A Cumberland Vendetta by John Fox Jr.
ALL night the court-house was guarded and on guard. At one corner of the square Rufe Stetson, with a few men, sat on watch in old Sam Day's cabin-the fortress of the town, built for such a purpose, and used for it many times before. The prisoners, too, were alert, and no Stetson ventured into the open square, for the moon was high; an exposure anywhere was noted instantly by the whistle of a rifle-ball, and the mountaineer takes few risks except under stress of drink or passion. Rome Stetson had placed pickets about the town wherever surprise was possible. All night he patrolled the streets to keep his men in such readiness as he could for the attack that the Lewallens would surely make to rescue their living friends and to avenge the dead ones.
But the triumph was too great and unexpected. Two Braytons were dead; several more were prisoners with young Jasper in the courthouse; and drinking began.
As the night deepened without attack the Stetsons drank more, and grew reckless. A dance was started. Music and "moonshine" were given to every man who bore a Winchester. The night was broken with drunken yells, the random discharge of fire-arms, and the mono-tone of heavy feet. The two leaders were helpless, and the inaction of the Lewallens puzzled them. Chafed with anxiety, they kept their eyes on the court-house or on the thicket of gloom where their enemies lay. But the woods were as quiet as the pall of shadows over them. Once Rome, making his rounds, saw a figure crawling through a field of corn. It looked like Crump's, but before he could fire the man rolled like a ball down the bushy bank to the river. An instant later some object went swiftly past a side street-somebody on horseback-and a picket fired an alarm. The horse kept on, and Rome threw his rifle on a patch of moonlight, but when the object flashed through, his finger was numbed at the trigger. In the moonlight the horse looked gray, and the rider was seated sidewise. A bullet from the court-house clipped his hat-brim as he ran recklessly across the street to where Steve Marcum stood in the dark behind old Sam's cabin.
"Jim Hale 'll git him as he goes up the road," said Steve, calmly-and then with hot impatience, "Why the hell don't he shoot?
Rome started forward in the moonlight, and Steve caught his arm. Two bullets hissed from the court-house, and he fell back.
A shot sounded from the bushes far away from the road. The horse kept on, and splashed into Troubled Fork, and Steve swore bitterly.
"Hit hain't Jim. Hit's that mis'able Bud Vickers; he's been a-stan din' guard out'n the bushes 'stid o' the road. That was a spy, I tell ye, 'n' the coward let him in and let him out. They'll know now we're all drunk! Whut's the matter?
Rome's mouth was half open. He looked white and sick, and Steve thought he had been hit, but he took off his hat. " Purty close! " he said, with a laugh, pointing at the bullet-hole through the brim.
Steve, unsuspicious, went on: "Hit was a spy, I tell ye. Bud was afeard to stan' in the road, 'n' I'm goin' out thar 'n' twist his damned neck. We've got 'em, Rome! I tell ye, we've got 'em! Ef we kin git through this night, and git the boys sober in the morning, we've got 'em shore!"
The night did pass in safety, darkness wore away without attack, and morning broke on the town in its drunken stupor. Then the curious silence of the Lewallens was explained. The rumor came that old Jasper was dead, and it went broadcast. Later, friends coming to the edge of the town for the bodies of the dead Lewallens confirmed it. A random ball had passed through old Lewallen's body in the wild flight for the woods, and during the night he had spent his last breath in a curse against the man who fired it.
Then each Stetson, waked from his drunken sleep, drank again when he heard of the death. The day bade fair to be like the night, and again the anxiety of the leaders was edged with fear. Old Jasper dead and young Jasper a prisoner, the chance was near to end the feud, or there would be no Lewallen left to lead their enemies. But, again, they were wellnigh helpless. Already they had barely enough men to guard their prisoners. Of the Marcums, Steve alone was able to handle a Winchester, and outside the sounds of the carousal were in the air and growing louder. In a little while, if the Lewallens but knew it, escape would be easy and the Stetsons could be driven from the town.
Oh, they know it," said Steve. "They'll be a-whoopin' down out O' them woods purty soon, 'n' we re goin to ketch hell. I'd like to know mighty well who that spy was last night. That cussed Bud Vickers says it was a ha'nt, on a white hoss, with long hair flyin' in the wind, 'n' that he shot plumb through it. I jus' wish I'd a had a chance at it."
Still, noon came again without trouble, and the imprisoned Lewallens had been twenty-four hours without food. Their ammunition was getting scarce. The firing was less frequent, though the watch was as close as ever, and twice a Winchester had sounded a signal of distress. All knew that a response must come soon; and come it did. A picket, watching the river road, saw young Jasper's horse coming along the dark bushes far up the river, and brought the news to the group standing behind old Sam's cabin. The gray galloped into sight, and, skirting the woods, came straight for the town-with a woman on his back. The stirrup of a man's saddle dangled on one side, and the woman's bonnet had fallen from her head. Some one challenged her.
Stop, I tell ye! Don't ye go near that courthouse! Stop, I tell ye! I'll shoot! Stop!"
Rome ran from the cabin with a revolver in each hand. A drunken mountaineer was raising a Winchester to his shoulder, and, springing from the back of the gray at the court-house steps, was Martha Lewallen.
"I'll kill the fust man that lifts his finger to hurt the gal," Rome said, knocking the drunken man's gun in the air. "We hain't fightin' women!"
It was too late to oppose her, and the crowd stood helplessly watching. No one dared approach, so, shielding with her body the space of the opening door, she threw the sack of food within. Then she stood a moment talking and, turning, climbed to her saddle. The gray was spotted with foam, and showed the red of his nostrils with every breath as, with face flushed and eyes straight before her, she rode slowly toward the crowd. What was she about? Rome stood rigid, his forgotten pistols hanging at each side; the mouth of the drunken mountaineer was open with stupid wonder; the rest fell apart as she came around the corner of the cabin and, through the space given, rode slowly, her skirt almost brushing Rome, looking neither to the right nor to the left; and when she had gone quite through them all, she wheeled and rode, still slowly, through the open fields toward the woods which sheltered the Lewallens, while the crowd stood in bewildered silence looking after her. Yells of laughter came from the old court-house. Some of the Stetsons laughed, too; some swore, a few grumbled; but there was not one who was not stirred by the superb daring of the girl, though she had used it only to show her contempt.
" Rome, you're a fool; though, fer a fac', we can't shoot a woman; 'n' anyways I ruther shoot her than the hoss. But lemme tell ye, thar was more'n sump'n to eat in that bag! They air up to some dodge."
Rufe Stetson had watched the incident through a port-hole of the cabin, and his tone was at once jesting and anxious.
"That grub won't last more'n one day, I reckon," said the drunken mountaineer. We'll watch out fer the gal nex' time. We're boun' to git 'em one time or t'other."
"She rid through us to find out how many of us wasn't dead drunk," said Steve Marcum, still watching the girl as she rode on, toward the woods; "'n' I'm a-thinkin' they'll be down on us purty soon now, 'n' I reckon we'll have to run fer it. Look thar boys!"
The girl had stopped at the edge of the woods; facing the town, she waved her bonnet high above her head.
"Well, whut in the--! "he said, with slow emphasis, and then he leaped from the door with a yell. The bonnet was a signal to the beleaguered Lewallens. The rear door of the courthouse had been quietly opened, and the prisoners were out in a body and scrambling over the fence before the pickets could give an alarm. The sudden yells, the crack of Winchesters, startled even the revellers and all who could, headed by Rome and Steve Marcum, sprang into the square, and started in pursuit. But the Lewallens had got far ahead, and were running in zigzag lines to dodge the balls flying after them. Half-way to the woods was a gully of red clay, and into this the fleetest leaped, and turned instantly to cover their comrades. The Winchesters began to rattle from the woods, and the bullets came like rain from everywhere.
"T-h-up! T-h-up! T-h-up! " there were three of them-the peculiar soft, dull messages of hot lead to living flesh. A Stetson went down; another stumbled; Rufe Stetson, climbing the fence, caught at his breast with an oath, and fell back. Rome and Steve dropped for safety to the ground. Every other Stetson turned in a panic, and every Lewallen in the gully leaped from it, and ran under the Lewallen fire for shelter in the woods. The escape was over.
"That was a purty neat trick," said Steve, wiping a red streak from his cheek. " Nex' time she tries that, she'll git herself into trouble."
At nightfall the wounded leader and the dead one were carried up the mountain, each to his home; and there was mourning far into the night on one bank of the Cumberland, and, serious though Rufe Stetson's wound was, exultation on the other. But in it Rome could take but little part. There had been no fault to find with him in the fight. But a reaction had set in when he saw the girl flash in the moonlight past the sights of his Winchester, and her face that day had again loosed within him a flood of feeling that drove the lust for revenge from his veins. Even now, while he sat in his own cabin, his thoughts were across the river where Martha, broken at last, sat at her death vigils. He knew what her daring ride that day had cost her, with old Jasper dead out there in the woods; and as she passed him he had grown suddenly humbled, shamed. He grew heart-sick now as he thought of it all; and the sight of his mother on her bed in the corner, close to death as she was, filled him with bitterness. There was no help for him. He was alone now, pitted against young Jasper alone. On one bed lay his uncle-nigh to death. There was the grim figure in the corner, the implacable spirit of hate and revenge. His rifle was against the wall. If there was any joy for him in old Jasper's death, it was that his hand had not caused it, and yet-God help him!-there was the other cross, the other oath.