The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr.
All winter the cabin in Lonesome Cove slept through rain and sleet and snow, and no foot passed its threshold. Winter broke, floods came and warm sunshine. A pale green light stole through the trees, shy, ethereal and so like a mist that it seemed at any moment on the point of floating upward. Colour came with the wild flowers and song with the wood-thrush. Squirrels played on the tree-trunks like mischievous children, the brooks sang like happy human voices through the tremulous underworld and woodpeckers hammered out the joy of spring, but the awakening only made the desolate cabin lonelier still. After three warm days in March, Uncle Billy, the miller, rode up the creek with a hoe over his shoulder--he had promised this to Hale--for his labour of love in June's garden. Weeping April passed, May came with rosy face uplifted, and with the birth of June the laurel emptied its pink- flecked cups and the rhododendron blazed the way for the summer's coming with white stars.
Back to the hills came Hale then, and with all their rich beauty they were as desolate as when he left them bare with winter, for his mission had miserably failed. His train creaked and twisted around the benches of the mountains, and up and down ravines into the hills. The smoke rolled in as usual through the windows and doors. There was the same crowd of children, slatternly women and tobacco-spitting men in the dirty day-coaches, and Hale sat among them--for a Pullman was no longer attached to the train that ran to the Gap. As he neared the bulk of Powell's mountain and ran along its mighty flank, he passed the ore-mines. At each one the commissary was closed, the cheap, dingy little houses stood empty on the hillsides, and every now and then he would see a tipple and an empty car, left as it was after dumping its last load of red ore. On the right, as he approached the station, the big furnace stood like a dead giant, still and smokeless, and the piles of pig iron were red with rust. The same little dummy wheezed him into the dead little town. Even the face of the Gap was a little changed by the gray scar that man had slashed across its mouth, getting limestone for the groaning monster of a furnace that was now at peace. The streets were deserted. A new face fronted him at the desk of the hotel and the eyes of the clerk showed no knowledge of him when he wrote his name. His supper was coarse, greasy and miserable, his room was cold (steam heat, it seemed, had been given up), the sheets were ill-smelling, the mouth of the pitcher was broken, and the one towel had seen much previous use. But the water was the same, as was the cool, pungent night-air-- both blessed of God--and they were the sole comforts that were his that night.
The next day it was as though he were arranging his own funeral, with but little hope of a resurrection. The tax-collector met him when he came downstairs--having seen his name on the register.
"You know," he said, "I'll have to add 5 per cent. next month." Hale smiled.
"That won't be much more," he said, and the collector, a new one, laughed good-naturedly and with understanding turned away. Mechanically he walked to the Club, but there was no club--then on to the office of The Progress--the paper that was the boast of the town. The Progress was defunct and the brilliant editor had left the hills. A boy with an ink-smeared face was setting type and a pallid gentleman with glasses was languidly working a hand-press. A pile of fresh-smelling papers lay on a table, and after a question or two he picked up one. Two of its four pages were covered with announcements of suits and sales to satisfy judgments--the printing of which was the raison d'etre of the noble sheet. Down the column his eye caught John Hale et al. John Hale et al., and he wondered why "the others" should be so persistently anonymous. There was a cloud of them--thicker than the smoke of coke-ovens. He had breathed that thickness for a long time, but he got a fresh sense of suffocation now. Toward the post-office he moved. Around the corner he came upon one of two brothers whom he remembered as carpenters. He recalled his inability once to get that gentleman to hang a door for him. He was a carpenter again now and he carried a saw and a plane. There was grim humour in the situation. The carpenter's brother had gone--and he himself could hardly get enough work, he said, to support his family.
"Goin' to start that house of yours?"
"I think not," said Hale.
"Well, I'd like to get a contract for a chicken-coop just to keep my hand in."
There was more. A two-horse wagon was coming with two cottage- organs aboard. In the mouth of the slouch-hatted, unshaven driver was a corn-cob pipe. He pulled in when he saw Hale.
"Hello!" he shouted grinning. Good Heavens, was that uncouth figure the voluble, buoyant, flashy magnate of the old days? It was.
"Sellin' organs agin," he said briefly.
"And teaching singing-school?"
The dethroned king of finance grinned.
"Sure! What you doin'?"
"Goin' to stay long?"
"Well, see you again. So long. Git up!"
Wheel-spokes whirred in the air and he saw a buggy, with the top down, rattling down another street in a cloud of dust. It was the same buggy in which he had first seen the black-bearded Senator seven years before. It was the same horse, too, and the Arab-like face and the bushy black whiskers, save for streaks of gray, were the same. This was the man who used to buy watches and pianos by the dozen, who one Xmas gave a present to every living man, woman and child in the town, and under whose colossal schemes the pillars of the church throughout the State stood as supports. That far away the eagle-nosed face looked haggard, haunted and all but spent, and even now he struck Hale as being driven downward like a madman by the same relentless energy that once had driven him upward. It was the same story everywhere. Nearly everybody who could get away was gone. Some of these were young enough to profit by the lesson and take surer root elsewhere--others were too old for transplanting, and of them would be heard no more. Others stayed for the reason that getting away was impossible. These were living, visible tragedies--still hopeful, pathetically unaware of the leading parts they were playing, and still weakly waiting for a better day or sinking, as by gravity, back to the old trades they had practised before the boom. A few sturdy souls, the fittest, survived--undismayed. Logan was there--lawyer for the railroad and the coal-company. MacFarlan was a judge, and two or three others, too, had come through unscathed in spirit and undaunted in resolution--but gone were the young Bluegrass Kentuckians, the young Tide-water Virginians, the New England school-teachers, the bankers, real-estate agents, engineers; gone the gamblers, the wily Jews and the vagrant women that fringe the incoming tide of a new prosperity--gone--all gone!
Beyond the post-office he turned toward the red-brick house that sat above the mill-pond. Eagerly he looked for the old mill, and he stopped in physical pain. The dam had been torn away, the old wheel was gone and a caved-in roof and supporting walls, drunkenly aslant, were the only remnants left. A red-haired child stood at the gate before the red-brick house and Hale asked her a question. The little girl had never heard of the Widow Crane. Then he walked toward his old office and bedroom. There was a voice inside his old office when he approached, a tall figure filled the doorway, a pair of great goggles beamed on him like beacon lights in a storm, and the Hon. Sam Budd's hand and his were clasped over the gate.
"It's all over, Sam."
"Don't you worry--come on in."
The two sat on the porch. Below it the dimpled river shone through the rhododendrons and with his eyes fixed on it, the Hon. Sam slowly approached the thought of each.
"The old cabin in Lonesome Cove is just as the Tollivers left it."
"None of them ever come back?" Budd shook his head.
"No, but one's comin'--Dave."
"Yes, an' you know what for."
"I suppose so," said Hale carelessly. "Did you send old Judd the deed?"
"Sure--along with that fool condition of yours that June shouldn't know until he was dead or she married. I've never heard a word."
"Do you suppose he'll stick to the condition?"
"He has stuck," said the Hon. Sam shortly; "otherwise you would have heard from June."
"I'm not going to be here long," said Hale.
"Where you goin'?"
"I don't know." Budd puffed his pipe.
"Well, while you are here, you want to keep your eye peeled for Dave Tolliver. I told you that the mountaineer hates as long as he remembers, and that he never forgets. Do you know that Dave sent his horse back to the stable here to be hired out for his keep, and told it right and left that when you came back he was comin', too, and he was goin' to straddle that horse until he found you, and then one of you had to die? How he found out you were comin' about this time I don't know, but he has sent word that he'll be here. Looks like he hasn't made much headway with June."
"I'm not worried."
"Well, you better be," said Budd sharply.
"Did Uncle Billy plant the garden?"
"Flowers and all, just as June always had 'em. He's always had the idea that June would come back."
"Maybe she will."
"Not on your life. She might if you went out there for her."
Hale looked up quickly and slowly shook his head.
"Look here, Jack, you're seein' things wrong. You can't blame that girl for losing her head after you spoiled and pampered her the way you did. And with all her sense it was mighty hard for her to understand your being arrayed against her flesh and blood--law or no law. That's mountain nature pure and simple, and it comes mighty near bein' human nature the world over. You never gave her a square chance."
"You know what Uncle Billy said?"
"Yes, an' I know Uncle Billy changed his mind. Go after her."
"No," said Hale firmly. "It'll take me ten years to get out of debt. I wouldn't now if I could--on her account."
"Nonsense." Hale rose.
"I'm going over to take a look around and get some things I left at Uncle Billy's and then--me for the wide, wide world again."
The Hon. Sam took off his spectacles to wipe them, but when Bale's back was turned, his handkerchief went to his eyes:
"Don't you worry, Jack."
"All right, Sam."
An hour later Hale was at the livery stable for a horse to ride to Lonesome Cove, for he had sold his big black to help out expenses for the trip to England. Old Dan Harris, the stableman, stood in the door and silently he pointed to a gray horse in the barn-yard.
"You know that hoss?"
"You know whut's he here fer?"
"Well, I'm lookin' fer Dave every day now."
"Well, maybe I'd better ride Dave's horse now," said Hale jestingly.
"I wish you would," said old Dan.
"No," said Hale, "if he's coming, I'll leave the horse so that he can get to me as quickly as possible. You might send me word, Uncle Dan, ahead, so that he can't waylay me."
"I'll do that very thing," said the old man seriously.
"I was joking, Uncle Dan."
"But I ain't."
The matter was out of Hale's head before he got through the great Gap. How the memories thronged of June--June--June!
"You didn't give her a chance."
That was what Budd said. Well, had he given her a chance? Why shouldn't he go to her and give her the chance now? He shook his shoulders at the thought and laughed with some bitterness. He hadn't the car-fare for half-way across the continent--and even if he had, he was a promising candidate for matrimony!--and again he shook his shoulders and settled his soul for his purpose. He would get his things together and leave those hills forever.
How lonely had been his trip--how lonely was the God-forsaken little town behind him! How lonely the road and hills and the little white clouds in the zenith straight above him--and how unspeakably lonely the green dome of the great Pine that shot into view from the north as he turned a clump of rhododendron with uplifted eyes. Not a breath of air moved. The green expanse about him swept upward like a wave--but unflecked, motionless, except for the big Pine which, that far away, looked like a bit of green spray, spouting on its very crest.
"Old man," he muttered, "you know--you know." And as to a brother he climbed toward it.
"No wonder they call you Lonesome," he said as he went upward into the bright stillness, and when he dropped into the dark stillness of shadow and forest gloom on the other side he said again:
"My God, no wonder they call you Lonesome."
And still the memories of June thronged--at the brook--at the river--and when he saw the smokeless chimney of the old cabin, he all but groaned aloud. But he turned away from it, unable to look again, and went down the river toward Uncle Billy's mill.
* * * * * * *
Old Hon threw her arms around him and kissed him.
"John," said Uncle Billy, "I've got three hundred dollars in a old yarn sock under one of them hearthstones and its yourn. Ole Hon says so too."
"I want ye to go to June. Dave'll worry her down and git her if you don't go, and if he don't worry her down, he'll come back an' try to kill ye. I've always thought one of ye would have to die fer that gal, an' I want it to be Dave. You two have got to fight it out some day, and you mought as well meet him out thar as here. You didn't give that little gal a fair chance, John, an' I want you to go to June."
"No, I can't take your money, Uncle Billy--God bless you and old Hon--I'm going--I don't know where--and I'm going now."