she was, one of the merry parties of that happy summer--even at the dances, for the dance, too, June had learned. Moreover she had picked up the guitar, and many times when Hale had been out in the hills, he would hear her silver-clear voice floating out into the moonlight as he made his way toward Poplar Hill, and he would stop under the beeches and listen with ears of growing love to the wonder of it all. For it was he who was the ardent one of the two now.
June was no longer the frank, impulsive child who stood at the foot of the beech, doggedly reckless if all the world knew her love for him. She had taken flight to some inner recess where it was difficult for Hale to follow, and right puzzled he was to discover that he must now win again what, unasked, she had once so freely given.
Bob Berkley, too, had developed amazingly. He no longer said "Sir" to Hale--that was bad form at Harvard--he called him by his first name and looked him in the eye as man to man: just as June--Hale observed--no longer seemed in any awe of Miss Anne Saunders and to have lost all jealousy of her, or of anybody else--so swiftly had her instinct taught her she now had nothing to fear. And Bob and June seemed mightily pleased with each other, and sometimes Hale, watching them as they galloped past him on horseback laughing and bantering, felt foolish to think of their perfect fitness--the one for the other--and the incongruity of himself in a relationship that would so naturally be theirs. At one thing he wondered: she had made an extraordinary record at school and it seemed to him that it was partly through the consciousness that her brain would take care of itself that she could pay such heed to what hitherto she had had no chance to learn--dress, manners, deportment and speech. Indeed, it was curious that she seemed to lay most stress on the very things to which he, because of his long rough life in the mountains, was growing more and more indifferent. It was quite plain that Bob, with his extreme gallantry of manner, his smart clothes, his high ways and his unconquerable gayety, had supplanted him on the pedestal where he had been the year before, just as somebody, somewhere--his sister, perhaps--had supplanted Miss Anne. Several times indeed June had corrected Hale's slips of tongue with mischievous triumph, and once when he came back late from a long trip in the mountains and walked in to dinner without changing his clothes, Hale saw her look from himself to the immaculate Bob with an unconscious comparison that half amused, half worried him. The truth was he was building a lovely Frankenstein and from wondering what he was going to do with it, he was beginning to wonder now what it might some day do with him. And though he sometimes joked with Miss Anne, who had withdrawn now to the level plane of friendship with him, about the transformation that was going on, he worried in a way that did neither his heart nor his brain good. Still he fought both to little purpose all that summer, and it was not till the time was nigh when June must go away again, that he spoke both. For Hale's sister was going to marry, and it was her advice that he should take June to New York if only for the sake of her music and her voice. That very day June had for the first time seen her cousin Dave. He was on horseback, he had been drinking and he pulled in and, without an answer to her greeting, stared her over from head to foot. Colouring angrily, she started on and then he spoke thickly and with a sneer:
"'Bout fryin' size, now, ain't ye? I reckon maybe, if you keep on, you'll be good enough fer him in a year or two more."
"I'm much obliged for those apples, Dave," said June quietly--and Dave flushed a darker red and sat still, forgetting to renew the old threat that was on his tongue.
But his taunt rankled in the girl--rankled more now than when Dave first made it, for she better saw the truth of it and the hurt was the greater to her unconquerable pride that kept her from betraying the hurt to Dave long ago, and now, when he was making an old wound bleed afresh. But the pain was with her at dinner that night and through the evening. She avoided Hale's eyes though she knew that he was watching her all the time, and her instinct told her that something was going to happen that night and what that something was. Hale was the last to go and when he called to her from the porch, she went out trembling and stood at the head of the steps in the moonlight.
"I love you, little girl," he said simply, "and I want you to marry me some day--will you, June?" She was unsurprised but she flushed under his hungry eyes, and the little cross throbbed at her throat.
"Some day-not now," she thought, and then with equal simplicity: "Yes, Jack."
"And if you should love somebody else more, you'll tell me right away--won't you, June?" She shrank a little and her eyes fell, but straight-way she raised them steadily:
"Thank you, little girl--good-night."
Hale saw the little shrinking movement she made, and, as he went down the hill, he thought she seemed to be in a hurry to be alone, and that she had caught her breath sharply as she turned away. And brooding he walked the woods long that night.
Only a few days later, they started for New York and, with all her dreaming, June had never dreamed that the world could be so large. Mountains and vast stretches of rolling hills and level land melted away from her wondering eyes; towns and cities sank behind them, swift streams swollen by freshets were outstripped and left behind, darkness came on and, through it, they still sped on. Once during the night she woke from a troubled dream in her berth and for a moment she thought she was at home again. They were running through mountains again and there they lay in the moonlight, the great calm dark faces that she knew and loved, and she seemed to catch the odour of the earth and feel the cool air on her face, but there was no pang of homesickness now--she was too eager for the world into which she was going. Next morning the air was cooler, the skies lower and grayer--the big city was close at hand. Then came the water, shaking and sparkling in the early light like a great cauldron of quicksilver, and the wonderful Brooklyn Bridge--a ribbon of twinkling lights tossed out through the mist from the mighty city that rose from that mist as from a fantastic dream; then the picking of a way through screeching little boats and noiseless big ones and white bird-like floating things and then they disappeared like two tiny grains in a shifting human tide of sand. But Hale was happy now, for on that trip June had come back to herself, and to him, once more--and now, awed but unafraid, eager, bubbling, uplooking, full of quaint questions about everything she saw, she was once more sitting with affectionate reverence at his feet. When he left her in a great low house that fronted on the majestic Hudson, June clung to him with tears and of her own accord kissed him for the first time since she had torn her little playhouse to pieces at the foot of the beech down in the mountains far away. And Hale went back with peace in his heart, but to trouble in the hills.
* * * * * * *
Not suddenly did the boom drop down there, not like a falling star, but on the wings of hope--wings that ever fluttering upward, yet sank inexorably and slowly closed. The first crash came over the waters when certain big men over there went to pieces--men on whose shoulders rested the colossal figure of progress that the English were carving from the hills at Cumberland Gap. Still nobody saw why a hurt to the Lion should make the Eagle sore and so the American spirit at the other gaps and all up the Virginia valleys that skirt the Cumberland held faithful and dauntless--for a while. But in time as the huge steel plants grew noiseless, and the flaming throats of the furnaces were throttled, a sympathetic fire of dissolution spread slowly North and South and it was plain only to the wise outsider as merely a matter of time until, all up and down the Cumberland, the fox and the coon and the quail could come back to their old homes on corner lots, marked each by a pathetic little whitewashed post--a tombstone over the graves of a myriad of buried human hopes. But it was the gap where Hale was that died last and hardest--and of the brave spirits there, his was the last and hardest to die.
In the autumn, while June was in New York, the signs were sure but every soul refused to see them. Slowly, however, the vexed question of labour and capital was born again, for slowly each local capitalist went slowly back to his own trade: the blacksmith to his forge, but the carpenter not to his plane nor the mason to his brick--there was no more building going on. The engineer took up his transit, the preacher-politician was oftener in his pulpit, and the singing teacher started on his round of raucous do-mi-sol- dos through the mountains again. It was curious to see how each man slowly, reluctantly and perforce sank back again to his old occupation--and the town, with the luxuries of electricity, water- works, bath-tubs and a street railway, was having a hard fight for the plain necessities of life. The following spring, notes for the second payment on the lots that had been bought at the great land sale fell due, and but very few were paid. As no suits were brought by the company, however, hope did not quite die. June did not come home for the summer, and Hale did not encourage her to come--she visited some of her school-mates in the North and took a trip West to see her father who had gone out there again and bought a farm. In the early autumn, Devil Judd came back to the mountains and announced his intention to leave them for good. But that autumn, the effects of the dead boom became perceptible in the hills. There were no more coal lands bought, logging ceased, the factions were idle once more, moonshine stills flourished, quarrelling started, and at the county seat, one Court day, Devil Judd whipped three Falins with his bare fists. In the early spring a Tolliver was shot from ambush and old Judd was so furious at the outrage that he openly announced that he would stay at home until he had settled the old scores for good. So that, as the summer came on, matters between the Falins and the Tollivers were worse than they had been for years and everybody knew that, with old Judd at the head of his clan again, the fight would be fought to the finish. At the Gap, one institution only had suffered in spirit not at all and that was the Volunteer Police Guard. Indeed, as the excitement of the boom had died down, the members of that force, as a vent for their energies, went with more enthusiasm than ever into their work. Local lawlessness had been subdued by this time, the Guard had been extending its work into the hills, and it was only a question of time until it must take a part in the Falin-Tolliver troubles. Indeed, that time, Hale believed, was not far away, for Election Day was at hand, and always on that day the feudists came to the Gap in a search for trouble. Meanwhile, not long afterward, there was a pitched battle between the factions at the county seat, and several of each would fight no more. Next day a Falin whistled a bullet through Devil Judd's beard from ambush, and it was at such a crisis of all the warring elements in her mountain life that June's school-days were coming to a close. Hale had had a frank talk with old Judd and the old man agreed that the two had best be married at once and live at the Gap until things were quieter in the mountains, though the old man still clung to his resolution to go West for good when he was done with the Falins. At such a time, then, June was coming home.