Chapter IX
 

It was court day at the county seat across the Kentucky line. Hale had risen early, as everyone must if he would get his breakfast in the mountains, even in the hotels in the county seats, and he sat with his feet on the railing of the hotel porch which fronted the main street of the town. He had had his heart-breaking failures since the autumn before, but he was in good cheer now, for his feverish enthusiasm had at last clutched a man who would take up not only his options on the great Gap beyond Black Mountain but on the cannel-coal lands of Devil Judd Tolliver as well. He was riding across from the Bluegrass to meet this man at the railroad in Virginia, nearly two hundred miles away; he had stopped to examine some titles at the county seat and he meant to go on that day by way of Lonesome Cove. Opposite was the brick Court House-- every window lacking at least one pane, the steps yellow with dirt and tobacco juice, the doorway and the bricks about the upper windows bullet-dented and eloquent with memories of the feud which had long embroiled the whole county. Not that everybody took part in it but, on the matter, everybody, as an old woman told him, "had feelin's." It had begun, so he learned, just after the war. Two boys were playing marbles in the road along the Cumberland River, and one had a patch on the seat of his trousers. The other boy made fun of it and the boy with the patch went home and told his father. As a result there had already been thirty years of local war. In the last race for legislature, political issues were submerged and the feud was the sole issue. And a Tolliver had carried that boy's trouser-patch like a flag to victory and was sitting in the lower House at that time helping to make laws for the rest of the State. Now Bad Rufe Tolliver was in the hills again and the end was not yet. Already people were pouring in, men, women and children--the men slouch-hatted and stalking through the mud in the rain, or filing in on horseback--riding double sometimes--two men or two women, or a man with his wife or daughter behind him, or a woman with a baby in her lap and two more children behind--all dressed in homespun or store-clothes, and the paint from artificial flowers on her hat streaking the face of every girl who had unwisely scanned the heavens that morning. Soon the square was filled with hitched horses, and an auctioneer was bidding off cattle, sheep, hogs and horses to the crowd of mountaineers about him, while the women sold eggs and butter and bought things for use at home. Now and then, an open feudsman with a Winchester passed and many a man was belted with cartridges for the big pistol dangling at his hip. When court opened, the rain ceased, the sun came out and Hale made his way through the crowd to the battered temple of justice. On one corner of the square he could see the chief store of the town marked "Buck Falin--General Merchandise," and the big man in the door with the bushy redhead, he guessed, was the leader of the Falin clan. Outside the door stood a smaller replica of the same figure, whom he recognized as the leader of the band that had nearly ridden him down at the Gap when they were looking for young Dave Tolliver, the autumn before. That, doubtless, was young Buck. For a moment he stood at the door of the court-room. A Falin was on trial and the grizzled judge was speaking angrily:

"This is the third time you've had this trial postponed because you hain't got no lawyer. I ain't goin' to put it off. Have you got you a lawyer now?"

"Yes, jedge," said the defendant.

"Well, whar is he?"

"Over thar on the jury."

The judge looked at the man on the jury.

"Well, I reckon you better leave him whar he is. He'll do you more good thar than any whar else."

Hale laughed aloud--the judge glared at him and he turned quickly upstairs to his work in the deed-room. Till noon he worked and yet there was no trouble. After dinner he went back and in two hours his work was done. An atmospheric difference he felt as soon as he reached the door. The crowd had melted from the square. There were no women in sight, but eight armed men were in front of the door and two of them, a red Falin and a black Tolliver--Bad Rufe it was--were quarrelling. In every doorway stood a man cautiously looking on, and in a hotel window he saw a woman's frightened face. It was so still that it seemed impossible that a tragedy could be imminent, and yet, while he was trying to take the conditions in, one of the quarrelling men--Bad Rufe Tolliver-- whipped out his revolver and before he could level it, a Falin struck the muzzle of a pistol into his back. Another Tolliver flashed his weapon on the Falin. This Tolliver was covered by another Falin and in so many flashes of lightning the eight men in front of him were covering each other--every man afraid to be the first to shoot, since he knew that the flash of his own pistol meant instantaneous death for him. As Hale shrank back, he pushed against somebody who thrust him aside. It was the judge:

"Why don't somebody shoot?" he asked sarcastically. "You're a purty set o' fools, ain't you? I want you all to stop this damned foolishness. Now when I give the word I want you, Jim Falin and Rufe Tolliver thar, to drap yer guns."

Already Rufe was grinning like a devil over the absurdity of the situation.

"Now!" said the judge, and the two guns were dropped.

"Put 'em in yo' pockets."

They did.

"Drap!" All dropped and, with those two, all put up their guns-- each man, however, watching now the man who had just been covering him. It is not wise for the stranger to show too much interest in the personal affairs of mountain men, and Hale left the judge berating them and went to the hotel to get ready for the Gap, little dreaming how fixed the faces of some of those men were in his brain and how, later, they were to rise in his memory again. His horse was lame--but he must go on: so he hired a "yaller" mule from the landlord, and when the beast was brought around, he overheard two men talking at the end of the porch.

"You don't mean to say they've made peace?"

"Yes, Rufe's going away agin and they shuk hands--all of 'em." The other laughed.

"Rufe ain't gone yit!"

The Cumberland River was rain-swollen. The home-going people were helping each other across it and, as Hale approached the ford of a creek half a mile beyond the river, a black-haired girl was standing on a boulder looking helplessly at the yellow water, and two boys were on the ground below her. One of them looked up at Hale:

"I wish ye'd help this lady 'cross."

"Certainly," said Hale, and the girl giggled when he laboriously turned his old mule up to the boulder. Not accustomed to have ladies ride behind him, Hale had turned the wrong side. Again he laboriously wheeled about and then into the yellow torrent he went with the girl behind him, the old beast stumbling over the stones, whereat the girl, unafraid, made sounds of much merriment. Across, Hale stopped and said courteously:

"If you are going up this way, you are quite welcome to ride on."

"Well, I wasn't crossin' that crick jes' exactly fer fun," said the girl demurely, and then she murmured something about her cousins and looked back. They had gone down to a shallower ford, and when they, too, had waded across, they said nothing and the girl said nothing--so Hale started on, the two boys following. The mule was slow and, being in a hurry, Hale urged him with his whip. Every time he struck, the beast would kick up and once the girl came near going off.

"You must watch out, when I hit him," said Hale.

"I don't know when you're goin' to hit him," she drawled unconcernedly.

"Well, I'll let you know," said Hale laughing. "Now!" And, as he whacked the beast again, the girl laughed and they were better acquainted. Presently they passed two boys. Hale was wearing riding-boots and tight breeches, and one of the boys ran his eyes up boot and leg and if they were lifted higher, Hale could not tell.

"Whar'd you git him?" he squeaked.

The girl turned her head as the mule broke into a trot.

"Ain't got time to tell. They are my cousins," explained the girl.

"What is your name?" asked Hale.

"Loretty Tolliver." Hale turned in his saddle.

"Are you the daughter of Dave Tolliver?"

"Yes."

"Then you've got a brother named Dave?"

"Yes." This, then, was the sister of the black-haired boy he had seen in the Lonesome Cove.

"Haven't you got some kinfolks over the mountain?"

"Yes, I got an uncle livin' over thar. Devil Judd, folks calls him," said the girl simply. This girl was cousin to little June in Lonesome Cove. Every now and then she would look behind them, and when Hale turned again inquiringly she explained:

"I'm worried about my cousins back thar. I'm afeered somethin' mought happen to 'em."

"Shall we wait for them?"

"Oh, no--I reckon not."

Soon they overtook two men on horseback, and after they passed and were fifty yards ahead of them, one of the men lifted his voice jestingly:

"Is that your woman, stranger, or have you just borrowed her?" Hale shouted back:

"No, I'm sorry to say, I've just borrowed her," and he turned to see how she would take this answering pleasantry. She was looking down shyly and she did not seem much pleased.

"They are kinfolks o' mine, too," she said, and whether it was in explanation or as a rebuke, Hale could not determine.

"You must be kin to everybody around here?"

"Most everybody," she said simply.

By and by they came to a creek.

"I have to turn up here," said Hale.

"So do I," she said, smiling now directly at him.

"Good!" he said, and they went on--Hale asking more questions. She was going to school at the county seat the coming winter and she was fifteen years old.

"That's right. The trouble in the mountains is that you girls marry so early that you don't have time to get an education." She wasn't going to marry early, she said, but Hale learned now that she had a sweetheart who had been in town that day and apparently the two had had a quarrel. Who it was, she would not tell, and Hale would have been amazed had he known the sweetheart was none other than young Buck Falin and that the quarrel between the lovers had sprung from the opening quarrel that day between the clans. Once again she came near going off the mule, and Hale observed that she was holding to the cantel of his saddle.

"Look here," he said suddenly, "hadn't you better catch hold of me?" She shook her head vigorously and made two not-to-be-rendered sounds that meant:

"No, indeed."

"Well, if this were your sweetheart you'd take hold of him, wouldn't you?"

Again she gave a vigorous shake of the head.

"Well, if he saw you riding behind me, he wouldn't like it, would he?"

"She didn't keer," she said, but Hale did; and when he heard the galloping of horses behind him, saw two men coming, and heard one of them shouting--"Hyeh, you man on that yaller mule, stop thar"-- he shifted his revolver, pulled in and waited with some uneasiness. They came up, reeling in their saddles--neither one the girl's sweetheart, as he saw at once from her face--and began to ask what the girl characterized afterward as "unnecessary questions": who he was, who she was, and where they were going. Hale answered so shortly that the girl thought there was going to be a fight, and she was on the point of slipping from the mule.

"Sit still," said Hale, quietly. "There's not going to be a fight so long as you are here."

"Thar hain't!" said one of the men. "Well"--then he looked sharply at the girl and turned his horse--"Come on, Bill--that's ole Dave Tolliver's gal." The girl's face was on fire.

"Them mean Falins!" she said contemptuously, and somehow the mere fact that Hale had been even for the moment antagonistic to the other faction seemed to put him in the girl's mind at once on her side, and straightway she talked freely of the feud. Devil Judd had taken no active part in it for a long time, she said, except to keep it down--especially since he and her father had had a "fallin' out" and the two families did not visit much--though she and her cousin June sometimes spent the night with each other.

"You won't be able to git over thar till long atter dark," she said, and she caught her breath so suddenly and so sharply that Hale turned to see what the matter was. She searched his face with her black eyes, which were like June's without the depths of June's.

"I was just a-wonderin' if mebbe you wasn't the same feller that was over in Lonesome last fall."

"Maybe I am--my name's Hale." The girl laughed. "Well, if this ain't the beatenest! I've heerd June talk about you. My brother Dave don't like you overmuch," she added frankly. "I reckon we'll see Dave purty soon. If this ain't the beatenest!" she repeated, and she laughed again, as she always did laugh, it seemed to Hale, when there was any prospect of getting him into trouble.

"You can't git over thar till long atter dark," she said again presently.

"Is there any place on the way where I can get to stay all night?"

"You can stay all night with the Red Fox on top of the mountain."

"The Red Fox," repeated Hale.

"Yes, he lives right on top of the mountain. You can't miss his house."

"Oh, yes, I remember him. I saw him talking to one of the Falins in town to-day, behind the barn, when I went to get my horse."

"You--seed--him--a-talkin'--to a Falin afore the trouble come up?" the girl asked slowly and with such significance that Hale turned to look at her. He felt straightway that he ought not to have said that, and the day was to come when he would remember it to his cost. He knew how foolish it was for the stranger to show sympathy with, or interest in, one faction or another in a mountain feud, but to give any kind of information of one to the other--that was unwise indeed. Ahead of them now, a little stream ran from a ravine across the road. Beyond was a cabin; in the doorway were several faces, and sitting on a horse at the gate was young Dave Tolliver.

"Well, I git down here," said the girl, and before his mule stopped she slid from behind him and made for the gate without a word of thanks or good-by.

"Howdye!" said Hale, taking in the group with his glance, but leaving his eyes on young Dave. The rest nodded, but the boy was too surprised for speech, and the spirit of deviltry took the girl when she saw her brother's face, and at the gate she turned:

"Much obleeged," she said. "Tell June I'm a-comin' over to see her next Sunday."

"I will," said Hale, and he rode on. To his surprise, when he had gone a hundred yards, he heard the boy spurring after him and he looked around inquiringly as young Dave drew alongside; but the boy said nothing and Hale, amused, kept still, wondering when the lad would open speech. At the mouth of another little creek the boy stopped his horse as though he was to turn up that way. "You've come back agin," he said, searching Hale's face with his black eyes.

"Yes," said Hale, "I've come back again."

"You goin' over to Lonesome Cove?"

"Yes."

The boy hesitated, and a sudden change of mind was plain to Hale in his face. "I wish you'd tell Uncle Judd about the trouble in town to-day," he said, still looking fixedly at Hale.

"Certainly."

"Did you tell the Red Fox that day you seed him when you was goin' over to the Gap last fall that you seed me at Uncle Judd's?"

"No," said Hale. "But how did you know that I saw the Red Fox that day?" The boy laughed unpleasantly.

"So long," he said. "See you agin some day." The way was steep and the sun was down and darkness gathering before Hale reached the top of the mountain--so he hallooed at the yard fence of the Red Fox, who peered cautiously out of the door and asked his name before he came to the gate. And there, with a grin on his curious mismatched face, he repeated young Dave's words:

"You've come back agin." And Hale repeated his:

"Yes, I've come back again."

"You goin' over to Lonesome Cove?"

"Yes," said Hale impatiently, "I'm going over to Lonesome Cove. Can I stay here all night?"

"Shore!" said the old man hospitably. "That's a fine hoss you got thar," he added with a chuckle. "Been swappin'?" Hale had to laugh as he climbed down from the bony ear-flopping beast.

"I left my horse in town--he's lame."

"Yes, I seed you thar." Hale could not resist: "Yes, and I seed you." The old man almost turned.

"Whar?" Again the temptation was too great.

"Talking to the Falin who started the row." This time the Red Fox wheeled sharply and his pale-blue eyes filled with suspicion.

"I keeps friends with both sides," he said. "Ain't many folks can do that."

"I reckon not," said Hale calmly, but in the pale eyes he still saw suspicion.

When they entered the cabin, a little old woman in black, dumb and noiseless, was cooking supper. The children of the two, he learned, had scattered, and they lived there alone. On the mantel were two pistols and in one corner was the big Winchester he remembered and behind it was the big brass telescope. On the table was a Bible and a volume of Swedenborg, and among the usual strings of pepper-pods and beans and twisted long green tobacco were drying herbs and roots of all kinds, and about the fireplace were bottles of liquids that had been stewed from them. The little old woman served, and opened her lips not at all. Supper was eaten with no further reference to the doings in town that day, and no word was said about their meeting when Hale first went to Lonesome Cove until they were smoking on the porch.

"I heerd you found some mighty fine coal over in Lonesome Cove."

"Yes."

"Young Dave Tolliver thinks you found somethin' else thar, too," chuckled the Red Fox.

"I did," said Hale coolly, and the old man chuckled again.

"She's a purty leetle gal--shore."

"Who is?" asked Hale, looking calmly at his questioner, and the Red Fox lapsed into baffled silence.

The moon was brilliant and the night was still. Suddenly the Red Fox cocked his ear like a hound, and without a word slipped swiftly within the cabin. A moment later Hale heard the galloping of a horse and from out the dark woods loped a horseman with a Winchester across his saddle bow. He pulled in at the gate, but before he could shout "Hello" the Red Fox had stepped from the porch into the moonlight and was going to meet him. Hale had never seen a more easy, graceful, daring figure on horseback, and in the bright light he could make out the reckless face of the man who had been the first to flash his pistol in town that day--Bad Rufe Tolliver. For ten minutes the two talked in whispers--Rufe bent forward with one elbow on the withers of his horse but lifting his eyes every now and then to the stranger seated in the porch--and then the horseman turned with an oath and galloped into the darkness whence he came, while the Red Fox slouched back to the porch and dropped silently into his seat.

"Who was that?" asked Hale.

"Bad Rufe Tolliver."

"I've heard of him."

"Most everybody in these mountains has. He's the feller that's always causin' trouble. Him and Joe Falin agreed to go West last fall to end the war. Joe was killed out thar, and now Rufe claims Joe don't count now an' he's got the right to come back. Soon's he comes back, things git frolicksome agin. He swore he wouldn't go back unless another Falin goes too. Wirt Falin agreed, and that's how they made peace to-day. Now Rufe says he won't go at all-- truce or no truce. My wife in thar is a Tolliver, but both sides comes to me and I keeps peace with both of 'em."

No doubt he did, Hale thought, keep peace or mischief with or against anybody with that face of his. That was a common type of the bad man, that horseman who had galloped away from the gate-- but this old man with his dual face, who preached the Word on Sundays and on other days was a walking arsenal; who dreamed dreams and had visions and slipped through the hills in his mysterious moccasins on errands of mercy or chasing men from vanity, personal enmity or for fun, and still appeared so sane--he was a type that confounded. No wonder for these reasons and as a tribute to his infernal shrewdness he was known far and wide as the Red Fox of the Mountains. But Hale was too tired for further speculation and presently he yawned.

"Want to lay down?" asked the old man quickly.

"I think I do," said Hale, and they went inside. The little old woman had her face to the wall in a bed in one corner and the Red Fox pointed to a bed in the other:

"Thar's yo' bed." Again Hale's eyes fell on the big Winchester.

"I reckon thar hain't more'n two others like it in all these mountains."

"What's the calibre?"

"Biggest made," was the answer, "a 50 x 75."

"Centre fire?"

"Rim," said the Red Fox.

"Gracious," laughed Hale, "what do you want such a big one for?"

"Man cannot live by bread alone--in these mountains," said the Red Fox grimly.

When Hale lay down he could hear the old man quavering out a hymn or two on the porch outside: and when, worn out with the day, he went to sleep, the Red Fox was reading his Bible by the light of a tallow dip. It is fatefully strange when people, whose lives tragically intersect, look back to their first meetings with one another, and Hale never forgot that night in the cabin of the Red Fox. For had Bad Rufe Tolliver, while he whispered at the gate, known the part the quiet young man silently seated in the porch would play in his life, he would have shot him where he sat: and could the Red Fox have known the part his sleeping guest was to play in his, the old man would have knifed him where he lay.