A Cumberland Vendetta by John Fox Jr.
JUNE came. The wild rose swayed above its image along every little shadowed stream, and the scent of wild grapes was sweet in the air and as vagrant as a bluebird's note in autumn. The rhododendrons burst into beauty, making gray ridge and gray cliff blossom with purple, hedging streams with snowy clusters and shining leaves, and lighting up dark coverts in the woods as with white stars. The leaves were full, woodthrushes sang, and bees droned like unseen running water in the woods.
With June came circuit court once more-and the soldiers. Faint music pierced the dreamy chant of the river one morning as Rome lay on a bowlder in the summer sun; and he watched the guns flashing like another stream along the water, and then looked again to the Lewallen cabin. Never, morning, noon, or night, when he came from the rhododendrons, or when they closed about him, did he fail to turn his eyes that way. Often he would see a bright speck moving about the dim lines of the cabin, and he would scarcely breathe while he watched it, so easily would it disappear. Always he had thought it was Martha, and now he knew it was, for the old miller had told him more of the girl, and had wrung his heart with pity. She had been ill a long while. The "furriners " had seized old Jasper's cahin and land. The girl was homeless, and she did not know it, for no one had the heart to tell her. She was living with the Braytons; and every day she went to the cabin, "moonin'' n' sorrowin' aroun'," as old Gabe said; and she was much changed.
Once more the miller came-for the last time, he said, firmly. Crump had trailed him, and had learned where Rome was. The search would begin next day-perhaps that very night-and Crump would guide the soldiers. Now he must go, and go quickly. The boy, too, sent word that unless Rome went, he would have something to tell. Old Gabe saw no significance in the message; but he had promised to deliver it, and he did. Rome wavered then; Steve and himself gone, no suspicion would fall on the lad. If he were caught, the boy might confess. With silence Rome gave assent, and the two parted in an apathy that was like heartlessness. Only old Gabe's shrunken breast heaved with something more than weariness of descent, and Rome stood watching him a long time before he turned back to the cave that had sheltered him from his enemies among beasts and men. In a moment he came out for the last time, and turned the opposite way. Climbing about the spur, he made for the path that led down to the river. When he reached it he glanced at the sun, and stopped in indecision. Straight above him was a knoll, massed with rhododendrons, the flashing leaves of which made it like a great sea-wave in the slanting sun, while the blooms broke slowly down over it like foam. Above this was a gray sepulchre of dead, standing trees, more gaunt and spectre-like than ever, with the rich life of summer about it. Higher still were a dark belt of stunted firs and the sandstone ledge, and above these-home. He was risking his liberty, his life. Any clump of bushes might bristle suddenly with Winchesters. If the soldiers sought for him at the cave they would at the same time guard the mountain paths; they would guard, too, the Stetson cabin. But no matter-the sun was still high, and he turned up the steep. The ledge passed, he stopped with a curse at his lips and the pain of a knife-thrust at his heart. A heap of blackened stones and ashes was before him. The wild mountain-grass was growing up about it. The bee-gums were overturned and rifled. The garden was a tangled mass of weeds. The graves in the little family burying-ground were unprotected, the fence was gone, and no boards marked the last two ragged mounds. Old Gabe had never told him. He, too, like Martha, was homeless, and the old miller had been kind to him, as the girl's kinspeople had been to her.
For a long while he sat on the remnant of the burned and broken fence, and once more the old tide of bitterness rose within him and ebbed away. There were none left to hate, to wreak vengeance on. It was hard to leave the ruins as they were; and yet he would rather leave weeds and ashes than, like Martha, have some day to know that his home was in the hands of a stranger. When he thought of the girl he grew calmer; his own sorrows gave way to the thought of hers; and half from habit he raised his face to look across the river. Two eagles swept from a dark ravine under the shelf of rock where he had fought young Jasper, and made for a sun-lighted peak on the other shore. From them his gaze fell to Wolf's Head and to the cabin beneath, and a name passed his lips in a whisper.
Then he took the path to the river, and he found the canoe where old Gabe had hidden it. Before the young moon rose he pushed into the stream and drifted with the current. At the mouth of the creek that ran over old Gabe's water-wheel he turned the prow to the Lewallen shore.
Not yit! Not yit! " he said.