A Cumberland Vendetta by John Fox Jr.
WITH the start of a few hours and the sympathy of his people one mountaineer can defy the army of the United States; and the mountaineers usually laugh when they hear troops are coming. For the time they stop fighting and hide in the woods; and when the soldiers are gone, they come out again, and begin anew their little pleasantries. But the soldiers can protect the judge on his bench and the county-seat in time of court, and for these purposes they serve well.
The search for Rome Stetson, then, was useless. His friends would aid him; his enemies feared to betray him. So the soldiers marched away one morning, and took their prisoners for safe- keeping in the Blue Grass, until court should open at Hazlan.
Meantime, spring came and deepened-the mountain spring. The berries of the wintergreen grew scarce, and Rome Stetson, " hiding out," as the phrase is, had to seek them on thc northem face of the mountains. The moss on the naked winter trees brightened in color, and along the river, where willows drooped, ran faint lines of green. The trailing arbutus gave out delicate pink blossoms, and the south wind blew apart the petals of the anemone. Soon violets unfolded above the dead leaves; azaleas swung their yellow trumpets through the undergrowth; over-head, the dogwood tossed its snow-flakes in gusts through the green and gold of new leaves and sunlight; and higher still waved the poplar blooms, with honey ready on every crimson heart for the bees. Down in the valley Rome Stetson could see about every little cabin pink clouds and white clouds of peach and of apple blossoms. Amid the ferns about him shade-loving trilliums showed their many-hued faces, and every opening was thickly peopled with larkspur seeking the sun. The giant magnolia and the umbrella-tree spread their great creamy flowers; the laurel shook out myriads of pink and white bells, and the queen of mountain flowers was stirring from sleep in the buds of the rhododendron.
With the spring new forces pulsed the mountain air. The spirit of the times reached even Hazlan. A railroad was coming up the river, so the rumor was. When winter broke, surveyors had appeared; after them, mining experts and purchasers of land. New ways of bread-making were open to all, and the feudsman began to see that he could make food and clothes more easily and with less danger than by sleeping with his rifle in the woods, and by fighting men who had done him no harm. Many were tired of fighting; many, forced into the feud, had fought unwillingly. Others had sold their farms and wild lands, and were moving toward the Blue Grass or westward. The desperadoes of each faction had fled the law or were in its clutches. The last Lewallen was dead; the last Stetson was hidden away in the mountains. There were left Mareums and Braytons, but only those who felt safest from indictment; in these a spirit of hostility would live for years, and, roused by passion or by drink, would do murder now on one side of the Cumberland and now on the other; but the Stetson-Lewallen feud, old Gabe believed, was at an end at last.
All these things the miller told Rome Stetson, who well knew what they meant. He was safe enough from the law while the people took no part in his capture, but he grew apprehensive when he learned of the changes going on in the valley. None but old Gabe knew where he was, to be sure, but with his own enemies to guide the soldiers he could not hope to remain hidden long. Still, with that love of the mountains characteristic of all races born among them, he clung to his own land. He would rather stay where he was the space of a year and die, he told old Gabe passionately, than live to old age in another State.
But there was another motive, and he did not hide it. On the other side he had one enemy left-the last, too, of her race-who was more to him than his own dead kindred, who hated him, who placed at his door all her sorrows. For her he was living like a wolf in a cave, and old Gabe knew it. Her-he would not leave.
"I tell ye, Rome, you've got to go. Thar's no use talkin'. Court comes the fust Monday in June. The soldiers ull be hyeh. Hit won't be safe. Thar's some that s'picions I know whar ye air now, 'n' they'll be spyin', 'n' mebbe hit'll git me into trouble, too, aidin' 'n' abettin' a man to git away who air boun' to the law."
The two were sitting on the earthen floor of the cave before a little fire, and Rome, with his hands about his knees and his brows knitted, was staring into the yellow blaze. His unshorn hair fell to his shoulders; his face was pale from insufficient food and exercise, and tense with a look that was at once caged and defiant.
"Uncle Gabe," he asked, quietly, for the old man's tone was a little querulous, " air ye sorry ye holped me? Do ye blame me fer whut I've done?"
"No," said the old miller, answering both questions; "I don't. I believe whut ye tol' me. Though, even ef ye had 'a' done it, I don't know as I'd blame ye, seem' that it was a fa'r fight. I don't doubt he was doin' his best to kill you."
Rome turned quickly, his face puzzled and darkening.
Uncle Gabe, whut air you drivin' at? " The old man spat into the fire, and shifted his position uneasily, as Rome's hand caught his knee.
Well, ef I have to tell ye, I s'pose I must. Thar's been nothin' pertickler ag'in ye so fer, 'cept fer breakin' that confederatin' statute 'bout bandin' fightin' men together; 'n' nobody was very anxious to git hol' o' ye jes fer that, but now "-the old man stopped a moment, for Rome's eyes were kindling-" they say that ye killed Jas Lew allen, 'n' that ye air a murderer; 'n' hit air powerful strange how all of a suddint folks seem to be gittin' down on a man as kills his fellow-creetur; 'n' now they means to hunt ye til they ketch ye."
It was all out now, and the old man was relieved. Rome rose to his feet, and in sheer agony of spirit paced the floor.
"I tol' ye, Uncle Gabe, that I didn't kill him."
So ye did, 'n' I believe ye. But a feller seed you 'n' Steve comm' from the place whar Jas was found dead, 'n' whar the dirt 'n' rock was throwed about as by two bucks in spring-time. Steve says he didn't do it, 'n' he wouldn't say you didn't. Looks to me like Steve did the kuhn', 'n' was lyin' a leetle. He hain't goin' to confess hit to save your neck; 'n' he can't no way, fer he hev lit out o' these mount'ins-long ago."
If Steve was out of danger, suspicion could not harm him, and Rome said nothing.
"Isom's got the lingerin' fever ag'in, 'n' he's out"i his head. He's ravin' 'bout that fight. Looks like ye tol' him 'bout it. He says,' Don't tell Uncle Gabe'; 'n' he keeps sayin' it. Hit'll 'most kill him ef you go 'way; but he wants ye to git out o' the mount'ins; 'n', Rome, you've got to go."
"Who was it, Uncle Gabe, that seed me 'n' Steve comm' 'way from thar?
He air the same feller who hev been spyin' ye all the time this war's been goin' on; hit's that dried-faced, snaky Eli Crump, who ye knocked down 'n' choked up in Hazlan one day fer sayin' something ag'in Isom."
"I knowed it-I knowed it-oh, ef I could git my fingers roun' his throat once more-jes once more-I'd be 'mos' ready to die."
He stretched out his hands as he strode back and forth, with his fingers crooked like talons; his shadow leaped from wall to wall, and his voice, filling the cave, was, for the moment, scarcely human. The old man waited till the paroxysm was over and Rome had again sunk before the fire.
"Hit 'u'd do no good, Rome," he said, rising to go. "You've got enough on ye now, without the sin o' takin' his life. You better make up yer mind to leave the mount ins now right 'way. You're a-gittin' no more'n half-human, livin' up hyeh like a catamount. I don't see how ye kin stand it. Thar's no hope o' things blowin' over, boy, 'n' givin' ye a chance o' comm' out ag'in, as yer dad and yer grandad usen to do afore ye. The citizens air gittin' tired o' these wars. They keeps out the furriners who makes roads 'n' buys lands; they air ag'in' the law, ag'in' religion, ag'in' yo' pocket, 'n' ag'in' mine. Lots o' folks hev been ag'in' all this fightin' fer a long time, but they was too skeery to say so. They air talkin' mighty big now, seem' they kin git soldiers hyeh to pertect 'em. So ye mought as well give up the idea o' staying hyeh, 'less'n ye want to give yourself up to the law."
The two stepped from the cave, and passed through the rhododendrons till they stood on the cliff overlooking the valley. The rich light lay like a golden mist between the mountains, and through it, far down, the river moaned like the wind of a coming storm.
Did ye tell the gal whut I tol' ye?"
"Yes, Rome; hit wasn't no use. She says Steve's word's as good as yourn; 'n' she knowed about the crosses. Folks say she swore awful ag'in' ye at young Jas's burial, 'lowin' that she'd hunt ye down herse'f, ef the soldiers didn't ketch ye. I hain't seed her sence she got sick; 'pears like ever'body's sick. Mebbe she's a leetle settled down now-no tellin'. No use foolin' with her, Rome. You git away from hyeh. Don't you worry 'bout Isom-I'll take keer o' him, 'n' when he gits well, he'll want to come atter ye, 'n' I'll let him go. He couldn't live hyeh without you. But y'u must git away, Rome, 'n' git away mighty quick."
With hands clasped behind him, Rome stood and watched the bent figure slowly pick its way around the stony cliff.
"I reckon I've got to go. She's ag'in' me; they're all ag'in' me. I reckon I've jes got to go. Somehow, I've been kinder hopin'-" He closed his lips to check the groan that rose to them, and turned again into the gloom behind him.