"Git out of sight. Maybe they've done found out ye've come back—maybe they're trailin' ye!"
With an instant shock, she remembered what mission had brought him back, and what was his peril; and he, too, for whom the happiness of the moment had swallowed up other things, came back to a recognition of facts. Dropping into the old woodcraft, he melted out of sight into the shadow, thrusting the girl behind him, and crouched against the fence, throwing the rifle forward, and peering into the shadows. As he stood there, balancing the gun once more in his hands, old instincts began to stir, old battle hunger to rise, and old realizations of primitive things to assault him. Then, when they had waited with bated breath until they were both reassured, he rose and swung the stock to his shoulder several times. With something like a sigh of contentment, he said, half to himself:
"Hit feels mighty natural ter throw this old rifle-gun up. I reckon maybe I kin still shoot hit."
"I learned some things down there at school, Samson," said the girl, slowly, "and I wish—I wish you didn't have to use it."
"Jim Asberry is dead," said the man, gravely.
"Yes," she echoed, "Jim Asberry's dead." She stopped there. Yet, her sigh completed the sentence as though she had added, "but he was only one of several. Your vow went farther."
After a moment's pause, Samson added:
"Jesse Purvy's dead."
The girl drew back, with a frightened gasp. She knew what this meant, or thought she did.
"Jesse Purvy!" she repeated. "Oh, Samson, did ye—?" She broke off, and covered her face with her hands.
"No, Sally," he told her. "I didn't have to." He recited the day's occurrences, and they sat together on the stile, until the moon had sunk to the ridge top.
* * * * *
Captain Sidney Callomb, who had been despatched in command of a militia company to quell the trouble in the mountains, should have been a soldier by profession. All his enthusiasms were martial. His precision was military. His cool eye held a note of command which made itself obeyed. He had a rare gift of handling men, which made them ready to execute the impossible. But the elder Callomb had trained his son to succeed him at the head of a railroad system, and the young man had philosophically undertaken to satisfy his military ambitions with State Guard shoulder-straps.
The deepest sorrow and mortification he had ever known was that which came to him when Tamarack Spicer, his prisoner of war and a man who had been surrendered on the strength of his personal guarantee, had been assassinated before his eyes. That the manner of this killing had been so outrageously treacherous that it could hardly have been guarded against, failed to bring him solace. It had shown the inefficiency of his efforts, and had brought on a carnival of blood-letting, when he had come here to safeguard against that danger. In some fashion, he must make amends. He realized, too, and it rankled deeply, that his men were not being genuinely used to serve the State, but as instruments of the Hollmans, and he had seen enough to distrust the Hollmans. Here, in Hixon, he was seeing things from only one angle. He meant to learn something more impartial.
Besides being on duty as an officer of militia, Callomb was a Kentuckian, interested in the problems of his Commonwealth, and, when he went back, he knew that his cousin, who occupied the executive mansion at Frankfort, would be interested in his suggestions. The Governor had asked him to report his impressions, and he meant to form them after analysis.
So, smarting under his impotency, Captain Callomb came out of his tent one morning, and strolled across the curved bridge to the town proper. He knew that the Grand Jury was convening, and he meant to sit as a spectator in the court-house and study proceedings when they were instructed.
But before he reached the court-house, where for a half-hour yet the cupola bell would not clang out its summons to veniremen and witnesses, he found fresh fuel for his wrath.
He was not a popular man with these clansmen, though involuntarily he had been useful in leading their victims to the slaughter. There was a scowl in his eyes that they did not like, and an arrogant hint of iron laws in the livery he wore, which their instincts distrusted.
Callomb saw without being told that over the town lay a sense of portentous tidings. Faces were more sullen than usual. Men fell into scowling knots and groups. A clerk at a store where he stopped for tobacco inquired as he made change:
"Heered the news, stranger?"
"This here 'Wildcat' Samson South come back yis-tiddy, an' last evenin' towards sundown, Jesse Purvy an' Aaron Hollis was shot dead."
For an instant, the soldier stood looking at the young clerk, his eyes kindling into a wrathful blaze. Then, he cursed under his breath. At the door, he turned on his heel:
"Where can Judge Smithers be found at this time of day?" he demanded.
The Honorable Asa Smithers was not the regular Judge of the Circuit which numbered Hixon among its county-seats. The elected incumbent was ill, and Smithers had been named as his pro-tem. successor. Callomb climbed to the second story of the frame bank building, and pounded loudly on a door, which bore the boldly typed shingle:
"ASA SMITHERS, ATTORNEY-AT-LAW."
The temporary Judge admitted a visitor in uniform, whose countenance was stormy with indignant protest. The Judge himself was placid and smiling. The lawyer, who was for the time being exalted to the bench, hoped to ascend it more permanently by the votes of the Hollman faction, since only Hollman votes were counted. He was a young man of powerful physique with a face ruggedly strong and honest.
It was such an honest and fearless face that it was extremely valuable to its owner in concealing a crookedness as resourceful as that of a fox, and a moral cowardice which made him a spineless tool in evil hands. A shock of tumbled red hair over a fighting face added to the appearance of combative strength. The Honorable Asa was conventionally dressed, and his linen was white, but his collar was innocent of a necktie. Callomb stood for a moment inside the door, and, when he spoke, it was to demand crisply:
"Well, what are you going to do about it?"
"About what, Captain?" inquired the other, mildly.
"Is it possible you haven't heard? Since yesterday noon, two more murders have been added to the holocaust. You represent the courts of law. I represent the military arm of the State. Are we going to stand by and see this go on?"
The Judge shook his head, and his visage was sternly thoughtful and hypocritical. He did not mention that he had just come from conference with the Hollman leaders. He did not explain that the venire he had drawn from the jury drum had borne a singularly solid Hollman compaction.
"Until the Grand Jury acts, I don't see that we can take any steps."
"And," stormed Captain Callomb, "the Grand Jury will, like former Grand Juries, lie down in terror and inactivity. Either there are no courageous men in your county, or these panels are selected to avoid including them."
Judge Smithers' face darkened. If he was a moral coward, he was at least a coward crouching behind a seeming of fearlessness.
"Captain," he said, coolly, but with a dangerous hint of warning, "I don't see that your duties include contempt of court."
"No!" Callomb was now thoroughly angered, and his voice rose. "I am sent down here subject to your orders, and it seems you are also subject to orders. Here are two murders in a day, capping a climax of twenty years of bloodshed. You have information as to the arrival of a man known as a desperado with a grudge against the two dead men, yet you know of no steps to take. Give me the word, and I'll go out and bring that man, and any others you name, to your bar of justice—if it is a bar of justice! For God's sake, give me something else to do than to bring in prisoners to be shot down in cold blood."
The Judge sat balancing a pencil on his extended forefinger as though it were a scale of justice.
"You have been heated in your language, sir," he said, sternly, "but it is a heat arising from an indignation which I share. Consequently, I pass it over. I cannot instruct you to arrest Samson South before the Grand Jury has accused him. The law does not contemplate hasty or unadvised action. All men are innocent until proven guilty. If the Grand Jury wants South, I'll instruct you to go and get him. Until then, you may leave my part of the work to me."
His Honor rose from his chair.
"You can at least give this Grand Jury such instructions on murder as will point out their duty. You can assure them that the militia will protect them. Through your prosecutor, you can bring evidence to their attention, you——"
"If you will excuse me," interrupted His Honor, drily, "I'll judge of how I am to charge my Grand Jury. I have been in communication with the family of Mr. Purvy, and it is not their wish at the present time to bring this case before the panel."
Callomb laughed ironically.
"No, I could have told you that before you conferred with them. I could have told you that they prefer to be their own courts and executioners, except where they need you. They also preferred to have me get a man they couldn't take themselves, and then to assassinate him in my hands. Who in the hell do you work for, Judge-for-the-moment Smithers? Are you holding a job under the State of Kentucky, or under the Hollman faction of this feud? I am instructed to take my orders from you. Will you kindly tell me my master's real name?"
Smithers turned pale with anger, his fighting face grew as truculent as a bulldog's, while Callomb stood glaring back at him like a second bulldog, but the Judge knew that he was being honestly and fearlessly accused. He merely pointed to the door. The Captain turned on his heel, and stalked out of the place, and the Judge came down the steps, and crossed the street to the court-house. Five minutes later, he turned to the shirt-sleeved man who was leaning on the bench, and said in his most judicial voice:
"Mr. Sheriff, open court."
The next day the mail-carrier brought in a note for the temporary Judge. His Honor read it at recess, and hastened across to Hollman's Mammoth Department Store. There, in council with his masters, he asked instructions. This was the note:
"THE HON. ASA SMITHERS.
"SIR: I arrived in this county yesterday, and am prepared, if called as a witness, to give to the Grand Jury full and true particulars of the murder of Jesse Purvy and the killing of Aaron Hollis. I am willing to come under escort of my own kinsmen, or of the militiamen, as the Court may advise.
"The requirement of any bodyguard, I deplore, but in meeting my legal obligations, I do not regard it as necessary or proper to walk into a trap.
"Respectfully, SAMSON SOUTH."
Smithers looked perplexedly at Judge Hollman.
"Shall I have him come?" he inquired.
Hollman threw the letter down on his desk with a burst of blasphemy:
"Have him come?" he echoed. "Hell and damnation, no! What do we want him to come here and spill the milk for? When we get ready, we'll indict him. Then, let your damned soldiers go after him—as a criminal, not a witness. After that, we'll continue this case until these outsiders go away, and we can operate to suit ourselves. We don't fall for Samson South's tricks. No, sir; you never got that letter! It miscarried. Do you hear? You never got it."
Smithers nodded grudging acquiescence. Most men would rather be independent officials than collar-wearers.
Out on Misery Samson South had gladdened the soul of his uncle with his return. The old man was mending, and, for a long time, the two had talked. The failing head of the clan looked vainly for signs of degeneration in his nephew, and, failing to find them, was happy.
"Hev ye decided, Samson," he inquired, "thet ye was right in yer notion 'bout goin' away?"
Samson sat reflectively for a while, then replied:
"We were both right, Uncle Spicer—and both wrong. This is my place, but if I'm to take up the leadership it must be in a different fashion. Changes are coming. We can't any longer stand still."
Spicer South lighted his pipe. He, too, in these last years, had seen in the distance the crest of the oncoming wave. He, too, recognized that, from within or without, there must be a regeneration. He did not welcome it, but, if it must come, he preferred that it come not at the hands of conquerors, but under the leadership of his own blood.
"I reckon there's right smart truth to that," he acknowledged. "I've been studyin' 'bout hit consid'able myself of late. Thar's been sev'ral fellers through the country talkin' coal an' timber an' railroads—an' sich like."
Sally went to mill that Saturday, and with her rode Samson. There, besides Wile McCager, he met Caleb Wiley and several others. At first, they received him sceptically, but they knew of the visit to Purvy's store, and they were willing to admit that in part at least he had erased the blot from his escutcheon. Then, too, except for cropped hair and a white skin, he had come back as he had gone, in homespun and hickory. There was nothing highfalutin in his manners. In short, the impression was good.
"I reckon now that ye're back, Samson," suggested McCager, "an' seein' how yore Uncle Spicer is gettin' along all right, I'll jest let the two of ye run things. I've done had enough." It was a simple fashion of resigning a regency, but effectual.
Old Caleb, however, still insurgent and unconvinced, brought in a minority report.
"We wants fightin' men," he grumbled, with the senile reiteration of his age, as he spat tobacco and beat a rat-tat on the mill floor with his long hickory staff. "We don't want no deserters."
"Samson ain't a deserter," defended Sally. "There isn't one of you fit to tie his shoes." Sally and old Spicer South alone knew of her lover's letter to the Circuit Judge, and they were pledged to secrecy.
"Never mind, Sally!" It was Samson himself who answered her. "I didn't come back because I care what men like old Caleb think. I came back because they needed me. The proof of a fighting man is his fighting, I reckon. I'm willing to let 'em judge me by what I'm going to do."
So, Samson slipped back, tentatively, at least, into his place as clan head, though for a time he found it a post without action. After the fierce outburst of bloodshed, quiet had settled, and it was tacitly understood that, unless the Hollman forces had some coup in mind which they were secreting, this peace would last until the soldiers were withdrawn.
"When the world's a-lookin'," commented Judge Hollman, "hit's a right good idea to crawl under a log—an' lay still."
Purvy had been too famous a feudist to pass unsung. Reporters came as far as Hixon, gathered there such news as the Hollmans chose to give them, and went back to write lurid stories and description, from hearsay, of the stockaded seat of tragedy. Nor did they overlook the dramatic coincidence of the return of "Wildcat" Samson South from civilization to savagery. They made no accusation, but they pointed an inference and a moral—as they thought. It was a sermon on the triumph of heredity over the advantages of environment. Adrienne read some of these saffron misrepresentations, and they distressed her.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, it came insistently to the ears of Captain Callomb that some plan was on foot, the intricacies of which he could not fathom, to manufacture a case against a number of the Souths, quite apart from their actual guilt, or likelihood of guilt. Once more, he would be called upon to go out and drag in men too well fortified to be taken by the posses and deputies of the Hollman civil machinery. At this news, he chafed bitterly, and, still rankling with a sense of shame at the loss of his first prisoner, he formed a plan of his own, which he revealed over his pipe to his First Lieutenant.
"There's a nigger in the woodpile, Merriwether," he said. "We are simply being used to do the dirty work up here, and I'm going to do a little probing of my own. I guess I'll turn the company over to you for a day or two."
"What idiocy are you contemplating now?" inquired the second in command.
"I'm going to ride over on Misery, and hear what the other side has to say. I've usually noticed that one side of any story is pretty good until the other's told."
"You mean you are going to go over there where the Souths are intrenched, where every road is guarded?" The Lieutenant spoke wrathfully and with violence. "Don't be an ass, Callomb. You went over there once before, and took a man away—and he's dead. You owe them a life, and they collect their dues. You will be supported by no warrant of arrest, and can't take a sufficient detail to protect you."
"No," said Callomb, quietly; "I go on my own responsibility and I go by myself."
"And," stormed Merriwether, "you'll never come back."
"I think," smiled Callomb, "I'll get back. I owe an old man over there an apology, and I want to see this desperado at first hand."
"It's sheer madness. I ought to take you down to this infernal crook of a Judge, and have you committed to a strait-jacket."
"If," said Callomb, "you are content to play the cats-paw to a bunch of assassins, I'm not. The mail-rider went out this morning, and he carried a letter to old Spicer South. I told him that I was coming unescorted and unarmed, and that my object was to talk with him. I asked him to give me a safe-conduct, at least until I reached his house, and stated my case. I treated him like an officer and a gentleman, and, unless I'm a poor judge of men, he's going to treat me that way."
The Lieutenant sought vainly to dissuade Callomb, but the next day the Captain rode forth, unaccompanied. Curious stares followed him, and Judge Smithers turned narrowing and unpleasant eyes after him, but at the point where the ridge separated the territory of the Hollmans from that of the Souths, he saw waiting in the road a mounted figure, sitting his horse straight, and clad in the rough habiliments of the mountaineer.
As Callomb rode up he saluted, and the mounted figure with perfect gravity and correctness returned that salute as one officer to another. The Captain was surprised. Where had this mountaineer with the steady eyes and the clean-cut jaw learned the niceties of military etiquette?
"I am Captain Callomb of F Company," said the officer. "I'm riding over to Spicer South's house. Did you come to meet me?"
"To meet and guide you," replied a pleasant voice. "My name is Samson South."
The militiaman stared. This man whose countenance was calmly thoughtful scarcely comported with the descriptions he had heard of the "Wildcat of the Mountains"; the man who had come home straight as a storm-petrel at the first note of tempest, and marked his coming with double murder. Callomb had been too busy to read newspapers of late. He had heard only that Samson had "been away."
While he wondered, Samson went on:
"I'm glad you came. If it had been possible I would have come to you." As he told of the letter he had written the Judge, volunteering to present himself as a witness, the officer's wonder grew.
"They said that you had been away," suggested Callomb. "If it's not an impertinent question, what part of the mountains have you been visiting?"
"Not any part of the mountains," he said. "I've been living chiefly in New York—and for a time in Paris."
Callomb drew his horse to a dead halt.
"In the name of God," he incredulously asked, "what manner of man are you?"
"I hope," came the instant reply, "it may be summed up by saying that I'm exactly the opposite of the man you've had described for you back there at Hixon."
"I knew it," exclaimed the soldier, "I knew that I was being fed on lies! That's why I came. I wanted to get the straight of it, and I felt that the solution lay over here."
They rode the rest of the way in deep conversation. Samson outlined his ambitions for his people. He told, too, of the scene that had been enacted at Purvy's store. Callomb listened with absorption, feeling that the narrative bore axiomatic truth on its face.
At last he inquired:
"Did you succeed up there—as a painter?"
"That's a long road," Samson told him, "but I think I had a fair start. I was getting commissions when I left."
"Then, I am to understand"—the officer met the steady gray eyes and put the question like a cross-examiner bullying a witness—"I am to understand that you deliberately put behind you a career to come down here and herd these fence-jumping sheep?"
"Hardly that," deprecated the head of the Souths. "They sent for me— that's all. Of course, I had to come."
"Because they had sent. They are my people."
The officer leaned in his saddle.
"South," he said, "would you mind shaking hands with me? Some day, I want to brag about it to my grandchildren."
Callomb spent the night at the house of Spicer South. He met and talked with a number of the kinsmen, and, if he read in the eyes of some of them a smoldering and unforgiving remembrance of his unkept pledge, at least they repressed all expression of censure.
With Spicer South and Samson, the Captain talked long into the night. He made many jottings in a notebook. He, with Samson abetting him, pointed out to the older and more stubborn man the necessity of a new regime in the mountains, under which the individual could walk in greater personal safety. As for the younger South, the officer felt, when he rode away the next morning, that he had discovered the one man who combined with the courage and honesty that many of his clansmen shared the mental equipment and local influence to prove a constructive leader.
When he returned to the Bluegrass, he meant to have a long and unofficial talk with his relative, the Governor.
He rode back to the ridge with a strong bodyguard. Upon this Samson had insisted. He had learned of Callomb's hasty and unwise denunciation of Smithers, and he knew that Smithers had lost no time in relating it to his masters. Callomb would be safe enough in Hollman country, because the faction which had called for troops could not afford to let him be killed within their own precincts. But, if Callomb could be shot down in his uniform, under circumstances which seemed to bear the earmarks of South authorship, it would arouse in the State at large a tidal wave of resentment against the Souths, which they could never hope to stem. And so, lest one of Hollman's hired assassins should succeed in slipping across the ridge and waylaying him, Samson conducted him to the frontier of the ridge.
On reaching Hixon, Callomb apologized to Judge Smithers for his recent outburst of temper. Now that he understood the hand that gentleman was playing, he wished to be strategic and in a position of seeming accord. He must match craft against craft. He did not intimate that he knew of Samson's letter, and rather encouraged the idea that he had been received on Misery with surly and grudging hospitality.
Smithers, presuming that the Souths still burned with anger over the shooting of Tamarack, swallowed that bait, and was beguiled.
The Grand Jury trooped each day to the court-house and transacted its business. The petty juries went and came, occupied with several minor homicide cases. The Captain, from a chair, which Judge Smithers had ordered placed beside him on the bench, was looking on and intently studying. One morning, Smithers confided to him that in a day or two more the Grand Jury would bring in a true bill against Samson South, charging him with murder. The officer did not show surprise. He merely nodded.
"I suppose I'll be called on to go and get him?" "I'm afraid we'll have to ask you to do that." "What caused the change of heart? I thought Purvy's people didn't want it done." It was Callomb's first allusion, except for his apology, to their former altercation.
For an instant only, Smithers was a little confused.
"To be quite frank with you, Callomb," he said, "I got to thinking over the matter in the light of your own viewpoint, and, after due deliberation, I came to see that to the State at large it might bear the same appearance. So, I had the Grand Jury take the matter up. We must stamp out such lawlessness as Samson South stands for. He is the more dangerous because he has brains."
Callomb nodded, but, at noon, he slipped out on a pretense of sight- seeing, and rode by a somewhat circuitous route to the ridge. At nightfall, he came to the house of the clan head.
"South," he said to Samson, when he had led him aside, "they didn't want to hear what you had to tell the Grand Jury, but they are going ahead to indict you on manufactured evidence."
Samson was for a moment thoughtful, then he nodded.
"That's about what I was expecting."
"Now," went on Callomb, "we understand each other. We are working for the same end, and, by God! I've had one experience in making arrests at the order of that Court. I don't want it to happen again."
"I suppose," said Samson, "you know that while I am entirely willing to face any fair court of justice, I don't propose to walk into a packed jury, whose only object is to get me where I can be made way with. Callomb, I hope we won't have to fight each other. What do you suggest?"
"If the Court orders the militia to make an arrest, the militia has no option. In the long run, resistance would only alienate the sympathy of the world at large. There is just one thing to be done, South. It's a thing I don't like to suggest, and a thing which, if we were not fighting the devil with fire, it would be traitorous for me to suggest." He paused, then added emphatically: "When my detail arrives here, which will probably be in three or four days, you must not be here. You must not be in any place where we can find you."
For a little while, Samson looked at the other man with a slow smile of amusement, but soon it died, and his face grew hard and determined.
"I'm obliged to you, Callomb," he said, seriously. "It was more than I had the right to expect—this warning. I understand the cost of giving it. But it's no use. I can't cut and run. No, by God, you wouldn't do it! You can't ask me to do it."
"By God, you can and will!" Callomb spoke with determination. "This isn't a time for quibbling. You've got work to do. We both have work to do. We can't stand on a matter of vainglorious pride, and let big issues of humanity go to pot. We haven't the right to spend men's lives in fighting each other, when we are the only two men in this entanglement who are in perfect accord—and honest."
The mountaineer spent some minutes in silent self-debate. The working of his face under the play of alternating doubt, resolution, hatred and insurgency, told the militiaman what a struggle was progressing. At last, Samson's eyes cleared with an expression of discovered solution.
"All right, Callomb," he said, briefly, "you won't find me!" He smiled, as he added: "Make as thorough a search as your duty demands. It needn't be perfunctory or superficial. Every South cabin will stand open to you. I shall be extremely busy, to ends which you will approve. I can't tell you what I shall be doing, because to do that, I should have to tell where I mean to be."
In two days, the Grand Jury, with much secrecy, returned a true bill, and a day later a considerable detachment of infantry started on a dusty hike up Misery. Furtive and inscrutable Hollman eyes along the way watched them from cabin-doors, and counted them. They meant also to count them coming back, and they did not expect the totals to tally.
* * * * *
Back of an iron spiked fence, and a dusty sunburned lawn, the barrack -like facades of the old Administration Building and Kentucky State Capitol frowned on the street and railroad track. About it, on two sides of the Kentucky River, sprawled the town of Frankfort; sleepy, more or less disheveled at the center, and stretching to shaded environs of Colonial houses set in lawns of rich bluegrass, amid the shade of forest trees. Circling the town in an embrace of quiet beauty rose the Kentucky River hills.
Turning in to the gate of the State House enclosure, a man, who seemed to be an Easterner by the cut of his clothes, walked slowly up the brick walk, and passed around the fountain at the front of the Capitol. He smiled to himself as his wandering eyes caught the distant walls and roofs of the State Prison on the hillside. His steps carried him direct to the main entrance of the Administration Building, and, having paused a moment in the rotunda, he entered the Secretary's office of the Executive suite, and asked for an interview with the Governor. The Secretary, whose duties were in part playing Cerberus at that threshold, made his customary swift, though unobtrusive, survey of the applicant for audience, and saw nothing to excite suspicion.
"Have you an appointment?" he asked.
The visitor shook his head. Scribbling a brief note on a slip of paper, he enclosed it in an envelope and handed it to his questioner.
"You must pardon my seeming mysteriousness," he said, "but, if you will let me send in that note, I think the Governor will see me."
Once more the Secretary studied his man with a slightly puzzled air, then nodded and went through the door that gave admission to the Executive's office.
His Excellency opened the envelope, and his face showed an expression of surprise. He raised his brows questioningly.
"Rough-looking sort?" he inquired. "Mountaineer?"
"No, sir. New Yorker would be my guess. Is there anything suspicious?"
"I guess not." The Governor laughed. "Rather extraordinary note, but send him in."
Through his eastern window, the Governor gazed off across the hills of South Frankfort, to the ribbon of river that came down from the troublesome hills. Then, hearing a movement at his back, he turned, and his eyes took in a well-dressed figure with confidence-inspiring features.
He picked up the slip from his desk, and, for a moment, stood comparing the name and the message with the man who had sent them in. There seemed to be in his mind some irreconcilable contradiction between the two. With a slightly frowning seriousness, the Executive suggested:
"This note says that you are Samson South, and that you want to see me with reference to a pardon. Whose pardon is it, Mr. South?"
"My own, sir."
The Governor raised his brows, slightly.
"Your pardon for what? The newspapers do not even report that you have yet been indicted." He shaded the word "yet" with a slight emphasis.
"I think I have been indicted within the past day or two. I'm not sure myself."
The Governor continued to stare. The impression he had formed of the "Wildcat" from press dispatches was warring with the pleasing personal presence of this visitor. Then, his forehead wrinkled under his black hair, and his lips drew themselves sternly.
"You have come to me too soon, sir," he said curtly. "The pardoning power is a thing to be most cautiously used at all times, and certainly never until the courts have acted. A case not yet adjudicated cannot address itself to executive clemency."
"Quite true," he admitted. "If I announced that I had come on the matter of a pardon, it was largely that I had to state some business and that seemed the briefest way of putting it."
"Then, there is something else?"
"Yes. If it were only a plea for clemency, I should expect the matter to be chiefly important to myself. In point of fact, I hope to make it equally interesting to you. Whether you give me a pardon in a fashion which violates all precedent, or whether I surrender myself, and go back to a trial which will be merely a form of assassination, rests entirely with you, sir. You will not find me insistent."
"If," said the Governor, with a trace of warning in his voice, "your preamble is simply a device to pique my interest with its unheard-of novelty, I may as well confess that so far it has succeeded."
"In that case, sir," responded Samson, gravely, "I have scored a point. If, when I am through, you find that I have been employing a subterfuge, I, fancy a touch of that bell under your finger will give you the means of summoning an officer. I am ready to turn myself over."
Then, Samson launched into the story of his desires and the details of conditions which outside influences had been powerless to remedy— because they were outside influences. Some man of sufficient vigor and comprehension, acting from the center of disturbance, must be armed with the power to undertake the housecleaning, and for a while must do work that would not be pretty. As far as he was personally concerned, a pardon after trial would be a matter of purely academic interest. He could not expect to survive a trial. He was at present able to hold the Souths in leash. If the Governor was not of that mind, he was now ready to surrender himself, and permit matters to take their course.
"And now, Mr. South?" suggested the Governor, after a half-hour of absorbed listening. "There is one point you have overlooked. Since in the end the whole thing comes back to the exercise of the pardoning power, it is after all the crux of the situation. You may be able to render such services as those for which you volunteer. Let us for the moment assume that to be true. You have not yet told me a very important thing. Did you or did you not kill Purvy and Hollis?"
"I killed Hollis," said Samson, as though he were answering a question as to the time of day, "and I did not kill Purvy."
"Kindly," suggested the Governor, "give me the full particulars of that affair."
The two were still closeted, when a second visitor called, and was told that his Excellency could not be disturbed. The second visitor, however, was so insistent that the secretary finally consented to take in the card. After a glance at it, his chief ordered admission.
The door opened, and Captain Callomb entered.
He was now in civilian clothes, with portentous news written on his face. He paused in annoyance at the sight of a second figure standing with back turned at the window. Then Samson wheeled, and the two men recognized each other. They had met before only when one was in olive drab; the other in jeans and butternut. At recognition, Callomb's face fell, and grew troubled.
"You here, South!" he exclaimed. "I thought you promised me that I shouldn't find you. God knows I didn't want to meet you."
"Nor I you," Samson spoke slowly. "I supposed you'd be raking the hills."
Neither of them was for the moment paying the least attention to the Governor, who stood quietly looking on.
"I sent Merriwether out there," explained Callomb, impatiently. "I wanted to come here before it was too late. God knows, South, I wouldn't have had this meeting occur for anything under heaven. It leaves me no choice. You are indicted on two counts, each charging you with murder." The officer took a step toward the center of the room. His face was weary, and his eyes wore the deep disgust and fatigue that come from the necessity of performing a hard duty.
"You are under arrest," he added quietly, but his composure broke as he stormed. "Now, by God, I've got to take you back and let them murder you, and you're the one man who might have been useful to the State."
The Governor had been more influenced by watching the two as they talked than by what he had heard.
"It seems to me, gentlemen," he suggested quietly, "that you are both overlooking my presence." He turned to Callomb.
"Your coming, Sid, unless it was prearranged between the two of you (which, since I know you, I know was not the case) has shed more light on this matter than the testimony of a dozen witnesses. After all, I'm still the Governor."
The militiaman seemed to have forgotten the existence of his distinguished kinsman, and, at the voice, his eyes came away from the face of the man he had not wanted to capture, and he shook his head.
"You are merely the head of the executive branch," he said. "You are as helpless here as I am. Neither of us can interfere with the judicial gentry, though we may know that they stink to high heaven with the stench of blood. After a conviction, you can pardon, but a pardon won't help the dead. I don't see that you can do much of anything, Crit."
"I don't know yet what I can do, but I can tell you I'm going to do something," said the Governor. "You can just begin watching me. In the meantime, I believe I am Commander-in-Chief of the State troops."
"And I am Captain of F Company, but all I can do is to obey the orders of a bunch of Borgias."
"As your superior officer," smiled the Governor, "I can give you orders. I'm going to give you one now. Mr. South has applied to me for a pardon in advance of trial. Technically, I have the power to grant that request. Morally, I doubt my right. Certainly, I shall not do it without a very thorough sifting of evidence and grave consideration of the necessities of the case—as well as the danger of the precedent. However, I am considering it, and for the present you will parole your prisoner in my custody. Mr. South, you will not leave Frankfort without my permission. You will take every precaution to conceal your actual identity. You will treat as utterly confidential all that has transpired here—and, above all, you will not let newspaper men discover you. Those are my orders. Report here tomorrow afternoon, and remember that you are my prisoner."
Samson bowed, and left the two cousins together, where shortly they were joined by the Attorney General. That evening, the three dined at the executive mansion, and sat until midnight in the Governor's private office, still deep in discussion. During the long session, Callomb opened the bulky volume of the Kentucky Statutes, and laid his finger on Section 2673.
"There's the rub," he protested, reading aloud: "'The military shall be at all times, and in all cases, in strict subordination to the civil power.'"
The Governor glanced down to the next paragraph, and read in part: "'The Governor may direct the commanding officer of the military force to report to any one of the following-named officers of the district in which the said force is employed: Mayor of a city, sheriff, jailer or marshal.'"
"Which list," stormed Callomb, "is the honor roll of the assassins."
"At all events"—the Governor had derived from Callomb much information as to Samson South which the mountaineer himself had modestly withheld—"South gets his pardon. That is only a step. I wish I could make him satrap over his province, and provide him with troops to rule it. Unfortunately, our form of government has its drawbacks."
"It might be possible," ventured the Attorney General, "to impeach the Sheriff, and appoint this or some other suitable man to fill the vacancy until the next election."
"The Legislature doesn't meet until next winter," objected Callomb. "There is one chance. The Sheriff down there is a sick man. Let us hope he may die."
One day, the Hixon conclave met in the room over Hollman's Mammoth Department Store, and with much profanity read a communication from Frankfort, announcing the pardon of Samson South. In that episode, they foresaw the beginning of the end for their dynasty. The outside world was looking on, and their regime could not survive the spotlight of law -loving scrutiny.
"The fust thing," declared Judge Hollman, curtly, "is to get rid of these damned soldiers. We'll attend to our own business later, and we don't want them watchin' us. Just now, we want to lie mighty quiet for a spell—teetotally quiet until I pass the word."
Samson had won back the confidence of his tribe, and enlisted the faith of the State administration. He had been authorized to organize a local militia company, and to drill them, provided he could stand answerable for their conduct. The younger Souths took gleefully to that idea. The mountain boy makes a good soldier, once he has grasped the idea of discipline. For ten weeks, they drilled daily in squads and weekly in platoons. Then, the fortuitous came to pass. Sheriff Forbin died, leaving behind him an unexpired term of two years, and Samson was summoned hastily to Frankfort. He returned, bearing his commission as High Sheriff, though, when that news reached Hixon, there were few men who envied him his post, and none who cared to bet that he would live to take his oath of office.
That August court day was a memorable one in Hixon. Samson South was coming to town to take up his duties. Every one recognized it as the day of final issue, and one that could hardly pass without bloodshed. The Hollmans, standing in their last trench, saw only the blunt question of Hollman-South supremacy. For years, the feud had flared and slept and broken again into eruption, but never before had a South sought to throw his outposts of power across the waters of Crippleshin, and into the county seat. That the present South came bearing commission as an officer of the law only made his effrontery the more unendurable.
Samson had not called for outside troops. The drilling and disciplining of his own company had progressed in silence along the waters of Misery. They were a slouching, unmilitary band of uniformed vagabonds, but they were longing to fight, and Callomb had been with them, tirelessly whipping them into rudimentary shape. After all, they were as much partisans as they had been before they were issued State rifles. The battle, if it came, would be as factional as the fight of twenty-five years ago, when the Hollmans held the store and the Souths the court-house. But back of all that lay one essential difference, and it was this difference that had urged the Governor to stretch the forms of law and put such dangerous power into the hands of one man. That difference was the man himself. He was to take drastic steps, but he was to take them under the forms of law, and the State Executive believed that, having gone through worse to better, he would maintain the improved condition.
Early that morning, men began to assemble along the streets of Hixon; and to congregate into sullen clumps with set faces that denoted a grim, unsmiling determination. Not only the Hollmans from the town and immediate neighborhood were there, but their shaggier, fiercer brethren from remote creeks and coves, who came only at urgent call, and did not come without intent of vindicating their presence. Old Jake Hollman, from "over yon" on the headwaters of Dryhole Creek, brought his son and fourteen-year-old grandson, and all of them carried Winchesters. Long before the hour for the court-house bell to sound the call which would bring matters to a crisis, women disappeared from the streets, and front shutters and doors closed themselves. At last, the Souths began to ride in by half-dozens, and to hitch their horses at the racks. They, also, fell into groups well apart. The two factions eyed each other somberly, sometimes nodding or exchanging greetings, for the time had not yet come to fight. Slowly, however, the Hollmans began centering about the court-house. They swarmed in the yard, and entered the empty jail, and overran the halls and offices of the building itself. They took their places massed at the windows. The Souths, now coming in a solid stream, flowed with equal unanimity to McEwer's Hotel, near the square, and disappeared inside. Besides their rifles, they carried saddlebags, but not one of the uniforms which some of these bags contained, nor one of the cartridge belts, had yet been exposed to view.
Stores opened, but only for a desultory pretense of business. Horsemen led their mounts away from the more public racks, and tethered them to back fences and willow branches in the shelter of the river banks, where stray bullets would not find them.
The dawn that morning had still been gray when Samson South and Captain Callomb had passed the Miller cabin. Callomb had ridden slowly on around the turn of the road, and waited a quarter of a mile away. He was to command the militia that day, if the High Sheriff should call upon him. Samson went in and knocked, and instantly to the cabin door came Sally's slender, fluttering figure. She put both arms about him, and her eyes, as she looked into his face, were terrified, but tearless.
"I'm frightened, Samson," she whispered. "God knows I'm going to be praying all this day."
"Sally," he said, softly, "I'm coming back to you—but, if I don't"— he held her very close—"Uncle Spicer has my will. The farm is full of coal, and days are coming when roads will take it out, and every ridge will glow with coke furnaces. That farm will make you rich, if we win to-day's fight."
"Don't!" she cried, with a sudden gasp. "Don't talk like that."
"I must," he said, gently. "I want you to make me a promise, Sally."
"It's made," she declared.
"If, by any chance I should not come back, I want you to hold Uncle Spicer and old Wile McCager to their pledge. They must not privately avenge me. They must still stand for the law. I want you, and this is most important of all, to leave these mountains——"
Her hands tightened on his shoulders.
"Not that, Samson," she pleaded; "not these mountains where we've been together."
"You promised. I want you to go to the Lescotts in New York. In a year, you can come back—if you want to; but you must promise that."
"I promise," she reluctantly yielded.
It was half-past nine o'clock when Samson South and Sidney Callomb rode side by side into Hixon from the east. A dozen of the older Souths, who had not become soldiers, met them there, and, with no word, separated to close about them in a circle of protection. As Callomb's eyes swept the almost deserted streets, so silent that the strident switching of a freight train could be heard down at the edge of town, he shook his head. As he met the sullen glances of the gathering in the court-house yard, he turned to Samson.
"They'll fight," he said, briefly.
"I don't understand the method," demurred the officer, with perplexity. "Why don't they shoot you at once. What are they waiting for?"
"They want to see," Samson assured him, "what tack I mean to take. They want to let the thing play itself out, They're inquisitive—and they're cautious, because now they are bucking the State and the world."
Samson with his escort rode up to the court-house door, and dismounted. He was for the moment unarmed, and his men walked on each side of him, while the onlooking Hollmans stood back in surly silence to let him pass. In the office of the County Judge, Samson said briefly:
"I want to get my deputies sworn in."
"We've got plenty deputy sheriffs," was the quietly insolent rejoinder.
"Not now—we haven't any." Samson's voice was sharply incisive. "I'll name my own assistants."
"What's the matter with these boys?" The County Judge waved his hand toward two hold-over deputies.
The County Judge laughed.
"Well, I reckon I can't attend to that right now."
"Then, you refuse?"
"Mebby you might call it that."
Samson leaned on the Judge's table, and rapped sharply with his knuckles. His handful of men stood close, and Callomb caught his breath, in the heavy air of storm-freighted suspense. The Hollman partisans filled the room, and others were crowding to the doors.
"I'm High Sheriff of this County now," said Samson, sharply. "You are County Judge. Do we cooperate—or fight?"
"I reckon," drawled the other, "that's a matter we'll work out as we goes along. Depends on how obedient ye air."
"I'm responsible for the peace and quiet of this County," continued Samson. "We're going to have peace and quiet."
The Judge looked about him. The indications did not appear to him indicative of peace and quiet.
"Air we?" he inquired.
"I'm coming back here in a half-hour," said the new Sheriff. "This is an unlawful and armed assembly. When I get back, I want to find the court-house occupied only by unarmed citizens who have business here."
"When ye comes back," suggested the County Judge, "I'd advise that ye resigns yore job. A half-hour is about es long as ye ought ter try ter hold hit."
Samson turned and walked through the scowling crowd to the court-house steps.
"Gentlemen," he said, in a clear, far-carrying voice, "there is no need of an armed congregation at this court-house. I call on you in the name of the law to lay aside your arms or scatter."
There was murmur which for an instant threatened to become a roar, but trailed into a chorus of derisive laughter.
Samson went to the hotel, accompanied by Callomb. A half-hour later, the two were back at the court-house, with a half-dozen companions. The yard was empty. Samson carried his father's rifle. In that half-hour a telegram, prepared in advance, had flashed to Frankfort.
"Mob holds court-house—need troops."
And a reply had flashed back:
"Use local company—Callomb commanding." So that form of law was met.
The court-house doors were closed, and its windows barricaded. The place was no longer a judicial building. It was a fortress. As Samson's party paused at the gate, a warning voice called:
"Don't come no nigher!"
The body-guard began dropping back to shelter.
"I demand admission to the court-house to make arrests," shouted the new Sheriff. In answer, a spattering of rifle reports came from the jail windows. Two of the Souths fell. At a nod from Samson, Callomb left on a run for the hotel. The Sheriff himself took his position in a small store across the street, which he reached unhurt under a desultory fire.
Then, again, silence settled on the town, to remain for five minutes unbroken. The sun glared mercilessly on clay streets, now as empty as a cemetery. A single horse incautiously hitched at the side of the courthouse switched its tail against the assaults of the flies. Otherwise, there was no outward sign of life. Then, Callomb's newly organized force of ragamuffin soldiers clattered down the street at double time. For a moment or two after they came into sight, only the massed uniforms caught the eyes of the intrenched Hollmans, and an alarmed murmur broke from the court-house. They had seen no troops detrain, or pitch camp. These men had sprung from the earth as startlingly as Jason's crop of dragon's teeth. But, when the command rounded the shoulder of a protecting wall to await further orders, the ragged stride of their marching, and the all-too-obvious bearing of the mountaineer proclaimed them native amateurs. The murmur turned to a howl of derision and challenge. They were nothing more nor less than South, masquerading in the uniforms of soldiers.
"What orders?" inquired Callomb briefly, joining Samson in the store.
"Demand surrender once more—then take the courthouse and jail," was the short reply.
There was little conversation in the ranks of the new company, but their faces grew black as they listened to the jeers and insults across the way, and they greedily fingered their freshly issued rifles. They would be ready when the command of execution came. Callomb himself went forward with the flag of truce. He shouted his message, and a bearded man came to the court-house door.
"Tell 'em," he said without redundancy, "thet we're all here. Come an' git us."
The officer went back, and distributed his forces under such cover as offered itself, about the four walls. Then, a volley was fired over the roof, and instantly the two buildings in the public square awoke to a volcanic response of rifle fire.
All day, the duel between the streets and county buildings went on with desultory intervals of quiet and wild outbursts of musketry. The troops were firing as sharpshooters, and the court-house, too, had its sharpshooters. When a head showed itself at a barricaded window, a report from the outside greeted it. Samson was everywhere, his rifle smoking and hot-barreled. His life seemed protected by a talisman. Yet, most of the firing, after the first hour, was from within. The troops were, except for occasional pot shots, holding their fire. There was neither food nor water inside the building, and at last night closed and the cordon drew tighter to prevent escape. The Hollmans, like rats in a trap, grimly held on, realizing that it was to be a siege. On the following morning, a detachment of F Company arrived, dragging two gatling guns. The Hollmans saw them detraining, from their lookout in the courthouse cupola, and, realizing that the end had come, resolved upon a desperate sortie. Simultaneously, every door and lower window of the court-house burst open to discharge a frenzied rush of men, firing as they came. They meant to eat their way out and leave as many hostile dead as possible in their wake. Their one chance now was to scatter before the machine-guns came into action. They came like a flood of human lava, and their guns were never silent, as they bore down on the barricades, where the single outnumbered company seemed insufficient to hold them. But the new militiamen, looking for reassurance not so much to Callomb as to the granite-like face of Samson South, rallied, and rose with a yell to meet them on bayonet and smoking muzzle. The rush wavered, fell back, desperately rallied, then broke in scattered remnants for the shelter of the building.
Old Jake Hollman fell near the door, and his grandson, rushing out, picked up his fallen rifle, and sent farewell defiance from it, as he, too, threw up both arms and dropped.
Then, a white flag wavered at a window, and, as the newly arrived troops halted in the street, the noise died suddenly to quiet. Samson went out to meet a man who opened the door, and said shortly:
"We lays down."
Judge Hollman, who had not participated, turned from the slit in his shuttered window, through which he had since the beginning been watching the conflict.
"That ends it!" he said, with a despairing shrug of his shoulders. He picked up a magazine pistol which lay on his table, and, carefully counting down his chest to the fifth rib, placed the muzzle against his breast.
Before the mountain roads were mired with the coming of the rains, and while the air held its sparkle of autumnal zestfulness, Samson South wrote to Wilfred Horton that, if he still meant to come to the hills for his inspection of coal and timber, the time was ripe. Soon, men would appear bearing transit and chain, drawing a line which a railroad was to follow to Misery and across it to the heart of untouched forests and coal-fields. With that wave of innovation would come the speculators. Besides, Samson's fingers were itching to be out in the hills with a palette and a sheaf of brushes in the society of George Lescott.
For a while after the battle at Hixon, the county had lain in a torpid paralysis of dread. Many illiterate feudists on each side remembered the directing and exposed figure of Samson South seen through eddies of gun smoke, and believed him immune from death. With Purvy dead and Hollman the victim of his own hand, the backbone of the murder syndicate was broken. Its heart had ceased to beat. Those Hollman survivors who bore the potentialities for leadership had not only signed pledges of peace, but were afraid to break them; and the triumphant Souths, instead of vaunting their victory, had subscribed to the doctrine of order, and declared the war over. Souths who broke the law were as speedily arrested as Hollmans. Their boys were drilling as militiamen, and—wonder of wonders!—inviting the sons of the enemy to join them. Of course, these things changed gradually, but the beginnings of them were most noticeable in the first few months, just as a newly painted and renovated house is more conspicuous than one that has been long respectable.
Hollman's Mammoth Department Store passed into new hands, and trafficked only in merchandise, and the town was open to the men and women of Misery as well as those of Crippleshin.
These things Samson had explained in his letters to the Lescotts and Horton. Men from down below could still find trouble in the wink of an eye, by seeking it, for under all transformation the nature of the individual remained much the same; but, without seeking to give offense, they could ride as securely through the hills as through the streets of a policed city—and meet a readier hospitality.
And, when these things were discussed and the two men prepared to cross the Mason-and-Dixon line and visit the Cumberlands, Adrienne promptly and definitely announced that she would accompany her brother. No argument was effective to dissuade her, and after all Lescott, who had been there, saw no good reason why she should not go with him. He had brought Samson North. He had made a hazardous experiment which subsequent events had more than vindicated, and yet, in one respect, he feared that there had been failure. He had promised Sally that her lover would return to her with undeflected loyalty. Had he done so? Lescott had been glad that his sister should have undertaken the part of Samson's molding, which only a woman's hand could accomplish, and he had been glad of the strong friendship that had grown between them. But, if that friendship had come to mean something more sentimental, his experiment had been successful at the cost of unsuccess. He had said little, but watched much, and he had known that, after receiving a certain letter from Samson South, his sister had seemed strangely quiet and distressed. These four young persons had snarled their lives in perplexity. They could definitely find themselves and permanently adjust themselves, only by meeting on common ground. Perhaps, Samson had shone in an exaggerated high-light of fascination by the strong contrast into which New York had thrown him. Wilfred Horton had the right to be seen also in contrast with mountain life, and then only could the girl decide for all time and irrevocably. The painter learns something of confused values.
Horton himself had seen small reason for a growth of hope in these months, but he, like Lescott, felt that the matter must come to issue, and he was not of that type which shrinks from putting to the touch a question of vital consequence. He knew that her happiness as well as his own was in the balance. He was not embittered or deluded, as a narrower man might have been, into the fallacy that her treatment of him denoted fickleness. Adrienne was merely running the boundary line that separates deep friendship from love, a boundary which is often confusing. When she had finally staked out the disputed frontier, it would never again be questioned. But on which side he would find himself, he did not know.
At Hixon, they found that deceptive air of serenity which made the history of less than three months ago seem paradoxical and fantastically unreal. Only about the court-house square where numerous small holes in frame walls told of fusillades, and in the interior of the building itself where the woodwork was scarred and torn, and the plaster freshly patched, did they find grimly reminiscent evidence.
Samson had not met them at the town, because he wished their first impressions of his people to reach them uninfluenced by his escort. It was a form of the mountain pride—an honest resolve to soften nothing, and make no apologies. But they found arrangements made for horses and saddlebags, and the girl discovered that for her had been provided a mount as evenly gaited as any in her own stables.
When she and her two companions came out to the hotel porch to start, they found a guide waiting, who said he was instructed to take them as far as the ridge, where the Sheriff himself would be waiting, and the cavalcade struck into the hills. Men at whose houses they paused to ask a dipper of water, or to make an inquiry, gravely advised that they "had better light, and stay all night." In the coloring forests, squirrels scampered and scurried out of sight, and here and there on the tall slopes they saw shy-looking children regarding them with inquisitive eyes.
The guide led them silently, gazing in frank amazement, though deferential politeness, at this girl in corduroys, who rode cross- saddle, and rode so well. Yet, it was evident that he would have preferred talking had not diffidence restrained him. He was a young man and rather handsome in a shaggy, unkempt way. Across one cheek ran a long scar still red, and the girl, looking into his clear, intelligent eyes, wondered what that scar stood for. Adrienne had the power of melting masculine diffidence, and her smile as she rode at his side, and asked, "What is your name?" brought an answering smile to his grim lips.
"Joe Hollman, ma'am," he answered; and the girl gave an involuntary start. The two men who caught the name closed up the gap between the horses, with suddenly piqued interest.
"Hollman!" exclaimed the girl. "Then, you—" She stopped and flushed. "I beg your pardon," she said, quickly.
"That's all right," reassured the man. "I know what ye're a-thinkin', but I hain't takin' no offense. The High Sheriff sent me over. I'm one of his deputies."
"Were you"—she paused, and added rather timidly—"were you in the court-house?"
He nodded, and with a brown forefinger traced the scar on his cheek.
"Samson South done that thar with his rifle-gun," he enlightened. "He's a funny sort of feller, is Samson South."
"How?" she asked.
"Wall, he licked us, an' he licked us so plumb damn hard we was skeered ter fight ag'in, an' then, 'stid of tramplin' on us, he turned right 'round, an' made me a deputy. My brother's a corporal in this hyar newfangled milishy. I reckon this time the peace is goin' ter last. Hit's a mighty funny way ter act, but 'pears like it works all right."
Then, at the ridge, the girl's heart gave a sudden bound, for there at the highest point, where the road went up and dipped again, waited the mounted figure of Samson South, and, as they came into sight, he waved his felt hat, and rode down to meet them.
"Greetings!" he shouted. Then, as he leaned over and took Adrienne's hand, he added: "The Goops send you their welcome." His smile was unchanged, but the girl noted that his hair had again grown long.
Finally, as the sun was setting, they reached a roadside cabin, and the mountaineer said briefly to the other men:
"You fellows ride on. I want Drennie to stop with me a moment. We'll join you later."
Lescott nodded. He remembered the cabin of the Widow Miller, and Horton rode with him, albeit grudgingly.
Adrienne sprang lightly to the ground, laughingly rejecting Samson's assistance, and came with him to the top of a stile, from which he pointed to the log cabin, set back in its small yard, wherein geese and chickens picked industriously about in the sandy earth.
A huge poplar and a great oak nodded to each other at either side of the door, and over the walls a clambering profusion of honeysuckle vine contended with a mass of wild grape, in joint effort to hide the white chinking between the dark logs. From the crude milk-benches to the sweep of the well, every note was one of neatness and rustic charm. Slowly, he said, looking straight into her eyes:
"This is Sally's cabin, Drennie."
He watched her expression, and her lips curved up in the same sweetness of smile that had first captivated and helped to mold him.
"It's lovely!" she cried, with frank delight. "It's a picture."
"Wait!" he commanded. Then, turning toward the house, he sent out the long, peculiarly mournful call of the whippoorwill, and, at the signal, the door opened, and on the threshold Adrienne saw a slender figure. She had called the cabin with its shaded dooryard a picture, but now she knew she had been wrong. It was only a background. It was the girl herself who made and completed the picture. She stood there in the wild simplicity that artists seek vainly to reproduce in posed figures. Her red calico dress was patched, but fell in graceful lines to her slim bare ankles, though the first faint frosts had already fallen.
Her red-brown hair hung loose and in masses about the oval of a face in which the half-parted lips were dashes of scarlet, and the eyes large violet pools. She stood with her little chin tilted in a half- wild attitude of reconnoiter, as a fawn might have stood. One brown arm and hand rested on the door frame, and, as she saw the other woman, she colored adorably.
Adrienne thought she had never seen so instinctively and unaffectedly lovely a face or figure. Then the girl came down the steps and ran toward them.
"Drennie," said the man, "this is Sally. I want you two to love each other." For an instant, Adrienne Lescott stood looking at the mountain girl, and then she opened both her arms.
"Sally," she cried, "you adorable child, I do love you!"
The girl in the calico dress raised her face, and her eyes were glistening.
"I'm obleeged ter ye," she faltered. Then, with open and wondering admiration she stood gazing at the first "fine lady" upon whom her glance had ever fallen.
Samson went over and took Sally's hand.
"Drennie," he said, softly, "is there anything the matter with her?"
Adrienne Lescott shook her head.
"I understand," she said.
"I sent the others on," he went on quietly, "because I wanted that first we three should meet alone. George and Wilfred are going to stop at my uncle's house, but, unless you'd rather have it otherwise, Sally wants you here."
"Do I stop now?" the girl asked.
But the man shook his head.
"I want you to meet my other people first."
As they rode at a walk along the little shred of road left to them, the man turned gravely.
"Drennie," he began, "she waited for me, all those years. What I was helped to do by such splendid friends as you and your brother and Wilfred, she was back here trying to do for herself. I told you back there the night before I left that I was afraid to let myself question my feelings toward you. Do you remember?"
She met his eyes, and her own eyes were frankly smiling.
"You were very complimentary, Samson," she told him. "I warned you then that it was the moon talking."
"No," he said firmly, "it was not the moon. I have since then met that fear, and analyzed it. My feeling for you is the best that a man can have, the honest worship of friendship. And," he added, "I have analyzed your feeling for me, too, and, thank God! I have that same friendship from you. Haven't I?"
For a moment, she only nodded; but her eyes were bent on the road ahead of her. The man waited in tense silence. Then, she raised her face, and it was a face that smiled with the serenity of one who has wakened out of a troubled dream.
"You will always have that, Samson, dear," she assured him.
"Have I enough of it, to ask you to do for her what you did for me? To take her and teach her the things she has the right to know?"
"I'd love it," she cried. And then she smiled, as she added: "She will be much easier to teach. She won't be so stupid, and one of the things I shall teach her"—she paused, and added whimsically—"will be to make you cut your hair again."
But, just before they drew up at the house of old Spicer South, she said:
"I might as well make a clean breast of it, Samson, and give my vanity the punishment it deserves. You had me in deep doubt."
"About—well, about us. I wasn't quite sure that I wanted Sally to have you—that I didn't need you myself. I've been a shameful little cat to Wilfred."
"But now—?" The Kentuckian broke off.
"Now, I know that my friendship for you and my love for him have both had their acid test—and I am happier than I've ever been before. I'm glad we've been through it. There are no doubts ahead. I've got you both."
"About him," said Samson, thoughtfully. "May I tell you something which, although it's a thing in your own heart, you have never quite known?"
She nodded, and he went on.
"The thing which you call fascination in me was really just a proxy, Drennie. You were liking qualities in me that were really his qualities. Just because you had known him only in gentle guise, his finish blinded you to his courage. Because he could turn 'to woman the heart of a woman,' you failed to see that under it was the 'iron and fire.' You thought you saw those qualities in me, because I wore my bark as shaggy as that scaling hickory over there. When he was getting anonymous threats of death every morning, he didn't mention them to you. He talked of teas and dances. I know his danger was real, because they tried to have me kill him—and if I'd been the man they took me for, I reckon I'd have done it. I was mad to my marrow that night—for a minute. I don't hold a brief for Wilfred, but I know that you liked me first for qualities which he has as strongly as I—and more strongly. He's a braver man than I, because, though raised to gentle things, when you ordered him into the fight, he was there. He never turned back, or flickered. I was raised on raw meat and gunpowder, but he went in without training."
The girl's eyes grew grave and thoughtful, and for the rest of the way she rode in silence.
There were transformations, too, in the house of Spicer South. Windows had been cut, and lamps adopted. It was no longer so crudely a pioneer abode. While they waited for dinner, a girl lightly crossed the stile, and came up to the house. Adrienne met her at the door, while Samson and Horton stood back, waiting. Suddenly, Miss Lescott halted and regarded the newcomer in surprise. It was the same girl she had seen, yet a different girl. Her hair no longer fell in tangled masses. Her feet were no longer bare. Her dress, though simple, was charming, and, when she spoke, her English had dropped its half-illiterate peculiarities, though the voice still held its bird-like melody.
"Oh, Samson," cried Adrienne, "you two have been deceiving me! Sally, you were making up, dressing the part back there, and letting me patronize you."
Sally's laughter broke from her throat in a musical peal, but it still held the note of shyness, and it was Samson who spoke.
"I made the others ride on, and I got Sally to meet you just as she was when I left her to go East." He spoke with a touch of the mountaineer's over-sensitive pride. "I wanted you first to see my people, not as they are going to be, but as they were. I wanted you to know how proud I am of them—just that way."
That evening, the four of them walked together over to the cabin of the Widow Miller. At the stile, Adrienne Lescott turned to the girl, and said:
"I suppose this place is preempted. I'm going to take Wilfred down there by the creek, and leave you two alone."
Sally protested with mountain hospitality, but even under the moon she once more colored adorably.
Adrienne turned up the collar of her sweater around her throat, and, when she and the man who had waited, stood leaning on the rail of the footbridge, she laid a hand on his arm.
"Has the water flowed by my mill, Wilfred?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" His voice trembled.
"Will you have anything to ask me when Christmas comes?"
"If I can wait that long, Drennie," he told her.
"Don't wait, dear," she suddenly exclaimed, turning toward him, and raising eyes that held his answer. "Ask me now!"
But the question which he asked was one that his lips smothered as he pressed them against her own.
Back where the poplar threw its sooty shadow on the road, two figures sat close together on the top of a stile, talking happily in whispers. A girl raised her face, and the moon shone on the deepness of her eyes, as her lips curved in a trembling smile.
"You've come back, Samson," she said in a low voice, "but, if I'd known how lovely she was, I'd have given up hoping. I don't see what made you come."
Her voice dropped again into the tender cadence of dialect.
"I couldn't live withouten ye, Samson. I jest couldn't do hit." Would he remember when she had said that before?
"I reckon, Sally," he promptly told her, "I couldn't live withouten you, neither." Then, he added, fervently, "I'm plumb dead shore I couldn't."