A Cumberland Vendetta by John Fox Jr.
DAY was whitening on the Stetson shore. Across the river the air was still sharp with the chill of dawn, and the mists lay like flocks of sheep under shelter of rock and crag. A peculiar cry radiated from the Lewallen cabin with singular resonance on the crisp air-the mountain cry for straying cattle. A soft low came from a distant patch of laurel, and old Jasper's girl, Martha, folded. her hands like a conch at her mouth, and the shrill cry again startled the air.
Ye better come, ye pieded cow-brute." Picking up a cedar piggin, she stepped from the porch toward the meek voice that had answered her. Temper and exertion had brought the quick blood to her face. Her head was bare, her thick hair was loosely coiled, and her brown arms were naked almost to the shoulder. At the stable a young mountaineer was overhauling his riding-gear.
Air you goin' to ride the hoss to-day, Jas?" she asked, querulously.
"That's jes whut I was aimin' to do. I'm a-goin' to town."
Well, I 'lowed I was goin' to mill to-day. The co'n is 'mos' gone."
"Well, y'u 'lowed wrong," he answered, imperturbably.
Y'u're mean, Jas Lewallen," she cried, hotly; " that's whut ye air, mean-dog-mean!
The young mountaineer looked up, whistled softly, and laughed. But when he brought his horse to the door an hour later there was a bag of corn across the saddle.
"As ye air so powerful sot on goin' to mill, whether or no, I'll leave this hyeh sack at the bend O' the road, 'n' ye kin git it thar. I'll bring the meal back ef ye puts it in the same place. I hates to see women-folks a-ridin' this horse. Hit spiles him."
The horse was a dapple-gray of unusual beauty, and as the girl reached out her hand to stroke his throat, he turned to nibble at her arm.
"I reckon he'd jes as lieve have me ride him as you, Jas," she said. " Me 'n' him have got to be great friends. Ye orter n't to be so stingy."
Well, he ain't no hoss to be left out'n the bresh now, 'n' I hain't goin' to 'low it."
Old Jasper had lounged out of the kitchen door, and stood with his huge bulk against a shrinking pillar of the porch. The two men were much alike. Both had the same black, threatening brows meeting over the bridge of the nose. A kind of grim humor lurked about the old man's mouth, which time might trace about young Jasper's. The girl's face had no humor; the same square brows, apart and clearly marked, gave it a strong, serious cast, and while she had the Lewallen fire, she favored her mother enough, so the neighbors said, "to have a mighty mild, takin' way about her ef she wanted."
You're right, Jas," the old mountaineer said; "the hoss air a sin 'n' temptation. Hit do me good ever' time I look at him. Thar air no sech hoss, I tell ye, this side o' the settlements."
The boy started away, and the old man followed, and halted him out of the girl's hearing.
"Tell Eli Crump 'n' Jim Stover to watch the Breathitt road close now," he said, in a low voice. " See all them citizens I tol' ye, 'n' tell 'em to be ready when I says the word. Thar's no tellin' whut's goin' to happen."
Young Jasper nodded his head, and struck his horse into a gallop. The old man lighted his pipe, and turned back to the house. The girl, bonnet in hand, was starting for the valley.
"Thar ain't no use goin' to Gabe Bunch's fer yer grist," he said. " The mill on Dead Crick's a-runnin' ag'in, 'n' I don't want ye over thar axin favors, specially jes now."
"I lef' somethin' fer ye to eat, dad," she replied, " ef ye gits hungry before I git back."
You heerd me? " he called after her, knitting his brows.
Yes, dad; I heerd ye," she answered, adding to herself, " But I don't heed ye." In truth, the girl heeded nobody. It was not her way to ask consent, even her own, nor to follow advice. At the bend of the road she found the bag, and for an instant she stood wavering. An impulse turned her to the river, and she loosed the boat, and headed it across the swift, shallow water from the ford and straight toward the mill. At every stroke of her paddle the water rose above the prow of the boat, and, blown into spray, flew back and drenched her; the wind loosed her hair, and, tugging at her skirts, draped her like a statue; and she fought them, wind and water, with mouth set and a smile in her eyes. One sharp struggle still, where the creek leaped into freedom; the mouth grew a little firmer, the eyes laughed more, the keel grated on pebbles, and the boat ran its nose into the withered sedge on the Stetson shore.
A tall gray figure was pouring grain into the hopper when she reached the door of the mill. She stopped abruptly, Rome Stetson turned, and again the two were face to face. No greeting passed. The girl lifted her head with a little toss that deepened the set look about the mountaineer's mouth; her lax figure grew tense as though strung suddenly against some coming harm, and her eyes searched the shadows without once resting on him.
Whar's Uncle Gabe? " She spoke shortly, and as to a stranger.
Gone to town," said Rome, composedly. He had schooled himself for this meeting.
When's he comm' back?
Not 'fore night, I reckon."
Well, who's tendin' this mill?
For answer he tossed the empty bag into the corner and, without looking at her, picked up another bag.
"I reckon ye see me, don't ye? " he asked, coolly. " Hev a cheer, and rest a spell. Hit's a purty long climb whar you come from."
The girl was confused. She stayed in the doorway, a little helpless and suspicious. What was Rome Stetson doing here? His mastery of the situation, his easy confidence, puzzled and irritated her. Should she leave? The mountaineer was a Stetson, a worm to tread on if it crawled across the path. It would be like backing down before an enemy. He might laugh at her after she was gone, and, at that thought, she sat down in the chair with composed face, looking through the door at the tumbling water, which broke with a thousand tints under the sun, but able still to see Rome, sidewise, as he moved about the hopper, whistling softly.
Once she looked around, fancying she saw a smile on his sober face. Their eyes came near meeting, and she turned quite away.
Ever seed a body out'n his head?
The girl's eyes rounded with a start of surprise.
Well, it's plumb cur'us. Isom's been that way lately. Isom's sick, ye know. Uncle Gabe's got the rheumatiz, 'n' Isom's mighty fond o' Uncle Gabe, 'n' the boy pestered me till I come down to he'p him. Hit p'int'ly air strange to hear him talkin'. He's jes a-ravin' 'bout hell 'n' heaven, 'n' the sin o' killin' folks. You'd ha' thought he hed been convicted, though none o' our fambly hev been much atter religion. He says as how the wrath uv a livin' God is a-goin' to sweep these mount ins, ef some mighty tall repentin' hain't done. Of co'se he got all them notions from Gabe. But Isom al'ays was quar, 'n' seed things hisself. He ain't no fool!"
The girl was listening. Morbidly sensitive to the supernatural, she had turned toward him, and her face was relaxed with fear and awe.
"He's havin' dreams 'n' sech-like now, 'n' I reckon thar's nothing he's seed or heerd that he don' talk about. He's been a-goin' on about you," he added, abruptly. The girl's hands gave a nervous twitch. "Oh, he don't say nothin' ag'in' ye. I reckon he tuk a fancy to ye. Mam was plumb distracted, not knowin' whar he had seed ye. She thought it was like his other talk, 'n' I never let on-a-knowin' how mam was." A flush rose like a flame from the girl's throat to her hair. " But hit's this," Rome went on in an unsteady tone, "that he talks most about, 'n' I'm sorry myself that trouble's a-comm'." He dropped all pretence now. "I've been a-watchin' fer ye over thar on t' other shore a good deal lately. I didn't know ye at fust, Marthy "-he spoke her name for the first time-' 'n' Gabe says y'u didn't know me. I remembered ye, though, 'n' I want to tell ye now what I tol' ye then: I've got nothin' ag'in you. I was hopin' ye mought come over ag'in-hit was sorter cur'us that y'u was the same gal-the same gal-"
His self-control left him; he was halting in speech, and blundering he did not know where. Fumbling an empty bag at the hopper, he had not dared to look at the girl till he heard her move. She had risen, and was picking up her bag. The hard antagonism of her face calmed him instantly.
Hain't ye goin' to have yer grist ground?
Not hyeh," she answered, quickly.
"Why, gal " He got no further. Martha was gone, and he followed her to the bank, bewildered.
The girl's suspicion, lulled by his plausible explanation, had grown sharp again. The mountaineer knew that she had been coming there. He was at the mill for another reason than to take the boy's place; and with swift in-tuition she saw the truth.
He got angry as she rode away-angry with himself that he had let her go; and the same half-tender, half-brutal impulse seized him as when he saw her first. This time he yielded. His horse was at hand, and the river not far below was narrow. The bridle-path that led to the Lewallen cabin swerved at one place to a cliff overlooking the river, and by hard riding and a climb of a few hundred feet on foot he could overtake her half-way up the mountain steep.
The plan was no more than shaped before he was in the saddle and galloping down the river. The set of his face changed hardly a line while he swam the stream, and, drenched to the waist, scaled the cliff. When he reached the spot, he found the prints of a woman's shoe in the dust of the path, going down. There were none returning, and he had not long to wait. A scarlet bit of color soon flashed through the gray bushes below him. The girl was without her bag of corn. She was climbing slowly, and was looking at the ground as though in deep thought. Reckless as she was, she had come to realize at last just what she had done. She had been pleased at first, as would have been any woman, when she saw the big mountaineer watching her, for her life was lonely. She had waved her bonnet at him from mere mischief. She hardly knew it herself, but she had gone across the river to find out who he was. She had shrunk from him as from a snake thereafter, and had gone no more until old Jasper had sent her because the Lewallen mill was broken, and because she was a woman, and would be safe from harm. She had met him then when she could not help herself. But now she had gone of her own accord. She had given this Stetson, a bitter enemy, a chance to see her, to talk with her. She had listened to him; she had been on the point of letting him grind her corn. And he knew how often she had gone to the mill, and he could not know that she had ever been sent. Perhaps he thought that she had come to make overtures of peace, friendship, even more. The suspicion reddened her face with shame, and her anger at him was turned upon herself. Why she had gone again that day she hardly knew. But if there was another reason than simple perversity, it was the memory of Rome Stetson's face when he caught her boat and spoke to her in a way she could not answer. The anger of the moment came with every thought of the incident afterward, and with it came too this memory of his look, which made her at once defiant and uneasy. She saw him now only when she was quite close, and, startled, she stood still; his stern look brought her the same disquiet, but she gave no sign of fear.
Whut's the matter with ye?
The question was too abrupt, too savage, and the girl looked straight at him, and her lips tightened with a resolution not to speak. The movement put him beyond control.
"Y'u puts hell into me, Marthy Lewallen; y'u puts downright hell into me." The words came between gritted teeth. "I want to take ye up 'n' throw ye off this cliff clean into the river, 'n' I reckon the next minute I'd jump off atter ye. Y'u've 'witched me, gal! I forgits who ye air 'n' who I be, 'n' sometimes I want to come over hyeh 'n' kerry ye out'n these mount ins, n' nuver come back. You know whut I've been watchin' the river fer sence the fust time I seed ye. You know whut I've been a-stayin' at the mill fer, 'n' Steve mad 'n' mam a-jowerin'-'n' a-lookin' over hyeh fer ye night 'n' day! Y'u know whut I've jes swum over hyeh fer! Whut's the matter with ye?"
Martha was not looking for a confession like this. It took away her shame at once, and the passion of it thrilled her, and left her trembling. While he spoke her lashes drooped quickly, her face softened, and the color came back to it. She began intertwining her fingers, and would not look up at him.
Ef y'u hates me like the rest uv ye, why don't ye say it right out? 'N' ef ye do hate me, whut hev you been lookin' 'cross the river fer, 'n' a-shakin' yer bonnet at me, 'n' paddlin' to Gabe's fer yer grist, when the mill on Dead Crick's been a-runnin', 'n' I know it? You've been banterin' me, hev ye? "-the blood rose to his eyes again. " Ye mustn't fool with me, gal, by , ye mustn't. Whut hev you been goin' over thar fer? " He even took a threatening step toward her, and, with a helpless gesture, stopped. The girl was a little frightened. Indeed, she smiled, seeing her power over him; she seemed even about to laugh outright; but the smile turned to a quick look of alarm, and she bent her head suddenly to listen to something below. At last she did speak. "Somebody's comm'! " she said. " You'd better git out O' the way," she went on, hurriedly. "Somebody's comm', I tell ye! Don't ye hear?
It was no ruse to get rid of him. The girl's eyes were dilating. Something was coming far below. Rome could catch the faint beats of a horse's hoofs. He was unarmed, and he knew it was death for him to be seen on that forbidden mountain; but he was beyond caution, and ready to welcome any vent to his passion, and he merely shook his head.
Ef it's Satan hisself, I hain't goin' to run." The hoof-beats came nearer. The rider must soon see them from the coil below.
Rome, hit's Jas! He's got his rifle, and he'll kill ye, 'n' me too! " The girl was white with distress. She had called him by his name, and the tone was of appeal, not anger. The black look passed from his face, and he caught her by the shoulders with rough tenderness; but she pushed him away, and without a word he sprang from the road and let himself noiselessly down the cliff. The hoof-beats thundered above his head, and Young Jasper's voice hailed Martha.
This hyeh's the bigges' meal I ever straddled. Why d'n't ye git the grist ground?"
For a moment the girl did not answer, and Rome waited, breathless. " Wasn't the mill runnin'? Whyn't ye go on 'cross the river?
That's whut I did," said the girl, quietly. Uncle Gabe wasn't thar, 'n' Rome Stetson was. I wouldn't 'low him to grin' the co 'n, 'n' so I toted hit back."
Rome Stetson! " The voice was lost in a volley of oaths.
The two passed out of hearing, and Rome went plunging down the mountain, swinging recklessly from one little tree to another, and wrenching limbs from their sockets out of pure physical ecstasy. When he reached his horse he sat down, breathing heavily, on a bed of moss, with a strange new yearning in his heart. If peace should come! Why not peace, if Rufe should not come back? He would be the leader then, and without him there could be no war. Old Jasper had killed his father. He was too young at the time to feel poignant sorrow now, and somehow he could look even at that death in a fairer way. His father had killed old Jasper's brother. So it went back: a Lewallen killed a Stetson; that Stetson had killed a Lewallen, until one end of the chain of deaths was lost, and the first fault could not be placed, though each clan put it on the other. In every generation there had been compromises- periods of peace; why not now? Old Gabe would gladly help him. He might make friends with young Jasper; he might even end the feud. And then-he and Martha-why not? He closed his eyes, and for one radiant moment t all seemed possible. And then a gaunt image rose in the dream, and only the image was left. It was the figure of his mother, stern and silent through the years, opening her grim lips rarely without some curse against the Lewallen race. He remembered she had smiled for the first time when she heard of the new trouble-the flight of his uncle and the hope of conflict. She had turned to him with her eyes on fire and her old hands clinched. She had said nothing, but he understood her look. And now-Good God! what would she think and say if she could know what he had done? His whole frame twitched at the thought, and, with a nervous spring to escape it, he was on his feet, and starting down the mountain.
Close to the river he heard voices below him, and he turned his horse quickly aside into the bushes. Two women who had been washing clothes passed, carrying white bundles home. They were talking of the coming feud.
"That ar young Stetson ain't much like his dad," said one. "Young Jas has been a-darin' 'n' a-banterin' him, 'n' he won't take it up. They say he air turnin' out a plumb coward."
When he reached the Stetson cabin three horses with drooping heads were hitched to the fence. All had travelled a long way. One wore a man's saddle; on the others were thick blankets tied together with leathern thongs.
In the dark porch sat several men. Through the kitchen door he could see his mother getting supper. Inside a dozen rifles leaned against the wall in the firelight, and about their butts was a pile of ammunition. In the doorway stood Rufe Stetson.