Chapter VII
 

Past the Big Pine, swerving with a smile his horse aside that he might not obliterate the foot-print in the black earth, and down the mountain, his brain busy with his big purpose, went John Hale, by instinct, inheritance, blood and tradition--pioneer.

One of his forefathers had been with Washington on the Father's first historic expedition into the wilds of Virginia. His great- grandfather had accompanied Boone when that hunter first penetrated the "Dark and Bloody Ground," had gone back to Virginia and come again with a surveyor's chain and compass to help wrest it from the red men, among whom there had been an immemorial conflict for possession and a never-recognized claim of ownership. That compass and that chain his grandfather had fallen heir to and with that compass and chain his father had earned his livelihood amid the wrecks of the Civil War. Hale went to the old Transylvania University at Lexington, the first seat of learning planted beyond the Alleghanies. He was fond of history, of the sciences and literature, was unusually adept in Latin and Greek, and had a passion for mathematics. He was graduated with honours, he taught two years and got his degree of Master of Arts, but the pioneer spirit in his blood would still out, and his polite learning he then threw to the winds.

Other young Kentuckians had gone West in shoals, but he kept his eye on his own State, and one autumn he added a pick to the old compass and the ancestral chain, struck the Old Wilderness Trail that his grandfather had travelled, to look for his own fortune in a land which that old gentleman had passed over as worthless. At the Cumberland River he took a canoe and drifted down the river into the wild coal-swollen hills. Through the winter he froze, starved and prospected, and a year later he was opening up a region that became famous after his trust and inexperience had let others worm out of him an interest that would have made him easy for life.

With the vision of a seer, he was as innocent as Boone. Stripped clean, he got out his map, such geological reports as he could find and went into a studious trance for a month, emerging mentally with the freshness of a snake that has shed its skin. What had happened in Pennsylvania must happen all along the great Alleghany chain in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee. Some day the avalanche must sweep south, it must--it must. That he might be a quarter of a century too soon in his calculations never crossed his mind. Some day it must come.

Now there was not an ounce of coal immediately south-east of the Cumberland Mountains--not an ounce of iron ore immediately north- east; all the coal lay to the north-east; all of the iron ore to the south-east. So said Geology. For three hundred miles there were only four gaps through that mighty mountain chain--three at water level, and one at historic Cumberland Gap which was not at water level and would have to be tunnelled. So said Geography.

All railroads, to east and to west, would have to pass through those gaps; through them the coal must be brought to the iron ore, or the ore to the coal. Through three gaps water flowed between ore and coal and the very hills between were limestone. Was there any such juxtaposition of the four raw materials for the making of iron in the known world? When he got that far in his logic, the sweat broke from his brows; he felt dizzy and he got up and walked into the open air. As the vastness and certainty of the scheme-- what fool could not see it?--rushed through him full force, he could scarcely get his breath. There must be a town in one of those gaps--but in which? No matter--he would buy all of them--all of them, he repeated over and over again; for some day there must be a town in one, and some day a town in all, and from all he would reap his harvest. He optioned those four gaps at a low purchase price that was absurd. He went back to the Bluegrass; he went to New York; in some way he managed to get to England. It had never crossed his mind that other eyes could not see what he so clearly saw and yet everywhere he was pronounced crazy. He failed and his options ran out, but he was undaunted. He picked his choice of the four gaps and gave up the other three. This favourite gap he had just finished optioning again, and now again he meant to keep at his old quest. That gap he was entering now from the north side and the North Fork of the river was hurrying to enter too. On his left was a great gray rock, projecting edgewise, covered with laurel and rhododendron, and under it was the first big pool from which the stream poured faster still. There had been a terrible convulsion in that gap when the earth was young; the strata had been tossed upright and planted almost vertical for all time, and, a little farther, one mighty ledge, moss-grown, bush-covered, sentinelled with grim pines, their bases unseen, seemed to be making a heavy flight toward the clouds.

Big bowlders began to pop up in the river-bed and against them the water dashed and whirled and eddied backward in deep pools, while above him the song of a cataract dropped down a tree-choked ravine. Just there the drop came, and for a long space he could see the river lashing rock and cliff with increasing fury as though it were seeking shelter from some relentless pursuer in the dark thicket where it disappeared. Straight in front of him another ledge lifted itself. Beyond that loomed a mountain which stopped in mid-air and dropped sheer to the eye. Its crown was bare and Hale knew that up there was a mountain farm, the refuge of a man who had been involved in that terrible feud beyond Black Mountain behind him. Five minutes later he was at the yawning mouth of the gap and there lay before him a beautiful valley shut in tightly, for all the eye could see, with mighty hills. It was the heaven-born site for the unborn city of his dreams, and his eyes swept every curve of the valley lovingly. The two forks of the river ran around it--he could follow their course by the trees that lined the banks of each--curving within a stone's throw of each other across the valley and then looping away as from the neck of an ancient lute and, like its framework, coming together again down the valley, where they surged together, slipped through the hills and sped on with the song of a sweeping river. Up that river could come the track of commerce, out the South Fork, too, it could go, though it had to turn eastward: back through that gap it could be traced north and west; and so none could come as heralds into those hills but their footprints could be traced through that wild, rocky, water-worn chasm. Hale drew breath and raised in his stirrups.

"It's a cinch," he said aloud. "It's a shame to take the money."

Yet nothing was in sight now but a valley farmhouse above the ford where he must cross the river and one log cabin on the hill beyond. Still on the other river was the only woollen mill in miles around; farther up was the only grist mill, and near by was the only store, the only blacksmith shop and the only hotel. That much of a start the gap had had for three-quarters of a century-- only from the south now a railroad was already coming; from the east another was travelling like a wounded snake and from the north still another creeped to meet them. Every road must run through the gap and several had already run through it lines of survey. The coal was at one end of the gap, and the iron ore at the other, the cliffs between were limestone, and the other elements to make it the iron centre of the world flowed through it like a torrent.

"Selah! It's a shame to take the money."

He splashed into the creek and his big black horse thrust his nose into the clear running water. Minnows were playing about him. A hog-fish flew for shelter under a rock, and below the ripples a two-pound bass shot like an arrow into deep water.

Above and below him the stream was arched with beech, poplar and water maple, and the banks were thick with laurel and rhododendron. His eye had never rested on a lovelier stream, and on the other side of the town site, which nature had kindly lifted twenty feet above the water level, the other fork was of equal clearness, swiftness and beauty.

"Such a drainage," murmured his engineering instinct. "Such a drainage!" It was Saturday. Even if he had forgotten he would have known that it must be Saturday when he climbed the bank on the other side. Many horses were hitched under the trees, and here and there was a farm-wagon with fragments of paper, bits of food and an empty bottle or two lying around. It was the hour when the alcoholic spirits of the day were usually most high. Evidently they were running quite high that day and something distinctly was going on "up town." A few yells--the high, clear, penetrating yell of a fox-hunter--rent the air, a chorus of pistol shots rang out, and the thunder of horses' hoofs started beyond the little slope he was climbing. When he reached the top, a merry youth, with a red, hatless head was splitting the dirt road toward him, his reins in his teeth, and a pistol in each hand, which he was letting off alternately into the inoffensive earth and toward the unrebuking heavens--that seemed a favourite way in those mountains of defying God and the devil--and behind him galloped a dozen horsemen to the music of throat, pistol and iron hoof.

The fiery-headed youth's horse swerved and shot by. Hale hardly knew that the rider even saw him, but the coming ones saw him afar and they seemed to be charging him in close array. Hale stopped his horse a little to the right of the centre of the road, and being equally helpless against an inherited passion for maintaining his own rights and a similar disinclination to get out of anybody's way--he sat motionless. Two of the coming horsemen, side by side, were a little in advance.

"Git out o' the road!" they yelled. Had he made the motion of an arm, they might have ridden or shot him down, but the simple quietness of him as he sat with hands crossed on the pommel of his saddle, face calm and set, eyes unwavering and fearless, had the effect that nothing else he could have done would have brought about--and they swerved on either side of him, while the rest swerved, too, like sheep, one stirrup brushing his, as they swept by. Hale rode slowly on. He could hear the mountaineers yelling on top of the hill, but he did not look back. Several bullets sang over his head. Most likely they were simply "bantering" him, but no matter--he rode on.

The blacksmith, the storekeeper and one passing drummer were coming in from the woods when he reached the hotel.

"A gang o' those Falins," said the storekeeper, "they come over lookin' for young Dave Tolliver. They didn't find him, so they thought they'd have some fun"; and he pointed to the hotel sign which was punctuated with pistol-bullet periods. Hale's eyes flashed once but he said nothing. He turned his horse over to a stable boy and went across to the little frame cottage that served as office and home for him. While he sat on the veranda that almost hung over the mill-pond of the other stream three of the Falins came riding back. One of them had left something at the hotel, and while he was gone in for it, another put a bullet through the sign, and seeing Hale rode over to him. Hale's blue eye looked anything than friendly.

"Don't ye like it?" asked the horseman.

"I do not," said Hale calmly. The horseman seemed amused.

"Well, whut you goin' to do about it?"

"Nothing--at least not now."

"All right--whenever you git ready. You ain't ready now?"

"No," said Hale, "not now." The fellow laughed.

"Hit's a damned good thing for you that you ain't."

Hale looked long after the three as they galloped down the road. "When I start to build this town," he thought gravely and without humour, "I'll put a stop to all that."