Chapter XXV
 

Thus Fate did not wait until Election Day for the thing Hale most dreaded--a clash that would involve the guard in the Tolliver- Falin troubles over the hills. There had been simply a preliminary political gathering at the Gap the day before, but it had been a crucial day for the guard from a cloudy sunrise to a tragic sunset. Early that morning, Mockaby, the town-sergeant, had stepped into the street freshly shaven, with polished boots, and in his best clothes for the eyes of his sweetheart, who was to come up that day to the Gap from Lee. Before sunset he died with those boots on, while the sweetheart, unknowing, was bound on her happy way homeward, and Rufe Tolliver, who had shot Mockaby, was clattering through the Gap in flight for Lonesome Cove.

As far as anybody knew, there had been but one Tolliver and one Falin in town that day, though many had noticed the tall Western- looking stranger who, early in the afternoon, had ridden across the bridge over the North Fork, but he was quiet and well-behaved, he merged into the crowd and through the rest of the afternoon was in no way conspicuous, even when the one Tolliver and the one Falin got into a fight in front of the speaker's stand and the riot started which came near ending in a bloody battle. The Falin was clearly blameless and was let go at once. This angered the many friends of the Tolliver, and when he was arrested there was an attempt at rescue, and the Tolliver was dragged to the calaboose behind a slowly retiring line of policemen, who were jabbing the rescuers back with the muzzles of cocked Winchesters. It was just when it was all over, and the Tolliver was safely jailed, that Bad Rufe galloped up to the calaboose, shaking with rage, for he had just learned that the prisoner was a Tolliver. He saw how useless interference was, but he swung from his horse, threw the reins over its head after the Western fashion and strode up to Hale.

"You the captain of this guard?"

"Yes," said Hale; "and you?" Rufe shook his head with angry impatience, and Hale, thinking he had some communication to make, ignored his refusal to answer.

"I hear that a fellow can't blow a whistle or holler, or shoot off his pistol in this town without gittin' arrested."

"That's true--why?" Rufe's black eyes gleamed vindictively.

"Nothin'," he said, and he turned to his horse.

Ten minutes later, as Mockaby was passing down the dummy track, a whistle was blown on the river bank, a high yell was raised, a pistol shot quickly followed and he started for the sound of them on a run. A few minutes later three more pistol shots rang out, and Hale rushed to the river bank to find Mockaby stretched out on the ground, dying, and a mountaineer lout pointing after a man on horseback, who was making at a swift gallop for the mouth of the gap and the hills.

"He done it," said the lout in a frightened way; "but I don't know who he was."

Within half an hour ten horsemen were clattering after the murderer, headed by Hale, Logan, and the Infant of the Guard. Where the road forked, a woman with a child in her arms said she had seen a tall, black-eyed man with a black moustache gallop up the right fork. She no more knew who he was than any of the pursuers. Three miles up that fork they came upon a red-headed man leading his horse from a mountaineer's yard,

"He went up the mountain," the red-haired man said, pointing to the trail of the Lonesome Pine. "He's gone over the line. Whut's he done--killed somebody?"

"Yes," said Hale shortly, starting up his horse.

"I wish I'd a-knowed you was atter him. I'm sheriff over thar."

Now they were without warrant or requisition, and Hale, pulling in, said sharply:

"We want that fellow. He killed a man at the Gap. If we catch him over the line, we want you to hold him for us. Come along!" The red-headed sheriff sprang on his horse and grinned eagerly:

"I'm your man."

"Who was that fellow?" asked Hale as they galloped. The sheriff denied knowledge with a shake of his head.

"What's your name?" The sheriff looked sharply at him for the effect of his answer.

"Jim Falin." And Hale looked sharply back at him. He was one of the Falins who long, long ago had gone to the Gap for young Dave Tolliver, and now the Falin grinned at Hale.

"I know you--all right." No wonder the Falin chuckled at this Heaven-born chance to get a Tolliver into trouble.

At the Lonesome Pine the traces of the fugitive's horse swerved along the mountain top--the shoe of the right forefoot being broken in half. That swerve was a blind and the sheriff knew it, but he knew where Rufe Tolliver would go and that there would be plenty of time to get him. Moreover, he had a purpose of his own and a secret fear that it might be thwarted, so, without a word, he followed the trail till darkness hid it and they had to wait until the moon rose. Then as they started again, the sheriff said:

"Wait a minute," and plunged down the mountain side on foot. A few minutes later he hallooed for Hale, and down there showed him the tracks doubling backward along a foot-path.

"Regular rabbit, ain't he?" chuckled the sheriff, and back they went to the trail again on which two hundred yards below the Pine they saw the tracks pointing again to Lonesome Cove.

On down the trail they went, and at the top of the spur that overlooked Lonesome Cove, the Falin sheriff pulled in suddenly and got off his horse. There the tracks swerved again into the bushes.

"He's goin' to wait till daylight, fer fear somebody's follered him. He'll come in back o' Devil Judd's."

"How do you know he's going to Devil Judd's?" asked Hale.

"Whar else would he go?" asked the Falin with a sweep of his arm toward the moonlit wilderness. "Thar ain't but one house that way fer ten miles--and nobody lives thar."

"How do you know that he's going to any house?" asked Hale impatiently. "He may be getting out of the mountains."

"D'you ever know a feller to leave these mountains jus' because he'd killed a man? How'd you foller him at night? How'd you ever ketch him with his start? What'd he turn that way fer, if he wasn't goin' to Judd's--why d'n't he keep on down the river? If he's gone, he's gone. If he ain't, he'll be at Devil Judd's at daybreak if he ain't thar now."

"What do you want to do?"

"Go on down with the hosses, hide 'em in the bushes an' wait."

"Maybe he's already heard us coming down the mountain."

"That's the only thing I'm afeerd of," said the Falin calmly. "But whut I'm tellin' you's our only chance."

"How do you know he won't hear us going down? Why not leave the horses?"

"We might need the hosses, and hit's mud and sand all the way--you ought to know that."

Hale did know that; so on they went quietly and hid their horses aside from the road near the place where Hale had fished when he first went to Lonesome Cove. There the Falin disappeared on foot.

"Do you trust him?" asked Hale, turning to Budd, and Budd laughed.

"I reckon you can trust a Falin against a friend of a Tolliver, or t'other way round--any time." Within half an hour the Falin came back with the news that there were no signs that the fugitive had yet come in.

"No use surrounding the house now," he said, "he might see one of us first when he comes in an' git away. We'll do that atter daylight."

And at daylight they saw the fugitive ride out of the woods at the back of the house and boldly around to the front of the house, where he left his horse in the yard and disappeared.

"Now send three men to ketch him if he runs out the back way-- quick!" said the Falin. "Hit'll take 'em twenty minutes to git thar through the woods. Soon's they git thar, let one of 'em shoot his pistol off an' that'll be the signal fer us."

The three men started swiftly, but the pistol shot came before they had gone a hundred yards, for one of the three--a new man and unaccustomed to the use of fire-arms, stumbled over a root while he was seeing that his pistol was in order and let it go off accidentally.

"No time to waste now," the Falin called sharply. "Git on yo' hosses and git!" Then the rush was made and when they gave up the chase at noon that day, the sheriff looked Hale squarely in the eye when Hale sharply asked him a question:

"Why didn't you tell me who that man was?"

"Because I was afeerd you wouldn't go to Devil Judd's atter him. I know better now," and he shook his head, for he did not understand. And so Hale at the head of the disappointed Guard went back to the Gap, and when, next day, they laid Mockaby away in the thinly populated little graveyard that rested in the hollow of the river's arm, the spirit of law and order in the heart of every guard gave way to the spirit of revenge, and the grass would grow under the feet of none until Rufe Tolliver was caught and the death-debt of the law was paid with death.

That purpose was no less firm in the heart of Hale, and he turned away from the grave, sick with the trick that Fate had lost no time in playing him; for he was a Falin now in the eyes of both factions and an enemy--even to June.

The weeks dragged slowly along, and June sank slowly toward the depths with every fresh realization of the trap of circumstance into which she had fallen. She had dim memories of just such a state of affairs when she was a child, for the feud was on now and the three things that governed the life of the cabin in Lonesome Cove were hate, caution, and fear.

Bub and her father worked in the fields with their Winchesters close at hand, and June was never easy if they were outside the house. If somebody shouted "hello"--that universal hail of friend or enemy in the mountains--from the gate after dark, one or the other would go out the back door and answer from the shelter of the corner of the house. Neither sat by the light of the fire where he could be seen through the window nor carried a candle from one room to the other. And when either rode down the river, June must ride behind him to prevent ambush from the bushes, for no Kentucky mountaineer, even to kill his worst enemy, will risk harming a woman. Sometimes Loretta would come and spend the day, and she seemed little less distressed than June. Dave was constantly in and out, and several times June had seen the Red Fox hanging around. Always the talk was of the feud. The killing of this Tolliver and of that long ago was rehearsed over and over; all the wrongs the family had suffered at the hands of the Falins were retold, and in spite of herself June felt the old hatred of her childhood reawakening against them so fiercely that she was startled: and she knew that if she were a man she would be as ready now to take up a Winchester against the Falins as though she had known no other life.

Loretta got no comfort from her in her tentative efforts to talk of Buck Falin, and once, indeed, June gave her a scathing rebuke. With every day her feeling for her father and Bub was knit a little more closely, and toward Dave grew a little more kindly. She had her moods even against Hale, but they always ended in a storm of helpless tears. Her father said little of Hale, but that little was enough. Young Dave was openly exultant when he heard of the favouritism shown a Falin by the Guard at the Gap, the effort Hale had made to catch Rufe Tolliver and his well-known purpose yet to capture him; for the Guard maintained a fund for the arrest and prosecution of criminals, and the reward it offered for Rufe, dead or alive, was known by everybody on both sides of the State line. For nearly a week no word was heard of the fugitive, and then one night, after supper, while June was sitting at the fire, the back door was opened, Rufe slid like a snake within, and when June sprang to her feet with a sharp cry of terror, he gave his brutal laugh:

"Don't take much to skeer you--does it?" Shuddering she felt his evil eyes sweep her from head to foot, for the beast within was always unleashed and ever ready to spring, and she dropped back into her seat, speechless. Young Dave, entering from the kitchen, saw Rufe's look and the hostile lightning of his own eyes flashed at his foster-uncle, who knew straightway that he must not for his own safety strain the boy's jealousy too far.

"You oughtn't to 'a' done it, Rufe," said old Judd a little later, and he shook his head. Again Rufe laughed:

"No--" he said with a quick pacificatory look to young Dave, "not to him!" The swift gritting of Dave's teeth showed that he knew what was meant, and without warning the instinct of a protecting tigress leaped within June. She had seen and had been grateful for the look Dave gave the outlaw, but without a word she rose new and went to her own room. While she sat at her window, her step-mother came out the back door and left it open for a moment. Through it June could hear the talk:

"No," said her father, "she ain't goin' to marry him." Dave grunted and Rufe's voice came again:

"Ain't no danger, I reckon, of her tellin' on me?"

"No," said her father gruffly, and the door banged.

No, thought June, she wouldn't, even without her father's trust, though she loathed the man, and he was the only thing on earth of which she was afraid--that was the miracle of it and June wondered. She was a Tolliver and the clan loyalty of a century forbade--that was all. As she rose she saw a figure skulking past the edge of the woods. She called Bub in and told him about it, and Rufe stayed at the cabin all night, but June did not see him next morning, and she kept out of his way whenever he came again. A few nights later the Red Fox slouched up to the cabin with some herbs for the step-mother. Old Judd eyed him askance.

"Lookin' fer that reward, Red?" The old man had no time for the meek reply that was on his lips, for the old woman spoke up sharply:

"You let Red alone, Judd--I tol' him to come." And the Red Fox stayed to supper, and when Rufe left the cabin that night, a bent figure with a big rifle and in moccasins sneaked after him.

The next night there was a tap on Hale's window just at his bedside, and when he looked out he saw the Red Fox's big rifle, telescope, moccasins and all in the moonlight. The Red Fox had discovered the whereabouts of Rufe Tolliver, and that very night he guided Hale and six of the guard to the edge of a little clearing where the Red Fox pointed to a one-roomed cabin, quiet in the moonlight. Hale had his requisition now.

"Ain't no trouble ketchin' Rufe, if you bait him with a woman," he snarled. "There mought be several Tollivers in thar. Wait till daybreak and git the drap on him, when he comes out." And then he disappeared.

Surrounding the cabin, Hale waited, and on top of the mountain, above Lonesome Cove, the Red Fox sat waiting and watching through his big telescope. Through it he saw Bad Rufe step outside the door at daybreak and stretch his arms with a yawn, and he saw three men spring with levelled Winchesters from behind a clump of bushes. The woman shot from the door behind Rufe with a pistol in each hand, but Rufe kept his hands in the air and turned his head to the woman who lowered the half-raised weapons slowly. When he saw the cavalcade start for the county seat with Rufe manacled in the midst of them, he dropped swiftly down into Lonesome Cove to tell Judd that Rufe was a prisoner and to retake him on the way to jail. And, as the Red Fox well knew would happen, old Judd and young Dave and two other Tollivers who were at the cabin galloped into the county seat to find Rufe in jail, and that jail guarded by seven grim young men armed with Winchesters and shot-guns.

Hale faced the old man quietly--eye to eye.

"It's no use, Judd," he said, "you'd better let the law take its course." The old man was scornful.

"Thar's never been a Tolliver convicted of killin' nobody, much less hung--an' thar ain't goin' to be."

"I'm glad you warned me," said Hale still quietly, "though it wasn't necessary. But if he's convicted, he'll hang."

The giant's face worked in convulsive helplessness and he turned away.

"You hold the cyards now, but my deal is comin'."

"All right, Judd--you're getting a square one from me."

Back rode the Tollivers and Devil Judd never opened his lips again until he was at home in Lonesome Cove. June was sitting on the porch when he walked heavy-headed through the gate.

"They've ketched Rufe," he said, and after a moment he added gruffly:

"Thar's goin' to be sure enough trouble now. The Falins'll think all them police fellers air on their side now. This ain't no place fer you--you must git away."

June shook her head and her eyes turned to the flowers at the edge of the garden:

"I'm not goin' away, Dad," she said.