Chapter I. The Stranger.
 

It was corn-planting time, when the stranger followed the Old Trail into the Mutton Hollow neighborhood.

All day a fine rain had fallen steadily, and the mists hung heavy over the valley. The lower hills were wrapped as in a winding sheet; dank and cold. The trees were dripping with moisture. The stranger looked tired and wet.

By his dress, the man was from the world beyond the ridges, and his carefully tailored clothing looked strangely out of place in the mountain wilderness. His form stooped a little in the shoulders, perhaps with weariness, but he carried himself with the unconscious air of one long used to a position of conspicuous power and influence; and, while his well-kept hair and beard were strongly touched with white, the brown, clear lighted eyes, that looked from under their shaggy brows, told of an intellect unclouded by the shadows of many years. It was a face marked deeply by pride; pride of birth, of intellect, of culture; the face of a scholar and poet; but it was more--it was the countenance of one fairly staggering under a burden of disappointment and grief.

As the stranger walked, he looked searchingly into the mists on every hand, and paused frequently as if questioning the proper course. Suddenly he stepped quickly forward. His ear had caught the sharp ring of a horse's shoe on a flint rock somewhere in the mists on the mountain side above. It was Jed Holland coming down the trail with a week's supply of corn meal in a sack across his horse's back.

As the figure of the traveler emerged from the mists, the native checked his horse to greet the newcomer with the customary salutation of the backwoods, "Howdy."

The man returned Jed's greeting cordially, and, resting his satchel on a rock beside the narrow path, added, "I am very glad to meet you. I fear that I am lost."

The voice was marvelously pure, deep, and musical, and, like the brown eyes, betrayed the real strength of the man, denied by his gray hair and bent form. The tones were as different from the high keyed, slurring speech of the backwoods, as the gentleman himself was unlike any man Jed had ever met. The boy looked at the speaker in wide-eyed wonder; he had a queer feeling that he was in the presence of a superior being.

Throwing one thin leg over the old mare's neck, and waving a long arm up the hill and to the left, Jed drawled, "That thar's Dewey Bal'; down yonder's Mutton Holler." Then turning a little to the right and pointing into the mist with the other hand, he continued, "Compton Ridge is over thar. Whar was you tryin' to git to, Mister?"

"Where am I trying to get to?" As the man repeated Jed's question, he drew his hand wearily across his brow; "I--I--it doesn't much matter, boy. I suppose I must find some place where I can stay to- night. Do you live near here?"

"Nope," Jed answered, "Hit's a right smart piece to whar I live. This here's grindin' day, an' I've been t' mill over on Fall Creek; the Matthews mill hit is. Hit'll be plumb dark 'gin I git home. I 'lowed you was a stranger in these parts soon 's I ketched sight of you. What might yer name be, Mister?"

The other, looking back over the way he had come, seemed not to hear Jed's question, and the native continued, "Mine's Holland. Pap an' Mam they come from Tennessee. Pap he's down in th' back now, an' ain't right peart, but he'll be 'round in a little, I reckon. Preachin' Bill he 'lows hit's good fer a feller t' be down in th' back onct in a while; says if hit warn't fer that we'd git to standin' so durned proud an' straight we'd go plumb over backwards."

A bitter smile crossed the face of the older man. He evidently applied the native's philosophy in a way unguessed by Jed. "Very true, very true, indeed," he mused. Then he turned to Jed, and asked, "Is there a house near here?"

"Jim Lane lives up the trail 'bout half a quarter. Ever hear tell o' Jim?"

"No, I have never been in these mountains before."

"I 'lowed maybe you'd heard tell o' Jim or Sammy. There's them that 'lows Jim knows a heap more 'bout old man Dewey's cave than he lets on; his place bein' so nigh. Reckon you know 'bout Colonel Dewey, him th' Bal' up thar's named fer? Maybe you come t' look fer the big mine they say's in th' cave? I'll hep you hunt hit, if you want me to, Mister."

"No," said the other, "I am not looking for mines of lead or zinc; there is greater wealth in these hills and forests, young man."

"Law, you don't say! Jim Wilson allus 'lowed thar must be gold in these here mountains, 'cause they're so dad burned rough. Lemme hep you, Mister. I'd like mighty well t' git some clothes like them."

"I do not speak of gold, my boy," the stranger answered kindly. "But I must not keep you longer, or darkness will overtake us. Do you think this Mr. Lane would entertain me?"

Jed pushed a hand up under his tattered old hat, and scratched awhile before he answered, "Don't know 'bout th' entertainin', Mister, but 'most anybody would take you in." He turned and looked thoughtfully up the trail. "I don't guess Jim's to home though; 'cause I see'd Sammy a fixin' t' go over t' th' Matthews's when I come past. You know the Matthews's, I reckon?"

There was a hint of impatience now in the deep voice. "No, I told you that I had never been in these mountains before. Will Mr. Matthews keep me, do you think?"

Jed, who was still looking up the trail, suddenly leaned forward, and, pointing into the timber to the left of the path, said in an exciting whisper, "Look at that, Mister; yonder thar by that big rock."

The stranger, looking, thought he saw a form, weird and ghost-like in the mist, flitting from tree to tree, but, even as he looked, it vanished among the hundreds of fantastic shapes in the gray forest. "What is it?" he asked.

The native shook his head. "Durned if I know, Mister. You can't tell. There's mighty strange things stirrin' on this here mountain, an' in the Holler down yonder. Say, Mister, did you ever see a hant?"

The gentleman did not understand.

"A hant, a ghost, some calls 'em," explained Jed. "Bud Wilson he sure seed old Matt's--"

The other interrupted. "Really, young man, I must go. It is already late, and you know I have yet to find a place to stay for the night."

"Law, that's alright, Mister!" replied Jed. "Ain't no call t' worry. Stay anywhere. Whar do you live when you're to home?"

Again Jed's question was ignored. "You think then that Mr. Matthews will keep me?"

"Law, yes! They'll take anybody in. I know they're to home 'cause they was a fixin' t' leave the mill when I left 'bout an hour ago. Was the river up much when you come acrost?" As the native spoke he was still peering uneasily into the woods.

"I did not cross the river. How far is it to this Matthews place, and how do I go?"

"Jest foller this Old Trail. Hit'll take you right thar. Good road all th' way. 'Bout three mile, I'd say. Did you come from Springfield or St. Louis, maybe?"

The man lifted his satchel from the rock as he answered: "No, I do not live in either Springfield or St. Louis. Thank you, very much, for your assistance. I will go on, now, for I must hurry, or night will overtake me, and I shall not be able to find the path."

"Oh, hit's a heap lighter when you git up on th' hill 'bove th' fog," said Jed, lowering his leg from the horse's neck, and settling the meal sack, preparatory to moving. "But I'd a heap rather hit was you than me a goin' up on Dewey t'night." He was still looking up the trail. "Reckon you must be from Kansas City or Chicago? I heard tell they're mighty big towns."

The stranger's only answer was a curt "Good-by," as his form vanished in the mist.

Jed turned and dug his heels vigorously in the old mare's flanks, as he ejaculated softly, "Well, I'll be dod durned! Must be from New York, sure!"

Slowly the old man toiled up the mountain; up from the mists of the lower ground to the ridge above; and, as he climbed, unseen by him, a shadowy form flitted from tree to tree in the dim, dripping forest.

As the stranger came in sight of the Lane cabin, a young woman on a brown pony rode out of the gate and up the trail before him; and when the man reached the open ground on the mountain above, and rounded the shoulder of the hill, he saw the pony, far ahead, loping easily along the little path. A moment he watched, and horse and rider passed from sight.

The clouds were drifting far away. The western sky was clear with the sun still above the hills. In an old tree that leaned far out over the valley, a crow shook the wet from his plumage and dried himself in the warm light; while far below the mists rolled, and on the surface of that gray sea, the traveler saw a company of buzzards, wheeling and circling above some dead thing hidden in its depth.

Wearily the man followed the Old Trail toward the Matthews place, and always, as he went, in the edge of the gloomy forest, flitted that shadowy form.