The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr.
The longest of her life was that day to June. The anxiety in times of war for the women who wait at home is vague because they are mercifully ignorant of the dangers their loved ones run, but a specific issue that involves death to those loved ones has a special and poignant terror of its own. June knew her father's plan, the precise time the fight would take place, and the especial danger that was Hale's, for she knew that young Dave Tolliver had marked him with the first shot fired. Dry-eyed and white and dumb, she watched them make ready for the start that morning while it was yet dark; dully she heard the horses snorting from the cold, the low curt orders of her father, and the exciting mutterings of Bub and young Dave; dully she watched the saddles thrown on, the pistols buckled, the Winchesters caught up, and dully she watched them file out the gate and ride away, single file, into the cold, damp mist like ghostly figures in a dream. Once only did she open her lips and that was to plead with her father to leave Bub at home, but her father gave her no answer and Bub snorted his indignation--he was a man now, and his now was the privilege of a man. For a while she stood listening to the ring of metal against stone that came to her more and more faintly out of the mist, and she wondered if it was really June Tolliver standing there, while father and brother and cousin were on their way to fight the law--how differently she saw these things now--for a man who deserved death, and to fight a man who was ready to die for his duty to that law--the law that guarded them and her and might not perhaps guard him: the man who had planted for her the dew- drenched garden that was waiting for the sun, and had built the little room behind her for her comfort and seclusion; who had sent her to school, had never been anything but kind and just to her and to everybody--who had taught her life and, thank God, love. Was she really the June Tolliver who had gone out into the world and had held her place there; who had conquered birth and speech and customs and environment so that none could tell what they all once were; who had become the lady, the woman of the world, in manner, dress, and education: who had a gift of music and a voice that might enrich her life beyond any dream that had ever sprung from her own brain or any that she had ever caught from Hale's? Was she June Tolliver who had been and done all that, and now had come back and was slowly sinking back into the narrow grave from which Hale had lifted her? It was all too strange and bitter, but if she wanted proof there was her step-mother's voice now--the same old, querulous, nerve-racking voice that had embittered all her childhood--calling her down into the old mean round of drudgery that had bound forever the horizon of her narrow life just as now it was shutting down like a sky of brass around her own. And when the voice came, instead of bursting into tears as she was about to do, she gave a hard little laugh and she lifted a defiant face to the rising sun. There was a limit to the sacrifice for kindred, brother, father, home, and that limit was the eternal sacrifice--the eternal undoing of herself: when this wretched terrible business was over she would set her feet where that sun could rise on her, busy with the work that she could do in that world for which she felt she was born. Swiftly she did the morning chores and then she sat on the porch thinking and waiting. Spinning wheel, loom, and darning needle were to lie idle that day. The old step-mother had gotten from bed and was dressing herself--miraculously cured of a sudden, miraculously active. She began to talk of what she needed in town, and June said nothing. She went out to the stable and led out the old sorrel-mare. She was going to the hanging.
"Don't you want to go to town, June?"
"No," said June fiercely.
"Well, you needn't git mad about it--I got to go some day this week, and I reckon I might as well go ter-day." June answered nothing, but in silence watched her get ready and in silence watched her ride away. She was glad to be left alone. The sun had flooded Lonesome Cove now with a light as rich and yellow as though it were late afternoon, and she could yet tell every tree by the different colour of the banner that each yet defiantly flung into the face of death. The yard fence was festooned with dewy cobwebs, and every weed in the field was hung with them as with flashing jewels of exquisitely delicate design: Hale had once told her that they meant rain. Far away the mountains were overhung with purple so deep that the very air looked like mist, and a peace that seemed motherlike in tenderness brooded over the earth. Peace! Peace--with a man on his way to a scaffold only a few miles away, and two bodies of men, one led by her father, the other by the man she loved, ready to fly at each other's throats-- the one to get the condemned man alive, the other to see that he died. She got up with a groan. She walked into the garden. The grass was tall, tangled, and withering, and in it dead leaves lay everywhere, stems up, stems down, in reckless confusion. The scarlet sage-pods were brown and seeds were dropping from their tiny gaping mouths. The marigolds were frost-nipped and one lonely black-winged butterfly was vainly searching them one by one for the lost sweets of summer. The gorgeous crowns of the sun-flowers were nothing but grotesque black mummy-heads set on lean, dead bodies, and the clump of big castor-plants, buffeted by the wind, leaned this way and that like giants in a drunken orgy trying to keep one another from falling down. The blight that was on the garden was the blight that was in her heart, and two bits of cheer only she found--one yellow nasturtium, scarlet-flecked, whose fragrance was a memory of the spring that was long gone, and one little cedar tree that had caught some dead leaves in its green arms and was firmly holding them as though to promise that another spring would surely come. With the flower in her hand, she started up the ravine to her dreaming place, but it was so lonely up there and she turned back. She went into her room and tried to read. Mechanically, she half opened the lid of the piano and shut it, horrified by her own act. As she passed out on the porch again she noticed that it was only nine o'clock. She turned and watched the long hand--how long a minute was! Three hours more! She shivered and went inside and got her bonnet--she could not be alone when the hour came, and she started down the road toward Uncle Billy's mill. Hale! Hale! Hale!--the name began to ring in her ears like a bell. The little shacks he had built up the creek were deserted and gone to ruin, and she began to wonder in the light of what her father had said how much of a tragedy that meant to him. Here was the spot where he was fishing that day, when she had slipped down behind him and he had turned and seen her for the first time. She could recall his smile and the very tone of his kind voice:
"Howdye, little girl!" And the cat had got her tongue. She remembered when she had written her name, after she had first kissed him at the foot of the beech--"June hail," and by a grotesque mental leap the beating of his name in her brain now made her think of the beating of hailstones on her father's roof one night when as a child she had lain and listened to them. Then she noticed that the autumn shadows seemed to make the river darker than the shadows of spring--or was it already the stain of dead leaves? Hale could have told her. Those leaves were floating through the shadows and when the wind moved, others zig-zagged softly down to join them. The wind was helping them on the water, too, and along came one brown leaf that was shaped like a tiny trireme--its stem acting like a rudder and keeping it straight before the breeze--so that it swept past the rest as a yacht that she was once on had swept past a fleet of fishing sloops. She was not unlike that swift little ship and thirty yards ahead were rocks and shallows where it and the whole fleet would turn topsy- turvy--would her own triumph be as short and the same fate be hers? There was no question as to that, unless she took the wheel of her fate in her own hands and with them steered the ship. Thinking hard, she walked on slowly, with her hands behind her and her eyes bent on the road. What should she do? She had no money, her father had none to spare, and she could accept no more from Hale. Once she stopped and stared with unseeing eyes at the blue sky, and once under the heavy helplessness of it all she dropped on the side of the road and sat with her head buried in her arms-- sat so long that she rose with a start and, with an apprehensive look at the mounting sun, hurried on. She would go to the Gap and teach; and then she knew that if she went there it would be on Hale's account. Very well, she would not blind herself to that fact; she would go and perhaps all would be made up between them, and then she knew that if that but happened, nothing else could matter...
When she reached the miller's cabin, she went to the porch without noticing that the door was closed. Nobody was at home and she turned listlessly. When she reached the gate, she heard the clock beginning to strike, and with one hand on her breast she breathlessly listened, counting--"eight, nine, ten, eleven"--and her heart seemed to stop in the fraction of time that she waited for it to strike once more. But it was only eleven, and she went on down the road slowly, still thinking hard. The old miller was leaning back in a chair against the log side of the mill, with his dusty slouched hat down over his eyes. He did not hear her coming and she thought he must be asleep, but he looked up with a start when she spoke and she knew of what he, too, had been thinking. Keenly his old eyes searched her white face and without a word he got up and reached for another chair within the mill.
"You set right down now, baby," he said, and he made a pretence of having something to do inside the mill, while June watched the creaking old wheel dropping the sun-shot sparkling water into the swift sluice, but hardly seeing it at all. By and by Uncle Billy came outside and sat down and neither spoke a word. Once June saw him covertly looking at his watch and she put both hands to her throat--stifled.
"What time is it, Uncle Billy?" She tried to ask the question calmly, but she had to try twice before she could speak at all and when she did get the question out, her voice was only a broken whisper.
"Five minutes to twelve, baby," said the old man, and his voice had a gulp in it that broke June down. She sprang to her feet wringing her hands:
"I can't stand it, Uncle Billy," she cried madly, and with a sob that almost broke the old man's heart. "I tell you I can't stand it."
* * * * * * *
And yet for three hours more she had to stand it, while the cavalcade of Tollivers, with Rufe's body, made its slow way to the Kentucky line where Judd and Dave and Bub left them to go home for the night and be on hand for the funeral next day. But Uncle Billy led her back to his cabin, and on the porch the two, with old Hon, waited while the three hours dragged along. It was June who was first to hear the galloping of horses' hoofs up the road and she ran to the gate, followed by Uncle Billy and old Hon to see young Dave Tolliver coming in a run. At the gate he threw himself from his horse:
"Git up thar, June, and go home," he panted sharply. June flashed out the gate.
"Have you done it?" she asked with deadly quiet.
"Hurry up an' go home, I tell ye! Uncle Judd wants ye!"
She came quite close to him now.
"You said you'd do it--I know what you've done--you--" she looked as if she would fly at his throat, and Dave, amazed, shrank back a step.
"Go home, I tell ye--Uncle Judd's shot. Git on the hoss!"
"No, no, no! I wouldn't touch anything that was yours"--she put her hands to her head as though she were crazed, and then she turned and broke into a swift run up the road.
Panting, June reached the gate. The front door was closed and there she gave a tremulous cry for Bub. The door opened a few inches and through it Bub shouted for her to come on. The back door, too, was closed, and not a ray of daylight entered the room except at the port-hole where Bub, with a Winchester, had been standing on guard. By the light of the fire she saw her father's giant frame stretched out on the bed and she heard his laboured breathing. Swiftly she went to the bed and dropped on her knees beside it.
"Dad!" she said. The old man's eyes opened and turned heavily toward her.
"All right, Juny. They shot me from the laurel and they might nigh got Bub. I reckon they've got me this time."
"No--no!" He saw her eyes fixed on the matted blood on his chest.
"Hit's stopped. I'm afeared hit's bleedin' inside." His voice had dropped to a whisper and his eyes closed again. There was another cautious "Hello" outside, and when Bub again opened the door Dave ran swiftly within. He paid no attention to June.
"I follered June back an' left my hoss in the bushes. There was three of 'em." He showed Bub a bullet hole through one sleeve and then he turned half contemptuously to June:
"I hain't done it"--adding grimly--"not yit. He's as safe as you air. I hope you're satisfied that hit hain't him 'stid o' yo' daddy thar."
"Are you going to the Gap for a doctor?"
"I reckon I can't leave Bub here alone agin all the Falins--not even to git a doctor or to carry a love-message fer you."
"Then I'll go myself."
A thick protest came from the bed, and then an appeal that might have come from a child.
"Don't leave me, Juny." Without a word June went into the kitchen and got the old bark horn.
"Uncle Billy will go," she said, and she stepped out on the porch. But Uncle Billy was already on his way and she heard him coming just as she was raising the horn to her lips. She met him at the gate, and without even taking the time to come into the house the old miller hurried upward toward the Lonesome Pine. The rain came then--the rain that the tiny cobwebs had heralded at dawn that morning. The old step-mother had not come home, and June told Bub she had gone over the mountain to see her sister, and when, as darkness fell, she did not appear they knew that she must have been caught by the rain and would spend the night with a neighbour. June asked no question, but from the low talk of Bub and Dave she made out what had happened in town that day and a wild elation settled in her heart that John Hale was alive and unhurt--though Rufe was dead, her father wounded, and Bub and Dave both had but narrowly escaped the Falin assassins that afternoon. Bub took the first turn at watching while Dave slept, and when it was Dave's turn she saw him drop quickly asleep in his chair, and she was left alone with the breathing of the wounded man and the beating of rain on the roof. And through the long night June thought her brain weary over herself, her life, her people, and Hale. They were not to blame--her people, they but did as their fathers had done before them. They had their own code and they lived up to it as best they could, and they had had no chance to learn another. She felt the vindictive hatred that had prolonged the feud. Had she been a man, she could not have rested until she had slain the man who had ambushed her father. She expected Bub to do that now, and if the spirit was so strong in her with the training she had had, how helpless they must be against it. Even Dave was not to blame--not to blame for loving her--he had always done that. For that reason he could not help hating Hale, and how great a reason he had now, for he could not understand as she could the absence of any personal motive that had governed him in the prosecution of the law, no matter if he hurt friend or foe. But for Hale, she would have loved Dave and now be married to him and happier than she was. Dave saw that--no wonder he hated Hale. And as she slowly realized all these things, she grew calm and gentle and determined to stick to her people and do the best she could with her life.
And now and then through the night old Judd would open his eyes and stare at the ceiling, and at these times it was not the pain in his face that distressed her as much as the drawn beaten look that she had noticed growing in it for a long time. It was terrible--that helpless look in the face of a man, so big in body, so strong of mind, so iron-like in will; and whenever he did speak she knew what he was going to say:
"It's all over, Juny. They've beat us on every turn. They've got us one by one. Thar ain't but a few of us left now and when I git up, if I ever do, I'm goin' to gether 'em all together, pull up stakes and take 'em all West. You won't ever leave me, Juny?"
"No, Dad," she would say gently. He had asked the question at first quite sanely, but as the night wore on and the fever grew and his mind wandered, he would repeat the question over and over like a child, and over and over, while Bub and Dave slept and the rain poured, June would repeat her answer:
"I'll never leave you, Dad."