A Cumberland Vendetta by John Fox Jr.
IN a flash of memory Rome saw the girl as vividly as when he last saw her years ago. They had met at the mill, he with his father, she with hers. There was a quarrel, and the two men were held apart. But the old sore as usual was opened, and a week later Rome's father was killed from the brush. He remembered his mother's rage and grief, her calls for vcngeance, the uprising, the fights, plots, and ambushes. He remembered the look the girl had given him that long ago, and her look that day was little changed.
When fighting began, she had been sent for safety to the sister of her dead mother in another county. When peace came, old Jasper married again and the girl refused to come home. Lately the step-mother, too, had passed away, and then she came back to live. All this the old miller told in answer to Rome's questions as the two walked away in the twilight. This was why he had not recognized her, and why her face yet seemed familiar even when he crossed the river that morning.
"Uncle Gabe, how do you reckon the gal knowed who I was?"
"She axed me."
"She axed you! Whar?"
Over thar in the mill." The miller was watching the young mountaineer closely. The manner of the girl was significant when she asked who Rome was, and the miller knew but one reason possible for his foolhardiness that morning.
"Do you mean to say she have been over hyeh afore?"
"Why, yes, come to think about it, three or four times while Isom was sick, and whut she come fer I can't make out. The mill over thar wasn't broke long, 'n' why she didn't go thar or bring more co'n at a time, to save her the trouble o' so many trips, I can't see to save me.
Young Stetson was listening eagerly. Again the miller cast his bait.
Mebbe she's spyin'."
Rome faced him, alert with suspicion; but old Gabe was laughing silently.
"Don't you be a fool, Rome. The gal comes and goes in that boat, 'n' she couldn't see a soul without my knowin' it. She seed ye ridin' by one day, 'n' she looked mighty cur'us when I tole her who ye was."
Old Gabe stopped his teasing, Rome's face was so troubled, and himself grew serious.
"Rome," he said, earnestly, "I wish to the good Lord ye wasn't in sech doin's. Ef that had been young Jas 'stid o' Marthy, I reckon ye would 'a' killed him right thar."
"I wasn't going to let him kill me," was the sullen answer.
The two had stopped at a rickety gate swinging open on the road. The young mountaineer was pushing a stone about with the toe of his boot. He had never before listened to remonstrance with such patience, and old Gabe grew bold.
"You've been drinkin' ag'in, Rome," he said, sharply, " 'n' I know it. Hit's been moonshine that's whooped you Stetsons, not the Lewallens, long as I kin rickollect, 'n' it ull be moonshine ag'in ef ye don't let it alone."
Rome made no denial, no defence. "Uncle Gabe," he said slowly, still busied with the stone, " hev that gal been over hyeh sence y'u tol' her who I was?"
The old man was waiting for the pledge that seemed on his lips, but he did not lose his temper.
Not till to-day," he said, quietly.
Rome turned abruptly, and the two separated with no word of parting. For a moment the miller watched the young fellow striding away under his rifle.
"I have been atter peace a good while," he said to himself, " but I reckon thar's a bigger hand a-workin' now than mine." Then he lifted his voice. "Ef Isom's too sick to come down to the mill to-morrer, I wish you'd come 'n' holp me."
Rome nodded back over his shoulder, and went on, with head bent, along the river road. Passing a clump of pines at the next curve, he pulled a bottle from his pocket.
"Uncle Gabe's about right, I reckon," he said, half aloud; and he raised it above his head to hurl it away, but checked it in mid-air. For a moment he looked at the colorless liquid, then, with quick nervousness, pulled the cork of sassafras leaves, gulped down the pale moonshine, and dashed the bottle against the trunk of a beech. The fiery stuff does its work in a hurry. He was thirsty when he reached the mouth of a brook that tumbled down the mountain along the pathway that would lead him home, and he stooped to drink where the water sparkled in a rift of dim light from overhead. Then he sat upright on a stone, with his wide hat-brim curved in a crescent over his forehead, his hands caught about his knees, and his eyes on the empty air.
He was scarcely over his surprise that the girl was young Lewallen's sister, and the discovery had wrought a curious change. The piquant impulse of rivalry was gone, and something deeper was taking its place. He was confused and a good deal troubled, thinking it all over. He tried to make out what the girl meant by looking at him from the mountain-side, by waving her bonnet at him, and by coming to old Gabe's mill when she could have gone to her own. To be sure, she did not know then who he was, and she had stopped coming when she learned; but why had she crossed again that day? Perhaps she too was bantering him, and he was at once angry and drawn to her; for her mettlesome spirit touched his own love of daring, even when his humiliation was most bitter-when she told him he warred on women; when he held out to her the branch of peace and she swept it aside with a stroke of her oar. But Rome was little conscious of the weight of subtle facts like these. His unseeing eyes went back to her as she combed her hair. He saw the color in her cheeks, the quick light in her eyes, the naked, full throat once more, and the wavering forces of his unsteady brain centred in a stubborn resolution-to see it all again. He would make Isom stay at home, if need be, and he would take the boy's place at the mill. If she came there no more, he would cross the river again. Come peace or war, be she friend or enemy, he would see her. His thirst was fierce again, and, with this half-drunken determination in his heart, he stooped once more to drink from the cheerful little stream. As he rose, a loud curse smote the air. The river, pressed between two projecting cliffs, was narrow at that point, and the oath came across the water. An instant later a man led a lamed horse from behind a bowlder, and stooped to examine its leg. The dusk was thickening, but Rome knew the huge frame and gray beard of old Jasper Lewallen. The blood beat in a sudden tide at his temples, and, half by instinct, he knelt behind a rock, and, thrusting his rifle through a crevice, cocked it softly.
Again the curse of impatience came over the still water, and old Jasper rose and turned toward him. The glistening sight caught in the centre of his beard. That would take him in the throat; it might miss, and he let the sight fall till the bullet would cut the fringe of gray hair into the heart. Old Jasper, so people said, had killed his father in just this way; he had driven his uncle from the mountains; he was trying now to revive the feud. He was the father of young Jasper, who had threatened his life, and the father of the girl whose contempt had cut him to the quick twice that day. Again her taunt leaped through his heated brain, and his boast to the old miller followed it. His finger trembled at the trigger.
"No; by--, no! "he breathed between his teeth; and old Jasper passed on, unharmed.