The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr.
Before dawn Hale and the doctor and the old miller had reached the Pine, and there Hale stopped. Any farther, the old man told him, he would go only at the risk of his life from Dave or Bub, or even from any Falin who happened to be hanging around in the bushes, for Hale was hated equally by both factions now.
"I'll wait up here until noon, Uncle Billy," said Hale. "Ask her, for God's sake, to come up here and see me."
"All right. I'll axe her, but--" the old miller shook his head. Breakfastless, except for the munching of a piece of chocolate, Hale waited all the morning with his black horse in the bushes some thirty yards from the Lonesome Pine. Every now and then he would go to the tree and look down the path, and once he slipped far down the trail and aside to a spur whence he could see the cabin in the cove. Once his hungry eyes caught sight of a woman's figure walking through the little garden, and for an hour after it disappeared into the house he watched for it to come out again. But nothing more was visible, and he turned back to the trail to see Uncle Billy laboriously climbing up the slope. Hale waited and ran down to meet him, his face and eyes eager and his lips trembling, but again Uncle Billy was shaking his head.
"No use, John," he said sadly. "I got her out on the porch and axed her, but she won't come."
"She won't come at all?"
"John, when one o' them Tollivers gits white about the mouth, an' thar eyes gits to blazin' and they keeps quiet--they're plumb out o' reach o' the Almighty hisself. June skeered me. But you mustn't blame her jes' now. You see, you got up that guard. You ketched Rufe and hung him, and she can't help thinkin' if you hadn't done that, her old daddy wouldn't be in thar on his back nigh to death. You mustn't blame her, John--she's most out o' her head now."
"All right, Uncle Billy. Good-by." Hale turned, climbed sadly back to his horse and sadly dropped down the other side of the mountain and on through the rocky gap-home.
A week later he learned from the doctor that the chances were even that old Judd would get well, but the days went by with no word of June. Through those days June wrestled with her love for Hale and her loyalty to her father, who, sick as he was, seemed to have a vague sense of the trouble within her and shrewdly fought it by making her daily promise that she would never leave him. For as old Judd got better, June's fierceness against Hale melted and her love came out the stronger, because of the passing injustice that she had done him. Many times she was on the point of sending him word that she would meet him at the Pine, but she was afraid of her own strength if she should see him face to face, and she feared she would be risking his life if she allowed him to come. There were times when she would have gone to him herself, had her father been well and strong, but he was old, beaten and helpless, and she had given her sacred word that she would never leave him. So once more she grew calmer, gentler still, and more determined to follow her own way with her own kin, though that way led through a breaking heart. She never mentioned Hale's name, she never spoke of going West, and in time Dave began to wonder not only if she had not gotten over her feeling for Hale, but if that feeling had not turned into permanent hate. To him, June was kinder than ever, because she understood him better and because she was sorry for the hunted, hounded life he led, not knowing, when on his trips to see her or to do some service for her father, he might be picked off by some Falin from the bushes. So Dave stopped his sneering remarks against Hale and began to dream his old dreams, though he never opened his lips to June, and she was unconscious of what was going on within him. By and by, as old Judd began to mend, overtures of peace came, singularly enough, from the Falins, and while the old man snorted with contemptuous disbelief at them as a pretence to throw him off his guard, Dave began actually to believe that they were sincere, and straightway forged a plan of his own, even if the Tollivers did persist in going West. So one morning as he mounted his horse at old Judd's gate, he called to June in the garden:
"I'm a-goin' over to the Gap." June paled, but Dave was not looking at her.
"What for?" she asked, steadying her voice.
"Business," he answered, and he laughed curiously and, still without looking at her, rode away.
* * * * * * *
Hale sat in the porch of his little office that morning, and the Hon. Sam Budd, who had risen to leave, stood with his hands deep in his pockets, his hat tilted far over his big goggles, looking down at the dead leaves that floated like lost hopes on the placid mill-pond. Hale had agreed to go to England once more on the sole chance left him before he went back to chain and compass--the old land deal that had come to life--and between them they had about enough money for the trip.
"You'll keep an eye on things over there?" said Hale with a backward motion of his head toward Lonesome Cove, and the Hon. Sam nodded his head:
"All I can."
"Those big trunks of hers are still here." The Hon. Sam smiled. "She won't need 'em. I'll keep an eye on 'em and she can come over and get what she wants--every year or two," he added grimly, and Hale groaned.
"Stop it, Sam."
"All right. You ain't goin' to try to see her before you leave?" And then at the look on Hale's face he said hurriedly: "All right- -all right," and with a toss of his hands turned away, while Hale sat thinking where he was.
Rufe Tolliver had been quite right as to the Red Fox. Nobody would risk his life for him--there was no one to attempt a rescue, and but a few of the guards were on hand this time to carry out the law. On the last day he had appeared in his white suit of tablecloth. The little old woman in black had made even the cap that was to be drawn over his face, and that, too, she had made of white. Moreover, she would have his body kept unburied for three days, because the Red Fox said that on the third day he would arise and go about preaching. So that even in death the Red Fox was consistently inconsistent, and how he reconciled such a dual life at one and the same time over and under the stars was, except to his twisted brain, never known. He walked firmly up the scaffold steps and stood there blinking in the sunlight. With one hand he tested the rope. For a moment he looked at the sky and the trees with a face that was white and absolutely expressionless. Then he sang one hymn of two verses and quietly dropped into that world in which he believed so firmly and toward which he had trod so strange a way on earth. As he wished, the little old woman in black had the body kept unburied for the three days--but the Red Fox never rose. With his passing, law and order had become supreme. Neither Tolliver nor Falin came on the Virginia side for mischief, and the desperadoes of two sister States, whose skirts are stitched together with pine and pin-oak along the crest of the Cumberland, confined their deviltries with great care to places long distant from the Gap. John Hale had done a great work, but the limit of his activities was that State line and the Falins, ever threatening that they would not leave a Tolliver alive, could carry out those threats and Hale not be able to lift a hand. It was his helplessness that was making him writhe now.
Old Judd had often said he meant to leave the mountains--why didn't he go now and take June for whose safety his heart was always in his mouth? As an officer, he was now helpless where he was; and if he went away he could give no personal aid--he would not even know what was happening--and he had promised Budd to go. An open letter was clutched in his hand, and again he read it. His coal company had accepted his last proposition. They would take his stock--worthless as they thought it--and surrender the cabin and two hundred acres of field and woodland in Lonesome Cove. That much at least would be intact, but if he failed in his last project now, it would be subject to judgments against him that were sure to come. So there was one thing more to do for June before he left for the final effort in England--to give back her home to her--and as he rose to do it now, somebody shouted at his gate:
"Hello!" Hale stopped short at the head of the steps, his right hand shot like a shaft of light to the butt of his pistol, stayed there--and he stood astounded. It was Dave Tolliver on horseback, and Dave's right hand had kept hold of his bridle-reins.
"Hold on!" he said, lifting the other with a wide gesture of peace. "I want to talk with you a bit." Still Hale watched him closely as he swung from his horse.
"Come in--won't you?" The mountaineer hitched his horse and slouched within the gate.
"Have a seat." Dave dropped to the steps.
"I'll set here," he said, and there was an embarrassed silence for a while between the two. Hale studied young Dave's face from narrowed eyes. He knew all the threats the Tolliver had made against him, the bitter enmity that he felt, and that it would last until one or the other was dead. This was a queer move. The mountaineer took off his slouched hat and ran one hand through his thick black hair.
"I reckon you've heard as how all our folks air sellin' out over the mountains."
"No," said Hale quickly.
"Well, they air, an' all of 'em are going West--Uncle Judd, Loretty and June, and all our kinfolks. You didn't know that?"
"No," repeated Hale.
"Well, they hain't closed all the trades yit," he said, "an' they mought not go mebbe afore spring. The Falins say they air done now. Uncle Judd don't believe 'em, but I do, an' I'm thinkin' I won't go. I've got a leetle money, an' I want to know if I can't buy back Uncle Judd's house an' a leetle ground around it. Our folks is tired o' fightin' and I couldn't live on t'other side of the mountain, after they air gone, an' keep as healthy as on this side--so I thought I'd see if I couldn't buy back June's old home, mebbe, an' live thar."
Hale watched him keenly, wondering what his game was--and he went on: "I know the house an' land ain't wuth much to your company, an' as the coal-vein has petered out, I reckon they might not axe much fer it." It was all out now, and he stopped without looking at Hale. "I ain't axin' any favours, leastwise not o' you, an' I thought my share o' Mam's farm mought be enough to git me the house an' some o' the land."
"You mean to live there, yourself?"
"Alone?" Dave frowned.
"I reckon that's my business."
"So it is--excuse me." Hale lighted his pipe and the mountaineer waited--he was a little sullen now.
"Well, the company has parted with the land." Dave started.
"In a way--yes."
"Well, would you mind tellin' me who bought it--maybe I can git it from him."
"It's mine now," said Hale quietly.
"Yourn!" The mountaineer looked incredulous and then he let loose a scornful laugh.
"You goin' to live thar?"
"That's my business." The mountaineer's face darkened and his fingers began to twitch.
"Well, if you're talkin' 'bout June, hit's my business. Hit always has been and hit always will be."
"Well, if I was talking about June, I wouldn't consult you."
"No, but I'd consult you like hell."
"I wish you had the chance," said Hale coolly; "but I wasn't talking about June." Again Dave laughed harshly, and for a moment his angry eyes rested on the quiet mill-pond. He went backward suddenly.
"You went over thar in Lonesome with your high notions an' your slick tongue, an' you took June away from me. But she wusn't good enough fer you then--so you filled her up with yo' fool notions an' sent her away to git her po' little head filled with furrin' ways, so she could be fitten to marry you. You took her away from her daddy, her family, her kinfolks and her home, an' you took her away from me; an' now she's been over thar eatin' her heart out just as she et it out over here when she fust left home. An' in the end she got so highfalutin that she wouldn't marry you." He laughed again and Hale winced under the laugh and the lashing words. "An' I know you air eatin' yo' heart out, too, because you can't git June, an' I'm hopin' you'll suffer the torment o' hell as long as you live. God, she hates ye now! To think o' your knowin' the world and women and books"--he spoke with vindictive and insulting slowness--"You bein' such a--fool!"
"That may all be true, but I think you can talk better outside that gate." The mountaineer, deceived by Hale's calm voice, sprang to his feet in a fury, but he was too late. Hale's hand was on the butt of his revolver, his blue eyes were glittering and a dangerous smile was at his lips. Silently he sat and silently he pointed his other hand at the gate. Dave laughed:
"D'ye think I'd fight you hyeh? If you killed me, you'd be elected County Jedge; if I killed you, what chance would I have o' gittin' away? I'd swing fer it." He was outside the gate now and unhitching his horse. He started to turn the beasts but Hale stopped him.
"Get on from this side, please."
With one foot in the stirrup, Dave turned savagely: "Why don't you go up in the Gap with me now an' fight it out like a man?"
"I don't trust you."
"I'll git ye over in the mountains some day."
"I've no doubt you will, if you have the chance from the bush." Hale was getting roused now.
"Look here," he said suddenly, "you've been threatening me for a long time now. I've never had any feeling against you. I've never done anything to you that I hadn't to do. But you've gone a little too far now and I'm tired. If you can't get over your grudge against me, suppose we go across the river outside the town- limits, put our guns down and fight it out--fist and skull."
"I'm your man," said Dave eagerly. Looking across the street Hale saw two men on the porch.
"Come on!" he said. The two men were Budd and the new town- sergeant. "Sam," he said "this gentleman and I are going across the river to have a little friendly bout, and I wish you'd come along--and you, too, Bill, to see that Dave here gets fair play."
The sergeant spoke to Dave. "You don't need nobody to see that you git fair play with them two--but I'll go 'long just the same." Hardly a word was said as the four walked across the bridge and toward a thicket to the right. Neither Budd nor the sergeant asked the nature of the trouble, for either could have guessed what it was. Dave tied his horse and, like Hale, stripped off his coat. The sergeant took charge of Dave's pistol and Budd of Hale's.
"All you've got to do is to keep him away from you," said Budd. "If he gets his hands on you--you're gone. You know how they fight rough-and-tumble."
Hale nodded--he knew all that himself, and when he looked at Dave's sturdy neck, and gigantic shoulders, he knew further that if the mountaineer got him in his grasp he would have to gasp "enough" in a hurry, or be saved by Budd from being throttled to death.
"Are you ready?" Again Hale nodded.
"Go ahead, Dave," growled the sergeant, for the job was not to his liking. Dave did not plunge toward Hale, as the three others expected. On the contrary, he assumed the conventional attitude of the boxer and advanced warily, using his head as a diagnostician for Hale's points--and Hale remembered suddenly that Dave had been away at school for a year. Dave knew something of the game and the Hon. Sam straightway was anxious, when the mountaineer ducked and swung his left Budd's heart thumped and he almost shrank himself from the terrific sweep of the big fist.
"God!" he muttered, for had the fist caught Hale's head it must, it seemed, have crushed it like an egg-shell. Hale coolly withdrew his head not more than an inch, it seemed to Budd's practised eye, and jabbed his right with a lightning uppercut into Dave's jaw, that made the mountaineer reel backward with a grunt of rage and pain, and when he followed it up with a swing of his left on Dave's right eye and another terrific jolt with his right on the left jaw, and Budd saw the crazy rage in the mountaineer's face, he felt easy. In that rage Dave forgot his science as the Hon. Sam expected, and with a bellow he started at Hale like a cave-dweller to bite, tear, and throttle, but the lithe figure before him swayed this way and that like a shadow, and with every side-step a fist crushed on the mountaineer's nose, chin or jaw, until, blinded with blood and fury, Dave staggered aside toward the sergeant with the cry of a madman:
"Gimme my gun! I'll kill him! Gimme my gun!" And when the sergeant sprang forward and caught the mountaineer, he dropped weeping with rage and shame to the ground.
"You two just go back to town," said the sergeant. "I'll take keer of him. Quick!" and he shook his head as Hale advanced. "He ain't goin' to shake hands with you."
The two turned back across the bridge and Hale went on to Budd's office to do what he was setting out to do when young Dave came. There he had the lawyer make out a deed in which the cabin in Lonesome Cove and the acres about it were conveyed in fee simple to June--her heirs and assigns forever; but the girl must not know until, Hale said, "her father dies, or I die, or she marries." When he came out the sergeant was passing the door.
"Ain't no use fightin' with one o' them fellers thataway," he said, shaking his head. "If he whoops you, he'll crow over you as long as he lives, and if you whoop him, he'll kill ye the fust chance he gets. You'll have to watch that feller as long as you live--'specially when he's drinking. He'll remember that lickin' and want revenge fer it till the grave. One of you has got to die some day--shore."
And the sergeant was right. Dave was going through the Gap at that moment, cursing, swaying like a drunken man, firing his pistol and shouting his revenge to the echoing gray walls that took up his cries and sent them shrieking on the wind up every dark ravine. All the way up the mountain he was cursing. Under the gentle voice of the big Pine he was cursing still, and when his lips stopped, his heart was beating curses as he dropped down the other side of the mountain.
When he reached the river, he got off his horse and bathed his mouth and his eyes again, and he cursed afresh when the blood started afresh at his lips again. For a while he sat there in his black mood, undecided whether he should go to his uncle's cabin or go on home. But he had seen a woman's figure in the garden as he came down the spur, and the thought of June drew him to the cabin in spite of his shame and the questions that were sure to be asked. When he passed around the clump of rhododendrons at the creek, June was in the garden still. She was pruning a rose-bush with Bub's penknife, and when she heard him coming she wheeled, quivering. She had been waiting for him all day, and, like an angry goddess, she swept fiercely toward him. Dave pretended not to see her, but when he swung from his horse and lifted his sullen eyes, he shrank as though she had lashed him across them with a whip. Her eyes blazed with murderous fire from her white face, the penknife in her hand was clenched as though for a deadly purpose, and on her trembling lips was the same question that she had asked him at the mill:
"Have you done it this time?" she whispered, and then she saw his swollen mouth and his battered eye. Her fingers relaxed about the handle of the knife, the fire in her eyes went swiftly down, and with a smile that was half pity, half contempt, she turned away. She could not have told the whole truth better in words, even to Dave, and as he looked after her his every pulse-beat was a new curse, and if at that minute he could have had Hale's heart he would have eaten it like a savage--raw. For a minute he hesitated with reins in hand as to whether he should turn now and go back to the Gap to settle with Hale, and then he threw the reins over a post. He could bide his time yet a little longer, for a crafty purpose suddenly entered his brain. Bub met him at the door of the cabin and his eyes opened.
"What's the matter, Dave?"
"Oh, nothin'," he said carelessly. "My hoss stumbled comin' down the mountain an' I went clean over his head." He raised one hand to his mouth and still Bub was suspicious.
"Looks like you been in a fight." The boy began to laugh, but Dave ignored him and went on into the cabin. Within, he sat where he could see through the open door.
"Whar you been, Dave?" asked old Judd from the corner. Just then he saw June coming and, pretending to draw on his pipe, he waited until she had sat down within ear-shot on the edge of the porch.
"Who do you reckon owns this house and two hundred acres o' land roundabouts?"
The girl's heart waited apprehensively and she heard her father's deep voice.
"The company owns it." Dave laughed harshly.
"Not much--John Hale." The heart out on the porch leaped with gladness now
"He bought it from the company. It's just as well you're goin' away, Uncle Judd. He'd put you out."
"I reckon not. I got writin' from the company which 'lows me to stay here two year or more--if I want to."
"I don't know. He's a slick one."
"I heerd him say," put in Bub stoutly, "that he'd see that we stayed here jus' as long as we pleased."
"Well," said old Judd shortly, "ef we stay here by his favour, we won't stay long."
There was silence for a while. Then Dave spoke again for the listening ears outside--maliciously:
"I went over to the Gap to see if I couldn't git the place myself from the company. I believe the Falins ain't goin' to bother us an' I ain't hankerin' to go West. But I told him that you-all was goin' to leave the mountains and goin' out thar fer good." There was another silence.
"He never said a word." Nobody had asked the question, but he was answering the unspoken one in the heart of June, and that heart sank like a stone.
"He's goin' away hisself-goin' ter-morrow--goin' to that same place he went before--England, some feller called it."
Dave had done his work well. June rose unsteadily, and with one hand on her heart and the other clutching the railing of the porch, she crept noiselessly along it, staggered like a wounded thing around the chimney, through the garden and on, still clutching her heart, to the woods--there to sob it out on the breast of the only mother she had ever known.
Dave was gone when she came back from the woods--calm, dry-eyed, pale. Her step-mother had kept her dinner for her, and when she said she wanted nothing to eat, the old woman answered something querulous to which June made no answer, but went quietly to cleaning away the dishes. For a while she sat on the porch, and presently she went into her room and for a few moments she rocked quietly at her window. Hale was going away next day, and when he came back she would be gone and she would never see him again. A dry sob shook her body of a sudden, she put both hands to her head and with wild eyes she sprang to her feet and, catching up her bonnet, slipped noiselessly out the back door. With hands clenched tight she forced herself to walk slowly across the foot-bridge, but when the bushes hid her, she broke into a run as though she were crazed and escaping a madhouse. At the foot of the spur she turned swiftly up the mountain and climbed madly, with one hand tight against the little cross at her throat. He was going away and she must tell him--she must tell him--what? Behind her a voice was calling, the voice that pleaded all one night for her not to leave him, that had made that plea a daily prayer, and it had come from an old man--wounded, broken in health and heart, and her father. Hale's face was before her, but that voice was behind, and as she climbed, the face that she was nearing grew fainter, the voice she was leaving sounded the louder in her ears, and when she reached the big Pine she dropped helplessly at the base of it, sobbing. With her tears the madness slowly left her, the old determination came back again and at last the old sad peace. The sunlight was slanting at a low angle when she rose to her feet and stood on the cliff overlooking the valley--her lips parted as when she stood there first, and the tiny drops drying along the roots of her dull gold hair. And being there for the last time she thought of that time when she was first there--ages ago. The great glare of light that she looked for then had come and gone. There was the smoking monster rushing into the valley and sending echoing shrieks through the hills--but there was no booted stranger and no horse issuing from the covert of maple where the path disappeared. A long time she stood there, with a wandering look of farewell to every familiar thing before her, but not a tear came now. Only as she turned away at last her breast heaved and fell with one long breath--that was all. Passing the Pine slowly, she stopped and turned back to it, unclasping the necklace from her throat. With trembling fingers she detached from it the little luck-piece that Hale had given her--the tear of a fairy that had turned into a tiny cross of stone when a strange messenger brought to the Virginia valley the story of the crucifixion. The penknife was still in her pocket, and, opening it, she went behind the Pine and dug a niche as high and as deep as she could toward its soft old heart. In there she thrust the tiny symbol, whispering:
"I want all the luck you could ever give me, little cross--for him." Then she pulled the fibres down to cover it from sight and, crossing her hands over the opening, she put her forehead against them and touched her lips to the tree.
"Keep it safe, old Pine." Then she lifted her face--looking upward along its trunk to the blue sky. "And bless him, dear God, and guard him evermore." She clutched her heart as she turned, and she was clutching it when she passed into the shadows below, leaving the old Pine to whisper, when he passed, her love.
* * * * * * *
Next day the word went round to the clan that the Tollivers would start in a body one week later for the West. At daybreak, that morning, Uncle Billy and his wife mounted the old gray horse and rode up the river to say good-by. They found the cabin in Lonesome Cove deserted. Many things were left piled in the porch; the Tollivers had left apparently in a great hurry and the two old people were much mystified. Not until noon did they learn what the matter was. Only the night before a Tolliver had shot a Falin and the Falins had gathered to get revenge on Judd that night. The warning word had been brought to Lonesome Cove by Loretta Tolliver, and it had come straight from young Buck Falin himself. So June and old Judd and Bub had fled in the night. At that hour they were on their way to the railroad--old Judd at the head of his clan--his right arm still bound to his side, his bushy beard low on his breast, June and Bub on horseback behind him, the rest strung out behind them, and in a wagon at the end, with all her household effects, the little old woman in black who would wait no longer for the Red Fox to arise from the dead. Loretta alone was missing. She was on her way with young Buck Falin to the railroad on the other side of the mountains. Between them not a living soul disturbed the dead stillness of Lonesome Cove.