Chapter XXVII
 

The miracle had happened. The Tollivers, following the Red Fox's advice to make no attempt at rescue just then, had waited, expecting the old immunity from the law and getting instead the swift sentence that Rufe Tolliver should be hanged by the neck until he was dead. Astounding and convincing though the news was, no mountaineer believed he would ever hang, and Rufe himself faced the sentence defiant. He laughed when he was led back to his cell:

"I'll never hang," he said scornfully. They were the first words that came from his lips, and the first words that came from old Judd's when the news reached him in Lonesome Cove, and that night old Judd gathered his clan for the rescue--to learn next morning that during the night Rufe had been spirited away to the capital for safekeeping until the fatal day. And so there was quiet for a while--old Judd making ready for the day when Rufe should be brought back, and trying to find out who it was that had slain his brother Dave. The Falins denied the deed, but old Judd never questioned that one of them was the murderer, and he came out openly now and made no secret of the fact that he meant to have revenge. And so the two factions went armed, watchful and wary-- especially the Falins, who were lying low and waiting to fulfil a deadly purpose of their own. They well knew that old Judd would not open hostilities on them until Rufe Tolliver was dead or at liberty. They knew that the old man meant to try to rescue Rufe when he was brought back to jail or taken from it to the scaffold, and when either day came they themselves would take a hand, thus giving the Tollivers at one and the same time two sets of foes. And so through the golden September days the two clans waited, and June Tolliver went with dull determination back to her old life, for Uncle Billy's sister had left the house in fear and she could get no help--milking cows at cold dawns, helping in the kitchen, spinning flax and wool, and weaving them into rough garments for her father and step-mother and Bub, and in time, she thought grimly--for herself: for not another cent for her maintenance could now come from John Hale, even though he claimed it was hers- -even though it was in truth her own. Never, but once, had Hale's name been mentioned in the cabin--never, but once, had her father referred to the testimony that she had given against Rufe Tolliver, for the old man put upon Hale the fact that the sheriff had sneaked into his house when he was away and had taken June to Court, and that was the crowning touch of bitterness in his growing hatred for the captain of the guard of whom he had once been so fond.

"Course you had to tell the truth, baby, when they got you there," he said kindly; "but kidnappin' you that-a-way--" He shook his great bushy head from side to side and dropped it into his hands.

"I reckon that damn Hale was the man who found out that you heard Rufe say that. I'd like to know how--I'd like to git my hands on the feller as told him."

June opened her lips in simple justice to clear Hale of that charge, but she saw such a terrified appeal in her step-mother's face that she kept her peace, let Hale suffer for that, too, and walked out into her garden. Never once had her piano been opened, her books had lain unread, and from her lips, during those days, came no song. When she was not at work, she was brooding in her room, or she would walk down to Uncle Billy's and sit at the mill with him while the old man would talk in tender helplessness, or under the honeysuckle vines with old Hon, whose brusque kindness was of as little avail. And then, still silent, she would get wearily up and as quietly go away while the two old friends, worried to the heart, followed her sadly with their eyes. At other times she was brooding in her room or sitting in her garden, where she was now, and where she found most comfort--the garden that Hale had planted for her-where purple asters leaned against lilac shrubs that would flower for the first time the coming spring; where a late rose bloomed, and marigolds drooped, and great sunflowers nodded and giant castor-plants stretched out their hands of Christ, And while June thus waited the passing of the days, many things became clear to her: for the grim finger of reality had torn the veil from her eyes and let her see herself but little changed, at the depths, by contact with John Male's world, as she now saw him but little changed, at the depths, by contact with hers. Slowly she came to see, too, that it was his presence in the Court Room that made her tell the truth, reckless of the consequences, and she came to realize that she was not leaving the mountains because she would go to no place where she could not know of any danger that, in the present crisis, might threaten John Hale.

And Hale saw only that in the Court Room she had drawn her skirts aside, that she had looked at him once and then had brushed past his helping hand. It put him in torment to think of what her life must be now, and of how she must be suffering. He knew that she would not leave her father in the crisis that was at hand, and after it was all over--what then? His hands would still be tied and he would be even more helpless than he had ever dreamed possible. To be sure, an old land deal had come to life, just after the discovery of the worthlessness of the mine in Lonesome Cove, and was holding out another hope. But if that, too, should fail--or if it should succeed--what then? Old Judd had sent back, with a curt refusal, the last "allowance" he forwarded to June and he knew the old man was himself in straits. So June must stay in the mountains, and what would become of her? She had gone back to her mountain garb--would she lapse into her old life and ever again be content? Yes, she would lapse, but never enough to keep her from being unhappy all her life, and at that thought he groaned. Thus far he was responsible and the paramount duty with him had been that she should have the means to follow the career she had planned for herself outside of those hills. And now if he had the means, he was helpless. There was nothing for him to do now but to see that the law had its way with Rufe Tolliver, and meanwhile he let the reawakened land deal go hang and set himself the task of finding out who it was that had ambushed old Dave Tolliver. So even when he was thinking of June his brain was busy on that mystery, and one night, as he sat brooding, a suspicion flashed that made him grip his chair with both hands and rise to pace the porch. Old Dave had been shot at dawn, and the night before the Red Fox had been absent from the guard and had not turned up until nearly noon next day. He had told Hale that he was going home. Two days later, Hale heard by accident that the old man had been seen near the place of the ambush about sunset of the day before the tragedy, which was on his way home, and he now learned straightway for himself that the Red Fox had not been home for a month--which was only one of his ways of mistreating the patient little old woman in black.

A little later, the Red Fox gave it out that he was trying to ferret out the murderer himself, and several times he was seen near the place of ambush, looking, as he said, for evidence. But this did not halt Hale's suspicions, for he recalled that the night he had spent with the Red Fox, long ago, the old man had burst out against old Dave and had quickly covered up his indiscretion with a pious characterization of himself as a man that kept peace with both factions. And then why had he been so suspicious and fearful when Hale told him that night that he had seen him talking with a Falin in town the Court day before, and had he disclosed the whereabouts of Rufe Tolliver and guided the guard to his hiding-place simply for the reward? He had not yet come to claim it, and his indifference to money was notorious through the hills. Apparently there was some general enmity in the old man toward the whole Tolliver clan, and maybe he had used the reward to fool Hale as to his real motive. And then Hale quietly learned that long ago the Tollivers bitterly opposed the Red Fox's marriage to a Tolliver-that Rufe, when a boy, was always teasing the Red Fox and had once made him dance in his moccasins to the tune of bullets spitting about his feet, and that the Red Fox had been heard to say that old Dave had cheated his wife out of her just inheritance of wild land; but all that was long, long ago, and apparently had been mutually forgiven and forgotten. But it was enough for Hale, and one night he mounted his horse, and at dawn he was at the place of ambush with his horse hidden in the bushes. The rocks for the ambush were waist high, and the twigs that had been thrust in the crevices between them were withered. And there, on the hypothesis that the Red Fox was the assassin, Hale tried to put himself, after the deed, into the Red Fox's shoes. The old man had turned up on guard before noon--then he must have gone somewhere first or have killed considerable time in the woods. He would not have crossed the road, for there were two houses on the other side; there would have been no object in going on over the mountain unless he meant to escape, and if he had gone over there for another reason he would hardly have had time to get to the Court House before noon: nor would he have gone back along the road on that side, for on that side, too, was a cabin not far away. So Hale turned and walked straight away from the road where the walking was easiest--down a ravine, and pushing this way and that through the bushes where the way looked easiest. Half a mile down the ravine he came to a little brook, and there in the black earth was the faint print of a man's left foot and in the hard crust across was the deeper print of his right, where his weight in leaping had come down hard. But the prints were made by a shoe and not by a moccasin, and then Hale recalled exultantly that the Red Fox did not have his moccasins on the morning he turned up on guard. All the while he kept a sharp lookout, right and left, on the ground--the Red Fox must have thrown his cartridge shell somewhere, and for that Hale was looking. Across the brook he could see the tracks no farther, for he was too little of a woodsman to follow so old a trail, but as he stood behind a clump of rhododendron, wondering what he could do, he heard the crack of a dead stick down the stream, and noiselessly he moved farther into the bushes. His heart thumped in the silence--the long silence that followed--for it might be a hostile Tolliver that was coming, so he pulled his pistol from his holster, made ready, and then, noiseless as a shadow, the Red Fox slipped past him along the path, in his moccasins now, and with his big Winchester in his left hand. The Red Fox, too, was looking for that cartridge shell, for only the night before had he heard for the first time of the whispered suspicions against him. He was making for the blind and Hale trembled at his luck. There was no path on the other side of the stream, and Hale could barely hear him moving through the bushes. So he pulled off his boots and, carrying them in one hand, slipped after him, watching for dead twigs, stooping under the branches, or sliding sidewise through them when he had to brush between their extremities, and pausing every now and then to listen for an occasional faint sound from the Red Fox ahead. Up the ravine the old man went to a little ledge of rocks, beyond which was the blind, and when Hale saw his stooped figure slip over that and disappear, he ran noiselessly toward it, crept noiselessly to the top and peeped carefully over to see the Red Fox with his back to him and peering into a clump of bushes-- hardly ten yards away. While Hale looked, the old man thrust his hand into the bushes and drew out something that twinkled in the sun. At the moment Hale's horse nickered from the bushes, and the Red Fox slipped his hand into his pocket, crouched listening a moment, and then, step by step, backed toward the ledge. Hale rose:

"I want you, Red!"

The old man wheeled, the wolf's snarl came, but the big rifle was too slow--Hale's pistol had flashed in his face.

"Drop your gun!" Paralyzed, but the picture of white fury, the old man hesitated.

"Drop--your--gun!" Slowly the big rifle was loosed and fell to the ground.

"Back away--turn around and hands up!"

With his foot on the Winchester, Hale felt in the old man's pockets and fished out an empty cartridge shell. Then he picked up the rifle and threw the slide.

"It fits all right. March--toward that horse!"

Without a word the old man slouched ahead to where the big black horse was restlessly waiting in the bushes.

"Climb up," said Hale. "We won't 'ride and tie' back to town--but I'll take turns with you on the horse."

The Red Fox was making ready to leave the mountains, for he had been falsely informed that Rufe was to be brought back to the county seat next day, and he was searching again for the sole bit of evidence that was out against him. And when Rufe was spirited back to jail and was on his way to his cell, an old freckled hand was thrust between the bars of an iron door to greet him and a voice called him by name. Rufe stopped in amazement; then he burst out laughing; he struck then at the pallid face through the bars with his manacles and cursed the old man bitterly; then he laughed again horribly. The two slept in adjoining cells of the same cage that night--the one waiting for the scaffold and the other waiting for the trial that was to send him there. And away over the blue mountains a little old woman in black sat on the porch of her cabin as she had sat patiently many and many a long day. It was time, she thought, that the Red Fox was coming home.