Chapter XXXIV
 

The big Pine was gone. He had seen it first, one morning at daybreak, when the valley on the other side was a sea of mist that threw soft, clinging spray to the very mountain tops--for even above the mists, that morning, its mighty head arose, sole visible proof that the earth still slept beneath. He had seen it at noon-- but little less majestic, among the oaks that stood about it; had seen it catching the last light at sunset, clean-cut against the after-glow, and like a dark, silent, mysterious sentinel guarding the mountain pass under the moon. He had seen it giving place with sombre dignity to the passing burst of spring, had seen it green among dying autumn leaves, green in the gray of winter trees and still green in a shroud of snow--a changeless promise that the earth must wake to life again. It had been the beacon that led him into Lonesome Cove--the beacon that led June into the outer world. From it her flying feet had carried her into his life--past it, the same feet had carried her out again. It had been their trysting place--had kept their secrets like a faithful friend and had stood to him as the changeless symbol of their love. It had stood a mute but sympathetic witness of his hopes, his despairs and the struggles that lay between them. In dark hours it had been a silent comforter, and in the last year it had almost come to symbolize his better self as to that self he came slowly back. And in the darkest hour it was the last friend to whom he had meant to say good-by. Now it was gone. Always he had lifted his eyes to it every morning when he rose, but now, next morning, he hung back consciously as one might shrink from looking at the face of a dead friend, and when at last he raised his head to look upward to it, an impenetrable shroud of mist lay between them--and he was glad.

And still he could not leave. The little creek was a lashing yellow torrent, and his horse, heavily laden as he must be, could hardly swim with his weight, too, across so swift a stream. But mountain streams were like June's temper--up quickly and quickly down--so it was noon before he plunged into the tide with his saddle-pockets over one shoulder and his heavy transit under one arm. Even then his snorting horse had to swim a few yards, and he reached the other bank soaked to his waist line. But the warm sun came out just as he entered the woods, and as he climbed, the mists broke about him and scudded upward like white sails before a driving wind. Once he looked back from a "fire-scald" in the woods at the lonely cabin in the cove, but it gave him so keen a pain that he would not look again. The trail was slippery and several times he had to stop to let his horse rest and to slow the beating of his own heart. But the sunlight leaped gladly from wet leaf to wet leaf until the trees looked decked out for unseen fairies, and the birds sang as though there was nothing on earth but joy for all its creatures, and the blue sky smiled above as though it had never bred a lightning flash or a storm. Hale dreaded the last spur before the little Gap was visible, but he hurried up the steep, and when he lifted his apprehensive eyes, the gladness of the earth was as nothing to the sudden joy in his own heart. The big Pine stood majestic, still unscathed, as full of divinity and hope to him as a rainbow in an eastern sky. Hale dropped his reins, lifted one hand to his dizzy head, let his transit to the ground, and started for it on a run. Across the path lay a great oak with a white wound running the length of its mighty body, from crest to shattered trunk, and over it he leaped, and like a child caught his old friend in both arms. After all, he was not alone. One friend would be with him till death, on that border-line between the world in which he was born and the world he had tried to make his own, and he could face now the old one again with a stouter heart. There it lay before him with its smoke and fire and noise and slumbering activities just awakening to life again. He lifted his clenched fist toward it:

"You got me once," he muttered, "but this time I'll get you." He turned quickly and decisively--there would be no more delay. And he went back and climbed over the big oak that, instead of his friend, had fallen victim to the lightning's kindly whim and led his horse out into the underbrush. As he approached within ten yards of the path, a metallic note rang faintly on the still air the other side of the Pine and down the mountain. Something was coming up the path, so he swiftly knotted his bridle-reins around a sapling, stepped noiselessly into the path and noiselessly slipped past the big tree where he dropped to his knees, crawled forward and lay flat, peering over the cliff and down the winding trail. He had not long to wait. A riderless horse filled the opening in the covert of leaves that swallowed up the path. It was gray and he knew it as he knew the saddle as his old enemy's-- Dave. Dave had kept his promise--he had come back. The dream was coming true, and they were to meet at last face to face. One of them was to strike a trail more lonesome than the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, and that man would not be John Hale. One detail of the dream was going to be left out, he thought grimly, and very quietly he drew his pistol, cocked it, sighted it on the opening-- it was an easy shot--and waited. He would give that enemy no more chance than he would a mad dog--or would he? The horse stopped to browse. He waited so long that he began to suspect a trap. He withdrew his head and looked about him on either side and behind-- listening intently for the cracking of a twig or a footfall. He was about to push backward to avoid possible attack from the rear, when a shadow shot from the opening. His face paled and looked sick of a sudden, his clenched fingers relaxed about the handle of his pistol and he drew it back, still cocked, turned on his knees, walked past the Pine, and by the fallen oak stood upright, waiting. He heard a low whistle calling to the horse below and a shudder ran through him. He heard the horse coming up the path, he clenched his pistol convulsively, and his eyes, lit by an unearthly fire and fixed on the edge of the bowlder around which they must come, burned an instant later on--June. At the cry she gave, he flashed a hunted look right and left, stepped swiftly to one side and stared past her-still at the bowlder. She had dropped the reins and started toward him, but at the Pine she stopped short.

"Where is he?"

Her lips opened to answer, but no sound came. Hale pointed at the horse behind her.

"That's his. He sent me word. He left that horse in the valley, to ride over here, when he came back, to kill me. Are you with him?" For a moment she thought from his wild face that he had gone crazy and she stared silently. Then she seemed to understand, and with a moan she covered her face with her hands and sank weeping in a heap at the foot of the Pine.

The forgotten pistol dropped, full cocked to the soft earth, and Hale with bewildered eyes went slowly to her.

"Don't cry,"--he said gently, starting to call her name. "Don't cry," he repeated, and he waited helplessly.

"He's dead. Dave was shot--out--West," she sobbed. "I told him I was coming back. He gave me his horse. Oh, how could you?"

"Why did you come back?" he asked, and she shrank as though he had struck her--but her sobs stopped and she rose to her feet.

"Wait," she said, and she turned from him to wipe her eyes with her handerchief. Then she faced him.

"When dad died, I learned everything. You made him swear never to tell me and he kept his word until he was on his death-bed. You did everything for me. It was your money. You gave me back the old cabin in the Cove. It was always you, you, you, and there was never anybody else but you." She stopped for Hale's face was as though graven from stone.

"And you came back to tell me that?"

"Yes."

"You could have written that."

"Yes," she faltered, "but I had to tell you face to face."

"Is that all?"

Again the tears were in her eyes.

"No," she said tremulously.

"Then I'll say the rest for you. You wanted to come to tell me of the shame you felt when you knew," she nodded violently--"but you could have written that, too, and I could have written that you mustn't feel that way--that" he spoke slowly--"you mustn't rob me of the dearest happiness I ever knew in my whole life."

"I knew you would say that," she said like a submissive child. The sternness left his face and he was smiling now.

"And you wanted to say that the only return you could make was to come back and be my wife."

"Yes," she faltered again, "I did feel that--I did."

"You could have written that, too, but you thought you had to prove it by coming back yourself."

This time she nodded no assent and her eyes were streaming. He turned away--stretching out his arms to the woods.

"God! Not that--no--no!"

"Listen, Jack!" As suddenly his arms dropped. She had controlled her tears but her lips were quivering.

"No, Jack, not that--thank God. I came because I wanted to come," she said steadily. "I loved you when I went away. I've loved you every minute since--"her arms were stealing about his neck, her face was upturned to his and her eyes, moist with gladness, were looking into his wondering eyes--"and I love you now--Jack."

"June!" The leaves about them caught his cry and quivered with the joy of it, and above their heads the old Pine breathed its blessing with the name--June--June--June.