"In eighteen hundred an' sixty-five I thought I was quite lucky to find myself alive. I saddled up old Bald Face my business to pursue, An' I went to drivin' steers as I used for to do."
The fiddle was wofully out of tune, and it rasped and screeched and limped like a spavined colt, but the voice of Peppers went ahead with the bellow.
"But the stillhouse bein' close an' the licker bein' free I took to the licker, an' the licker took to me. I took to the licker, till I reeled an' I fell, An' the whole cussed drove went a-trailin' off to hell."
Ump arose and waved his pitcher. "Hold up, Parson," he said. "Here's to them merry maids that got lost in the shuffle. 'Tain't like you to lose 'em."
The suggestion was timely. The song ran to fifty-nine verses, and no others printable.
Peppers dropped the fiddle and seized the pitcher. "Correct," he roared. "Here's to 'em. May the Lord bless 'em, an' bind 'em, an' tie their hands behind 'em, an' put 'em in a place where the devil can't find 'em."
"Nor you," mumbled Ump in the echo.
They drank, and the hunchback eyed his man over the rim of the pitcher. The throat of the Parson did not move. It was clear that Peppers had reached the danger line, and, what was fatal to the plan of Ump, he knew it. He was shamming. The eyes of the hunchback squinted an instant, and then hardened in his face.
He lowered his pitcher, took a step nearer to the table, and clashed it against the Parson's pitcher. "The last one," he said, "to Mister Ward, God bless 'im!"
It was plain that the hunchback having failed to drink Peppers maudlin, was now deliberately provoking a fight. The bloated face of the Parson grew purple.
"Woodford!" he roared.
"I said," repeated Ump slowly, "to Mister Ward. An' his enemies, may the devil fly away with 'em."
Peppers hurled down his pitcher, and it broke into a thousand pieces on the oak floor. I saw the hunchback's eyes blink. I saw Jud take a step towards Peppers, but he was too late. Lem Marks made a sign to Malan. The club-footed giant bounded on Peppers, pinned his arms to his sides, and lifting him from the table carried him toward the door. A fight in Roy's tavern was not a part of the plan of Hawk Rufe.
For a moment the Parson's rage choked him, and he fought and sputtered. Then he began to curse with terrible roaring oaths that came boiling up, oaths that would have awakened new echoes in the foul hold of any pirate ship that ever ran.
His bloodshot eyes rolled and glared at the hunchback over the woolly head of Malan. There seemed to be something in Ump's face that lashed the drunkard to a fury. I looked at Ump to see what it was, and unless I see the devil, I shall never see the like of that expression. It was the face of a perfectly cool imp.
Black Malan carried Peppers through the door as though he were a bushel of corn in a bag, and I marked the build of this powerful man. His neck had muscle creases like the folds on the neck of a muley bull. His shoulders were bigger than Jud's. His arms were not so long, but they were thicker, and his legs stood under him like posts. But he was slow, and he had but little light in his head. A tremendous animal was the club-footed Malan.
Lem Marks stopped at the door, fingered his hat and began to apologise. He was sorry Peppers was drunk, and we must overlook the vapourings of a drunkard. He wished us a pleasant journey.
"To the devil," added Ump when the door had closed on him.
CHRISTIAN THE BLACKSMITH
We ate our dinner from the quaint old Dutch blue bowls, and the teacups with the queer kneeling purple cows on them. Then we went to feed the horses. Roy brought us a hickory split basket filled with white corn on the cob, and wiped out a long chestnut trough which lay by the roadside. We took the bits out of the horses' mouths, leaving the headstalls on them, and they fell to with the hearty impatience of the very hungry.
I have always liked to see a horse or an ox eat his dinner. Somehow it makes the bread taste better in one's own mouth. They look so tremendously content, provokingly so I used to think when I was little, especially the ox with the yoke banging his horns. I remember how I used to fill my pockets with "nubbins" and, holding one out to old Berry or some other patriarch of the work cattle, watch how he reached for it with his rough tongue, and how surprised he was when I snatched it away and put it back in my pocket, or gave it to him, and then thrust my finger against his jaw, pushing in his cheek so that he could not eat it. He would look so wofully hurt that I laughed with glee until old Jourdan came along, gathered me up under his arm, and carried me off kicking to the kingdom of old Liza.
My early experience with the horse was not so entirely satisfactory to my youthful worship. Somewhere on my shoulder to this day are the faint marks of teeth, set there long ago on a winter morning when I was taking liberties with the table etiquette of old Charity.
We lolled in the sunshine while the horses ate, Jud on his back by the nose of the Cardinal, his fingers linked under his head. I sat on the poplar horse-block with my hands around my knee, while Ump was in the road examining El Mahdi's feet. For once he had abandoned the Bay Eagle.
He rubbed the fetlocks, felt around the top of the hoofs with his finger, scraped away the clinging dirt with the point of a knife blade, and tried the firmness of each shoe-nail. Then he lifted the horse's foot, rested it on his knee, and began to examine the shoe as an expert might examine some intricate device.
Ump held that bad shoeing was the root of all evil. "Along comes a flat-nose," he would say, "with a barefooted colt, an' a gabbin', chuckle-headed blacksmith nails shoes on its feet, an' the flat-nose jumps on an' away he goes, hipety click, an' the colt interferes, an' the flat-nose begins a kickin' an' a cursin', an' then—" Here the hunchback's fingers began to twitch. "Somebody ought to come along an' grab the fool by the scruff of his neck an' kick him till he couldn't set in a saddle, an' then go back an' boot the sole-leather off the blacksmith."
I have seen the hunchback stop a stranger in the road and point out with indignation that the shoe on his horse was too short, or binding the hoof, or too heavy or too light, and then berate the stranger like a thief because he would not turn instantly and ride back to a smith-shop. And I have seen him sit over a blacksmith with his narrow face thrust up under the horse's belly, and put his finger on the place where every nail was to go in and the place where it was to come out, and growl and curse and wrangle, until, if I had been that smith, I should have killed him with a hammer.
But the hunchback knew what he was about. Ward said of Ump that, in his field, the land of the horse's foot, he was as much an expert as any professor behind his spectacles. His knowledge came from the observation of a lifetime, gathered by tireless study of every detail. Even now, when I see a great chemist who knows all about some drug; a great surgeon who knows all about the body of a man; or a great oculist who knows all about the human eye, I must class the hunchback with them.
Ump explored El Mahdi's shoes, pulled at the calks, picked at the nails, and prodded into the frog of the foot to see if there was any tendency to gravel. He found a left hind shoe that did not suit him, and put down the foot and wiped his hands on his breeches.
"Who shod this horse, Quiller?" he said.
"Dunk Hodge," I answered.
The hunchback made a gesture as of one offered information that is patent. "I know Dunk made the shoes," he said, "by the round corks. But they've been reset. Who reset 'em?"
"Dunk," said I.
"Not by a jugful!" responded Ump. "Old Dunk never reset 'em."
"I sent the horse to him," I said.
"I don't care a fiddler's damn where you sent the horse," replied the hunchback. "Dunk didn't drive them nails. They're beat over at the point instead of being clinched. It's a slut job."
"I expect," said Jud, "it was his ganglin' son-in-law, Ab."
"That's the laddiebuck," said Ump, "an' he ought to be withed. That hind shoe has pulled loose an' broke. We've got to git it put on."
"Then we shall have to try Christian," said I; "there's no other shop this side of the Stone Coal."
"I know it," mused Ump, "an' when he goes to the devil, flat-nosed niggers will never shovel dirt on a meaner dog."
Jud arose and began to bridle the Cardinal. "He's mighty triflin'," said he; "he uses store nails, an' he's too lazy to p'int 'em."
Now, to use the manufactured nail was brand enough in the Hills. But to drive it into a horse's foot without first testing the point was a piece of turpitude approaching the criminal.
"Well," said I, "he'll drive no nail into El Mahdi that isn't home-made and smooth."
"Then Ump 'ill have to stand over him," replied Jud.
"Damn it," cried the hunchback, striking his clenched right hand into the palm of his left, "ain't I stood over every one of the shirkin' pot-wallopers from the mountains to the Gauley an' showed him how to shoe a horse, an' told him over an' over just what to do an' how to do it, an' put my finger on the place? An' by God! The minute my back's turned, he'll lame a horse with a splintered nail, or bruise a frog with a pinchin' cork, or pare off the toe of the best mare that ever walked because he's too damn' lazy to make the shoe long enough."
Ump turned savagely and went around El Mahdi to the Bay Eagle, put the bit in her mouth and mounted the mare. I bridled El Mahdi and climbed into the saddle, and we rode out toward the Valley River, on the way but an hour ago taken by the lieutenants of Woodford. We had watched them from the tavern door, Peppers riding between the other two, rolling in his saddle and brandishing his fist. Both he and Malan rode the big brown cattle-horses of Woodford, while Lem Marks rode a bay Hambletonian, slim and nervous, with speed in his legs. The saddles were all black, long skirted, with one girth,—the Woodford saddles.
We followed in the autumn midday. It might have been a scene from some old-time romance—musketeers of the King and guards of his mighty Eminence setting out on a mission which the one master wished and the other wished not; or the iron lieutenants of Cromwell riding south in the wake of the cavaliers of Charles.
For romance, my masters, is no blear-eyed spinster mooning over the trumpery of a heyday that is gone, but a Miss Mischief offering her dainty fingers to you before the kiss of your grandfather's lips is yet dry on them. The damask petticoat, the powdered wig, and the coquettish little patch by her dimpled little mouth are off and into the garret, and she sweeps by in a Worth gown, or takes a fence on a thoroughbred, or waits ankle deep in the clover blossoms for some whistling lover, while your eyes are yet a-blinking.
The blacksmith-shop sat at a crossroads under a fringe of hickory trees that skirted a little hill-top. It was scarcely more than a shed, with a chimney, stone to the roof, and then built of sticks and clay. Out of this chimney the sparks flew when the smith was working, pitting the black shingle roof and searing the drooping leaves of the hickories. Around the shop was the characteristic flotsam, a cart with a mashed wheel, a plough with a broken mould-board, innumerable rusted tires, worn wagon-irons, and the other wreckage of this pioneer outpost of the mechanic.
At the foot of the hill as we came up, the Cardinal caught a stone between the calks of one of his hind shoes, and Jud got off to pry it out. Ump and I rode on to the shop and dismounted at the door. Old Christian was working at the forge welding a cart-iron, pulling the pole of his bellows, and pausing now and then to turn the iron in the glowing coals.
He was a man of middle size, perhaps fifty, bald, and wearing an old leather skull-cap pitted with spark holes. His nose was crooked and his eyes were set in toward it, narrow and close together. He wore an ancient leather apron, burned here and there and dirty, and his arms were bare to the elbows.
I led El Mahdi into the shop, and Christian turned when he heard us enter. "Can you tack on a shoe?" said I.
The smith looked us over, took his glowing iron from the forge, struck it a blow or two on the anvil, and plunged it sizzling into the tub of water that stood beside him. Then he came over to the horse. "Fore or hind?" he asked.
"Left hind," I answered; "it's broken."
He went to the corner of the shop and came back with his kit,—a little narrow wooden box on legs, with two places, one for nails and one for the shoeing tools, and a wooden rod above for handle and shoe-rack. He set the box beside him, took up the horse's foot, wiped it on his apron, and tried the shoe with his fingers. Then he took a pair of pincers out of his box, and catching one half of the broken shoe, gave it a wrench.
I turned on him in astonishment. "Stop," I cried, "you will tear the hoof."
"It'll pull loose," he mumbled.
Ump was at the door, tying the Bay Eagle. He came in when he heard me. "Christian," he said, "cut them nails."
The blacksmith looked up at him. "Who's shoein' this horse?" he growled.
The eyes of the hunchback began to snap. "You're a-doin' it," he said, "an' I'm tellin' you how."
"If I'm a doin' it," growled the blacksmith, "suppose you go to hell." And he gave the shoe another wrench.
I was on him in a moment, and he threw me off so that I fell across the shop against a pile of horseshoes. The hunchback caught up a sledge that lay by the door and threw it. Old Christian was on one knee. He dodged under the horse and held up the kit to ward off the blow. The iron nose of the sledge struck the box and crushed it like a shell, and, passing on, bounded off the steel anvil with a bang.
The blacksmith sprang out as the horse jumped, seized the hammer and darted at Ump. I saw the hunchback look around for a weapon. There was none, but he never moved. The next moment his head would have burst like a cracked nut, but in that moment a shadow loomed in the shop door. There was a mad rush like the sudden swoop of some tremendous hawk. The blacksmith was swept off his feet, carried across the shop, and flattened against the chimney of his forge. I looked on, half dazed by the swiftness of the thing. I did not see that it was Jud until old Christian was gasping under the falling mortar of his chimney, his feet dangling and his sooty throat caught in the giant's fingers, that looked like squeezing iron bolts. The staring eyes of the old man were glassy, his face was beginning to get black, his mouth opened, and his extended bare arm holding the hammer began to come slowly down.
It rested a moment on the giant's shoulder, then it bent at the elbow, the fingers loosed, and the hammer fell. Old Christian will never be nearer to the pit of his imperial master until he stumbles over its rim.
The hunchback glided by me and clapped his hand on Jud's shoulder. "Drop him," he cried.
The blood of the giant was booming. The desperate savage, passed sleeping from his father and his father's father, had awaked, and awaked to kill. I could read the sinister intent in the crouch of his shoulders.
The hunchback shook him. "Jud," he shouted, "Jud, drop him."
The giant turned his head, blinked his eyes for a moment like a man coming out of a sleep, and loosed his hand. The blacksmith slipped to the floor, but he could not stand when he reached it. His knees gave way. He caught the side of the leather bellows, and stumbling around it, sat down on the anvil wheezing like a stallion with the heaves.
Ump stooped and picked up the hammer. Then he turned to the puffing giant. "Jud," he said, "you ain't got sense enough to pour rain-water out of a boot."
"Why?" said Jud.
"Why?" echoed the hunchback, "why? Suppose you had wrung the old blatherskite's neck. How do you reckon we'd get a shoe on this horse?"
ON THE CHOOSING OF ENEMIES
It has been suggested by the wise that perhaps every passing event leaves its picture on the nearest background, and may hereafter be reproduced by the ingenuity of man. If so, and if genius led us into this mighty gallery of the past, there is no one thing I would rather look at than the face of a youth who stood rubbing his elbows in the shop of old Christian, the blacksmith.
The slides of violent emotion, thrust in when unexpected, work such havoc in a child's face,—that window to the world which half our lives are spent in curtaining!
I wish to see the face of the lad only if the gods please. The canvas about it is all tolerably clear,—the smoke-painted shop, and the afternoon sun shining in to it through the window by the forge; and through the great cracks, vertical sheets of sunlight thrust, wherein the golden dust was dancing; the blacksmith panting on his anvil, his bare arms bowed, and his hands pressed against his body as though to help somehow to get the good air into his lungs, beads of perspiration creeping from under the leather cap and tracing white furrows down his sooty face; Jud leaning against the wall, and Ump squatting near El Mahdi. The horse was not frightened. He jumped to avoid the flying sledge. That was all. I cannot speak of the magnitude of his courage. I can only say that he had the sublime indifference of a Brahmin from the Ganges.
Presently the blacksmith had gotten the air in him, and he arose scowling, picked up his tongs, fished the cart-iron out of the water, thrust it into the coals and began to pump his bellows.
It was an invitation to depart and leave him to his own business. But it was not our intention to depart with a barefooted horse, even if the devil were the blacksmith.
"Christian," said Ump, "you're not through with this horse."
The blacksmith paid no attention. He pumped his bellows with his back toward us.
"Christian!" repeated the hunchback, and his voice was the ugliest thing I have ever heard. It was low and soft and went whistling through the shop. "Do you hear me, Christian?"
The smith turned like an animal that hears a hissing by his heels, threw the tongs on the floor, and glared at Ump. "I won't do it," he snarled.
"Easy, Christian," said the hunchback, with the same wheedling voice that came so strangely through his crooked mouth. "Think about it, man. The horse is barefoot. We should be much obliged to you."
I do not believe that this man was a coward. It was his boast that he could shoe anything that could walk into his shop, and he lived up to the boast. I give him that due, on my honour. Many a devil walked into that shop wearing the hoof and hide of a horse and came out with iron nailed on his feet; for example, horses like the Black Abbot that fought and screamed when we put a saddle on him first and rolled on the earth until he crushed the saddle-tree and the stirrups into splinters; and horses like El Mahdi that tried to kill the blacksmith as though he were an annoying fly. It was dangerous business, and I do not believe that old Christian was a coward.
But what show had he? An arm's length away was the powerful Jud whose hand had just now held the smith out over the corner of the world; and the hunchback squatted on the floor with the striking hammer in his long fingers, the red glint under his half-closed eyelids, and that dangerous purring speech in his mouth. What show had he?
The man looked up at the roof, blackened with the smoke of half a century, and then down at the floor, and the resolution died in his face. He gathered up his scattered tools and went over to the horse, lifted his foot, cut the nails, and removed the pieces of broken shoe.
Then he climbed on the anvil, and began to move the manufactured shoes that were set in rows along the rafters, looking for a size that would fit.
"Them won't do," said Ump. "You'll have to make a shoe, Christian."
The man got down without a word, seized a bar of iron and thrust it into the coals. Jud caught the pole of his bellows, and pumped it for him. The smith turned the iron in the coals. When it glowed he took it out, cut off the glowing piece on the chisel in his anvil, caught it up in a pair of tongs and thrust it back into the fire. Then he waited with his hands hanging idly while Jud pulled the pole of the old bellows until it creaked and groaned and the fire spouted sparks.
When the iron was growing fluffy white, the smith caught it up in his tongs, lifted it from the fire, flung off a shower of hissing sparks and began to hammer, drawing it out and beating it around the horn of the anvil until presently it became a rough flat shoe.
The iron was cooling, and he put it back into the coals. When it was hot again, he turned the calks, punched the nail holes and carried it glowing to where the horse stood, held it an instant to the hoof, noted the changes to be made, and thrust it back into the fire.
A moment later the hissing shoe was plunged into a tub of water by the anvil, and then thrown steaming to the floor. Ump picked it up, passed his finger over it and then set it against El Mahdi's foot. It was a trifle narrow at the heel, and Ump pitched it back to the smith, spreading his fingers to indicate the defect. Old Christian sprung the calks on the horn of the anvil, and returned the shoe. The hunchback thrust his hand between the calks, raised the shoe and squinted along its surface to see if it were entirely level. Then he nodded his head.
The blacksmith went over to the wall, and began to take down a paper box. The hunchback saw him and turned under the horse. "We can't risk a store nail," he said. "You'll have to make 'em."
For the first time the man spoke. "No iron," he answered.
Ump arose and began to look over the shop. Presently he found an old scythe blade and threw it to the smith. "That'll do," he said; "take the back."
Old Christian broke the strip of iron from the scythe blade and heating it in his forge, made the nails, hammering them into shape, and cutting them from the rod until he had a dozen lying by the anvil. When they were cool, he gathered them in his hand, smoothed the points, and went over to El Mahdi.
The old man lifted the horse's foot, and set it on his knee, and Ump arose and stood over him. Then he shod the horse as the hunchback directed, paring the hoof and setting the nails evenly through the outer rim, clipping the nail ends, and clinching them by doubling the cut points. Then he smoothed the hoof with his great file and the work was over.
We rode south along the ridge, leaving old Christian standing in his shop door, his face sullen and his grimy arms folded. I flung him a silver dollar, four times the price of the shoeing. It fell by the shop sill, and he lifted his foot and sent it spinning across the road into the bushes.
The road ran along the ridge. A crumbling rail fence laced with the vines of the poison ivy trailed beside it. In its corners stood the great mullein, and the dock, and the dead iron-weed. The hickories, trembling in their yellow leaves, loomed above the fringe of sugar saplings like some ancient crones in petticoats of scarlet. Sometimes a partridge ran for a moment through the dead leaves, and then whizzed away to some deeper tangle in the woods; now a grey squirrel climbed a shell-bark with the clatter of a carpenter shingling a roof, and sat by his door to see who rode by, or shouted his jeer, and, diving into his house, thrust his face out at the window. Sometimes, far beyond us, a pheasant walked across the road, strutting as straight as a harnessed brigadier,—an outlaw of the Hills who had sworn by the feathers on his legs that he would eat no bread of man, and kept the oath. Splendid freeman, swaggering like a brigand across the war-paths of the conqueror!
We were almost at the crown of the ridge when a brown flying-squirrel, routed from his cave in a dead limb by the hammering of a hungry woodpecker, stood for a moment blinking in the sunlight and then made a flying leap for an oak on the opposite side of the road; but his estimate was calculated on the moonlight basis, and he missed by a fraction of an inch and went tumbling head over heels into the weeds.
I turned to laugh at the disconcerted acrobat, when I caught through the leaves the glimpse of a horse approaching the blacksmith-shop from one of the crossroads. I called to my companions and we found a break in the woods where the view was clear. At half a mile in the transparent afternoon we easily recognised Lem Marks. He rode down to the shop and stopped by the door.
In a moment old Christian came out, stood by the shoulder of the horse and rested his hand on Marks' knee. It was strange familiarity for such an acrimonious old recluse, and even at the distance the attitude of Woodford's henchman seemed to indicate surprise.
They talked together for some little while, then old Christian waved his arm toward the direction we had taken and went into his shop, presently returning with some implements in his hand. We could not make out what they were. He handed them up to Marks, and the two seemed to discuss the matter, for after a time Marks selected one and held it out to old Christian. The smith took it, turned it over in his hand, nodded his head and went back into his shop, while Marks gathered up his reins and came after us in a slow fox trot.
We slipped over the ridge and then straightened in our saddles.
"Boys," said the hunchback, fingering the mane of the Bay Eagle, "that was a bad job. We ought to be a little more careful in the pickin' of enemies."
"Damn 'em," muttered Jud, "I wonder what mare's nest they're fixin'. I ought to 'a twisted the old buck's neck."
The hunchback leaned over his saddle and ran his fingers along the neck of the splendid mare. "Peace," he soliloquised, "is a purty thing." Then he turned to me with a bantering, quizzical light in his eyes.
"Quiller," he said, "don't you wish you had your dollar back in your pocket?"
"Why?" said I.
"It's like this," said he. "One time there was an' old miser, an' when he was a-dyin' the devil come, an' set down by the bed, an' the devil said, 'You've done a good deal of work for me, an' I reckon I ought to give you a lift if you need it. Now, then, if there's any little thing you want done, I'll look after it for you.' The miser said he'd like to have an iron fence round his grave, if the devil thought he could see to it without puttin' himself out any. The devil said it wouldn't be any trouble, an' then he counted off on his fingers the minutes the miser had to live, an' lit out.
"They buried the miser in a poor corner of the graveyard where there was nothin' but sinkfield an' sand briars, an' that night the devil went down to the blacksmith an' told him he wanted an iron fence put around the old feller's grave, an' to git it done before midnight. The blacksmith throwed his coat an' went to work like a whitehead, an' when twelve o'clock come he had the iron fence done an' a settin' around the miser's grave.
"Just as the clock struck, the devil come along, an' he said to the blacksmith, standin' there a-sweatin' like a colt, 'Well, I see you got her all up hunkey dorey.' 'Yes,' said the blacksmith, 'an' now I want my pay.' 'Let's see about that,' said the devil; 'did you do that job because you wanted to, or because you didn't want to?' The blacksmith didn't know what to say, so he hemmed and hawed, an' finally he says, 'Maybe I done it because I wanted to, an' maybe I done it because I didn't want to.' 'All right,' said the devil; 'if you done it because you wanted to, I don't owe you nothin', an' if you done it because you didn't want to, there ain't nothin' I can pay you.' An' he sunk in the ground, with his thumb to his nose an' his fingers a-wigglin' at the blacksmith."
I saw the application of the story. One could settle with money for labour when the labourer was free, but when the labourer was not free, when he had used his breath and his muscle under a master, money could make no final settlement.
Ugly accounts to run in a world where the scheme of things is eternally fair, and worse, maybe, if carried over for adjustment into the Court of Final Equity! The remark of Ump came back like a line of ancient wisdom, "Peace is a purty thing."
THE WARDENS OF THE RIVER
While men are going about with a bit of lens and a measure of acid, explaining the hidden things of this world, I should be very glad if they would explain why it is that the evening of an autumn day always recalls the lost Kingdom of the Little. The sun squinting behind the mountains, the blue haze deepening in the hollows of the hills, the cool air laden with faint odours from the nooks and corners of the world,—what have these to do with the land of the work-a-day?
Long and long ago in that other country it meant that the fairies were gathering under the hill for another raid on the province of the goblins across the sedge-fields; that the owls were going up on the ridges to whisper with the moon; that the elves one by one, in their quaint yellow coats, were stealing along under the oak trees on the trail of the wolf spider. But what can it mean in the grown-up country?
When the Golden Land is lost to us, when turning suddenly we find the enchanted kingdom vanished, do we give up the hope of finding it again? We know that it is somewhere across the world, and we ought to find it, and we know, too, that its out-country is like these October afternoons, and our hearts beat wildly for a moment, then the truth strikes and we see that this is not The Land.
But it brings the memory of the heyday of that other land, where, in my babyhood, like the kings of Bagdad, I had a hundred bay horses in their stables, each bridled with a coloured woollen string, and stalled in the palings of the garden, and each with his high-sounding name, and princely lineage, and his thrilling history, and where I had a thousand black cattle at pasture in the old orchard.
It might be that an ancient, passing, would not see the drove, because his eyes were hide-bound, but he would see me as I galloped along by the hot steers, and hear the shouting, and he could not doubt that they were there. I was tremendously busy in those earlier days. No cattle king of the Hills had one-half the wonderful business. I dropped to sleep in old Liza's arms with my mighty plans swimming in my head. I had long rides and many bunches of cattle to gather on to-morrow, and I must have a good night's rest.
Or I rode in Ward's arms, when he went to salt the cattle, and sat in the saddle while he threw the handfuls of salt on the weeds, and I noticed all the wonders of the land into which we came. I saw the golden-belted bee booming past on his mysterious voyage, and he was a pirate sailing the summer seas. I heard the buzzing curse of the bald hornet, and I wished him hard luck on his robbing raid. And the swarms of yellow butterflies were bands of stranger fairies travelling incognito. I knew what these fellows were about, but I said nothing. The ancients were good enough folk, but their idea of perspective was abominably warped. I gave them up pretty early.
The hills by the great Valley River are a quiet country, sodded deep, with here and there an open grove like those in which the dreamers wandered with a garland of meadowsweet, or the fauns piped when the world was young. Through them, now and then, a little stream goes laughing, fringed with bulrushes and beds of calamus and fragrant mint, a narrow stream that runs chuckling through the stiff sod and spreads dimpling over the road on a bed of white sand, for all the world like a dodging sprite of the wood who laughs suddenly in some sunlit corner.
We splashed through one of these little brooks as the sun was setting, and El Mahdi's feet sank in the white sand. I watched the crystal water go bubbling over his hoofs and then pour with a gush into the shoe tracks which held the print like a mould. We left a silver trail or, now when the sun was slanting, a golden trail, big with the air of enchanted ventures.
When we came on the brow of the hills flanking the approaches to the Valley River it was already night. The outlines of the far-off mountains were blending into one huge shadow. It was now the wall of the world, with no path for a human foot. The hills were a purple haze, the trees along their crests making fantastic pictures against the sky. Beyond the land of living men, it seemed, an owl hooted, and a belated dove called and called like a moaning spirit wandering in some lost tarn of the Styx.
We rode down to the bend of the Valley River over a stretch of sandy land pre-empted by the cinque-foil and the running brier, the country of the woodcock and the eccentric kildee. We could hear the low, sullen roar of the river sweeping north around this big bend, long before we came to it. Under the stars there is no greater voice of power. We rode side by side in the deepening twilight, making huge shadows on the crunching sand. Up to this hour it seemed to me that we had been idling through some long and pleasant ride, with the loom of evil afar off in the front. We had talked of peril merrily together, as men loitering in a tavern talk easily of the wars. But now in the night, under the spell of the booming water, the atmosphere of responsibility returned.
Ward was depending upon me and the two beside me. Woodford's men moved back yonder in the Hills, and maybe they moved out there beyond the water, and we could see nothing and hear nothing but the sand grinding under the iron of a horse's shoe. In the night the face of the Valley River was not a pleasant thing to see. It ran muddy and swift, even with its banks, a bed of water a quarter of a mile in width, its yellow surface gleaming now and then in the dim light of the evening like the belly of some great snake.
Standing on its bank we could see the other shore, a line of grey fog. The yellow tongues of the water lapped the bank, and crept muttering in among the willows, an ominous, hungry brood.
The roar of the river, now that one stood beside it, seemed not so great. It was dull, heavy, low pitched, as though the vast water growled comfortably. The rains in the mountains had filled the bed brimming like a cup, even in the drought of summer. The valley was wide and deep in this bend,—too wide and too deep to be crossed by the ordinary bridge,—so the early men had set up a sort of ferry when they first came to this water.
It was a rude makeshift, the old men said, two dugouts of poplar lashed together and paddled, a thing that would carry a man and his horse, or perhaps a yoke of oxen. Now, the ferry was more pretentious. A wire cable stretched across the river, fastened on the south bank to a post set deep in the earth, and flanked by an abutment of sandstone, and on the north bank wound round a huge elm that stood by the road within a dozen yards of the river.
On this cable the boat ran, fastened with wire ropes and two pulleys, a sort of long, flat barge that would carry thirty cattle. The spanning cable made a great curve down the river, so that the strength of the current was almost sufficient to force the barge across, striking it obliquely against the dip of the wire. How the current could be made to do this work was to me one of the mysteries, but it did do it, guided and helped by the ferrymen. I have wondered at it a hundred times as I sat under El Mahdi's nose with my feet dangling over the side of the boat.
We stopped on the slope where the boat landed.
Jud threw back his shoulders and shouted; and someone answered from the other side, "Who-ee!" a call that is said to reach farther than any other human sound. It came high up over the water, clear enough, but as from a great distance. There were no bells at the crossings in this land. Every man carried a voice in his throat that could reach half a mile to the grazing steers on the sodded knobs.
The two sons of old Jonas Horton maintained the ferry as their father had done before them. It was an inheritance, and it was something more than this. It was a trust, a family distinction, like a title,—something which they were born into, as a Hindoo is born into his father's trade. If they had been ousted from this ferry, they would have felt themselves as hopelessly wronged as the descendants of an old house driven from their baronial estate.
The two, Mart and Danel, lived with the mother, a flat, withered old woman, in a log house by the river. They were tall, raw-boned, serious men, rarely leaving the river, and at such times hurrying back uneasy. Their faces at the church or in the village were anxious, as of one who leaves his house closed with a fire roaring in the chimney; or better, perhaps, of some fearful child who has stolen away from his daily everlasting task. Sometimes the mother would say, "There is no meal in the barrel," or, "You're drinking the last of the coffee;" and they would look at each other across the table, troubled, as men dire beset called upon to decrease the forces of a garrison. Then one would set out with a bag on his shoulder, throwing his long body forward at each step and dangling his arms, hurrying as though he ought not to take the time.
Presently the boat crept towards us out of the water, swung down swiftly and ground its nose in the bank. The two ferrymen were bareheaded, in their brown homespun coats. They had possibly been at supper, and turned around on their bench to answer through the open door. They inquired if we all wished to be set over, and we rode on to the boat for answer. The man in the bow reached up and caught the cable with a sort of iron wrench, and began to pull. The other took a pole lying by the horses' feet, thrust it against the bank and forced the boat out into the water. Then he also took a wrench from his pocket, and when his brother, walking down the length of the barge from bow to stern, reached the end, he caught the cable and followed, so that the pull on the wire was practically continuous.
The warm south wind blew stiffly in our faces and the horses shifted their feet uneasily. If the Valley River was ugly from its bank it was uglier from its middle. It tugged at the boat as though with a thousand clinging fingers, and growled and sputtered, and then seemed to quit it for a moment and whisper around the oak boards like invisible conspirators taking counsel in a closet. A scholar on that water nursing his sallow face in the trough of his hand would have fallen a-brooding on the grim boatman crossing to the shore that none may leave, or the old woman of the Sanza, poling her ghostly, everlasting raft; and had he listened, he could have heard the baying of the three-mouthed hound arousing the wardens of the Vedic Underworld to their infernal watching by that water we all must cross.
I think the hunchback had no idea of the moods of nature; at any rate they never seemed to affect him. To him all water was something to drink or something to swim in, and the earth was good pasture or hard road to ride a horse over. The grasp of no agnostic was more cynical. He inquired if any of Woodford's men had crossed that day, and was answered that they had not.
Then he began to hum a hoary roundelay about the splendid audacity of old Mister Haystack and his questionable adventures, set to an unprintable refrain of "Winktum bolly mitch-a-kimo," or some such jumble of words. I have never heard this song in the mouth of any other man. He must have found it somewhere among the dusty trumpery of forgotten old folk-lyrics, and when he sang it one caught the force of the Hebraic simile about the crackling of thorns under a pot.
Jud laughed, and the hunchback piped a higher cackle and dangled his bridle rein. "Humph," he said, "maybe you don't like that song."
"It ain't the song," replied Jud.
"Maybe you don't like the way I sing it," said he.
"It might be different," said Jud.
"Well," said he, "it wouldn't mean different."
Here I took a hand in the dialogue. "What does it mean anyhow?" I said. "It's about the foolest song I ever heard."
"Quiller," replied the hunchback, propping his fist under his bony jaw, "you've heard tell of whistlin' to keep up your courage. Well, that song was made for them as can't whistle."
Jud turned in astonishment. "Afraid?" he said; "what are you afraid of?"
The hunchback leaned over as if about to impart a secret. "Ghosts!" he whispered. I laughed at the discomfiture of the giant, but Ump went on counterfeiting a deep and weird seriousness which, next to his singing, was about the most ludicrous thing in the world. "Ghosts, my laddiebuck. But not the white-sheeted lady that comes an' says, 'Foller me,' nor the spook that carries his head under his arm tied up in a tablecloth, but ghosts, my laddiebuck, that make tracks while they walk."
"I thought ghosts rode broomsticks," said Jud.
"Nary a broomstick," replied the hunchback. "When they are a-follerin' Mister Ward's drovers, it's a little too peaked for long ridin'."
Then he broke off suddenly and called to the ferryman. "Danel," he said, "how many cattle will this boat hold?"
"Big cattle or stockers?" inquired the man.
"Exporters," said Ump.
"Mart," called the brother, "can we carry thirty exporters?"
"Are they dehorned?" inquired Mart.
"Muley," said Ump.
"We can carry thirty muleys if they ain't nervous," replied the brother called Mart. "Are you gatherin' up some cattle for Mister Ward?"
"Yes," said Ump. "We'll be here early in the morning with six hundred, an' we want to git 'em set over as quick as you can. How long will it take?"
"Well," said Danel, "mighty nigh up till noon, I reckon. Do you mind, Mart, how long we were settin' over them Alkire cattle?"
"We begun in the morning, and we stopp'd for an afternoon bite. It took the butt end of the day," replied the brother.
We had now reached the south bank of the Valley River, and when the boat slipped up on the wet sod, we rode ashore, and turned into the pike that runs by the river bank. The ferrymen, with the characteristic hospitality of the Hills, requested us to dismount and share the evening meal, but we declined, urging the lateness of the hour.
Through the open door I could see the unfinished supper, the sweet corn-pone cut like a great cheese, the striped bacon, and the blue stone milk pitcher with its broken ears.
THE USES OF THE MOON
When I turned about in the saddle I found that El Mahdi had passed both of my companions who were stock still in the road a half-dozen paces behind me. I pulled him up and called to them, "What mare's nest have you found now?"
They replied that some horse had lately passed in a gallop. One could tell by the long jumping and the deep, ploughing hoof-prints. "Come on," said I, "Woodford's devils haven't crossed. What do we care?"
"But it's mighty big jumpin'," answered the hunchback.
"Maybe," I responded laughing, "the cow that jumped over the moon took a running start there."
"If she did," said Ump, "I'll just find out if any of the Hortons saw her goin'." Then he shouted, "Hey, Danel, who crossed ahead of us?"
The long bulk of the ferryman loomed in the door. "It was Twiggs," he answered.
I heard Jud cursing under his breath. Twiggs was the head groom of Cynthia Carper, and when he ran a horse like that the devil was to pay. I gripped the reins of El Mahdi's bridle until he began to rear.
"He must have been in a hurry," said Ump.
"'Pears like it," responded the boatman, turning back into his house. "He lit out pretty brisk."
Ump shook the reins of his bridle and went by me in a gallop. The Cardinal passed at my knee, and I followed, bending over to keep the flying sand out of my eyes.
The moon was rising, a red wheel behind the shifting fog. And under its soft light the world was a ghost land. We rode like phantoms, the horses' feet striking noiselessly in the deep sand, except where we threw the dead sycamore leaves. My body swung with the motions of the horse, and Ump and Jud might have been a part of the thing that galloped under their saddles.
The art of riding a horse cannot be learned in half a dozen lessons in the academy on the avenue. It does not lie in the crook of the knee, or the angle of the spine. It does not lie in the make of the saddle or the multiplicity of snaffle reins, nor does it lie in the thirty-nine articles of my lady's riding-master. But it is embraced in the grasp of one law that may be stated in a line, and perhaps learned in a dozen years,—be a part of the horse.
The mastery of an art—be it what you like—does but consist in the comprehension of its basic law. The appreciation of this truth is indispensable. It cannot avail to ape the manner of the initiate. I have seen dapper youths booted and spurred, riding horses in the park, rising to the trot and holding the ball of the foot just so on the iron of the stirrup, and if the horse had bent his body they would have gone sprawling into the bramble bushes. Yet these youngsters believed that they were riding like her Majesty's cavalry, the ogled gallants of every strolling lass.
I have seen begloved clubmen with an English accent worrying a good horse that they understood about as well as a problem in mechanics or any line of Horace. And I have seen my lady sitting a splendid mount, with the reins caught properly in her fingers and her back as straight as a whip-staff, and I would have wagered my life that every muscle in her little body was as rigid as a rock, and her knee as numb as the conscience of a therapeutist.
Look, if you please, at the mud-stained cavalryman who has lived his days and his nights in the saddle; or the cattle drover who has never had any home but this pigskin seat, and mark you what a part of the horse he is. Hark back to these models when you are listening to the vapourings of a riding-master lately expatriated from the stables of Sir Henry. To ride well is to recreate the fabulous centaur of Thessaly.
We raced over the mile of sand road in fewer minutes than it takes to write it down here. There was another factor, new come into the problem, and we meant to follow it close. Expedition has not been too highly sung. An esoteric novelist hath it that a pigmy is as good as a giant if he arrive in time.
At the end of this mile, below Horton's Ferry, the road forks, and there stands a white signboard with its arms crossed, proclaiming the ways to the travelling stranger. The cattle Ward had bought were in two droves. Four hundred were on the lands of Nicholas Marsh, perhaps three miles farther down the Valley River, and the remaining two hundred a mile or two south of the crossroads at David Westfall's.
Ump swung his horse around in the road at the forks. "Boys," he said, "we'll have to divide up. I'll go over to old Westfall's, an' you bring up the other cattle. I'll make King David help to the forks."
"What about Twiggs?" said I.
"To hell with Twiggs," said he. "If he gits in your way, throat him." Then he clucked to the Bay Eagle and rode over the hill, his humped back rising and falling with the gallop of the mare.
We slapped the reins on our horses' necks and passed on to the north, the horses nose to nose, and my stirrup leather brushing the giant's knee at every jump of El Mahdi. The huge Cardinal galloped in the moonlight like some splendid machine of bronze, never a misstep, never a false estimate, never the difference of a finger's length in the long, even jumps. It might have been the one-eyed Agib riding his mighty horse of brass, except that no son of a decadent Sultan ever carried the bulk of Orange Jud. And the eccentric El Mahdi! There was no cause for fault-finding on this night. He galloped low and easily, gathering his grey legs as gracefully as his splendid, nervous mother. I watched his mane fluttering in the stiff breeze, his slim ears thrust forward, the moon shining on his steel-blue hide. For once he seemed in sympathy with what I was about. Seemed, I write it, for it must have been a mistaken fancy. This splendid, indifferent rascal shared the sensations of no living man. Long and long ago he had sounded life and found it hollow. Still, as if he were a woman, I loved him for this accursed indifference. Was it because his emotions were so hopelessly inaccessible, or because he saw through the illusion we were chasing; or because—because—who knows what it was? We have no litmus-paper test for the charm of genius.
Under us the dry leaves crackled like twigs snapping in a fire, and the flying sand cut the bushes along the roadway like a storm of whizzing hailstones. In the wide water of the Valley River the moon flitted, and we led her a lively race. When I was little I had a theory about this moon. The old folks were all wrong about its uses. Lighting the night was a piece of incidental business. It was there primarily as a door into and out of the world. Through it we came, carried down from the hill-tops on the backs of the crooked men and handed over to the old black mammy who unwrapped us trembling by the firelight. Then we squalled lustily, and they said "A child is born."
When a man died, as we have a way of saying, he did but go back with these same crooked men through the golden door of the world. Had I not seen the moon standing with its rim on the eastern ridge of the Seely Hill when they found old Jerry Lance lying stone-dead in his house? And had I not predicted with an air of mysterious knowledge that Jourdan would recover when Red Mike threw him? The sky was moonless and he could not get out if he wished.
Besides there was a lot of mystery about this getting into the world. Often when I was little, I had questioned the elders closely about it, and their replies were vague, clothed in subtle and bedizzened generalities. They did not know, that was clear, and since they were so abominably evasive I was resolved to keep the truth locked in my own bosom and let them find out about it the best way they could. Once, in a burst of confidence I broached the subject to old Liza and explained my theory. She listened with a grave face and said that I had doubtless discovered the real truth of the matter, and I ought to explain it to a waiting world. But I took a different view, swore her to secrecy, and rode away on a peeled gum-stick horse named Alhambra, the Son of the Wind.
While the horses ran, I speculated on the possible mission of Twiggs, but I could find no light, except that, of course, it augured no good to us. I think Jud was turning the same problem, for once in a while I could hear him curse, and the name of Twiggs flitted among the anathemas. We had hoped for a truce of trouble until we came up to Woodford beyond the Valley River. But here was a minion of Cynthia riding the country like Paul Revere. My mind ran back to the saucy miss on the ridge of Thornberg's Hill, and her enigmatic advice, blurted out in a moment of pique. This Twiggs was colder baggage. But, Lord love me! how they both ran their horses!
Three miles soon slip under a horse's foot, and almost before we knew it we were travelling up to Nicholas Marsh's gate. Jud lifted the wooden latch and we rode down to the house. Ward said that Nicholas Marsh was the straightest man in all the cattle business, scrupulously clean in every detail of his trades. Many a year Ward bought his cattle without looking at a bullock of them. If Marsh said "Good tops and middlin' tails," the good ones of his drove were always first class and the bad ones rather above the ordinary. The name of Marsh was good in the Hills, and his word was good. I doubt me if a man can leave behind him a better fame than that.
The big house sat on a little knoll among the maples, overlooking the Valley River. The house was of grey stone, built by his father, and stood surrounded by a porch, swept by the maple branches and littered with saddles, saddle blankets, long rope halters, bridles, salt sacks, heavy leather hobbles, and all the work-a-day gear of a cattle grazier.
There was a certain air of strangeness in the way we were met at Nicholas Marsh's house. I do not mean inhospitality, rather the reverse, with a tinge of embarrassment, as of one entertaining the awkward guest. We were evidently expected, and a steaming supper was laid for us. Yet, when I sat at the table and Jud with his plate by the smouldering fire, we were not entirely easy. Marsh walked through the room, backward and forward, with his hands behind him, and a great lock of his iron-grey hair throwing shadows across his face. Now and then he put some query about the grass, or my brother's injury, or the condition of the road, and then turned about on his heel. His fine open face wore traces of annoyance. It was plain that there had been here some business not very pleasing to this honourable man. When I told him we had come for the cattle, the muscles of his jaw seemed to tighten. He stopped and looked me squarely in the face.
"Well, Quiller," he said, with what seemed to me to be unnecessary firmness, "I shall let you have them."
I heard Jud turn sharply in his chair.
"Let me have them? Is there any trouble about it?"
The man was clearly embarrassed. He bit his lip and twisted his neck around in his collar. "No," he said, hesitating in his speech, "there isn't any trouble. Still a man might demand the money at the scales. He would have a right to do that."
My pulse jumped. So this was one of their plans, those devils. And we had never a one of us dreamed of it. If the money were demanded at the scales it would mean delay, and delay meant that Woodford would win.
So this was Twiggs's part in the ugly work. No wonder he ran his horse. Trust a woman for jamming through the devil's business. Nothing but the good fibre of this honourable man had saved us. But Westfall! He was lighter stuff. How about Westfall?
I looked up sharply into the troubled face of the honest man.
"How about the other cattle," I faltered; "shall we get them?"
"Who went for them?" he asked.
"Ump," I replied; "he left us at the crossroads."
The man took his watch out of his pocket and studied for a moment. "Yes," he said, "you will get them."
It was put like some confident opinion based upon the arrival of an event.
"Mister Marsh," I said, "are you afraid of Ward? Isn't he good for the money?"
"Don't worry about that, my boy," he answered, taking up the candlestick, "I have said that you shall have the cattle, and you shall have them. Let me see about a bed for you."
Then he went out, closing the door after him.
I turned to Jud, and he pointed his finger to a letter lying on the mantelpiece. I arose and picked it up. It bore Cynthia's seal and was open.
Let us forgive little Miss Pandora. Old Jupiter ought to have known better. And the dimpled wife of Bluebeard! That forbidden door was so tremendously alluring!
I think I should have pulled the letter out of its envelope had I not feared that this man would return and find it in my fingers. I showed the seal to Jud and replaced it on the mantelpiece.
He slapped his leg. "Twiggs brought that," he said, "an' he's gone on to Westfall's. What does it say?"
"I didn't read it," I answered.
The man heaved his shoulders up almost to his ears. "Quiller," he said, "you can't root, if you have a silk nose."
I think I should have fallen, but at this moment Nicholas Marsh came back with his candle, and said we ought to sleep if we wished an early start in the morning. I followed him up the bare stairway to my room on the north side of the house. He placed the candlestick on the table, promised to call me early, then bade me good-night and went away.
I watched his broad back disappear in the shadow of the hall. Then I closed the door and latched it. Rigid honesty has its disadvantages. Here was a man almost persuaded to insist upon a right that was valid but unusual, and deeply worried because he had almost yielded to the urging. It takes good men to see the fine shades of such a thing.
There was a broad window in this room, with the bare limbs of the maples brushing against its casement. I looked out before I went to bed. Beyond the Valley River, great smoky shadows cloaked the hills, gilded along their borders by the rising moon; hills that sat muffled in the foldings of their robes, waiting for the end,—waiting for man to play out the game and quit, and the Great Manager to pull down his scenery.
I blew out the candle, and presently slept as one sleeps when he is young. Sometime in the night I sat bolt upright in the good bed to listen. I had heard,—or was I dreaming,—floating up from some far distance, the last faint echo of that voice of Parson Peppers.
"An' the ravens they did feed him, fare ye well, fare ye well."
I sprang out of bed and pressed my face against the window. There was no sound in the world. Below, the Valley River lay like a plate of burnished yellow metal. Under the enchanted moon it was the haunted water of the fairy. No mortal went singing down its flood, surely, unless he sailed in the ship that the tailors sewed together, or went a-dreaming in that mystic barge rowed by the fifty daughters of Danaus.
I crept back under the woven coverlid. This was haunted country, and Parson Peppers was doubtless snoring in a bed.
THE SIX HUNDRED
It is an unwritten law of the Hills that all cattle bought by the pound are to be weighed out of their beds, that is, in the early morning before they have begun to graze. This is the hour set by immemorial custom.
We were in the saddle while the sun was yet abed. The cattle were on two great boundaries of a thousand acres, sleeping in the deep blue grass on the flat hill-tops. Jud and two of Marsh's drivers took one line of the ridges, and Marsh and I took the other.
The night was lifting when we came out on the line of level hill-tops, and through the haze the sleeping cattle were a flock of squatting shadows. As we rode in among them the dozing bullocks arose awkwardly from their warm beds and stretched their great backs, not very well pleased to have their morning rest broken.
We rode about, bringing them into a bunch, arousing some morose old fellow who slept by himself in a corner of the hill, or a dozen aristocrats who held a bedchamber in some windless cove, or a straying Ishmaelite hidden in a broom-sedge hollow,—all displeased with the interruption of their forty winks before the sunrise. Was it not enough to begin one's day with the light and close it with the light? What did man mean by his everlasting inroads on the wholesome ways of nature? The Great Mother knew what she was about. All the people of the fields could get up in the morning without this cursed row. Whoever was one of them snoozing in his trundle-bed after the sun had flashed him a good morning?
The home-life of the steer would be healthy reading in any family. He never worries, and his temper has no shoal. Either he is contented and goes about his business, or he is angry and he fights. He is clean, and as regular in his habits as a lieutenant of infantry. To bed on the highlands when the dark comes, and out of it with the sun. A drink of water from the brook, and about to breakfast.
We gathered the cattle into a drove, and started them in a broken line across the hills toward the road, the huge black muleys strolling along, every fellow at his leisure. The sun peeping through his gateway in the east gilded the tops of the brown sedge and turned the grass into a sea of gold. Through this Eldorado the line of black cattle waded in deep grasses to the knee,—curly-coated beasts from some kingdom of the midnight in mighty contrast to this golden country. I might have been the Merchant's Son transported by some wicked fairy to a land of wonders, watching, with terror in his throat, the rebellious jins under some enchantment of King Solomon travelling eastward to the sun.
Now a hungry fellow paused to gather a bunch of the good-tasting grass and was butted out of the path, and now some curly-shouldered belligerent roared his defiant bellow and it went rumbling through the hills. We drove the cattle through the open gate of the pasture and down a long lane to the scales.
Nicholas Marsh seemed another man, and I felt the first touch of triumph come with the crisp morning. Woodford was losing. We had the cattle and there remained only to drive them in. It is a wonderful thing how the frost glistening on a rail, or a redbird chirping in a thicket of purple raspberry briers, can lift the heart into the sun. Marks and his crew were creatures of a nightmare, gone in the daylight, hung up in the dark hollow of some oak tree with the bat.
Marsh and the drivers went ahead of the cattle to the scales, and I followed the drove, stopping to close the gate and fasten it with its wooden pin to the old chestnut gate-post. High up on this gate-post was a worn hole about as big as a walnut, door to the mansion of some speckled woodpecker. As I whistled merrily under his sill, the master of this house stepped up to his threshold and leered down at me.
He looked old and immoral, with a mosaic past, the sort of woodpecker who, if born into a higher estate, would have guzzled rum and gambled with sailors. His head was bare in spots, his neck frowsy, and his eyelids scaly. "Young sir," this debauched old Worldly Wiseman seemed to say, "you think you're a devil of a fellow merely because it happens to be morning. Gad sooks! You must be very young. When you get a trifle further on with the mischief of living, you will realise that a bucketful of sunlight doesn't run the devil out of business. Damme, sirrah! Please to clear out with your accursed whistling."
I left him to cool his head in the morning breezes.
Nicholas Marsh was waiting for me at the scales when I arrived. He wished me to see that they were balanced properly. He adjusted the beam, adding a handful of shot or a nail or an iron washer to the weights. Then we put on the fifty-pound test, and then a horse. When we were satisfied that the scales were in working order, we weighed the cattle four at a time. I took down the weights as Marsh called them, and when we had finished, the drove was turned into the road toward the river.
Marsh grasped my hand when I turned to leave him. "Quiller," he said, "it's hard to guard against a liar, but I do not believe there was ever a time when I would have refused you these cattle. Your brother has done me more than one conspicuous kindness. I would trust him for the cattle if he did not own an acre."
"Mr. Marsh," I said, "what lie did Woodford tell you?"
"I was told," he replied, "that Mr. Ward had transferred all of his land, and as these cattle would lose a great deal of money, he did not intend to pay this loss. I was shown a copy of the court record, or what purported to be one, to prove that statement. I do not think that I ever quite believed, but the proof seemed good, and I saw no reason for the lie."
He stopped a moment and swept the iron-grey locks back from his face. "Now," he continued, "I know the reason for that lie. And I know the paper shown me was spurious. It was high-handed rascality, but I cannot connect it with Woodford. It may have emanated from him, but I do not know that. The man who told me disclaimed any relation with him."
"Twiggs!" I said.
"No," he answered, "it was not Twiggs. The man was a heifer buyer from the north country. I would scarcely know him again."
"Not Twiggs!" I cried, "he was here last night."
"I know it," Marsh answered calmly. "He brought me this letter from Miss Cynthia. Will you carry it back to her, and say that your brother's word is good enough for Nicholas Marsh?"
He put his hand into his coat and handed me Cynthia's letter; and I stuffed it into my pockets without stopping to think. I tried to thank him for this splendid fidelity to Ward, but somehow I choked with the words pushing each other in my throat. He saw it, wished me a safe drive, and rode away to his house.
He was a type which the Hills will do ill to forget in the rearing of their sons, a man whose life was clean, and therefore a man difficult to wrong. I should have been sorry to stand before Nicholas Marsh with a lie in my mouth. He is gone now to the Country of the Silences. He was a just man, and to such, even the gods are accustomed to yield the wall.
I followed slowly after the drove, the broad dimensions of Woodford's plan at last clear in my youthful mind. He had put Ward in his bed, and out of the way. Then he had sent a stranger to these men with a dangerous lie corroborated by a bit of manufactured evidence,—a lie calculated to put any cattleman on his guard, and one that could not be tracked back to its sources.
Then, to make it sure, Twiggs had come riding like the devil's imps with some new warning from Cynthia. How could such planning fail? And failed it had not but for the honour of this gentleman, or perhaps some design of the Unknowable behind the machinery of the world.
Generation of intriguers! Here are the two factors that wreck you. The high captains of France overlooked the one in the prosecution of an obscure subordinate. And Absalom, the first great master of practical politics, somehow overlooked the other.
In my pocket was the evidence of Cynthia's perfidy, with the envelope opened, travelling home, as lies are said to. Ward might doubt the attitude of this woman when she smoothed matters with that dimpled mouth of hers, or crushed me out with her steel-grey eyes; but he would believe what she had written when he saw it. Then a doubt began to arise like the first vapour from the copper pot of the Arabian fisherman. Could I show it to Ward? Marsh had sent it to Cynthia. Could I even look at it? I postponed the contest with that genie.
Suicide is not a more deliberate business than cattle driving. A bullock must never be hurried, not even in the early morning. He must be kept strolling along no faster than he pleases. If he is hurried, one will presently have him panting with his tongue out, or down in a fence corner with the fat melted around his heart. Yet if he is allowed his natural gait, he will walk a horse to death.
Remember, he carries fifteen hundred pounds, and there are casks of tallow under his black hide. Besides that, he is an aristocrat accustomed to his ease. In large droves it is advisable to keep the herd in as long and narrow a line as possible, and to facilitate the driving, a few bullocks are usually separated from the others and kept moving in the van as a sort of pace-setter.
It is surprising how readily the drove falls into the spirit of this strolling march, some battle-scarred old bull leading, and the others following him in the dust.
It is said that neither fools, women, nor children can drive cattle. The explanation of this adage is not here assumed, nor its community of relation. I know the handling of these great droves is considered business for an expert. The cattle owner would no sooner trust a herd to men picked up by the roadway than the trainmaster would trust the limited express to a stranger in the railroad station.
If the cattle are hot they must be rested, in water if possible; if there is no water, then under some shade. Throw down the fence and turn them into the stranger's field. If the stranger is a person of good sense, he will be glad to assist your necessity. If not, he must yield to it.
These are laws of the Hills, always remembered as the lawyer remembers the "statute of frauds." It is impossible to go too slow. Watch the mouth of the bullock. He is in no danger until his tongue lolls out at the corner like a dog's. Then rest him. Let no man go through your drove. He must stop until it passes him. If he refuses, he must be persuaded. If one bullock runs back, let him alone; he will follow. But if two, turn them at once with a swift dash of the cattle-horse. Never run a steer. If the cattle are frightened, sing to them, and ride through the drove. Old-fashioned, swinging, Methodist hymns are best. Make it loud. The cattle are not particular about the tune.
I have heard the profane Ump singing Old Hundred and riding the Bay Eagle up and down in a bunch of frightened cattle, and it was a piece of comedy for the gods. I have heard Jud, with no more tune than a tom-tom, bellowing the doxology to a great audience of Polled-Angus muleys on the verge of a stampede. And I have sung myself, many a time, like a circuit rider with a crowded mourner's bench.
One thing more: know every bullock in your drove. Get his identity in your mind as you get the features of an acquaintance, so that you would recognise him instantly if you met him coming up at the end of the earth. A driver in the Hills would not be worth his salt who did not know every head of his cattle. Suppose his herd breaks into a field where there are others of the same breed, or he collides with another drove, or there is a tremendous mix at a tavern. The facility with which a cattle man learns to recognise every steer in a drove of hundreds is an eighth wonder of the world to a stranger. Anyone of us could ride through a drove of cattle, and when he reached the end know every steer that followed him in the road, and I have seen a line reaching for miles.
Easy with your eyebrows, my masters. When men are trained to a craft from the time they are able to cling to a saddle, they are very apt to exhibit a skill passing for witchcraft with the uninitiated. I have met many a grazier, and I have known but one who was unable to recognise the individual bullock in his drove, and his name was a byword in the Hills.
Jud and the Cardinal followed the drove, and I rode slowly through the cattle, partly to keep the long line thin, but chiefly to learn the identity of each steer. I looked for no mark, nor any especial feature of the bullock, but caught his identity in the total as the head waiter catches the identity of a hat. I looked down at each bullock for an instant, and then turned to the next one. In that instant I had the cast of his individuality forever. The magicians of Pharaoh could not afterwards mislead me about that bullock. This was not esoteric skill. Any man in the Hills could do it. Indeed it was a necessity. There was not a branded bullock in all this cattle land. What need for the barbaric custom when every man knew his cattle as he knew his children?
Later on, when little men came, at mid-life, to herding on the plains, they were compelled to burn a mark on their cattle. But we who had bred the beef steer for three-quarters of a century did no such child's play. How the crowd at Roy's tavern would have roared at such baby business. I have seen at this tavern a great mix of a dozen herds, that looked as like as a potful of peas, separated by an idle loafer sitting on a fence, calling out, "That one's Woodford's, an' that one's Alkire's an' that one's Maxwell's, an' the Polled-Angus muley belongs to Flave Davisson, an' the old-fashioned one is Westfield's. He must have got him in Roane or Nicholas. An' the Durham's Queen's, an' the big Holstein belongs to Mr. Ward, an' the red-faced Hereford is out of a Greenbrier cow an' goes with the Carper's."
By the time I had gotten through the drove we had reached the crossroads, and I found Ump waiting with the two hundred cattle of Westfall. The Bay Eagle was watching the steers, and Ump was sitting sidewise in his saddle with his hands around his knees.
I hailed him. "Did you have a hard job?"
"Easy as rollin' off a log," he answered. "I thought King David would throw his coat, but he was smooth-mouthed an' cross-legged as a peddler."
"Did Twiggs get in?" I asked.
"Beat me by a neck," answered the hunchback. "But I passed him comin' out an' I lit in to him."
"Fist and skull?" said I.
"Jaw," said he. "I damned every Carper into fiddlestrings from old Adam to old Columbus."
"What did he say?"
"He said we was the purtiest bunch of idiots in the kingdom of cowtails."
RELATING TO THE FIRST LIARS
The autumn in the Hills is but the afternoon of summer. The hour of the new guest is not yet. Still the heat lies on the earth and runs bubbling in the water. The little maid trots barefoot and the urchin goes a-swimming in the elm-hole by the corner of the meadow. Still the tender grass grows at the roots of the dead crop, and the little purple flowers dimple naked in the brown pasture. Still that Pied Piper of Hamelin, the everlasting Pan, flutes in the deep hollows, squatted down in the broom-sedge. And still the world is a land of unending summer, of unfading flowers, of undying youthfulness. Only for an hour or so, far in the deep night does the distant breath of the Frost King come to haunt the land, and then when the sun flings away his white samite coverlid it is summer again, with the earth shining and the water warm.
It was hot mid-morning when the long drove trailed down toward Horton's Ferry. The sweat was beginning to trickle in the hair of the fat cattle. Here and there through the herd a quarrelsome fellow was beginning to show the effect of his fighting and the heat. His eyes were a bit watery in his dusty face, and the tip of his tongue was slipping at his lips. The warm sun was getting into the backs of us all. I had stripped off my coat and carried it thrown across the horn of the saddle. Ump rode a mile away in the far front of the drove, keeping a few steers moving in the lead, while Jud shifted his horse up and down the long line. I followed on El Mahdi, lolling in the big saddle. Far away, I could hear Ump shout at some perverse steer climbing up against the high road bank, or the crack of Jud's driving whip drifted back to me. The lagging bullocks settled to the rear, and El Mahdi held them to the mark like a good sergeant of raw militiamen.
Ump and his leaders had reached the open common by the ferry when the long line stopped, and I saw Jud go to the front in a gallop. I waited for the column to go on, but it did not, and I began to drive the cattle in, bunching them up in the road.
Presently Jud came down into the turnpike and shouted to me. Then he dismounted, tied the reins around the horn of the saddle, and started the Cardinal to the rear. The trained cattle-horse knew very well what he was to do, and picked his way through the steers until he reached me. Then he turned in the road, and I left him to watch the drove while I went to the front to see what the trouble was.
Both the Cardinal and the Bay Eagle were trained to this business and guarded the rear of the drove like dogs. The rider might lounge under a shade-tree, kicking up his heels to the sky. For this work El Mahdi was a trifle too eccentric, and we did not trust him.
Jud was gone when I reached the little bank where the road turned into the common of the ferry. I passed through the van of the cattle as they stood idly on the sodded open swinging their long tails with comfortable indifference. Then I came out where I could see the bank of the river and the blue smoke trailing up from the chimney of the ferrymen.
Facing the north at the front door of this house, Ump sat on the Bay Eagle, the reins down on the mare's neck and the hunchback's long hands crossed and resting on the horn of his saddle.
The attitude of the man struck me with a great fear. About him lurked the atmosphere of overwhelming defeat. The shadow of some mighty disaster loomed over against the almost tragic figure of the motionless hunchback sitting a horse of stone.
In such moments of strain the human mind has a mysterious capacity for trifles. I noticed a wisp of dry sedge bloom clinging to the man's shoulder,—a flimsy detail of the great picture.
The hunchback made no sign when I rode by him. What he had seen was still there beyond him in the sun. I had eyes; I could see.
On a stone by the landing sat one of the ferrymen, Danel, his hands in the pockets of his brown homespun coat. Neither Jud nor the other brother was anywhere in sight. I looked up at the steel cable above the man's head. It ended twenty feet away in the water.
I arose in the stirrups and searched the bank for the boat. It was gone. The Valley River ran full, a quarter of a mile of glistening yellow water, and no way across it but the way of the bass or the way of the heron.
The human mind has caves into which it can crawl, pits where it hides itself when it wishes to escape; dark holes leading back under the crags of the abyss. This explains the dazed appearance of one who is told suddenly of a disaster. The mind has crawled up into these fastnesses. For the time the distance is great between it and the body of the man through which it manifests itself. An enemy has threatened, and the master has gone to hide himself. The mind is a coward, afraid always of the not-mind. Like the frightened child, it must be given time to creep back to its abandoned plaything.
The full magnitude of this disaster to the ferry came slowly, as when one smooths out a crumpled map. In the great stillness I heard a wren twittering in the reeds along the bank, and I noted a green grasshopper, caught in the current, swimming for his life.
Then I saw it all to the very end, and I sickened. I felt as though some painless accident had removed all the portion of my body below the diaphragm. It was physical sickness. I doubled over and linked my fingers across my stomach, my head down almost to the saddle. Marks and his crew had done the work for us. The cable had been cut, and the boat had drifted away or been stolen. We were on the south side of the Valley River twirling our thumbs, while they rode back to their master with the answer, "It is done."
Then, suddenly, I recalled the singing which I had heard in the night. It was no dream, that singing. Peppers had stolen the boat and floated it away with the current. I could see Cynthia laughing with Hawk Rufe. Then I saw Ward, and the sickness left me, and the tears came streaming through my eyes. I put my arms down on the horn of the saddle and sobbed.
Remember, I was only a boy. Men old in the business of life become accustomed to loss; accustomed to fingers snatching away the gain which they have almost reached up to; accustomed to the staggering blow delivered by the Unforeseen. Like gamblers, they learn finally to look with indifference on the mask that may disguise the angel, or the death; on the curtain of to-morrow that may cover an Eldorado or a tomb. They come to see that the eternal forces are unknowable, following laws unknowable, from the seed sprouting in a handful of earth to the answer of a woman, "I do not love you."
But the child does not know the truth. He has been lied to from the cradle; taught a set of catchwords, a set of wise saws, a set of moral rules, logarithms by which the equation of life could be worked out, all arbitrary, and many grossly erroneous. He is led to believe that his father or the schoolmaster has grasped the scheme of human life and can explain it to him.
The nurse says it will come out all right, as though the Unforeseen could be determined by a secret in her possession. He is satisfied that these wise ones know. Then he meets the eternal forces, an event threatens, he marshals his catchwords, his wise saws, his moral rules, and they fail him. He retires, beaten, as the magicians of Egypt retired before God.
His father or the nurse or the schoolmaster explains with some outlandish fairy story, shifts the catchword or the saw or the rule, as a physician shifts the prescription of a consumptive, and returns him to the tremendous Reality. Again he spreads his hands and cries the sacred formula, the eternal forces advance, he stands fast and is flung bleeding to the wall, or he flees. Afraid, hidden in some cranny of the rocks, nursing his hurt, the child begins to see the truth. This passing from the world as it should be to the world as it is nearly kills him. It is like the riving of timber.
Presently I heard Jud speak to me from behind El Mahdi. The full strong voice of the man was like a dash of cold water in the face. I sat up; he bade me join Ump and himself to discuss what should be done, then turned around and went back to the house.
I slipped down from El Mahdi, washed my face in the river, and wiped it dry on my sleeve. Then I climbed into the saddle and rode back to where the little group stood before the door.
There were Ump and Jud, the two ferrymen, and their ancient mother. Danel was describing the catastrophe in a low voice, as one might describe the last illness of a man whose corpse was waiting in his house for burial.
"We set Twiggs over pretty late. Then there wasn't anybody else. So we tied up the boat an' went to bed. Mother sleeps by the fire. Mother has rheumatiz so she don't sleep very sound. About midnight she called me. She was sitting up in the bed with a shawl around her. 'Danel,' she said, 'there's something lumbering around the boat. Hadn't you better slip down an' see about it?' I told mother I reckoned it was a swimmin' tree. Sometimes they hit against the boat when they go down. Then I waked Mart up an' told him mother heard somethin' bumpin' against the boat, an' I reckoned it was a swimmin' tree. Mart was sleepy an' he said he reckoned it was. Then I turned over an' went to sleep again. When we got out this mornin', the cable was broke loose an' the boat swum off. We s'pose," here he paused and looked gravely at his brother, who as gravely nodded his head, "we s'pose the cable pulled loose somehow."
"It was cut in two," said I.
The ferryman screwed his head around on his neck as though he had not heard correctly. "Did you say 'cut in two'?" he repeated.
"Yes," said I, "cut in two. That cable was cut in two."
The man began to rub his chin with his hand. "I reckon not, Quiller," he said. "I reckon there ain't no person ornery enough to do that."
"It might be," piped the old woman, thrusting in. "There's been sich. Oncet, a long time ago, when your pap was a boy, goin' girlin' some, about when he begun a settin' up to me, a feller stole the ferryboat, but he was a terrible gallus feller."
"Granny," said Ump, "the devil ain't dead by a long shot. There is rapscallions lickin' plates over the Valley that's meaner than gar-broth. They could show the Old Scratch tricks that would make his eyes stick out so you could knock 'em off with a clapboard."
Danel protested. He pointed out that neither he nor his brother had ever done any man a wrong, and therefore no man would wrong them. It was one of those rules which children discover are strangely not true. He said the ferry was for the good of all, and therefore all would preserve rather than injure that good. Another wise saw, verbally sound, but going to pieces under the pitiless logic of fact.
This man, who had spent his life as one might spend it grinding at a mill, now, when he came to reckon with the natures of men, did it like a child. Ump cut him short. "Danel," he said, "you talk like a meetin'-house. Old Christian cut that cable with a cold chisel, an' Black Malan or Peppers stole your boat. They have nothing against you. They wanted to stop us from crossin' with these cattle, an' I guess they've done it."
Then he turned to me. The vapourings of the ferryman were of no importance. "Quiller," he said, "we're in the devil's own mess. What do you think about it?"
"I don't know," I answered; "what does Jud think?"
The face of the giant was covered with perspiration standing in beads. He clenched his hands and clamped his wet fists against the legs of his breeches. "God damn 'em!" he said. It was the most terrible oath that I have ever heard. Then he closed his mouth.
Ump looked at the man, then rode his horse over to me.
"Quiller," he said slowly, "we're gone up unless we can swim the drove across, an' it's a hell of a risky job. Do you see that big eddy?" and he pointed his finger to the middle of the Valley River where the yellow water swung around in a great circle. "If the steers bunched up in that hole, they'd drown like rats."
I looked at the wide water and it scared me. "Ump," I said, "how long could they stay in there without giving out?"
"They wouldn't give out," replied the hunchback, "if we could keep 'em above the eddy. A steer can swim as long as a horse if he ain't crowded. If we could keep 'em goin' in a long loop, we could cross 'em. If they bunched up, it would be good-bye, pap."
"Do you think they would grind in there if they happened to bunch?" said I.
"To kindlin'," responded Ump, "if they ever got at it good."
"Ump," I said, looking him squarely in the face, "I'm afraid of it."
The man chewed his thin upper lip. "So am I, Quiller," he answered. "But there ain't much choosin'; we either swim 'em or we go up the spout."
"Well," said I, "do we do it, or not do it?"
The hunchback studied the river. "Quiller," he said finally, "if we knowed about that current——"
I cut him short. "I'll find out about the current," I said. Then I threw away my hat, pitched my coat down on the sod and gathered up my bridle reins.
"Wait!" cried the hunchback. Then he turned to Jud. "Wash your face in the tub by the spout yonder, an' bring up your horse. Take Danel with you. Open Tolbert's fence an' put the cattle in the grove. Then come back here. Quiller's the lightest; he's goin' to try the current."
Then he swung around and clucked to the mare. I spoke to El Mahdi and we rode down toward the river. On the bank Ump stopped and looked out across the water, deep, wide, muddy. Then he turned to me.
"Hadn't you better ride the Bay Eagle?" he said. "She knows more in a minute than any horse that was ever born."
"What's wrong with El Mahdi?" I said, piqued a little.
"He ain't steady," responded the hunchback; "an' he knows more tricks than a meetin'-house rat. Sometimes he swims an' sometimes he don't swim, an' you can't tell till you git in."
"This," said I, "is a case of 'have to.' If he don't like the top, there's ground at the bottom." Then I kicked the false prophet in the flanks with my heels. The horse was standing on the edge of the sodded bank. When my heels struck him, he jumped as far as he could out into the river.
There was a great splash. The horse dropped like a stone, his legs stiff as ramrods, his neck doubled under and his back bowed. It was a bucking jump and meant going to the bottom. I felt the water rush up and close over my head.
I clamped my legs to the horse, held my breath, and went down in the saddle. I thought we should never reach the bottom of that river. The current tugged, trying to pull me loose and whirl me away. The horse under me felt like a millstone. The weight of water pressed like some tremendous thumb. Then we struck the rock bottom and began to come up. The sensation changed. I seemed now to be thrust violently from below against a weight pressing on my head, as though I were being used by some force under me to drive the containing cork out of the bottle in which we were enclosed. I began to be troubled for breath, my head rang. The distance seemed interminable. Then we popped up on the top of the river, and I filled with the blessed air to the very tips of my fingers.
The horse blew the water out of his nostrils and doubled his long legs. I thought he was going down again, and, seizing the top of the saddle horn, I loosed my feet in the stirrups. If El Mahdi returned to the deeps of that river, he would go by himself.
He stretched out his grey neck, sank until the water came running over the saddle, and then began to swim with long, graceful strokes of his iron legs as though it were the easiest thing in the world.
WHEN PROVIDENCE IS PAGAN
The strength of the current did not seem to be so powerful as I had judged it. However, its determination was difficult. The horse swam with great ease, but he was an extraordinary horse, with a capacity for doing with this apparent ease everything which it pleased him to attempt. I do not know whether this arose from the stirring of larger powers ordinarily latent, or whether the horse's manner somehow concealed the amount of the effort. I think the former is more probable.
Half-way across the river, we were not more than twenty yards down-stream from the ferry landing. Ump shouted to turn down into the eddy, and I swung El Mahdi around. A dozen long strokes brought us into the almost quiet water of the great rim to this circle, a circle that was a hundred yards in diameter, in which the water moved from the circumference to the centre with a velocity increasing with the contracting of its orbit, from almost dead water in its rim to a whirling eddy in its centre.
I pulled El Mahdi up and let him drift with the motion of the water. We swung slowly around the circle, moving inward so gently that our progress was almost imperceptible.
The panic of men carried out in flood water can be easily understood. The activity of any power is very apt to alarm when that power is controlled by no intelligence. It is the unthinking nature of the force that strikes the terror. Death and the dark would lose much if they lost this attribute. The water bubbled over the saddle. The horse drifted like a chip. To my eyes, a few feet above this flood, the water seemed to lift on all sides, not unlike the sloping rim of some enormous yellow dish, in which I was moving gradually to the centre.
If I should strike out toward the shore, we should be swimming up-hill, while the current turning inward was apparently travelling down. This delusion of grade is well known to the swimmer. It is the chiefest terror of great water. Expert swimmers floating easily in flood water have been observed to turn over suddenly, throw up their arms, and go down. This is probably panic caused by believing themselves caught in the vortex of a cone, from which there seems no escape, except by the impossible one of swimming up to its rim, rising on all sides to the sky.
In a few minutes El Mahdi was in the centre of the eddy, carried by a current growing always stronger. In this centre the water boiled, but it was for the most part because of a lashing of surface currents. There seemed to be no heavy twist of the deep water into anything like a dangerous whirlpool. Still there was a pull, a tugging of the current to a centre. Again I was unable to estimate the power of this drag, as it was impossible to estimate how much resistance was being offered by the horse.
In the vortex of the eddy the delusion of the vast cone was more pronounced. It was one of the dangerous elements to be considered. I observed the horse closely to determine, if possible, whether he possessed this delusion. If he did, there was not the slightest evidence of it. He seemed to swim on the wide river with the indifference of floating timber, his head lying flat, and the yellow waves slipping over him to my waist. The sun beat into this mighty dish. Sometimes, when it caught the water at a proper angle, I was blinded and closed my eyes. Neither of these things seemed to give El Mahdi the slightest annoyance. I heard Ump shout and turned the horse toward the south shore. He swam straight out of the eddy with that same mysterious ease that characterised every effort of this eccentric animal, and headed for the bank of the river on the line of a bee. He struck the current beyond the dead water, turned a little up stream and came out on the sod not a hundred paces below the ferry. Both Ump and Jud rode down to meet me.
El Mahdi shook the clinging water from his hide and resumed his attitude of careless indifference.
"Great fathers!" exclaimed Jud, looking the horse over, "you ain't turned a hair on him. He ain't even blowed. It must be easy swimmin'."
"Don't fool yourself," said the hunchback. "You can't depend on that horse. He'd let on it was easy if it busted a girt."
"It was easy for him," I said, rising to the defence.
"Ho, ho," said Ump, "I wouldn't think you'd be throwin' bokays after that duckin'. I saw him. It wasn't so killin' easy."
"It couldn't be so bad," said Jud; "the horse ain't a bit winded."
"Laddiebuck," cried the hunchback, "you'll see before you get through. That current's bad."
I turned around in the saddle. "Then you're not going to put them in?" I said.
"Damn it!" said the hunchback, "we've got to put 'em in."
"Don't you think we'll get them over all right?" said I, bidding for the consolation of hope.
"God knows," answered the hunchback.
"It'll be the toughest sleddin' that we ever went up against." Then he turned his mare and rode back to the house of the ferrymen, and we followed him.
Ump stopped at the door and called to the old woman. "Granny," he said, "set us out a bite." Then he climbed down from the Bay Eagle, one leg at a time, as a spider might have done.
"Quiller," he called to me, "pull off your saddle, an' let Jud feed that long-legged son of a seacook. He'll float better with a full belly."
Jud dismounted from the Cardinal. "When does the dippin' begin?" he said. "Mornin' or afternoon service?"
The hunchback squinted at the sun. "It's eleven o'clock now," he answered. "In an hour we'll lock horns with Hawk Rufe an' hell an' high water, an' the devil keeps what he gits."
Jud took off the saddles and fed the horses shelled corn in the grass before the door, and after the frugal dinner we waited for an hour. The hunchback was a good general. When he went out to the desperate sally he would go with fresh men and fresh horses. I spent that hour on my back.
Across the road under the chestnut trees the black cattle rested in the shade, gathering strength for the long swim. On the sod before the door the horses rolled, turning entirely over with their feet in the air. Jud lay with his legs stretched out, his back to the earth, and his huge arms folded across his face.
Ump sat doubled up on the skirt of his saddle, his elbows in his lap, his long fingers linked together, and the shaggy hair straggling across his face. He was the king of the crooked men, planning his battle with the river while his lieutenants slept with their bellies to the sun.
I was moving in some swift dream when the stamping of the horses waked me and I jumped up. Jud was tightening the girth on El Mahdi. The Cardinal stood beside him bridled and saddled. Ump was sitting on the Bay Eagle, his coat and hat off, giving some order to the ferrymen who were starting to bring up the cattle. The hunchback was saving every breath of his horses. He looked like some dwarfish general of old times.
I climbed up on El Mahdi bareheaded, in my shirt sleeves, as I had ridden him before. Jud took off his coat and hat and threw them away. Then he pulled off his shirt, tied it in a knot to the saddle-ring, tightened the belt of his breeches, and got on his horse naked to the waist. It was the order of the hunchback.
"Throw 'em away," he said; "a breath in your horse will be worth all the duds you can git in a cart."
Danel and Mart laid down the fence and brought the cattle into the common by the ferry. Directed by the hunchback they moved the leaders of the drove around to the ferry landing. The great body of the cattle filled the open behind the house. The six hundred black muleys made the arc of a tremendous circle, swinging from the ferry landing around to the road. It was impossible to get farther up the river on this side because of a dense beech thicket running for a quarter of a mile above the open.
It was our plan to put the cattle in at the highest point, a few at a time, and thereby establish a continuous line across the river. If we could hold this line in a reasonable loop, we might hope to get over. If it broke and the cattle drifted down-stream we would probably never be able to get them out.
When the drove stood as the hunchback wished it, he rode down to the edge of the river, Jud and I following him. I felt the powerful influence exerted by the courage of this man. He leaned over and patted the silk shoulders of the Bay Eagle. "Good girl," he said, "good girl." It was like a last caress, a word spoken in the ear of the loved one on the verge of a struggle sure to be lost, the last whisper carrying all the devotion of a lifetime. Did the man at heart believe we could succeed? If the cattle were lost, did he expect to get out with his life? I think not.
Against this, the Cardinal and his huge naked rider contrasted strangely. They represented brute strength marching out with brute fearlessness into an unthinking struggle. Fellows and mates, these, the bronze giant and his horse. They might go under the yellow water of the Valley River, but it would be the last act of the last struggle.
As for me, I think I failed to realise the magnitude of this desperate move. I saw but hazily what the keen instinct of the hunchback saw so well,—all the possibilities of disaster. I went on that day as an aide goes with his general into a charge. I lacked the sense of understanding existing between the other men and their horses, but I had in its stead an all-powerful faith in the eccentric El Mahdi. No matter what happened, he would come out of it somehow.
Domestic cattle will usually follow a horse. It was the plan that I should go first, to lead fifty steers put in with me. Then Jud should follow to keep the bunch moving, while Ump and the two ferrymen fed the line, a few at a time, keeping it unbroken, and as thin as possible.
This was the only plan offering any shadow of hope. We could not swim the cattle in small bunches because each bunch would require one or two drivers, and the best horse would go down on his third trip. That course was out of the question, and this was the only other.
I think Ump had another object in putting me before the drove. If trouble came, I would not be caught in the tangle of cattle. I rode into the river, and they put the fifty leaders in behind me. This time El Mahdi lowered himself easily into the water and began to swim. I held him in as much as I could, and looked back over my shoulder.