Chapter VIII
 

On a spur of Black Mountain, beyond the Kentucky line, a lean horse was tied to a sassafras bush, and in a clump of rhododendron ten yards away, a lean black-haired boy sat with a Winchester between his stomach and thighs--waiting for the dusk to drop. His chin was in both hands, the brim of his slouch hat was curved crescent-wise over his forehead, and his eyes were on the sweeping bend of the river below him. That was the "Bad Bend" down there, peopled with ancestral enemies and the head-quarters of their leader for the last ten years. Though they had been at peace for some time now, it had been Saturday in the county town ten miles down the river as well, and nobody ever knew what a Saturday might bring forth between his people and them. So he would not risk riding through that bend by the light of day.

All the long way up spur after spur and along ridge after ridge, all along the still, tree-crested top of the Big Black, he had been thinking of the man--the "furriner" whom he had seen at his uncle's cabin in Lonesome Cove. He was thinking of him still, as he sat there waiting for darkness to come, and the two vertical little lines in his forehead, that had hardly relaxed once during his climb, got deeper and deeper, as his brain puzzled into the problem that was worrying it: who the stranger was, what his business was over in the Cove and his business with the Red Fox with whom the boy had seen him talking.

He had heard of the coming of the "furriners" on the Virginia side. He had seen some of them, he was suspicious of all of them, he disliked them all--but this man he hated straightway. He hated his boots and his clothes; the way he sat and talked, as though he owned the earth, and the lad snorted contemptuously under his breath:

"He called pants 'trousers.'" It was a fearful indictment, and he snorted again: "Trousers!"

The "furriner" might be a spy or a revenue officer, but deep down in the boy's heart the suspicion had been working that he had gone over there to see his little cousin--the girl whom, boy that he was, he had marked, when she was even more of a child than she was now, for his own. His people understood it as did her father, and, child though she was, she, too, understood it. The difference between her and the "furriner"--difference in age, condition, way of life, education--meant nothing to him, and as his suspicion deepened, his hands dropped and gripped his Winchester, and through his gritting teeth came vaguely:

"By God, if he does--if he just does!"

Away down at the lower end of the river's curving sweep, the dirt road was visible for a hundred yards or more, and even while he was cursing to himself, a group of horsemen rode into sight. All seemed to be carrying something across their saddle bows, and as the boy's eyes caught them, he sank sidewise out of sight and stood upright, peering through a bush of rhododendron. Something had happened in town that day--for the horsemen carried Winchesters, and every foreign thought in his brain passed like breath from a window pane, while his dark, thin face whitened a little with anxiety and wonder. Swiftly he stepped backward, keeping the bushes between him and his far-away enemies. Another knot he gave the reins around the sassafras bush and then, Winchester in hand, he dropped noiseless as an Indian, from rock to rock, tree to tree, down the sheer spur on the other side. Twenty minutes later, he lay behind a bush that was sheltered by the top boulder of the rocky point under which the road ran. His enemies were in their own country; they would probably be talking over the happenings in town that day, and from them he would learn what was going on.

So long he lay that he got tired and out of patience, and he was about to creep around the boulder, when the clink of a horseshoe against a stone told him they were coming, and he flattened to the earth and closed his eyes that his ears might be more keen. The Falins were riding silently, but as the first two passed under him, one said:

"I'd like to know who the hell warned 'em!"

"Whar's the Red Fox?" was the significant answer.

The boy's heart leaped. There had been deviltry abroad, but his kinsmen had escaped. No one uttered a word as they rode two by two, under him, but one voice came back to him as they turned the point.

"I wonder if the other boys ketched young Dave?" He could not catch the answer to that--only the oath that was in it, and when the sound of the horses' hoofs died away, he turned over on his back and stared up at the sky. Some trouble had come and through his own caution, and the mercy of Providence that had kept him away from the Gap, he had had his escape from death that day. He would tempt that Providence no more, even by climbing back to his horse in the waning light, and it was not until dusk had fallen that he was leading the beast down the spur and into a ravine that sank to the road. There he waited an hour, and when another horseman passed he still waited a while. Cautiously then, with ears alert, eyes straining through the darkness and Winchester ready, he went down the road at a slow walk. There was a light in the first house, but the front door was closed and the road was deep with sand, as he knew; so he passed noiselessly. At the second house, light streamed through the open door; he could hear talking on the porch and he halted. He could neither cross the river nor get around the house by the rear--the ridge was too steep--so he drew off into the bushes, where he had to wait another hour before the talking ceased. There was only one more house now between him and the mouth of the creek, where he would be safe, and he made up his mind to dash by it. That house, too, was lighted and the sound of fiddling struck his ears. He would give them a surprise; so he gathered his reins and Winchester in his left hand, drew his revolver with his right, and within thirty yards started his horse into a run, yelling like an Indian and firing his pistol in the air. As he swept by, two or three figures dashed pell-mell indoors, and he shouted derisively:

"Run, damn ye, run!" They were running for their guns, he knew, but the taunt would hurt and he was pleased. As he swept by the edge of a cornfield, there was a flash of light from the base of a cliff straight across, and a bullet sang over him, then another and another, but he sped on, cursing and yelling and shooting his own Winchester up in the air--all harmless, useless, but just to hurl defiance and taunt them with his safety. His father's house was not far away, there was no sound of pursuit, and when he reached the river he drew down to a walk and stopped short in a shadow. Something had clicked in the bushes above him and he bent over his saddle and lay close to his horse's neck. The moon was rising behind him and its light was creeping toward him through the bushes. In a moment he would be full in its yellow light, and he was slipping from his horse to dart aside into the bushes, when a voice ahead of him called sharply:

"That you, Dave?"

It was his father, and the boy's answer was a loud laugh. Several men stepped from the bushes--they had heard firing and, fearing that young Dave was the cause of it, they had run to his help.

"What the hell you mean, boy, kickin' up such a racket?"

"Oh, I knowed somethin'd happened an' I wanted to skeer 'em a leetle."

"Yes, an' you never thought o' the trouble you might be causin' us."

"Don't you bother about me. I can take keer o' myself."

Old Dave Tolliver grunted--though at heart he was deeply pleased.

"Well, you come on home!"

All went silently--the boy getting meagre monosyllabic answers to his eager questions but, by the time they reached home, he had gathered the story of what had happened in town that day. There were more men in the porch of the house and all were armed. The women of the house moved about noiselessly and with drawn faces. There were no lights lit, and nobody stood long even in the light of the fire where he could be seen through a window; and doors were opened and passed through quickly. The Falins had opened the feud that day, for the boy's foster-uncle, Bad Rufe Tolliver, contrary to the terms of the last truce, had come home from the West, and one of his kinsmen had been wounded. The boy told what he had heard while he lay over the road along which some of his enemies had passed and his father nodded. The Falins had learned in some way that the lad was going to the Gap that day and had sent men after him. Who was the spy?

"You told me you was a-goin' to the Gap," said old Dave. "Whar was ye?"

"I didn't git that far," said the boy.

The old man and Loretta, young Dave's sister, laughed, and quiet smiles passed between the others.

"Well, you'd better be keerful 'bout gittin' even as far as you did git--wharever that was--from now on."

"I ain't afeered," the boy said sullenly, and he turned into the kitchen. Still sullen, he ate his supper in silence and his mother asked him no questions. He was worried that Bad Rufe had come back to the mountains, for Rufe was always teasing June and there was something in his bold, black eyes that made the lad furious, even when the foster-uncle was looking at Loretta or the little girl in Lonesome Cove. And yet that was nothing to his new trouble, for his mind hung persistently to the stranger and to the way June had behaved in the cabin in Lonesome Cove. Before he went to bed, he slipped out to the old well behind the house and sat on the water- trough in gloomy unrest, looking now and then at the stars that hung over the Cove and over the Gap beyond, where the stranger was bound. It would have pleased him a good deal could he have known that the stranger was pushing his big black horse on his way, under those stars, toward the outer world.