A Cumberland Vendetta by John Fox Jr.
THAT night Rome passed in the woods, with his rifle, in a bed of leaves. Before daybreak he had built a fire in a deep ravine to cook his breakfast, and had scattered the embers that the smoke should give no sign. The sun was high when he crept cautiously in sight of the Lewallen cabin. It was much like his own home on the other shore, except that the house, closed and desolate, was standing, and the bees were busy. At the corner of the kitchen a rusty axe was sticking in a half-cut piece of timber, and on the porch was a heap of kindling and fire wood-the last work old Jasper and his son had ever done. In the Lewallens' garden, also, two graves were fresh; and the spirit of neglect and ruin overhung the place.
All the morning he waited in the edge of the laurel, peering down the path, watching the clouds race with their shadows over the mountains, or pacing to and fro in his covert of leaves and flowers. He began to fear at last that she was not coming, that she was ill, and once he started down the mountain toward Steve Brayton's cabin. The swift descent brought him to his senses, and he stopped half-way, and climbed back again to his hiding-place. What he was doing, what he meant to do, he hardly knew. Mid-day passed; the sun fell toward the mountains, and once more came the fierce impulse to see her, even though he must stalk into the Brayton cabin. Again, half-crazed, he started impetuously through the brush, and shrank back, and stood quiet. A little noise down the path had reached his ear. In a moment he could hear slow foot-falls, and the figure of the girl parted the pink-and-white laurel blossoms, which fell in a shower about her when she brushed through them. She passed quite near him, walking slowly, and stopped for a moment to rest against a pillar of the porch. She was very pale; her face was traced deep with suffering, and she was, as old Gabe said, much changed. Then she went on toward the garden, stepping with an effort over the low fence, and leaned as if weak and tired against the apple-tree, the boughs of which shaded the two graves at her feet. For a few moments she stood there, listless, and Rome watched her with hungry eyes, at a loss what to do. She moved presently, and walked quite around the graves without looking at them; then came back past him, and, seating herself in the porch, turned her face to the river. The sun lighted her hair, and in the sunken, upturned eyes Rome saw the shimmer of tears.
"Marthy! " He couldn't help it-the thick, low cry broke like a groan from his lips, and the girl was on her feet, facing him. She did not know the voice, nor the shaggy, half-wild figure in the shade of the laurel; and she started back as if to run; but seeing that the man did not mean to harm her, she stopped, looking for a moment with wonder and even with quick pity at the hunted face with its white appeal. Then a sudden spasm caught her throat, and left her body rigid, her hands shut, and her eyes dry and hard-she knew him. A slow pallor drove the flush of surprise from her face, and her lips moved once, but there was not even a whisper from them. Rome raised one hand before his face, as though to ward off something. " Don't look at mc that way, Marthy-my God, don't! I didn't kill him. I sw'ar it! I give him a chance fer his life. I know, I know-Steve says he didn't. Thar was only us two. Hit looks ag'in' me; but I hain't killed one nur t'other. I let 'em both go. Y'u don't believe me? " He went swiftly toward her, his gun outstretched. Hyeh, gal! I heerd ye swore ag' in' me out thar in the gyarden-'lowin' that you was goin' to hunt me down yerself if the soldiers didn't. Hyeh's yer chance!
The girl shrank away from him, too startled to take the weapon; and he leaned it against her, and stood away, with his hands behind him.
Kill me ef ye think I'm a-lyin' to ye," he said. "Y'u kin git even with me now. But I want to tell ye fust "-the girl had caught the muzzle of the gun convulsively, and was bending over it, her eyes burning, her face inscrutable-hit was a fa'r fight betwixt us, 'n' I whooped him. He got his gun then, 'n' would 'a' killed me ag'in' his oath ef he hadn't been shot fust Hit's so, too, 'bout the crosses. I made 'em; they're right thar on that gun; but whut could I do with mam a-standin' right thar with the gun 'n' Uncle Rufe a-tellin' 'bout my own dad layin' in his blood, 'n' Isom 'n' the boys lookin' on! But I went ag'in' my oath; I gave him his life when I had the right to take it. I could 'a' killed yer dad once, 'n' I had the right to kill him, too, fer killin' mine; but I let him go, 'n' I reckon I done that fer ye, too. 'Pears like I hain't done nothin' sence I seed ye over thar in the mill that day that wasn't done fer ye. Somehow ye put me dead ag'in' my own kin, 'n' tuk away all my hate ag'in' yourn. I couldn't fight fer thinkin' I was fightin' you, 'n' when I seed ye comm' through the bushes jes now, so white 'n' sickly-like, I couldn't hardly git breath, a-thinkin' I was the cause of all yer misery. That's all!" He stretched out his arms. Shoot, gal, ef ye don't believe me. I'd jes as lieve die, ef ye thinks I'm lyin' to ye, 'n' ef ye hates me fer whut I hain't done."
The gun had fallen to the earth. The girl, trembling at the knees, sank to her seat on the porch, and, folding her arms against the pillar, pressed her forehead against them, her face unseen. Rome stooped to pick up the weapon.
"I'm goin' 'way now," he went on, slowly, after a little pause, "but I couldn't leave hyeh without seem' you. I wanted ye to know the truth, 'n' I 'lowed y'u'd believe me ef I tol' ye myself. I've been a-waitin' thar in the lorrel fer ye sence mornin'. Uncle Gabe tol' me ye come hyeh ever' day. He says I've got to go. I've been hopin' I mought come out o' the bushes some day. But Uncle Gabe says ever'body's ag'in' me more' n ever, 'n' that the soldiers mean to ketch me. The gov'ner out thar in the settlements says as how he'll give five hundred dollars fer me, livin' or dead. He'll nuver git me livin'-I've swore that-'n' as I hev done nothin' sech as folks on both sides hev done who air walkin' roun' free, I hain't goin' to give up. Hit's purty hard to leave these mount'ins. Reckon I'll nuver see 'em ag'in. Been livin' like a catamount over thar on the knob. I could jes see you over hyeh, 'n' I reckon I hain't done much 'cept lay over thar on a rock 'n' watch ye movin' round. Hit's mighty good to feel that ye believe me, 'n' I want ye to know that I been stayin' over thar fer nothin' on earth but jes to see you ag'in; 'n' I want ye to know that I was a-sorrowin' fer ye when y'u was sick, 'n' a-pinin' to see ye, 'n' a-hopin' some day y'u mought kinder git over yer hate fer me." He had been talking with low tenderness, half to himself, and with his face to the river, and he did not see the girl's tears falling to the porch. Her sorrow gave way in a great sob now, and he turned with sharp remorse, and stood quite near her.
"Don't cry, Marthy," he said. "God knows hit's hard to think I've brought all this on ye when I'd give all these mount 'ins to save ye from it. Whut d' ye say? Don't cry."
The girl was trying to speak at last, and Rome bent over to catch the words.
"I hain't cryin' fer myself," she said, faintly, and then she said no more; but the first smile that had passed over Rome's face for many a day passed then, and he put out one big hand, and let it rest on the heap of lustrous hair.
"Marthy, I hate to go 'way, leavin' ye hyeh with nobody to take keer o' ye. You're all alone hyeh in the mount'ins; I'm all alone; 'n' I reckon I'll be all alone wharever I go, ef you stay hyeh. I got a boat down thar on the river, 'n' I'm goin' out West whar Uncle Rufe use to live. I know I hain't good fer nothin' much "-he spoke almost huskily; he could scarcely get the words to his lips-" but I want ye to go with me. Won't ye?"
The girl did not answer, but her sobbing ceased slowly, while Rome stroked her hair; and at last she lifted her face, and for a moment looked to the other shore. Then she rose. There is a strange pride in the Kentucky mountaineer.
"As you say, Rome, thar's nobody left but you, 'n' nobody but me; but they burned you out, we hain't even-yit." Her eyes were on Thunderstruck Knob, where the last sunlight used to touch the Stetson cabin.
"Hyeh, Rome!" He knew what she meant, and he kneeled at the pile of kindling-wood near the kitchen door. Then they stood back and waited. The sun dipped below a gap in the mountains, the sky darkened, and the flames rose to the shingled porch, and leaped into the gathering dusk. On the outer edge of the quivering light, where it touched the blossomed laurel, the two stood till the blaze caught the eaves of the cabin; and then they turned their faces where, burning to ashes in the west, was another fire, whose light blended in the eyes of each with a light older and more lasting than its own-the light eternal.