Chapter III
 

On one side he had left the earth yellow with the coming noon, but it was still morning as he went down on the other side. The laurel and rhododendron still reeked with dew in the deep, ever-shaded ravine. The ferns drenched his stirrups, as he brushed through them, and each dripping tree-top broke the sunlight and let it drop in tent-like beams through the shimmering undermist. A bird flashed here and there through the green gloom, but there was no sound in the air but the footfalls of his horse and the easy creaking of leather under him, the drip of dew overhead and the running of water below. Now and then he could see the same slender foot-prints in the rich loam and he saw them in the sand where the first tiny brook tinkled across the path from a gloomy ravine. There the little creature had taken a flying leap across it and, beyond, he could see the prints no more. He little guessed that while he halted to let his horse drink, the girl lay on a rock above him, looking down. She was nearer home now and was less afraid; so she had slipped from the trail and climbed above it there to watch him pass. As he went on, she slid from her perch and with cat-footed quiet followed him. When he reached the river she saw him pull in his horse and eagerly bend forward, looking into a pool just below the crossing. There was a bass down there in the clear water--a big one--and the man whistled cheerily and dismounted, tying his horse to a sassafras bush and unbuckling a tin bucket and a curious looking net from his saddle. With the net in one hand and the bucket in the other, he turned back up the creek and passed so close to where she had slipped aside into the bushes that she came near shrieking, but his eyes were fixed on a pool of the creek above and, to her wonder, he strolled straight into the water, with his boots on, pushing the net in front of him.

He was a "raider" sure, she thought now, and he was looking for a "moonshine" still, and the wild little thing in the bushes smiled cunningly--there was no still up that creek--and as he had left his horse below and his gun, she waited for him to come back, which he did, by and by, dripping and soaked to his knees. Then she saw him untie the queer "gun" on his saddle, pull it out of a case and--her eyes got big with wonder--take it to pieces and make it into a long limber rod. In a moment he had cast a minnow into the pool and waded out into the water up to his hips. She had never seen so queer a fishing-pole--so queer a fisherman. How could he get a fish out with that little switch, she thought contemptuously? By and by something hummed queerly, the man gave a slight jerk and a shining fish flopped two feet into the air. It was surely very queer, for the man didn't put his rod over his shoulder and walk ashore, as did the mountaineers, but stood still, winding something with one hand, and again the fish would flash into the air and then that humming would start again while the fisherman would stand quiet and waiting for a while--and then he would begin to wind again. In her wonder, she rose unconsciously to her feet and a stone rolled down to the ledge below her. The fisherman turned his head and she started to run, but without a word he turned again to the fish he was playing. Moreover, he was too far out in the water to catch her, so she advanced slowly--even to the edge of the stream, watching the fish cut half circles about the man. If he saw her, he gave no notice, and it was well that he did not. He was pulling the bass to and fro now through the water, tiring him out--drowning him--stepping backward at the same time, and, a moment later, the fish slid easily out of the edge of the water, gasping along the edge of a low sand-bank, and the fisherman reaching down with one hand caught him in the gills. Then he looked up and smiled--and she had seen no smile like that before.

"Howdye, Little Girl?"

One bare toe went burrowing suddenly into the sand, one finger went to her red mouth--and that was all. She merely stared him straight in the eye and he smiled again.

"Cat got your tongue?"

Her eyes fell at the ancient banter, but she lifted them straightway and stared again.

"You live around here?"

She stared on.

"Where?"

No answer.

"What's your name, little girl?"

And still she stared.

"Oh, well, of course, you can't talk, if the cat's got your tongue."

The steady eyes leaped angrily, but there was still no answer, and he bent to take the fish off his hook, put on a fresh minnow, turned his back and tossed it into the pool.

"Hit hain't!"

He looked up again. She surely was a pretty little thing--and more, now that she was angry.

"I should say not," he said teasingly. "What did you say your name was?"

"What's yo' name?"

The fisherman laughed. He was just becoming accustomed to the mountain etiquette that commands a stranger to divulge himself first.

"My name's--Jack."

"An' mine's--Jill." She laughed now, and it was his time for surprise--where could she have heard of Jack and Jill?

His line rang suddenly.

"Jack," she cried, "you got a bite!"

He pulled, missed the strike, and wound in. The minnow was all right, so he tossed it back again.

"That isn't your name," he said.

"If 'tain't, then that ain't your'n?"

"Yes 'tis," he said, shaking his head affirmatively.

A long cry came down the ravine:

"J-u-n-e! eh--oh--J-u-n-e!" That was a queer name for the mountains, and the fisherman wondered if he had heard aright-- June.

The little girl gave a shrill answering cry, but she did not move.

"Thar now!" she said.

"Who's that--your Mammy?"

"No, 'tain't--hit's my step-mammy. I'm a goin' to ketch hell now." Her innocent eyes turned sullen and her baby mouth tightened.

"Good Lord!" said the fisherman, startled, and then he stopped-- the words were as innocent on her lips as a benediction.

"Have you got a father?" Like a flash, her whole face changed.

"I reckon I have."

"Where is he?"

"Hyeh he is!" drawled a voice from the bushes, and it had a tone that made the fisherman whirl suddenly. A giant mountaineer stood on the bank above him, with a Winchester in the hollow of his arm.

"How are you?" The giant's heavy eyes lifted quickly, but he spoke to the girl.

"You go on home--what you doin' hyeh gassin' with furriners!"

The girl shrank to the bushes, but she cried sharply back:

"Don't you hurt him now, Dad. He ain't even got a pistol. He ain't no--"

"Shet up!" The little creature vanished and the mountaineer turned to the fisherman, who had just put on a fresh minnow and tossed it into the river.

"Purty well, thank you," he said shortly. "How are you?"

"Fine!" was the nonchalant answer. For a moment there was silence and a puzzled frown gathered on the mountaineer's face.

"That's a bright little girl of yours--What did she mean by telling you not to hurt me?"

"You haven't been long in these mountains, have ye?"

"No--not in these mountains--why?" The fisherman looked around and was almost startled by the fierce gaze of his questioner.

"Stop that, please," he said, with a humourous smile. "You make me nervous."

The mountaineer's bushy brows came together across the bridge of his nose and his voice rumbled like distant thunder.

"What's yo' name, stranger, an' what's yo' business over hyeh?"

"Dear me, there you go! You can see I'm fishing, but why does everybody in these mountains want to know my name?"

"You heerd me!"

"Yes." The fisherman turned again and saw the giant's rugged face stern and pale with open anger now, and he, too, grew suddenly serious.

"Suppose I don't tell you," he said gravely. "What--"

"Git!" said the mountaineer, with a move of one huge hairy hand up the mountain. "An' git quick!"

The fisherman never moved and there was the click of a shell thrown into place in the Winchester and a guttural oath from the mountaineer's beard.

"Damn ye," he said hoarsely, raising the rifle. "I'll give ye--"

"Don't, Dad!" shrieked a voice from the bushes. "I know his name, hit's Jack--" the rest of the name was unintelligible. The mountaineer dropped the butt of his gun to the ground and laughed.

"Oh, air you the engineer?"

The fisherman was angry now. He had not moved hand or foot and he said nothing, but his mouth was set hard and his bewildered blue eyes had a glint in them that the mountaineer did not at the moment see. He was leaning with one arm on the muzzle of his Winchester, his face had suddenly become suave and shrewd and now he laughed again:

"So you're Jack Hale, air ye?"

The fisherman spoke. "John Hale, except to my friends." He looked hard at the old man.

"Do you know that's a pretty dangerous joke of yours, my friend--I might have a gun myself sometimes. Did you think you could scare me?" The mountaineer stared in genuine surprise.

"Twusn't no joke," he said shortly. "An' I don't waste time skeering folks. I reckon you don't know who I be?"

"I don't care who you are." Again the mountaineer stared.

"No use gittin' mad, young feller," he said coolly. "I mistaken ye fer somebody else an' I axe yer pardon. When you git through fishin' come up to the house right up the creek thar an' I'll give ye a dram."

"Thank you," said the fisherman stiffly, and the mountaineer turned silently away. At the edge of the bushes, he looked back; the stranger was still fishing, and the old man went on with a shake of his head.

"He'll come," he said to himself. "Oh, he'll come!"

That very point Hale was debating with himself as he unavailingly cast his minnow into the swift water and slowly wound it in again. How did that old man know his name? And would the old savage really have hurt him had he not found out who he was? The little girl was a wonder: evidently she had muffled his last name on purpose--not knowing it herself--and it was a quick and cunning ruse. He owed her something for that--why did she try to protect him? Wonderful eyes, too, the little thing had--deep and dark--and how the flame did dart from them when she got angry! He smiled, remembering--he liked that. And her hair--it was exactly like the gold-bronze on the wing of a wild turkey that he had shot the day before. Well, it was noon now, the fish had stopped biting after the wayward fashion of bass, he was hungry and thirsty and he would go up and see the little girl and the giant again and get that promised dram. Once more, however, he let his minnow float down into the shadow of a big rock, and while he was winding in, he looked up to see in the road two people on a gray horse, a man with a woman behind him--both old and spectacled--all three motionless on the bank and looking at him: and he wondered if all three had stopped to ask his name and his business. No, they had just come down to the creek and both they must know already.

"Ketching any?" called out the old man, cheerily.

"Only one," answered Hale with equal cheer. The old woman pushed back her bonnet as he waded through the water towards them and he saw that she was puffing a clay pipe. She looked at the fisherman and his tackle with the naive wonder of a child, and then she said in a commanding undertone.

"Go on, Billy."

"Now, ole Hon, I wish ye'd jes' wait a minute." Hale smiled. He loved old people, and two kinder faces he had never seen--two gentler voices he had never heard.

"I reckon you got the only green pyerch up hyeh," said the old man, chuckling, "but thar's a sight of 'em down thar below my old mill." Quietly the old woman hit the horse with a stripped branch of elm and the old gray, with a switch of his tail, started.

"Wait a minute, Hon," he said again, appealingly, "won't ye?" but calmly she hit the horse again and the old man called back over his shoulder:

"You come on down to the mill an' I'll show ye whar you can ketch a mess."

"All right," shouted Hale, holding back his laughter, and on they went, the old man remonstrating in the kindliest way--the old woman silently puffing her pipe and making no answer except to flay gently the rump of the lazy old gray.

Hesitating hardly a moment, Hale unjointed his pole, left his minnow bucket where it was, mounted his horse and rode up the path. About him, the beech leaves gave back the gold of the autumn sunlight, and a little ravine, high under the crest of the mottled mountain, was on fire with the scarlet of maple. Not even yet had the morning chill left the densely shaded path. When he got to the bare crest of a little rise, he could see up the creek a spiral of blue rising swiftly from a stone chimney. Geese and ducks were hunting crawfish in the little creek that ran from a milk-house of logs, half hidden by willows at the edge of the forest, and a turn in the path brought into view a log-cabin well chinked with stones and plaster, and with a well-built porch. A fence ran around the yard and there was a meat house near a little orchard of apple- trees, under which were many hives of bee-gums. This man had things "hung up" and was well-to-do. Down the rise and through a thicket he went, and as he approached the creek that came down past the cabin there was a shrill cry ahead of him.

"Whoa thar, Buck! Gee-haw, I tell ye!" An ox-wagon evidently was coming on, and the road was so narrow that he turned his horse into the bushes to let it pass.

"Whoa--Haw!--Gee--Gee--Buck, Gee, I tell ye! I'll knock yo' fool head off the fust thing you know!"

Still there was no sound of ox or wagon and the voice sounded like a child's. So he went on at a walk in the thick sand, and when he turned the bushes he pulled up again with a low laugh. In the road across the creek was a chubby, tow-haired boy with a long switch in his right hand, and a pine dagger and a string in his left. Attached to the string and tied by one hind leg was a frog. The boy was using the switch as a goad and driving the frog as an ox, and he was as earnest as though both were real.

"I give ye a little rest now, Buck," he said, shaking his head earnestly. "Hit's a purty hard pull hyeh, but I know, by Gum, you can make hit--if you hain't too durn lazy. Now, git up, Buck!" he yelled suddenly, flaying the sand with his switch. "Git up--Whoa-- Haw--Gee, Gee!" The frog hopped several times.

"Whoa, now!" said the little fellow, panting in sympathy. "I knowed you could do it." Then he looked up. For an instant he seemed terrified but he did not run. Instead he stealthily shifted the pine dagger over to his right hand and the string to his left.

"Here, boy," said the fisherman with affected sternness: "What are you doing with that dagger?"

The boy's breast heaved and his dirty fingers clenched tight around the whittled stick.

"Don't you talk to me that-a-way," he said with an ominous shake of his head. "I'll gut ye!"

The fisherman threw back his head, and his peal of laughter did what his sternness failed to do. The little fellow wheeled suddenly, and his feet spurned the sand around the bushes for home--the astonished frog dragged bumping after him. "Well!" said the fisherman.