Chapter XXIV
 

Very slowly June walked up the little creek to the old log where she had lain so many happy hours. There was no change in leaf, shrub or tree, and not a stone in the brook had been disturbed. The sun dropped the same arrows down through the leaves--blunting their shining points into tremulous circles on the ground, the water sang the same happy tune under her dangling feet and a wood- thrush piped the old lay overhead.

Wood-thrush! June smiled as she suddenly rechristened the bird for herself now. That bird henceforth would be the Magic Flute to musical June--and she leaned back with ears, eyes and soul awake and her brain busy.

All the way over the mountain, on that second home-going, she had thought of the first, and even memories of the memories aroused by that first home-going came back to her--the place where Hale had put his horse into a dead run and had given her that never-to-be- forgotten thrill, and where she had slid from behind to the ground and stormed with tears. When they dropped down into the green gloom of shadow and green leaves toward Lonesome Cove, she had the same feeling that her heart was being clutched by a human hand and that black night had suddenly fallen about her, but this time she knew what it meant. She thought then of the crowded sleeping-room, the rough beds and coarse blankets at home; the oil-cloth, spotted with drippings from a candle, that covered the table; the thick plates and cups; the soggy bread and the thick bacon floating in grease; the absence of napkins, the eating with knives and fingers and the noise Bub and her father made drinking their coffee. But then she knew all these things in advance, and the memories of them on her way over had prepared her for Lonesome Cove. The conditions were definite there: she knew what it would be to face them again--she was facing them all the way, and to her surprise the realities had hurt her less even than they had before. Then had come the same thrill over the garden, and now with that garden and her new room and her piano and her books, with Uncle Billy's sister to help do the work, and with the little changes that June was daily making in the household, she could live her own life even over there as long as she pleased, and then she would go out into the world again.

But all the time when she was coming over from the Gap, the way had bristled with accusing memories of Hale--even from the chattering creeks, the turns in the road, the sun-dappled bushes and trees and flowers; and when she passed the big Pine that rose with such friendly solemnity above her, the pang of it all hurt her heart and kept on hurting her. When she walked in the garden, the flowers seemed not to have the same spirit of gladness. It had been a dry season and they drooped for that reason, but the melancholy of them had a sympathetic human quality that depressed her. If she saw a bass shoot arrow-like into deep water, if she heard a bird or saw a tree or a flower whose name she had to recall, she thought of Hale. Do what she would, she could not escape the ghost that stalked at her side everywhere, so like a human presence that she felt sometimes a strange desire to turn and speak to it. And in her room that presence was all-pervasive. The piano, the furniture, the bits of bric-a-brac, the pictures and books--all were eloquent with his thought of her--and every night before she turned out her light she could not help lifting her eyes to her once-favourite picture--even that Hale had remembered--the lovers clasped in each other's arms--"At Last Alone"--only to see it now as a mocking symbol of his beaten hopes. She had written to thank him for it all, and not yet had he answered her letter. He had said that he was coming over to Lonesome Cove and he had not come--why should he, on her account? Between them all was over--why should he? The question was absurd in her mind, and yet the fact that she had expected him, that she so wanted him, was so illogical and incongruous and vividly true that it raised her to a sitting posture on the log, and she ran her fingers over her forehead and down her dazed face until her chin was in the hollow of her hand, and her startled eyes were fixed unwaveringly on the running water and yet not seeing it at all. A call--her step-mother's cry--rang up the ravine and she did not hear it. She did not even hear Bub coming through the underbrush a few minutes later, and when he half angrily shouted her name at the end of the vista, down-stream, whence he could see her, she lifted her head from a dream so deep that in it all her senses had for the moment been wholly lost.

"Come on," he shouted.

She had forgotten--there was a "bean-stringing" at the house that day--and she slipped slowly off the log and went down the path, gathering herself together as she went, and making no answer to the indignant Bub who turned and stalked ahead of her back to the house. At the barnyard gate her father stopped her--he looked worried.

"Jack Hale's jus' been over hyeh." June caught her breath sharply.

"Has he gone?" The old man was watching her and she felt it.

"Yes, he was in a hurry an' nobody knowed whar you was. He jus' come over, he said, to tell me to tell you that you could go back to New York and keep on with yo' singin' doin's whenever you please. He knowed I didn't want you hyeh when this war starts fer a finish as hit's goin' to, mighty soon now. He says he ain't quite ready to git married yit. I'm afeerd he's in trouble."

"Trouble?"

"I tol' you t'other day--he's lost all his money; but he says you've got enough to keep you goin' fer some time. I don't see why you don't git married right now and live over at the Gap."

June coloured and was silent.

"Oh," said the old man quickly, "you ain't ready nuther,"--he studied her with narrowing eyes and through a puzzled frown--"but I reckon hit's all right, if you air goin' to git married some time."

"What's all right, Dad?" The old man checked himself:

"Ever' thing," he said shortly, "but don't you make a fool of yo'self with a good man like Jack Hale." And, wondering, June was silent. The truth was that the old man had wormed out of Hale an admission of the kindly duplicity the latter had practised on him and on June, and he had given his word to Hale that he would not tell June. He did not understand why Hale should have so insisted on that promise, for it was all right that Hale should openly do what he pleased for the girl he was going to marry--but he had given his word: so he turned away, but his frown stayed where it was.

June went on, puzzled, for she knew that her father was withholding something, and she knew, too, that he would tell her only in his own good time. But she could go away when she pleased- -that was the comfort--and with the thought she stopped suddenly at the corner of the garden. She could see Hale on his big black horse climbing the spur. Once it had always been his custom to stop on top of it to rest his horse and turn to look back at her, and she always waited to wave him good-by. She wondered if he would do it now, and while she looked and waited, the beating of her heart quickened nervously; but he rode straight on, without stopping or turning his head, and June felt strangely bereft and resentful, and the comfort of the moment before was suddenly gone. She could hear the voices of the guests in the porch around the corner of the house--there was an ordeal for her around there, and she went on. Loretta and Loretta's mother were there, and old Hon and several wives and daughters of Tolliver adherents from up Deadwood Creek and below Uncle Billy's mill. June knew that the "bean-stringing" was simply an excuse for them to be there, for she could not remember that so many had ever gathered there before--at that function in the spring, at corn-cutting in the autumn, or sorghum-making time or at log-raisings or quilting parties, and she well knew the motive of these many and the curiosity of all save, perhaps, Loretta and the old miller's wife: and June was prepared for them. She had borrowed a gown from her step-mother--a purple creation of home-spun--she had shaken down her beautiful hair and drawn it low over her brows, and arranged it behind after the fashion of mountain women, and when she went up the steps of the porch she was outwardly to the eye one of them except for the leathern belt about her slenderly full waist, her black silk stockings and the little "furrin" shoes on her dainty feet. She smiled inwardly when she saw the same old wave of disappointment sweep across the faces of them all. It was not necessary to shake hands, but unthinkingly she did, and the women sat in their chairs as she went from one to the other and each gave her a limp hand and a grave "howdye," though each paid an unconscious tribute to a vague something about her, by wiping that hand on an apron first. Very quietly and naturally she took a low chair, piled beans in her lap and, as one of them, went to work. Nobody looked at her at first until old Hon broke the silence.

"You haint lost a spec o' yo' good looks, Juny."

June laughed without a flush--she would have reddened to the roots of her hair two years before.

"I'm feelin' right peart, thank ye," she said, dropping consciously into the vernacular; but there was a something in her voice that was vaguely felt by all as a part of the universal strangeness that was in her erect bearing, her proud head, her deep eyes that looked so straight into their own--a strangeness that was in that belt and those stockings and those shoes, inconspicuous as they were, to which she saw every eye in time covertly wandering as to tangible symbols of a mystery that was beyond their ken. Old Hon and the step-mother alone talked at first, and the others, even Loretta, said never a word.

"Jack Hale must have been in a mighty big hurry," quavered the old step-mother. "June ain't goin' to be with us long, I'm afeerd:" and, without looking up, June knew the wireless significance of the speech was going around from eye to eye, but calmly she pulled her thread through a green pod and said calmly, with a little enigmatical shake of her head:

"I--don't know--I don't know."

Young Dave's mother was encouraged and all her efforts at good- humour could not quite draw the sting of a spiteful plaint from her voice.

"I reckon she'd never git away, if my boy Dave had the sayin' of it." There was a subdued titter at this, but Bub had come in from the stable and had dropped on the edge of the porch. He broke in hotly:

"You jest let June alone, Aunt Tilly, you'll have yo' hands full if you keep yo' eye on Loretty thar."

Already when somebody was saying something about the feud, as June came around the corner, her quick eye had seen Loretta bend her head swiftly over her work to hide the flush of her face. Now Loretta turned scarlet as the step-mother spoke severely:

"You hush, Bub," and Bub rose and stalked into the house. Aunt Tilly was leaning back in her chair--gasping--and consternation smote the group. June rose suddenly with her string of dangling beans.

"I haven't shown you my room, Loretty. Don't you want to see it? Come on, all of you," she added to the girls, and they and Loretta with one swift look of gratitude rose shyly and trooped shyly within where they looked in wide-mouthed wonder at the marvellous things that room contained. The older women followed to share sight of the miracle, and all stood looking from one thing to another, some with their hands behind them as though to thwart the temptation to touch, and all saying merely:

"My! My!"

None of them had ever seen a piano before and June must play the "shiny contraption" and sing a song. It was only curiosity and astonishment that she evoked when her swift fingers began running over the keys from one end of the board to the other, astonishment at the gymnastic quality of the performance, and only astonishment when her lovely voice set the very walls of the little room to vibrating with a dramatic love song that was about as intelligible to them as a problem in calculus, and June flushed and then smiled with quick understanding at the dry comment that rose from Aunt Tilly behind:

"She shorely can holler some!"

She couldn't play "Sourwood Mountain" on the piano--nor "Jinny git Aroun'," nor "Soapsuds over the Fence," but with a sudden inspiration she went back to an old hymn that they all knew, and at the end she won the tribute of an awed silence that made them file back to the beans on the porch. Loretta lingered a moment and when June closed the piano and the two girls went into the main room, a tall figure, entering, stopped in the door and stared at June without speaking:

"Why, howdye, Uncle Rufe," said Loretta. "This is June. You didn't know her, did ye?" The man laughed. Something in June's bearing made him take off his hat; he came forward to shake hands, and June looked up into a pair of bold black eyes that stirred within her again the vague fears of her childhood. She had been afraid of him when she was a child, and it was the old fear aroused that made her recall him by his eyes now. His beard was gone and he was much changed. She trembled when she shook hands with him and she did not call him by his name Old Judd came in, and a moment later the two men and Bub sat on the porch while the women worked, and when June rose again to go indoors, she felt the newcomer's bold eyes take her slowly in from head to foot and she turned crimson. This was the terror among the Tollivers--Bad Rufe, come back from the West to take part in the feud. He saw the belt and the stockings and the shoes, the white column of her throat and the proud set of her gold-crowned head; He knew what they meant, he made her feel that he knew, and later he managed to catch her eyes once with an amused, half-contemptuous glance at the simple untravelled folk about them, that said plainly how well he knew they two were set apart from them, and she shrank fearfully from the comradeship that the glance implied and would look at him no more. He knew everything that was going on in the mountains. He had come back "ready for business," he said. When he made ready to go, June went to her room and stayed there, but she heard him say to her father that he was going over to the Gap, and with a laugh that chilled her soul:

"I'm goin' over to kill me a policeman." And her father warned gruffly:

"You better keep away from thar. You don't understand them fellers." And she heard Rufe's brutal laugh again, and as he rode into the creek his horse stumbled and she saw him cut cruelly at the poor beast's ears with the rawhide quirt that he carried. She was glad when all went home, and the only ray of sunlight in the day for her radiated from Uncle Billy's face when, at sunset, he came to take old Hon home. The old miller was the one unchanged soul to her in that he was the one soul that could see no change in June. He called her "baby" in the old way, and he talked to her now as he had talked to her as a child. He took her aside to ask her if she knew that Hale had got his license to marry, and when she shook her head, his round, red face lighted up with the benediction of a rising sun:

"Well, that's what he's done, baby, an' he's axed me to marry ye," he added, with boyish pride, "he's axed me."

And June choked, her eyes filled, and she was dumb, but Uncle Billy could not see that it meant distress and not joy. He just put his arm around her and whispered:

"I ain't told a soul, baby--not a soul."

She went to bed and to sleep with Hale's face in the dream-mist of her brain, and Uncle Billy's, and the bold, black eyes of Bad Rufe Tolliver--all fused, blurred, indistinguishable. Then suddenly Rufe's words struck that brain, word by word, like the clanging terror of a frightened bell.

"I'm goin' to kill me a policeman." And with the last word, it seemed, she sprang upright in bed, clutching the coverlid convulsively. Daylight was showing gray through her window. She heard a swift step up the steps, across the porch, the rattle of the door-chain, her father's quick call, then the rumble of two men's voices, and she knew as well what had happened as though she had heard every word they uttered. Rufe had killed him a policeman--perhaps John Hale--and with terror clutching her heart she sprang to the floor, and as she dropped the old purple gown over her shoulders, she heard the scurry of feet across the back porch--feet that ran swiftly but cautiously, and left the sound of them at the edge of the woods. She heard the back door close softly, the creaking of the bed as her father lay down again, and then a sudden splashing in the creek. Kneeling at the window, she saw strange horsemen pushing toward the gate where one threw himself from his saddle, strode swiftly toward the steps, and her lips unconsciously made soft, little, inarticulate cries of joy-- for the stern, gray face under the hat of the man was the face of John Hale. After him pushed other men--fully armed--whom he motioned to either side of the cabin to the rear. By his side was Bob Berkley, and behind him was a red-headed Falin whom she well remembered. Within twenty feet, she was looking into that gray face, when the set lips of it opened in a loud command: "Hello!" She heard her father's bed creak again, again the rattle of the door-chain, and then old Judd stepped on the porch with a revolver in each hand.

"Hello!" he answered sternly.

"Judd," said Hale sharply--and June had never heard that tone from him before--"a man with a black moustache killed one of our men over in the Gap yesterday and we've tracked him over here. There's his horse--and we saw him go into that door. We want him."

"Do you know who the feller is?" asked old Judd calmly.

"No," said Hale quickly. And then, with equal calm:

"Hit was my brother," and the old man's mouth closed like a vise. Had the last word been a stone striking his ear, Hale could hardly have been more stunned. Again he called and almost gently:

"Watch the rear, there," and then gently he turned to Devil Judd.

"Judd, your brother shot a man at the Gap--without excuse or warning. He was an officer and a friend of mine, but if he were a stranger--we want him just the same. Is he here?"

Judd looked at the red-headed man behind Hale.

"So you're turned on the Falin side now, have ye?" he said contemptuously.

"Is he here?" repeated Hale.

"Yes, an' you can't have him." Without a move toward his pistol Hale stepped forward, and June saw her father's big right hand tighten on his huge pistol, and with a low cry she sprang to her feet.

"I'm an officer of the law," Hale said, "stand aside, Judd!" Bub leaped to the door with a Winchester--his eyes wild and his face white.

"Watch out, men!" Hale called, and as the men raised their guns there was a shriek inside the cabin and June stood at Bub's side, barefooted, her hair tumbled about her shoulders, and her hand clutching the little cross at her throat.

"Stop!" she shrieked. "He isn't here. He's--he's gone!" For a moment a sudden sickness smote Hale's face, then Devil Judd's ruse flashed to him and, wheeling, he sprang to the ground.

"Quick!" he shouted, with a sweep of his hand right and left. "Up those hollows! Lead those horses up to the Pine and wait. Quick!"

Already the men were running as he directed and Hale, followed by Bob and the Falin, rushed around the corner of the house. Old Judd's nostrils were quivering, and with his pistols dangling in his hands he walked to the gate, listening to the sounds of the pursuit.

"They'll never ketch him," he said, coming back, and then he dropped into a chair and sat in silence a long time. June reappeared, her face still white and her temples throbbing, for the sun was rising on days of darkness for her. Devil Judd did not even look at her.

"I reckon you ain't goin' to marry John Hale."

"No, Dad," said June.