Chapter XXXIII
 

Clouds were gathering as Hale rode up the river after telling old Hon and Uncle Billy good-by. He had meant not to go to the cabin in Lonesome Cove, but when he reached the forks of the road, he stopped his horse and sat in indecision with his hands folded on the pommel of his saddle and his eyes on the smokeless chimney. The memories tugging at his heart drew him irresistibly on, for it was the last time. At a slow walk he went noiselessly through the deep sand around the clump of rhododendron. The creek was clear as crystal once more, but no geese cackled and no dog barked. The door of the spring-house gaped wide, the barn-door sagged on its hinges, the yard-fence swayed drunkenly, and the cabin was still as a gravestone. But the garden was alive, and he swung from his horse at the gate, and with his hands clasped behind his back walked slowly through it. June's garden! The garden he had planned and planted for June--that they had tended together and apart and that, thanks to the old miller's care, was the one thing, save the sky above, left in spirit unchanged. The periwinkles, pink and white, were almost gone. The flags were at half-mast and sinking fast. The annunciation lilies were bending their white foreheads to the near kiss of death, but the pinks were fragrant, the poppies were poised on slender stalks like brilliant butterflies at rest, the hollyhocks shook soundless pink bells to the wind, roses as scarlet as June's lips bloomed everywhere and the richness of mid-summer was at hand.

Quietly Hale walked the paths, taking a last farewell of plant and flower, and only the sudden patter of raindrops made him lift his eyes to the angry sky. The storm was coming now in earnest and he had hardly time to lead his horse to the barn and dash to the porch when the very heavens, with a crash of thunder, broke loose. Sheet after sheet swept down the mountains like wind-driven clouds of mist thickening into water as they came. The shingles rattled as though with the heavy slapping of hands, the pines creaked and the sudden dusk outside made the cabin, when he pushed the door open, as dark as night. Kindling a fire, he lit his pipe and waited. The room was damp and musty, but the presence of June almost smothered him. Once he turned his face. June's door was ajar and the key was in the lock. He rose to go to it and look within and then dropped heavily back into his chair. He was anxious to get away now--to get to work. Several times he rose restlessly and looked out the window. Once he went outside and crept along the wall of the cabin to the east and the west, but there was no break of light in the murky sky and he went back to pipe and fire. By and by the wind died and the rain steadied into a dogged downpour. He knew what that meant--there would be no letting up now in the storm, and for another night he was a prisoner. So he went to his saddle-pockets and pulled out a cake of chocolate, a can of potted ham and some crackers, munched his supper, went to bed, and lay there with sleepless eyes, while the lights and shadows from the wind-swayed fire flicked about him. After a while his body dozed but his racked brain went seething on in an endless march of fantastic dreams in which June was the central figure always, until of a sudden young Dave leaped into the centre of the stage in the dream-tragedy forming in his brain. They were meeting face to face at last--and the place was the big Pine. Dave's pistol flashed and his own stuck in the holster as he tried to draw. There was a crashing report and he sprang upright in bed--but it was a crash of thunder that wakened him and that in that swift instant perhaps had caused his dream. The wind had come again and was driving the rain like soft bullets against the wall of the cabin next which he lay. He got up, threw another stick of wood on the fire and sat before the leaping blaze, curiously disturbed but not by the dream. Somehow he was again in doubt--was he going to stick it out in the mountains after all, and if he should, was not the reason, deep down in his soul, the foolish hope that June would come back again. No, he thought, searching himself fiercely, that was not the reason. He honestly did not know what his duty to her was--what even was his inmost wish, and almost with a groan he paced the floor to and fro. Meantime the storm raged. A tree crashed on the mountainside and the lightning that smote it winked into the cabin so like a mocking, malignant eye that he stopped in his tracks, threw open the door and stepped outside as though to face an enemy. The storm was majestic and his soul went into the mighty conflict of earth and air, whose beginning and end were in eternity. The very mountain tops were rimmed with zigzag fire, which shot upward, splitting a sky that was as black as a nether world, and under it the great trees swayed like willows under rolling clouds of gray rain. One fiery streak lit up for an instant the big Pine and seemed to dart straight down upon its proud, tossing crest. For a moment the beat of the watcher's heart and the flight of his soul stopped still. A thunderous crash came slowly to his waiting ears, another flash came, and Hale stumbled, with a sob, back into the cabin. God's finger was pointing the way now--the big Pine was no more.