A Cumberland Vendetta by John Fox Jr.
THE star and the crescent were swinging above Wolf's Head, and in the dark hour that breaks into dawn a cavalcade of Lewallens forded the Cumberland, and galloped along the Stetson shore. At the head rode young Jasper, and Crump the spy.
Swift changes had followed the court-house fight. In spite of the death of Rufe Stetson from his wound, and several other Stetsons from ambush, the Lewallens had lost ground. Old Jasper's store had fallen into the hands of creditors -" furriners "-for debts, and it was said his homestead must follow. In a private war a leader must be more than leader. He must feed and often clothe his followers, and young Jasper had not the means to carry on the feud. The famine had made corn dear. He could feed neither man nor horse, and the hired feudsmen fell away, leaving the Lewallens and the Braytons and their close kin to battle alone. So Jasper avoided open combat and resorted to ambush and surprise; and, knowing in some way every move made by the Stetsons, with great daring and success. It was whispered, too, that he no longer cared who owned what he might want for himself. Several dark deeds were traced to him. In a little while he was a terror to good citizens, and finally old Gabe asked aid of the Governor. Soldiers from the settlements were looked for any day, and both factions knew it. At the least this would delay the war, and young Jasper had got ready for a last fight, which was close at hand.
Half a mile on the riders swerved into a wooded slope. There they hid their horses in the brush, and climbed the spur stealthily. The naked woods showed the cup-like shape of the mountains there-a basin from which radiated upward wooded ravines, edged with ribs of rock. In this basin the Stetsons were encamped. The smoke of a fire was visible in the dim morning light, and the Lewallens scattered to surround the camp, but the effort was vain. A picket saw the creeping figures; his gun echoed a warning from rock to rock, and with yells the Lewallens ran forward. Rome sprang from his sleep near the fire, bareheaded, rifle in hand, his body plain against a huge rock, and the bullets hissed and spat about him as he leaped this way and that, firing as he sprang, and shouting for his men. Steve Marcum alone answered. Some, startled from sleep, had fled in a panic; some had run deeper into the woods for shelter. And bidding Steve save himself, Rome turned up the mountain, running from tree to tree, and dropped unhurt behind a fallen chestnut. Other Stetsons, too, had turned, and answering bullets began to whistle to the enemy, but they were widely separated and ignorant of one another's position, and the Lewallens drove them one by one to new hiding-places, scattering them more. To his right Rome saw Steve Marcum speed like a shadow up through a little open space, but he feared to move, for several Lewallens had recognized him, and were watching him alone. He could not even fire; at the least exposure there was a chorus of bullets about his ears. In a moment they began to come obliquely from each side-the Lewallens were getting around him. In a moment more death was sure there, and once again he darted up the mountain. The bullets sang after him like maddened bees. He felt one cut his hat and another sting his left arm, but he raced up, up, till the firing grew fainter as he climbed, and ceased an instant altogether. Then, still farther below, came a sudden crash of reports. Stetsons were pursuing the men who were after him, but he could not join them. The Lewallens were scattered everywhere between him and his own man, and a desccnt might lead him to the muzzle of an enemy's Winchester. So he climbed over a ledge of rock and lay there, peeping through a crevice between two bowlders, gaining his breath. The firing was far below him now, and was sharp. Evidently his pursuers were too busy defending themselves to think further of him, and he began to plan how he should get back to his friends. But he kept hidden, and, searching the cliffs below him for a sheltered descent, he saw something like a slouched hat just over a log, scarcely fifty feet below him. Presently the hat was lifted a few inches; a figure rose cautiously and climbed toward the ledge, shielding itself behind rock and tree. Very quietly Rome crawled back to the face of the cliff behind him, and crouched behind a rock with his cocked rifle across his knees. The man must climb over the ledge; there would be a bare, level floor of rock between them-the Lewallen would be at his mercy-and Rome, with straining eyes, waited. There was a footfall on the other side of the ledge; a soft clink of metal against stone. The Lewallen was climbing slowly-slowly. Rome could hear his heavy breathing. A grimy hand slipped over the sharp comb of the ledge; another appeared, clinched about a Winchester-then the slouched hat, and under it the dark, crafty face of young Jasper. Rome sat like the stone before him, with a half-smile on his lips. Jasper peered about with the sly caution of a fox, and his face grew puzzled and chagrined as he looked at the cliffs above him.
He was drawing himself over the ledge, and the low, stern voice startled him, as a knife might have done, thrust suddenly from the empty air at his breast. Rome rose upright against the cliff, with his resolute face against the stock of a Winchester.
"Drap that gun!"
The order was given along Stetson's barrel, and the weapon was dropped, the steel ringing on the stone floor. Rome lowered his gun to the hollow of his arm, and the two young leaders faced each other for the first time in the life of either.
Seem kinder s'prised to see me," said the Stetson, grimly. " Hev ye got a pistol?
Young Jasper glared at him in helpless ferocity.
He drew a long-bladed penknife from his pocket, and tossed it at Rome's feet.
"Jes' move over thar, will ye?"
The Lewallen took his stand against the cliff. Rome picked up the fallen rifle and leaned it against the ledge.
"Now, Jas Lewallen, thar's nobody left in this leetle trouble 'cept you 'n' me, 'n' ef one of us was dead, I reckon t'other could live hyeh, 'n' thar'd be peace in these mount'ins. I thought o' that when I had ye at the eend o' this Winchester. I reckon you would 'a' shot me dead ef I had poked my head over a rock as keerless as you." That is just what he would have done, and Jasper did not answer. "I've swore to kill ye, too," added Rome, tapping his gun; "I've got a cross fer ye hyeh."
The Lewallen was no coward. Outcry or resistance was useless. The Stetson meant to taunt him, to make death more bitter; for Jasper expected death, and he sullenly waited for it against the cliff.
"You've been banterin me a long time now, 'lowin' as how ye air the better man o' the two; n' I've got a notion o' givin' ye a chance to prove yer tall talk. Hit's not our way to kill a man in cold blood, 'n' I don't want to kill ye anyways ef I kin he'p it. Seem s'prised ag'in. Reckon ye don't believe me? I don't wonder when I think o' my own dad, 'n' all the meanness yo folks have done mine; but I've got a good reason fer not killin' ye-ef I kin he'p it. Y'u don't know what it is, 'n' y'u'll never know; but I'll give yer a chance now fer yer life ef y'u'll sw'ar on a stack o' Bibles as high as that tree thar that y'u'll leave these mount'ins ef I whoops ye, 'n' nuver come back ag'in as long as you live. I'll leave, ef ye whoops me. Now whut do ye say? Will ye sw'ar?
"I reckon I will, seem' as I've got to," was the surly answer. But Jasper's face was dark with suspicion, and Rome studied it keenly. The Lewallens once had been men whose word was good, but he did not like Jasper's look.
"I reckon I'll trust ye," he said, at last, more through confidence in his own strength than faith in his enemy; foi Jasper whipped would be as much at his mercy as he was now. So Rome threw off his coat, and began winding his homespun suspenders about his waist. Watching him closely, Jasper did the same.
The firing below had ceased. A flock of mountain vultures were sailing in great circles over the thick woods. Two eagles swept straight from the rim of the sun above Wolf's Head, beating over a turbulent sea of mist for the cliffs, scarcely fifty yards above the ledge, where a pine-tree grew between two rocks. At the instant of lighting, they wheeled away, each with a warning scream to the other. A figure lying flat behind the pine had frightened them, and now a face peeped to one side, flushed with eagerness over the coming fight. Both were ready now, and the Lewallen grew suddenly white as Rome turned again and reached down for the guns.
"I reckon I'll put 'em a leetle furder out o' the way," he said, kicking the knife over the cliff; and, standing on a stone, he thrust them into a crevice high above his head.
"Now, Jas, we'll fight this gredge out, as our grandads have done afore us."
Lewallen and Stetson were man to man at last. Suspicion was gone now, and a short, brutal laugh came from the cliff.
"I'll fight ye! Oh, by God, I'll fight ye!"
The ring of the voice struck an answering gleam from Rome's gray eyes, and the two sprang for each other. It was like the struggle of primeval men who had not yet learned even the use of clubs. For an instant both stood close, like two wild beasts crouched for a spring, and circling about to get at each other's throats, with mouths set, eyes watching eyes, and hands twitching nervously. Young Jasper leaped first, and the Stetson, wary of closing with him, shrank back. There were a few quick, heavy blows, and the Lewallen was beaten away with blood at his lips. Then each knew the advantage of the other. The Stetson's reach was longer; the Lewallen was shorter and heavier, and again he closed in. Again Rome sent out his long arm. A turn of Jasper's head let the heavy fist pass over his shoulder. The force of the blow drove Rome forward; the two clinched, and Jasper's arms tightened about the Stetson's waist. With a quick gasp for breath Rome loosed his hold, and, bending his enemy's head back with one hand, rained blow after blow in his face with the other. One terrible stroke on the jaw, and Jasper's arms were loosed; the two fell apart, the one stunned, the other breathless. One dazed moment only, and for a third time the Lewallen came on. Rome had been fighting a man; now he faced a demon. Jasper's brows stood out like bristles, and the eyes under them were red and fierce like a mad bull's. Again Rome's blows fell, but again the Lewallen reached him, and this time he got his face under the Stetson's chin, -'id the heavy fist fell upon the back of his head, and upon his neck, as upon wood and leather. Again Rome had to gasp for breath, and again the two were fiercely locked-their corded arms as tense as serpents. Around and around they whirled, straining, tripping, breaking the silence only with deep, quick breaths and the stamping of feet, Jasper firm on the rock, and Rome's agility saving him from being lifted in the air and tossed from the cliff. There was no pause for rest. It was a struggle to the end, and a quick one; and under stress of excitement the figure at the pine-tree had risen to his knees- jumping even to his feet in plain view, when the short, strong arms of the Lewallen began at last to draw Rome closer still, and to bend him backward. The Stetson was giving way at last. The Lewallen's vindictive face grew blacker, and his white teeth showed between his snarling lips as he fastened one leg behind his enemy's, and, with chin against his shoulder, bent him slowly, slowly back. The two breathed in short, painful gasps; their swollen muscles trembled under the strain as with ague. Back - back - the Stetson was falling; he seemed almost down, when-the trick is an old one-whirling with the quickness of light, he fell heavily on his opponent, and caught him by the throat with both hands.
"'Nough? " he asked, hoarsely. It was the first word uttered.
The only answer was a fierce struggle. Rome felt the Lewallen's teeth sinking in his arm, and his fingers tightened like twisting steel, till Jasper caught his breath as though strangling to death.
"'Nough?" asked the hoarse voice again.
No answer; tighter clinched the fingers. The Lewallen shook his head feebly; his purple face paled suddenly as Rome loosed his hold, and his lips moved in a whisper.
Rome rose dizzily to one knee. Jasper turned, gasping, and lay with his face to the rock. For a while both were quiet, Rome, panting with open mouth and white with exhaustion, looking down now and then at the Lewallen, whose face was turned away with shame.
The sun was blazing above Wolf's Head now, and the stillness about them lay unbroken on the woods below.
"I've whooped ye, Jas," Rome said, at last; "I've whooped ye in a fa'r fight, 'n' I've got nothin' now to say 'bout yer tall talk, 'n' I reckon you hevn't nuther. Now, hit's understood, hain't it, that y'u'll leave these mount'ins?
Y'u kin go West," he continued, as the Lewallen did not answer. " Uncle Rufe used to say thar's a good deal to do out thar, 'n' nobody axes questions. Thar's nobody left hyeh but you 'n' me, but these mount'ins was never big 'nough fer one Lewallen 'n' one Stetson, 'n' you've got to go. I reckon ye won't believe me, but I'm glad I didn't hev to kill ye. But you've promised to go, now, 'n' I'll take yer word fer it." He turned his face, and the Lewallen, knowing it from the sound of his voice, sprang to his feet.
A wild curse burst from Rome's lips, and both leaped for the guns. The Lewallen had the start of a few feet, and Rome, lamed in the fight, stumbled and fell. Before he could rise Jasper had whirled, with one of the Winchesters above his head and his face aflame with fury. Asking no mercy, Rome hid his face with one arm and waited, stricken faint all at once, and numb. One report struck his ears, muffled, whip-like. A dull wonder came to him that the Lewallen could have missed at such close range, and he waited for another. Some one shouted-a shrill hallo. A loud laugh followed; a light seemed breaking before Rome's eyes, and he lifted his head. Jasper was on his face again, motionless; and Steve Marcum's tall figure was climbing over a bowlder toward him.
"That was the best fight I've seed in my time, by God," he said, coolly, " 'n', Rome, y'u air the biggest fool this side o' the settlements, I reckon. I had dead aim on him, 'n' I was jest a-thinkin' hit was a purty good thing fer you that old long-nosed Jim Stover chased me up hyeh, when, damn me, ef that boy up thar didn't let his ole gun loose. I'd a-got Jas myself ef he hadn't been so all-fired quick o' trigger."
Up at the root of the pine-tree Isom stood motionless, with his long rifle in one hand and a little cloud of smoke breaking above his white face. When Rome looked up he started down without a word. Steve swung himself over the ledge.
"I heerd the shootin'," said the boy, " up thar at the cave, 'n' I couldn't stay thar. I knowed ye could whoop him, Rome, 'n' I seed Steve, too, but I was afeard-" Then he saw the body. His tongue stopped, his face shrivelled, and Steve, hanging with one hand to the ledge, watched him curiously.
" Rome," said the boy, in a quick whisper, "is he daid?
" Come on! " said Steve, roughly. "They'll be up hyeh atter us in a minute. Leave Jas's gun thar, 'n' send that boy back home."
That day the troops came-young Blue Grass Kentuckians. That night, within the circle of their camp-fires, a last defiance was cast in the teeth of law and order. Flames rose within the old court- house, and before midnight the moonlight fell on four black walls. That night, too, the news of young Jasper's fate was carried to the death-bed of Rome's mother, and before day the old woman passed in peace. That day Stetsons and Lewallens disbanded. The Lewallens had no leader; the Stetsons, no enemies to fight. Some hid, some left the mountains, some gave themselves up for trial. Upon Rome Stetson the burden fell. Against him the law was set. A price was put on his head, his house was burned-a last act of Lewallen hate-and Rome was homeless, the last of his race, and an outlaw.