The boy took her in his arms, and pressed her close. His eyes were gazing off over her bent head, and his lips twitched. He drew his features into a scowl, because that was the only expression with which he could safeguard his feelings. His voice was husky.
"I reckon, Sally," he said, "I couldn't live withouten you, neither."
The party of men who had started at morning from Jesse Purvy's store had spent a hard day. The roads followed creek-beds, crossing and recrossing waterways in a fashion that gave the bloodhounds a hundred baffling difficulties. Often, their noses lost the trail, which had at first been so surely taken. Often, they circled and whined, and halted in perplexity, but each time they came to a point where, at the end, one of them again raised his muzzle skyward, and gave voice.
Toward evening, they were working up Misery along a course less broken. The party halted for a moment's rest, and, as the bottle was passed, the man from Lexington, who had brought the dogs and stayed to conduct the chase, put a question:
"What do you call this creek?"
"Does anybody live on Misery that—er—that you might suspect?"
The Hollmans laughed.
"This creek is settled with Souths thicker'n hops."
The Lexington man looked up. He knew what the name of South meant to a Hollman.
"Is there any special South, who might have a particular grudge?"
"The Souths don't need no partic'lar grudge, but thar's young Samson South. He's a wildcat."
"He lives this way?"
"These dogs air a-makin' a bee-line fer his house." Jim Hollman was speaking. Then he added: "I've done been told that Samson denies doin' the shootin', an' claims he kin prove an alibi."
The Lexington man lighted his pipe, and poured a drink of red whiskey into a flask cup.
"He'd be apt to say that," he commented, coolly. "These dogs haven't any prejudice in the matter. I'll stake my life on their telling the truth."
An hour later, the group halted again. The master of hounds mopped his forehead.
"Are we still going toward Samson South's house?" he inquired.
"We're about a quarter from hit now, an' we hain't never varied from the straight road."
"Will they be apt to give us trouble?"
Jim Hollman smiled.
"I hain't never heered of no South submittin' ter arrest by a Hollman."
The trailers examined their firearms, and loosened their holster- flaps. The dogs went forward at a trot.
From time to time that day, neighbors had ridden up to Spicer South's stile, and drawn rein for gossip. These men brought bulletins as to the progress of the hounds, and near sundown, as a postscript to their information, a volley of gunshot signals sounded from a mountain top. No word was spoken, but in common accord the kinsmen rose from their chairs, and drifted toward their leaning rifles.
"They're a-comin' hyar," said the head of the house, curtly. "Samson ought ter be home. Whar's Tam'-rack?"
No one had noticed his absence until that moment, nor was he to be found. A few minutes later, Samson's figure swung into sight, and his uncle met him at the fence.
"Samson, I've done asked ye all the questions I'm a-goin' ter ask ye," he said, "but them dawgs is makin' fer this house. They've jest been sighted a mile below."
"Now"—Spicer South's face hardened—"I owns down thar ter the road. No man kin cross that fence withouten I choose ter give him leave. Ef ye wants ter go indoors an' stay thar, ye kin do hit—an' no dawg ner no man hain't a-goin' ter ask ye no questions. But, ef ye sees fit ter face hit out, I'd love ter prove ter these hyar men thet us Souths don't break our word. We done agreed ter this truce. I'd like ter invite 'em in, an' let them damn dawgs sniff round the feet of every man in my house—an' then, when they're plumb teetotally damn satisfied, I'd like ter tell 'em all ter go ter hell. Thet's the way I feels, but I'm a-goin' ter do jest what ye says."
Lescott did not overhear the conversation in full, but he saw the old man's face work with suppressed passion, and he caught Samson's louder reply.
"When them folks gets hyar, Uncle Spicer, I'm a-goin' ter be a-settin' right out thar in front. I'm plumb willin' ter invite 'em in." Then, the two men turned toward the house.
Already the other clansmen had disappeared noiselessly through the door or around the angles of the walls. The painter found himself alone in a scene of utter quiet, unmarred by any note that was not peaceful. He had seen many situations charged with suspense and danger, and he now realized how thoroughly freighted was the atmosphere about Spicer South's cabin with the possibilities of bloodshed. The moments seemed to drag interminably. In the expressionless faces that so quietly vanished; in the absolutely calm and businesslike fashion in which, with no spoken order, every man fell immediately into his place of readiness and concealment, he read an ominous portent that sent a current of apprehension through his arteries. Into his mind flashed all the historical stories he had heard of the vendetta life of these wooded slopes, and he wondered if he was to see another chapter enacted in the next few minutes, while the June sun and soft shadows drowsed so quietly across the valley.
While he waited, Spicer South's sister, the prematurely aged crone, appeared in the kitchen door with the clay pipe between her teeth, and raised a shading hand to gaze off up the road. She, too, understood the tenseness of the situation as her grim, but unflinching, features showed; yet even in her feminine eyes was no shrinking and on her face, inured to fear, was no tell-tale signal beyond a heightened pallor.
Spicer South looked up at her, and jerked his head toward the house.
"Git inside, M'lindy," he ordered, curtly, and without a word she, too, turned and disappeared.
But there was another figure, unseen, its very presence unsuspected, watching from near by with a pounding heart and small fingers clutching in wild terror at a palpitant breast. In this country, where human creatures seemed to share with the "varmints" the faculty of moving unseen and unheard, the figure had come stealthily to watch—and pray.
When Samson had heard that signal of the gunshots from a distant peak, he had risen from the rock where he sat with Sally. He had said nothing of the issue he must go to meet; nothing of the enemies who had brought dogs, confident that they would make their run straight to his lair. That subject had not been mentioned between them since he had driven Tamarack away that afternoon, and reassured her. He had only risen casually, as though his action had no connection with the signal of the rifles, and said:
"Reckon I'll be a-goin'."
And Sally had said nothing either, except good-by, and had turned her face toward her own side of the ridge, but, as soon as he had passed out of sight, she had wheeled and followed noiselessly, slipping from rhododendron clump to laurel thicket as stealthily as though she were herself the object of an enemy's attack. She knew that Samson would have sent her back, and she knew that a crisis was at hand, and that she could not support the suspense of awaiting the news. She must see for herself.
And now, while the stage was setting itself, the girl crouched trembling a little way up the hillside, at the foot of a titanic poplar. About her rose gray, moss-covered rocks and the fronds of clinging ferns. At her feet bloomed wild flowers for which she knew no names except those with which she had herself christened them, "sunsetty flowers" whose yellow petals suggested to her imagination the western skies, and "fairy cups and saucers."
She was not trembling for herself, though, if a fusillade broke out below, the masking screen of leafage would not protect her from the pelting of stray bullets. Her small face was pallid, and her blue eyes wide-stretched and terrified. With a catch in her throat, she shifted from her crouching attitude to a kneeling posture, and clasped her hands desperately, and raised her face, while her lips moved in prayer. She did not pray aloud, for even in her torment of fear for the boy she loved, her mountain caution made her noiseless—and the God to whom she prayed could hear her equally well in silence.
"Oh, God," pleaded the girl, brokenly, "I reckon ye knows thet them Hollmans is atter Samson, an' I reckons ye knows he hain't committed no sin. I reckon ye knows, since ye knows all things, thet hit'll kill me ef I loses him, an' though I hain't nobody but jest Sally Miller, an' ye air Almighty God, I wants ye ter hear my prayin', an' pertect him."
Fifteen minutes later, Lescott, standing at the fence, saw a strange cavalcade round the bend of the road. Several travel-stained men were leading mules, and holding two tawny and impatient dogs in leash. In their number, the artist recognized his host of two nights ago.
They halted at a distance, and in their faces the artist read dismay, for, while the dogs were yelping confidently and tugging at their cords, young Samson South—who should, by their prejudiced convictions, be hiding out in some secret stronghold—sat at the top step of the stile, smoking his pipe, and regarded them with a lack-luster absence of interest. Such a calm reception was uncanny. The trailers felt sure that in a moment more the dogs would fall into accusing excitement. Logically, these men should be waiting to receive them behind barricaded doors. There must be some hidden significance. Possibly, it was an invitation to walk into ambuscade. No doubt, unseen rifles covered their approach, and the shooting of Purvy was only the inaugural step to a bloody and open outbreak of the war. After a whispered conference, the Lexington man came forward alone. Old Spicer South had been looking on from the door, and was now strolling out to meet the envoy, unarmed.
And the envoy, as he came, held his hands unnecessarily far away from his sides, and walked with an ostentatious show of peace.
"Evenin', stranger," hailed the old man. "Come right in."
"Mr. South," began the dog-owner, with some embarrassment, "I have been employed to furnish a pair of bloodhounds to the family of Jesse Purvy, who has been shot."
"I heerd tell thet Purvy was shot," said the head of the Souths in an affable tone, which betrayed no deeper note of interest than neighborhood gossip might have elicited.
"I have no personal interest in the matter," went on the stranger, hastily, as one bent on making his attitude clear, "except to supply the dogs and manage them. I do not in any way direct their course; I merely follow."
"Ye can't hardly fo'ce a dawg." Old Spicer sagely nodded his head as he made the remark. "A dawg jest natcher'ly follers his own nose."
"Exactly—and they have followed their noses here." The Lexington man found the embarrassment of his position growing as the colloquy proceeded. "I want to ask you whether, if these dogs want to cross your fence, I have your permission to let them?"
The cabin in the yard was utterly quiet. There was no hint of the seven or eight men who rested on their arms behind its half-open door. The master of the house crossed the stile, the low sun shining on his shock of gray hair, and stood before the man-hunter. He spoke so that his voice carried to the waiting group in the road.
"Ye're plumb welcome ter turn them dawgs loose, an' let 'em ramble, stranger. Nobody hain't a-goin' ter hurt 'em. I sees some fellers out thar with ye thet mustn't cross my fence. Ef they does"—the voice rang menacingly—"hit'll mean that they're a-bustin' the truce—an' they won't never go out ag'in. But you air safe in hyar. I gives yer my hand on thet. Ye're welcome, an' yore dawgs is welcome. I hain't got nothin' 'gainst dawgs thet comes on four legs, but I shore bars the two-legged kind."
There was a murmur of astonishment from the road. Disregarding it, Spicer South turned his face toward the house.
"You boys kin come out," he shouted, "an' leave yore guns inside."
The leashes were slipped from the dogs. They leaped forward, and made directly for Samson, who sat as unmoving as a lifeless image on the top step of the stile. Up on the hillside the fingernails of Sally Miller's clenched hands cut into the flesh, and the breath stopped between her parted and bloodless lips. There was a half-moment of terrific suspense, then the beasts clambered by the seated figure, passing on each side and circled aimlessly about the yard—their quest unended. They sniffed indifferently about the trouser legs of the men who sauntered indolently out of the door. They trotted into the house and out again, and mingled with the mongrel home pack that snarled and growled hostility for this invasion. Then, they came once more to the stile. As they climbed out, Samson South reached up and stroked a tawny head, and the bloodhound paused a moment to wag its tail in friendship, before it jumped down to the road, and trotted gingerly onward.
"I'm obliged to you, sir," said the man from the Bluegrass, with a voice of immense relief.
The moment of suspense seemed past, and, in the relief of the averted clash, the master of hounds forgot that his dogs stood branded as false trailers. But, when he rejoined the group in the road, he found himself looking into surly visages, and the features of Jim Hollman in particular were black in their scowl of smoldering wrath.
"Why didn't ye axe him," growled the kinsman of the man who had been shot, "whar the other feller's at?"
"What other fellow?" echoed the Lexington man.
Jim Hollman's voice rose truculently, and his words drifted, as he meant them to, across to the ears of the clansmen who stood in the yard of Spicer South.
"Them dawgs of your'n come up Misery a-hellin'. They hain't never turned aside, an', onless they're plumb ornery no-'count curs thet don't know their business, they come for some reason. They seemed mighty interested in gittin' hyar. Axe them fellers in thar who's been hyar thet hain't hyar now? Who is ther feller thet got out afore we come hyar."
At this veiled charge of deceit, the faces of the Souths again blackened, and the men near the door of the house drifted in to drift presently out again, swinging discarded Winchesters at their sides. It seemed that, after all, the incident was not closed. The man from Lexington, finding himself face to face with a new difficulty, turned and argued in a low voice with the Hollman leader. But Jim Hollman, whose eyes were fixed on Samson, refused to talk in a modulated tone, and he shouted his reply:
"I hain't got nothin' ter whisper about," he proclaimed. "Go axe 'em who hit war thet got away from hyar."
Old Spicer South stood leaning on his fence, and his rugged countenance stiffened. He started to speak, but Samson rose from the stile, and said, in a composed voice:
"Let me talk ter this feller, Unc' Spicer." The old man nodded, and Samson beckoned to the owner of the dogs.
"We hain't got nothin' ter say ter them fellers with ye," he announced, briefly. "We hain't axin' 'em no questions, an' we hain't answerin' none. Ye done come hyar with dawgs, an' we hain't stopped ye. We've done answered all the questions them dawgs hes axed. We done treated you an' yore houn's plumb friendly. Es fer them other men, we hain't got nothin' ter say ter 'em. They done come hyar because they hoped they could git me in trouble. They done failed. Thet road belongs ter the county. They got a license ter travel hit, but this strip right hyar hain't ther healthiest section they kin find. I reckon ye'd better advise 'em ter move on."
The Lexington man went back. For a minute or two, Jim Hollman sat scowling down in indecision from his saddle. Then, he admitted to himself that he had done all he could do without becoming the aggressor. For the moment, he was beaten. He looked up, and from the road one of the hounds raised its voice and gave cry. That baying afforded an excuse for leaving, and Jim Hollman seized upon it.
"Go on," he growled. "Let's see what them damned curs hes ter say now."
Mounting, they kicked their mules into a jog. From the men inside the fence came no note of derision; no hint of triumph. They stood looking out with expressionless, mask-like faces until their enemies had passed out of sight around the shoulder of the mountain. The Souths had met and fronted an accusation made after the enemy's own choice and method. A jury of two hounds had acquitted them. It was not only because the dogs had refused to recognize in Samson a suspicious character that the enemy rode on grudgingly convinced, but, also, because the family, which had invariably met hostility with hostility, had so willingly courted the acid test of guilt or innocence.
Samson, passing around the corner of the house, caught a flash of red up among the green clumps of the mountainside, and, pausing to gaze at it, saw it disappear into the thicket of brush. He knew then that Sally had followed him, and why she had done it, and, framing a stern rebuke for the foolhardiness of the venture, he plunged up the acclivity in pursuit. But, as he made his way cautiously, he heard around the shoulder of a mass of piled-up sandstone a shaken sobbing, and, slipping toward it, found the girl bent over with her face in her hands, her slander body convulsively heaving with the weeping of reaction, and murmuring half-incoherent prayers of thanksgiving for his deliverance.
"Sally!" he exclaimed, hurrying over and dropping to his knees beside her. "Sally, thar hain't nothin' ter fret about, little gal. Hit's all right."
She started up at the sound of his voice, and then, pillowing her head on his shoulder, wept tears of happiness. He sought for words, but no words came, and his lips and eyes, unused to soft expressions, drew themselves once more into the hard mask with which he screened his heart's moods.
Days passed uneventfully after that. The kinsmen dispersed to their scattered coves and cabins. Now and again came a rumor that Jesse Purvy was dying, but always hard on its heels came another to the effect that the obdurate fighter had rallied, though the doctors held out small encouragement of recovery.
One day Lescott, whose bandaged arm gave him much pain, but who was able to get about, was strolling not far from the house with Samson. They were following a narrow trail along the mountainside, and, at a sound no louder than the falling of a walnut, the boy halted and laid a silencing hand on the painter's shoulder. Then followed an unspoken command in his companion's eyes. Lescott sank down behind a rock, cloaked with glistening rhododendron leafage, where Samson had already crouched, and become immovable and noiseless. They had been there only a short time when they saw another figure slipping quietly from tree to tree below them.
For a time, the mountain boy watched the figure, and the painter saw his lips draw into a straight line, and his eyes narrow with a glint of tense hate. Yet, a moment later, with a nod to follow, the boy unexpectedly rose into view, and his features were absolutely expressionless.
"Mornin', Jim," he called.
The slinking stranger whirled with a start, and an instinctive motion as though to bring his rifle to his shoulder. But, seeing Samson's peaceable manner, he smiled, and his own demeanor became friendly.
"Kinder stranger in this country, hain't ye, Jim?" drawled the boy who lived there, and the question brought a sullen flush to the other's cheekbones.
"Jest a-passin' through," he vouchsafed.
"I reckon ye'd find the wagon road more handy," suggested Samson. "Some folks might 'spicion ye fer stealin' long through the timber."
The skulking traveler decided to lie plausibly. He laughed mendaciously. "That's the reason, Samson. I was kinder skeered ter go through this country in the open."
Samson met his eye steadily, and said slowly:
"I reckon, Jim, hit moughtn't be half es risky fer ye ter walk upstandin' along Misery, es ter go a-crouchin'. Ye thinks ye've been a shadderin' me. I knows jest whar ye've been all the time. Ye lies when ye talks 'bout passin' through. Ye've done been spyin' hyar, ever since Jesse Purvy got shot, an' all thet time ye've done been watched yeself. I reckon hit'll be healthier fer ye ter do yore spyin' from t'other side of the ridge. I reckon yer allowin' ter git me ef Purvy dies, but we're watchin' ye."
Jim Asberry's face darkened, but he said nothing. There was nothing to say. He was discovered in the enemy's country, and must accept the enemy's terms.
"This hyar time, I lets ye go back," said Samson, "fer the reason thet I'm tryin' like all hell ter keep this truce. But ye must stay on yore side, or else ride the roads open. How is Purvy terday?"
"He's mighty porely," replied the other, in a sullen voice.
"All right. Thet's another reason why hit hain't healthy fer ye over hyar."
The spy turned, and made his way over the mountain.
"Damn him!" muttered Samson, his face twitching, as the other was lost in the undergrowth. "Some day I'm a-goin' ter git him."
Tamarack Spicer did not at once reappear, and, when one of the Souths met another in the road, the customary dialogue would be: "Heered anything of Tamarack?" ... "No, hev you?" ... "No, nary a word."
As Lescott wandered through the hills, his unhurt right hand began crying out for action and a brush to nurse. As he watched, day after day, the unveiling of the monumental hills, and the transitions from hazy wraith-like whispers of hues, to strong, flaring riot of color, this fret of restlessness became actual pain. He was wasting wonderful opportunity and the creative instinct in him was clamoring.
One morning, when he came out just after sunrise to the tin wash basin at the well, the desire to paint was on him with compelling force. The hills ended near their bases like things bitten off. Beyond lay limitless streamers of mist, but, while he stood at gaze, the filmy veil began to lift and float higher. Trees and mountains grew taller. The sun, which showed first as a ghost-like disc of polished aluminum, struggled through orange and vermilion into a sphere of living flame. It was as though the Creator were breathing on a formless void to kindle it into a vital and splendid cosmos, and between the dawn's fog and the radiance of full day lay a dozen miracles. Through rifts in the streamers, patches of hillside and sky showed for an ethereal moment or two in tender and transparent coloration, like spirit-reflections of emerald and sapphire.... Lescott heard a voice at his side.
"When does ye 'low ter commence paintin'?"
It was Samson. For answer, the artist, with his unhurt hand, impatiently tapped his bandaged wrist.
"Ye still got yore right hand, hain't ye?" demanded the boy. The other laughed. It was a typical question. So long as one had the trigger finger left, one should not admit disqualification.
"You see, Samson," he explained, "this isn't precisely like handling a gun. One must hold the palette; mix the colors; wipe the brushes and do half a dozen equally necessary things. It requires at least two perfectly good hands. Many people don't find two enough."
"But hit only takes one ter do the paintin', don't hit?"
"Well"—the boy spoke diffidently but with enthusiasm—"between the two of us, we've got three hands. I reckon ye kin larn me how ter do them other things fer ye."
Lescott's surprise showed in his face, and the lad swept eagerly on.
"Mebby hit hain't none of my business, but, all day yestiddy an' the day befo', I was a-studyin' 'bout this here thing, an' I hustled up an' got thet corn weeded, an' now I'm through. Ef I kin help ye out, I thought mebby—" He paused, and looked appealingly at the artist.
Lescott whistled, and then his face lighted into contentment.
"To-day, Samson," he announced, "Lescott, South and Company get busy."
It was the first time he had seen Samson smile, and, although the expression was one of sheer delight, inherent somberness loaned it a touch of the wistful.
When, an hour later, the two set out, the mountain boy carried the paraphernalia, and the old man standing at the door watched them off with a half-quizzical, half-disapproving glance. To interfere with any act of courtesy to a guest was not to be thought of, but already the influence on Samson of this man from the other world was disquieting his uncle's thoughts. With his mother's milk, the boy had fed on hatred of his enemies. With his training, he had been reared to feudal animosities. Disaffection might ruin his usefulness. Besides the sketching outfit, Samson carried his rifle. He led the painter by slow stages, since the climb proved hard for a man still somewhat enfeebled, to the high rock which Sally visited each morning.
As the boy, with remarkable aptitude, learned how to adjust the easel and arrange the paraphernalia, Lescott sat drinking in through thirsty eyes the stretch of landscape he had determined to paint.
It was his custom to look long and studiously through closed lashes before he took up his brush. After that he began laying in his key tones and his fundamental sketching with an incredible swiftness, having already solved his problems of composition and analysis.
Then, while he painted, the boy held the palette, his eyes riveted on the canvas, which was growing from a blank to a mirror of vistas—and the boy's pupils became deeply hungry. He was not only looking. He was seeing. His gaze took in the way the fingers held the brushes; the manner of mixing the pigments, the detail of method. Sometimes, when he saw a brush dab into a color whose use he did not at once understand, he would catch his breath anxiously, then nod silently to himself as the blending vindicated the choice. He did not know it, but his eye for color was as instinctively true as that of the master.
As the day wore on, they fell to talking, and the boy again found himself speaking of his fettered restiveness in the confinement of his life; of the wanderlust which stirred him, and of which he had been taught to feel ashamed.
During one of their periods of rest, there was a rustle in the branches of a hickory, and a gray shape flirted a bushy tail. Samson's hand slipped silently out, and the rifle came to his shoulder. In a moment it snapped, and a squirrel dropped through the leaves.
"Jove!" exclaimed Lescott, admiringly. "That was neat work. He was partly behind the limb—at a hundred yards."
"Hit warn't nothin'," said Samson, modestly. "Hit's a good gun." He brought back his quarry, and affectionately picked up the rifle. It was a repeating Winchester, carrying a long steel-jacketed bullet of special caliber, but it was of a pattern fifteen years old, and fitted with target sights.
"That gun," Samson explained, in a lowered and reverent voice, "was my pap's. I reckon there hain't enough money in the world ter buy hit off en me."
Slowly, in a matter-of-fact tone, he began a story without decoration of verbiage—straightforward and tense in its simplicity. As the painter listened, he began to understand; the gall that had crept into this lad's blood before his weaning became comprehensible.... Killing Hollmans was not murder.... It was duty. He seemed to see the smoke- blackened cabin and the mother of the boy sitting, with drawn face, in dread of the hours. He felt the racking nerve-tension of a life in which the father went forth each day leaving his family in fear that he would not return. Then, under the spell of the unvarnished recital, he seemed to witness the crisis when the man, who had dared repudiate the lawless law of individual reprisal, paid the price of his insurgency.
A solitary friend had come in advance to break the news. His face, when he awkwardly commenced to speak, made it unnecessary to put the story into words. Samson told how his mother had turned pallid, and stretched out her arm gropingly for support against the door-jamb. Then the man had found his voice with clumsy directness.
"They've got him."
The small boy had reached her in time to break her fall as she fainted, but, later, when they brought in the limp, unconscious man, she was awaiting them with regained composure. An expression came to her face at that moment, said the lad, which had never left it during the remaining two years of her life. For some hours, "old" Henry South, who in a less-wasting life would hardly have been middle-aged, had lingered. They were hours of conscious suffering, with no power to speak, but before he died he had beckoned his ten-year-old son to his bedside, and laid a hand on the dark, rumpled hair. The boy bent forward, his eyes tortured and tearless, and his little lips tight pressed. The old man patted the head, and made a feeble gesture toward the mother who was to be widowed. Samson had nodded.
"I'll take keer of her, pap," he had fervently sworn.
Then, Henry South had lifted a tremulous finger, and pointed to the wall above the hearth. There, upon a set of buck-antlers, hung the Winchester rifle. And, again, Samson had nodded, but this time he did not speak. That moment was to his mind the most sacred of his life; it had been a dedication to a purpose. The arms of the father had then and there been bequeathed to the son, and with the arms a mission for their use. After a brief pause, Samson told of the funeral. He had a remarkable way of visualizing in rough speech the desolate picture; the wailing mourners on the bleak hillside, with the November clouds hanging low and trailing their wet streamers. A "jolt-wagon" had carried the coffin in lieu of a hearse. Saddled mules stood tethered against the picket fence. The dogs that had followed their masters started a rabbit close by the open grave, and split the silence with their yelps as the first clod fell. He recalled, too, the bitter voice with which his mother had spoken to a kinsman as she turned from the ragged burying ground, where only the forlorn cedars were green. She was leaning on the boy's thin shoulders at the moment. He had felt her arm stiffen with her words, and, as her arm stiffened, his own positive nature stiffened with it.
"Henry believed in law and order. I did, too. But they wouldn't let us have it that way. From this day on, I'm a-goin' to raise my boy to kill Hollmans."
With his father's death Samson's schooling had ended. His responsibility now was farm work and the roughly tender solicitude of a young stoic for his mother. His evenings before the broad fireplace he gave up to a devouring sort of study, but his books were few.
When, two years later, he laid the body of the Widow South beside that of his father in the ragged hillside burying-ground, he turned his nag's head away from the cabin where he had been born, and rode over to make his home at his Uncle Spicer's place. He had, in mountain parlance, "heired" a farm of four hundred acres, but a boy of twelve can hardly operate a farm, even if he be so stalwart a boy as Samson. His Uncle Spicer wanted him, and he went, and the head of the family took charge of his property as guardian; placed a kinsman there to till it, on shares, and faithfully set aside for the boy what revenue came from the stony acres. He knew that they would be rich acres when men began to dig deeper than the hoe could scratch, and opened the veins where the coal slept its unstirring sleep. The old man had not set such store by learning as had Samson's father, and the little shaver's education ended, except for what he could wrest from stinted sources and without aid. His mission of "killing Hollmans" was not forgotten. There had years ago been one general battle at a primary, when the two factions fought for the control that would insure the victors safety against "law trouble," and put into their hands the weapons of the courts.
Samson was far too young to vote, but he was old enough to fight, and the account he had given of himself, with the inherited rifle smoking, gave augury of fighting effectiveness. So sanguinary had been this fight, and so dangerously had it focused upon the warring clans the attention of the outside world, that after its indecisive termination, they made the compact of the present truce. By its terms, the Hollmans held their civil authority, and the Souths were to be undisturbed dictators beyond Misery. For some years now, the peace had been unbroken save by sporadic assassinations, none of which could be specifically enough charged to the feud account to warrant either side in regarding the contract as broken. Samson, being a child, had been forced to accept the terms of this peace bondage. The day would come when the Souths could agree to no truce without his consent. Such was, in brief, the story that the artist heard while he painted and rested that day on the rock. Had he heard it in New York, he would have discounted it as improbable and melodramatic. Now, he knew that it was only one of many such chapters in the history of the Cumberlands. The native point of view even became in a degree acceptable. In a system of trial by juries from the vicinage, fair and bold prosecutions for crime were impossible, and such as pretended to be so were bitterly tragic farces. He understood why the families of murdered fathers and brothers preferred to leave the punishment to their kinsmen in the laurel, rather than to their enemies in the jury-box.
The day of painting was followed by others like it. The disabling of Lescott's left hand made the constant companionship of the boy a matter that needed no explanation or apology, though not a matter of approval to his uncle.
Another week had passed without the reappearance of Tamarack Spicer.
One afternoon, Lescott and Samson were alone on a cliff-protected shelf, and the painter had just blocked in with umber and neutral tint the crude sketch of his next picture. In the foreground was a steep wall, rising palisade-like from the water below. A kingly spruce-pine gave the near note for a perspective which went away across a valley of cornfields to heaping and distant mountains. Beyond that range, in a slender ribbon of pale purple, one saw the ridge of a more remote and mightier chain.
The two men had lost an hour huddled under a canopy beneath the cannonading of a sudden storm. They had silently watched titanic battallions of thunder-clouds riding the skies in gusty puffs of gale, and raking the earth with lightning and hail and water. The crags had roared back echoing defiance, and the great trees had lashed and bent and tossed like weeds in the buffeting. Every gully had become a stream, and every gulch-rock a waterfall. Here and there had been a crashing of spent timber, and now the sun had burst through a rift in the west, and flooded a segment of the horizon with a strange, luminous field of lesson. About this zone of clarity were heaped masses of gold- rimmed and rose-edged clouds, still inky at their centers.
"My God!" exclaimed the mountain boy abruptly. "I'd give 'most anything ef I could paint that."
Lescott rose smilingly from his seat before the easel, and surrendered his palette and sheaf of brushes.
"Try it," he invited.
For a moment, Samson stood hesitant and overcome with diffidence; then, with set lips, he took his place, and experimentally fitted his fingers about a brush, as he had seen Lescott do. He asked no advice. He merely gazed for awhile, and then, dipping a brush and experimenting for his color, went to sweeping in his primary tones.
The painter stood at his back, still smiling. Of course, the brush- stroke was that of the novice. Of course, the work was clumsy and heavy. But what Lescott noticed was not so much the things that went on canvas as the mixing of colors on the palette, for he knew that the palette is the painter's heart, and its colors are the elements of his soul. What a man paints on canvas is the sum of his acquirement; but the colors he mixes are the declarations of what his soul can see, and no man can paint whose eyes are not touched with the sublime. At that moment, Lescott knew that Samson had such eyes.
The splashes of lemon yellow that the boy daubed above the hills might have been painted with a brush dipped in the sunset. The heavy clouds with their gossamer edgings had truth of tone and color. Then the experimenter came to the purple rim of mountain tops.
There was no color for that on the palette, and he turned to the paint- box.
"Here," suggested Lescott, handing him a tube of Payne's Gray: "is that what you're looking for?"
Samson read the label, and decisively shook his head.
"I'm a-goin' atter them hills," he declared. "There hain't no gray in them thar mountings."
"Squeeze some out, anyway." The artist suited the action to the word, and soon Samson was experimenting with a mixture.
"Why, that hain't no gray," he announced, with enthusiasm; "that thar's sort of ashy purple." Still, he was not satisfied. His first brush-stroke showed a trifle dead and heavy. It lacked the soft lucid quality that the hills held, though it was close enough to truth to have satisfied any eye save one of uncompromising sincerity. Samson, even though he was hopelessly daubing, and knew it, was sincere, and the painter at his elbow caught his breath, and looked on with the absorption of a prophet, who, listening to childish prattle, yet recognizes the gift of prophecy. The boy dabbled for a perplexed moment among the pigments, then lightened up his color with a trace of ultramarine. Unconsciously, the master heaved a sigh of satisfaction. The boy "laid in" his far hills, and turned.
"Thet's the way hit looks ter me," he said, simply.
"That's the way it is," commended his critic.
For a while more, Samson worked at the nearer hills, then he rose.
"I'm done," he said. "I hain't a-goin' ter fool with them thar trees an' things. I don't know nothing erbout thet. I can't paint leaves an' twigs an' birdsnests. What I likes is mountings, an' skies, an' sech- like things."
Lescott looked at the daub before him. A less-trained eye would have seen only the daub, just as a poor judge of horse-flesh might see only awkward joints and long legs in a weanling colt, though it be bred in the purple.
"Samson," he said, earnestly, "that's all there is to art. It's the power to feel the poetry of color. The rest can be taught. The genius must work, of course—work, work, work, and still work, but the Gift is the power of seeing true—and, by God, boy, you have it."
His words rang exultantly.
"Anybody with eyes kin see," deprecated Samson, wiping his fingers on his jeans trousers.
"You think so? To the seer who reads the passing shapes in a globe of crystal, it's plain enough. To any other eye, there is nothing there but transparency." Lescott halted, conscious that he was falling into metaphor which his companion could not understand, then more quietly he went on: "I don't know how you would progress, Samson, in detail and technique, but I know you've got what many men have struggled a lifetime for, and failed. I'd like to have you study with me. I'd like to be your discoverer. Look here."
The painter sat down, and speedily went to work. He painted out nothing. He simply toned, and, with precisely the right touch here and there, softened the crudeness, laid stress on the contrast, melted the harshness, and, when he rose, he had built, upon the rough cornerstone of Samson's laying, a picture.
"That proves it," he said. "I had only to finish. I didn't have to undo. Boy, you're wasting yourself. Come with me, and let me make you. We all pretend there is no such thing, in these days, as sheer genius; but, deep down, we know that, unless there is, there can be no such thing as true art. There is genius and you have it." Enthusiasm was again sweeping him into an unintended outburst.
The boy stood silent. Across his countenance swept a conflict of emotions. He looked away, as if taking counsel with the hills.
"It's what I'm a-honin' fer," he admitted at last. "Hit's what I'd give half my life fer.... I mout sell my land, an' raise the money.... I reckon hit would take passels of money, wouldn't hit?" He paused, and his eyes fell on the rifle leaning against the tree. His lips tightened in sudden remembrance. He went over and picked up the gun, and, as he did so, he shook his head.
"No," he stolidly declared; "every man to his own tools. This here's mine."
Yet, when they were again out sketching, the temptation to play with brushes once more seized him, and he took his place before the easel. Neither he nor Lescott noticed a man who crept down through the timber, and for a time watched them. The man's face wore a surly, contemptuous grin, and shortly it withdrew.
But, an hour later, while the boy was still working industriously and the artist was lying on his back, with a pipe between his teeth, and his half-closed eyes gazing up contentedly through the green of overhead branches, their peace was broken by a guffaw of derisive laughter. They looked up, to find at their backs a semi-circle of scoffing humanity. Lescott's impulse was to laugh, for only the comedy of the situation at the moment struck him. A stage director, setting a comedy scene with that most ancient of jests, the gawking of boobs at some new sight, could hardly have improved on this tableau. At the front stood Tamarack Spicer, the returned wanderer. His lean wrist was stretched out of a ragged sleeve all too short, and his tattered "jimmy" was shoved back over a face all a-grin. His eyes were blood-shot with recent drinking, but his manner was in exaggerated and cumbersome imitation of a rural master of ceremonies. At his back were the raw-boned men and women and children of the hills, to the number of a dozen. To the front shuffled an old, half-witted hag, with thin gray hair and pendulous lower lip. Her dress was patched and colorless. Her back was bent with age and rheumatism. Her feet were incased in a pair of man's brogans. She stared and snickered, and several children, taking the cue, giggled, but the men, save Tamarack himself, wore troubled faces, as though recognizing that their future chieftain had been discovered in some secret shame. They were looking on their idol's feet of clay.
"Ladies and gentle-men," announced Tamarack Spicer, in a hiccoughy voice, "swing yo' partners an' sashay forward. See the only son of the late Henry South engaged in his mar-ve-lous an' heretofore undiscovered occupation of doin' fancy work. Ladies and gentle-men, after this here show is conclooded, keep your seats for the concert in the main tent. This here famous performer will favor ye with a little exhibition of plain an' fancy sock-darnin'."
The children snickered again. The old woman shuffled forward.
"Samson," she quavered, "I didn't never low ter see ye doin' no sich woman's work as thet."
After the first surprise, Samson had turned his back on the group. He was mixing paint at the time and he proceeded to experiment with a fleeting cloud effect, which would not outlast the moment. He finished that, and, reaching for the palette-knife, scraped his fingers and wiped them on his trousers' legs. Then, he deliberately rose.
Without a word he turned. Tamarack had begun his harangue afresh. The boy tossed back the long lock from his forehead, and then, with an unexpectedly swift movement, crouched and leaped. His right fist shot forward to Tamarack Spicer's chattering lips, and they abruptly ceased to chatter as the teeth were driven into their flesh. Spicer's head snapped back, and he staggered against the onlookers, where he stood rocking on his unsteady legs. His hand swept instinctively to the shirt -concealed holster, but, before it had connected, both of Samson's fists were playing a terrific tattoo on his face. The inglorious master of the show dropped, and lay groggily trying to rise.
The laughter died as suddenly as Tamarack's speech. Samson stepped back again, and searched the faces of the group for any lingering sign of mirth or criticism. There was none. Every countenance was sober and expressionless, but the boy felt a weight of unuttered disapproval, and he glared defiance. One of the older onlookers spoke up reproachfully.
"Samson, ye hadn't hardly ought ter a-done that. He was jest a funnin' with ye."
"Git him up on his feet. I've got somethin' ter say ter him." The boy's voice was dangerously quiet. It was his first word. They lifted the fallen cousin, whose entertainment had gone astray, and led him forward grumbling, threatening and sputtering, but evincing no immediate desire to renew hostilities.
"Whar hev ye been?" demanded Samson.
"Thet's my business," came the familiar mountain phrase.
"Why wasn't yer hyar when them dawgs come by? Why was ye the only South thet runned away, when they was smellin' round fer Jesse Purvy's assassin?"
"I didn't run away." Tamarack's blood-shot eyes flared wickedly. "I knowed thet ef I stayed 'round hyar with them damned Hollmans stickin' their noses inter our business, I'd hurt somebody. So, I went over inter the next county fer a spell. You fellers mout be able to take things offen the Hollmans, but I hain't."
"Thet's a damned lie," said Samson, quietly. "Ye runned away, an' ye runned in the water so them dawgs couldn't trail ye—ye done hit because ye shot them shoots at Jesse Purvy from the laurel—because ye're a truce-bustin', murderin' bully thet shoots off his face, an' is skeered to fight." Samson paused for breath, and went on with regained calmness. "I've knowed all along ye was the man, an' I've kept quiet because ye're 'my kin. If ye've got anything else ter say, say hit. But, ef I ever ketches yer talkin' about me, or talkin' ter Sally, I'm a-goin' ter take ye by the scruff of the neck, an' drag ye plumb inter Hixon, an' stick ye in the jail-house. An' I'm a-goin' ter tell the High Sheriff that the Souths spits ye outen their mouths. Take him away." The crowd turned and left the place. When they were gone, Samson seated himself at his easel again, and picked up his palette.
Lescott had come to the mountains anticipating a visit of two weeks. His accident had resolved him to shorten it to the nearest day upon which he felt capable of making the trip out to the railroad. Yet, June had ended; July had burned the slopes from emerald to russet-green; August had brought purple tops to the ironweed, and still he found himself lingering. And this was true although he recognized a growing sentiment of disapproval for himself. He knew indubitably that he stood charged with the offense for which Socrates was invited to drink the hemlock: "corrupting the morals of the youth, and teaching strange gods." Feeling the virtue of his teaching, he was unwilling as Socrates to abandon the field. In Samson he thought he recognized twin gifts: a spark of a genius too rare to be allowed to flicker out, and a potentiality for constructive work among his own people, which needed for its perfecting only education and experience. Having aroused a soul's restiveness in the boy, he felt a direct responsibility for it and him, to which he added a deep personal regard. Though the kinsmen looked upon him as an undesirable citizen, bringing teachings which they despised, the hospitality of old Spicer South continued unbroken and a guarantee of security on Misery.
"Samson," he suggested one day when they were alone, "I want you to come East. You say that gun is your tool, and that each man must stick to his own. You are in part right, in part wrong. A mail uses any tool better for understanding other tools. You have the right to use your brains and talents to the full."
The boy's face was somber in the intensity of his mental struggle, and his answer had that sullen ring which was not really sullenness at all, but self-repression.
"I reckon a feller's biggest right is to stand by his kinfolks. Unc' Spicer's gittin' old. He's done been good ter me. He needs me here."
"I appreciate that. He will be older later. You can go now, and come back to him when he needs you more. If what I urged meant disloyalty to your people, I would cut out my tongue before I argued for it. You must believe me in that. I want you to be in the fullest sense your people's leader. I want you to be not only their Samson—but their Moses."
The boy looked up and nodded. The mountaineer is not given to demonstration. He rarely shakes hands, and he does not indulge in superlatives of affection. He loved and admired this man from the outside world, who seemed to him to epitomize wisdom, but his code did not permit him to say so.
"I reckon ye aims ter be friendly, all right," was his conservative response.
The painter went on earnestly:
"I realize that I am urging things of which your people disapprove, but it is only because they misunderstand that they do disapprove. They are too close, Samson, to see the purple that mountains have when they are far away. I want you to go where you can see the purple. If you are the sort of man I think, you won't be beguiled. You won't lose your loyalty. You won't be ashamed of your people."
"I reckon I wouldn't be ashamed," said the youth. "I reckon there hain't no better folks nowhar."
"I'm sure of it. There are going to be sweeping changes in these mountains. Conditions here have stood as immutably changeless as the hills themselves for a hundred years. That day is at its twilight. I tell you, I know what I'm talking about. The State of Kentucky is looking this way. The State must develop, and it is here alone that it can develop. In the Bluegrass, the possibilities for change are exhausted. Their fields lie fallow, their woodlands are being stripped. Tobacco has tainted the land. It has shouldered out the timber, and is turning forest to prairie. A land of fertile loam is vying with cheap soil that can send almost equal crops to market. There is no more timber to be cut, and when the timber goes the climate changes. In these hills lie the sleeping sources of wealth. Here are virgin forests and almost inexhaustible coal veins. Capital is turning from an orange squeezed dry, and casting about for fresher food. Capital has seen your hills. Capital is inevitable, relentless, omnipotent. Where it comes, it makes its laws. Conditions that have existed undisturbed will vanish. The law of the feud, which militia and courts have not been able to abate, will vanish before Capital's breath like the mists when the sun strikes them. Unless you learn to ride the waves which will presently sweep over your country, you and your people will go under. You may not realize it, but that is true. It is written."
The boy had listened intently, but at the end he smiled, and in his expression was something of the soldier who scents battle, not without welcome.
"I reckon if these here fellers air a-comin' up here ter run things, an' drownd out my folks, hit's a right good reason fer me ter stay here —an' holp my folks."
"By staying here, you can't help them. It won't be work for guns, but for brains. By going away and coming back armed with knowledge, you can save them. You will know how to play the game."
"I reckon they won't git our land, ner our timber, ner our coal, without we wants ter sell hit. I reckon ef they tries thet, guns will come in handy. Things has stood here like they is now, fer a hundred years. I reckon we kin keep 'em that-away fer a spell longer." But it was evident that Samson was arguing against his own belief; that he was trying to bolster up his resolution and impeached loyalty, and that at heart he was sick to be up and going to a world which did not despise "eddication." After a little, he waved his hand vaguely toward "down below."
"Ef I went down thar," he questioned suddenly and irrelevantly, "would I hev' ter cut my ha'r?"
"My dear boy," laughed Lescott, "I can introduce you in New York studios to many distinguished gentlemen who would feel that their heads had been shorn if they let their locks get as short as yours. In New York, you might stroll along Broadway garbed in turban and a burnouse without greatly exciting anybody. I think my own hair is as long as yours."
"Because," doggedly declared the mountaineer, "I wouldn't allow nobody ter make me cut my ha'r."
"Why?" questioned Lescott, amused at the stubborn inflection.
"I don't hardly know why—" He paused, then admitted with a glare as though defying criticism: "Sally likes hit that-away—an' I won't let nobody dictate ter me, that's all."
The leaven was working, and one night Samson announced to his Uncle from the doorstep that he was "studyin' erbout goin' away fer a spell, an' seein' the world."
The old man laid down his pipe. He cast a reproachful glance at the painter, which said clearly, though without words:
"I have opened my home to you and offered you what I had, yet in my old age you take away my mainstay." For a time, he sat silent, but his shoulders hunched forward with a sag which they had not held a moment before. His seamed face appeared to age visibly and in the moment. He ran one bony hand through his gray mane of hair.
"I 'lowed you was a-studyin' erbout thet, Samson," he said, at last. "I've done ther best fer ye I knowed. I kinder 'lowed thet from now on ye'd do the same fer me. I'm gittin' along in years right smart...."
"Uncle Spicer," interrupted the boy, "I reckon ye knows thet any time ye needed me I'd come back."
The old man's face hardened.
"Ef ye goes," he said, almost sharply, "I won't never send fer ye. Any time ye ever wants ter come back, ye knows ther way. Thar'll be room an' victuals fer ye hyar."
"I reckon I mout be a heap more useful ef I knowed more."
"I've heered fellers say that afore. Hit hain't never turned out thet way with them what has left the mountings. Mebby they gets more useful, but they don't git useful ter us. Either they don't come back at all, or mebby they comes back full of newfangled notions—an' ashamed of their kinfoiks. Thet's the way, I've noticed, hit gen'ally turns out."
Samson scorned to deny that such might be the case with him, and was silent. After a time, the old man went on again in a weary voice, as he bent down to loosen his brogans and kick them noisily off on to the floor:
"The Souths hev done looked to ye a good deal, Samson. They 'lowed they could depend on ye. Ye hain't quite twenty-one yet, an' I reckon I could refuse ter let ye sell yer prop'ty. But thar hain't no use tryin' ter hold a feller when he wants ter quit. Ye don't 'low ter go right away, do ye?"
"I hain't plumb made up my mind ter go at all," said the boy, shamefacedly. "But, ef I does go, I hain't a-goin' yit. I hain't spoke ter nobody but you about hit yit."
Lescott felt reluctant to meet his host's eyes at breakfast the next morning, dreading their reproach, but, if Spicer South harbored resentment, he meant to conceal it, after the stoic's code. There was no hinted constraint of cordiality. Lescott felt, however, that in Samson's mind was working the leaven of that unspoken accusation of disloyalty. He resolved to make a final play, and seek to enlist Sally in his cause. If Sally's hero-worship could be made to take the form of ambition for Samson, she might be brought to relinquish him for a time, and urge his going that he might return strengthened. Yet, Sally's devotion was so instinctive and so artless that it would take compelling argument to convince her of any need of change. It was Samson as he was whom she adored. Any alteration was to be distrusted. Still, Lescott set out one afternoon on his doubtful mission. He was more versed in mountain ways than he had been. His own ears could now distinguish between the bell that hung at the neck of Sally's brindle heifer and those of old Spicer's cows. He went down to the creek at the hour when he knew Sally, also, would be making her way thither with her milk-pail, and intercepted her coming. As she approached, she was singing, and the man watched her from the distance. He was a landscape painter and not a master of genre or portrait. Yet, he wished that he might, before going, paint Sally. She was really, after all, a part of the landscape, as much a thing of nature and the hills as the hollyhocks that had come along the picket-fences. She swayed as gracefully and thoughtlessly to her movements as do strong and pliant stems under the breeze's kiss. Artfulness she had not; nor has the flower: only the joy and fragrance of a brief bloom. It was that thought which just now struck the painter most forcibly. It was shameful that this girl and boy should go on to the hard and unlighted life that inevitably awaited them, if neither had the opportunity of development. She would be at forty a later edition of the Widow Miller. He had seen the widow. Sally's charm must be as ephemeral under the life of illiterate drudgery and perennial child-bearing as her mother's had been. Her shoulders, now so gloriously straight and strong, would sag, and her bosom shrink, and her face harden and take on that drawn misery of constant anxiety. But, if Samson went and came back with some conception of cherishing his wife—yes, the effort was worth making. Yet, as the girl came down the slope, gaily singing a very melancholy song, the painter broke off in his reflections, and his thoughts veered. If Samson left, would he ever return? Might not the old man after all be right? When he had seen other women and tasted other allurements would he, like Ulysses, still hold his barren Ithaca above the gilded invitation of Calypso? History has only one Ulysses. Sally's voice was lilting like a bird's as she walked happily. The song was one of those old ballads that have been held intact since the stock learned to sing them in the heather of the Scotch highlands before there was an America.
"'She's pizened me, mother, make my bed soon, Fer I'm sick at my heart and I fain would lay doon.'"
The man rose and went to meet her.
"Miss Sally," he began, uncertainly, "I want to talk to you."
She was always very grave and diffident with Lescott. He was a strange new type to her, and, though she had begun with a predilection in his favor, she had since then come to hold him in adverse prejudice. Before his arrival, Samson had been all hers. She had not missed in her lover the gallantries that she and her women had never known. At evening, when the supper dishes were washed and she sat in the honeysuckle fragrance of the young night with the whippoorwills calling, she had been accustomed to hear a particular whippoorwill-note call, much like the real ones, yet distinct to her waiting ears. She was wont to rise and go to the stile to meet him. She had known that every day she would, seemingly by chance, meet Samson somewhere along the creek, or on the big bowlder at the rift, or hoeing on the sloping cornfield. These things had been enough. But, of late, his interests had been divided. This painter had claimed many of his hours and many of his thoughts. There was in her heart an unconfessed jealousy of the foreigner. Now, she scrutinized him solemnly, and nodded.
"Won't you sit down?" he invited, and the girl dropped cross-legged on a mossy rock, and waited. To-day, she wore a blue print dress, instead of the red one. It was always a matter of amazement to the man that in such an environment she was not only wildly beautiful, but invariably the pink of neatness. She could climb a tree or a mountain, or emerge from a sweltering blackberry patch, seemingly as fresh and unruffled as she had been at the start. The man stood uncomfortably looking at her, and was momentarily at a loss for words with which to commence.
"What was ye a-goin' ter tell me?" she asked.
"Miss Sally," he began, "I've discovered something about Samson."
Her blue eyes flashed ominously.
"Ye can't tell me nothin' 'bout Samson," she declared, "withouten hit's somethin' nice."
"It's something very nice," the man reassured her.
"Then, ye needn't tell me, because I already knows hit," came her prompt and confident announcement.
Lescott shook his head, dubiously.
"Samson is a genius," he said.
"He has great gifts—great abilities to become a figure in the world."
She nodded her head, in prompt and full corroboration.
"I reckon Samson'll be the biggest man in the mountings some day."
"He ought to be more than that."
Suspicion at once cast a cloud across the violet serenity of her eyes.
"What does ye mean?" she demanded.
"I mean"—the painter paused a moment, and then said bluntly—"I mean that I want to take him back with me to New York."
The girl sprang to her feet with her chin defiantly high and her brown hands clenched into tight little fists. Her bosom heaved convulsively, and her eyes blazed through tears of anger. Her face was pale.
"Ye hain't!" she cried, in a paroxysm of fear and wrath. "Ye hain't a- goin' ter do no sich—no sich of a damn thing!" She stamped her foot, and her whole girlish body, drawn into rigid uprightness, was a-quiver with the incarnate spirit of the woman defending her home and institutions. For a moment after that, she could not speak, but her determined eyes blazed a declaration of war. It was as though he had posed her as the Spirit of the Cumberlands.
He waited until she should be calmer. It was useless to attempt stemming her momentary torrent of rage. It was like one of the sudden and magnificent tempests that often swept these hills, a brief visit of the furies. One must seek shelter and wait. It would end as suddenly as it had come. At last, he spoke, very softly.
"You don't understand me, Miss Sally. I'm not trying to take Samson away from you. If a man should lose a girl like you, he couldn't gain enough in the world to make up for it. All I want is that he shall have the chance to make the best of his life."
"I reckon Samson don't need no fotched-on help ter make folks acknowledge him."
"Every man needs his chance. He can be a great painter—but that's the least part of it. He can come back equipped for anything that life offers. Here, he is wasted."
"Ye mean"—she put the question with a hurt quaver in her voice—"ye mean we all hain't good enough fer Samson?"
"No. I only mean that Samson wants to grow—and he needs space and new scenes in which to grow. I want to take him where he can see more of the world—not only a little section of the world. Surely, you are not distrustful of Samson's loyalty? I want him to go with me for a while, and see life."
"Don't ye say hit!" The defiance in her voice was being pathetically tangled up with the tears. She was speaking in a transport of grief. "Don't ye say hit. Take anybody else—take 'em all down thar, but leave us Samson. We needs him hyar. We've jest got ter have Samson hyar."
She faced him still with quivering lips, but in another moment, with a sudden sob, she dropped to the rock, and buried her face in her crossed arms. Her slender body shook under a harrowing convulsion of unhappiness. Lescott felt as though he had struck her; as though he had ruthlessly blighted the irresponsible joyousness which had a few minutes before sung from her lips with the blitheness of a mocking- bird. He went over and softly laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Miss Sally—" he began.
She suddenly turned on him a tear-stained, infuriated face, stormy with blazing eyes and wet cheeks and trembling lips.
"Don't touch me," she cried; "don't ye dare ter touch me! I hain't nothin' but a gal—but I reckon I could 'most tear ye ter pieces. Ye're jest a pizen snake, anyhow!" Then, she pointed a tremulous finger off up the road. "Git away from hyar," she commanded. "I don't never want ter see ye again. Ye're tryin' ter steal everything I loves. Git away, I tells ye!—git away—begone!"
"Think it over," urged Lescott, quietly. "See if your heart doesn't say I am Samson's friend—and yours." He turned, and began making his way over the rocks; but, before he had gone far, he sat down to reflect upon the situation. Certainly, he was not augmenting his popularity. A half-hour later, he heard a rustle, and, turning, saw Sally standing not far off. She was hesitating at the edge of the underbrush, and Lescott read in her eyes the effort it was costing her to come forward and apologize. Her cheeks were still pale and her eyes wet, but the tempest of her anger had spent itself, and in the girl who stood penitently, one hand nervously clutching a branch of rhododendron, one foot twisting in the moss, Lescott was seeing an altogether new Sally. There was a renunciation in her eyes that in contrast with the child- like curve of her lips, and slim girlishness of her figure, seemed entirely pathetic.
As she stood there, trying to come forward with a pitiful effort at composure and a twisted smile, Lescott wanted to go and meet her. But he knew her shyness, and realized that the kindest thing would be to pretend that he had not seen her at all. So, he covertly watched her, while he assumed to sit in moody unconsciousness of her nearness.
Little by little, and step by step, she edged over to him, halting often and looking about with the impulse to slip out of sight, but always bracing herself and drawing a little nearer. Finally, he knew that she was standing almost directly over him, and yet it was a moment or two more before her voice, sweetly penitent, announced her arrival.
"I reckon—I reckon I've got ter ask yore pardon," she said, slowly and with labored utterance. He looked up to see her standing with her head drooping and her fingers nervously pulling a flower to pieces.
"I reckon I hain't a plumb fool. I knows thet Samson's got a right ter eddication. Anyhow, I knows he wants hit."
"Education," said the man, "isn't going to change Samson, except to make him finer than he is—and more capable."
She shook her head. "I hain't got no eddication," she answered. "Hit's a-goin' ter make him too good fer me. I reckon hit's a-goin' ter jest about kill me.... Ye hain't never seed these here mountings in the winter time, when thar hain't nothin' green, an' thar hain't no birds a-singin', an' thar hain't nothin' but rain an' snow an' fog an' misery. They're a-goin' ter be like thet all the time fer me, atter Samson's gone away." She choked back something like a sob before she went on. "Yes, stranger, hit's a-goin' ter pretty nigh kill me, but—" Her lips twisted themselves into the pathetic smile again, and her chin came stiffly up. "But," she added, determinedly, "thet don't make no difference, nohow."
Yet, when Samson that evening gave his whippoorwill call at the Widow Miller's cabin, he found a dejected and miserable girl sitting on the stile, with her chin propped in her two hands and her eyes full of somberness and foreboding.
"What's the matter, Sally?" questioned he, anxiously. "Hes that low-down Tamarack Spicer been round here tellin' ye some more stories ter pester ye?"
She shook her head in silence. Usually, she bore the brunt of their conversations, Samson merely agreeing with, or overruling, her in lordly brevities. The boy climbed up and sat beside her.
"Thar's a-goin' ter be a dancin' party over ter Wile McCager's mill come Saturday," he insinuatingly suggested. "I reckon ye'll go over thar with me, won't ye, Sally?"
He waited for her usual delighted assent, but Sally only told him absently and without enthusiasm that she would "study about it." At last, however, her restraint broke, and, looking up, she abruptly demanded:
"Air ye a-goin' away, Samson?"
"Who's been a-talkin' ter ye?" demanded the boy, angrily.
For a moment, the girl sat silent. Silver mists were softening under a rising moon. The katydids were prophesying with strident music the six weeks' warning of frost. Myriads of stars were soft and low-hanging. Finally, she spoke in a grave voice:
"Hit hain't nothin' ter git mad about, Samson. The artist man 'lowed as how ye had a right ter go down thar, an' git an eddication." She made a weary gesture toward the great beyond.
"He hadn't ought to of told ye, Sally. If I'd been plumb sartin in my mind, I'd a-told ye myself—not but what I knows," he hastily amended, "thet he meant hit friendly."
"Air ye a-goin'?"
"I'm studyin' about hit."
He awaited objection, but none came. Then, with a piquing of his masculine vanity, he demanded:
"Hain't ye a-keerin', Sally, whether I goes, or not?"
The girl grew rigid. Her fingers on the crumbling plank of the stile's top tightened and gripped hard. The moonlit landscape seemed to whirl in a dizzy circle. Her face did not betray her, nor her voice, though she had to gulp down a rising lump in her throat before she could answer calmly.
"I thinks ye had ought ter go, Samson."
The boy was astonished. He had avoided the subject for fear of her opposition—and tears.
Then, slowly, she went on as though repeating a lesson painstakingly conned:
"There hain't nothin' in these here hills fer ye, Samson. Down thar, ye'll see lots of things thet's new—an' civilized an' beautiful! Ye'll see lots of gals thet kin read an' write, gals dressed up in all kinds of fancy fixin's." Her glib words ran out and ended in a sort of inward gasp.
Compliment came hardly and awkwardly to Samson's lips. He reached for the girl's hand, and whispered:
"I reckon I won't see no gals thet's as purty as you be, Sally. I reckon ye knows, whether I goes or stays, we're a-goin' ter git married."
She drew her hand away, and laughed, a little bitterly. In the last day, she had ceased to be a child, and become a woman with all the soul-aching possibilities of a woman's intuitions.
"Samson," she said, "I hain't askin' ye ter make me no promises. When ye sees them other gals—gals thet kin read an' write—I reckon mebby ye'll think diff'rent. I can't hardly spell out printin' in the fust reader."
Her lover's voice was scornful of the imagined dangers, as a recruit may be of the battle terrors—before he has been under fire. He slipped his arm about her and drew her over to him.
"Honey," he said, "ye needn't fret about thet. Readin' an' writin' can't make no difference fer a woman. Hit's mighty important fer a man, but you're a gal."
"You're a-goin' ter think diff'rent atter awhile," she insisted. "When ye goes, I hain't a-goin' ter be expectin' ye ter come back ... But" —the resolution in her voice for a moment quavered as she added—"but God knows I'm a-goin' ter be hopin'!"
"Sally!" The boy rose, and paced up and down in the road. "Air ye goin' ter be ag'inst me, too? Don't ye see that I wants ter have a chanst? Can't ye trust me? I'm jest a-tryin' to amount to something. I'm plumb tired of bein' ornery an' no 'count."
"I've done told ye," she said, wearily, "thet I thinks ye ought ter do hit."
He stood there in the road looking down at her and the twisted smile that lifted only one corner of her lips, while the other drooped. The moonlight caught her eyes; eyes that were trying, like the lips, to smile, but that were really looking away into the future, which she saw stripped of companionship and love, and gray with the ashiness of wretched desolation. And, while he was seeing the light of the simulated cheeriness die out in her face, she was seeing the strange, exalted glow, of which she was more than half-afraid, kindle in his pupils. It was as though she were giving up the living fire out of her own heart to set ablaze the ambition and anticipation in his own.
That glow in Samson's eyes she feared and shrank from, as she might have flinched before the blaze of insanity. It was a thing which her mountain superstition could not understand, a thing not wholly normal; a manifestation that came to the stoic face and transformed it, when the eyes of the brain and heart were seeing things which she herself could not see. It was the proclamation of the part of Samson which she could not comprehend, as though he were looking into a spirit world of weird and abnormal things. It was the light of an enthusiasm such as his love for her could not bring to his eyes—and it told her that the strongest and deepest part of Samson did not belong to her. Now, as the young man stood there before her, and her little world of hope and happiness seemed crumbling into ruins, and she was steeling her soul to sacrifice herself and let him go, he was thinking, not of what it was costing her in heart-break, but seeing visions of all the great world held for him beyond the barriers of the mountains. The light in his eyes seemed to flaunt the victory of the enthusiasms that had nothing to do with her.
Samson came forward, and held out his arms. But Sally drew away with a little shudder, and crouched at the end of the stile.
"What's ther matter, Sally?" he demanded in surprise, and, as he bent toward her, his eyes lost the strange light she feared, and she laughed a little nervous laugh, and rose from her seat.
"Nothin' hain't ther matter—now," she said, stanchly.
Lescott and Samson discussed the matter frequently. At times, the boy was obstinate in his determination to remain; at other times, he gave way to the yearnings for change and opportunity. But the lure of the palette and brush possessed him beyond resistance and his taciturnity melted, when in the painter's company, to a roughly poetic form of expression.
"Thet sunrise," he announced one morning, setting down his milk-pail to gaze at the east, "is jest like the sparkle in a gal's eyes when she's tickled at somethin' ye've said about her. An,' when the sun sets, hit's like the whole world was a woman blushin'."
The dance on Saturday was to be something more portentous than a mere frolic. It would be a clan gathering to which the South adherents would come riding up and down Misery and its tributaries from "nigh abouts" and "over yon." From forenoon until after midnight, shuffle, jig and fiddling would hold high, if rough, carnival. But, while the younger folk abandoned themselves to these diversions, the grayer heads would gather in more serious conclave. Jesse Purvy had once more beaten back death, and his mind had probably been devising, during those bed-ridden days and nights, plans of reprisal. According to current report, Purvy had announced that his would-be assassin dwelt on Misery, and was "marked down." So, there were obvious exigencies which the Souths must prepare to meet. In particular, the clan must thrash out to definite understanding the demoralizing report that Samson South, their logical leader, meant to abandon them, at a crisis when war-clouds were thickening.
The painter had finally resolved to cut the Gordian knot, and leave the mountains. He had trained on Samson to the last piece all his artillery of argument. The case was now submitted with the suggestion that the boy take three months to consider, and that, if he decided affirmatively, he should notify Lescott in advance of his coming. He proposed sending Samson a small library of carefully picked books, which the mountaineer eagerly agreed to devour in the interval.
Lescott consented, however, to remain over Saturday, and go to the dance, since he was curious to observe what pressure was brought to bear on the boy, and to have himself a final word of argument after the kinsmen had spoken.
Saturday morning came after a night of torrential rain, which had left the mountains steaming under a reek of fog and pitching clouds. Hillside streams ran freshets, and creek-bed roads were foaming and boiling into waterfalls. Sheep and cattle huddled forlornly under their shelters of shelving rock, and only the geese seemed happy.
Far down the dripping shoulders of the mountains trailed ragged streamers of vapor. Here and there along the lower slopes hung puffs of smoky mist as though silent shells were bursting from unseen artillery over a vast theater of combat.
But, as the morning wore on, the sun fought its way to view in a scrap of overhead blue. A freshening breeze plunged into the reek, and sent it scurrying in broken cloud ranks and shredded tatters. The steamy heat gave way under a dissipating sweep of coolness, until the skies smiled down on the hills and the hills smiled back. From log cabins and plank houses up and down Misery and its tributaries, men and women began their hegira toward the mill. Some came on foot, carrying their shoes in their hands, but those were only near-by dwellers. Others made saddle journeys of ten or fifteen, or even twenty, miles, and the beasts that carried a single burden were few. Lescott rode in the wake of Samson, who had Sally on a pillow at his back, and along the seven miles of journey he studied the strange procession. It was, for the most part, a solemn cavalcade, for these are folk who "take their pleasures sadly." Possibly, some of the sun-bonneted, strangely-garbed women were reflecting on the possibilities which mountain-dances often develop into tragic actualities. Possibly, others were having their enjoyment discounted by the necessity of "dressing up" and wearing shoes.
Sometimes, a slowly ambling mule bore an entire family; the father managing the reins with one hand and holding a baby with the other, while his rifle lay balanced across his pommel and his wife sat solemnly behind him on a sheepskin or pillion. Many of the men rode side-saddles, and sacks bulky at each end hinted of such baggage as is carried in jugs. Lescott realized from the frank curiosity with which he was regarded that he had been a topic of discussion, and that he was now being "sized up." He was the false prophet who was weaving a spell over Samson! Once, he heard a sneering voice from the wayside comment as he rode by.
"He looks like a damned parson."
Glancing back, he saw a tow-headed youth glowering at him out of pinkish albino eyes. The way lay in part along the creek-bed, where wagons had ground the disintegrating rock into deep ruts as smooth as walls of concrete. Then, it traversed a country of palisading cliffs and immensity of forest, park-like and splendid. Strangely picturesque suspension bridges with rough stairways at their ends spanned waters too deep for fording. Frame houses showed along the banks of the creek —grown here to a river—unplaned and unpainted of wall, but brightly touched with window-and door-frames of bright yellow or green or blue. This was the territory where the Souths held dominance, and it was pouring out its people.
They came before noon to the mouth of Dryhole Creek, and the house of Wile McCager. Already, the picket fence was lined with tethered horses and mules, and a canvas-covered wagon came creeping in behind its yoke of oxen. Men stood clustered in the road, and at the entrance a woman, nursing her baby at her breast, welcomed and gossiped with the arrivals.
The house of Wile McCager loaned itself to entertainment. It was not of logs, but of undressed lumber, and boasted a front porch and two front rooms entered by twin doors facing on a triangular alcove. In the recess between these portals stood a washstand, surmounted by a china basin and pitcher—a declaration of affluence. From the interior of the house came the sounds of fiddling, though these strains of "Turkey in the Straw" were only by way of prelude. Lescott felt, though he could not say just what concrete thing told him, that under the shallow note of merry-making brooded the major theme of a troublesome problem. The seriousness was below the surface, but insistently depressing. He saw, too, that he himself was mixed up with it in a fashion, which might become dangerous, when a few jugs of white liquor had been emptied.
It would be some time yet before the crowd warmed up. Now, they only stood about and talked, and to Lescott they gave a gravely polite greeting, beneath which was discernible an undercurrent of hostility.
As the day advanced, the painter began picking out the more influential clansmen, by the fashion in which they fell together into groups, and took themselves off to the mill by the racing creek for discussion. While the young persons danced and "sparked" within, and the more truculent lads escaped to the road to pass the jug, and forecast with youthful war-fever "cleanin' out the Hollmans," the elders were deep in ways and means. If the truce could be preserved for its unexpired period of three years, it was, of course, best. In that event, crops could be cultivated, and lives saved. But, if Jesse Purvy chose to regard his shooting as a breach of terms, and struck, he would strike hard, and, in that event, best defense lay in striking first. Samson would soon be twenty-one. That he would take his place as head of the clan had until now never been questioned—and he was talking of desertion. For that, a pink-skinned foreigner, who wore a woman's bow of ribbon at his collar, was to blame. The question of loyalty must be squarely put up to Samson, and it must be done to-day. His answer must be definite and unequivocal. As a guest of Spicer South, Lescott was entitled to that consideration which is accorded ambassadors.
None the less, the vital affairs of the clan could not be balked by consideration for a stranger, who, in the opinion of the majority, should be driven from the country as an insidious mischief-maker. Ostensibly, the truce still held, but at no time since its signing had matters been so freighted with the menace of a gathering storm. The attitude of each faction was that of several men standing quiet with guns trained on one another's breasts. Each hesitated to fire, knowing that to pull the trigger meant to die himself, yet fearing that another trigger might at any moment be drawn. Purvy dared not have Samson shot out of hand, because he feared that the Souths would claim his life in return, yet he feared to let Samson live. On the other hand, if Purvy fell, no South could balance his death, except Spicer or Samson. Any situation that might put conditions to a moment of issue would either prove that the truce was being observed, or open the war—and yet each faction was guarding against such an event as too fraught with danger. One thing was certain. By persuasion or force, Lescott must leave, and Samson must show himself to be the youth he had been thought, or the confessed and repudiated renegade. Those questions, to-day must answer. It was a difficult situation, and promised an eventful entertainment. Whatever conclusion was reached as to the artist's future, he was, until the verdict came in, a visitor, and, unless liquor inflamed some reckless trouble-hunter, that fact would not be forgotten. Possibly, it was as well that Tamarack Spicer had not arrived.
Lescott himself realized the situation in part, as he stood at the door of the house watching the scene inside.
There was, of course, no round dancing—only the shuffle and jig—with champions contending for the honor of their sections. A young woman from Deer Lick and a girl from the head of Dryhill had been matched for the "hoe-down," and had the floor to themselves. The walls were crowded with partisan onlookers, who applauded and cheered their favorite.
The bows scraped faster and louder; the clapping hands beat more tumultuously, until their mad tempo was like the clatter of musketry; the dancers threw themselves deliriously into the madly quickening step. It was a riotous saturnalia of flying feet and twinkling ankles. Onlookers shouted and screamed encouragement. It seemed that the girls must fall in exhaustion, yet each kept on, resolved to be still on the floor when the other had abandoned it in defeat—that being the test of victory. At last, the girl from Dryhill reeled, and was caught by half-a-dozen arms. Her adversary, holding the floor undisputed, slowed down, and someone stopped the fiddler. Sally turned from the crowded wall, and began looking about for Samson. He was not there. Lescott had seen him leave the house a few moments before, and started over to intercept the girl, as she came out to the porch.
In the group about the door, he passed a youth with tow-white hair and very pink cheeks. The boy was the earliest to succumb to the temptation of the moonshine jug, a temptation which would later claim others. He was reeling crazily, and his albino eyes were now red and inflamed. Lescott remembered him.
"Thet's ther damned furriner thet's done turned Samson inter a gal," proclaimed the youth, in a thick voice.
The painter paused, and looked back. The boy was reaching under his coat with hands that had become clumsy and unresponsive.
"Let me git at him," he shouted, with a wild whoop and a dash toward the painter.
Lescott said nothing, but Sally had heard, and stepped swiftly between.
"You've got ter git past me fust, Buddy," she said, quietly. "I reckon ye'd better run on home, an' git yore mammy ter put ye ter bed."
Several soberer men closed around the boy, and, after disarming him, led him away grumbling and muttering, while Wile McCager made apologies to the guest.
"Jimmy's jest a peevish child," he explained. "A drop or two of licker makes him skittish. I hopes ye'll look over hit."
Jimmy's outbreak was interesting to Lescott chiefly as an indication of what might follow. He noted how the voices were growing louder and shriller, and how the jug was circulating faster. A boisterous note was making itself heard through the good humor and laughter, and the "furriner" remembered that these minds, when inflamed, are more prone to take the tangent of violence than that of mirth. Unwilling to introduce discord by his presence, and involve Samson in quarrels on his account, he suggested riding back to Misery, but the boy's face clouded at the suggestion.
"Ef they kain't be civil ter my friends," he said, shortly, "they've got ter account ter me. You stay right hyar, and I'll stay clost to you. I done come hyar to-day ter tell 'em that they mustn't meddle in my business."
A short while later, Wile McCager invited Samson to come out to the mill, and the boy nodded to Lescott an invitation to accompany him. The host shook his head.
"We kinder 'lowed ter talk over some fam'ly matters with ye, Samson," he demurred. "I reckon Mr. Lescott'll excuse ye fer a spell."
"Anything ye've got ter talk ter me about, George Lescott kin hear," said the youth, defiantly. "I hain't got no secrets." He was heir to his father's leadership, and his father had been unquestioned. He meant to stand uncompromisingly on his prerogatives.
For an instant, the old miller's keen eyes hardened obstinately. After Spicer and Samson South, he was the most influential and trusted of the South leaders—and Samson was still a boy. His ruggedly chiseled features were kindly, but robustly resolute, and, when he was angered, few men cared to face him. For an instant, a stinging rebuke seemed to hover on his lips, then he turned with a curt jerk of his large head.
"All right. Suit yourselves. I've done warned ye both. We 'lows ter talk plain."
The mill, dating back to pioneer days, sat by its race with its shaft now idle. About it, the white-boled sycamores crowded among the huge rocks, and the water poured tumultuously over the dam. The walls of mortised logs were chinked with rock and clay. At its porch, two discarded millstones served in lieu of steps. Over the door were fastened a spreading pair of stag-antlers. It looked to Lescott, as he approached, like a scrap of landscape torn from some medieval picture, and the men about its door seemed medieval, too; bearded and gaunt, hard-thewed and sullen.
All of them who stood waiting were men of middle age, or beyond. A number were gray-haired, but they were all of cadet branches. Many of them, like Wile McCager himself, did not bear the name of South, and Samson was the eldest son of the eldest son. They sat on meal-whitened bins and dusty timbers and piled-up sacks. Several crouched on the ground, squatting on their heels, and, as the conference proceeded, they drank moonshine whiskey, and spat solemnly at the floor cracks.
"Hevn't ye noticed a right-smart change in Samson?" inquired old Caleb Wiley of a neighbor, in his octogenarian quaver. "The boy hes done got es quiet an' pious es a missionary."
The other nodded under his battered black felt hat, and beat a tattoo with the end of his long hickory staff.