The snow had ceased falling. No wind stirred among the trees that covered the hillsides, and every shrub, every leaf and twig, still bore its feathery, white load. Slowly the train labored upward, with two engines to take it the steepest part of the climb from the valley below. David Thryng gazed out into the quiet, white wilderness and was glad. He hoped Carew's Crossing was not beyond all this, where the ragged edge of civilization, out of which the toiling train had so lately lifted them, would begin again.
He glanced from time to time at the young woman near the door who sat as the bishop had left her, one slight hand grasping the handle of her basket, and with an expression on her face as placid and fraught with mystery as the scene without. The train began to crawl more heavily, and, looking down, Thryng saw that they were crossing a trestle over a deep gorge before skirting the mountain on the other side. Suddenly it occurred to him that he might be carried beyond his station. He stopped the smiling young brakeman who was passing with his flag.
"Let me know when we come to Carew's Crossing, will you?"
"Next stop, suh. Are you foh there, suh?"
"Yes. How soon?"
"Half an houh mo', suh. I'll be back d'rectly and help you off, suh. It's a flag station. We don't stop there in winter 'thout we're called to, suh. Hotel's closed now."
"Hotel? Is there a hotel?" Thryng's voice betokened dismay.
"Yes, suh. It's a right gay little place in summah, suh." He passed on, and Thryng gathered his scattered effects. Ill and weary, he was glad to find his long journey so nearly at an end.
On either side of the track, as far as eye could see, was a snow-whitened wilderness, seemingly untouched by the hand of man, and he felt as if he had been carried back two hundred years. The only hint that these fastnesses had been invaded by human beings was an occasional rough, deeply red wagon road, winding off among the hills.
The long trestle crossed, the engines labored slowly upward for a time, then, turning a sharp curve, began to descend, tearing along the narrow track with a speed that caused the coaches to rock and sway; and thus they reached Carew's Crossing, dropping down to it like a rushing torrent.
Immediately Thryng found himself deposited in the melting snow some distance from the station platform, and at the same instant, above the noise of the retreating train, he heard a cry: "Oh, suh, help him, help him! It's poor little Hoyle!" The girl whom he had watched, and about whom he had been wondering, flashed by him and caught at the bridle of a fractious colt, that was rearing and plunging near the corner of the station.
"Poor little Hoyle! Help him, suh, help him!" she cried, clinging desperately, while the frantic animal swung her off her feet, close to the flying heels of the kicking mule at his side.
Under the heavy vehicle to which the ill-assorted animals were attached, a child lay unconscious, and David sprang forward, his weakness forgotten in the demand for action. In an instant he had drawn the little chap from his perilous position and, seizing the mule, succeeded in backing him to his place. The cause of its fright having by this time disappeared, the colt became tractable and stood quivering and snorting, as David took the bridle from the girl's hand.
"I'll quiet them now," he said, and she ran to the boy, who had recovered sufficiently to sit up and gaze in a dazed way about him. As she bent over him, murmuring soothing words, he threw his arms around her neck and burst into wild sobbing.
"There, honey, there! No one is hurt. You are not, are you, honey son?"
"I couldn't keep a holt of 'em," he sobbed.
"You shouldn't have done it, honey. You should have let me get home as best I could." Her face was one which could express much, passive as it had been before. "Where was Frale?"
"He took the othah ho'se and lit out. They was aftah him. They—"
"S-sh. There, hush! You can stand now; try, Hoyle. You are a man now."
The little fellow rose, and, perceiving Thryng for the first time, stepped shyly behind his sister. David noticed that he had a deformity which caused him to carry his head twisted stiffly to one side, and also that he had great, beautiful brown eyes, so like those of a hunted fawn as he turned them upon the stranger with wide appeal, that he seemed a veritable creature of the wilderness by which they were surrounded.
Then the girl stepped forward and thanked him with voice and eyes; but he scarcely understood the words she said, as her tones trailed lingeringly over the vowels, and almost eliminated the "r," so lightly was it touched, while her accent fell utterly strange upon his English ear. She looked to the harness with practised eye, and then laid her hand beside Thryng's, on the bridle. It was a strong, shapely hand and wrist.
"I can manage now," she said. "Hoyle, get my basket foh me."
But Thryng suggested that she climb in and take the reins first, although the animals stood quietly enough now; the mule looked even dejected, with hanging head and forward-drooping ears.
The girl spoke gently to the colt, stroking him along the side and murmuring to him in a cooing voice as she mounted to the high seat and gathered up the reins. Then the two beasts settled themselves to their places with a wontedness that assured Thryng they would be perfectly manageable under her hand.
David turned to the child, relieved him of the basket, which was heavy with unusual weight, and would have lifted him up, but Hoyle eluded his grasp, and, scrambling over the wheel with catlike agility, slipped shyly into his place close to the girl's side. Then, with more than childlike thoughtfulness, the boy looked up into her face and said in a low voice:—
"The gen'l'man's things is ovah yandah by the track, Cass. He cyant tote 'em alone, I reckon. Whar is he goin'?"
Then Thryng remembered himself and his needs. He looked at the line of track curving away up the mountain side in one direction, and in the other lost in a deep cut in the hills; at the steep red banks rising high on each side, arched over by leafy forest growth, with all the interlacing branches and smallest twigs bearing their delicate burden of white, feathery snow. He caught his breath as a sense of the strange, untamed beauty, marvellous and utterly lonely, struck upon him. Beyond the tracks, high up on the mountain slope, he thought he spied, well-nigh hid from sight by the pines, the gambrel roof of a large building—or was it a snow-covered rock?
"Is that a house up there?" he asked, turning to the girl, who sat leaning forward and looking steadily down at him.
"That is the hotel."
"A road must lead to it, then. If I could get up there, I could send down for my things."
"They is no one thar," piped the boy; and Thryng remembered the brakeman's words, and how he had rebelled at the thought of a hotel incongruously set amid this primeval beauty; but now he longed for the comfort of a warm room and tea at a hospitable table. He wished he had accepted the bishop's invitation. It was a predicament to be dropped in this wild spot, without a store, a cabin, or even a thread of blue smoke to be seen as indicating a human habitation, and no soul near save these two children.
The sun was sinking toward the western hilltops, and a chillness began creeping about him as the shadows lengthened across the base of the mountain, leaving only the heights in the glowing light.
"Really, you know, I can't say what I am to do. I'm a stranger here—"
It seemed odd to him at the moment, but her face, framed in the huge sunbonnet,—a delicate flower set in a rough calyx,—suddenly lost all expression. She did not move nor open her lips. Thryng thought he detected a look of fear in the boy's eyes, as he crept closer to her.
In a flash came to him the realization of the difficulty. His friend had told him of these people,—their occupations, their fear of the world outside and below their fastnesses, and how zealously they guarded their homes and their rights from outside intrusion, yet how hospitable and generous they were to all who could not be considered their hereditary enemies.
He hastened to speak reassuring words, and, bethinking himself that she had called the boy Hoyle, he explained how one Adam Hoyle had sent him.
"The doctor is my friend, you know. He built a cabin somewhere within a day's walk, he told me, of Carew's Crossing, on a mountain top. Maybe you knew him?"
A slight smile crept about the girl's lips, and her eyes brightened. "Yes, suh, we-all know Doctah Hoyle."
"I am to have the cabin—if I can find it—live there as he did, and see what your hills will do for me." He laughed a little as he spoke, deprecating his evident weakness, and, lifting his cap, wiped the cold moisture from his forehead.
She noted his fatigue and hesitated. The boy's questioning eyes were fixed on her face, and she glanced down into them an answering look. Her lips parted, and her eyes glowed as she turned them again on David, but she spoke still in the same passive monotone.
"Oh, yes. My little brothah was named foh him,—Adam Hoyle,—but we only call him Hoyle. It's a right long spell since the Doctah was heah. His cabin is right nigh us, a little highah up. Theah is no place wheah you could stop nighah than ouahs. Hoyle, jump out and help fetch his things ovah. You can put them in the back of the wagon, suh, and ride up with us. I have a sight of room foh them."
The child was out and across the tracks in an instant, seizing a valise much too heavy for him, and Thryng cut his thanks short to go to his relief.
"I kin tote it," said the boy shrilly.
"No, no. I am the biggest, so I'll take the big ones. You bring the bundle with the strap around it—so. Now we shall get on, shan't we? But you are pretty strong for a little chap;" and the child's face radiated smiles at the praise.
Then David tossed in valise and rug, without which last no Englishman ever goes on a journey, and with much effort they managed to pull the box along and hoist it also into the wagon, the body of which was filled with corn fodder, covered with an old patchwork quilt.
The wagon was of the rudest, clumsiest construction, the heavy box set on axles without springs, but the young physician was thankful for any kind of a conveyance. He had been used to life in the wild, taking things as he found them—bunking in a tent, a board shanty, or out under the open sky; with men brought heterogeneously together, some merely rough woodsmen in their natural environment, others the scum of the cities to whom crime was become first nature, decency second, and others, fleeing from justice and civilized law, hiding ofttimes a fine nature delicately reared. During this time he had seldom seen a woman other than an occasional camp follower of the most degraded sort.
Inured thus, he did not find his ride, embedded with good corn fodder, much of a hardship, even in a springless wagon over mountain roads. Wrapped in his rug, he braced himself against his box, with his face toward the rear of the wagon, and gazed out from under its arching canvas hood at the wild way, as it slowly unrolled behind them, and was pleased that he did not have to spend the night under the lee of the station.
The lingering sunlight made flaming banners of the snow clouds now slowly drifting across the sky above the white world, and touched the highest peaks with rose and gold. The shadows, ever changing, deepened from faintest pink-mauve through heliotrope tints, to the richest violet in the heart of the gorges. Over and through all was the witching mystery of fairy-like, snow-wreathed branches and twigs, interwoven and arching up and up in faint perspective to the heights above, and down, far down, to the depths of the regions below them; and all the time, mingled with the murmur of the voices behind him, and the creaking of the vehicle in which they rode, and the tramp of the animals when they came to a hard roadbed with rock foundation,—noises which were not loud, but which seemed to be covered and subdued by the soft snow even as it covered everything,—could be heard a light dropping and pattering, as the overladen last year's leaves and twigs dropped their white burden to the ground. Sometimes the great hood of the wagon struck an overhanging bough and sent the snow down in showers as they passed.
Heavily they climbed up, and warily made their descent of rocky steeps, passing through boggy places or splashing in clear streams which issued from springs in the mountain side or fell from some distant height, then climbing again only to wind about and again descend. Often the way was rough with boulders that had never been blasted out,—sometimes steeply shelving where the gorge was deepest and the precipice sheerest. Past all dangers the girl drove with skilful hand, now encouraging her team with her low voice, now restraining them, where their load crowded upon them over slippery, shelving rocks, with strong pulls and sharp command. David marvelled at her serenity under the strain, and at her courage and deftness. With the calmness of the boy nestling at her side, he resigned himself to the sweet witchery of the time and place. Glancing up at the high seat behind him, he saw the child's feet dangling, and knew they must be cold.
"Why can't your little brother sit back here with me?" he said; "I'll cover him with my rug, and we'll keep each other warm."
He saw the small hunched back stiffen, and try to appear big and manly, but she checked the team at a level dip in the road.
"Yes, sonny, get ovah theah with the gentleman. It'll be some coldah now the sun's gone." But the little man was shyly reluctant to move. "Come, honey. Sistah'd a heap rathah you would."
Then David reached up and gently lifted the atom of manhood, of pride, sensitiveness, and affection, over where he caused him to snuggle down in the fodder close to his side.
For a while the child sat stiffly aloof, but gradually his little form relaxed, and his head drooped sideways in the hollow of the stranger's shoulder, held comfortably by Thryng's kindly encircling arm. Soon, with his small feet wrapped in the warm, soft rug, he slept soundly and sweetly, rocked, albeit rather roughly, in the jolting wagon.
Thryng also dreamed, but not in sleep. His mind was stirred to unusual depths by his strange surroundings—the silence, the mystery, the beauty of the night, and the suggestions of grandeur and power dimly revealed by the moonlight which bathed the world in a flood of glory.
He was uplifted and drawn out of himself, and at the same time he was thrown back to review his life and to see his most inward self, and to marvel and question the wherefore of it all. Why was he here, away from the active, practical affairs which interest other men? Was he a creature of ideals only, or was he also a practical man, taking the wisest means of reaching and achieving results most worth while? He saw himself in his childhood—in his youth—in his young manhood—even to the present moment, jogging slowly along in a far country, rough and wild, utterly dependent on the courtesy of a slight girl, who held, for the moment, his life in her hands; for often, as he gazed into the void of darkness over narrow ledges, he knew that only the skill of those two small hands kept them from sliding into eternity: yet there was about her such an air of wontedness to the situation that he was stirred by no sense of anxiety for himself or for her.
He took out his pipe and smoked, still dreaming, comparing, and questioning. Of ancient family, yet the younger son of three generations of younger sons, all probability of great inheritance or title so far removed from him, it behooved that he build for himself—what? Fortune, name, everything. Character? Ah, that was his heritage, all the heritage the laws of England allowed him, and that not by right of English law, but because, fixed in the immutable, eternal Will, some laws there are beyond the power of man to supersede. With an involuntary stiffening of his body, he disturbed for an instant the slumbering child, and quite as involuntarily he drew him closer and soothed him back to forgetfulness; and they both dreamed on, the child in his sleep, and the man in his wide wakefulness and intense searching.
His uncle, it is true, would have boosted him far toward creating both name and fame for himself, in either army or navy, but he would none of it. There was his older brother to be advanced, and the younger son of this same uncle to be placed in life, or married to wealth. This also he might have done; well married he might have been ere now, and could be still, for she was waiting—only—an ideal stood in his way. Whom he would marry he would love. Not merely respect or like,—not even both,—but love he must; and in order to hold to this ideal he must fly the country, or remain to be unduly urged to his own discomfiture and possibly to their mutual undoing.
As for the alternatives, the army or the navy, again his ideals had formed for him impassable bars. He would found his career on the saving rather than the taking of life. Perhaps he might yet follow in the wake of armies to mend bodies they have torn and cut and maimed, and heal diseases they have engendered—yes—perhaps—the ideals loomed big. But what had he done? Fled his country and deftly avoided the most heart-satisfying of human delights—children to call him father, and wife to make him a home; peace and wealth; thrust aside the helping hand to power and a career considered most worthy of a strong and resourceful man, and thrown personal ambition to the winds. Why? Because of his ideals—preferring to mend rather than to mar his neighbor.
Surely he was right—and yet—and yet. What had he accomplished? Taken the making of his life into his own hands and lost—all—if health were really gone. One thing remained to him—the last rag and remnant of his cherished ideals—to live long enough to triumph over his own disease and take up work again. Why should he succumb? Was it fate? Was there the guidance of a higher will? Might he reach out and partake of the Divine power? But one thing he knew; but one thing could he do. As the glory of white light around him served to reveal a few feet only of the way, even as the density beyond seemed impenetrable, still it was but seeming. There was a beyond—vast—mysterious—which he must search out, slowly, painfully, if need be, seeing a little way only, but seeing that little clearly, revealed by the white light of spirit. His own or God's? Into the infinite he must search—search—and at last surely find.
Suddenly the jolting ceased. The deep stillness of the night seemed only intensified by the low panting of the animals and the soft dropping of the wet snow from the trees.
"What is it?" said Thryng, peering from under the canvas cover. "Anything the matter?"
The beasts stood with low-swung heads, the vapor rising white from their warm bodies, wet with the melting snow. His question fell unheard, and the girl who was climbing down over the front wheel began to unhitch the team in silence. He rolled the sleeping child in his rug and leaped out.
"Let me help you. What is the trouble? Oh, are you at home?"
"I can do this, suh. I have done it a heap of times. Don't go nigh Pete, suh. He's mighty quick, and he's mean." The beast laid back his ears viciously as David approached.
"You ought not go near him yourself," he said, taking a firm grip of the bridle.
"Oh, he's safe enough with me—or Frale. Hold him tight, suh, now you have him, till I get round there. Keep his head towa'ds you. He certainly is mean."
The colt walked off to a low stack of corn fodder, as she turned him loose with a light slap on the flank; and the mule, impatient, stamping and sidling about, stretched forth his nose and let out his raucous and hideous cry. While he was thus occupied, the girl slipped off his harness and, taking the bridle, led the beast away to a small railed enclosure on the far side of the stack; and David stood alone in the snow and looked about him.
He saw a low, rambling house, which, although one structure, appeared to be a series of houses, built of logs plastered with clay in the chinks. It stood in a tangle of wild growth, on what seemed to be a wide ledge jutting out from the side of the mountain, which loomed dark and high behind it. An incessant, rushing sound pervaded the place, as it were a part of the silence or a breathing of the mountain itself. Was it wind among the trees, or the rushing of water? No wind stirred now, and yet the sound never ceased. It must be a torrent swollen by the melting snow.
He saw the girl moving in and out among the shadows, about the open log stable, like a wraith. The braying of the mule had disturbed the occupants of the house, for a candle was placed in a window, and its little ray streamed forth and was swallowed up in the moonlight and black shades. The child, awakened by the horrible noise of the beast, rustled in the corn fodder where Thryng had left him. Dazed and wondering, he peered out at the young man for some moments, too shy to descend until his sister should return. Now she came, and he scrambled down and stood close to her side, looking up weirdly, his twisted little form shivering and quaking.
"Run in, Hoyle," she said, looking kindly down upon him. "Tell mothah we're all right, son."
A woman came to the door holding a candle, which she shaded with a gnarled and bony hand.
"That you, Cass?" she quavered. "Who aire ye talkin' to?"
"Yes, Aunt Sally, we'll be there directly. Don't let mothah get cold." She turned again to David. "I reckon you'll have to stop with us to-night. It's a right smart way to the cabin, and it'll be cold, and nothing to eat. We'll bring in your things now, and in the morning we can tote them up to your place with the mule, and Hoyle can go with you to show you the way."
She turned toward the wagon as if all were settled, and Thryng could not be effusive in the face of her direct and conclusive manner; but he took the basket from her hand.
"Let me—no, no—I will bring in everything. Thank you very much. I can do it quite easily, taking one at a time." Then she left him, but at the door she met him and helped to lift his heavy belongings into the house.
The room he entered was warm and brightly lighted by a pile of blazing logs in the great chimneyplace. He walked toward it and stretched his hands to the fire—a generous fire—the mountain home's luxury.
Something was cooking in the ashes on the hearth which sent up a savory odor most pleasant and appealing to the hungry man. The meagre boy stood near, also warming his little body, on which his coarse garments hung limply. He kept his great eyes fixed on David's face in a manner disconcerting, even in a child, had Thryng given his attention to it, but at the moment he was interested in other things. Dropped thus suddenly into this utterly alien environment, he was observing the girl and the old woman as intently, though less openly, as the boy was watching him.
Presently he felt himself uncannily the object of a scrutiny far different from the child's wide-eyed gaze, and glancing over his shoulder toward the corner from which the sensation seemed to emanate, he saw in the depths of an old four-posted bed, set in their hollow sockets and roofed over by projecting light eyebrows, a pair of keen, glittering eyes.
"Yas, you see me now, do ye?" said a high, thin voice in toothless speech. "Who be ye?"
His physician's feeling instantly alert, he stepped to the bedside and bent over the wasted form, which seemed hardly to raise the clothing from its level smoothness, as if she had lain motionless since some careful hand had arranged it.
"No, ye don't know me, I reckon. 'Tain't likely. Who be ye?" she iterated, still looking unflinchingly in his eyes.
"Hit's a gentleman who knows Doctah Hoyle, mothah. He sent him. Don't fret you'se'f," said the girl soothingly.
"I'm not one of the frettin' kind," retorted the mother, never taking her eyes from his face, and again speaking in a weak monotone. "Who be ye?"
"My name is David Thryng, and I am a doctor," he said quietly.
"Where be ye from?"
"I came from Canada, the country where Doctor Hoyle lives."
"I reckon so. He used to tell 'at his home was thar." A pallid hand was reached slowly out to him. "I'm right glad to see ye. Take a cheer and set. Bring a cheer, Sally."
But the girl had already placed him a chair, which he drew close to the bedside. He took the feeble old hand and slipped his fingers along to rest lightly on the wrist.
"You needn't stan' watchin' me, Cass. You 'n' Sally set suthin' fer th' doctah to eat. I reckon ye're all about gone fer hunger."
"Yes, mothah, right soon. Fry a little pork to go with the pone, Aunt Sally. Is any coffee left in the pot?"
"I done put in a leetle mo' when I heered the mule hollah. I knowed ye'd want it. Might throw in a mite mo' now th' gentleman's come."
The two women resumed their preparations for supper, the boy continued to stand and gaze, and the high voice of the frail occupant of the bed began again to talk and question.
"When did you come down f'om that thar country whar Doctah Hoyle lives at?" she said, in her monotonous wail.
"Four days ago. I travelled slowly, for I have been ill myself."
"Hit's right quare now; 'pears like ef I was a doctah I wouldn't 'low myself fer to get sick. An' you seed Doctah Hoyle fo' days back!"
"No, he has gone to England on a visit. I saw his wife, though, and his daughter. She is a young lady—is to be married soon."
"They do grow up—the leetle ones. Hit don't seem mo'n yestahday 'at Cass was like leetle Hoyle yandah, an' hit don't seem that since Doctah Hoyle was here an' leetle Hoyle came. We named him fer th' doctah. Waal, I reckon ef th' doctah was here now 'at he could he'p me some. Maybe ef he'd 'a' stayed here I nevah would 'a' got down whar I be now. He was a right good doctah, bettah'n a yarb doctah—most—I reckon so."
David smiled. "I think so myself," he said. "Are there many herb doctors here about?"
"Not rightly doctahs, so to speak, but they is some 'at knows a heap about yarbs."
"Good. Perhaps they can teach me something."
The old face was feebly lifted a bit from the pillow, and the dark eyes grew suddenly sharp in their scrutiny.
"Who be ye, anyhow? What aire ye here fer? Sech as you knows a heap a'ready 'thout makin' out to larn o' we-uns."
David saw his mistake and hastened to allay the suspicion which gleamed out at him almost malignantly.
"I am just what I said, a doctor like Adam Hoyle, only that I don't know as much as he—not yet. The wisest man in the world can learn more if he watches out to do so. Your herb doctors might be able to teach me a good many things."
"I 'spect ye're right thar, on'y a heap o' folks thinks they knows it all fust."
There was a pause, and Thryng leaned back in his stiff, splint-bottomed chair and glanced around him. He saw that the girl, although moving about setting to rights and brushing here and there with an unique, home-made broom, was at the same time intently listening.
Presently the old woman spoke again, her threadlike voice penetrating far.
"What do you 'low to do here in ouah mountains? They hain't no settlement nighabouts here, an' them what's sick hain't no money to pay doctahs with. I reckon they'll hev to stay sick fer all o' you-uns."
David looked into her eyes a moment quietly; then he smiled. The way to her heart he saw was through the magic of one name.
"What did Doctor Hoyle do when he was down here?"
"Him? They hain't no one livin' like he was."
Then David laughed outright, a gay, contagious laugh, and after an instant she laughed also.
"I agree with you," he said. "But you see, I am a countryman of his, and he sent me here—he knows me well—and I mean to do as he did, if—I can."
He drew in a deep breath of utter weariness, and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands, and gazed into the blazing fire. The memories which had taken possession of his soul during the long ride seemed to envelop him so that in a moment the present was swept away into oblivion and his spirit was, as it were, suddenly withdrawn from the body and projected into the past. He had been unable to touch any of the greasy cold stuff which had been offered him during the latter part of his journey, and the heat brought a drowsiness on him and a faintness from lack of food.
"Cass—Cassandry! Look to him," called the mother shrilly, but the girl had already noticed his strange abstraction, and the small Adam Hoyle had drawn back, in awe, to his mother.
"Get some whiskey, Sally," said the girl, and David roused himself to see her bending over him.
"I must have gone off in a doze," he said weakly. "The long ride and then this warmth—" Seeing the anxious faces around him, he laughed again. "It's nothing, I assure you, only the comfort and the smell of something good to eat;" he sniffed a little. "What is it?" he asked.
Old Sally was tossing and shaking the frying salt pork in the skillet at the fireplace, and the odor aggravated his already too keen appetite.
"Ye was more'n sleepy, I reckon," shrilled the woman from the bed. "Hain't that pone done, Sally? No, 'tain't liquor he needs; hit's suthin' to eat."
Then the girl hastened her slow, gliding movements, drew splint chairs to a table of rough pine that stood against the side of the room, and, stooping between him and the fire, pulled something from among the hot ashes. The fire made the only light in the room, and David never forgot the supple grace of her as she bent thus silhouetted—the perfect line of chin and throat black against the blaze, contrasted with the weird, witchlike old woman with roughly knotted hair, who still squatted in the heat, and shook the skillet of frying pork.
"Thar, now hit's done, I reckon," said old Sally, slowly rising and straightening her bent back; and the woman from the bed called her orders.
"Not that cup," she cried, as Sally began pouring black coffee into a cracked white cup. "Git th' chany one. I hid hit yandah in th' cornder 'hind that tin can, to keep 'em f'om usin' hit every day. I had a hull set o' that when I married Farwell. Give hit here." She took the precious relic in her work-worn hands and peered into it, then wiped it out with the corner of the sheet which covered her. This Thryng did not see. He was watching the girl, as she broke open the hot, fragrant corn-bread and placed it beside his plate.
"Come," she said. "You sure must be right hungry. Sit here and eat." David felt like one drunken with weariness when he rose, and caught at the edge of the table to steady himself.
"Aren't you hungry, too?" he asked, "and Hoyle, here? Sit beside me; we're going to have a feast, little chap."
The girl placed an earthen crock on the table and took from it honey in the broken comb, rich and dark.
"Have a little of this with your pone. It's right good," she said.
"Frale, he found a bee tree," piped the child suddenly, gaining confidence as he saw the stranger engaged in the very normal act of eating with the relish of an ordinary man. He edged forward and sat himself gingerly on the outer corner of the next chair, and accepted a huge piece of the pone from David's hand. His sister gave him honey, and Sally dropped pieces of the sizzling hot pork on their plates, from the skillet.
David sipped his coffee from the flowered "chany cup" contentedly. Served without milk or sugar, it was strong, hot, and reviving. The girl shyly offered more of the corn-bread as she saw it rapidly disappearing, pleased to see him eat so eagerly, yet abashed at having nothing else to offer.
"I'm sorry we can give you only such as this. We don't live like you do in the no'th. Have a little more of the honey."
"Ah, but this is fine. Good, hey, little chap? You are doing a very beneficent thing, do you know, saving a man's life?" He glanced up at her flushed face, and she smiled deprecatingly. He fancied her smiles were rare.
"But it is quite true. Where would I be now but for you and Hoyle here? Lying under the lee side of the station coughing my life away,—and all my own fault, too. I should have accepted the bishop's invitation."
"You helped me when the colt was bad." Her soft voice, low and monotonous, fell musically on his ear when she spoke.
"Naturally—but how about that, anyway? It's a wonder you weren't killed. How came a youngster like you there alone with those beasts?" Thryng had an abrupt manner of springing a question which startled the child, and he edged away, furtively watching his sister.
"Did you hitch that kicking brute alone and drive all that distance?"
"Aunt Sally, she he'ped me to tie up; she give him co'n whilst I th'owed on the strops, an' when he's oncet tied up, he goes all right." The atom grinned. "Hit's his way. He's mean, but he nevah works both ends to oncet."
"Good thing to know; but you're a hero, do you understand that?" The child continued to edge away, and David reached out and drew him to his side. Holding him by his two sharp little elbows, he gave him a playful shake. "I say, do you know what a hero is?"
The startled boy stopped grinning and looked wildly to his sister, but receiving only a smile of reassurance from her, he lifted his great eyes to Thryng's face, then slowly the little form relaxed, and he was drawn within the doctor's encircling arm.
"I don't reckon," was all his reply, which ambiguous remark caused David, in his turn, to look to the sister for elucidation. She held a long, lighted candle in her hand, and paused to look back as she was leaving the room.
"Yes, you do, honey son. You remembah the boy with the quare long name sistah told you about, who stood there when the ship was all afiah and wouldn't leave because his fathah had told him to bide? He was a hero." But Hoyle was too shy to respond, and David could feel his little heart thumping against his arm as he held him.
"Tell the gentleman, Hoyle. He don't bite, I reckon," called the mother from her corner.
"His name begun like yourn, Cass, but I cyan't remembah the hull of it."
"Casabianca, was it?" said Thryng, smiling.
"I reckon. Did you-uns know him?"
"When I was a small chap like you, I used to read about him." Then the atom yielded entirely, and leaned comfortably against David, and his sister left them, carrying the candle with her.
Old Sally threw another log on the fire, and the flames leaped up the cavernous chimney, lighting the room with dramatic splendor. Thryng took note of its unique furnishing. In the corner opposite the one where the mother lay was another immense four-poster bed, and before it hung a coarse homespun curtain, half concealing it. At its foot was a huge box of dark wood, well-made and strong, with a padlock. This and the beds seemed to belong to another time and place, in contrast to the other articles, which were evidently mountain made, rude in construction and hewn out by hand, the chairs unstained and unpolished, and seated with splints.
The walls were the roughly dressed logs of which the house was built, the chinks plastered with deep red-brown clay. Depending from nails driven in the logs were festoons of dried apple and strips of dried pumpkin, and hanging by their braided husks were bunches of Indian corn, not yellow like that of the north, but white or purple.
There were bags also, containing Thryng knew not what, although he was to learn later, when his own larder came to be eked out by sundry gifts of dried fruit and sweet corn, together with the staple of beans and peas from the widow's store.
Beside the window of small panes was a shelf, on which were a few worn books, and beneath hung an almanac; at the foot of the mother's bed stood a small spinning-wheel, with the wool still hanging to the spindle. David wondered how long since it had been used. The scrupulous cleanliness of the place satisfied his fastidious nature, and gave him a sense of comfort in the homely interior. He liked the look of the bed in the corner, made up high and round, and covered with marvellous patchwork.
As he sat thus, noting all his surroundings, Hoyle still nestled at his side, leaning his elbows on the doctor's knees, his chin in his hands, and his soft eyes fixed steadily on the doctor's face. Thus they advanced rapidly toward an amicable acquaintance, each questioning and being questioned.
"What is a 'bee tree'?" said David. "You said somebody found one."
"Hit's a big holler tree, an' hit's plumb full o' bees an' honey. Frale, he found this'n."
"Tell me about it. Where was it?"
"Hit war up yandah, highah up th' mountain. They is a hole thar what wil' cats live in, Wil' Cat Hole. Frale, he war a hunt'n fer a cat. Some men thar at th' hotel, they war plumb mad to hunt a wil' cat with th' dogs, an' Frale, he 'lowed to git th' cat fer 'em."
"And when was that?"
"Las' summah, when th' hotel war open. They war a heap o' men at th' hotel."
"And now about the bee tree?"
"Frale, he nevah let on like he know'd thar war a bee tree, an' then this fall he took me with him, an' we made a big fire, an' then we cut down th' tree, an' we stayed thar th' hull day, too, an' eat thar an' had ros'n ears by th' fire, too."
"I say, you know. There seem to be a lot of things you will have to enlighten me about. After you get through with the bee tree you must tell me what 'ros'n ears' are. And then what did you do?"
"Thar war a heap o' honey. That tree, hit war nigh-about plumb full o' honey, and th' bees war that mad you couldn't let 'em come nigh ye 'thout they'd sting you. They stung me, an' I nevah hollered. Frale, he 'lowed ef you hollered, you wa'n't good fer nothin', goin' bee hunt'n'."
"Is Frale your brother?"
"Yas. He c'n do a heap o' things, Frale can. They war a heap o' honey in that thar tree, 'bout a bar'l full, er more'n that. We hev a hull tub o' honey out thar in th' loom shed yet, an' maw done sont all th' rest to th' neighbors, 'cause maw said they wa'n't no use in humans bein' fool hogs like th' bees war, a-keepin' more'n they could eat jes' fer therselves."
"Yas," called the mother from her corner, where she had been admiringly listening; "they is a heap like that-a-way, but hit ain't our way here in th' mountains. Let th' doctah tell you suthin' now, Hoyle,—ye mount larn a heap if ye'd hark to him right smart, 'thout talkin' th' hull time youse'f."
"I has to tell him 'bouts th' ros'n ears—he said so. Thar they be." He pointed to a bunch of Indian corn. "You wrop 'em up in ther shucks, whilst ther green an' sof', and kiver 'em up in th' ashes whar hit's right hot, and then when ther rosted, eat 'em so. Now, what do you know?"
"Why, he knows a heap, son. Don't ax that-a-way."
"In my country, away across the ocean—" began David.
"Tell 'bout th' ocean, how hit look."
"In my country we don't have Indian corn nor bee trees, nor wild cat holes, but we have the ocean all around us, and we see the ships and—"
"Like that thar one whar th' boy stood whilst hit war on fire?"
"Something like, yes." Then he told about the sea and the ships and the great fishes, and was interrupted with the query:—
"Reckon you done seed that thar fish what swallered the man in th' Bible an' then th'ow'd him up agin?"
"Why no, son, you know that thar fish war dade long 'fore we-uns war born. You mustn't ax fool questions, honey."
Old Sally sat crouched by the hearth intently listening and asking as naïve questions as the child, whose pallid face grew pink and animated, and whose eyes grew larger as he strove to see with inward vision the things Thryng described. It was a happy evening for little Hoyle. Leaning confidingly against David, he sighed with repletion of joy. He was not eager for his sister to return—not he. He could lean forever against this wonderful man and listen to his tales. But the doctor's weariness was growing heavier, and he bethought himself that the girl had not eaten with them, and feared she was taking trouble to prepare quarters for him, when if she only knew how gladly he would bunk down anywhere,—only to sleep while this blessed and delicious drowsiness was overpowering him.
"Where is your sister, Hoyle? Don't you reckon it's time you and I were abed?" he asked, adopting the child's vernacular.
"She's makin' yer bed ready in th' loom shed, likely," said the mother, ever alert. With her pale, prematurely wrinkled face and uncannily bright and watchful eyes, she seemed the controlling, all-pervading spirit of the place. "Run, child, an' see what's keepin' her so long."
"Hit's dark out thar," said the boy, stirring himself slowly.
"Run, honey, you hain't afeared, kin drive a team all by you'se'f. Dark hain't nothin'; I ben all ovah these heah mountains when thar wa'n't one star o' light. Maybe you kin he'p her."
At that moment she entered, holding the candle high to light her way through what seemed to be a dark passage, her still, sweet face a bit flushed and stray taches of white cotton down clinging to her blue homespun dress. "The doctah's mos' dade fer sleep, Cass."
"I am right sorry to keep you so long, but we are obleeged—"
She lifted troubled eyes to his face, as Thryng interrupted her.
"Ah, no, no! I really beg your pardon—for coming in on you this way—it was not right, you know. It was a—a—predicament, wasn't it? It certainly wasn't right to put you about so; if—you will just let me go anywhere, only to sleep, I shall be greatly obliged. I'm making you a lot of trouble, and I'm so sorry."
His profusion of manner, of which he was entirely unaware, embarrassed her; although not shy like her brother, she had never encountered any one who spoke with such rapid abruptness, and his swift, penetrating glance and pleasant ease of the world abashed her. For an instant she stood perfectly still before him, slowly comprehending his thought, then hastened with her inherited, inborn ladyhood to relieve him from any sense that his sudden descent upon their privacy was an intrusion.
Her mind moved along direct lines from thought to expression—from impulse to action. She knew no conventional tricks of words or phrases for covering an awkward situation, and her only way of avoiding a self-betrayal was by silence and a masklike impassivity. During this moment of stillness while she waited to regain her poise, he, quick and intuitive as a woman, took in the situation, yet he failed to comprehend the character before him.
To one accustomed to the conventional, perfect simplicity seems to conceal something held back. It is hard to believe that all is being revealed, hence her slower thought, in reality, comprehended him the more truly. What he supposed to be pride and shame over their meagre accommodations was, in reality, genuine concern for his comfort, and embarrassment before his ease and ready phrases. As in a swift breeze her thoughts were caught up and borne away upon them, but after a moment they would sweep back to her—a flock of innocent, startled doves.
Still holding her candle aloft, she raised her eyes to his and smiled. "We-uns are right glad you came. If you can be comfortable where we are obliged to put you to sleep, you must bide awhile." She did not say "obleeged" this time. He had not pronounced it so, and he must know.
"That is so good of you. And now you are very tired yourself and have eaten nothing. You must have your own supper. Hoyle can look after me." He took the candle from her and gave it to the boy, then turned his own chair back to the table and looked inquiringly at Sally squatted before the fire. "Not another thing shall you do for me until you are waited on. Take my place here."
David's manner seemed like a command to her, and she slid into the chair with a weary, drooping movement. Hoyle stood holding the candle, his wry neck twisting his head to one side, a smile on his face, eying them sharply. He turned a questioning look to his sister, as he stiffened himself to his newly acquired importance as host.
Thryng walked over to the bedside. "In the morning, when we are all rested, I'll see what can be done for you," he said, taking the proffered old hand in his. "I am not Dr. Hoyle, but he has taught me a little. I studied and practised with him, you know."
"Hev ye? Then ye must know a heap. Hit's right like th' Lord sont ye. You see suthin' 'peared like to give way whilst I war a-cuttin' light 'ud th' othah day, an' I went all er a heap 'crost a log, an' I reckon hit hurt me some. I hain't ben able to move a foot sence, an' I lay out thar nigh on to a hull day, whilst Hoyle here run clar down to Sally's place to git her. He couldn't lif' me hisse'f, he's that weak; he tried to haul me in, but when I hollered,—sufferin' so I war jes' 'bleeged to holler,—he kivered me up whar I lay and lit out fer Sally, an' she an' her man they got me up here, an' here I ben ever since. I reckon I never will leave this bed ontwell I'm cyarried out in a box."
"Oh, no, not that! You're too much alive for that. We'll see about it to-morrow. Good night."
"Hoyle may show you the way," said the girl, rising. "Your bed is in the loom shed. I'm right sorry it's so cold. I put blankets there, and you can use all you like of them. I would have given you Frale's place up garret—only—he might come in any time, and—"
"Naw, he won't. He's too skeered 'at—" Hoyle's interruption stopped abruptly, checked by a glance of his sister's eye.
"I hope you'll sleep well—"
"Sleep? I shall sleep like a log. I feel as if I could sleep for a week. It's awfully good of you. I hope we haven't eaten all the supper, Hoyle and I. Come, little chap. Good night." He took up his valise and followed the boy, leaving her standing by the uncleared table, gazing after him.
"Now you eat, Cassandry. You are nigh about perished you are that tired," said her mother.
Then old Sally brought more pork and hot pone from the ashes, and they sat down together, eating and sipping their black coffee in silence. Presently Hoyle returned and began removing his clumsy shoes, by the fire.
"Did he ax ye a heap o' questions, Hoyle?" queried the old woman sharply.
"Naw. Did'n' ax noth'n'."
"Waal, look out 'at you don't let on nothin' ef he does. Talkin' may hurt, an' hit may not."
"He hain't no government man, maw."
"Hit's all right, I reckon, but them 'at larns young to hold ther tongues saves a heap o' trouble fer therselves."
After they had eaten, old Sally gathered the few dishes together and placed all the splint-bottomed chairs back against the sides of the room, and, only half disrobing, crawled into the far side of the bed opposite to the mother's, behind the homespun curtain.
"To-morrow I reckon I kin go home to my old man, now you've come, Cass."
"Yes," said the girl in a low voice, "you have been right kind to we-all, Aunt Sally."
Then she bent over her mother, ministering to her few wants; lifting her forward, she shook up the pillow, and gently laid her back upon it, and lightly kissed her cheek. The child had quickly dropped to sleep, curled up like a ball in the farther side of his mother's bed, undisturbed by the low murmur of conversation. Cassandra drew her chair close to the fire and sat long gazing into the burning logs that were fast crumbling to a heap of glowing embers. She uncoiled her heavy bronze hair and combed it slowly out, until it fell a rippling mass to the floor, as she sat. It shone in the firelight as if it had drawn its tint from the fire itself, and the cold night had so filled it with electricity that it flew out and followed the comb, as if each hair were alive, and made a moving aureola of warm red amber about her drooping figure in the midst of the sombre shadows of the room. Her face grew sad and her hands moved listlessly, and at last she slipped from her chair to her knees and wept softly and prayed, her lips forming the words soundlessly. Once her mother awoke, lifted her head slightly from her pillow and gazed an instant at her, then slowly subsided, and again slept.
The loom shed was one of the log cabins connected with the main building by a roofed passage, which Thryng had noticed the evening before as being an odd fashion of house architecture, giving the appearance of a small flock of cabins all nestling under the wings of the old building in the centre.
The shed was dark, having but one small window with glass panes near the loom, the other and larger opening being tightly closed by a wooden shutter. David slept late, and awoke at last to find himself thousands of miles away from his dreams in this unique room, all in the deepest shadow, except for the one warm bar of sunlight which fell across his face. He drowsed off again, and his mind began piecing together fragments and scenes from the previous day and evening, and immediately he was surrounded by mystery, moonlit, fairylike, and white, a little crooked being at his side looking up at him like some gnome creature of the hills, revealed as a part of the enchantment. Then slowly resolving and melting away after the manner of dreams, the wide spaces of the mystery drew closer and warmer, and a great centre of blazing logs threw grotesque, dancing lights among them, and an old face peered out with bright, keen eyes, now seen, now lost in the fitful shadows, now pale and appealing or cautiously withdrawn, but always watching—watching while the little crooked being came and watched also. Then between him and the blazing light came a dark figure silhouetted blackly against it, moving, stooping, rising, going and coming—a sweet girl's head with heavily coiled hair through which the firelight played with flashes of its own color, and a delicate profile cut in pure, clean lines melting into throat and gently rounded breast; like a spirit, now here, now gone, again near and bending over him,—a ministering spirit bringing him food,—until gradually this half wake, dreaming reminiscence concentrated upon her, and again he saw her standing holding the candle high and looking up at him,—a wondering, questioning spirit,—then drooping wearily into the chair by the uncleared table, and again waiting with almost a smile on her parted lips as he said "good night." Good night? Ah, yes. It was morning.
Again he heard the continuous rushing noise to which he had listened in the white mystery, that had soothed him to slumber the night before, rising and falling—never ceasing. He roused himself with sudden energy and bounded from his couch. He would go out and investigate. His sleep had been sound, and he felt a rejuvenation he had not experienced in many months. When he threw open the shutter of the large unglazed window space and looked out on his strange surroundings, he found himself in a new world, sparkling, fresh, clear, shining with sunlight and glistening with wetness, as though the whole earth had been newly washed and varnished. The sunshine streamed in and warmed him, and the air, filled with winelike fragrance, stirred his blood and set his pulses leaping.
He had been too exhausted the previous evening to do more than fall into the bed which had been provided him and sleep his long, uninterrupted sleep. Now he saw why they had called this part of the home the loom shed, for between the two windows stood a cloth loom left just as it had been used, the warp like a tightly stretched veil of white threads, and the web of cloth begun.
In one corner were a few bundles of cotton, one of which had been torn open and the contents placed in a thick layer over the long bench on which he had slept, and covered with a blue and white homespun counterpane. The head had been built high with it, and sheets spread over all. He noticed the blankets which had covered him, and saw that they were evidently of home manufacture, and that the white spread which covered them was also of coarse, clean homespun, ornamented in squares with rude, primitive needlework. He marvelled at the industry here represented.
As for his toilet, the preparation had been most simple. A shelf placed on pegs driven between the logs supported a piece of looking-glass; a splint chair set against the wall served as wash-stand and towel-rack—the homespun cotton towels neatly folded and hung over the back; a wooden pail at one side was filled with clear water, over which hung a dipper of gourd; a white porcelain basin was placed on the chair, over which a clean towel had been spread, and to complete all, a square cut from the end of a bar of yellow soap lay beside the basin.
David smiled as he bent himself to the refreshing task of bathing in water so cold as to be really icy. Indeed, ice had formed over still pools without during the night, although now fast disappearing under the glowing morning sun. Above his head, laid upon cross-beams, were bundles of wool uncarded, and carding-boards hung from nails in the logs. In one corner was a rudely constructed reel, and from the loom dangled the idle shuttle filled with fine blue yarn of wool. Thryng thought of the worn old hands which had so often thrown it, and thinking of them he hastened his toilet that he might go in and do what he could to help the patient. It was small enough return for the kindness shown him. He feared to offer money for his lodgment, at least until he could find a way.
At last, full of new vigor and very hungry, he issued from his sleeping-room, sadly in need of a shave, but biding his time, satisfied if only breakfast might be forthcoming. He had no need to knock, for the house door stood open, flooding the place with sunlight and frosty air. The huge pile of logs was blazing on the hearth as if it had never ceased since the night before, and the flames leaped hot and red up the great chimney.
Old Sally no longer presided at the cookery. With a large cup of black coffee before her, she now sat at the table eating corn-bread and bacon. A drooping black sunbonnet on her head covered her unkempt, grizzly hair, and a cob pipe and bag of tobacco lay at her hand. She was ready for departure. Cassandra had returned, and her gratuitous neighborly offices were at an end. The girl was stooping before the fire, arranging a cake of corn-bread to cook in the ashes. A crane swung over the flames on which a fat iron kettle was hung, and the large coffee-pot stood on the hearth. The odor of breakfast was savory and appetizing. As David's tall form cast a shadow across the sunlit space on the floor, the old mother's voice called to him from the corner.
"Come right in, Doctah; take a cheer and set. Your breakfast's ready, I reckon. How have you slept, suh?"
The girl at the fire rose and greeted him, but he missed the boy. "Where's the little chap?" he asked.
"Cassandry sont him out to wash up. F'ust thing she do when she gets home is to begin on Hoyle and wash him up."
"He do get that dirty, poor little son," said the girl. "It's like I have to torment him some. Will you have breakfast now, suh? Just take your chair to the table, and I'll fetch it directly."
"Won't I, though! What air you have up here! It makes me hungry merely to breathe. Is it this way all the time?"
"Hit's this-a-way a good deal," said Sally, from under her sunbonnet, "Oh, the' is days hit's some colder, like to make water freeze right hard, but most days hit's a heap warmer than this."
"That's so," said the invalid. "I hev seen it so warm a heap o' winters 'at the trees gits fooled into thinkin' hit's spring an' blossoms all out, an' then come along a late freez'n' spell an' gits their fruit all killed. Hit's quare how they does do that-a-way. We-all hates it when the days come warm in Feb'uary."
"Then you must have been glad to have snow yesterday. I was disappointed. I was running away from that sort of thing, you know."
Thryng's breakfast was served to him as had been his supper of the evening before, directly from the fire. As he ate he looked out upon the usual litter of corn fodder scattered about near the house, and a few implements of the simplest character for cultivating the small pocket of rich soil below, but beyond this and surrounding it was a scene of the wildest beauty. Giant forest trees, intertwined and almost overgrown by a tangle of wild grapevines, hid the fall from sight, and behind them the mountain rose abruptly. A continuous stream of clearest water, icy cold, fell from high above into a long trough made of a hollow log. There at the running water stood little Hoyle, his coarse cotton towel hung on an azalia shrub, giving himself a thorough scrubbing. In a moment he came in panting, shivering, and shining, and still wet about the hair and ears.
"Why, you are not half dry, son," said his sister. She took the towel from him and gave his head a vigorous rubbing. "Go and get warm, honey, and sister'll give you breakfast by the fire." She turned to David: "Likely you take milk in your coffee. I never thought to ask you." She left the room and returned with a cup of new milk, warm and sweet. He was glad to get it, finding his black coffee sweetened only with molasses unpalatable.
"Don't you take milk in your coffee? How came you to think of it for me?"
"I knew a lady at the hotel last summer. She said that up no'th 'most everybody does take milk or cream, one, in their coffee."
"I never seed sech. Hit's clar waste to my thinkin'."
Cassandra smiled. "That's because you never could abide milk. Mothah thinks it's only fit to make buttah and raise pigs on."
Old Sally's horse, a thin, wiry beast, gray and speckled, stood ready saddled near the door, his bridle hanging from his neck, the bit dangling while he also made his repast. When he had finished his corn and she had finished her elaborate farewells at the bedside, and little Hoyle had with much effort succeeded in bridling her steed, she stepped quickly out and gained her seat on the high, narrow saddle with the ease of a young girl. Meagre as a willow withe in her scant black cotton gown, perched on her bony gray beast, and only the bowl of her cob pipe projecting beyond the rim of her sunbonnet as indication that a face might be hidden in its depths, with a meal sack containing in either end sundry gifts—salt pork, chicken, corn-bread, and meal—slung over the horse's back behind her, and with contentment in her heart, Aunt Sally rode slowly over the hills to rejoin her old man.
Soon she left the main road and struck out into a steep, narrow trail, merely a mule track arched with hornbeam and dogwood and mulberry trees, and towered over by giant chestnuts and oaks and great white pines and deep green hemlocks. Through myriad leafless branches the wind soughed pleasantly overhead, unfelt by her, so completely was she protected by the thickly growing laurel and rhododendron on either side of her path. The snow of the day before was gone, leaving only the glistening wetness of it on stones and fallen leaves and twigs underfoot, while in open spaces the sun beat warmly down upon her.
The trail led by many steep scrambles and sharp descents more directly to her home than the road, which wound and turned so frequently as to more than double the distance. At intervals it cut across the road or followed it a little way, only to diverge again. Here and there other trails crossed it or branched from it, leading higher up the mountain, or off into some gorge following the course of a stream, so that, except to one accustomed to its intricacies, the path might easily be lost.
Old Sally paid no heed to her course, apparently leaving the choice of trails to her horse. She sat easily on the beast and smoked her pipe until it was quite out, when she stowed it away in the black cloth bag, which dangled from her elbow by its strings. Spying a small sassafras shrub leaning toward her from the bank above her head, she gave it a vigorous pull as she passed and drew it, root and all, from its hold in the soil, beat it against the mossy bank, and swished it upon her skirt to remove the earth clinging to it. Then, breaking off a bit of the root, she chewed it, while she thrust the rest in her bag and used the top for a switch with which to hasten the pace of her nag.
The small stones, loosened when she tore the shrub from the bank, rattled down where the soil had been washed away, leaving the steep shelving rock side of the mountain bare, and she heard them leap the smooth space and fall softly on the moss among the ferns and lodged leaves below. There, crouched in the sun, lay a man with a black felt hat covering his face. The stones falling about him caused him to raise himself stealthily and peer upward. Descrying only the lone woman and the gray horse, he gave a low peculiar cry, almost like that of an animal in distress. She drew rein sharply and listened. The cry was repeated a little louder.
"Come on up hyar, Frale. Hit's on'y me. Hu' come you thar?"
He climbed rapidly up through the dense undergrowth, and stood at her side, breathing quickly. For a moment they waited thus, regarding each other, neither speaking. The boy—he seemed little more than a youth—looked up at her with a singularly innocent and appealing expression, but gradually as he saw her impassive and unrelenting face, his own resumed a hard and sullen look, which made him appear years older. His forehead was damp and cold, and a lock of silken black hair, slightly curling over it, increased its whiteness. Dark, heavy rings were under his eyes, which gleamed blue as the sky between long dark lashes. His arms dropped listlessly at his side, and he stood before her, as before a dread judge, bareheaded and silent. He bore her look only for a minute, then dropped his eyes, and his hand clinched more tightly the rim of his old felt hat. When he ceased looking at her, her eyes softened.
"I 'low ye mus' hev suthin' to say fer yourse'f," she said.
"I reckon." The corners of his mouth drooped, and he did not look up. He made as if to speak further, but only swallowed and was silent.
"Ye reckon? Waal, why'n't ye say?"
"They hain't nothin' to say. He war mean an'—an'—he's dade. I reckon he's dade."
"Yas, he's dade—an' they done had the buryin'." Her voice was monotonous and plaintive. A pallor swept over his face, and he drew the back of his hand across his mouth.
"He knowed he hadn't ought to rile me like he done. I be'n tryin' to make his hoss go home, but I cyan't. Hit jes' hangs round thar. I done brung him down an' lef' him in your shed, an' I 'lowed p'rhaps Uncle Jerry'd take him ovah to his paw." Again he swallowed and turned his face away. "The critter'd starve up yander. Anyhow, I ain't hoss stealin'. Hit war mo'n a hoss 'twixt him an' me." From the low, quiet tones of the two no one would have dreamed that a tragedy lay beneath their words.
"Look a-hyar, Frale. Thar wa'n't nothin' 'twixt him an' you. Ye war both on ye full o' mean corn whiskey, an' ye war quarrellin' 'bouts Cass." A faint red stole into the boy's cheeks, and the blue gleam of his eyes between the dark lashes narrowed to a mere line, as he looked an instant in her face and then off up the trail.
"Hain't ye seed nobody?" he asked.
"You knows I hain't seed nobody to hurt you-uns 'thout I'd tell ye. Look a-hyar, son, you are hungerin'. Come home with me, an' I'll get ye suthin' to eat. Ef you don't, ye'll go back an' fill up on whiskey agin, an' thar'll be the end of ye." He walked on a few steps at her side, then stopped suddenly.
"I 'low I better bide whar I be. You-uns hain't been yandah to the fall, have ye?"
"I have. You done a heap mo'n you reckoned on. When Marthy heered o' the killin', she jes' drapped whar she stood. She war out doin' work 'at you'd ought to 'a' been doin' fer her, an' she hain't moved sence. She like to 'a' perished lyin' out thar. Pore little Hoyle, he run all the way to our place he war that skeered, an' 'lowed she war dade, an' me an' the ol' man went ovah, an' thar we found her lyin' in the yard, an' the cow war lowin' to be milked, an' the pig squeelin' like hit war stuck, fer hunger. Hit do make me clar plumb mad when I think how you hev acted,—jes' like you' paw. Ef he'd nevah 'a' started that thar still, you'd nevah 'a' been what ye be now, a-drinkin' yer own whiskey at that. Come on home with me."
"I reckon I'm bettah hyar. They mount be thar huntin' me."
"I know you're hungerin'. I got suthin' ye can eat, but I 'lowed if you'd come, I'd get you an' the ol' man a good chick'n fry." She took from her stores, slung over the nag, a piece of corn-bread and a large chunk of salt pork, and gave them into his hand. "Thar! Eat. Hit's heart'nin'."
He was suffering, as she thought, and reached eagerly for the food, but before tasting it he looked up again into her face, and the infantile appeal had returned to his eyes.
"Tell me more 'bouts maw," he said.
"You eat, an' I'll talk," she replied. He broke a large piece from the corn-cake and crowded the rest into his pocket. Then he drew forth a huge clasp-knife and cut a thick slice from the raw salt pork, and pulling a red cotton handkerchief from his belt, he wrapped it around the remainder and held it under his arm as he ate.
"She hain't able to move 'thout hollerin', she's that bad hurted. Paw an' I, we got her to bed, an' I been thar ever since with all to do ontwell Cass come. Likely she done broke her hip."
"Is Cass thar now? Hu' come she thar?" Again the blood sought his cheeks.
"Paw rode down to the settlement and telegrafted fer her. Pore thing! You don't reckon what-all you have done. I wisht you'd 'a' took aftah your maw. She war my own sister, 'nd she war that good she must 'a' went straight to glory when she died. Your paw, he like to 'a' died too that time, an' when he married Marthy Merlin, I reckoned he war cured o' his ways; but hit did'n' last long. Marthy, she done well by him, an' she done well by you, too. They hain't nothin' agin Marthy. She be'n a good stepmaw to ye, she hev, an' now see how you done her, an' Cass givin' up her school an' comin' home thar to ten' beastes an' do your work like she war a man. Her family wa'n't brought up that-a-way, nor mine wa'n't neither. Big fool Marthy war to marry with your paw. Hit's that-a-way with all the Farwells; they been that quarellin' an' bad, makin' mean whiskey an' drinkin' hit raw, killin' hyar an' thar, an' now you go doin' the same, an' my own nephew, too." Her face remained impassive, and her voice droned on monotonously, but two tears stole down her wrinkled cheeks. His face settled into its harder lines as she talked, but he made no reply, and she continued querulously: "Why'n't you pay heed to me long ago, when I tol' ye not to open that thar still again? You are a heap too young to go that-a-way,—my own kin, like to be hung fer man-killin'."
"When did Cass come?" he interrupted sullenly.
"I'll drap 'round thar this evenin' er late night, I reckon. I have to get feed fer my own hoss an' tote hit up er take him back—one. All I fetched up last week he done et." He turned to walk away, but stood with averted head as she began speaking again.
"Don't you do no such fool thing. You keep clar o' thar. Bring the hoss to me, an' I'll ride him home. What you want o' the beast on the mountain, anyhow? Hit's only like to give away whar ye'r' at. All you want is to git to see Cass, but hit won't do you no good, leastways not now. You done so bad she won't look at ye no more, I reckon. They is a man thar, too, now." He started back, his hands clinched, his head lifted, in his whole air an animal-like ferocity. "Thar now, look at ye. 'Tain't you he's after."
"'Tain't me I'm feared he's after. How come he thar?"
"He come with her las' evenin'—" A sound of horses' hoofs on the road far below arrested her. They both waited, listening intently. "Thar they be. Git," she whispered. "Cass tol' me ef I met up with ye, to say 'at she'd leave suthin' fer ye to eat on the big rock 'hind the holly tree at the head o' the fall." She leaned down to him and held him by the coat an instant, "Son, leave whiskey alone. Hit's the only way you kin do to get her."
"Yas, Aunt Sally," he murmured. His eyes thanked her with one look for the tone or the hope her words held out.
Again the laugh, nearer this time, and again the wild look of haunting fear in his face. He dropped where he stood and slipped stealthily as a cat back to the place where he had lain, and crawling on his belly toward a heap of dead leaves caught by the brush of an old fallen pine, he crept beneath them and lay still. His aunt did not stir. Patting her horse's neck, she sat and waited until the voices drew nearer, came close beneath her as the road wound, and passed on. Then she once more moved along toward her cabin.