Chapter VI
 

The old man went with him up the creek and, passing the milk house, turned up a brush-bordered little branch in which the engineer saw signs of coal. Up the creek the mountaineer led him some thirty yards above the water level and stopped. An entry had been driven through the rich earth and ten feet within was a shining bed of coal. There was no parting except two inches of mother-of-coal--midway, which would make it but easier to mine. Who had taught that old man to open coal in such a way--to make such a facing? It looked as though the old fellow were in some scheme with another to get him interested. As he drew closer, he saw radiations of some twelve inches, all over the face of the coal, star-shaped, and he almost gasped. It was not only cannel coal--it was "bird's-eye" cannel. Heavens, what a find! Instantly he was the cautious man of business, alert, cold, uncommunicative.

"That looks like a pretty good--" he drawled the last two words-- "vein of coal. I'd like to take a sample over to the Gap and analyze it." His hammer, which he always carried--was in his saddle pockets, but he did not have to go down to his horse. There were pieces on the ground that would suit his purpose, left there, no doubt, by his predecessor.

"Now I reckon you know that I know why you came over hyeh."

Hale started to answer, but he saw it was no use.

"Yes--and I'm coming again--for the same reason."

"Shore--come agin and come often."

The little girl was standing on the porch as he rode past the milk house. He waved his hand to her, but she did not move nor answer. What a life for a child--for that keen-eyed, sweet-faced child! But that coal, cannel, rich as oil, above water, five feet in thickness, easy to mine, with a solid roof and perhaps self- drainage, if he could judge from the dip of the vein: and a market everywhere--England, Spain, Italy, Brazil. The coal, to be sure, might not be persistent--thirty yards within it might change in quality to ordinary bituminous coal, but he could settle that only with a steam drill. A steam drill! He would as well ask for the wagon that he had long ago hitched to a star; and then there might be a fault in the formation. But why bother now? The coal would stay there, and now he had other plans that made even that find insignificant. And yet if he bought that coal now--what a bargain! It was not that the ideals of his college days were tarnished, but he was a man of business now, and if he would take the old man's land for a song--it was because others of his kind would do the same! But why bother, he asked himself again, when his brain was in a ferment with a colossal scheme that would make dizzy the magnates who would some day drive their roadways of steel into those wild hills. So he shook himself free of the question, which passed from his mind only with a transient wonder as to who it was that had told of him to the old mountaineer, and had so paved his way for an investigation--and then he wheeled suddenly in his saddle. The bushes had rustled gently behind him and out from them stepped an extraordinary human shape--wearing a coon-skin cap, belted with two rows of big cartridges, carrying a big Winchester over one shoulder and a circular tube of brass in his left hand. With his right leg straight, his left thigh drawn into the hollow of his saddle and his left hand on the rump of his horse, Hale simply stared, his eyes dropping by and by from the pale-blue eyes and stubbly red beard of the stranger, down past the cartridge- belts to the man's feet, on which were moccasins--with the heels forward! Into what sort of a world had he dropped!

"So nary a soul can tell which way I'm going," said the red-haired stranger, with a grin that loosed a hollow chuckle far behind it.

"Would you mind telling me what difference it can make to me which way you are going?" Every moment he was expecting the stranger to ask his name, but again that chuckle came.

"It makes a mighty sight o' difference to some folks."

"But none to me."

"I hain't wearin' 'em fer you. I know you."

"Oh, you do." The stranger suddenly lowered his Winchester and turned his face, with his ear cocked like an animal. There was some noise on the spur above.

"Nothin' but a hickory nut," said the chuckle again. But Hale had been studying that strange face. One side of it was calm, kindly, philosophic, benevolent; but, when the other was turned, a curious twitch of the muscles at the left side of the mouth showed the teeth and made a snarl there that was wolfish.

"Yes, and I know you," he said slowly. Self-satisfaction, straightway, was ardent in the face.

"I knowed you would git to know me in time, if you didn't now."

This was the Red Fox of the mountains, of whom he had heard so much--"yarb" doctor and Swedenborgian preacher; revenue officer and, some said, cold-blooded murderer. He would walk twenty miles to preach, or would start at any hour of the day or night to minister to the sick, and would charge for neither service. At other hours he would be searching for moonshine stills, or watching his enemies in the valley from some mountain top, with that huge spy-glass--Hale could see now that the brass tube was a telescope--that he might slip down and unawares take a pot-shot at them. The Red Fox communicated with spirits, had visions and superhuman powers of locomotion--stepping mysteriously from the bushes, people said, to walk at the traveller's side and as mysteriously disappearing into them again, to be heard of in a few hours an incredible distance away.

"I've been watchin' ye from up thar," he said with a wave of his hand. "I seed ye go up the creek, and then the bushes hid ye. I know what you was after--but did you see any signs up thar of anything you wasn't looking fer?"

Hale laughed.

"Well, I've been in these mountains long enough not to tell you, if I had."

The Red Fox chuckled.

"I wasn't sure you had--" Hale coughed and spat to the other side of his horse. When he looked around, the Red Fox was gone, and he had heard no sound of his going.

"Well, I be--" Hale clucked to his horse and as he climbed the last steep and drew near the Big Pine he again heard a noise out in the woods and he knew this time it was the fall of a human foot and not of a hickory nut. He was right, and, as he rode by the Pine, saw again at its base the print of the little girl's foot-- wondering afresh at the reason that led her up there--and dropped down through the afternoon shadows towards the smoke and steam and bustle and greed of the Twentieth Century. A long, lean, black- eyed boy, with a wave of black hair over his forehead, was pushing his horse the other way along the Big Black and dropping down through the dusk into the Middle Ages--both all but touching on either side the outstretched hands of the wild little creature left in the shadows of Lonesome Cove.