Chapter IV
 

Even the geese in the creek seemed to know that he was a stranger and to distrust him, for they cackled and, spreading their wings, fled cackling up the stream. As he neared the house, the little girl ran around the stone chimney, stopped short, shaded her eyes with one hand for a moment and ran excitedly into the house. A moment later, the bearded giant slouched out, stooping his head as he came through the door.

"Hitch that 'ar post to yo' hoss and come right in," he thundered cheerily. "I'm waitin' fer ye."

The little girl came to the door, pushed one brown slender hand through her tangled hair, caught one bare foot behind a deer-like ankle and stood motionless. Behind her was the boy--his dagger still in hand.

"Come right in!" said the old man, "we are purty pore folks, but you're welcome to what we have."

The fisherman, too, had to stoop as he came in, for he, too, was tall. The interior was dark, in spite of the wood fire in the big stone fireplace. Strings of herbs and red-pepper pods and twisted tobacco hung from the ceiling and down the wall on either side of the fire; and in one corner, near the two beds in the room, hand- made quilts of many colours were piled several feet high. On wooden pegs above the door where ten years before would have been buck antlers and an old-fashioned rifle, lay a Winchester; on either side of the door were auger holes through the logs (he did not understand that they were port-holes) and another Winchester stood in the corner. From the mantel the butt of a big 44-Colt's revolver protruded ominously. On one of the beds in the corner he could see the outlines of a figure lying under a brilliantly figured quilt, and at the foot of it the boy with the pine dagger had retreated for refuge. From the moment he stooped at the door something in the room had made him vaguely uneasy, and when his eyes in swift survey came back to the fire, they passed the blaze swiftly and met on the edge of the light another pair of eyes burning on him.

"Howdye!" said Hale.

"Howdye!" was the low, unpropitiating answer.

The owner of the eyes was nothing but a boy, in spite of his length: so much of a boy that a slight crack in his voice showed that it was just past the throes of "changing," but those black eyes burned on without swerving--except once when they flashed at the little girl who, with her chin in her hand and one foot on the top rung of her chair, was gazing at the stranger with equal steadiness. She saw the boy's glance, she shifted her knees impatiently and her little face grew sullen. Hale smiled inwardly, for he thought he could already see the lay of the land, and he wondered that, at such an age, such fierceness could be: so every now and then he looked at the boy, and every time he looked, the black eyes were on him. The mountain youth must have been almost six feet tall, young as he was, and while he was lanky in limb he was well knit. His jean trousers were stuffed in the top of his boots and were tight over his knees which were well-moulded, and that is rare with a mountaineer. A loop of black hair curved over his forehead, down almost to his left eye. His nose was straight and almost delicate and his mouth was small, but extraordinarily resolute. Somewhere he had seen that face before, and he turned suddenly, but he did not startle the lad with his abruptness, nor make him turn his gaze.

"Why, haven't I--?" he said. And then he suddenly remembered. He had seen that boy not long since on the other side of the mountains, riding his horse at a gallop down the county road with his reins in his teeth, and shooting a pistol alternately at the sun and the earth with either hand. Perhaps it was as well not to recall the incident. He turned to the old mountaineer.

"Do you mean to tell me that a man can't go through these mountains without telling everybody who asks him what his name is?"

The effect of his question was singular. The old man spat into the fire and put his hand to his beard. The boy crossed his legs suddenly and shoved his muscular fingers deep into his pockets. The figure shifted position on the bed and the infant at the foot of it seemed to clench his toy-dagger a little more tightly. Only the little girl was motionless--she still looked at him, unwinking. What sort of wild animals had he fallen among?

"No, he can't--an' keep healthy." The giant spoke shortly.

"Why not?"

"Well, if a man hain't up to some devilment, what reason's he got fer not tellin' his name?"

"That's his business."

"Tain't over hyeh. Hit's mine. Ef a man don't want to tell his name over hyeh, he's a spy or a raider or a officer looking fer somebody or," he added carelessly, but with a quick covert look at his visitor--"he's got some kind o' business that he don't want nobody to know about."

"Well, I came over here--just to--well, I hardly know why I did come."

"Jess so," said the old man dryly. "An' if ye ain't looking fer trouble, you'd better tell your name in these mountains, whenever you're axed. Ef enough people air backin' a custom anywhar hit goes, don't hit?"

His logic was good--and Hale said nothing. Presently the old man rose with a smile on his face that looked cynical, picked up a black lump and threw it into the fire. It caught fire, crackled, blazed, almost oozed with oil, and Hale leaned forward and leaned back.

"Pretty good coal!"

"Hain't it, though?" The old man picked up a sliver that had flown to the hearth and held a match to it. The piece blazed and burned in his hand.

"I never seed no coal in these mountains like that--did you?"

"Not often--find it around here?"

"Right hyeh on this farm--about five feet thick!"

"What?"

"An' no partin'."

"No partin'"--it was not often that he found a mountaineer who knew what a parting in a coal bed was.

"A friend o' mine on t'other side,"--a light dawned for the engineer.

"Oh," he said quickly. "That's how you knew my name."

"Right you air, stranger. He tol' me you was a--expert."

The old man laughed loudly. "An' that's why you come over hyeh."

"No, it isn't."

"Co'se not,"--the old fellow laughed again. Hale shifted the talk.

"Well, now that you know my name, suppose you tell me what yours is?"

"Tolliver--Judd Tolliver." Hale started.

"Not Devil Judd!"

"That's what some evil folks calls me." Again he spoke shortly. The mountaineers do not like to talk about their feuds. Hale knew this--and the subject was dropped. But he watched the huge mountaineer with interest. There was no more famous character in all those hills than the giant before him--yet his face was kind and was good-humoured, but the nose and eyes were the beak and eyes of some bird of prey. The little girl had disappeared for a moment. She came back with a blue-backed spelling-book, a second reader and a worn copy of "Mother Goose," and she opened first one and then the other until the attention of the visitor was caught-- the black-haired youth watching her meanwhile with lowering brows.

"Where did you learn to read?" Hale asked. The old man answered:

"A preacher come by our house over on the Nawth Fork 'bout three year ago, and afore I knowed it he made me promise to send her sister Sally to some school up thar on the edge of the settlements. And after she come home, Sal larned that little gal to read and spell. Sal died 'bout a year ago."

Hale reached over and got the spelling-book, and the old man grinned at the quick, unerring responses of the little girl, and the engineer looked surprised. She read, too, with unusual facility, and her pronunciation was very precise and not at all like her speech.

"You ought to send her to the same place," he said, but the old fellow shook his head.

"I couldn't git along without her."

The little girl's eyes began to dance suddenly, and, without opening "Mother Goose," she began:

"Jack and Jill went up a hill," and then she broke into a laugh and Hale laughed with her.

Abruptly, the boy opposite rose to his great length.

"I reckon I better be goin'." That was all he said as he caught up a Winchester, which stood unseen by his side, and out he stalked. There was not a word of good-by, not a glance at anybody. A few minutes later Hale heard the creak of a barn door on wooden hinges, a cursing command to a horse, and four feet going in a gallop down the path, and he knew there went an enemy.

"That's a good-looking boy--who is he?"

The old man spat into the fire. It seemed that he was not going to answer and the little girl broke in:

"Hit's my cousin Dave--he lives over on the Nawth Fork."

That was the seat of the Tolliver-Falin feud. Of that feud, too, Hale had heard, and so no more along that line of inquiry. He, too, soon rose to go.

"Why, ain't ye goin' to have something to eat?"

"Oh, no, I've got something in my saddlebags and I must be getting back to the Gap."

"Well, I reckon you ain't. You're jes' goin' to take a snack right here." Hale hesitated, but the little girl was looking at him with such unconscious eagerness in her dark eyes that he sat down again.

"All right, I will, thank you." At once she ran to the kitchen and the old man rose and pulled a bottle of white liquid from under the quilts.

"I reckon I can trust ye," he said. The liquor burned Hale like fire, and the old man, with a laugh at the face the stranger made, tossed off a tumblerful.

"Gracious!" said Hale, "can you do that often?"

"Afore breakfast, dinner and supper," said the old man--"but I don't." Hale felt a plucking at his sleeve. It was the boy with the dagger at his elbow.

"Less see you laugh that-a-way agin," said Bub with such deadly seriousness that Hale unconsciously broke into the same peal.

"Now," said Bub, unwinking, "I ain't afeard o' you no more."