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Title: When 'Bear Cat' Went Dry
Author: Buck, Charles Neville, 1879-1930
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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WHEN 'BEAR CAT' WENT DRY

[Illustration: You're agoing to marry me and we're goin' to dwell
thar--together]



WHEN 'BEAR CAT' WENT DRY


BY

CHARLES NEVILLE BUCK

_Author of_
"THE CALL OF THE CUMBERLANDS," etc.


Illustrations by
GEORGE W. GAGE


NEW YORK
W. J. WATT & COMPANY
PUBLISHERS


Copyright, 1918, by
W. J. WATT & COMPANY


_OTHER BOOKS_

_By_

CHARLES NEVILLE BUCK

  THE KEY TO YESTERDAY
  THE LIGHTED MATCH
  THE PORTAL OF DREAMS
  THE CALL OF THE CUMBERLANDS
  THE BATTLE CRY
  THE CODE OF THE MOUNTAINS
  DESTINY
  THE TYRANNY OF WEAKNESS


PRESS OF
BRAUNWORTH & CO.
BOOK MANUFACTURERS
BROOKLYN, N. Y.



TO

M. F.



WHEN 'BEAR CAT' WENT DRY



CHAPTER I


A creaking complaint of loose and rattling boards rose under the old
mountaineer's brogans as he stepped from the threshold to the porch.
His eyes, searching the wooded mountain-side, held at first only that
penetration which born woodsmen share with the hawk and ferret, but
presently they kindled into irascibility as well.

He raised his voice in a loud whoop that went skittering off across the
rocky creek bed where Little Slippery crawled along to feed the trickle
of Big Slippery ten miles below, and the volume of sound broke into a
splintering of echoes against the forested crags of the Old Wilderness
Ridges.

"You, Turner!" bellowed the man with such a bull-like roar as might
have issued from the chest of a Viking. "You, Turner, don't ye heer me
a-callin' ye?"

A woman, rawboned and crone-like before her time under the merciless
forcing of drudgery, appeared in the door, wiping reddened hands on a
coarse cotton apron.

"I reckon he'll be hyar, presently, paw," she suggested in a
high-pitched voice meant to be placating. "I reckon he hain't fared far
away."

The hodden-gray figure of the man turned to his wife and his voice, as
it dropped to conversational pitch, held a surprisingly low and
drawling cadence.

"What needcessity did he hev ter go away a-tall?" came his interrogation.
"He knowed I aimed ter hev him tote thet gryste acrost ther ridge ter
the tub-mill, didn't he? He knows that hits perilous business ter leave
corn like that a-layin' 'round, don't he--_sprouted corn_!"

A flash of poignant anxiety clouded the woman's eyes. Corn sprouted in
the grain before grinding! She knew well enough what that
meant--incrimination in the eyes of the Government--trial, perhaps, and
imprisonment.

"Ye 'lowed a long while since, Lone," she reminded him with a trace of
wistfulness in her voice, "that ye aimed ter quit makin' blockade
licker fer all time. Hit don't pleasure me none ter see ye a-follerin'
hit ergin. Seems like thar's a curse on hit from start ter finish."

"I don't foller hit because I delights in hit," he retorted grimly.
"But what else is thar ter do? I reckon we've got ter live
somehow--hain't we?" For an instant his eyes flared with an upleaping
of rebellion; then he turned again on his heel and roared "Turner--you,
Turner!"

"Ther boy seemed kinderly fagged out when he come in. I reckon he aimed
ter slip off and rest in ther shade somewhars fer a lettle spell afore
ye needed him," volunteered the boy's mother, but the suggestion failed
to mollify the mounting impatience of the father.

"Fagged! What's fagged him? I hain't never disc'arned nothin' puny
about him. He's survigrous enough ter go a-snortin' an' a-stompin' over
ther hills like a yearlin' bull, a-honin' fer battle. He's knowed from
God's Blessin' Creek ter Hell's Holler by ther name of Bear Cat Stacy,
hain't he? Bear Cat Stacy! I'd hate ter take my name from a
varmint--but it pleasures him."

"I don't sca'cely b'lieve he seeks no aimless quarrels," argued the
mother defensively. "Thar hain't no _meanness_ in him. He's jest like
you was, Lone, when ye was twenty a-goin' on twenty-one. He's full o'
sperrit. I reckon Bear Cat jest means thet he's quick-like an' supple."

"Supple! Hell's torment! Whar's he at now? He's jest about a-layin'
somewhar's on his shoulder-blades a-readin' thet everlastin' book
erbout Abe Lincoln--You, Turner!"

Then the figure of a young man appeared, swinging along with an
effortless stride down the steep grade of the mountain which was richly
mottled with the afternoon sun. He came between giant clusters of
flowering laurel, along aisles pink with wild roses and white with the
foaming spray of elder blossoms; flanked by masses of colossal rock,
and every movement was a note of frictionless power.

Like his father, Turner Stacy measured a full six feet, but age and the
yoke of hardship had not yet stooped his fine shoulders nor thickened
his slenderness of girth. His face was striking in its clear chiseling
of feature and its bronzed color. It would have been arrestingly
handsome but for its marring shadow of surliness.

In one hand he held a battered book, palpably one used with the
constancy and devotion of a monk's breviary, and a forefinger was still
thrust between the dog-eared pages. "Lincoln: Master of Men,"--such was
the title of the volume.

As Turner Stacy arrived at the house, his father's uncompromisingly
stern eyes dwelt on the book and they were brimming with displeasure.

"Didn't ye know I hed work for ye ter do terday?"

The boy nodded indifferently.

"I 'lowed ye hed ther power ter shout fer me when ye war ready, I
wasn't more'n a whoop an' a holler distant."

The mother, hovering in the shadowed interior of the house, listened
silently, and a little anxiously. This friction of unbending temper
between her husband and son was a thing to which she could never quite
accustom herself. Always she was interposing herself as a buffer
between their threats of clashing wills.

"Turner," said the elder man slowly, and now he spoke quietly with an
effort to curb his irascibililty, "I knows thet boys often-times gits
uppety an' brash when they're a-growin' inter manhood. They've got thar
growth an' they feel thar strength an' they hain't acquired neither
sense ner experience enough ter realize how plumb teetotally much they
_don't_ know yit. But speakin' jedgmatically, I hain't never heered
tell of no Stacy afore what hain't been loyal ter his family an' ther
head of his house. 'Pears like ter me hit pleasures ye beyond all
reason ter sot yoreself crost-wise erginst me."

The boy's eyes grew somberly dark as they met those of his father with
undeviating steadiness. An analyst would have said that the outward
surliness was after all only a mask for an inner questioning--the
inarticulate stress of a cramped and aspiring spirit.

"I don't know as ye hev any rightful cause fer ter charge me with bein'
disloyal," he answered slowly, as if pondering the accusation. "I
hain't never aimed ter contrary ye."

Lone Stacy paused for a moment and then the timbre of his voice
acquired the barb of an irony more massive than subtle.

"Air yore heart in torment because ye hain't ther Presi_dent_ of ther
country, like Abe Lincoln was? Is _thet_ why ye don't delight in
nothin' save dilitary dreams?"

A slow, brick-red flush suffused the brown cheeks of Bear Cat Stacy,
and his answer came with a slowness that was almost halting.

"When Abraham Lincoln was twenty years old he warn't no more Presi_dent_
then what I be. Thar hain't many Lincoln's, but any feller kin have
ther thing in him, though, thet carried Lincoln up ter whar he went.
Any feller kin do his best and want ter do some better. Thet's all I'm
aimin' after."

The father studied his son's suddenly animated eyes and inquired drily,
"Does this book-l'arnin' teach ye ter lay around plumb ind'lent with
times so slavish hard thet I've been pintedly compelled ter start ther
still workin' ergin, despite my a-bein' a Christian an' a law-lover:
despite my seekin' godliness an' abhorin' iniquity?"

There was in the sober expression of the questioner no cast of
hypocrisy or conscious anomaly, and the younger man shook his head.

"I hain't never shirked no labor, neither in ther field ner at ther
still, but----" He paused a moment and once more the rebellious light
flared in his eyes and he continued with the level steadiness of
resolution. "But I hates ter foller thet business, an' when I comes of
age I aims ter quit hit."

"Ye aims ter quit hit, does ye?" The old mountaineer forgot, in the
sudden leaping of wrath at such unfilial utterances, that he himself
had a few minutes before spoken in the same tenor. "Ye aims ter defy
me, does ye? Wa'al even afore ye comes of age hit wouldn't hardly hurt
ye none ter quit _drinkin'_ hit. Ye're too everlastin' good ter _make_
blockade licker, but ye hain't none too good ter lay drunk up thar with
hit."

This time the boy's flush was one of genuine chagrin and he bit off the
instinctive retort that perhaps a realization of this overpowering
thirst was the precise thing which haunted him: the exact urge which
made him want to break away from a serfdom that held him always chained
to his temptation.

"Ye thinks ye're too much like Abe Lincoln ter make blockade licker,"
went on the angry parent, "but ye hain't above rampagin' about these
hills seekin' trouble an' raisin' up enemies whar I've done spent my
days aimin' ter consort peaceable with my neighbors. Hit hain't been
but a week since ye broke Ratler Webb's nose."

"Hit come about in fair fight--fist an' skull, an' I only hit him
oncet."

"Nobody else didn't feel compelled ter hit him even oncet, did they?"

"Mebby not--but he was seekin' ter bulldoze me an' he hurt my feelin's.
I'd done laughed hit off twic't."

"An' so ye're a-goin' on a-layin' up trouble erginst ther future. Hit
hain't ther _makin'_ of licker thet's laid a curse on these hills.
Hit's _drinkin'_ hit. Ef a man kin walk abroad nowadays without totin'
his rifle-gun an' a-dreadin' ther shot from the la'rel, hit's because
men like me hev sought day an' night ter bring about peace. I counseled
a truce in ther Stacy-Towers war because I war a Christian an' I didn't
'low thet God favored bloodshed. But ther truce won't hardly last ef ye
goes about stirrin' up ructions.

"Bear Cat Stacy!" stormed the older man furiously as his anger fed upon
itself. "What air a bear cat anyways? Hit's a beast thet rouses up from
sleep an' crosses a mountain fer ther pure pleasure of tearin' out some
other critter's throat an' vitals. Hit's a varmint drove on by ther
devil's own sperit of hatefulness.

"Even in ther feud days men warred with clean powder an' lead, but
sich-like fightin' don't seem ter satisfy ye. Ye hain't got no use fer
a rifle-gun. Ye wants ter tear men apart with yore bare hands an' ter
plumb rend 'em asunder! I've trod ther streets of Marlin Town with ye,
an' watched yore eyes burnin' like hot embers, until peaceable men drew
back from ye an' p'inted ye out ter strangers. 'Thar goes ther Bear
Cat,' they'd whisper. 'Give him ther whole road!' Even ther town
marshal walked in fear of ye an' war a-prayin' ter God Almighty ye
wouldn't start nothin'."

"I don't never seek no fight." This time Turner Stacy spoke without
shame. "I don't never have no trouble save whar I'm plumb _obleeged_
ter hev hit."

"Thet's what Kinnard Towers always 'lowed," was the dry retort, "though
he's killed numerous men, and folks says he's hired others killed,
too."

The boy met the accusing glance and answered quietly:

"Ye don't favor peace no more than what I do."

"I've aimed ter be both God-fearin' an' law-abidin'," continued the
parent whose face and figure might have been cast in bronze as a type
of the American pioneer, "yet ye censures me fer makin' untaxed
licker!" His voice trembled with a repressed thunder of emotion.

"I've seed times right hyar on this creek when fer ther most part of a
whole winter we hurted fer salt an' thar warn't none to be had fer love
nor money. Thar warn't no money in these hills nohow--an' damn'-little
love ter brag about. Yore maw an' me an' Poverty dwelt hyar
tergether--ther three of us. We've got timber an' coal an' no way ter
git hit ter market. Thar's jest only one thing we kin turn inter money
or store-credit--an' thet's our corn run inter white licker."

He paused as if awaiting a reply and when his son volunteered none he
swept on to his peroration. "When I makes hit now I takes numerous
chances, an' don't complain. Some revenuer, a-settin' on his hunkers,
takin' life easy an' a-waitin' fer a fist full of blood money is liable
ter meet up in ther highway with some feller thet's nursin' of a grudge
erginst me or you. Hit's plumb risky an' hits damn'-hard work, but hit
hain't no wrong-doin' an' ef yore grandsires an' yore father hain't
been above hit, I rekon _you_ hain't above hit neither."

Turner Stacy was still standing on the porch, with one finger marking
the place where he had left off reading his biography of Lincoln--the
master of men.

Born of a line of stoics, heir to laconic speech and reared to stifle
emotions, he was inarticulate and the somberness of his eyes, which
masked a pageantry of dreams and a surging conflict in his breast,
seemed only the surliness of rebellion.

He looked at his father and his mother, withered to sereness by their
unrelenting battle with a life that had all been frostbite until even
their power of resentment for its injustice had guttered out and dried
into a dull acceptance.

His fingers gripped the book. Abraham Lincoln had, like himself,
started life in a log house and among crude people. Probably he, too,
had in those early days no one who could give an understanding ear to
the whispering voices that urged him upward. At first the urge itself
must have been blurred of detail and shadowy of object.

Turner's lips parted under an impulse of explanation, and closed again
into a more hopelessly sullen line. The older man had chafed too long
in heavy harness to comprehend a new vision. Any attempt at
self-expression would be futile.

So the picture he made was only that of a headstrong and wilful junior
who had listened unmoved to reason, and a mounting resentment kindled
in the gaze of the bearded moonshiner.

"I've done aimed ter talk reason with ye," barked the angry voice, "an'
hit don't seem ter convince ye none. Ef ther pattern of life I've sot
ye hain't good enough, do ye think ye're better than yore maw, too?"

"I didn't never say ye warn't good enough." The boy found himself
freezing into defiant stiffness under this misconstruction until his
very eagerness to be understood militated against him.

"Wa'al, I'll tell ye a thing I don't talk a heap about. Hit's a thing
thet happened when ye was a young baby. I spent two y'ars in prison
then fer makin' white whiskey."

"You!" Turner Stacy's eyes dilated with amazement and the older face
hardened with a baleful resentment.

"Hit warn't jest bein' put in ther jail-house thet I kain't fergit ner
fergive so long as I goes on livin'. Hit war ther _reason_. Ye talks
mighty brash erbout ther sacredness of ther Revenue laws--wa'al, listen
ter me afore ye talks any more." He paused and then continued, as if
forcing himself to an unwelcome recital.

"I've always borne the name hyarabouts of bein' a law-abidin' citizen
and a man thet could be trusted. I'd hoped ter bring peace to the
mountings, but when they lawed me and sent me down to Looeyville fer
trial, ther Govern_ment_ lawyer 'lowed thet sence I was a prominent
citizen up hyar a-breakin' of the law, they had ought to make a sample
of me. Because my reputation was good I got two y'ars. Ef hit hed been
bad, I mout hev come cl'ar."

The son took an impulsive step forward, but with an imperious wave of
the hand, his father halted him and the chance for a sympathetic
understanding was gone.

"Hold on! I hain't quite done talkin' yit. In them days we war livin'
over ther ridge, whar Little Ivy heads up. You thinks this hyar's a
pore fashion of dwellin'-house, but _thet_ one hed jest a single room
an' na'ry a winder in all hits four walls. You're maw war right ailin'
when they tuck me away ter ther big Co'te an' she war mighty young,
too, an' purty them days afore she broke. Thar warn't no man left ter
raise ther crops, an' _you_ ra'red like a young calf ef ye didn't git
yore vittles reg'lar.

"I reckon mebby ye hain't hardly got no proper idee how long two y'ars
kin string out ter be when a man's sulterin' behind bars with a young
wife an' a baby thet's liable ter be starvin' meanwhile! I reckon ye
don't hardly realize how I studied down thar in prison about ther snow
on these Godforsaken hillsides an' ther wind whirrin' through ther
chinks. But mebby ye _kin_ comprehend this hyar fact. _You'd_ hev
pintedly starved ter death, ef yore maw hedn't rigged up a new still in
place of ther one the Govern_ment_ confiscated, an' made white licker
all ther time I was down thar sarvin' time. _She_ did thet an' paid off
ther interest on the mortgage an' saved a leetle mite for me erginst
ther day when I come home. Now air ye sich a sight better then yore maw
was?"

A yellow flood of sunlight fell upon the two figures and threw into a
relief of high lights their two faces; one sternly patriarchal and
rugged, the other vitally young and spare of feature.

Corded arteries appeared on Bear Cat's temples and, as he listened, the
nails of his fingers bit into the flesh of his palms, but his father
swept on, giving him no opportunity to reply.

"My daddy hed jest shortly afore been lay-wayed an' killed by some
Towers murderer, an' his property had done been parceled out amongst
his children. Thar wasn't but jest fourteen of us ter heir hit an'
nobody got much. When they tuck me down ter ther big Co'te I had ter
hire me a lawyer--an' thet meant a mortgage. Yore maw hedn't, up ter
then, been used ter sich-like slavish poverty. She could hev married
mighty nigh any man in these parts--an' she tuck me.

"Whilst I war a-layin' thar in jail a-tormentin' myself with my
doubtin' whether either one of ye would weather them times alive, _she_
was a-runnin' ther still hyar in my stead. Many's the day she tromped
over them hills through ther snow an' mud with _you_ a-whimperin' on
her breast an' wropped in a shawl thet she needed her own self. Many's
ther night she tromped back ergin an' went hongry ter bed, so's _you_
could have plenty ter eat, when thar warn't sca'cely enough ter divide
betwixt ye. But them things _she_ did in famine days, _you're_ too
sanctified ter relish now."

Turner Stacy trembled from head to foot. It seemed to him that he could
see that grim picture in retrospect and despite his stoic's training
his eyes burned with unshed tears. Loyalty to kith and kin is the
cornerstone of every mountain man's religion, the very grail of his
faith. Into his eyes blazed a tawny, tigerish light, but words choked
in his throat and his father read, in his agitation, only a defiance
which was no part of his thought.

"Now, see hyar," he went on with mounting autocracy, "I've done told ye
things I don't oftentimes discuss. I've done reasoned with ye an' now I
commands ye! Ye hain't of age yit and until ye do be, ye've got to do
as I bids ye. Atter that, ef ye aims to turn yore back on yore family
ye can do hit, an' I reckon we can go our two ways. That's all I got to
say to ye. Now pick up that sack of gryste an' be gone with hit."

The boy's face blackened and his muscles tautened under the arrogant
domineering of the edict. For a moment he neither spoke nor stirred
from his place, though his chest heaved with the fulness of his
breathing. The elder man moved ominously forward and his tone was
violently truculent.

"Air ye goin' ter obey me or do I hev ter _make_ ye? Thar's a sayin'
thet come acrost ther waters thet no man kin lick his own daddy. I
reckon hit still holds good."

Still the son remained as unmoving as bronze while his eyes sustained
unflinchingly the wrathful gaze of a patriarchal order. Then he spoke
in a voice carefully schooled to quietness.

"As to thet sayin'," he suggested evenly, "I reckon mebbe hit mought be
disproved, but I hain't aimin' to try hit. Ye've done said some
right-hard things to-day an' some thet wasn't hardly justified--but I
aims ter fergit 'em."

Suddenly, by virtue of a leaping light in his eyes, the boy in jeans
and hodden-gray stood forth strangely transfigured. Some spirit
revelation seemed to have converted him into a mystifying incarnation
of latent, if uncomprehended power. It was as startling as though a
road-side beggar had tossed aside a drab cloak and hood of rags and
revealed beneath it, the glitter of helmet and whole armor.

"I aims ter fergit hit all," he repeated. "But don't seek ter fo'ce me
ner ter drive me none--fer thet's a thing I kain't hardly suffer. As
fur as a man kin go outen loyalty I'll go fer _you_--but I've got ter
go in my own fashion--an' of my own free will. Ye've done said that I
went erbout seekin' trouble an' I hain't got no doubt ye believes what
ye says albeit most of hit's false. Ye says I lays drunk sometimes.
Thet's true an' hit's a shameful thing fer a man ter admit, but hit's a
thing I've got ter fight out fer myself. Hit don't profit neither of us
fer ye ter vilify me."

He broke off abruptly, his chest heaving, and to Lone Stacy it seemed
that the air was electrically charged, as with the still tensity that
goes, windless and breathless, before the bursting of thunder heads
among the crags. Then Bear Cat spoke again somewhat gropingly and with
inarticulate faultiness, as though a flood pressure were seeking egress
through a choked channel. The words were crude, but back of them was a
dammed-up meaning like the power of hurricane and forest fire. "Thar's
somethin' in me--I don't know how ter name it--thar's somethin' in me
sort of strugglin' an' a-drivin' me like a torment! Thet weakness fer
licker--I hates hit like--like all hell--but I hain't _all_ weakness!
Thet thing, whatever hit be--sometimes jest when hit seems like hit
ought ter raise me up--hit crushes me down like the weight of ther
mountings themselves."

He wheeled suddenly and disappeared into the house where he deposited
his book on the mantel-shelf and from behind the door swung a grain
sack to his shoulder. Then he left the house.

Lone Stacy turned to his wife and lifted his hands with a gesture of
baffled perplexity as he inquired, "Does ye understand ther boy? He's
our own blood an' bone, but sometimes I feels like I was talkin' ter a
person from a teetotally diff'rent world. Nobody round hyar don't
comprehend him. I've even heered hit norated round amongst foolish
folks thet he talks with graveyard ha'nts an' hes a witch-craft charm
on his life. Air he jest headstrong, maw, or air he so master big thet
we kain't comprehend him? No man hain't never called me a coward, but
thar's spells when I'm half-way skeered of my own boy."

"Mebby," suggested the woman quietly, "ef ye gentled him a leetle mite
he wouldn't contrary ye so much."

Lone Stacy nodded his head and spoke with a grim smile. "Seems like
I've got ter be eternally blusterin' at him jest ter remind myself thet
I'm ther head of this fam'ly. Ef I didn't fo'ce myself ter git mad, I'd
be actin' like he was my daddy instid of me bein' his'n."



CHAPTER II


The afternoon was half spent and the sun, making its way toward the
purpled ridges of the west, was already casting long shadows athwart
the valleys. Along a trail which wound itself in many tortuous twists
across forested heights and dipped down to lose itself at intervals in
the creek bed of Little Slippery, a mounted traveler rode at a
snail-like pace. The horse was a lean brute through whose rusty coat
the ribs showed in under-nourished prominence, but it went
sure-footedly up and down broken stairways of slimy ledges where tiny
waterfalls licked at its fetlocks and along the brinks of chasms where
the sand shelved with treacherous looseness.

The rider, a man weather-rusted to a drab monotone, slouched in his
saddle with an apathetic droop which was almost stupor, permitting his
reins to flap loosely. His face, under an unclean bristle of beard,
wore a sleepy sneer and his eyes were bloodshot from white whiskey.

As he rode, unseeing, through the magnificent beauty of the Cumberlands
his glance was sluggish and his face emotionless. But at last the
horse halted where a spring came with a crystal gush out of the
rhododendron thickets, and then Ratler Webb's stupefaction yielded to
a semi-wakefulness of interest. He rubbed a shoddy coat-sleeve across
his eyes and straightened his stooped shoulders. The old horse had
thrust his nose thirstily into the basin with evident eagerness to
drink. Yet, after splashing his muzzle about for a moment he refused
refreshment and jerked his head up with a snort of disgust. A leering
smile parted the man's lips over his yellow and uneven teeth:

"So ye won't partake of hit, old Bag-o'-bones, won't ye?" he inquired
ironically. "Ye hain't nobody's brag critter to look at, but I reckon
some revenue fellers mought be willin' to pay a master price fer ye. Ye
kin stand at ther mouth of a spring-branch an' smell a still-house
cl'ar up on hits headwaters, kain't ye?"

For a while Webb suffered the tired horse to stand panting in the creek
bed, while his own eyes, lit now with a crafty livening, traveled up
the hillside impenetrably masked with verdure, where all was silence.
Somewhere up along the watercourse was the mash-vat and coil which had
contaminated this basin for his mount's brute fastidiousness: an
illicit distillery. This man clad in rusty store clothes was not
inspired with a crusading ardor for supporting the law. He lived among
men whose community opinion condones certain offenses--and pillories
the tale-bearer. But above the ethical bearing of local standards and
Federal Statutes, alike, loomed a matter of personal hatred, which
powerfully stimulated his curiosity. He raised one hand and
thoughtfully stroked his nose--recently broken with workman-like
thoroughness and reset with amateurish imperfection.

"Damn thet Bear Cat Stacy," he muttered, as he kicked his weary mount
into jogging motion. "I reckon I'll hev my chance at him yit. I'm jest
a-waitin' fer hit."

A half-mile further on, he suddenly drew rein and remained in an
attitude of alert listening. Then slipping quietly to the ground, he
hitched his horse in the concealment of a deep gulch and melted out of
sight into the thicket. Soon he sat crouched on his heels, invisible in
the tangled laurel. His place of vantage overlooked a foot-path so
little traveled as to be hardly discernible, but shortly a figure came
into view around a hulking head of rock, and Ratler Webb's smile
broadened to a grin of satisfaction. The figure was tall and spare and
it stooped as it plodded up the ascent under the weight of a heavy sack
upon its shoulders. The observer did not move or make a sound until the
other man had been for several minutes out of sight. He was engaged in
reflection.

"So, thet's how ther land lays," he ruminated. "Bear Cat Stacy's totin'
thet gryste over to Bud Jason's tub-mill on Little Ivy despite ther
fact thet thar's numerous bigger mills nigher to his house. Thet sack's
full of _sprouted_ corn, and he dasn't turn it in at no _reg'lar_ mill.
Them Stacys air jest about blockadin' up thet spring-branch."

He spat at a toad which blinked beadily up at him and then, rising from
his cramped posture, he commented, "I hain't plumb dead sartin yet, but
I aims ter be afore sun-up ter-morrer."

Bear Cat Stacy might have crossed the ridge that afternoon by a less
devious route than the one he followed. In so doing he would have saved
much weariness of leg and ache of burdened shoulder, but Ratler Webb's
summing up had been correct, and though honest corn may follow the
highways, sprouted grain must go by blinder trails.

When he reached the backbone of the heights, he eased the jute sack
from his shoulders to the ground and stretched the cramp out of his
arms. Sweat dripped from his face and streamed down the brown throat
where his coarse shirt stood open. He had carried a dead weight of
seventy pounds across a mountain, and must carry back another as heavy.

Now he wiped his forehead with his shirt-sleeve and stood looking away
with a sudden distraction of dreaminess. A few more steps would take
him again into the steamy swelter of woods where no breath of breeze
stirred the still leafage, and even in the open spaces the afternoon
was torridly hot. But here he could sweep with his eyes league upon
league of a vast panorama where sky and peak mingled in a glory of
purple haze. Unaccountably the whole beauty of it smote him with a
sense of undefined appreciation and grateful wonderment. The cramp of
heart was eased and the groping voices of imagination seemed for the
time no longer tortured nightmares of complaint.

There was no one here to censor his fantasies and out of the gray eyes
went their veiling sullenness and out of the lips their taut grimness.
Into eyes and lips alike came something else--something touched with
the zealousness of aspiration.

"Hit's right over thar!" he murmured aloud but in a voice low pitched
and caressing of tone. "I've got ter get me money enough ter buy thet
farm offen Kinnard Towers."

He was looking down upon a point far below him where through a cleared
space flashed the shimmer of flowing water, and where in a small pocket
of acreage, the bottom ground rolled in gracious amenability to the
plow and harrow.

Again he nodded, and since he was quite alone he laughed aloud.

"She 'lows thet's ther place whar she wants ter live at," he added to
himself, "an' I aims ter satisfy her."

So after all some of his day-dreams were tangible!

He realized that he ought to be going on, yet he lingered and after a
few moments he spoke again, confiding his secrets to the open woods and
the arching skies--his only confidants.

"Blossom 'lowed yestiddy she was a-goin' over ter Aunt Jane Colby's
this mornin'. 'Pears like she ought ter be passin' back by hyar about
this time."

Cupping his hands at his lips, he sent out a long whoop, but before he
did that he took the precaution of concealing his sack of sprouted
grain under a ledge. Then he bent listening for an answer--but without
reward, and disappointment mantled in his gray eyes as he dropped to
the age-corroded rock and sat with his hands clasped about his updrawn
knees.

It was very still there, except for the industrious hammering of a
"peckerwood" on a decayed tree trunk, and the young mountaineer sat
almost as motionless as his pedestal.

Then without warning a lilting peal of laughter sounded at his back and
Turner came to his feet. As he wheeled he saw Blossom Fulkerson
standing there above him and her eyes were dancing with the mischievous
delight of having stalked him undiscovered.

"It's a right happy thing fer you, Turner Stacy, that I didn't aim ter
kill ye," she informed him with mock solemnity. "I've heered ye brag
thet no feller hereabouts could slip up on ye in the woods,
unbeknownst."

"I wasn't studyin' erbout nobody slippin' up on me. Blossom," he
answered calmly. "I hain't got no cause ter be a-hidin' out from
nobody."

She was standing with the waxen green of the laurel breaking into pink
flower-foam at her back and through the oak and poplar branches showed
scraps of blue sky--the blue of June.

A catch came into Turner's voice and he said somewhat huskily, "When
they christened ye Blossom they didn't misname ye none."

Blossom, he thought, was like a wild-rose growing among sun-flowers.
When the evening star came up luminous and dewy-fresh over the
darkening peaks, while twilight still lingered at the edges of the
world, he always thought of her.

But the charm was not all in his own eye: not all the magic endowment
of first love. The mountain preacher's daughter had escaped those
slovenly habits of backwoods life that inevitably coarsen. Her beauty
had slender strength and flower freshness.

Now she stood holding with one hand to the gnarled branch of a dogwood
sapling. A blue sunbonnet falling back from her head left the abundance
of her hair bared to the light so that it shimmered between brown and
gold.

She was perhaps sixteen and her heavily lashed eyes were brownish amber
and just now full of a mirthful sparkle.

"Ye seemed ter be studyin' about somethin' almighty hard," she insisted
teasingly. "I thought for a minute that mebbe ye'd done growed thar."

Turner Stacy smiled again as he looked at her. In his eyes was unveiled
and honest worship.

"I was a'studyin' about you, Blossom. I don't know no way ter do that
save almighty hard. Didn't ye hear me whoop?"

The girl's head nodded.

"Why didn't ye answer me?"

"I aimed ter slip up on ye, if I could, Turner, but I didn't low it
would be so plumb easy.--You made believe that yore ears could hear the
grass a-growin'."

The youth took a sudden step toward her and stood close, so close that
her breath touched his face fragrantly as she looked up with a witching
mockery in her eyes. His heart fluttered with the clamor of impulse to
seize her in his arms, but his half-lifted hands dropped to his sides.

He was not quite twenty-one and she was only sixteen, and the code of
the mountains is strict with the simplicity of the pioneer. A woman
gives her lips in betrothal or, giving them lightly, drops to the caste
of a light woman.

So the boy drew back with a resolute jerk of his head.

"I was a-studyin' erbout some day, Blossom," he said, "when thar's
a-goin' ter be a dwellin'-house down thar. Not a house of warped
timbers whar the hawgs scratch their backs under the floors--but a
_real_ house. Mebby by thet day an' time thar'll be a highway men kin
travel without torment." As he paused, at a loss for power of
architectural enlargement, the girl sighed.

"Then I reckon ye don't hardly 'low ter raise thet house in my
lifetime, Turner," she teased. "I'll most likely be too old ter visit
ye thar afore a highway gits built."

But he shook his head. "I aims ter speed up ther comin' of sich
things," he announced with the splendid effrontery of youth. "Hit
hain't been so long since ther fust wagon crossed Cedar Mountain. We're
liable to see balloons comin' afore we die."

"Aunt Jane Colby was tellin' me about that first wagon to-day at
dinner," Blossom assented. "She says one old man asked folks whether it
was true or whether he was fitified. He said: 'What manner of
_contrivance_ air thet? Hit's got four wheels an' one pair's bigger
then t'other pair, an' two of 'em goes round faster then t'other two
an' the Lord A'mighty only knows how hit manages ter keep up with
hitself.'"

They both laughed with young condescension for the old-fashioned and
then Turner went on, haltingly by reason of callow diffidence.

"Ef thet house couldn't be reared in time fer _you_ ter come to hit,
Blossom--hit wouldn't be no manner of use ter me a-tall."

"Does ye aim ter make me a present of a house?" she challenged and
again the provocative allurement of her swept him so that the smooth
sinews of his arms tightened as if with physical effort.

"I means thet someday--when I've done something worth doin' an' when
ye're a leetle bit older yoreself, Blossom, you're agoin' ter marry me,
an' we're goin' ter dwell thar--together."

The girl's cheeks reddened furiously and for a moment she made no
response, then she declared with a stout self-assertion designed to
mask her confusion, "I reckon I'll hev somethin' ter say about thet."

"Ye'll have _everything_ ter say about hit, Blossom, but"--there was a
purposeful ring in his voice that hinted at ultimate victory--"but some
day I aims ter persuade ye ter say, 'yes.'"

Her cheeks were brightly pink and she pretended to be engrossed in the
demeanor of a squirrel that chattered quarrelsomely at them from a
nearby poplar. Turner Stacy dropped his voice until it was very soft.

"I kin bide my time an' wait twell ye're ready, Blossom, but if ye
don't _never_ say hit, I don't hardly see how I kin go on livin'."

"I'm right glad ef ye likes me, Turner," she demurely assured him.
"We've growed up together an' ef ye was to go away somewhar's an' leave
me, I reckon I'd nigh die of lonesomeness."

Distrust of effusiveness was bred in his bone. Laconic utterance was
his heritage, and now that his heart demanded expression and his eyes
kindled with the dreamer's fire, he stood struggling against the
fettering of his tongue. Then abruptly, tumultuously he burst out,
talking fast.

"I hain't got ther gift of speech, Blossom; I only knows thet hit
hain't enough ter jest have ye miss me ef I went away. I knows thet
when ye stands thar with ther sun on yore hair hit would be springtime
fer me, even ef thar war snow on ther hillsides an' ice in ther creek.
I knows thet I'm standin' hyar on solid rock. Yore paw says these-hyar
hills were old when ther Alps hadn't riz up yit outen ther waters, but
when I looks at ye, Blossom, this mountain's shakin' under me ... an'
yore face is ther only thing thet's steady afore my eyes."

He broke off with something like a choke in his throat and Blossom was
trembling a little under that first impact of new emotion that comes
with the waking of the senses. Then she remembered the stories of his
escapades and her eyes clouded. Her hand fell flutteringly on his arm.

"If--if ye cares thet much about me, Turner, I wish--I don't aim ter
nag ye--but I wish ye'd promise me thet ye won't give men cause ter say
ye drinks too much."

Turner's brow contracted and his lips stiffened. The defensive mask
which seemed sullen because it was his idea of impassiveness set itself
again, but he nodded.

"Thet's a fair thing," he said slowly at last. "Drinkin' hain't hardly
a thing a gal kin understand noways. I hain't jest a common drunkard,
Blossom. Thar's times though when I feels es ef I war a-livin' in a
jail-house--an' seekin' ter git free. Thar's su'thin' in me--I don't
know jest what--thet's always fightin'. These hyar hills with their
ign'rance an' dirt an' poverty seems ter be on top of me 'stid of
underneath me. Thet's when I drinks too much. Fer a little spell I
seems ter dream I'm free."

A few minutes later the girl started down the "yon" side of the wooded
slope, going with a light step and humming a ballade that had come
across the sea with the beginnings of America, and the boy looked after
her with a passionate tenderness that was far from stoical.

If most of his dreams were intangible and misty, this, his greatest and
brightest dream, was at least clear and vivid.

When he could no longer see the flash of her blue dress between the
interlacing branches he turned, and drawing his sack of sprouted corn
out of its hiding place, hefted it to his shoulders. He would have to
hurry now to finish his task and get back by dusk.



CHAPTER III


Old man Bud Jason stood at the door of his tub-mill, leaning on the
long hickory staff which he always carried. He stood gauntly tall even
now that his once-broad shoulders sagged and his mane of hair was
white, and from his lips came a querulous mumbling as though he were
awaiting some one tardy of arrival. At last, though, he gave a grunt of
relief when the thicket far above him stirred and the figure of Bear
Cat Stacy appeared, bending under his load of grist.

He turned then into the shack and drew out a sack of meal from the
bottom of a pile, and as he finished this task a shadow fell across the
door. Turner Stacy let his burden fall and availed himself of the
opportunity to drop into a sitting posture on the step of the shanty,
resting his back against a post. His broad chest heaved and a profound
sigh of relief broke from his panting lips. The old miller stood
regarding him for a little while without words, then broke into
volcanic utterance:

"Hell's banjer! May God Almighty holp a country whar a young pa'r of
shoulders like your'n don't find no worthier use than man-powerin' good
corn acrost ther ridges ter turn hit inter bad licker."

Turner Stacy glanced up with mild surprise for the sentiment.

"I hain't nuver heered ye cavil with a man's license ter use his own
corn as he sees fit, afore, Bud," was his casual reply, and the
white-bearded one wagged his head and laughed tremulously after the
fashion of the old.

"I reckon ye don't mistrust me none, Bear Cat, even ef I does hit now,
but here of late I've cogitated a heap whilst I've been a-settin' hyar
listenin' ter ther creak of that old mill. Seems almost like ther wheel
was a-lamentin' over hits job. Thar bein' sich a sight of wickedness in
ther community whar my grand-children hes got ter be reared up is a
powerful solemn thing fer me ter study over, an' I've jes erbout
concluded thet whilst ther whiskey-makin' goes on ther killin's an
gin'ral wickedness won't hardly diminish none."

Furrows of dubious thought etched themselves on the young man's
forehead.

"Ef ye feels thet-a-way, Bud, why does yer consent ter grind corn fer
blockaders?" he demanded, and the reply was prompt:

"I don't grind hit only fer a few men thet I'm beholden to." Pausing a
moment, he became more specific. "Yore paw stood over my body onct when
I'd done been shot outen my saddle, an' fought off numerous enemies
single-handed, thereby savin' me from death in ther creekbed. I
couldn't hardly deny him ther use of my mill even ef his corn _hes_ got
sprouts in ther grain two inches long, now, could I?"

The boy looked abstractedly away, then suddenly blurted out: "I
disgusts blockadin', too, Bud, but pap 'lows hit's ther only way ter
mek a livin' hyarabouts."

"Lots of folks argues hit out in like fashion, but I don't hold with
'em." The speaker rapped the boards with his long staff and spoke with
conviction. "What these mountings needs air a mite of l'arnin' an' a
leetle common sense an' a heap of good roads. Ef prosperity ever comes
ter these hills, sonny, hit'll come along a highway--an' so long as
stills don't thrive none along highways, hit looks mightily like a
sorry chance." After a thoughtful pause he added, "Hit won't never
change, so long es hits only furriners thet aims ter alter hit.
Revenuers kain't do nothin'. Damn thar skunk hides anyhow! They're our
mortal enemies." The old man drew himself up as if he were seeing a
vision and his eyes held an almost fanatical gleam. "But mark down my
words! Some day thar'll rise up a mountain man--a man thet hain't never
met up with fear an thet's as steadfast as ther hills he sprung from.
_Thet_ man will change hit all, like ther sun changes fog. I wisht I
mout live ter see thet day."

"Hit'll tek a powerful towerin' man ter bring sich things ter pass,"
mused the listener and the oracle declared vehemently:

"Hit teks a powerful towerin' man ter lead any fight ter victory,
whether hit's a-guidin' ther Children of Israel outen thar bondage or
our benighted children outen thars."

Suddenly the miller laid a trembling hand on the boy's arm and demanded
in a hushed voice: "Why shouldn't hit be you, Bear Cat? Folks says ye
bears a charmed life, thet thar hain't enough lead in ther mountings
ter kill ye. I heered Kinnard Towers say with my own ears, thet hit war
a God's blessin' ther feud ended afore ye got yore growth--an' Kinnard
don't fear many. When a man thet's hardly nothin' but a saplin' of a
boy bears a repute like thet--hit must denote thet thar's power in him
beyond ther common!"

The boy stood silent for a moment and slowly his brow drew into a black
scowl.

"I reckon, Bud, one reason air this," he said bitterly, "thet I'm
accounted ter be a drunkard my own self an' like as not, one sich
reason es thet air plenty."

Turner glanced up to the bristling ridge which he must climb. Already
the west was kindling into a flare of richness and the skyline hills
were dyed with ashy purple.

"I've done over-tarried," he said abruptly, as he lifted his sack from
the floor, but his face wore a glow which was not altogether from the
sinking sun. "I reckon I'd better be on my way--but I hain't denyin'
thet I've done hed thoughts like your'n myself, Bud."

But young Stacy had not gone far when that sense of intensified
woodcraft which Blossom had derided caused him to halt dead in his
tracks.

The sound that had first arrested him had been nothing more than a
laugh, but, in it, he had recognized a quality that bespoke derisive
hostility and a thickness that indicated drink.

He had left the place empty except for Old Bud Jason and no one could
have reached it, unannounced by normal sounds, so soon unless the
approach had been achieved by stealth.

Bear Cat Stacy put down his sack and worked his way back, holding the
concealment of rock and laurel; guarding each footfall against the
betrayal of a broken twig--and, as yet, denied a view of the tub-mill.
But his cars were open and doing duty for his eyes.

"Wa'al," came the miller's voice in a wrathful tremolo, "what business
brings ye hyar es ef ye war aimin' ter lay-way somebody? Folks
gin'rally comes hither upstandin'--an' open."

This time the voice of the new arrival was sneeringly truculent:

"Does they come thet-a-way when they fotches in sprouted corn thet they
dastn't take elsewhere?"

Bear Cat stiffened as he recognized the voice of Ratler Webb, whom he
had not met since their encounter in which a nose had been broken. He
knew that in the breast of this man, hitherto unchallenged as
neighborhood bully, an ugly and dangerous grudge was festering.

Now it seemed that the old miller, because of friendship for the Stacys
was to be heckled, and Bear Cat's wrath boiled. He heard Bud Jason
inquiring in tones no longer querulous but firmly indignant:

"Is thet all ye come fer? Ter blackguard me?"

Ratler answered in a voice savoring more of highwayman's coercion than
request.

"I was jest a-funnin' with ye, Old Bud, but I'd be mighty obleeged ter
ye fer a leetle dram of licker. My bottle's nigh empty an' I've got a
far way ter travel yit."

Turner Stacy had now arrived at a point from which he could see around
the hulking shoulder of sandstone and the picture which met his eye was
not reassuring.

The miller stood barring the door to his shack and the visitor,
inflamed of eye, a little unsteady on his feet, confronted him with a
swagger of lawless daredeviltry.

"I hain't got no licker. I don't never use hit," replied Jason curtly.
"So ef thet's all thet brought ye hyar, ye've already got yore answer
an' ye mout es well be farin' on."

Webb's leer darkened to malignity and his voice came in a snarl.

"Ye hain't hardly got no tolerance fer drinkin', hes ye, Bud? Albeit ye
hain't none too sanctified ter grind up all ther sprouted corn thet
other fellers fotches in ter ye."

The old fellow was alone and unarmed save for his hickory staff, but he
was vested with that authority which stiffens a man, standing on his
own threshold and facing an insolent trespasser. His manner was
choleric and crisp in its note of command.

"I don't aim ter waste no time cavilin' with a drunken carouser. I bids
ye ter leave my place. Begone!"

But the traveler, inflamed with the venom of the drunken bully, lurched
forward, whipping a revolver from its sagging pocket. With an oath he
rammed the muzzle close against the pit of the other's stomach.

Bud's level eyes did not falter. He gripped his useless hickory as if
it had been a lictor's staff of unchallengeable office. Perhaps that
steady moment saved his life, for before his assailant's flood of
obscene vilification had reached its period, Ratler Webb leaped
back--interrupted. He changed front, wheeling to protect his back
against the logs of the rude wall and thrusting his pistol before him,
while his jaw sagged abruptly in dismay.

Bear Cat stood facing him, ten yards distant, and his right hand was
thrust into his opened shirt, under the armpit, where the mountain man
carries his holster. That the position of the hand was a bluff,
covering an unarmed helplessness, Ratler Webb did not know.

"Air ye follerin' revenuin' these days, Ratler?" inquired Stacy in a
voice of such velvet softness that the other responded only with an
incoherent snarl. "Because ef ye air, numerous folks hyarabouts will be
right glad ter find out who it is that's informin' on 'em."

"Damn ye! Keep thet hand whar hit's at!" ordered the aggressor
violently and like the cornered rat he had become doubly dangerous. He
had set out only to torture a defenseless victim, and now it seemed a
question of killing or being killed, so he loaded his voice with
truculence as he went on.

"Ef ye seeks ter draw hit out or come a step frontwards, so help me
Almighty God I'll kill ye in yore tracks!"

Turner Stacy smiled. Upon his ability to do so with a semblance of
quiet contempt he was staking everything.

"Shoot whenever ye gits ready, Ratler," he challenged. "But don't do
hit onless ye're expectin' ter die, too. When this trigger-work
commences, I aims ter _git_ ye."

"Move a hand or a foot then, an' see--" The voice was desperately high
pitched and nasal now, almost falsetto, but through its threat Bear Cat
recognized an undercurrent of sudden terror. The desperado remembered
that his horse stood hitched a quarter of a mile away. His right boot
sole had been freshly patched and left a clearly identifying mark in
the mud. He had prepared no alibi in advance, and within a few hours
after Turner fell scores of his kinsmen would be baying on the trail.

"Shoot!" taunted Bear Cat Stacy. "Why don't ye shoot?"--and then with
an effrontery which dazed his antagonist, he deliberately moved several
steps forward--halting nearer the pistol's muzzle.

"I don't aim ter kill ye onless I has ter," stormed Webb with weakening
assurance. "Halt! I'm givin' ye fa'r warnin'. Hit's self-d_ee_fense ef
ye crowds me."

Stacy spoke again, standing once more motionless.

"Ye couldn't shoot thet pistol at me ef I walked in on ye with my hands
over my head. My time hain't come yit ter die, because ther's things I
was born ter do--an' God Almighty aims ter hev me live till I've done
'em. He don't aim ter hev me hurt by no coward like you, I reckon. Ye
couldn't shoot any man noways whilst his eyes was lookin' full at ye.
Ye has need ter lay hid in ther la'rel afore ye kin pull yore trigger
finger. I dares ye to shoot!"

The white-bearded miller stood motionless, too, measuring all the
chances. For a moment he wondered whether it would be possible to
strike up the armed hand with his long staff, but he wisely repressed
the impulse. This after all was a new sort of combat, a duel of wills
rather than of weapons. He knew that Bear Cat Stacy was unarmed because
he had so recently seen the sweat-drenched shirt clinging close to the
arched chest.

Ratler Webb's hand no longer trembled with the uncertainty of
tipsiness. His eyes were no longer obfuscated and muddled with whiskey
fumes. He had reverted to the feral instincts of desperation--and was
suddenly sobered.

He gripped his out-thrust pistol in both hands for greater surety and
half-crouched with knees bent under him, ready either to spring or
brace himself against attack. His eyes, gleaming with blood-passion,
traveled shiftily so that he could keep watch on both his possible
adversaries.

The other and younger man stood upright, but his muscles, too, were
poised and balanced with all nicety of readiness and his eyes were
measuring the distance between: gauging sundry odds of life and death.

For a moment more the tableau held in silence. Both the miller and the
boy could hear the labored, almost gasping breath of the man with the
pistol and both knew that the mean temper of his heart's metal was
weakening.

Then when a squirrel barked from the timber, Ratler Webb started
violently and above the stubble of dirty beard, sweat drops began to
ooze on his face.

Why didn't Bear Cat Stacy say something? Why didn't somebody move? If
he fired now he must kill both men or leave a witness to blab deadly
information close on the heels of his flight! In his heart welled a
rising tide of panic.

Turner knew by instinct that every moment he could hold Ratler there
with his pistol leveled, was for the desperado, a moment of weakening
resolve and nerve-breaking suspense. But he also knew another thing.
When the strain of that waiting snapped Ratler would either run or
shoot. Mountain annals hold more instances of the latter decision that
the former, but that was the chance to be taken.

Webb carried a notched gun. He had forced many fights in his day, but
in all of them there had been the swift tonic of action and little time
to think. Now he dared not lower his weapon in surrender--and he was
afraid to fire. He felt that his lips were growing dry and thickening.
He thrust out his tongue to lick them, and its red tip gave, to his
ugly features, a strange grotesqueness.

Under the brown of wind and sun and the red of liquor-flush his face
paled perceptibly. Then it grew greenish yellow with a sick clamminess
of dread.

At last with a discernible quaver in his voice he broke the unendurable
silence, and his words came brokenly and disjointed:

"I didn't aim ter force no quarrel on ye, Bear Cat.... Ef ye plumb
compels me ter do hit, I've got ter kill ye, but I hain't a-hankerin'
none fer ther task."

"Thet's a lie, too. Ye come hyar a-seekin' of _evidence_ because ye're
harborin' a grudge erginst me an' ye dastn't satisfy hit no other way."

There was a pause, then Webb said slowly, and with a half-heartedness
from which all the effrontery had ebbed:

"I 'lows ter go on erbout my business now, but if either one of ye
moves from whar ye're standin' twell I'm outen range I aims ter kill ye
both."

Shifting his revolver to his right hand and feeling behind him with his
left, he began backing away, still covering his retreat and edging a
step at a time toward the corner of the shack, but at the second step,
with a swiftness which vindicated his name, the Bear Cat sprang.

The old miller shook his head, but made no outcry. He heard the thud of
two bodies and the grunt driven from a chest by the impact of charging
shoulders. He saw two figures go down together while a tongue of flame
and a muffled roar broke belatedly from the mouth of the pistol.

Whether the bullet had taken effect or, if so, who was its victim, he
could not at first distinguish. Two human beings, muscled like
razor-backs were writhing and twisting in a smother of dust, their
limbs clinched and their voices mingled in snarling and incoherent
savagery. The mountain ethics of "fist and skull" impose no Queensbury
restrictions. Tooth and knee, heel and knuckle may do their best--and
worst.

But the pistol itself flew clear and the old miller picked it up,
turning again to observe the result of the encounter.

The fighters had struggled up again to their feet and were locked in a
bone-breaking embrace of hatred. For the moment the advantage seemed to
rest with Webb, who was clutching Turner's head in the distressing
chancery of his powerful right arm and doing his utmost to break the
neck. Bear Cat's breathing was a hoarse and strangling agony, but his
fists battered like unremitting flails against the ribs and kidneys of
his antagonist. As they swayed and tottered their brogans were
ploughing up the hard soil and, totally blinded by sweat and rage, they
wavered perilously close to the edge of the huge rock--with its
ten-foot drop to the mill race.

Even as Old Bud gave his warning cry, they went down together--and fell
short of the brink, escaping that danger. Stacy writhed free from the
neck-grip, and both came up again, leaping into a fresh embrace of
panthers, with eyes glaring insanely out of blood-smeared faces.

Then it all ended abruptly. Bear Cat wrenched himself free and sent a
chance blow, but one behind which went all his weight and passion, to
the other's mouth. The smitten head went back with a jerk. Webb reeled
groggily for an instant, then crumpled, but before he had quite fallen
Stacy, with an insensate fury, was dragging him to his feet and
clutching at the throat which his fingers ached to strangle.

At that instant, the old miller seized his arms.

"Hold on thar, Bear Cat," he cried with his quavering voice. "He's
already licked. You'll kill him ef ye hain't heedful."

"I _aims_ ter kill him," panted the boy, casting off the interference
of aged arms with the savagery of a dog whose fangs have been pried too
soon from the throat of its victim.

But Bud Jason clung on, reiterating: "Fer shame, son! Thet hain't
_yore_ manner of conduct. Fer shame!"

Unsteadily, then, with a slow dawning of reason Bear Cat Stacy
staggered back and leaned heavily against the wall of the tub-mill,
breathing in sob-like gasps. His shirt was half torn from his body and
for the first time the miller saw the ugly gash where a pistol bullet
had bitten its grazing course along his left shoulder. Grime and blood
stained him and for a while he stood gazing down on the collapsed
figure at his feet--a figure that stirred gropingly.

"I reckon," he said slowly, "I'd jest about hev finished him, ef hit
hadn't a-been fer _you_, Bud. I'm beholden ter ye. I reckon I was
seein' red."

Together they lifted Ratler Webb and gave him water from the gourd that
hung by the door. When he was able to stand, dourly resentful, baleful
of eye but mute as to tongue, Bear Cat spoke briefly with the victor's
authority:

"I aims ter keep thet pistol o' your'n fer a spell, Ratler. I don't
hardly trust ye with hit jest yit. When ye wants hit, come by my house
and ask fer hit."

The bully turned sullenly away. He spoke no word of farewell and
offered no protest, but when he was out of sight the miller shook his
head and his voice was troubled.

"Of course ye knows, son, thet he hain't never agoin' ter fergit hit?
So long as ther two of ye lives ye've got ter keep on watchin' him."

Turner nodded. He was bathing his shoulder and spreading cobwebs on its
grazed wound.

"I've done wasted a heap of time," he said irrelevantly. "An' hit's
comin' on to rain, too. I reckon I'll be benighted afore I gets over
ter ther still."

Starting away, he paused and turned shamefacedly back for a moment.

"Hit won't profit us none to norrate this matter abroad," he suggested.
"I've got enough name already fer gittin' into ructions. Paw don't like
hit none."

Gazing after the retreating figures the old man wagged his head and his
expression was one of foreboding.

"Meanness an' grudge-nursin' kin bring on a heap of pestilence," he
mused. "This Ratler will nurse his on ther bottle, an' he won't never
wean hit--an' some day----! But it don't profit a feller ter borry
trouble. These hills hes got enough misfortunes withouten thet."

Already twilight was settling over the valleys and the ridges were
starkly grim as their color died to the neutrality of night, and the
murk of a gathering storm.



CHAPTER IV


With a mutter of distant thunder in his ears, the young mountaineer
plodded "slavishly" on under his load as night closed about him. The
path twisted among heaped up bowlders where a misstep might mean broken
bones and crawled through entanglements of fallen timber: of gnarled
rhododendron and thorn-leaved holly. It wormed into dew-drenched
thicknesses where branches lashed the burden-bearer's face with the
sting of whips, and soon the colossal barriers began to echo with the
storm roar of high places. The clouds were ripped with the blue-white
blades of lightning. The rock walls of the ranges seemed quaking under
the thunder's incessant cannonading, and the wind's shrieking mania.
Then through the rent and buffeted timber-tops the rain burst in a
lashing curtain of water as violent as a shot-shower.

Bear Cat Stacy, wet to the skin, with the steaming sweat of toil and
fight turned into a marrow-pinching chill, cast about him for a place
where he could protect his sack of meal until an abatement should come
to the storm's violence.

As he sat under a dripping roof of shelving rock to which he had groped
his way by the beacon of the lightning, a startled owl swept past him,
almost brushing his face with its downy wings.

His wet clothes hung to his flesh with what seemed icy coldness. His
shoulder throbbed with an abomination of pain and his bones ached with
a dull wretchedness.

But after a time the wind and thunder dropped away to whimpering
echoes. It was as if the hound pack of the furies had been whistled in,
its hunt ended.

Turner rose and stamped his numbed feet. There was yet a long way to go
before he arrived at the low-built shed, thatched with brush and
screened behind a fallen hemlock top, where the Stacy still lay hidden.

At last he was there, with every muscle proclaiming its location by the
outcry of sore tissues, and ahead of him lay the task of watching and
feeding the fire under the mash kettle until dawn.

"Ye kin lay down when ye're ready, Lee," he said shortly to the
stockily built man whom he was relieving from duty there. "I'll keep
ther fire goin' an' call ye round about dawn."

Taking up the rifle to which he had fallen heir, as picket, he made his
way from the sentinel's shelter to the still-house itself, stooping
low, so that the waning fire might not throw his figure or face into
relief. He piled a handful of wood under the kettle and crawled back
into the timber.

The heavens were full of stars now: not the small light-points of skies
arching over lowlands, but the gorgeous, great stars of the walled
highlands.

His mother had done this sort of work to keep him alive, while his
father was in prison! If he went on doing it, and if Blossom married
him, they faced a future of the same drab decay! At the thought of that
prospect he ground his chattering teeth and cursed under his breath.

The dull glow of the fire on a tin bucket and cup held his eyes with a
spell of fascination. It was white liquor, raw, sweetish and freshly
brewed. A gleam of craving flashed into his eyes: a craving that had
come down through generations of grandsires--even though his own father
had escaped it. Turner put out one hand, trembling with anticipation.

Here was warmth! Here was to be had for the taking a glow about the
heart and a quickened current in the veins. Here was the stuff from
which ease and waking dreams would come; release from his aching chill
and dulness of spirit!

Bear Cat's eyes burned thirstily. He seemed only a vessel of flesh
overflowing with craving--with a torture of craving--an utter hell of
craving! Then he drew back the eagerly extended hand.

"No," he said grimly. "Blossom air right. Ther stuff'll ruin me."

Resolutely he turned his back and stood facing the woods, listening to
the drip of drenched leafage. Through raw hours he struggled with his
appetite. Each time that he went back to throw fresh faggots on the
fire he moved warily around the bucket, seeking to keep his eyes
averted, but each time his gaze came back to it, and rested there
thirstily.

Twice as his watch drew near its end he dipped the cup into the pail
only to spill back the contents again, almost wildly, watching the thin
trickle; and greedily sniffing its sweetish invitation of odor. Once
the rim met his lips and the taste touched his tongue, but he violently
spat it out and wiped his lips on the sleeve of his shirt.

"Hits ther devil's holy water," he murmured to himself. "Thet's what
Brother Fulkerson says--an' I reckon he's right."

The evening star always reminded him of Blossom. He thought of it as
her star, and upon it, as upon her own face, he kept his eyes fixed for
encouragement as his spirit's resistance waned in the mounting tide of
exhaustion. But when even that beacon was gone behind the mountain-top
he felt the despair of one whose last ally has abandoned him to face
travail unsupported.

He fell back on his dreams; dreams of what Lincoln had faced and
conquered; of what he, too, might achieve. But now he could see them
only dispiritedly as hollow shapes; misty things without hope or
substance. That bucket now--a sip from it would rehabilitate them, give
them at least the semblance of attainability. There lay relief from
despair!

His mind flashed back to his father's rebuke and his answer: "Ye says I
lay drunk. Thet's true an' hit's a shameful thing fer a man ter
admit.... But hit's a thing I've got ter fight out fer myself."

A great indignation against his father's misunderstanding possessed
him. He must fight in his own way! Even Blossom had only asked him not
to drink "too much."

When it needed only an hour more for the coming of dawn, his face grew
darkly sullen.

"Hit's hell thet I've got ter spend my whole life a-brewin' ther stuff
ergin my will--takin' chances of ther jail-house fer hit--an' yit I
kain't have a drink when I'm wet ter ther bone," he growled.

Going as if drawn by a power stronger than his own volition, he moved
balkingly yet with inevitable progress once more to the bucket. He half
filled the cup--raised it--and this time gulped it down greedily and
recklessly to the bottom.

Immediately his chilled veins began to glow with an ardent
gratefulness. The stars seemed brighter and the little voices of the
night became sweeter. The iron-bound gates of imagination swung wide to
a pageantry of dreams, and as he crouched in the reeking underbrush, he
half forgot his discontent.

Repeatedly he dipped and drained the cup. He was still on duty, but now
he watched with a diminished vigilance. Gradually his senses became
more blunt. The waking dreams were vaguer, too, and more absurd.

He still tended the fire under the kettle--but he laughed scornfully at
the foolish need of keeping his face always in the shadow. Then
suddenly he dropped down close to the dark earth, let the cup splash
into the bucket, and thrust forward his rifle.

His ears had caught a sound which might have been a raccoon stirring in
the brush--or a fox slipping covertly through the fallen hemlock top.

But there was no repetition, so he laughed again and with the first
pallid hint of dawn on the ridges he shook the shoulder of his sleeping
companion. Then he himself sank down in the heavy torpor of exhaustion
and drunkenness.

At the same time, because it would soon be light, the living creature
which had made the sound began creeping away, and in doing so it
avoided any other alarms. It was the figure of a man who had learned
what he came there to determine.

When Lone Stacy plodded up to his still-house some hours later, he
exchanged nods with the squat mountaineer whom he found waiting.

"Whar's Turner?" was his brief inquiry and the reply matched it in
taciturnity. "In thar--a-layin' drunk."

The father went over and looked scowlingly down at the prostrate figure
stretched awkwardly in open-mouthed stupor.

"I reckon," he announced succinctly, "thar hain't nothin' fer hit but
ter suffer him ter sleep hit off."

With the toe of his boot Lone Stacy stirred the insensate body which
sprawled there; all its youthful vitality stilled into grotesque
stagnation. But when the hired man, Lee, was out of sight the bearded
face twitched with a spasm of distress.

Its eyes traveled in a silent pathos from the sight of sagging jaw and
hunched shoulders to the unresponsive majesty of the calm hills as if
beseeching comfort there. In his only son's spirit had seemed to burn a
fire of promise which even he could not understand. Was that fire to be
quenched into the stale ashes of habitual drunkenness?

A groan rumbled in his throat.

Yet, had he remembered his Scriptures, Samson, the Mighty, had
surrendered in his moment of weakness to the allurements and the shears
of Delilah! Afterward, he had pulled down the pillars of the temple.

These hills that had stood upright in days when the Alps and the
Himalayas had not yet stirred in conception, looked down placid, and
unsympathetic. Perhaps the eternal spirit of the range was not ashamed
of this erring child, asleep on its bosom. Perhaps, cognizant alike of
tempest and calm, it recognized this son's kinship with itself. The
prophecy which dwells in the immemorial may have foreseen gathering
powers of hurricane and might, which should some day make him rise,
above lesser summits. Possibly as he slept the great, silent voices
were crooning a lullaby over offspring destined for mastery.

                 *       *       *       *       *

When Ratler Webb had turned away from the tub-mill his brain was still
half stunned from the jarring punishment of battle. He was thoroughly
conscious only of deep chagrin and a gnawing hunger for reprisal.

From childhood he retained no tender memories.

There was no one upon whom he had a claim of blood, and neighborhood
report had not let him forget that he was a woodscolt. In hill parlance
a woodscolt signifies one whose birth has been sanctioned by no prior
rites of matrimony.

Since he could remember he had existed only by virtue of the same
predatory boldness which gives the lean razor-back strength and innate
craftiness to live.

Just now his whole abundant capacity for hatred was centered on Bear
Cat Stacy, yet since Bear Cat's kinsmen peopled every creek and
spring-branch of this country he could not be casually murdered.

Any word slipped to the ear of the revenue man might be traced back to
him and after that he could no longer live among his native hills.
Still, he reflected as he slowly rubbed his fingers along his uneven
nose, time brings changes and chances. The possession of definite
evidence against his enemy might some day bear fruit.

So Ratler did not ride home after his encounter at the mill. He took
refuge instead in an abandoned cabin of which he knew, strategically
located within a mile of the place where he had surmised the Stacy
family were making illicit whiskey. While the storm raged, threatening
to bring down the sagging roof timbers about his ears, he sat before
its dead and ruined hearth, entertaining bitter thoughts.

Between midnight and dawn he stepped over the broken threshold and
began his reconnaissance. For two hours he crouched, wet and cramped,
in the laurel near enough to throw a stone against the kettle of the
primitive distillery--waiting for that moment of relaxed vigilance,
when the figure that moved in the shadows should permit a ray from the
fire to fall upon its features.

When dawn had almost come his vigil was rewarded and he had turned away
again.

Blossom Fulkerson knew none of these things at noon of the day
following the fight at the mill when, in the road, she encountered Lone
Stacy making his way back to his house for his midday dinner, but as
the old man stopped and nodded she read trouble in his eyes.

"Air ye worrited about somethin', Mr. Stacy?" she demanded, and for a
little space the man stood hesitantly silent.

At last he hazarded, "Little gal, thar's a thing I'd like ter name ter
ye. I reckon if anybody kin holp me hit mout be you."

The girl's eyes lighted with an instinctive sympathy--then shadowed
with a premonition of what was coming.

"Is hit--about--Turner?"

The father nodded his head gravely. His eyes wore the harassed disquiet
of a problem for which he knew no solution.

"Does ye mean thet he's--he's----" She broke off abruptly and Lone
Stacy answered her with unrelieved bluntness.

"He's a-layin' up thar drunk ergin, an' he's got a gash on one shoulder
thet's powder burned. I reckon he's been engagin' in some manner of
ruction."

For a moment the girl did not speak, but her cheeks paled and tears
swam abruptly in her eyes. She raised one hand and brushed them
fiercely away.

She had awakened this morning with a new and unaccountable happiness in
her heart. In all the lilt and sparkle of the world and all the
tunefulness of the young summer there had seemed a direct message to
herself. In her memory she had been hearing afresh the crude but
impassioned eloquence with which the boy had talked to her yesterday.
Now he lay up there at the distillery in the heavy sleep of the
drunkard.

"Ther boy's all I've got," announced Lone Stacy with an unaccustomed
break in his voice. "I reckon mebby ef I hadn't been so harsh I mout
hev more influence with him." Then he turned abruptly on his heel and
trudged on.

Blossom Fulkerson slipped into the woods and came to a sun-flecked
amphitheater of rock and rhododendron where the ferns grew lush and
tall, by the sparkle of water. There she sank down and covered her face
with her hands. Her sobs shook her for a while, and then washing the
tears away, she knelt and prayed with a passionate simplicity.

Sometimes she lifted a pale face and her lips twisted themselves
pathetically in the earnestness of her prayer.

The Almighty to Whom she made her plea, and Who knew everything, must
know, even as she knew, that Turner Stacy was not like those rowdy
youths who habitually disgraced the hills. That occasional smile which
lurked with its inherent sweetness under his affected sullenness must
mean _something_.

Turner had always been her willing vassal, and "sometime" she had
supposed, though hitherto that had always seemed a vaguely distant
matter like the purple haze on the horizon, they would be avowed
sweethearts.

Yesterday, though, as she walked back from the meeting on the ridge it
had seemed as if she had spent a moment in that languourous land where
the far mists drouse,--and yet the glamour had not faded. She hadn't
sought to analyze then, she had only felt a new thrill in her heart as
she instinctively broke clusters of pink-hearted bloom from the laurel.

She left the woods after a while and as she came out again to the high
road, she heard a voice raised in the high-pitched, almost falsetto,
minors of mountain minstrelsy.

It was not a pleasing voice, nor was the ballad a cheery one. As for
the singer himself, the twisting of the way still concealed him from
view, so that his song proclaimed him like a herald in advance.

    "He stobbed her to ther heart an' she fell with a groan.
    He threw a leetle dirt _ov_-er her, an' started fer home,"

wailed the dolorous voice of the traveler. There was a splashing of
hoofs in shallow water, then a continuation

    "His debt ter ther devil now William must pay,
    Fer he fell down an' died afore break of day."

Thus announced, a mule plodded shortly into sight, and upon his back,
perching sidewise, sat a tow-headed lout of a boy with staring, vacant
eyes and a mouth which hung open, even when he desisted from song.

With an access of callow diffidence he halted his mount at sight of
Blossom, staring with a nod and a bashful "Howdy."

"Howdy, Leander," accosted the girl. "How's all your folks?"

Leander White, of Crowfoot Branch, aged fifteen, gulped twice with
prodigious and spasmodic play of his adam's apple, before he eventually
commanded voice to reply:

"They're all well.... I'm obleeged ... ter ye." Then, however,
reassured by the cordial smile on the lips of Blossom Fulkerson, his
power of speech and his hunger for gossip returned to him in unison.

"But old Aunt Lucy Hutton, over acrost ther branch, she fell down
yistiddy an' broke a bone inside of her, though."

"Did she?" demanded the girl, readily sympathetic, and Leander, thus
given sanction as a purveyor of tidings, nodded and gathered
confidence. "Huh-huh, an' Revenuers raided Joe Simmons's still-house on
ther headwaters of Skinflint an' cyarried off a _beau_tiful piece o'
copper--atter they'd punched hit full o' holes."

"Revenuers!" Into the girl's voice now came a note of anxiety.

"Huh-huh, revenuers. Folks says they're gittin' bodaciously pesky these
days."

"Ye ain't--ye ain't seen none of 'em yourself, have ye, Leander?" The
question came a bit breathlessly and the boy forgot his bashfulness as
he expanded with the importance of his traveler's tales.

"Not to know 'em fer sich," he admitted, "but I met up with a furriner
a few leagues back along ther highway. He was broguein' along mighty
brash on his own two feet. La! But he was an elegant party ter be
a-ridin' on shoe-leather, though!"

"What manner of furriner was he, Leander?" demanded Blossom with a
clutch of fright at her heart, but the boy shook his head stupidly.

"Wa'al he was jest a feller from down below. Ter tell hit proper, I
didn't hev much speech with him. We jest met an' made our manners an'
went our ways. He 'lowed ter go ter Lone Stacy's house."

"Lone Stacy's house," echoed the girl faintly.

"Reckon' I'll be a-ridin' on," drawled the young horseman nonchalantly.
"Reckon I've done told ye all ther tidings I knows."

Blossom stood, for a while, rooted where he had left her, listening to
the splash of the mule's feet along the creek. If a prying eye should
discover the Stacy still to-day it would find not only "a beautiful
piece of copper" but Bear Cat lying there incapacitated and helpless!

Her heart missed its beat at the thought. The hills seemed to close in
on her stiflingly with all their age-old oppression of fears and
impending tragedies, and she sat down by the roadside to think it out.
What should she do?

After a while she saw the tall figure of the elder Stacy climbing the
mountainside, but he was taking a short cut--and would not come within
hailing distance. Her eye, trained to read indications, noted that a
rifle swung in his right hand.

Bitterly she had been taught by her father to resent the illicit
business to which Turner's service was grudgingly given. But above all
ethical hatred of law-breaking rose the very present danger to Turner
himself. Laws were abstract things and Turner was Turner!

There was only one answer. She must watch and, if need arose, give
warning.

Just where the brook that trickled down from the still gushed out to
the creek and the road which followed its course, lay a steeply sloping
field of young corn. Along its back grew rows of "shuckybeans," and
here Blossom took her station for her self-appointed task of sentry
duty.



CHAPTER V


Jerry Henderson had lost his way.

Aching muscles protested the extra miles because back there at Marlin
Town he had been advised to cross Cedar Mountain on foot.

"Unless they suspicions ye, 'most any man'll contrive ter take ye in
an' enjoy ye somehow," his counselors had pointed out. "But thar's
heaps of them pore fam'lies over thar thet hain't got feed fer a ridin'
critter noways."

Now Cedar Mountain is not, as its name mendaciously implies, a single
peak but a chain that crawls, zig-zag as herringbone, for more than a
hundred miles with few crossings which wheels can follow.

It is a wall twenty-five hundred feet high, separating the world from
"back of beyond." Having scaled it since breakfast, Jerry Henderson was
tired.

He was tanned and toughened like saddle-leather. He was broad of
shoulder, narrow of thigh, and possessed of a good, resolute brow and a
straight-cut jaw. His eyes were keen with intelligence and sufficiently
cool with boldness.

Arriving at a narrow thread of clear water which came singing out at
the edge of a corn-field, his eyes lighted with satisfaction. Tilled
ground presumably denoted the proximity of a human habitation where
questions could be answered.

So he stood, searching the forested landscape for a thread of smoke or
a roof, and as he did so he perceived a movement at the edge of the
field where the stalks had grown higher than the average and merged
with the confusion of the thicket.

Jerry turned and began making his way along the edge of the patch,
respecting the corn rows by holding close to the tangle at the margin.
Then suddenly with a rustling of the shrubbery as startling as the
sound with which a covey of quail rises from nowhere, a figure stepped
into sight and the stranger halted in an astonishment which, had
Blossom Fulkerson realized it, was the purest form of flattery.

He had seen many women and girls working in the fields as he had come
along the way and most of them had been heavy of feature and slovenly
of dress. Here was one who might have been the spirit of the hills
themselves in bloom; one who suggested kinship with the free skies and
the sunlit foliage.

With frank delight in the astonishing vision, Jerry Henderson stood
there, his feet well apart, his pack still on his shoulders and his
lips parted in a smile of greeting and friendliness.

"Howdy," he said, but the girl remained motionless, vouchsafing no
response.

"I'm a stranger in these parts," he volunteered easily, using the
vernacular of the hills, "and I've strayed off my course. I was aiming
to go to Lone Stacy's dwelling-house."

Still she remained statuesque and voiceless, so the man went on: "Can
you set me right? There seems to be a sort of a path here. Does it lead
anywhere in particular?"

He took a step nearer and eased his pack to the ground among the briars
of the blackberry bushes.

Abruptly, as if to bar his threatened progress, Blossom moved a little
to the side, obstructing the path. Into her eyes leaped a flame of
Amazonian hostility and her hands clenched themselves tautly at her
sides. Her lips parted and from her throat came a long, mellow cry not
unlike the yodle of the Tyrol. It echoed through the timber and died
away--and again she stood confronting him--wordless!

"I didn't mean to startle you," he declared reassuringly, "I only
wanted information."

Again the far-carrying but musical shout was sent through the quiet of
the forest--his only answer.

"Since you won't answer my questions," said Jerry Henderson, irritated
into capriciousness, "I think I'll see for myself where this trail
leads."

Instantly, then, she planted herself before him, with a violently
heaving bosom and a wrathful quivering of her delicate nostrils, Her
challenge broke tensely from her lips with a note of unyielding
defiance.

"Ye can't pass hyar!"

"So you _can_ talk, after all," he observed coolly. "It's a help to
learn that much at all events."

He had chanced on a path, he realized, which some moonshiner preferred
keeping closed and the girl had been stationed there as a human
declaration, "no thoroughfare."

Still he stood where he was and presently he had the result of his
waiting.

A deep, masculine voice, unmistakable in the peremptoriness of its
command, sounded from the massed tangle of the hillside. It expressed
itself in the single word "Begone!" and Henderson was not fool enough
to search the underbrush for an identifying glimpse of his challenger.

"My name is Jerry Henderson and I was seeking to be shown my way," he
said quietly, keeping his eyes, as he spoke, studiously on the face of
the girl.

"Begone! I'm a-warnin' ye fa'r. Begone!"

The wayfarer shrugged his shoulders. Debate seemed impracticable, but
his annoyance was not lessened as he recognized in the clear eyes of
the young woman a half-suppressed mockery of scorn and triumph.

Henderson stooped and hefted his pack again to his shoulders, adjusting
it deliberately. If it must be retreat, he wished at least to retire
with the honors of war. The girl's expression had piqued him into
irascibility.

"I'd heard tell that folks hereabouts were civil to strangers," he
announced bluntly. "And I don't give a damn about whatever secret
you're bent on hiding from me."

Then he turned on his heel and started, not rapidly but with a
leisurely stride to the road. He seemed to feel the eyes of the girl
following him as he went, and his spirit of resentment prompted an act
of mild bravado as he halted by the rotten line of fence and
unhurriedly tightened the lace of a boot.

"Hasten!" barked the warning voice from the laurel, but Henderson did
not hasten. He acknowledged the disquieting surmise of a rifle trained
on him from the dense cover, but he neither looked back nor altered his
pace. Then he heard a gun bark from the shrubbery and a bullet zip as
it found its billet in a tree trunk above his head, but that he had
expected. It was merely a demonstration in warning--not an attempt on
his life. As long as he kept on his way, he believed hostilities would
go no further.

Without venturing to use his eyes, he let his ears do their best, and a
satirical smile came to his lips as he heard a low, half-smothered
scream of fright break from the lips of the girl whom he could no
longer see.

And, had he been able to study the golden-brown eyes just then, he
would have been even more compensated, for into them crept a slow light
of admiration and astonished interest.

"He ain't nobody's coward anyways," she murmured as the figure of the
unknown man swung out of sight around the bend, and some thought of the
same sort passed through the mind of the elderly man in the thicket,
bringing a grim but not an altogether humorless smile to his lips.

"Wa'al, I run him off," he mused, "but I didn't hardly run him no-ways
_hard_!"

Jerry Henderson had borne credentials from Uncle Israel Calvert who
kept a store on Big Ivy, and he had been everywhere told that once
Uncle Billy had viséd his passports, he would need no further
safe-conduct.

In the encounter at the cornfield there had been no opportunity to show
that bill of health and it was only after an hour spent in walking the
wrong way, that its possessor met the next person to whom he could put
questions. Then he learned that "Lone Stacy dwelt in a sizeable house
over on Little Slippery,"--but that he had strayed so far from the true
course that now he must climb a mountain or take a detour and that in
either event he would have to hasten to arrive there before nightfall.

So the shadows were lengthening when he turned into the course of what
must be "Little Slippery"--and came face to face with two men of
generous stature, one elderly and the other youthful. He noted that the
older of these men carried a rifle on his shoulder and was conscious of
a piercing scrutiny from both pairs of eyes.

"I'm seeking Lone Stacy," began Henderson, and the older face darkened
into a momentary scowl of animosity, with the coming of the curt reply:

"Thet's my name."

The traveler gave a violent start of astonishment. It was a
deep-chested voice which, once heard, was not to be confused with other
voices, and Jerry Henderson had heard it not many hours before raised
in stentorian warning from the depth of the thickets. But promptly he
recovered his poise and smiled.

"I have a piece of paper here," he said, "from Uncle Israel Calvert. He
said that if he vouched for me you would be satisfied."

As Lone Stacy accepted the proffered note with his left hand he passed
his rifle to the younger man with his right, and even then he held the
sheet unopened for a space while his serious gaze swept the stranger
slowly from head to foot in challenging appraisal.

He read slowly, with the knitted brows of the unscholastic, and as he
did so the youth kept his eye on Henderson's face--and his finger on
the trigger.

Having seen the boy's face, Henderson found it hard to shift his glance
elsewhere. He had encountered many mountain faces that were sinister
and vindictive--almost malign, but it was not the unyielding challenge
which arrested him now. It was something far more individual and
impressive. There are eyes that reflect light with the quicksilver
responsiveness of mirrors. There are others, though more rare, which
shine from an inner fire.

Bear Cat Stacy's held the golden, unresting flame that one encounters
in the tawny iris of a captive lion or eagle. Such eyes in a human face
mean something and it is something which leads their possessor to the
gallows or the throne. They are heralds of a spirit untameable and
invincible; of the will to rend or rebuild.

Henderson found himself thinking of volcanoes which are latent but not
extinct. It was a first glimpse, but if he never again saw this boy,
who stood there measuring him with cool deliberation, he would always
remember him as one remembers the few instantly convincing
personalities one has brushed in walking through life.

But when Lone Stacy had finished his perusal, the nod of his head was
an assurance of dissipated doubt. There was even a grave sort of
courtesy in his manner now, as he announced:

"Thet's good enough fer me. If Uncle Israel vouches fer ye, ye're
welcome. He says hyar 'ther bearer is trustworthy'--but he don't say
who ye air. Ye said yore name war Jerry Henderson, didn't ye?"

"That _is_ my name," assented the newcomer, once more astonished. "But
I didn't realize I'd told it yet."

With an outright scorn for subterfuge the older man replied, "I reckon
thar hain't no profit in a-beatin' ther devil round ther stump. You've
heered my voice afore--an' I've seed yore face. Ye tole me yore name
back thar--in ther la'rel, didn't ye?"

Henderson bowed. "I _did_ recognize your voice, but I didn't aim to
speak of it--unless you did."

"When I says that I trusts a man," the moonshiner spoke with an
unambiguous quietness of force, "I means what I says an' takes my
chances accordin'. Ef a man betrays my confidence--" he paused just an
instant then added pointedly--"he takes _his_ chances. What did ye 'low
yore business war, hyarabouts, Mr. Henderson?"

"I mean to explain that to you in due time, Mr. Stacy, but just now it
takes fewer words to say what's _not_ my business."

"Wall then, what _hain't_ yore business?"

"Other people's business."

"Wa'al so far as hit goes thet's straight talk. I favors outright
speech myself an' ye don't seem none mealy-mouthed. Ye talks right fer
yoreself--like a mountain man."

"You see," said Henderson calmly, "I _am_ a mountain man even if I've
dwelt down below for some years."

"You--a mountain man?" echoed the bearded giant in bewilderment and the
visitor nodded.

"Ever hear of Torment Henderson?" he inquired.

"Colonel Torment Henderson! Why, hell's fiddle, man, my daddy sarved
under him in ther war over slavery! I was raised upon stories of how he
tuck thet thar name of 'Torment' in battle."

"He was my grandpap," the stranger announced, dropping easily into the
phrases of the country.

"Mr. Henderson," said the old man, drawing himself up a trifle
straighter, "we're pore folks, but we're proud ter hev ye enjoy what
little we've got. This hyar's my son, Turner Stacy."

Then Bear Cat spoke for the first time. "I reckon ye be leg-weary, Mr.
Henderson. I'll fotch yore contraptions ter ther house."

There remained to the splendidly resilient powers of Bear Cat's
physical endowment no trace of last night's debauch except that
invisible aftermath of desperate chagrin and mortification. As he
lifted the pack which Henderson had put down something like admiring
wonderment awoke in him. Here was a man born like himself in the hills,
reared in crude places, who yet bore himself with the air of one
familiar with the world, and who spoke with the fluency of education.

As the wearied traveler trudged along with his two hosts, he had
glowing before his eyes the final fires of sunset over hills that grew
awesomely somber and majestic under the radiance of gold and ash of
rose. Then they reached a gate, where a horse stood hitched, and before
them bulked the dark shape of a house whose open door was a yellow slab
of lamplight.

From the porch as they came up, rose a gray figure in the neutrality of
the dying light; a man with a patriarchal beard that fell over his
breast and an upper lip clean shaven, like a Mormon elder. Even in that
dimness a rude dignity seemed inherent to this man and as Henderson
glanced at him he heard Lone Stacy declaring, "Brother Fulkerson, ye're
welcome. This hyar is Mr. Henderson." Then turning to the guest, the
householder explained. "Brother Fulkerson air ther preacher of God's
Word hyarabouts. He's a friend ter every Christian an' a mighty
wrastler with sin."

As the stranger acknowledged this presentation he glanced up and,
standing in the light from the door, found himself face to face with
yet another figure; the figure of a girl who was silhouetted there in
profile, for the moment seemingly frozen motionless by astonishment.
Her face was flooded with the pinkness of a deep blush, and her slender
beauty was as undeniable as an axiom.

Lone Stacy turned with an amused laugh, "An' this, Mr. Henderson," he
went on, "air Brother Fulkerson's gal, Blossom. I reckon ye two hev met
afore--albeit ye didn't, in a way of speakin', make yore manners ther
fust time."

Blossom bowed, then she laughed shyly but with a delicious quality of
music in her voice.

"I reckon ye 'lowed I didn't know nothin'--I mean anything--about
manners, Mr. Henderson," she confessed and the man hastily assured her:

"I 'lowed that you were splendidly loyal--to somebody."

As he spoke he saw Bear Cat at his elbow, his eyes fixed on the girl
with a wordless appeal of contrition and devotion, and he thought he
understood.

"Howdy, Blossom," murmured Turner, and the girl's chin came up. Her
voice seemed to excommunicate him as she replied briefly: "Howdy,
Turner."

This was a lover's quarrel, surmised Henderson and discreetly he turned
again to the host, but, even so, he saw Turner step swiftly forward and
raise his hands. His lips were parted and his eyes full of
supplication, but he did not speak. He only let his arms fall and
turned away with a face of stricken misery.

Blossom knew about last night, reflected Bear Cat. He was, as he
deserved to be, in disgrace.

Then as the girl stood looking off into the gathering darkness her own
face filled wistfully with pain and the boy, dropping to a seat on the
floor of the porch, watched her covertly with sidewise glances.

"Blossom met me down ther road," observed the minister, "an' named ter
me thet she hed----" He paused, casting a dubious glance at the
stranger, and Lone Stacy interrupted: "She named ter ye thet she stood
guard at ther still an' warned Mr. Henderson off?"

Brother Fulkerson nodded gravely. "I was a little mite troubled in my
mind lest she'd put herself in jeopardy of the law. Thet's why I
lighted down an' hitched hyar: ter hev speech with ye."

"Ye needn't worrit yoreself none, Brother Fulkerson," reassured the
host. "Mr. Henderson comes vouched fer by Uncle Israel."

The preacher sat for a space silent and when he next spoke it was still
with a remnant of misgiving in his tone.

"I don't aim to go about crossin' good men and a-cavilin' with thar
opinions," he began apologetically. "Like as not heaps of 'em air
godlier men than me, but I holds it to be my duty to speak out free."
Again he paused and cast a questioning glance at his host as though in
deference to the hospitality of the roof, and the tall mountaineer,
standing beside the post of his porch, nodded assent with equal
gravity.

"Talk right fer yoreself, Brother Fulkerson. I don't never aim ter
muzzle no man's speech."

"Waal, this day I've rid some twenty miles acrost high ridges and down
inter shadowy valleys, I've done traversed some places thet war
powerful wild an' laurely. Wharsoever God's work calls me, I'm obleeged
ter go, but I raised my voice in song as I fared along amongst them
thickets, lest some man thet I couldn't see; some man a-layin' on
watch, mout suspicion I was seekin' ter discover somethin' he aimed ter
keep hid--jest as ye suspicioned Mr. Henderson, hyar."

Lone Stacy stroked his beard.

"I reckon thet war ther wisest way, Brother Fulkerson, unless every man
over thar knowed ye."

"I reckon God likes ther songs of his birds better," declared the
preacher, "then ther song of a man thet _hes_ ter sing ter protect his
own life. I reckon no country won't ever prosper mightily, whilst hit's
a land of hidin' out with rifle-guns in ther laurel."

There was no wrath in the eyes of the host as he listened to his
guest's indictment or the voice of thrilling earnestness in which it
was delivered. He only raised one hand and pointed upward where a
mighty shoulder of mountain rose hulking through the twilight. Near its
top one could just make out the thread-like whiteness of a new fence
line.

"Yonder's my corn patch," he said. "When I cl'ared hit an' grubbed hit
out my neighbors all came ter ther workin' an' amongst us we toiled
thar from sun-up twell one o'clock at night--daylight an' moonlight. On
thet patch I kin raise me two or three master crops o' corn an' atter
_thet_ hit won't hardly raise rag weeds! A bushel o' thet corn, sledded
over ter ther nighest store fotches in mebby forty cents. But thar's
two gallons of licker in hit an' _thet's_ wuth money. Who's a-goin' ter
deny me ther rightful license ter do hit?"

"Ther Law denies ye," replied the preacher gravely, but without
acerbity.

"Thar's things thet's erginst ther law," announced the old man with a
swift gathering of fierceness in his tone, "an' thar's things thet's
_above_ ther law. A criminal is a man thet's done befouled his own
self-respect. I hain't never done thet an' I hain't no criminal. What
do _you_ think, Mr. Henderson?"

Henderson had no wish to be drawn, so soon, into any conflict of local
opinion, yet he realized that a candid reply was expected.

"My opinion is that of theory only," he responded seriously. "But I
agree with Brother Fulkerson. A community with secrets to hide is a
hermit community--and one of the strangers that is frightened away--is
Prosperity."

Bear Cat Stacy, brooding silently in his place, looked suddenly up.
Hitherto he had seen only the sweet wistfulness of Blossom's eyes. Now
he remembered the words of the old miller.

"Some day a mountain man will rise up as steadfast as the hills he
sprung from--an' he'll change hit all like ther sun changes fog!"
Perhaps Turner Stacy was ripe for hero-worship.

Over the mountain top appeared the beacon of the evening star--luminous
but pale. As if saluting it the timber became wistful with the call of
whippoorwills and fireflies began to flit against the sooty curtain of
night.

Something stirred in the boy, as though the freshening breeze brought
the new message of an awakening. Here was the talk of wise men,
concurring with the voices of his dreams! But at that moment his mother
appeared in the doorway and announced

"You men kin come in an' _eat_, now."



CHAPTER VI


In former days an Appalachian tavern was a "quarter-house"; a hostelry
where one paid a quarter for one's bed and a quarter, each, for meals.
Now the term has fallen into such disuse as to be no longer generic,
but locally it survived with a meaning both specific and malodorous.
The press of Kentucky and Virginia had used it often, coupled with
lurid stories of blood-lettings and orgies; linking with it always the
name of its proprietor, Kinnard Towers.

How could such things go on in the twentieth century? questioned the
readers of these news columns, forgetting that this ramparted isolation
lives not in the twentieth century but still in the eighteenth; that
its people who have never seen salt water still sing the ballads of
Walter Raleigh's sea-rovers, and that from their lips still fall, warm
with every-day usage, the colloquialisms of Chaucer and of Piers the
Ploughman.

The Quarterhouse stood in a cleft where the mountains had been riven.
Its front door opened into Virginia and its rear door gave into
Kentucky. Across the puncheon floor was humorously painted a stripe of
whitewash, as constantly renewed as the markings of a well-kept tennis
court--and that line was a state boundary.

Hither flocked refugees from the justice of two states, and if a
suddenly materializing sheriff confronted his quarry in the room where
each day and each night foregathered the wildest spirits of a wild
land, the hounded culprit had only to cross that white line and stand
upon his lawful demand for extradition papers. Here, therefore, the
hunted foxes of the law ran to ground. The man who presided as
proprietor was a power to be feared, admired, hated as individual
circumstance dictated, but in any case one whose wrath was not to be
advisedly stirred.

He had found it possible to become wealthy in a land where such
achievement involves battening on poverty. Cruel--suave;
predatory--charitable, he had taken life by his own hand and that of
the hireling, but also he had, in famine-times, succored the poor.

He had, in short, awed local courts and intimidated juries of the
vicinage until he seemed beyond the law, and until office-holders wore
his collar.

Kinnard Towers was floridly blond of coloring, mild of eye and urbanely
soft-spoken of voice.

Once, almost two decades ago, while the feud was still eruptive, it had
seemed advisable to him to have Lone Stacy done to death, and to that
end he had bargained with Black Tom Carmichael.

Black Tom had been provided with a double-barreled gun, loaded with
buckshot, and placed in a thicket which, at the appointed hour, the
intended victim must pass. But it had chanced that fate intervened. On
that day Lone Stacy had carried in his arms his baby son, Turner Stacy,
and, seeing the child, Black Tom had faltered.

Later in the seclusion of a room over the Quarterhouse, the employer
had wrathfully taken his churl to task.

"Wa'al, why didn't ye git him?" was the truculent interrogation. "He
passed by close enough fer ye ter hit him with a rock."

"He was totin' his baby," apologized the designated assassin
shamefacedly, yet with a sullen obstinacy, "I was only hired ter kill a
growed-up man. Ef ye'd a-give me a rifle-gun like I asked ye 'stid of a
scatter-gun I could've got him through his damned head an' not harmed
ther child none. Thet's why I held my hand."

Kinnard Towers had scornfully questioned: "What makes ye so tormentin'
mincy erbout ther kid? Don't ye know full well thet when he grows up
we'll have ter git _him_, too? Howsoever next time I'll give ye a
rifle-gun."

Like all unlettered folk the mountaineer is deeply superstitious and
prone to believe in portents and wonders. Often, though he can never be
brought to confess it he gives credence to tales of sorcery and
witchcraft.

Turner Stacy was from his birth a "survigrous" child, and he was born
on the day of the eclipse. As he came into the world the sun was
darkened. Immediately after that a sudden tempest broke which tore the
forests to tatters, awoke quiet brooks to swirling torrents, unroofed
houses and took its toll of human life. Even in after years when men
spoke of the "big storm" they always alluded to _that_ one.

An old crone who was accounted able to read fortunes and work charms
announced that Turner Stacy came into life on the wings of that storm,
and that the sun darkened its face because his birth savored of the
supernatural. This being so, she said, he was immune from any harm of
man's devising. Her absurd story was told and retold around many a
smoky cabin hearth, and there were those who accorded it an unconfessed
credence.

Later Black Tom was given a rifle and again stationed in ambush. Again
Lone Stacy, favored by chance, carried his baby son in his arms. Black
Tom, whose conscience had never before impeded his action, continued to
gaze over his gun-sights--without pressing the trigger.

Towers was furious, but Carmichael could only shake his head in a
frightened bewilderment, as if he had seen a ghost.

"Ther brat looked at me jest as I was about to fire," he protested.
"His eyes didn't look like a human bein's. He hain't no baby--he was
born a man--or somethin' more then a man."

As affairs developed, the truce was arranged soon afterward, and also
the marked man's death became unnecessary, because he was safe in
prison on a charge of moonshining.

Neither Lone Stacy nor his son had ever known of this occurrence, and
now the Stacys and the Towers met on the road and "made their manners"
without gun-play.

But to Kinnard Towers local happenings remained vital and, for all his
crudity, few things of topical interest occurred of which he was not
duly apprised.

Into his dwelling place came one day the Honorable Abraham Towers, his
nephew, who sat in the state Legislature at Frankfort. The two were
closeted together for an hour and as the nephew emerged, at the end of
the interview, Kinnard walked with him to the hitching-post where the
visitor's horse stood tethered.

"I'm obleeged ter ye, Abe," he said graciously. "When this man
Henderson gits hyar, I'll make hit a point ter hev casual speech with
him. I aims ter l'arn his business, an' ef what ye suspicions air true,
he'll have dealin's with me--or else he won't hardly succeed."

So it happened logically enough that on the evening of Jerry's arrival,
Kinnard Towers mounted and started out over the hill trails. He rode,
as he always did when he went far abroad, under armed escort since
tyrants are never secure. Four rifle-equipped vassals accompanied him;
two riding as advance guard and two protecting the rear.

Kinnard's destination was the house of Lone Stacy on Little Slippery, a
house whose threshold he could not, in the old days, have crossed
without blood-letting; but these were the days of peace.

Arriving, he did not go direct to the door and knock, but discreetly
halting in the highway, lifted his voice and shouted aloud, "Halloo!
I'm Kinnard Towers an' I'm a-comin' in."

The door was thrown promptly open and Lone Stacy appeared, framed
between threshold and lintel, holding a lamp aloft and offering
welcome.

"Gentlemen," said the host in a matter-of-fact voice, "ef you'll excuse
me, I'll rest yore guns."

Then in observance of a quaint and ancient ceremonial, each armed
guardian passed in, surrendering his rifle at the threshold. In
retarded Appalachia so runs the rule. To fail in its fulfilment is to
express distrust for the honesty and ability of the householder to
protect his guests, and such an implication constitutes a grave
discourtesy.

Inside a fire roared on the hearth, for even in June, the mountain
nights are raw.

Henderson, watching the small cavalcade troop in, smiled inwardly. He
was not unmindful of the identity or the power of this modern baron,
and he was not without suspicion that he himself was the cause of the
visit.

"I chanced ter be farin' by, Lone," Kinnard Towers enlightened his host
easily, "an' I 'lowed I'd light down an' rest a little spell."

"Ye're welcome," was the simple reply. "Draw up ter ther fire an' set
ye a cheer."

The talk lingered for a space on neighborhood topics, but the host had
found time, between hearing the shout outside and replying to it, to
say in a low voice to his guest: "I reckon atter Kinnard Towers comes
in we won't talk no more erbout my still--jest stills in gin'ral," and
that caution was religiously observed.

The kitchen tasks had been finished now and while the men sat close to
the smoking hearth the faces of the women looked on from the shadowed
corners of the room, where they sat half obscured upon the huge
four-poster beds.

The man who had crossed Cedar Mountain lighted his pipe from the bed of
coals and then, straightening up, he stood on the hearth where his eyes
could take in the whole semicircle of listening faces. They were eyes
that, for all their seeming of a theorist's engrossment, missed little.

This house might have been a pioneer abode of two hundred years ago,
standing unamended by the whole swelling tide of modernity that had
passed it by untouched.

The leaping blaze glittered on the metal of polished rifles stacked in
a corner, and on two others hanging against the smoke-dimmed logs of
the walls. Red pods of peppers and brown leaves of tobacco were strung
along the rafters. Hardly defined of shape against one shadowy wall,
stood a spinning wheel.

Henderson knew that the room was pregnant with the conflict of human
elements. He realized that he himself faced possibilities which made
his mission here a thing of delicate manipulation; even of personal
danger.

The blond man with the heavy neck, who sat contemplatively chewing at
the stem of an unlighted pipe, listened in silence. He hardly seemed
interested, but Henderson recognized him for the sponsor and
beneficiary of lawlessness. He more than any other would be the logical
foe to a new order which brought the law in its wake--and the law's
reckonings.

Near to the enemy whom he had heretofore faced in pitched battle, sat
old Lone Stacy, his brogans kicked off and his bare feet thrust out to
the warmth; bearded, shrewd of eye, a professed lover of the law,
asking only the exemption of his illicit still. He, too, in the feud
days had wielded power, but had sought in the main to wield it for
peace.

And there, showing no disposition to draw aside the skirts of his
raiment in disgust, sat the preacher of the hills whose strength lay in
his ability to reconcile antagonisms, while yet he stood staunch,
abating nothing of self-sacrificial effort. It was almost as though
church and crown and commoner were gathered in informal conclave.

But luminous, like fixed stars, gleamed two other pairs of eyes. As he
realized them, Henderson straightened up with such a thrill as comes
from a vision. Here were the eyes of builders of the future--agleam as
they looked on the present! Blossom's were wide and enthralled and
Turner Stacy's burned as might those of a young crusader hearing from
the lips of old and seasoned knights recitals of the wars of the
Sepulchre.

Bear Cat Stacy saw in this stranger the prophet bearing messages for
which he had longed--and waited almost without hope. But Kinnard Towers
saw in him a dangerous and unsettling agitator.

"You said," declared Henderson, when the theme had swung back again to
economic discussion, "that your cornfield was good for a few crops and
then the rains would wash it bare, yet as I came along the road I saw
an out-cropping vein of coal that reached above my head, and on each
side of me were magnificent stretches of timber that the world needs
and that is growing scarce."

"Much profit thet does me," Lone Stacy laughed dryly. "Down at Uncle
Israel's store thar's a dollar bill thet looks like hit's a-layin' on
ther counter--but when ye aims to pick hit up ye discarns thet hit's
pasted under ther glass. Thet coal an' timber of mine air pasted ter
ther wrong side of Cedar Mounting."

"And why? Because there are few roads and fewer schools. It's less the
cost and difficulties of building wagon roads than something else that
stands in the way. It's the laurel."

"The laurel?" repeated Lone Stacy, but the preacher nodded
comprehendingly, and the visitor went on:

"Yes. The laurel. I've been in Central American jungles where men died
of fever because the thick growth held and bred the miasma. Here the
laurel holds a spirit of concealment. If there wasn't a bush in all
these hills big enough to hide a man, the country would be thrown open
to the markets of the world. It's the spirit of hiding--that locks life
in and keeps it poor."

"I presume ye means on account of ther blockade licker," replied the
host, "but thet don't tech ther root of ther matter. How erbout ther
fields thet stand on end; fields thet kain't be plowed an' thet ther
rains brings down on yore head, leavin' nuthin 'thar but ther rock?"

Henderson had the power of convincing words, abetted by a persuasive
quality of voice. As a mountain man he preached his faith in the future
of the hills. He spoke of the vineyards of Madeira where slopes as
incorrigibly steep as these were redeemed by terracing. He talked of
other lands that were being exhausted of resources and turning greedy
eyes upon the untapped wealth of the Cumberlands. He painted the
picture glowingly and fervently, and Turner Stacy, listening, bent
forward with a new fire in his eyes: a fire which Kinnard Towers did
not fail to mark.

"When ther railroad taps us," interpolated Lone Stacy, in a pause,
"mebby we kin manage ter live. Some says ther road aims ter cross Cedar
Mounting."

"Don't deceive yourself with false hopes," warned the visitor. "This
change must be brought about from inside--not outside. The coming of
the railroad lies a decade or two away. I've investigated that question
pretty thoroughly and I know. The coal-fields are so large that
railroads can still, for a long time to come, choose the less expensive
routes. Cedar Mountain balks them for the present. It will probably
balk them for the length of our lives--but this country can progress
without waiting for that."

"So ye thinks thet even without no railroad this God-forsaken land kin
still prosper somehow?" inquired the host skeptically, and the visitor
answered promptly:

"I do. I am so convinced of it that I'm here to buy property--to invest
all I have and all my mother and sisters have. I think that by
introducing modern methods of intensive farming, I can make it pay a
fair return in my own time--and when I die I'll leave property that
will ultimately enrich the younger generations. I _don't_ think it can
make me rich in my lifetime--but _some_ day it's a certainty of
millions."

"Why don't ye buy yoreself property whar ther railroad will come in
yore own day, then? Wouldn't thet pay ye better?"

The suggestion was the first contribution to the conversation that had
come from Kinnard Towers, and it was proffered in a voice almost urbane
of tone.

Henderson turned toward him.

"That's a straight question and I'll answer it straight. To buy as much
property as I want along a possible railway line would cost too much
money. I'm gambling, not on the present but on the future. I come here
because I know the railroad is _not_ coming and for that reason prices
will be moderate."

As he made this explanation the newcomer was watching the face of his
questioner almost eagerly. What he read there might spell the success
or failure of his plans. Any enterprise across which Kinnard Towers
stamped the word "prohibited" was an enterprise doomed to great
vicissitude in a land where his word was often above the law.

But the blond and florid man granted him the satisfaction of no reply.
He gazed pensively at the logs crackling on the hearth and his features
were as inscrutably blank as those of the Sphinx.

After a moment Towers did speak, but it was to his host and on another
topic.

"Lone," he said, "thet firewood of yourn's right green an' sappy,
hain't it? Hit pops like ther fo'th of July."

Brother Fulkerson spoke reflectively: "We needs two more things then
we've got in these hills--an' one thing less then we've got. We wants
roads an' schools--and the end of makin' white licker."

Henderson saw Blossom slip from the bed and flit shadow-like through
the door, and a few moments later he missed, too, the eagerly attentive
presence of the boy. Blossom had escaped from the reek of tobacco smoke
inside, to the soft cadences of the night-song and the silver wash of
the moonlight.

Turner Stacy found her sitting, with her face between her palms, under
a great oak that leaned out across the trickle of the creek, and when
he spoke her name, she raised eyes glistening with tears.

"Blossom," he began in a contrite voice, "ye're mad at me, ain't ye?
Ye've done heerd about--about last night." Then he added with moody
self-accusation, "God knows I don't blame ye none."

She turned her head away and did not at once answer. Suddenly her
throat choked and she broke into sobs that shook her with their
violence. The young man stood rigid, his face drawn with self-hatred
and at last she looked up at him.

"Somehow, Turner," she said unsteadily, "hit wouldn't of been jest ther
same ef hit had been any other time. Yestiddy--up thar on ther
ridge--ye promised me thet ye'd be heedful with licker."

"I knows I did," he declared bitterly. "Ye've got a right ter plumb
hate me."

"Ef I'd a-hated ye," she reminded him simply, "I wouldn't sca'cely have
watched ther road all day." Then irrelevantly she demanded, "How did ye
git yore shoulder hurt?"

The wish to defend himself with the palliations of last night's
desperate fatigue and the chill in his wound was a strong temptation,
but he repressed it. Knowledge of his encounter with Ratler Webb would
only alarm her and conjure up fears of unforgiving vengeance.

"Hit war just a gun thet went off accidental-like," he prevaricated. "I
wasn't harmed none, Blossom." Then in a tense voice he continued: "I
only aimed ter drink a leetle--not too much--an' then somehow I didn't
seem ter hev ther power ter quit."

He felt the lameness of that plea and broke off.

"I'd been studyin' about what you said on ther ridge," she told him
falteringly, and the tremor of her voice electrified him. Again the
mountains on their ancient foundations grew unsteady before his eyes.

"Does ye mean thet--thet despite last night--ye keers fer me?"

He bent forward, lips parted and heart pounding--and her reply was an
unsteady whisper.

"I hain't plumb dead sartain yit, Turner, but--but this mornin' I
couldn't think of nothin' else but you."

"Blossom!" exclaimed the boy, his voice ringing with a solemn
earnestness. "I don't want thet ye shall hev ter feel shame fer
me--but----"

Once again the words refused to come. The girl had risen now and stood
slender in the silver light, her lashes wet with tears. With that
picture in his eyes it became impossible to balance the other problems
of his life. So he straightened himself stiffly and turned his gaze
away from her. He was seeing instead a picture of the squat shanty
where the copper worm was at work in the shadow, and for him it was a
picture of bondage.

So she waited, feeling some hint of realization for the struggle his
eyes mirrored.

There would be many other wet nights up there, he reflected as his jaw
set itself grimly; many nights of chilled and aching bones with that
wild thirst creeping seductively, everpoweringly upon him out of the
darkness. There would be the clutch of longing, strangling his heart
and gnawing at his stomach.

But if he _did_ promise and failed, he could never again recover his
self-respect. He would be doomed. With his face still averted, he spoke
huskily and laboriously.

"I reckon thar hain't no way ter make ye understand, Blossom. I don't
drink like some folks, jest ter carouse. I don't oftentimes want ter
tech hit, but seems like sometimes I jest _has_ ter hev hit. Hit's most
gin'rally when I'm plumb sick of livin' on hyar withouten no chance ter
better myself."

Even in the moonlight she could see that his face was drawn and pallid.
Then abruptly he wheeled:

"Ther Stacys always keeps thar bonds. I reckons ye wants me ter give ye
my hand thet I won't never tech another drop, Blossom, but I kain't do
thet yit--I've got ter fight hit out fust an' be plumb dead sartain
thet I could keep my word ef I pledged hit----"

Blossom heard her father calling her from the porch and as she seized
the boy's arms she found them set as hard as rawhide.

"I understands, Turney," she declared hastily, "an'--an'--I'm a-goin'
ter be prayin' fer ye afore I lays down ternight!"

As Turner watched the preacher mount and ride away, his daughter
walking alongside, he did not return to the house. He meant to fight it
out in his own way. Last night when the hills had rocked to the fury of
the storm--he had surrendered. To-night when the moonlit slopes drowsed
in the quiet of silver mists, the storm was in himself. Within a few
feet of the gate he took his seat at the edge of a thick rhododendron
bush, where the shadow blotted him into total invisibility. He sat
there drawn of face and his hands clenched and unclenched themselves.
He did not know it, but, in his silence and darkness, he was growing.
There was for him a touch of Golgotha in those long moments of
reflection and something of that anguished concentration which one sees
in Rodin's figure of "The Thinker"--that bronze man bent in the
melancholy travail of the birth of thought.

When an hour later Kinnard Towers and his cortège trooped out of Lone
Stacy's house, Jerry Henderson, willing to breathe the freshness of the
night, strolled along.

The men with the rifles swung to their saddles and rode a few rods
away, but Towers himself lingered and at last with a steady gaze upon
the stranger he made a tentative suggestion.

"I don't aim ter discourage a man thet's got fine ideas, Mr. Henderson,
but hev ye duly considered thet when ye undertakes ter wake up a
country thet's been slumberin' as ye puts hit, fer two centuries, ye're
right apt ter find some sleepy-heads thet would rather be--left alone?"

"I'm not undertaking a revolution," smiled the new arrival. "I'm only
aiming to show folks, by my own example, how to better themselves."

The man who stood as the sponsor of the old order mounted and looked
down from his saddle.

"Hain't thet right smart like a doctor a-comin' in ter cure a man," he
inquired dryly, "a-fore ther sick person hes sent fer him? Sometimes
ther ailin' one moutn't take hit kindly."

"I should say," retorted Henderson blandly, "that it's more like the
doctor who hangs out his shingle--so that men can come if they like."

There was a momentary silence and at its end Towers spoke again with
just a hint of the enigmatical in his voice.

"Ye spoke in thar of havin' personal knowledge thet ther railroad
didn't aim ter come acrost Cedar Mounting, didn't ye?"

"Yes."

"Well now, Mr. Henderson--not meanin' ter dispute ye none--I don't feel
so sartain about thet."

"I spoke from fairly definite information."

The man on horseback nodded.

"I aims ter talk pretty plain. We're a long ways behind ther times up
hyar, an' thet means thet we likes ter sort of pass on folks thet comes
ter dwell amongst us."

"I call that reasonable, Mr. Towers."

"I'm obleeged ter ye. Now jest let's suppose thet ther railroad _did_
aim ter come in atter all an' let's jest suppose for ther fun of ther
thing, thet hit likewise aimed ter grab off all ther best coal an'
timber rights afore ther pore, ign'rant mountain-men caught on ter what
war happenin'. In sich a case, ther fust step would be ter send a man
on ahead, wouldn't hit--a mountain man, if possible--ter preach thet
ther railroad didn't aim ter come? Thet would mean bargains, wouldn't
hit?"

Jerry Henderson laughed aloud.

"Do you mean that you suspect me of such a mission?"

Glancing about to assure himself that no one heard except his single
auditor, the erstwhile hirer of assassins bent over his saddle pommel.
Into the suavity of his voice had crept a new hardness and into the
pale color of his eyes an ominous glint.

"Back in ther days of ther war with England, Mr. Henderson, I've heered
tell thet our grandsires hed a flag with a rattlesnake on hit, an' ther
words, 'Don't tread on me!' Some folks says we're right-smart like our
grandsires back hyar in ther timber."

"If that's a threat, Mr. Towers," said Henderson steadily, "I make it a
point never to understand them."

"An' I makes hit a point never ter give them more then onct. I don't
say I suspicions ye--but I do _p'intedly_ say this ter ye: Whatever
yore real project air, afore ye goes inter hit too deep--afore ye
invests all ye've got, an' all yore mother hes got an' all yore sister
hes got, hit mout be right heedful ter ride over ter my dwellin'-house
an' hev speech with me."

An indignant retort rose to Jerry's lips, but with diplomatic
forbearance he repressed it.

"When I've been here a while, I guess your suspicions will be allayed
without verbal assurances, Mr. Towers."

"Even if ye only comes preachin' ther drivin' out of licker," said
Towers slowly, "ye're treadin' on my friends. We suffers Sabbath talk
like thet from preachers, but we don't relish hit on week-days from
strangers. In thar a while back I listened. I seen ye an' Brother
Fulkerson a-stirrin' up an' onsettlin' ther young folks. I kin feel
ther restless things thet's a-ridin' in ther wind ter-night, Mr.
Henderson, an' hit hain't sca'cely right ter bring trouble on these
folks thet's shelterin' ye."

Bear Cat Stacy, unseen but eagerly listening, felt a leaping of
resentment in his veins. All the feudal instincts that had their
currents there woke to wrath as he heard his hereditary enemy warning
away his guest. It was the intolerable affront of a hint that the power
of the Stacys had dwindled and waned until it could no longer secure
the protection of its own roof-trees.

With the anger of Marmion for Angus, sternly repressed but forceful,
Bear Cat suddenly stood out revealed in the moonlight. He had only to
take a step, but the effect was precisely that of having been suddenly
materialized out of nothingness, and when his voice announced him, even
the case-hardened control of Kinnard Towers suffered a violent jolt of
surprise.

"I reckon, Kinnard Towers," said the boy with a velvety evenness of
voice, "ther day hain't hardly come yit when ther Stacys hes ter ask ye
what visitors they kin take inter thar dwellin'-houses. I reckon mebby
Mr. Henderson's ideas may suit some folks hyarabouts, even if they
don't pleasure you none. So long as he aims ter tarry hyar, an' we aims
ter enjoy him, ther man thet seeks ter harm him will hev ter come hyar
an' git him."

Never since the fend had ended in a pact of peace, had two factional
leaders come so near a rupture. Henderson could feel the ominous
tensity in the air, but Towers himself only shook his head and laughed.
It was a good-humored laugh, since this was not the time for open
enmity.

"Oh, pshaw, son! I reckon nobody don't aim no harm to Mr. Henderson. I
jest knows this country an' he ought ter realize thet my counsel mout
help him." There was a brief pause and then with an audacity of
bantering Kinnard proceeded. "I've done heered thet ye tuck yore dram
onct in a while yoreself--mebby you've got friends thet makes
licker--an' you knows how they mout feel about too much talk."

Bear Cat Stacy stood with his shoulders drawn back and his eyes
smoldering.

"Thet's my business," he retorted curtly, but the Quarterhouse baron
went on with the same teasing smile.

"Mebby so, son, but hit kinderly 'peared like ter me thet Brother
Fulkerson's gal war a-'lowin' thet hit war _her_ business, too. I
overheered yore maw say somethin' 'bout yore drinkin' some last night
an' I seed Blossom's purty eyes flash."

The mounted man waved his hand and rode away, his escort falling in at
front and rear, but when the cavalcade had turned the angle of the road
Kinnard Towers beckoned Black Tom Carmichael to his side and spoke
grimly.

"Thar's trouble breedin', Tom, an' this young Bear Cat Stacy's in ther
b'ilin'. Ye played ther fool when yer failed ter git him as a kid. Hit
war only a-layin' up torment erginst ther future."

Henderson lay long awake that night in the loft which he shared with
Bear Cat. He heard the snores of the man and woman sleeping below, but
the unmoving figure beside him had not relaxed in slumber. Henderson
wondered if he were reflecting upon that talk by the gate and all the
dark possibilities it might presage.

It was almost dawn, when Bear Cat slipped from under his quilt, drew on
his shoes and trousers and left the loft-like attic, his feet making no
sound on the rungs of the ladder.

What furtive mission was taking him out, pondered Henderson, into the
laurel-masked hills at that hour?

But out in the creek-bed road, with the setting moon on his face, Bear
Cat Stacy paused and drank in a long breath.

"He seen Blossom's eyes flash, he said," murmured the boy with his
hands clenched at his sides, then he threw back his shoulders and spoke
half aloud and very resolutely: "Wa'al they won't never hev ter flash
no more fer thet cause." After a little while, his gaze fixed on the
myriad stars, he spoke again. "God Almighty, I needs thet ye should
holp me now. I aims ter go dry fer all time--an' I kain't hardly
compass hit withouten ye upholds me."

Wheeling abruptly, he went with long strides around the turn of the
road. A half hour later he was noiselessly opening the gate of the
preacher's house. He meant to wait there until Blossom awoke, but
prompted by habit he gave, thrice repeated, the quavering and perfectly
counterfeited call of a barn owl. Since she had been a very small girl,
that had been their signal, and though she would not hear it now, it
pleased him to repeat it.

Then to his astonishment he heard, very low, the whining creak of an
opening door, and there before him, fully dressed, intently awake,
stood the girl herself.

"Blossom," said Bear Cat in a low voice that trembled a little,
"Blossom, I came over ter wail hyar till ye woke up. I came ter tell
ye--thet I'm ready ter give ye my hand. I hain't never goin' ter tech a
drap of licker no more, so long es I lives. I says hit ter ye with God
Almighty listenin'."

"Oh, Turney----!" she exclaimed, then her voice broke and her eyes swam
with tears. "I'm--I'm right proud of ye," was all she could find the
words to add.

"Did I wake ye up?" demanded the boy in a voice of self-accusation. "I
didn't aim to. I 'lowed I'd wait till mornin'."

Blossom shook her head. "I hain't been asleep yit," she assured him.
Her cheeks flushed and she drooped her head as she explained. "I've
been a-prayin, Turney. God's done answered my prayer."

Turner Stacy took off his hat and shook back the dark lock of hair that
fell over his forehead. Beads of moisture stood out on his temples.

"Did ye keer--thet much, Blossom?" he humbly questioned, and suddenly
the girl threw both arms about his neck. "I keers all a gal _kin_ keer,
Turney. I wasn't sartain afore--but I knowed hit es soon as I begun
prayin' fer ye."

Standing there in the pallid mistiness before dawn, and yielding her
lips to the pressure of his kiss, Blossom felt the almost religious
solemnity of the moment. She was crossing the boundary of acknowledged
love--and he had passed through the stress of terrific struggle before
he had been able to bring her his pledge. His face, now cool, had been
hot with its fevered passion. But she did not know that out of this
moment was to be born transforming elements of change destined to shake
her life and his; to quake the very mountains themselves; to rend the
old order's crust, and finally, after tempest and bloodshed--to bring
the light of a new day. No gift of prophecy told her that, of the
parentage of this declaration of her love and this declaration of his
pledge, was to be born in him a warrior's spirit of crusade which could
only reach victory after all the old vindictive furies had been roused
to wrath--and conquered--and the shadow of tragedy had touched them
both.

And had Bear Cat Stacy, holding her soft cheek pressed to his own, been
able to look even a little way ahead, he would have gone home and
withdrawn the hospitality he had pledged to the guest who slept there.



CHAPTER VII


Because Jerry Henderson viewed the life of the hills through
understanding eyes, certain paradoxes resolved themselves into the
expected. He was not surprised to find under Lone Stacy's rude exterior
an innate politeness which was a thing not of formula but of instinct.

"Would hit pleasure ye," demanded the host casually the next morning,
"ter go along with me up thar an' see that same identical still thet I
tuck sich pains yestiddy ye _shouldn't_ see?" But Henderson shook his
head, smiling.

"No, thank you. I'd rather not see any still that I can avoid. What I
don't know can't get me--or anyone else--into trouble."

Lone Stacy nodded his approval as he said: "I didn't aim ter deny ye no
mark of confi_dence_. I 'lowed I'd ought ter ask ye."

Turner Stacy stood further off from illiteracy than his father. In the
loft which the visitor had shared with him the night before he had
found a copy of the Kentucky Statutes and one of Blackstone's
Commentaries, though neither of them was so fondly thumbed as the life
of Lincoln.

By adroit questioning Jerry elicited the information that the boy had
been as far along the way of learning as the sadly deficient district
schools could conduct him; those shambling wayside institutions where,
on puncheon benches, the children memorize in that droning chorus from
which comes the local name of "blab-school."

Turner had even taken his certificate and taught for a term in one of
these pathetic places. He laughed as he confessed this: "Hit jest
proves how pore ther schools air, hyarabouts," he avowed.

"I expect you'd have liked to go to college," inquired Henderson, and
the boy's eyes blazed passionately with his thwarted lust for
opportunity--then dimmed to wretchedness.

"Like hit! Hell, Mr. Henderson, I'd lay my left hand down, without
begrudgin' hit, an' cut hit off at ther wrist fer ther chanst ter do
thet!"

Henderson sketched for him briefly the histories of schools that had
come to other sections of the hills; schools taught by inspired
teachers, with their model farms, their saw-mills and even their
hospitals: schools to which not only children but pupils whose hair had
turned white came and eagerly learned their alphabets, and as much more
as they sought.

The boy raised a hand. "Fer God's sake don't narrate them things," he
implored. "They sots me on fire. My grandsires hev been satisfied hyar
fer centuries an' all my folks sees in me, fer dreamin' erbout things
like thet, is lackin' of loyalty."

Henderson found his interest so powerfully engaged that he talked on
with an excess of enthusiasm.

"But back of those grandsires were other grandsires, Turner. They were
the strongest, the best and the most American of all America; those
earlier ancestors of yours and mine. They dared to face the wilderness,
and those that got across the mountains won the West."

"Ours didn't git acrost though," countered the boy dryly. "Ours was
them thet started out ter do big things an' failed."

Henderson smiled. "A mule that went lame, a failure to strike one of
the few possible passes, made all the difference between success and
failure in that pilgrimage, but the blood of those empire-builders is
our blood and what they are now, we shall be when we catch up. We've
been marking time while they were marching, that's all."

"Ye've done been off ter college yoreself, hain't ye, Mr. Henderson?"

"Yes. Harvard."

"Harvard? Seems ter me I've heered tell of hit. Air hit as good as
Berea?"

The visitor repressed his smile, but before he could answer Bear Cat
pressed on:

"Whilst ye're up hyar, I wonder ef hit'd be askin' too master much of
ye ef--" the boy paused, gulped down his embarrassment and continued
hastily--"ef ye could kinderly tell me a few books ter read?"

"Gladly," agreed Henderson. "It's the young men like you who have the
opportunity to make life up here worth living for the rest."

After a moment Bear Cat suggested dubiously: "But amongst my folks I
wouldn't git much thanks fer tryin'. Ther outside world stands fer
interference--an' they won't suffer hit. They believes in holdin' with
their kith an' kin."

Again Henderson nodded, and this time the smile that danced in his eyes
was irresistibly infectious. In a low voice he quoted:

    "The men of my own stock
      They may do ill or well,
    But they tell the lies I am wonted to,
      They are used to the lies I tell.
    We do not need interpreters
      When we go to buy and sell."

Bear Cat Stacy stood looking off over the mountain sides. He filled his
splendidly rounded chest with a deep draft of the morning air,--air as
clean and sparkling as a fine wine, and into his veins stole an ardor
like intoxication.

In his eyes kindled again that light, which had made Henderson think of
volcanoes lying quiet with immeasurable fires slumbering at their
hearts.

Last night the boy had fought out the hardest battle of his life, and
to-day he was one who had passed a definite mile-post of progress. This
morning, too, a seed had dropped and a new life influence was stirring.
It would take storm and stress and seasons to bring it to fulfilment,
perhaps. The poplar does not grow from seed to great tree in a
day--but, this morning, the seed had begun to swell and quicken.

What broke, like the fledgling of a new conception, in Bear Cat's
heart, was less palpably but none the less certainly abroad in the air,
riding the winds--with varied results.

That an outside voice was speaking: a voice which was dangerous to the
old gods of custom, was the conviction entertained, not with elation
but with somber resentment in the mind of Kinnard Towers. Upon that
realization followed a grim resolve to clip the wings of innovation
while there was yet time. It was no part of this crude dictator's
program to suffer a stranger, with a gift for "glib speech," to curtail
his enjoyment of prerogatives built upon a lifetime of stress and
proven power.

Back of Cedar Mountain, where there are few telephones, news travels on
swift, if unseen wings. Henderson had not been at Lone Stacy's house
twenty-four hours when the large excitement of his coming, gathering
mythical embellishment as it passed from mouth to mouth, was
mysteriously launched.

Wayfarers, meeting in the road and halting for talk, accosted each
other thus:

"I heer tell thar's a man over ter Lone Stacy's house thet's done been
clar ter ther other world an' back. He's met up with all character of
outlanders."

Having come back from "ther other world" did not indeed mean, as might
be casually inferred, that Henderson had risen from his grave;
relinquishing his shroud for a rehabilitated life. It signified only
that he had been "acrost the waters"--a matter almost as vague. So the
legend grew as it traveled, endowing Jerry with a "survigrous"
importance.

"Folks says," went the rumor, "thet he knows ways fer a man ter make a
livin' offen these-hyar tormentin' rocks. Hev ye seed him yit?"

Having come to the house of Lone Stacy, it was quite in accordance with
the custom of the hills that he should remain there indefinitely. His
plans for acquiring land meant first establishing himself in popular
esteem and to this end no means could have contributed more directly
than acceptance under a Stacy roof.

With the younger Stacy this approval was something more: it savored of
hero-worship and upon Henderson's store of wisdom, Bear Cat's avid
hunger for knowledge feasted itself.

Henderson saw Blossom often in these days and her initial shyness, in
his presence, remained obdurate. But through it he caught, with a
refreshing quality, the quick-flashing alertness of her mind and he
became anxious to win her confidence and friendship.

And she, for all her timidity, was profoundly impressed and fed
vicariously on his wisdom--through the enthusiastic relaying of Bear
Cat Stacy's narration.

When conversation with Jerry was unavoidable, Turner noted that she was
giving a new and unaccustomed care to her diction, catching herself up
from vernacular to an effort at more correct forms.

"Blossom," he gravely questioned her one day, "what makes ye so mindful
of yore P's and Q's when ye hes speech with Jerry Henderson?"

"I reckon hit's jest shame fer my ign'rance," she candidly replied,
forgetting to be ashamed of it now that the stranger was no longer
present.

"And yit," he reminded her, "ye've got more eddication now then
common--hyarabouts."

"_Hyarabouts_, yes," came the prompt retort, touched with irony. "So
hev _you_. Air ye satisfied with hit?"

"No," he admitted honestly. "God knows I hain't!"

                 *       *       *       *       *

One evening Kinnard Towers entered the saloon at the Quarterhouse and
stood unobserved at the door, as he watched the roistering crowd about
the bar. It was a squalid place, but to the foreign eye it would have
been, in a sordid sense, interesting. Its walls and the eight-foot
stockade that went around it were stoutly builded of hewn timbers as
though it had been planned with a view toward defense against siege.

A few lithographed calendars from mail-order houses afforded the sole
note of decoration to the interior. The ordinary bar-mirror was
dispensed with. It could hardly have come across the mountain intact.
Had it come it could scarcely have survived.

The less perishable fixtures of woodwork and ceiling bore testimony to
that in their pitted scars reminiscent of gun-play undertaken in rude
sport--and in deadly earnest. The shutters, heavy and solid, had on
occasion done service as stretchers and cooling boards. Vilely odorous
kerosene lamps swung against the walls, dimly abetted by tin
reflectors, and across the floor went the painted white line of the
state border. At the room's exact center were two huge letters. That
east of the line was V. and that west was K.

The air was thick with the reek of smoke and the fumes of liquor. The
boisterousness was raucously profane--the general atmosphere was that
of an unclean rookery.

As the proprietor stood at the threshold, loud guffaws of maudlin
laughter greeted his ears and, seeking the concrete cause, his gaze
encountered Ratler Webb, propped against the bar, somewhat redder of
eye and more unsteady on his legs than usual. Obviously he was the
enraged butt of ill-advised heckling.

"Ye hadn't ought ter hev crossed Bear Cat," suggested a badgering
voice. "Then ye wouldn't hev a busted nose. He's a bad man ter fool
with. Thar war witches at his bornin'."

"I reckon Bear Cat knows what's healthful fer him," snarled Webb. "When
we meets in ther highway he rides plumb round me."

The speaker broke off and, with a sweeping truculence, challenged
contradiction. "Air any of you men friends of his'n? Does airy one of
ye aim ter dispute what I says?" Silence ensued, possibly influenced by
the circumstance that Ratler's hand was on his pistol grip as he spoke,
so he continued:

"Ef I sought ter be a damn' tale-bearer, I could penitenshery him fer
blockadin' right now, but thet wouldn't satisfy me nohow. I aims ter
handle him my own self."

Again there was absence of contradiction near about the braggart,
though ripples of derisive mirth trickled in from the outskirts.

Ratler jerked out his weapon and leaned against the bar. As he waved
the muzzle about he stormed furiously: "Who laughed back thar?" And no
one volunteered response.

Webb squinted hazily up at one of the reflector-backed lamps. "Damn
thet light," he exclaimed. "Hit hurts my eyes." There followed a report
and the lamp fell crashing.

For a brief space the drunken man stood holding the smoking weapon in
his hand, then he looked up and started, but this time he let the
pistol swing inactive at his side and the truculent blackness of his
face faded to an expression of dismay.

Kinnard Towers stood facing him with an unpleasant coldness in his
eyes.

"I reckon, Ratler," suggested the proprietor, "ye'd better come along
with me. I wants ter hev peaceable speech with ye."

In a room above-stairs Kinnard motioned him to a chair much as a
teacher might command a child taken red-handed in some mad prank.

"Ratler, hit hain't a right wise thing ter talk over-much," he
volunteered at last. "Whar air thet still ye spoke erbout--Bear Cat
Stacy's still?"

Webb cringed.

"I war jest a-talkin'. I don't know nuthin' erbout no sich still."

What means of loosening unwilling tongues Kinnard Towers commanded was
his own secret. A half hour later he knew what he wished to know and
Ratler Webb left the place. Upon his Ishmaelite neck was firmly
fastened the collar of vassalage to the baron of the Quarterhouse.

On the day following that evening Towers talked with Black Tom
Carmichael.

"This man Henderson," he said musingly, "air plumb stirring up ther
country. I reckon hit'd better be seen to."

Black Tom nodded. "Thet oughtn't ter be much trouble." But Towers shook
his blond head with an air of less assured confidence.

"Ter me hit don't look like no easy matter. Lone Stacy's givin' him
countenance. Ef I war ter run him outen these parts I reckon ther
Stacys would jest about swarm inter war over hit."

"What does ye aim ter do, Kinnard?"

"So far I'm only bidin' my time, but I aims ter keep a mighty sharp eye
on him. He hain't made no move yit, but he's gainin' friends fast an' a
man's obleeged ter kinderly plan ahead. When ther time's ripe he's got
ter go." Towers paused, then added significantly, "One way or
another--but afore thet's undertook, I 'lows ter git rid of his
protectors."

"Thet's a mighty perilous thing ter try, Kinnard," demurred the
lieutenant in a voice fraught with anxiety. "Ye kain't bring hit ter
pass without ye opens up ther war afresh--an' _this_ time they'd hev
Bear Cat ter lead 'em."

But Towers smiled easily.

"I've got a plan, Tom. They won't even suspicion I knows anything about
events. I'm goin' ter foller Mr. Henderson's counsel an' do things ther
_new_ way, 'stid of ther old."



CHAPTER VIII


Henderson found Brother Fulkerson a preacher who, more by service and
example and comforting the disconsolate than by pulpit oratory, held a
strong influence upon his people, and commanded their deep devotion.

His quiet ministry had indeed been heard of beyond the hills and even
in the black days of feudal hatred, dead lines had been wiped out for
him so that he came and went freely among both factions, and no man
doubted him.

Kindly, grave and steadfast, Henderson found him to be, and possessed
of a natively shrewd brain, as well. Blossom was usually at the
Fulkerson house when Jerry called, but she fitted silently in the
background and her eyes regarded him with that shy gravity, in which he
found an insurmountable barrier to better acquaintance.

One morning as he passed the Fulkerson abode he found the girl alone by
the gate--and paused there.

The season's first tenderness of greenery along the slopes had ripened
now to the sunburned and freckled warmth of midsummer, but the day was
young enough for lingering drops of the heavy dew to remain on the
petals of the morning-glories and the weed stalks along the roadside.
Between the waxen delicacy and rich variety of the morning-glory petals
and the bloom of the girl, Jerry fell musingly to tracing analogies.

The morning-glory is among the most plebeian of flowering things,
boasting no nobility except a charm too fragile to endure long its
coarse companionship with smart-weed and mullen, so that each day it
comes confidently into being only to shrink shortly into disappointed
death.

Blossom, too, would in the course of nature and environment, have a
brief bloom and a swift fading--but just now her beauty was only
enhanced by the pathos of its doom.

"Blossom," he smilingly suggested, "I'd like to be friends with you,
just as I am with Turner. I'm not really an evil spirit you know, yet
you seem always half afraid of me."

The girl's lashes drooped shyly, veiling her splendid eyes, but she
made no immediate response to his amenities, and Henderson laughed.

"It's all the stranger," he said, "because I can't forget our first
meeting. Then you were the spirit of warfare. I can still seem to see
you standing there barring the path; your eyes ablaze and your nostrils
aquiver with righteous wrath."

For an instant, in recollection of the incident, she forgot her
timidity and there flashed into her face the swift illumination of a
smile.

"Thet war when I 'lowed ye war an enemy. Folks don't show no--I mean
don't show any--fear of thar enemies. Leastways--at least--mountain
folks don't."

He understood that attitude, but he smiled, pretending to misconstrue
it.

"Then I'm not dangerous as an enemy? It's only when I seek to be a
friend that I need be feared?"

Her flush deepened into positive confusion and her reply was faltering.

"I didn't mean nothin' like thet. Hit's jest thet when I tries ter talk
with ye, I feels so plumb ign'rant an'--an' benighted--thet--thet----"
She broke off and the man leaning on the fence bent toward her.

"You mean that when you talk to me you think I'm comparing you with the
girls I know down below, isn't that it?"

Blossom nodded her head and added, "With gals--girls I mean--that wears
fancy fixin's an' talks grammar."

"Sit down there for a minute, Blossom," he commanded, and when she had
enthroned herself on the square-hewn horse-block by the gate he seated
himself, cross-legged at her feet.

"Grammar isn't so very hard to learn," he assured her. "And any woman
who carries herself with your lance-like ease, starts out equipped with
more than 'fancy fixin's.' I want to tell you about a dream I had the
other night."

At once her face grew as absorbed as a child's at the promise of a
fairy story.

"I dreamed that I went to a very grand ball in a city down below. The
ladies were gorgeously dressed, but late in the evening an unknown girl
came into the room and everybody turned to look at her, forgetting all
the rest of the party." He paused a moment before adding, "I dreamed
that that girl was you."

"What did they all hev ter say about me?" she eagerly demanded.

"To be perfectly frank--you see it was a dream--most of them just
exclaimed: 'My God!'"

"I don't hardly censure 'em," admitted Blossom. "I reckon I cut a right
sorry figger at that party."

Henderson laughed aloud.

"But don't you see, that wasn't it at all. They were all breathless
with admiration. You had the things they would have given all their
jewels for--things they can't buy."

For a little space she looked at him with serious, pained eyes,
suspicious of ridicule, then the expression altered to bewilderment,
and her question came in a lowered voice.

"Things I hev thet they lacks? What manner of things air them--I
mean----those?"

"The very rare gifts of originality and an elfin personality," he
assured her. "Besides that you have beauty of the freshest and most
colorful sort."

For a moment Blossom flushed again shyly, then she lifted one hand and
pointed across the road.

"See thet white flower? Thet's wild parsely. I always calls it the pore
relation to the elder bush--but it's jest got to stay a pore
relation--always--because it started out thet way."

Henderson, as the summer progressed, discovered an absurd thought
lurking in his mind with annoying pertinacity. He could not for long
banish the fanciful picture of Blossom Fulkerson transplanted--of
Blossom as she might be with fuller opportunities for development.
There is an undeniable fascination in building air-castles about the
Cinderella theme of human transformations and the sight of her always
teased his imagination into play.

That these fantasies bore any personal relation to himself he did not
admit or even suspect. Readily enough, and satisfactorily enough he
explained to himself that he, who was accustomed to a life of teeming
activities, was here marooned in monotony. All things are measurable by
contrasts, and in her little world, Blossom stood out radiantly and
exquisitely different from her colorless sisters. When he had crossed
Cedar Mountain again and boarded a railroad train, more vital things
would engage him, and he would promptly forget the beautiful little
barbarian.

One hot afternoon in late July Jerry Henderson sat in the lounging-room
of his club in Louisville. The windows were open and the street noises,
after the still whispers of the mountains, seemed to beat on his senses
with discordant insistence. Down the length of the broad, wainscoted
hall he saw a party of young men in flannels and girls in soft muslins
passing out and he growled testily.

"All cut to a single pattern!" he exclaimed. "All impeccably
monotonous!" Then he irrelevantly added to himself, "I'm allowing
myself to become absurd--I expect its the damned heat. Anyhow she's
Bear Cat Stacy's gal!"

As Jerry sat alone he was, quite unconsciously, affording a theme of
conversation for two fellow clubmen in the billiard-room.

"I see Jerry Henderson has reappeared in our midst," commented one. "I
wonder what titanic enterprise is engaging his genius just now."

"Give it up," was the laconic reply. "But whatever it is, I'm ready to
wager he'll emerge from it unscathed and that everybody who backs him
will be ruined. That's the history of his buccaneer activities up to
date."

"What's his secret? Why don't his creditors fall on him and destroy
him?" inquired the first speaker and his companion yawned.

"It's the damned charm of the fellow, I suppose. He could hypnotize the
Shah of Persia into Calvinism."

For a moment the speakers fell silent, watching a shot on the
pool-table, then one of them spoke with languid interest.

"Whatever we may think of our friend Henderson, he's a picturesque
figure, and he's running a most diverting race. He's always just a jump
behind a billion dollars and just a jump ahead of the wolf and the
constable."

While this conversation proceeded, a heavy-set and elderly gentleman,
with determined eyes, entered the club. It was President Wallace of the
C. and S-E Railways, and palpably something was on his mind.

Glancing in at the reading-room, and seeing Henderson there, he
promptly disposed himself in a heavily cushioned chair at his side and
inquired:

"Well, what have you to report?"

"Very little so far," rejoined Henderson with his suavest smile. "You
see, there's a man up there who has an annoying capacity for seeing
into things and through things. On the day of my arrival he put his
finger on my actual purpose in coming."

"You mean Kinnard Towers, I presume." The railroad president drummed
thoughtfully on the table-top with his fingers. "I was afraid he would
try to hold us up."

Jerry nodded. "He pretends to be unalterably opposed to innovation, but
I fancy he really wants to be let in on the ground floor. He has
decided that unless he shares our loot, there is to be no plundering."

"Possibly," the railroad magnate spoke thoughtfully, "we'd better meet
his terms. The damned outlaw has power up there and we stand to win--or
lose--a little empire of wealth."

Henderson's closed fist fell softly but very firmly on the table. His
tone was smooth and determined. "Please leave me in command for a
while, Mr. Wallace. I mean to beat this highbinder at his own favorite
game. If we yield to him he'll emasculate our profits. You gave me five
years when we first discussed this thing. In that time I can accomplish
it."

"Take seven if you need them. It's worth it."

Sitting in the smoking-car of the train that was transporting him again
from civilization to "back of beyond," Jerry Henderson found himself
absorbed in somewhat disquieting thoughts.

He gazed out with a dulled admiration on the fertility of blue-grass
farms where the land rolled with as smooth and gracious a swell as a
woman's bosom. Always heretofore the Central Kentucky mansions with
their colonial dignity and quiet air of pride had brought an eager
appreciation to his thoughts--the tribute of one who worships an
aristocracy based on wealth.

But now when he saw again the tangled underbrush and outcropping rock
of the first foothills, something in him cried out, for the first time
since boyhood, "I'm going home!" When the altitudes began to clamber
into the loftiness of peaks, with wet streamers of cloud along their
slopes, the feeling grew. The sight of an eagle circling far overhead
almost excited him.

Jerry Henderson was a soldier of fortune, with Napoleonic dreams, and
finance was his terrain of conquest. To its overweening ambition he had
subordinated everything else. To that attainment he had pointed his
whole training, cultivating himself not only in the practicalities of
life but also in its refinements, until his bearing, his speech, his
manners were possibly a shade too meticulously perfect; too impeccably
starched.

Where other men had permitted themselves mild adventures in love and
moderate indulgence in drink, he had set upon his conduct a rigid
censorship.

His heart, like his conduct, had been severely schooled, for upon
marriage, as upon all else, he looked with an opportunist's eye.

His wife must come as an ally, strengthening his position socially and
financially. She must be a lady of the old aristocracy, bringing to his
house cultivated charm and the power of wealth. She must be fitted,
when he took his place among the financially elect, to reign with him.

So it was strange that as he sat here in the smoking-car he should be
thinking of an unlettered girl across Cedar Mountain, and acknowledging
with a boyish elation that on the way to Lone Stacy's house he would
pass her cabin, see her--hear the lilting music of her laugh.

And when Cedar Mountain itself rose before him he swung his way with
buoyant stride, up one side and down the other of the range.

Blossom was not in sight when at last he reached the Fulkerson cabin,
but the door stood open and Henderson approached it stealthily. He
paused for a moment, pondering how conspicuously the small house
contrasted with the shabbiness of its neighborhood. It was as trim as a
Swiss chalet, reflecting the personality of its mistress. Door frames
and window casings were neatly painted--and he knew that was Bear Cat's
labor of love. The low hickory-withed chairs on the porch were put
together with an approach to a craftsman's skill--and he knew that,
too, was Bear Cat's labor of love.

As he reached the porch he saw the girl herself sitting just within,
and a broad shaft of sun fell across her, lighting the exquisite
quality of her cheeks and the richness of her hair. She was bending
studiously over a book, and her lips were drooping with an unconscious
wistfulness.

Then, as his shadow fell, Blossom looked up and, in the sudden delight
with which she came to her feet, she betrayed her secret of a welcome
deeper than that accorded to a friendly but casual stranger.

They were still very much engrossed in each other when half an hour
later Bear Cat Stacy appeared without warning in the door. For just a
moment he halted on the threshold with pained eyes, before he entered.

The two men walked home together and, along the way, the younger was
unaccountably silent. His demeanor had relapsed into that shadow of
sullenness which it had often worn before Henderson's coming.

Finally Jerry smilingly demanded an explanation and Bear Cat Stacy
turned upon him a face which had suddenly paled. He spoke with a dead
evenness.

"We've been honest with each other up to now, Mr. Henderson, an' I
demands thet ye be honest with me still."

"I aim to be, Turner. What is it?"

The younger man gulped down a lump which had suddenly risen in his
throat, and jerked his head toward the house they had just left.

"Hit's Blossom. Does ye aim ter--ter co'te her?"

"Court her! What put such an idea into your head?"

"Never mind what put hit thar. I've got ter know! Blossom hain't never
promised ter wed me, yit, but----" He broke off and for a little while
could not resume though his face was expressive enough of his
wretchedness. Finally he echoed: "I've got to know! Ef she'd rather
marry _you_, she's got a license ter choose a-tween us. Only I hadn't
never thought of thet--an'----." Once more he fell silent.

"My God, Turner," exclaimed Jerry, with a sudden realization of the
absurdity of such an idea, "I could have no thought of marrying her."

"Why couldn't ye?" For an instant the gray eyes narrowed and into them
came a dangerous gleam. "Hain't she good enough--fer you or any other
man?"

Jerry Henderson nodded with grave assent.

"She's good enough for any man alive," he declared. "But I can't think
of marriage at all now. All my plans of life prohibit that." Bear Cat
Stacy drank in the clear air in a long breath of joyous relief.

"That's all I needs ter know," he said with entire sincerity. "Only,"
his voice dropped and he spoke very gently, "only, I reckon ye don't
realize how much yore eddycation counts with us thet wants hit an'
hain't got hit. Don't let her misunderstand ye none, Mr. Henderson. I
don't want ter see her hurt."



CHAPTER IX


Marlin Town lies cradled in the elbow of the river and about its ragged
edges the hills stand beetling, hemming it in.

Had it been located in Switzerland, it would have been acclaimed in
guide-book and traveler's tales for the sheer beauty of its
surroundings.

Hither, when the summer had spent its heat and the hard duties of the
farmer had relaxed, flocked the men and women and the children of the
country side for that annual diversion which combined with the ardor of
religious pilgrimage a long-denied hunger for personal intercourse and
excitement. Then, in fine, came "big-meeting time."

The clans gathered from "'way over on t'other side of nowhars." They
trooped in from communities which the circuit rider visited so rarely
that it was no disgrace for a man and a maid to dwell together as man
and wife until a child had been born to them before opportunity came to
have the marriage rites solemnized. They flocked from localities so
remote that in them sometimes the dead lay buried without funeral until
an itinerant minister chanced by to hold obsequies over all delinquent
graves in common. It is even told how occasionally a widowed husband
wept over the mortal remains of his first and second wife--at a sermon
held for both.

So while the magnet which draws them out of their deep-burrowed
existence is the Camp-meeting with its hymns and discourse, the
occasion holds also the secular importance of county-fair and social
conclave.

Brother Fulkerson left his cabin before daylight one morning for the
journey to town, riding his old mare, with his daughter on a pillion
behind him. With them started Lone Stacy, Bear Cat and Henderson,
though since these three must travel with only two mules, the younger
men followed the ancient custom of "riding and tying"--alternating in
the saddle and on foot.

The air held the heady bouquet of autumn now with the flavor of cider
presses and of ripened fox-grapes for the delight of the nostril and
the dreamy softness of hazy horizons for the eye.

Oak and poplar flaunted their carnival color along the hillsides.
Maples threw out scarlet and orange banners against the sedate tone of
the pines and cedars. Among the falling acorns of the woods, mast-fed
razor-backs were fattening against the day of slaughter, when for a
little while the scantily supplied cabin-dwellers would be abundantly
provisioned with pork and cider.

Bear Cat's eyes dwelt steadfastly on Blossom, and Jerry Henderson's
turned toward her oftener than he meant them to. There was, in the air,
a pervasive holiday spirit.

Roads usually so bare of travel were full now, full with a rude
procession of wayfarers; men trudging along with trailing families at
their heels; calico-clad women riding sideways on bony steeds,
sometimes bizarre in fanciful efforts at finery; tow-headed children
with wide-staring eyes.

Then at last they were in Marlin Town, rubbing shoulders with all the
narrow mountain world. There was Kinnard Towers riding among his
rifle-armed henchmen. He sat stiff in his saddle, baronially pleased as
men pointed him out,--and Jerry thought it a safe wager that Kinnard
had not come as a convert to the mourners' bench.

Towers nodded affably and shouted his salutation in passing.

But among all the strange types foregathered here with a tone of the
medieval about them and over them, none were more fantastic than the
two preachers who were to conduct the revival. Brother Fulkerson and
his party encountered this pair as they passed the Court-house. Both
were tall, cadaverous and preternaturally solemn of visage. Both wore
rusty Prince Albert coats faded to a threadbare green. One had a collar
and no necktie; the other a necktie and no collar. Between the frayed
bottoms of shrunken trousers and the battered tops of crude brogans
each showed a dusty and unstockinged shank.

"Who are these preachers we're going to hear?" inquired Jerry
Henderson, and Brother Fulkerson shook his head dubiously.

"I heer tell thet they're some new sect," was the guarded reply. "I
don't hold with them none, myself."

"They are sensational exhorters, I take it," hazarded Jerry, and again
the preacher from across the mountain tempered his criticism with
charity:

"Folks say so. I don't aim ter jedge 'em though--leastways not till
I've sat under th'ar discourse first."

But Bear Cat was restrained by no such inhibition and his voice was
openly scornful.

"They're ther sort of preachers thet keeps folks benighted. All they
teaches is superstition an' ign'rance."

"Son," suggested Lone Stacy with a grave consideration, "I wouldn't
hardly condemn 'em unheard, ef I was you. They claims ter be preachers
of God's word, an' thar's room, a-plenty, fer all sorts an' sects."

But the younger man's eyes glowed with that tawny fire of militant
rebellion, which was awakening in him against all the shackling
influences of mental lethargy.

"They don't believe in book larnin'," went on Bear Cat contemptuously,
"because they says thar hain't no Holy Ghost in hit. They harangues so
long es thar wind holds out, an' all they keers about is how many takes
a big through at meetin'."

Jerry smiled at the characterization. He had seen men and women "take
big throughs," that hysterical--and often ephemeral declaration of
conversion which measures its over-wrought zeal by the vehemence of
outcry and bodily contortion with which the convert comes through to
the mourners' bench.

Later in the day Henderson and Bear Cat, returning from the livery
stable, were walking single-file along the narrow plank that served as
a sidewalk, when they encountered a young man, blood-shot of eye and
malevolent of expression. Either Bear Cat Stacy who was in advance or
the newcomer must step down into the mud and surrender the
right-of-way. If pedestrians so situated are friends, each will be
prompt of courtesy. If they are enemies, ethics require that the weaker
will must yield and the stronger hold to its rights.

Now Henderson perceived that the two were confronting each other
rigidly. Over Turner's shoulder he could see the bleary eyes of the
other smolder with a wrath that he knew meant blood-lust as Bear Cat
waved his hand in an imperious gesture which commanded as plainly as
words, "Give me the road!"

It was a brief and tense situation, but it was being publicly observed
and he who surrendered would be branded in street-corner gossip with
cowardice.

Passers-by, across the way, halted and held their breath. The more
timid glanced about for shelter should gun-play ensue, but after an
instant Ratler Webb turned grudgingly aside and stepped down into the
outer road. Bear Cat Stacy walked on, stiffly erect, and he did not
turn his head for a backward glance.

Ratler halted where he stood, dangerously snarling, and his hand
fumbled for a moment under his coat. He challengingly swept the faces
of all men in sight, and murmurs of laughter, which had broken out in
sheer relief at a relaxed tension, died as abruptly as they had begun.
Every pair of eyes became studiously inattentive.

                 *       *       *       *       *

Through the crowds that overflowed the town moved one figure who seemed
more the Ishmaelite than even the disgraced Ratler.

Men who had, in the past, plotted against each other's lives to-day
"met an' made their manners" with all outward guise of complete amity,
yet this one figure walked ungreeted or recognized only with the curt
nod which was in itself a modified ostracism. It must be said of him
that he bore the baleful insistence of public enmity with a
half-contemptuous steadiness in his own eyes, and a certain bold
dignity of bearing. Mark Tapier--mongrelized by mountain pronunciation
into Tapper--was the revenue officer and behind him, though operating
from remote distance, lay the power of Washington.

To comprehend the universal hatred of the backwoods highlander for the
"revenue" one must step back from to-day's standard of vision into the
far past and accept that prejudice which existed when as legalistic a
mind as Blackstone said: "From its original to the present time, the
very name of excise has been odious to the people of England," and when
Dr. Johnson defined the term in his dictionary as: "A hateful tax
levied upon commodities ... by wretches hired by those to whom excise
is paid."

Such a "wretch" was Mark Tapper in the local forum of public thought; a
wretch with an avocation dependent upon stealth and treachery of broken
confidences; profiting like Judas Iscariot upon blood-money.

Yet before the first day of "Big Meeting time" had progressed to noon,
Mark Tapper sat in close and secret conference with the strongest and
most typical exponent of the old order of the hills.

Into the side door of the Court-house strolled Kinnard Towers at
ten-thirty in the morning. From the jailer, who was his vassal, he
received the key which unlocked the small study giving off from the
Circuit Court-room--the judge's chamber--now vacant and cobwebbed.

In this sanctum of the law's ostensible upholding, surrounded by
battered volumes of code and precedent, the man who was above the law
received first Jud White, the town marshal.

"I reckon sich a gatherin' of folks es this hyar sort of complicates
yore job, Jud," he began blandly. "I thought I ought to tell ye thet
Ratler Webb's broguein' round town gittin' fuller of licker an'
hostility every minute thet goes by."

The town marshal scowled with a joyless foreboding.

"Mebby," he tentatively mused, "hit moutn't be a bad idee ter clap him
in ther jail-house right now--afore he gits too pizen mean ter handle."

But with judicial forbearance Kinnard Towers shook his head. "No, I
wouldn't counsel ye ter do thet. Hit wouldn't be hardly lawful. I've
done instructed Black Tom Carmichael ter kinderly keep an eye on him."
After a moment he casually added: "Thar's bad blood betwixt Ratler an'
young Bear Cat Stacy. Hit would sarve a better purpose fer ye ter keep
a heedful watch on Bear Cat."

The town marshal's face fell. He felt that to him was being assigned a
greater share than his poor deserts in the matter of safe-guarding the
peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.

Towers caught the crestfallen frown and repressed a twinkle of
amusement.

"What's ther matter, Jud? Air ye a-settin' on carpet tacks?" he
inquired with even, good humor. "Or air ye jest plain skeered at ther
idee of contraryin' Bear Cat Stacy?"

"No, I hain't skeered of Bear Cat," lied the officer, reddening. "Ef he
breaches ther peace terday I aims ter jail him fer hit ther same es
anybody else." He paused, then broke out with fervor: "But he's a
mighty good man ter leave alone, Kinnard. He's ther best man ter leave
alone I ever met up with, an' thet's God's own blessed truth."

Towers laughed. "Well, son, I aims ter be kinderly keepin' in touch
with Bear Cat Stacy myself, an' ef any ruction rises a-tween ye, I'll
be thar ter straighten hit out. So, if need be,--why, jest treat him
like anybody else--as ye says--an' don't be narvous about hit."

Ten minutes after the dejected exit of Jud White, Mark Tapper, the
Revenuer, entered the front door of the Courthouse and shouldered his
way aggressively among loungers who eyed him with hostile
vindictiveness. Passing unchallenged between several rifle-bearers in
the upper area, he entered the judge's office, where Towers sat
expectantly waiting.

Kinnard opened the interview by drawing forth his wallet and counting
sundry bank notes into Tapper's extended palm.

"Kinnard," suggested the federal sleuth irritably, "it was clearly
understood between us that you were going to limit those stills you're
interested in--not develop them into a damned syndicate."

Towers frowned a little. "Ther more thar is of 'em ther more ye gits,
don't ye?"

"Yes, and where my revenue, from your hush money, increases a picayune,
my peril increases--vastly. One tip to the government, and I'm ruined."

"Oh, pshaw, Mark," urged Towers conciliatingly, "hit's jest an exchange
of leetle favors a-tween us. There's some fellers I've got ter kinderly
protect an' thar's some information ye needs ter hev in yore
business--so 'stid of wagin' war on one another we trades tergether.
Thet's all."

For a few moments the revenue officer restlessly paced the room, then,
halting before the desk, he rapped sharply with his knuckles. "Since I
let myself in for this folly of selling you protection I'm not damned
fool enough to try to threaten you. You can hurt me worse than I can
hurt you--and have me assassinated to boot--but unless we can arrange
things more to my liking, I'll get myself transferred to another
district--and you'll have to begin all over again."

Towers did not at once answer. When he did it was with the air of one
tendering the olive branch of peace.

"Set down, Mark, an' let's be reasonable. If so be thar's
dissatisfaction I reckon we kin fix matters. Right now I've got a
bigger project in mind than _thet_--an' I needs yore aid. This here
Jerry Henderson stands mightily in my light an' I aims ter be rid of
him. He hain't got no money invested hyar. He kin go without no loss
ner trouble. He don't even hev ter put out ther fire an' call ther
dawg. He sets by Lone Stacy's fire an' he hain't got no dawg."

"If you mean a watch-dog he doesn't need one--so long as the Stacys
choose to protect him."

Towers slowly nodded. "Thet's right, but with Lone Stacy and Bear Cat
moved away fer a leetle spell, hit would be as easy as old shoes."

"And how do you aim to move them?"

"Thet's whar you comes in, Mark. Lone's runnin' a blockade still over
on Little Slippery."

The revenuer leaned forward with as unreceptive a stare as though his
companion had graciously proffered him the gift of a hornet's nest.

"Hold on," he bluntly protested, "I have no evidence of that--and
what's more, I don't want any."

"Air you like ther balance of 'em hyarabouts?" came Kinnard's satiric
inquiry. "Air ye skeered ter tackle Bear Cat Stacy?"

Mark Tapper replied with entire sincerity.

"Yes, I'm afraid to tackle him--and I'm brave enough to admit it. Once
in a century a man like that is born and he's born to be a master. I
warn you betimes, Kinnard, _leave him alone_! Play with a keg of
blasting powder and a lighted match if you like. Tickle a kicking mule
if you've a mind to, but _leave Bear Cat alone_!" The minion of the
federal law rose from his chair and spoke excitedly. "And if you're
hell-bent on starting an avalanche, do it for yourself--don't try to
make me pull it down on my own head, because I won't do it."

Kinnard Towers leaned back in the judge's swivel chair and laughed
uproariously.

"Mark, right sensibly at times, ye shows signs of human discernment. I
hain't seekin' no open rupture with this young tiger cat my own self. I
aims ter show in this matter only es his friend. _You_ hain't overly
popular with them Stacys nohow an' I've got hit all _dee_vised, ter
plumb convince 'em thet ye're only actin' in ther lawful discharge of
yore duty."

"That will be very nice--if you succeed," commented the proposed
catspaw dryly.

"I aims ter succeed," came the prompt assurance. "I aims ter
demonstrate thet thar war so much talkin' goin' round thet ye war plumb
obleeged ter act an' thet thar hain't no profit in resistin'. I'll tell
'em hit's a weak case atter all. They won't harm ye. Ye hain't a-goin'
ter arrest ther boy nohow--jest ther old man."

"And leave Bear Cat foot-loose to avenge his daddy! No thank you. Not
for me."

Again Towers smiled. "Now don't be short-sighted, Mark. Bear Cat won't
be hyar neither."

"Why won't he be here? Because you'll tell him to go?"

"I won't need ter say a word. His daddy'll counsel him ter leave fer a
spell an' hide out--so thet he kain't be tuck down ter Looeyville fer a
gover'_ment_ witness."

"When am I supposed to perform this highly spectacular stunt?" inquired
Mark Tapper.

"I aims ter hev ye do hit this afternoon."

"This afternoon--with every foot of street and sidewalk full of wild
men, ready to pull me to pieces!" The revenuer's face was hot with
amazement. "Besides I have no evidence."

"Ye kin git thet later," Towers assured him calmly. "Besides we don't
keer a heap if ye fails ter convict. We only wants 'em outen ther way
fer a while. Es fer ther crowds, I'm fixed ter safeguard ye. I've got
all my people hyar--ready--an' armed. I aims ter run things an' keep
peace in Marlin Town terday!"



CHAPTER X


On the river bank at the outskirts of Marlin Town that afternoon so
primitive was the aspect of life that it seemed appropriate to say in
Scriptural form: "A great multitude was gathered together." The haze of
Indian summer lay veil-like and sweetly brooding along the ridged and
purple horizon. The mountainsides flared with torch-like fires of
autumnal splendor--and the quaint old town with its shingled roofs and
its ox-teams in the streets, lay sleepily quiet in the mid-distance.

Toward the crudely constructed rostrum of the two preachers in
long-tailed coats, strained the eyes of the throng, pathetically solemn
in their tense earnestness. Men bent with labor and women broken by
toil and perennial child-bearing; children whose faces bore the stupid
vacuity of in-bred degeneracy; other children alert and keen, needing
only the chance they would never have. It was a sea of unlettered
humanity in jeans and calico, in hodden-gray and homespun--seeking a
sign from Heaven, less to save their immortal souls than to break the
tedium of their mortal weariness.

Henderson stood with folded arms beside the preacher whose pattern of
faith differed from that of the two exhorters he had come to hear.
Blossom's cheeks were abloom and her eyes, back of their grave
courtesy, rippled with a suppressed amusement. To her mind, her father
exemplified true ministry and these others were interesting quacks, but
to Bear Cat, standing at her elbow, they were performers whose clownish
antics savored of charlatanism--and who capitalized the illiteracy of
their hearers. Lone Stacy was there, too, but with a mask-like
impassiveness of feature that betrayed neither the trend nor color of
his thought.

Not far distant, though above and beyond the press of the crowd, stood
the Towers chief, and his four guardians, and shifting here and there,
sauntered others of his henchmen, swinging rifles at their sides and
watchful, through their seeming carelessness, for any signal from him.
Once for a moment Henderson caught a glimpse of Ratler Webb's skulking
figure with a vindictive glance bent upon Bear Cat--but in another
instant he had disappeared.

The first of the exhorters had swung into the full tide of his
discourse. His arm swung flail-like. His eyes rolled in awe-provoking
frenzy. His voice leaped and fell after the fashion of a troubled wind
and through his pauses there came back to him the occasional low wail
of some almost convinced sinner. Gradually, under this invocation of
passionate phrase and "holy-tone," the tide of crowd-psychology was
mounting to hysteria.

Between sentences and phrases the preacher interlarded his sermon with
grunts of emotion-laden "Oh's" and "Ah's."

"Fer them thet denies ther faith, oh brethren--Oh! Ah! ther pits of
hell air yawnin' wide an' red! Almighty God air jest a-bidin' His time
afore He kicks 'em inter ther ragin', fiery furnace an' ther caldrons
of molten brimstone, Oh! Ah!"

The speaker rolled his eyes skyward until only their whites remained
visible. With his upflung fingers clawing talon-wise at the air he
froze abruptly out of crescendo into grotesque and motionless silence.

Through the close-ranked listeners ran a shuddering quaver, followed by
a sighing sound like rising wind which in turn broke into a shrieking
chorus of "Amens!" and "Hallelujahs!"

The simple throng was an instrument upon which he played. Their naive
credulity was his keyboard. Joel Fulkerson's eyes were mirrors of
silent pain as he looked on and listened. "Lord God," he said in his
heart, "I have toiled a lifetime in Thy service and men have hardened
their hearts. Yet to these who harangue them in the market-place, they
give ear--ay, and shed abundant tears."

Then the long-coated, long-haired preacher having exhausted the
dramatic value of the pause, launched himself afresh.

"Ther Lord hes said thet ef a man hes faith, even so sizeable es a
mustard seed, he shell say ter thet mounting, 'move' an' hit'll plumb
move! Oh-Ah!"

Once more the tone dwindled to a haunting whisper, then vaulted into
sudden thunder.

"Brethren, I _hev_ sich faith! Right now I could say ter thet thar
mounting thet's stood thar since ther commencement of time, 'Move,' an'
hit would roll away like a cloud afore ther wind! Right now afore ye
all, I could walk down ter thet river an' cross hits deep waters
dry-shod!"

Jerry Henderson, looking with amusement about the overwrought crowd,
saw no spirit of skepticism on any untutored face, only a
superstitiously deep earnestness everywhere.

Now even the hysterical "Amens!" which had been like responses to a
crazed litany were left unspoken. The hearers sat in a strained
silence; a voicelessness of bated breath--as if awed into a trance.
That stillness held hypnotically and long.

Then like a bomb bursting in a cathedral came a clear voice, frankly
scornful and full of challenge from somewhere on the fringe of the
congregation.

"All right--let's see ye do hit! Let's see ye walk over ther waters
dry-shod!"

Petrified, breathlessly shocked, men and women held for a little space
their stunned poses, so that a margin of silence gave emphasis to the
sacrilege. Then, gradually gathering volume, from a gasp to a murmur,
from a murmur to a sullen roar, spoke the voice of resentment. Some
indignant person, wanting full comprehension and seeking only a
Biblical form of expression, shouted loudly: "Crucify him!" and
following that, pandemonium drowned out individual utterances.

Kinnard Towers did not share in the general excitement. He only bit
liberally from his tobacco plug and remarked: "I reckon Bear Cat
Stacy's drunk ergin." But Bear Cat Stacy, standing at the point from
which he had interrupted the meeting, looked on with blazing eyes and
said nothing.

"Now ye've done gone an' made another damn' fool of yourself!"
whispered his father hoarsely in his ear. "Ye've done disturbed public
worship--an' as like es not hit'll end in bloodshed."

Turner made no reply. His fingers were tense as they gripped biceps
equally set. The fury of his face died into quiet seriousness. If the
howling mob destroyed him he had, at least, flung down the gauntlet to
these impostors who sought to victimize the helplessness of ignorance.

About him surged a crowd with shuffling feet and murmuring undertones;
a crowd that moved and swayed like milling cattle in a corral, awaiting
only leadership for violence. Then abruptly a pistol shot ripped out,
followed instantly by another, and the edges of the throng began an
excited eddying of stampede.

The babel of high voices, questioning, volunteering unreliable
information, swelling into a deep-throated outcry, became inarticulate.
The first impression was that some one in a moment of fanaticism had
conceived himself called upon to punish sacrilege. The second had it
that Bear Cat Stacy himself, not satisfied with his impious beginnings,
was bent on carrying his disturbance to a more sweeping conclusion.
Neither assumption was accurate.

A few moments before Bear Cat's outbreak, Kinnard Towers had whispered
to Black Tom Carmichael, indicating with a glance of his eye the
skulking figure of Ratler Webb, "Watch him."

Nodding in response to that whisper, Black Tom had strolled casually
over, stationing himself directly behind Bear Cat. His face wore a calm
benignity and his arms were crossed on his breast so peacefully that
one would hardly have guessed the right hand caressed the grip of an
automatic pistol and that the pistol had already been drawn half free
from its hidden holster.

It happened that Ratler's hand, in his coat pocket, was also nursing a
weapon. Ratler was biding his time. He had read into every face a
contemptuous mockery for his surrender of the road to Turner Stacy that
morning. In his disordered brain a fixed idea had festered into the
mandate of a single word: "Revengeance."

Then when Bear Cat had drawn down on himself the wrath of an outraged
camp-meeting Ratler thought his opportunity knocked. The crowd began to
shift and move so that the focus of men's impressions was blurred.
Availing himself of that momentary confusion, he stole a little nearer
and shifted sidewise so that he might see around Black Tom Carmichael's
bulking shoulders. He glanced furtively about him. Kinnard Towers was
looking off abstractedly--another way. No one at front or back seemed
to be noticing him.

Ratler Webb's arm flashed up with a swiftness that was sheer
slight-of-hand and Black Tom's vigilant eye caught a dull glint of blue
metal. With a legerdemain superlatively quick, Carmichael's hand, too,
flashed from his breast. His pistol spoke, and Ratler's shot was a
harmless one into the air. When the startled faces turned that way
Ratler was staggering back with a flesh wound and Black Tom was once
more standing calmly by. On the ground between his feet and Bear Cat
Stacy's, as near to the one as the other, lay a smoking pistol.

"Bear Cat's done shot Ratler Webb!" yelled a treble voice, and again
the agitated crowd broke into a confused roar.

Turner bent quickly toward Blossom and spoke in a tense whisper. "Leave
hyar fer God's sake. This hain't no place fer _you_ right now!"

The girl's eyes leaped into instant and Amazonian fire and, as her chin
came up, she answered in a low voice of unamenable obduracy:

"So long es _you_ stays, I stays, too. I don't aim ter run away."

The crowd was edging in, not swiftly but sullenly and there were faces
through whose snarls showed such yellow fangs as suggested a wolf pack.
Here and there one could see the flash of a drawn pistol or the glint
of a "dirk-knife."

Then, coming reluctantly, yet keyed to his hard duty by the
consciousness of Kinnard Towers' scrutiny, Jud White, the town marshal,
arrived and laid a hand on Bear Cat's shoulder.

"I reckon," he said, licking his lips, "ye'll hev ter come ter ther
jail-house with me, Bear Cat."

"What fer, Jud?" inquired Turner quietly, though the tawny fire was
burning in his eyes. "I didn't shoot them shoots."

"Folks ses ye did, Bear Cat."

"Them folks lies."

A sudden crescendo of violent outcry interrupted their debate. Through
it came shouts of: "Kill ther blasphemer!" "String him up!"

With a sudden flash of sardonic humor in his eyes Bear Cat suggested
softly: "I reckon, Jud, hit's yore duty ter kinderly protect yore
prisoner, hain't hit?"

A cold sweat broke out over the face of the town officer and as he
stood irresolute, the crowd, in which mob passion was spreading like
flames in dry grass, swayed in a brief indicision--and in that moment
Brother Fulkerson stood forward, raising his arms above his head.

"Brethren," he cried in a voice that trembled, "I implores ye ter
listen ter me. I hain't never lied ter ye afore now, an' unless my
labors hev been fer naught, I des'arves ter be h'arkened to."

Curiosity prevailed and the din subsided enough to let the evangelist
be heard.

"I was standin' right hyar by Bear Cat Stacy when them shots war
fired," Fulkerson went on earnestly, "an' I swears ter ye, with
Almighty God fer my witness, thet he didn't hev nothin' more ter do
with hit then what I did."

As he paused a sarcastic voice from the crowd demanded: "Will ye swear
he didn't aim ter break up ther meetin' neither?"

"Let me answer that question," shouted Bear Cat Stacy, stepping
defiantly forward.

There was peril in that interruption, and the young man knew it. He
realized that only a savage, cat-and-mouse spirit of prolonging
excitement had, so far, held in leash the strained wrath of a crowd
worked already to frenzy. But the mountaineer loves oratory of any
sort, and a lynching need not be hurried through. They would have
listened to Brother Fulkerson--but would they give _him_ a hearing?

For a moment Bear Cat stood there, sweeping them with a gaze that held
no fear and a great deal of open scorn. The effrontery of his attitude,
the blaze of his eyes and even the rumors of his charmed life were
having their effects. Then he spoke:

"Any man thet charges me with blasphemin' lies! Brother Fulkerson hes
done toiled his life away amongst ye--an' ye skeercely heeds his
preachin'. I believes these fellers thet calls themselves God's
sarvents ter be false prophets. Instid of the light of knowledge, they
offers ye ther smoke of ign'rance. They hev 'lowed thet they kin work
miracles. Ef they kin, why don't they? Ef they kain't they lies an'
sich a lie as thet air blasphemy. I called on 'em ter make good thar
brag--an' now I calls on 'em ergin! Let's see a miracle."

He ended and, as the voice of the crowd rose once more, this time a
shade less unanimous in tone, a strange thing happened. About Bear Cat
Stacy and the town marshal appeared a little knot of rifle-armed men,
and coming to their front, Kinnard Towers bellowed:

"Men! Listen!"

They looked at his face and his guns--and listened.

"I was standin' whar I could see this whole matter," asserted Towers.
"Bear Cat Stacy never drawed nor fired no weepin. My friend Tom
Carmichael shot Ratler Webb in _dee_fense of his life. Ratler shot a
shoot, too. I counsels ther town marshal not ter jail Bear Cat Stacy,
an' I counsels ther rest of ye ter settle down ergin ter quiet. Mebby
Bear Cat oughtn't ter hev interrupted ther preachin', but whoever aims
ter harm him must needs take him away from me!"

Over the sea of faces ran a wave of amazement sounding out in a
prolonged murmur. Here was the incredible situation of a Towers leader
vouching for and protecting a Stacy chieftain. Feudal blood tingled
with the drama of that realization.

Varied excitements were breaking the drab monotony of life to-day for
Marlin Town! A voice shouted, "I reckon Ratler needs a leetle shootin'
anyhow," and the sally was greeted with laughter. The tide had turned.

On Bear Cat's face, though, as he wheeled to his powerful rescuer was a
mingling of emotions; surprise blended with a frown of unwillingly
incurred obligation.

"I'm obleeged ter ye, Kinnard Towers," he said dubiously, "but I reckon
I could hev keered fer myself. I hain't seekin' ter be beholden ter
ye."

The florid man laughed. "Ye hain't none beholden ter me, son," was his
hearty disclaimer. "A man likes ter testify ter ther truth when he sees
somebody falsely accused, thet's all."

Brother Fulkerson and his daughter started back to Little Slippery that
same evening, meaning to spend the night with friends a few miles from
town. After bidding them farewell at the edge of the town, Henderson
and Bear Cat strolled back together toward the shack tavern where Jerry
had his quarters. The younger man's eyes were brooding, and suddenly he
broke out in vehement insurgency:

"I reckon I was a fool down thar by ther river--but I couldn't hold my
peace deespite all my effort. Hyar's a land dry-rottin' away in
ign'rance--an' no man raisin' his voice fer its real betterment." His
tone dropped and became gentle with an undernote of pain. "I looked at
Blossom, standin' thar, with a right ter ther best thar is--an' I could
foresee ther misery an' tribulation of all this makin' her old in a few
years. I jest had ter speak out."

Henderson only nodded. He, too, had been thinking of Blossom, and he
realized that wherever he went, when he left the hills, there was going
to be an emptiness in his life. He was not going to be able to forget
her. The shield which he had always held before his heart had failed to
protect him against the dancing eyes of a girl who could not even speak
correct English--the tilted chin of a girl who would not flee from a
mob.

"Turner," he said, drawing himself together with an effort, "come over
to the hotel with me. I'm going down to Louisville for a few days, and
I want you to help me make out a list of books for Blossom and
yourself."

Turner's eyes lighted. One man at least sought to be, in so far as he
could, a torch-bearer.

As they sat talking of titles and authors the boy's face softened and
glowed with imagination. Off through the window the peaks bulked
loftily against the sunset's ash-of-rose. Both men looked toward the
west and a silence fell between them, then they heard hurried footsteps
and, without knocking, Jud White the town marshal, flung open the door.

"Bear Cat," he announced briefly, "yore paw bade me fotch ye ter him
direct. The revenue hes got him in ther jail-house, charged with
blockadin'."



CHAPTER XI


Under the impact of these tidings Turner Stacy came to his feet with a
sudden transformation of bearing. The poetic abstraction which had, a
moment ago, been a facial mirror for the sunset mysticism, vanished to
be harshly usurped by a spirit of sinister wrath.

For several seconds he did not speak, but stood statuesquely taut and
strained, the line of his lips straight and unbending over the angle of
a set jaw.

The yellow glow of the sinking sun seemed to light him as he stood by
the window into a ruddy kinship with bronze, awakening a glint of
metallic hardness on cheekbone, temple and dilated nostril. It was the
menacing figure of a man whose ancestors had always settled their own
scores in private reprisal and by undiscounted tally, and one just now
forgetful of all save his heritage of blood.

Then the strained posture relaxed and Bear Cat Stacy inquired in a tone
of dead and impersonal calm:

"Mr. Henderson, hev ye got a gun?"

As Jerry shook his head, Bear Cat wheeled abruptly on Jud White: "Lend
me yore weepin, Jud," he demanded with a manner of overbearing
peremptoriness.

"I'd love ter obleege ye, Bear Cat," haltingly parried the officer,
"but I kain't hardly do hit--lawfully."

Volcanic fires burst instantly in the eyes where they had been
smoldering, until from them seemed to spurt an outpouring of flame and
the voice of command was as explosive as the rending thunders that
release a flow of molten lava.

"Don't balk me, Jud," Stacy cautioned. "I'm in dire haste. Air ye goin'
ter loan me thet gun of yore own free will or hev I got ter take hit
offen ye?"

The town marshal glanced backward toward the exit, but with leopard
swiftness Bear Cat was at the door, barring it with the weight of his
body, and his breath was coming with deep intake of passion. After an
irresolute moment, White surrendered his automatic pistol.

But as Turner gripped the knob, Jerry Henderson laid a deterring hand
on his shoulder. "Just a moment, Bear Cat," he said quietly. Somewhat
to his surprise the younger man paused and, as he turned his face
questioningly to the speaker, some part of its fury dissolved.

"This is a time, Turner, when it's mighty easy to make a mistake," went
on the promoter earnestly. "If your father sent for you, it's pretty
certain that he wants to speak to you before you take any step."

"Thet's identically what he bade me caution ye, Bear Cat," echoed
White. "He 'lowed thar'd be time enough fer reprisal later on."

"Mr. White," Henderson demanded as he turned and fronted the marshal
with a questioning gaze, "before he goes over there, I want you to give
me your hand that this isn't a scheme to get Bear Cat Stacy in the jail
under false pretenses, so that he can be more easily arrested."

"An' answer thet honest," Turner warned vehemently, "because ef I don't
walk outen thet jail-house es free es I goes inter hit, you won't never
leave hit alive yoreself, Jud. How comes hit ther revenue didn't seek
ter arrest me, too?"

"So holp me Almighty God, men," the voice of the officer carried
conviction of its sincerity. "I came over hyar only bearin' tidin's
from Lone Stacy. I hain't aidin' no revenue. I heered Mark Tapper 'low
thet he hedn't no charge ter mek ergin ye jest now."

"In that case," declared Henderson, assuming the rôle of spokesman,
"we'll both go with you to the jail. Bear Cat will give me the gun,
since he can't go in unsearched, and you will remain with me, unarmed,
as a hostage until he comes out."

"Thet satisfies me, all right," readily agreed the town marshal.

The jail-house at Marlin Town squats low of roof and uncompromising in
its squareness to the left of the Courthouse; hardly more than a brick
pen, sturdily solid and sullenly unlovely of façade.

When father and son met in the bare room where one rude chair was the
only furnishing save for a tin basin on a soap-box, the fire of renewed
wrath leaped in Turner's eyes and he spoke with a tremor of voice:

"I reckon ye knows full well, pap, thet I don't aim ter let ye lay hyar
long. I aims ter tek ye outen hyar afore sun-up--ef I hes ter take ye
single-handed!"

The sunset was fading and in the bleak cell there was a grayness
relieved only by the dim light from a high, barred slit that served as
a window. The two men had to peer intently at each other through
widened pupils to read the expression of lips and eyes.

Old Lone Stacy smiled grimly.

"I'm obleeged ter ye, son." His response was quiet. "An' I knows ye
means what ye says, but jest now ye've got ter let _me_ decide whether
hit's a fit time ter wage war--or submit."

"Submit!" echoed the son in blank amazement. "Ye don't aim ter let 'em
penitenshery ye ergin, does ye?"

Laying a soothing hand on the arm that shook passionately, the senior
went on in a modulated voice.

"I've done studied this matter out, son, more ca'mly then you've hed
time ter do yit--an' I discerns how ye kin holp me best. Sometimes hit
profits a man more ter study ther fox then ther eagle."

The boy stood there in the half light, finding it bitter to stomach
such passive counsel, but he gulped down his rising gorge of fury and
forced himself to acquiesce calmly, "I'm hearkenin' ter ye."

"Ther revenue 'lowed thet he war plumb obleeged ter jail me," went on
the elder moonshiner evenly, "because tidin's hes done reached ther men
up above him."

"I aims ter compel Mark Tapper ter give me ther names of them damn'
tale-bearers," exploded Bear Cat violently, "an' I'm a-goin' ter settle
with him an' them, too, in due course."

But again Lone Stacy shook his head.

"Thet would only bring on more trouble," he declared steadfastly. "Mark
Tapper made admission thet he hes a weak case, an' he said thet ef I
went with him peaceable he wouldn't press hit no further then what he
war compelled ter. He 'lowed he hedn't no evi_dence_ erginst _you_. I
don't believe he's seed our still yit an' ef ye heeds my counsel, he
won't never see hit."

"What does ye counsel then? I'm a-listenin'."

Lone Stacy's voice cast off its almost conciliating tone and became one
of command. "I wants thet ye shell ride back over thar es fast es a
beast kin carry ye--an' git thar afore ther revenue. I wants thet ye
shell move thet still into a place of safe concealment erginst his
comin', I wants thet 'stid of tryin' ter carcumvent him ye sha'n't be
thar at all when he comes."

"Not be thar?" The words were echoed in surprise, and the older head
bowed gravely.

"Jist so. Ef they don't find ther copper worm ner ther kittle--an'
don't git ye ter testify ergin me, I've still got a right gay chanst
ter come cl'ar."

"Does ye 'low," demanded the son with deeply hurt pride, "that anybody
this side of hell-a-poppin' could fo'ce me ter give testimony ergin my
own blood?"

Again the wrinkled hand of the father fell on the shoulder of his son.
It was as near to a caress as his undemonstrative nature could
approach.

"I wouldn't hev ye perjure yoreself, son--an' without ye did thet--ye'd
convict me--ef ye was thar in Co'te."

Turner glanced up at the narrow slit in the brick wall through which
now showed only a greenish strip of pallid sky. His lips worked
spasmodically. "I come over hyar resolved ter sot ye free," he said
slowly, "ter fight my way outen hyar an' take ye along with me--but I'm
ready ter heed yore counsel."

"Then ride over home es fast es ye kin go--an' when ye've told yore maw
what's happened, an' hid ther still, take Lee along with ye an' go
cl'ar acrost inter Virginny whar no summons sarver kain't find ye. Stay
plumb away from hyar till I sends ye word. Tell yore maw where I kin
reach ye, but don't tell me. I wants ter swear I don't know."

Bear Cat hesitated, then his voice shook with a storm of protest.

"I don't delight none thet ye should go down thar an' sulter in jail
whilst I'm up hyar enjoyin' freedom."

The older man met this impetuous outburst with the stoic's fine
tranquillity.

"When they tuck me afore," he said, "I left yore maw unprotected behind
me an' you was only a burden on her then. Now I kin go easy in my mind,
knowin' she's got you." The prisoner's voice softened. "She war a
mighty purty gal, yore maw, in them times. Right sensibly Blossom
Fulkerson puts me in mind of her now."

Lone Stacy broke off with abruptness and added gruffly: "I reckon ye'd
better be a-startin' home now--hit's comin' on ter be nightfall."

As Turner Stacy went out he turned and looked back. The cell was almost
totally dark now and its inmate had reseated himself, his shoulders
sagging dejectedly. "I'll do what he bids me now," Bear Cat told
himself grimly, "but some day thar's a-goin' ter be a reckonin'."

On his way to the livery stable he met Kinnard Towers on foot but, as
always, under escort. Still stinging under the chagrin of an hereditary
enemy's gratuitous intervention in his behalf and a deep-seated
suspicion of the man, he halted stiffly and his brow was lowering.

"Air these hyar tidin's true, Bear Cat? I've heerd thet yore paw's done
been jailed," demanded Kinnard solicitously, ignoring the coldness of
his greeting. "Kin I holp ye in any fashion?"

"No, we don't need no aid," was the curt response. "Ef we did we'd call
on ther Stacys fer hit."

Towers smiled. "I aimed ter show ye this a'tternoon thet I _felt_
friendly, Turner."

The manner was seemingly so sincere that the young man felt ashamed of
his contrasting churlishness and hastened to amend it.

"I reckon I hev need ter ask yore pardon, Kinnard. I'm sore fretted
about this matter."

"An' I don't blame ye neither, son. I jest stopped ter acquaint ye with
what folks says. This hyar whole matter looks like a sort of bluff on
Mark Tapper's part ter make a good showin' with ther govern_ment_. He
hain't hardly got nothin' but hearsay ter go on--unless he kin make
_you_ testify. Ef ye was ter kinderly disappear now fer a space of
time, I reckon nothin' much wouldn't come of hit."

"I'm obleeged ter ye Kinnard. Paw hes don' give me ther same counsel,"
said Bear Cat, as he hurried to the stable where he parted with Jerry
Henderson after a brief and earnest interview.

It was with a very set face and with very deep thoughts that Bear Cat
Stacy set out for his home on Little Slippery. He rode all night with
the starlight and the clean sweep of mountain wind in his face, and at
sunrise stabled his mount at the cabin of a kinsman and started on
again by a short cut "over the roughs" where a man can travel faster on
foot.

When eventually he entered the door of his house his mother looked
across the dish she was drying to inquire, "Where's yore paw at?"

He told her and, under the sudden scorn in her eyes, he flinched.

"Ye went down thar ter town with him," she accused in the high falsetto
of wrath, "an' ye come back scot free an' abandoned him ter ther
penitenshery an' ye didn't raise a hand ter save him! Ef hit hed of
been me I'd hev brought him home safe or I wouldn't of been hyar myself
ter tell of hit!"

Bear Cat Stacy went over and took the woman's wasted hands in both of
his own. As he looked down on her from his six feet of height there
came into his eyes a gentleness so winning that his expression was one
of surprising and tender sweetness.

"Does ye 'low," he asked softly, "that I'd hev done _thet_ ef he hadn't
p'intedly an' severely bid me do hit?"

He told her the story in all its detail and as she listened no tears
came into her eyes to relieve the hard misery of her face. But when he
had drawn a chair for her to the hearth and she had seated herself
stolidly there, he realized that he must go and remove the evidence
which still remained back there in the laurel thickets. He left her
tearless and haggard of expression, gazing dully ahead of her at the
ashes of the burned-out fire; the gaunt figure of a mountain woman to
whom life is a serial of apprehension.

When he came back at sunset she still sat there, bending tearlessly
forward, and it was not until he had crossed the threshold that he saw
another figure rise from its knees. Blossom Fulkerson had been kneeling
with her arms about the shrunken shoulders--but how long, he did not
know.

"Blossom," he said that evening as he was starting away into banishment
across the Virginia boundary, "I don't know how long I'm a-goin' ter be
gone, but I reckon you knows how I feels. I've done asked Mr. Henderson
ter look atter ye, when he comes back from Louisville. He aims ter see
ter hit that paw gits ther best lawyers ter defend him while he's
thar."

"I reckon then," replied the girl with a faith of hero-worship which
sent a sharp paroxysm of pain into Bear Cat's heart, "thet yore paw
will mighty sartain come cl'ar."

They were standing by the gate of the Stacy house, for Blossom meant to
spend that night with the lone woman who sat staring dully into the
blackened fireplace. To the lips of the departing lover rose a
question, inspired by that note of admiration which had lent a thrill
to her voice at mention of Jerry Henderson, but he sternly repressed
it.

To catechize her love would be disloyal and ungenerous. It would be a
wrong alike to her whom he trusted and to the man who was his loyal
friend--and hers. But in his heart, already sore with the prospect of
exile, with the thought of that dejectedly rocking figure inside and
the other figure he had left in the neutral grayness of the jail cell,
awakened a new ache. He was thinking how untutored and raw he must seem
now that his life had been thrown into the parallel of contrast with
the man who knew the broad world of "down below" and even of over-seas.
If to Blossom's thinking he himself had shrunken in stature, it was not
a surprising thing--but that did not rob the realization of its cutting
edge or its barb.

"Blossom," he said, as his face once more became ineffably gentle,
"thar's ther evenin' star comin' up over ther Wilderness Ridges." He
took both her hands in his and looked not at the evening star but into
the eyes that she lifted to gaze at it. "So long es I'm away--so long
es I lives--I won't never see hit withouten I thinks of _you_. But hit
hain't only when I see _hit_ thet I thinks of ye--hit's _always_. I
reckon ye don't sca'cely realize even a leetle portion of how much I
loves ye." He fell for a space silent, his glance caressing her, then
added unsteadily and with an effort to smile, "I reckon thet's jest got
ter be a secret a-tween ther Almighty, Who knows everything--an' me
thet don't know much else but jest _thet_!"

She pressed his hands, but she did not put her arms about him nor offer
to kiss him, and he reflected rather wretchedly that she had done that
only once. Though it might be ungenerous to think of it, save as a
coincidence, that one time had been before Jerry Henderson had been on
the scene for twenty-four hours.

Bear Cat Stacy, with the lemon afterglow at his back and only the
darkness before his face, was carrying a burdened spirit over into old
Virginia, where for the first time in his life he must, like some
red-handed murderer, "hide out" from the law.

Kinnard Towers felt that his plans had worked with a well-oiled
precision until the day after Lone Stacy's arrest, when he awoke to
receive the unwelcome tidings that Jerry Henderson had taken the train
at four o'clock that morning for Louisville.

For a moment black rage possessed him, then it cleared away into a more
philosophical mood as his informant added, "But he 'lowed ter several
folks thet he aimed ter come back ergin in about a week's time."

                 *       *       *       *       *

On that trip to Louisville Jerry Henderson saw to it that old Lone
Stacy should face trial with every advantage of learned and
distinguished counsel.

Jerry and President Williams of the C. and S.-E. Railways knew, though
the public did not, that the expenses of that defense were to be
charged up to the road's accounts under the head of "Incidentals--_in
re_ Cedar Mountain extension."

Old Lone had been an unconscious sponsor during these months and his
friendship warranted recognition, not only for what he had done, but
also for what he might yet do.

But the promoter's stay in the city was not happy since he found
himself floundering in a quandary of mind and heart which he could no
longer laugh away. He had heretofore boasted an adequate strength to
regulate and discipline his life. Such a power he had always regarded
as test and measure of an ambitious man's effectiveness. Its failure,
total or partial, was a flaw which endangered the metal and temper of
resolution.

On these keen and bracing days, as he walked briskly along the streets
of the city, he found himself instinctively searching for a face not to
be found; the face of Blossom Fulkerson and always upon realization
followed a pang of disappointment. Unless he watched himself he would
be idiotically falling in love with her, he mused, which was only a
vain denial that he was already in love with her.

It was in their half-conscious pervasiveness, their dream-like
subtlety, that these influences were strongest. When they emerged into
the full light of consciousness he laughed them away. Such fantasies
did not fit into his pattern of life. They were suicidally dangerous.
Yet they lingered in the fairy land of the partially realized.

He wished that her ancestors had been among those who had won through
to the promised land of the bluegrass, instead of those who had been
stranded in the dry-rot of the hills. In that event, perhaps, her
grandmothers would have been ladies in brocade and powdered hair
instead of bent crones dipping snuff by cabin hearth-stones. All their
inherent fineness of mind and charm, Blossom had--under the submerging
of generations. The most stately garden will go to ragged and
weed-choked desolation if left too long untended.

But he could hardly hope to make his more fashionable world see that.
The freshness of her charm would be less obvious than the lapses of her
grammar; the flash of her wit less marked than her difficulties with a
tea-cup.

Blossom, too, of late had been troubled with a restlessness of spirit,
new to her experience. Until that day last June upon which so many
important things had happened the gay spontaneity of her nature had
dealt little with perplexities. She had acknowledged a deep and
unsatisfied yearning for "education" and a fuller life, but even that
was not poignantly destructive of happiness.

Then within a space of twenty-four hours, Henderson had made his
appearance, bringing a sense of contact with the wonder-world beyond
the purple barriers; she had prayed through the night for Turner and he
had come to her at dawn with his pledge--and finally, she had confessed
her love.

In short she had matured with that swift sequence of happenings into
womanhood, and since then nothing had been quite the same. But of all
the unsettling elements, the disturbing-in-chief was Jerry Henderson.
He had flashed into her life with all the startling fascination of
Cinderella's prince, and matters hitherto accepted as axiomatic
remained no longer certain.

"Gittin' education" had before that meant keeping pace with Turner's
ambition. Now it involved a pathetic effort to raise herself to
Henderson's more complex plane.

She had sought as studiously as Jerry himself to banish the absurd idea
that this readjustment of values was sentimental, and she had as
signally failed.

These changes in herself had been of such gradual incubation that she
had never realized their force sufficiently to face and analyze
them--yet she had sent young Stacy away without a caress!

"I'm jest the same as plighted to Bear Cat," she told herself
accusingly, because loyalty was an element of her blood. "I ain't
hardly got ther right to think of Mr. Henderson." But she did think of
him. Perhaps she was culpable, but she was very young. Turner had
seemed a planet among small stars--then Jerry had come like a flaming
comet--and her heart was in sore doubt.

When, on his return, Henderson dropped from the step of the rickety
day-coach to the cinder platform of the station at Marlin Town, he met
Uncle Israel Calvert who paused to greet him.

"Wa'al howdy, stranger," began the old man with a full volumed
heartiness, then he added swiftly under his breath and with almost as
little movement of his lips as a ventriloquist. "Don't leave town
withouten ye sees me fust--hit's urgent. Don't appear ter hev much
speech with me in public. Meet me at ther Farmers' Bank--upsta'rs--one
hour hence."

Jerry Henderson recognized the whispered message as a warning which it
would be foolhardiness to ignore. Probably even as he received it he
was under surveillance, so instead of setting out at once on foot, he
waited and at the appointed time strolled with every appearance of
unconcern into the Farmers' Bank.

At the same time Black Tom Carmichael happened in to have a two-dollar
bill changed into silver, and overheard the cashier saying in a
matter-of-fact voice, "Thar's been some little tangle in yore balance,
Mr. Henderson. Would ye mind steppin' up to the directors' room an'
seein' ef ye kin straighten it out with the bookkeeper. She's up thar."

With a smile of assent Henderson mounted the narrow stairs and Black
Tom lighted his pipe and loafed with inquisitive indolence below.



CHAPTER XII


Instead of a puzzled accountant Jerry found in the bare upper room the
rosy-faced, white-haired man who had given him credentials when he
first arrived in the hills, and who kept the store over on Big Ivy.

"I come over hyar on my way ter Knoxville ter lay me in a stock of
winter goods," volunteered the storekeeper, "an' I 'lowed I'd tarry an'
hev speech with ye afore I fared any further on." As he spoke he tilted
back his chair, and thrust his hands deep into his pockets.

Henderson lifted his brows in interrogation and the storekeeper
proceeded with deliberate emphasis.

"Somebody, I hain't found out jest who--aims ter hev ye lay-wayed on
yore trip acrost ther mounting. I felt obleeged ter warn ye."

"Have me way-laid," repeated Jerry blankly, "what for?"

Uncle Israel shook his silvery poll. "I hain't hardly got ther power
ter answer thet," he said, "but thar's right-smart loose talk goin'
round. Some folks laments thet ye 'lowed ter teach profitable farmin'
an' ye hain't done nothin'. They 'lows ye must hev some crooked projeck
afoot. This much is all I jedgmatic'lly knows, Joe Campbell was over
ter Hook Brewer's blind tiger, on Skinflint, last week. Some fellers
got ter drinkin' an' talkin' aimless-like an' yore name come up.
Somebody 'lowed thet yore tarryin' hyar warn't a-goin' ter be tolerated
no longer, an' thet he knowed of a plan ter git ye es ye crossed ther
mounting whilst Lone Stacy an' Bear Cat was both away. Joe, bein' a
kinsman of mine an' Lone's, told me. Thet's all I knows, but ef I was
you I wouldn't disregard hit."

"What would you advise, Uncle Israel?"

"Does ye plumb pi'ntedly _hev_ ter go over thar? Ye couldn't jest
linger hyar in town twell ther night train pulls out an' go away on
hit?"

Henderson shook his head with a sharp snap of decisiveness. "No, I'm
not ready to be scared away just yet by enemies that threaten me from
ambush. I mean to cross the mountain."

For a moment the old storekeeper chewed reflectively on the stem of his
pipe, then he nodded his approval and went on:

"No, I didn't hardly 'low ye'd submit ter ther likes of thet without no
debate." He lifted a package wrapped in newspaper which lay at his
elbow on the table. "This hyar's one of them new-fangled automatic
pistols and a box of ca'tridges ter fit hit. I reckon ye'd better slip
hit inter yore pocket.... When I started over hyar, I borrowed a mule
from Lone Stacy's house ... hit's at ther liv'ry-stable now an' ye kin
call fer hit an' ride hit back."

"I usually go on foot," interrupted Henderson, but Uncle Israel raised
a hand, commanding attention.

"I knows thet, but this time hit'll profit ye ter ride ther mule. He's
got calked irons on his feet an' every man knows his tracks in ther
mud.... They won't sca'cely aim ter lay-way yer till ye gits a good
ways out from town, whar ther timber's more la'rely an' wild-like....
Word'll go on ahead of ye by them leetle deestrick telephone boxes thet
ye're comin' mule-back an' they'll 'low ye don't suspicion nothin'.
They will be a-watchin' fer ther mule then ... an' ef ye starts out
within ther hour's time ye kin make hit ter the head of Leetle Ivy by
nightfall."

The adviser paused a moment, then went succinctly on.

"Hit's from thar on thet ye'll be in peril.... Now when ye reaches some
rocky p'int whar hit won't leave no shoe-track, git down offen ther
critter an' hit him a severe whack.... Thet mule will go straight on
home jest as stiddy es ef ye war still ridin' him ... whilst _you_
turns inter ther la'rel on foot an' takes a hike straight across ther
roughs. Hit's ther roads they'll be watchin' an' _you_ won't be on no
road."

Jerry Henderson rose briskly from his chair. "Uncle Israel," he said
feelingly, "I reckon I don't have to say I'm obliged to you. The
quicker the start I get now, the better."

The old man settled back again with leisurely calm. "Go right on yore
way, son, an' I'll tarry hyar a spell so nairy person won't connect my
goin'-out with your'n."

As he passed the cashier's grating Henderson nodded to Black Tom
Carmichael.

"Does ye aim ter start acrost ther mounting?" politely inquired the
chief lieutenant of Kinnard Towers, and Jerry smiled.

"Yes, I'm going to the livery stable right now to get Lone Stacy's
mule."

"I wishes ye a gay journey then," the henchman assured him, using the
stereotyped phrase of well-wishing, to the wayfarer.

Gorgeous was the flaunting color of autumn as Henderson left the edges
of the ragged town behind him. He drank in the spicy air that swept
across the pines, and the beauty was so compelling that for a time his
danger affected him only as an intoxicating sort of stimulant under
whose beguiling he reared air-castles. It would be, he told himself,
smiling with fantastic pleasure, a delectable way to salvage the hard
practicalities of life if he could have a home here, presided over by
Blossom, and outside an arena of achievement. In the market-places of
modern activity, he could then win his worldly triumphs and return here
as to a quiet haven. One phase would supply the plaudits of Cæsar--and
one the tranquil philosophy of Plato.

But with evening came the bite of frost. The same crests that had been
brilliantly colorful began to close in, brooding and sinister, and the
reality of his danger could no longer be disavowed.

Twilight brought the death of all color save the lingering lemon of the
afterglow, and now he had come to the head of Little Ivy, where Uncle
Israel had said travel would become precarious. Here he should abandon
his mule and cut across the tangles, but a little way ahead lay a disk
of pallid light in the general choke of the shadows--a place where the
creek had spread itself into a shallow pool across the road. The hills
and woods were already merged into a gray-blue silhouette, but the
water down there still caught and clung to a remnant of the afterglow
and dimly showed back the inverted counterparts of trees which were
themselves lost to the eye.

He might as well cross that water dry-shod, he reflected, and dismount
just beyond.

But, suddenly, he dragged hard at the bit and crouched low in his
saddle. He had seen a reflection which belonged neither to fence nor
roadside sapling. Inverted in the dim and oblong mirror of the pool he
made out the shoulders and head of a man with a rifle thrust forward.
That up-side-down figure was so ready of poise that only one conclusion
was feasible. The human being who stood so mirrored did not realize
that he was close enough to the water's line to be himself revealed,
but he was watching for another figure to be betrayed by the same
agency. Henderson slid quietly from his saddle and jabbed the mule's
flank with the muzzle of his pistol. At his back was a thicket into
which he melted as his mount splashed into the water, and he held with
his eyes to the inverted shadow. He saw the rifle rise and bark with a
spurt of flame; heard his beast plunge blunderingly on and then caught
an oath of astonished dismay from beyond the pool, as two inverted
shadows stood where there had been one. "Damn me ef I hain't done shot
acrost an empty saddle!"

"Mebby they got him further back," suggested the second voice as Jerry
Henderson crouched in his hiding place. "Mebby Joe tuck up his stand at
ther t'other crossin'."

Jerry Henderson smiled grimly to himself. "That was shaving it pretty
thin," he mused. "After all it was only a shadow that saved me."

As he lay there unmoving, he heard one of his would-be assassins rattle
off through the dry weed stalks after the lunging mule. The second
splashed through the shallow water and passed almost in arm's length,
but to neither did it occur that the intended victim had left the
saddle at just that point. Ten minutes later, with dead silence about
him, Jerry retreated into the woods and spent the night under a ledge
of shielding rock.

He had lived too long in the easy security of cities to pit his
woodcraft against an unknown number of pursuers whose eyes and ears
were more than a match for his own in the dark. Had he known every foot
of the way, night travel would have been safer, but, imperfectly
familiar with the blind trails he meant to move only when he could
gauge his course and pursue it cautiously step by step.

From sunrise to dark on the following day he went at the rate of a
half-mile an hour through thickets that lacerated his face and tore the
skin from his hands and wrists. Often he lay crouched close to the
ground, listening.

He had no food and dared not show his face at any house, and since he
must avoid well-defined paths, he multiplied the distance so that when
he arrived on the familiar ground of his own neighborhood, his hunger
had become an acute pain and his weariness amounted to exhaustion.
Incidentally, he had slipped once and wrenched his ankle. Within a
radius of two miles were two houses only, Lone Stacy's and Brother
Fulkerson's. The Stacy place would presumably be watched, but Brother
Fulkerson would not deny him food and shelter.

Painfully, yard by yard, he crept down the mountainside to the rear of
the preacher's abode. Then on a tour of reconnaissance he cautiously
circled it. There were no visible signs of picketing and through one
unshuttered window came a grateful glow of lamplight.

He dared neither knock on the door nor scratch on the pane, but he
remembered the signal that had been Bear Cat Stacy's. He had heard the
boy give it, and now he cautiously repeated, three times, the softly
quavering call of the barn-owl.

It was a moonless night, but the stars were frostily clear and as the
refugee crouched, dissolved in shadow, against the mortised logs of the
cabin's corner, the door opened and Blossom stood, slim and straight,
against the yellow background of the lamp-lit door.

She might have seemed, to one passing, interested only in the
star-filled skies and the starkly etched peaks, but in a low voice of
extreme guardedness she demanded, "Bear Cat, where air ye?"

Henderson remembered that Turner, too, was "hiding out" and that this
girl had the ingrained self-repression of a people inured to the perils
of ambuscade. Without leaving the cancellation of the shadowed wall he
spoke with a caution that equaled her own.

"Don't seem to hear me ... just keep looking straight ahead.... It's
not Bear Cat.... It's Henderson ... and they are after me.... So far
I've escaped ... but I reckon they're following." He had seen the
impulsive start with which she heard his announcement and the instant
recovery with which she relaxed her attitude into one of less tell-tale
significance. "Thank God," breathed the pursued man, "for that
self-control!"

He detected a heart-wrenching anxiety in her voice, which belied the
picture she made of unruffled simplicity as she commanded in a tense
whisper, "Go on, I'm hearkenin'."

"Go back into the house," he directed evenly. "Close the window
shutters ... then open the back door...."

She did not obey with the haste of excitement. She was too wise for
that, but paused unhurriedly, humming an ancient ballade, as though the
stresses of life had no meaning for her, before she drew back and
closed the door.

Reappearing, at the window, she repeated the same convincing assumption
of untroubled indolence as she drew in the heavy shutters; but a moment
later she stood shaken and blanched of cheek at the rear door. "Come in
hastily," she pleaded. "Air ye hurted?"

Slipping through the aperture, Henderson smiled at her. His heart had
leaped wildly as he read the terror of her eyes: a terror for his
danger.

"I'm not hurt," he assured her, "except for a twisted ankle, but it's a
miracle of luck. Where's your father?"

No actress trained and finished in her art could have carried off with
greater perfection a semblance of tranquillity than had Blossom while
his safety hung in the balance. Now, with that need ended, she leaned
back against the support of the wall with her hands gropingly spread;
weak of knee and limp almost to collapse. Her amber eyes were
preternaturally wide and her words came with gasping difficulty. She
had forgotten her striving after exemplary grammar.

"He hain't hyar--he won't be back afore to-morrow noon. Thar hain't
nobody hyar but me."

"Oh!" The monosyllable slipped from the man's lips with bitter
disappointment. He knew the rigid tenets of mountain usage--an
unwritten law.

A stranger may share a one-roomed shack with men, women and children,
but the traveler who is received into a cabin in the absence of its men
compromises the honor of its women.

"Oh," he repeated dejectedly, "I was seekin' shelter for the night. I'm
famishin' an' weary. Kin ye give me a snack to eat. Blossom, afore I
fares forth again?"

It was with entire unconsciousness that he had slipped back into the
rough vernacular of his childhood. At that moment he was a man who had
rubbed elbows with death and he had reverted to type as instinctively
as though he had never known any other life.

"Afore ye fares forth!" In Blossom's eyes blazed the same Valkyrie fire
that had been in them as she barred his path to Bear Cat Stacy's still.
"Ye hain't a-goin ter fare forth, ter be murdered! I aims ter hide ye
out right hyar!"

Civilization just then seemed far away; the primal very near--and, in
that mood, the hot currents of long-denied love for this woman who was
defying her own laws to offer him sanctuary, mounted to supremacy. Such
a love appeared as logical as a little while ago it had seemed
illogical. Eagle blood should mate with eagle blood.

"But, little gal," Jerry protested, "ye're alone hyar. I kain't hardly
tarry. Ef hit became known----"

"Thet's jest ther reason," she flashed back at him, "thet nobody won't
suspicion ye _air_ hyar an' ef ye're in peril hit don't make no differ
ter me what folks says nohow. I aims ter safeguard ye from harm."

His eyes, darkly ringed by fatigue and hunger, held an even deeper
avidity. He looked at the high-chinned and resolute face crowned with
masses of hair which lamp-light and hearth-glow kindled into an aura
and deep into amber eyes that were candid with their confession of
love. Slowly Jerry Henderson put his question--a question already
answered.

"I reckon ye knows what this means, Blossom. Why air ye willin' ter
venture hit?"

Still leaning tremulously against the chinked wall, she answered with
the thrill of feeling and purpose in her voice.

"I hain't askin' what hit means. I hain't keerin' what hit means. All I
knows it thet ye're in peril--an' thet's enough."

Jerry caught her in his arms, crushed her to him, felt her lips against
his lips; her arms clinging softly about his neck, and at last he
spoke--no longer with restraint.

"Until to-night I've always fought against love and I thought I was
stronger than _it_ was, but I reckon that was just because I've never
really come face-to-face with its full power, before. Now I'm going out
again."

"No! No! I won't suffer hit," she protested with fervent vehemence.
"Ye're a-goin' ter stay right hyar. Ye b'longs ter me now an' I aims
ter keep ye--unharmed!"

Abruptly they fell silent, warned by some premonitory sense and, as
they stood listening, a clamor of knocking sounded at the door.

Thrusting him into her bedroom and screening him behind a mass of
clothing that hung in a small corner closet unenclosed, but deeply
shadowed, she braced herself once more into seeming tranquillity and
went to the front of the house. Then she threw wide the door.

"We wants ter hev speech with Brother Fulkerson," came the unrecognized
voice of a stranger whose hat brim shielded his face in the darkness.

"He hain't hyar an' he won't be back afore midday ter-morrow,"
responded the girl with ingenuous composure. "I kain't hardly invite ye
in--because I'm hyar all alone," she added with a disarming gravity.
"Will ye leave any message?"

Out there among the shadows she heard the murmurs of a whispered
consultation, and despite a palpitation of fear she bravely held the
picture.

Then, partly because her manner carried conviction against suspicion,
and partly because to enter would be to reveal identities, the voice
shouted back: "No, thank ye, ma'am. I reckon we'll fare on."



CHAPTER XIII


Before Henderson had come that night, Blossom had been trying to study,
but the pages of her book had developed the trick of becoming blurred.

Two faces persisted in rising before her imagination; one, the
reproachful countenance of Bear Cat, whom she ought to love
whole-heartedly; the other, that of Henderson, whom she told herself
she admired only as she might admire the President of the United States
or the man who had written the dictionary--with distant and respectful
appreciation.

"He says I'm all right," she mused, "but I reckon he _knows_ in his
heart that I ain't good enough fer him--ner fer his folks."

Tears sprang into her eyes at the confession, and her reasoning went
upon the rocks of illogic. "In the first place," she irrelevantly
argued, "I'm in love with Bear Cat--an' in the second to think about
Mr. Henderson would be right smart like crying for the moon."

Then Henderson had come; had come asking refuge from danger. He had
declared his love with tumultuous force--and it seemed to Blossom that,
after all, the moon was hers without crying for it.

When she had fed him in silence, because of the possibility of lurking
spies outside, they sat, unmindful of passing hours, before the roar of
the stone hearth and as the man's arms held her close to him she let
her long lashes droop over her eyes and surrendered her hair and lips
to his kisses.

They had no great need of words, but sometimes she raised her lids and
gazed steadfastly into his face, and as the carmine flecks of the blaze
lighted her cheeks, the eyes were wide and unmasked, with a full, yet
proud, surrender.

He thought that for this gift of flower-like beauty and love the
abandonment of his stern opportunism was a cheap exchange. His eyes,
too, were glowing with an ardent light and both were spared the irony
of realization that afterward impulse must again yield to the
censorship of colder considerations. There is nothing more real than an
impossible dream--while it endures.

Once the girl's glance fell on a home-made doll, with a coarse wig of
horse-hair, propped on the mantel-shelf. It was one of those crude
makeshifts which mountain children call poppets, as our
great-grandfathers' great-grandmothers called them puppets.

A shadow of self-accusing pain crossed Blossom's face. "Turney whittled
that poppet fer me outen hickory wood when I was a jest a leetle gal,"
she whispered remorsefully, then added: "Turney 'lowed ter wed me some
day."

Henderson reassured her with irrefutable logic.

"Turner wouldn't have you disobey your heart, Blossom. Only you must be
sure what your heart commands."

"I _am_ sure. I'm plumb dead-sartain sure!" she vehemently responded,
though still in a suppressed voice.

They sat before the fire, alertly wakeful, in the shadow of impending
danger until the first pale hint of dawn. Then Blossom went out with
water pails, ostensibly busied about her early tasks but really on a
journey of investigation.

Returning, satisfied of temporary safety, she said briefly and
authoritatively: "Come on, hit won't do fer ye ter tarry hyar. They'll
come back, sartain sure. Thar's a leetle cave back thar in ther rocks
that's beknownst only to Turner an' me. Hit's dry an' clean an' thar's
sweet water runnin' through hit. I'll fotch ye yore victuals every
day--an' when the s'arch fer ye lets up a leetle, I'll guide ye acrost
inter Virginny whar ye kin strike the railroad without goin' back to
Marlin Town."

"If I were you, Blossom," suggested the man as they slipped out of the
house before full daylight, "I wouldn't tell Brother Fulkerson anything
about my hiding place. These men who seek my life are probably
influential. If your father can truthfully deny any knowledge of my
being near, it will save him embarrassment. I don't want to make
enemies for him--and you."

The girl pondered this phase of the situation judicially for a moment,
then nodded gravely: "I reckon thet's ther wisest way," she agreed.

For three days Blossom carried food across the steeps to the hidden
man, then late one cold night, when again her father was away on some
mission of kindness which would keep him from home for twenty-four
hours or more, she appeared at the mouth of the cave and signaled to
the refugee.

She had decided that the moment had arrived for making the dash with
him across the Virginia border, and since she knew every foot of the
way, it would be better to travel in the cover of darkness.

It was a long and tedious journey, and the girl led the way tirelessly
through frost-rimed thickets with a resilient endurance that seemed
incompatible with her slenderness.

When the rising sun was a pale disk like platinum, they had arrived on
the backbone of a high ridge and the time had come for parting.

Below them banks of white vapor obliterated the valleys. Above them, in
the misty skies, began to appear opalescent patches of exquisite color
and delicacy. About them swept and eddied clean and invigorating
currents of frosted air.

For a little while reluctant of leave-taking, they stood silent, and
the argent shield of the sun burst into fiery splendor. Then the
heights stood out brilliant and unveiled.

"I reckon," said Blossom falteringly, "hit's come time to bid ye
farewell."

The man took her hands in his and held them lingeringly; but with a
sudden and passionate gesture Blossom withdrew them and threw her arms
about his neck.

"But ye hain't a-goin' fer always? Ye aims ter come back ter me ergin
in good time, don't ye?"

For a little while he held her tightly clasped with his lips pressed to
her soft hair, then he spoke impetuously:

"I aims ter come back ter ye right soon."

"Ye mustn't come twell hit's safe, though," she commanded, and after
that she asked softly: "Now thet we're plighted I reckon ye don't
forbid me ter tell my pappy, does ye?"

Henderson's muscles grew suddenly rigid and beads of sweat moistened
his forehead in spite of the frosty tang of the morning air.

The words brought back a sudden and terrifying realization; the renewed
conflict of a dilemma. He was going out into the other world, leaving
the dead reckoning of the primal for the calculated standards of
modernity. He was plighted to a semi-illiterate! Yet as her breath came
fragrantly from upturned lips against his temples, all that went down
under a wave of passionate love.

"No, Blossom," he advised steadily, "don't tell him yet. There are
things that must be arranged--things that are hard to explain to you
just now. Wait until I come back. I've got to study out this attack
from ambush so that I can know whom I'm fighting and how to fight. It
may take time--and if I write to you, naming a place,--will you come to
me?"

Gravely and with full trust she nodded her head. "I'll come
anywhars--an' any time--to you," she told him, and the man kissed her
good-bye.

                 *       *       *       *       *

Turner Stacy's longing to see Blossom had driven him to the imprudence
of breaking the restrictions of exile. After traveling by night and
hiding by day it happened that he was breasting a ridge just at sunrise
one morning on his way to her house, when his alert gaze caught an
indistinct movement through the hazy half-light of the dawn. He could
make out only that two figures seemed coming west along the mist-veiled
path and that they appeared to be the figures of a man and a woman.

Surprised to encounter travelers at so remote a spot at that hour, he
edged cautiously into the underbrush and lay flat on a huge rock which
overlooked the path from a low eminence at its right.

They had halted just beyond the range of hearing, but when with
mountain suddenness, like a torn curtain, the half-light became
full-light he froze into a petrified astonishment which seemed to have
clutched and squeezed all the vitality out of his heart, and to have
left his blood currentless.

The abrupt revelation of light had fallen on the bright hair of Blossom
Fulkerson and the dark uncovered head of Jerry Henderson; and before
the monstrous incredibility of the situation could be fully grasped,
the girl, to whom he had bade farewell as his acknowledged sweetheart,
had thrown her arms around the neck of the man to whose loyal care he
had confided her, and that man was kissing her with a lover's ardor!

What their words might be he could not tell--but their clinging embrace
said enough--and Blossom was giving her lips with eager willingness.

[Illustration: What their words might be he could not tell--but their
clinging embrace said enough]

Bear Cat lay for a moment, sick, dizzy and motionless while a groan,
which never reached his lips, spasmodically shook his chest and
shoulders. Succeeding that paralyzed instant, a fever of unspeakable
fury surged over him and while all the rest of his body stretched
unstirring, his arms slipped forward and the muzzle of his rifle crept
over the ledge of rock. But that, too, was only a response to instinct
and the thumb halted in the act of cocking the hammer. His vengeance
called not only for satisfaction but for glutting.

Henderson must die face to face with him, not by the stealth of
ambuscade, but by open violence to be administered with bare
hands--realizing the cause of his punishment--dying by inches!

But as he was on the point of rising to confront them, something
arrested him: the stupor of a man whose mind and heart had trusted so
implicitly that they could not yet fully credit even the full
demonstration of his eyes. This must, despite all its certainty, be
some hallucination--some wide-eyed nightmare!

While the spell of his stunned heart held him in the thrall of
inaction, Henderson and Blossom parted with slow reluctance and took up
their opposite direction of journey.

Left alone, like a man sitting, shaken and demoralized, upon the broken
débris of a wrecked universe, Turner stared ahead with a dull
incredulity. But inaction was foreign to his nature and after a while
he rose unsteadily to his feet. He turned and started at a swift stride
which broke presently into a dog-trot along the way Henderson had
taken; then he hesitated, halted and wheeled in his tracks.

"No!" he exclaimed. "No, by God, ef I meets up with _him_ the way I
feels now, I'll kill him afore he has ther chanst ter speak with me. I
kain't govern myself. I aims ter let _her_ tell hit to me her own
self!"

So he altered his direction and went plunging westward.

A short route through broken rock and tangled brush enabled him to cut
ahead of Blossom's course so that, turning an abrupt angle in the
trail, the girl found him standing before her with clenched hands and a
face so set and pale that she started back. It seemed to her that,
instead of himself, it was his ghost which confronted her.

With a slow and stifled outcry, at the apparition, she carried her
hands to her face, then broke into convulsive sobs.

"I didn't aim ter eavesdrop, Blossom," said Turner, his sternness
wavering before her tears. "But I seed ye givin' yore lips ter Jerry
Henderson back thar. Hit seems ter me like I kin almost discern the
stain of thet kiss soilin' em now. I reckon I ought rightfully ter hev
speech with him fust--but I knowed I'd kill him ef I did--an' so I held
my hand twell I'd done seed _you_."

They were both trembling, and the girl's hands came slowly away from a
face pitifully agitated. Her voice was a whisper.

"Ye mustn't censure me, Turney," she huskily protested. "I'm
plighted--ter _him_."

"Plighted!" The word broke from the man as explosively as an oath, then
after a moment's silence she heard him saying, in a slow and stunned
fashion: "I 'lowed thet ye war all but plighted to _me_."

"I knows--I knows, Turney," she pleaded desperately. "I wants thet ye
should understand. I thought thet I loved ye--I _do_ love ye better
then ef ye war my own blood brother--but I didn't know afore now ther
kind of love thet--thet----"

"Thet Jerry Henderson's done stole from me," he finished for her, in a
voice she had never before heard on his lips. "Atter all I did make a
mistake. Hit _war_ him I should hev spoke with fust--an' I reckon hit
hain't too late ter overtake him yit."

Her hands were clinging to his arms. "No, Turney," she sought to
explain. "He didn't know hit an' I didn't know hit either, when ye
left. Neither one of us wouldn't hev sought ter lie ter ye."

Bear Cat Stacy was only partly conscious of what she was saying. Before
his eyes swam red spots of fury which blinded him. If there was any
vestige of truth in his ugly suspicion that Blossom was being deceived
or played with, the responsible man, trusted friend and admired
preceptor though he had been, was Bear Cat's to kill--and must die!

So he stood, tensely strained of attitude and ashen of cheek while a
murder light kindled afresh in his eyes, and Blossom seemed the
wavering shape of a dream: the dream of every hope his life had
known--now utterly unattainable. Her fingers were clutching his taut
arms yet she seemed suddenly withdrawn from his world, leaving it void.

But she was talking earnestly, beseeching, and with the strained effort
of one striving to separate lucid voices from the chaotic din of a
delirium, he gave painstaking heed. She told the story of Jerry's
narrow escape from death and of her conducting him to a place of safe
departure. Part of it only he understood through the crashing
dissonance of tempest which still confused his brain.

The volcanic fires within him that were destined to bring earthquake
and transition were licking consumingly at the gates of his
self-control.

His whole life had been builded on a single dream: the dream of her
love--and she had promised it. For that he had fought the one enemy
that had ever mastered him, and had conquered. For that he had shaped
his life. Now he had been robbed of everything!

"Don't ye see how hit is, Turney?" she pleaded. "Hit wasn't his fault
ner hit wasn't my fault.... Hit jest had ter be! Ye sees how hit is,
don't ye?"

"Yes, I sees--how hit is!" The response came dully, then with a nearer
recovery of a natural tone he went on. "Anyways I reckon ye've got ther
right ter decide atween us. I reckon yore heart's yore own ter give or
withhold. Hit war ter me that ye pledged yoreself first. Yore first
kiss was mine--an' ye suffered me ter hope an' believe." There was a
strained pause, then he added: "But even ef I could hold yer erginst
yore free will, I wouldn't seek ter do hit."

Blossom's contrite wretchedness was so sincere and her sympathy so
inarticulate that his face presently changed. The bitter and accusing
sternness died gradually out of it and after a grief-stricken moment
gave way to a great gentleness--such a gentleness as brought a
transformation and stamped his lips and brow with a spirit of
renunciation.

"Thar was murder in my heart, jest at first, little gal," he assured
her softly, "but I reckon atter all hit's a right-pore love thet seeks
ter kill a man fer gainin' somethin' hit's lost hitself. He kin take ye
down thar whar life means sich things as ye desarves ter enjoy. With me
ye'd have ter endure ther same hardships thet broke my mother down. I
wants above all else thet ye should be happy--an' ef I kain't make ye
happy----" He paused abruptly with a choked throat and demanded: "When
does ye aim ter wed?"

The girl flushed. She did not think Turner would accord a sympathetic
understanding to her lover's somewhat vague attitude on that point, so
she only answered. "He 'lows ter write ter me--ef so be he kain't come
back soon."

"Write ter ye!" The militant scorn snapped again in his eyes, burning
away their softness as a prairie fire consumes dry grass, in its first
hot breath. "Write ter ye! No, by Almighty God in Heaven, ye says ye're
plighted ter wed him! Ye've done suffered him ter hold ye in his arms.
Mountain men comes ter fotch thar brides ter church--they don't send
fer 'em ter journey forth an' meet 'em. In these hills of old Kaintuck
men come to thar women! He's got ter come hyar an' claim ye ef he has
ter fight his way acrost every league of ther journey--an' ef he
_don't_----!" But Bear Cat broke off suddenly with a catch in his
voice.

"I've got full trust, Turney," she declared, and her eyes showed it, so
that the man forced himself to calmness again, and went on in a level
voice.

"I aims ter see thet ye hes what ye wants, Blossom, ef I hes ter plumb
tear ther hills down level by level ter git hit fer ye. I must be
a-farin' back inter Virginny," he announced a moment later with a
curtness meant to bulwark him against a fresh outburst of feeling.

Blossom raised her hands as if to detain him, then let them drop again
with a pathetic gesture. Bear Cat picked up his hat which had fallen to
the ground and stood crushing its limp brim in his clenched fingers.
Finally he said, without anger, but very seriously: "I wants thet ye
should give me back my pledge--erbout drinkin'. Ye knows why I give hit
ter ye--an' now----"

"Oh, Turner," she interrupted protestingly, "don't ask thet!"

"I'm obleeged ter ask hit, Blossom," he obdurately answered. "I reckon
mebby I kin still win my fight with licker--but I mustn't be beholden
by a bond thet's lost hits cause."

Tearfully she nodded her head. "I'll free ye if ye demands hit," she
conceded, "but I aims ter go on a-prayin'."

                 *       *       *       *       *

Jerry Henderson was not a scoundrel in a general sense nor had he
hitherto been a weakling, but for once he was the self-governed man who
has lost control of his life and fallen victim to vacillation. Surging
waves of heart-hunger made him want to go recklessly back; to fight his
way, if need be, through all the Towers' minions to Blossom's side and
claim her as his promised bride.

Other and perhaps saner waves of tremendous misgiving beat with steady
reiteration against those of impulse. He must live out most of his days
among people to whom such an alliance would be stripped of all
illusion; would resolve itself into nothing more than a mesalliance.
For both of them it would eventuate in wreck--and so Blossom heard
nothing from him and she tasted first fear, then despair.

At last Kinnard Towers either learned or guessed the truth; that
Blossom had hidden Henderson out in the absence of her father and had
aided his escape. He saw to it that the report gained wide currency in
a land avid for gossip.

Whatever the condition of his love affairs, Jerry came up short against
the realization that he could not indefinitely abandon his business. He
must, in some way, demonstrate that he was not being effectively put to
flight by feudal threats and so he carried his perplexities to Lone
Stacy, who was awaiting trial in the Louisville jail, and unbosomed
himself in a full and candid recital.

The bearded moonshiner, gaunter than ever and with the haunted eyes of
a caged eagle, listened with grave courtesy but with a brow that
gradually knitted into an expression half puzzled and half sinister.

"I reckon Bear Cat'll feel right-sensibly broke up," he said slowly.
"Ye've done cut him out with his sweetheart, endurin' his absence from
home, and ther two of 'em's growed up without no other notion then thet
of bein' wed some day."

Henderson was on the point of self-justification, but before he could
speak the prisoner went thoughtfully on: "Howsoever, a gal's got a
rather as to her sweet-heartin'--an' ef ye won her fa'r an'
above-board, I reckon Turner kin be fa'r-minded, too. I was thinkin' of
somethin' else, though. From what ye tells me hit looks like es ef all
these things, my jailin' an' yore lay-wayin', is jest pieces of one
pattern. Hit looks like _I_ was brought down hyar so thet Kinnard
Towers could git _you_. Ef I'd a-knowed erbout his warnin' ye off thet
night ye came, I mout hev guessed hit afore now."

He rose and paced the floor of the room where prisoners were permitted
to receive guests bearing special permits--under the chaperonage of a
turnkey. Suddenly he halted and his eyes flared, though his voice
remained low and tense.

"I'm a Christian an' a man of peace," he said ominously, "but ef what I
suspicions air true I don't aim ter submit ter hit. Does ye want ter go
back thar ter Little Slippery?"

"I do, indeed," replied Henderson eagerly. "And soon!"

"All right then. Ther Stacys hev still got some power acrost Cedar
Mounting an' they aims ter exercise hit. I'll straightway send a letter
ter my brother, Joe Stacy. Ef ye gits offen ther train in Marlin Town
one week from terday, he'll be thar ter meet ye--an' he'll hev enough
men thar with rifle-guns ter see ye through safe--an' hold ye safe,
too."

"Joe Stacy," repeated Henderson, "I've never met him, have I?"

"I don't hardly believe ye hes. He dwells on Skinflint, but he'll know
_you_ when he sees ye."

Later that same day the turnkey, who had from time to time received
certain courtesies from Mark Tapper, repeated the conversation to that
officer, and within forty-eight hours a messenger relayed it verbally
to Kinnard Towers.

"Ef thar's any way ter head off thet letter ter Joe, now," reflected
the backwoods master of intrigue, "an' thet bodyguard don't show up--I
reckon we kin still compass what we failed in, ther first time."

                 *       *       *       *       *

To the house in Virginia where Bear Cat was temporarily established
came Lew Turner, a distant kinsman on an enterprise of cattle trading.
The meeting was a coincidence though a natural one, since their host
was a man who had migrated from Little Slippery and had long been known
to both. Shortly the two sat alone in conversation, and Bear Cat
demanded news from home.

"Wa'al thar hain't no welcome tidings ter give ye. They keeps puttin'
off yore paw's trial jest ter frazzle him out, fer one thing," began
the newcomer lugubriously. "Then Henderson come back from down below
an' some fellers aimed ter lay-way him, so he sought refuge in Brother
Fulkerson's dwellin'-house when ther preacher warn't thar. Blossom tuck
him in outen charity an' the two of 'em spent ther night thar all alone
by tharselves. Hit didn't become gin'rally known till after he'd got
away safe, but then ther gossips started in tongue-waggin'."

"Hold on, Lew! By God Almighty, ye've done said too much," Bear Cat
broke out with a dangerous note of warning, his eyes narrowing into
slits of menacing glitter.

The man from home hastily hedged his statement. "Hit warn't no fashion
Blossom's fault. He'd done faithfully promised ter wed with her."

Bear Cat Stacy had risen eruptively out of his chair. He bent over the
intervening table, resting on hands in which the knuckles stood out
white. "Go on!" he commanded fiercely. "What next?"

"Thet's erbout all, save thet since thet time she's done been pinin'
round like somebody sickenin' ter her death. Es fer ther preacher, he
just clamps his mouth shet an' won't say nothin' at all. Howsoever, he
looks like he'd done been stricken."

Bear Cat straightened up and passed a hand across his forehead. He was
rocking unsteadily on his feet as he reached for his hat.

"Whar air ye a-goin', Bear Cat?" asked the kinsman, with a sudden fear
for the consequences of his narrative.

"Whar am I 'goin'? God, He knows! Wharever Jerry Henderson's at,
_thar's_ whar I'm 'goin'--an' no man hed better seek ter hinder me!"



CHAPTER XIV


The post-office at Possum Trot, which serves the dwellers along the
waters of Skinflint, is housed in one corner of a shack store and the
distribution of its mail is attended with a friendly informality.

Thus no suspicion was engendered when a neighbor of Joe Stacy's dropped
in each day and regularly volunteered, with a spirit of neighborly
accommodation, "I reckon ef thar's anything fer Joe Stacy or airy other
folks dwellin' 'twixt hyar an' my house, I'll fotch hit over to 'em."

The post-master had no way of knowing that this person was an agent of
Kinnard Towers or that, when one day he handed out a letter "backed" to
Joe in the scrawl of Lone Stacy, it went not to its rightful recipient
but to the Quarterhouse.

Jerry Henderson, in due time, stepped from his day coach at Marlin
Town, equally innocent of suspicion, and was pleased to see emerging
from the raw, twilight shadows, a man, unfamiliar of face, whose elbow
cradled a repeating rifle.

"I reckon ye be Jerry Henderson, hain't ye?" inquired a suave and
amicable voice, and with a nod Jerry replied, "Yes--and you are Joe
Stacy?"

The man, slight but wiry and quick of movement, shook his head. "No--my
name's John Blackwell. Joe, he couldn't hardly git hyar hisself, so he
sent me in his stid but I reckon me an' ther boys kin put ye over ther
route, without _dee_fault."

As if in corroboration of this assurance Jerry saw shadowy shapes
materializing out of the empty darkness and as he mounted the extra
horse provided for him he counted the armed figures swinging easily
into their saddles. There were eight of them. His personal escort was
larger than that with which Towers himself traveled abroad.

But when the cortège swung at length into an unfamiliar turning Jerry
was startled and demanded sharply: "Why are we leaving the high road?
This isn't the way to Lone Stacy's house."

The man who had met him bowed with a reassuring calmness.

"No, but Joe 'lowed hit would be safer an' handier, too, fer ye ter
spend ther night at his house on Skinflint. Hit's nigher an' all these
men air neighbors of his'n. Ter-morrow you kin fare on ter Little
Slippery by daylight."

With an acquiescent nod, Henderson relapsed into silence and they rode
in the starlight without sound save the thud of cuppy hooves on muddy
byways, the straining creak of stirrup straps and a clinking of
bit-rings.

Finally the cavalcade halted at a crossing where the shadows lay in
sooty patches and its leader detached himself to engage in low-voiced
converse with someone who seemed to have been suddenly created out of
the pitchy thickness of the roadside.

Soon Blackwell rode back and, with entire seriousness, made a startling
suggestion.

"Right down thar, in thet valley, Mr. Henderson--whar ye kin see a
leetle speck of light--sets Kinnard Towers' Quarterhouse. Would hit
pleasure ye ter stop off thar an' enjoy a small dram? Hit's a
right-chillin' night."

The railroad's agent had never visited that place of whose ill repute
he had heard such bizarre tales, but in all this high, wild country, he
thought, there was no other spot of which it so well behooved his party
to ride wide. John Blackwell was lighting his pipe just then and by the
flare of the match Henderson studied the face for a glint of jesting,
but the eyes were humorless and entirely sober.

"I think we'd better give the Quarterhouse as wide a berth as
possible," he answered dryly.

"Hits fer you ter say, Mr. Henderson," was the quiet rejoinder. "But
I'll give ye Joe Stacy's message. From what his brother writ him Joe
concluded thet Lone warn't aimin' ter start no needless strife with
Kinnard Towers, but he aimed ter make hit p'intedly cl'ar thet ther
Stacys was detarmined ter pertect ye, an' thet ye'd done come back hyar
plumb open an' upstandin'."

"That's true enough," assented Jerry. "I'm not trying to hide out, but
I don't see any profit in walking into the lion's den."

The guide nodded sympathetically. He seemed imbued with the excellent
military conception of obeying orders and proffering no gratuitous
counsel.

"Joe 'lowed thet ef things looked favorable hit mout be a right-bold
sort of thing an' a right wise one, too, to stop in thar as ye rid by.
Hit's a public tavern--an' hit would prove thet ye're hyar, with a
bodyguard, neither seekin' trouble ner fearin' hit."

"Why didn't you suggest this before, Mr. Blackwell?" inquired Henderson
to whom the very effrontery of the plan carried an appeal.

"Joe didn't want me ter risk even namin' hit ter ye twell we knowed how
ther land lay over thar," came the prompt and easy response. "Ye seed
me talkin' with a man out front thar jest now, didn't ye? Wa'al thet
war one of our boys, thet come direct from ther Quarterhouse, ter bear
me ther tidin's. Thar hain't more'n a handful of men thar now--an' half
of 'em's our friends. I reckon ye hain't in no great peril nohow so
long as we're all tergither--an' full-armed."

Henderson felt that already his prestige had suffered from an
appearance of flight. Here was an opportunity ready to hand for its
complete rehabilitation. The bold course is always the best defense,
and his decision was prompt.

"Come on then. Let's go in."

At the long rack in front of the frowning stockade, as they dismounted
and hitched, were already tethered a half-dozen horses.

                 *       *       *       *       *

Bear Cat Stacy, impelled by Lew Turner's news, traveled in a fever of
haste. He meant to go as straight as a hiving bee to Marlin and if need
be to follow Henderson to the lowlands of Kentucky. Henderson had
compromised Blossom, by the undeviating standards of mountain code, and
he must come back and marry her even if he had to be dragged out of the
most conspicuous place in Louisville itself. Casting all considerations
of precaution and safety to the winds, the lover, whose devotion called
for self-effacement, sought only the shortest way, and the shortest way
led past the Quarterhouse.

When he was within a mile of the point where Towers' resort straddled
the state line he met a mounted man with a lantern swinging at his
pommel.

"I kain't tarry ter hev speech with ye, Sim," he said shortly, "I'm in
hot haste."

Yet as the other drawled a question, Bear Cat did tarry and a cold
moisture dewed his temples.

"Did ye know thet yore friend, Jerry Henderson, hed done come back?"
inquired Sim, and Turner's limbs trembled, then grew stiff as saddle
leather.

"Come back! When did he come? Whar is he now?" The questions tumbled
upon each other with a mounting vibrance of impetuosity.

"I war a-ridin' inter the road outen a side path a leetle spell back
when I heered hosses an' so I drawed up ter let 'em go by," the chance
traveler informed him. "I reckon they didn't hardly discern me. I
hadn't lit my lantern then, but one of 'em lighted his pipe with a
match an' I _ree_cognized two faces. One was Mr. Henderson's an' one
was Sam Carlyle's. I seed sev'ral rifles acrost ther saddles, too."

"Which way war they ridin'?"

"'Peared like most likely they war makin' fer ther Quarterhouse."

"I'm obleeged ter ye." And Bear Cat was gone again into the darkness.

When he had turned the first bend his walk broke into a run. His mind
was racing, too. So Henderson had not only come back, but come back
with a reversed allegiance. He was riding with a Towers bodyguard and
bound for a Towers stronghold! The name of Sam Carlyle indicated that
as definitely as if it had been the name of Black Tom Carmichael. In
one way this dropping of all friendly pretense by Jerry made his own
task clearer and easier--but it was the most hazardous thing he had
ever undertaken. Single handed, he must go into the place where
bloodshed was no novelty and take Henderson away, and he went at a run.

Presumably, Jerry Henderson would not stop long in the bar-room, but
would be conducted to the presence of Kinnard Towers, and, with all his
haste, Bear Cat's speed seemed to himself desperately slow.

He and his father had protected this ingrate against Towers' wrath, he
bitterly reflected, and this was their requital. Their guest had used
that hospitality to steal the love of Blossom and then to discard her.
He had deceived her, compromised her, promised her marriage and fled in
the face of danger. Lew Turner had said: "She's been pinin' round like
somebody sickenin' ter her death!" That was what her full trust had
come to--and if she had trusted that far her trust might have gone
farther! Then finally from the secure distance of the city Henderson
had made his terms with Kinnard Towers!

Now Blossom was going to be married--a heart-racking groan rumbled in
his throat. Blossom's wedding! How he had dreamed of it from his first
days of callow love-thoughts! He had fed his imagination upon pictures
of the house he had meant to build for her down there by the river! To
his nostrils now seemed to come the sweet fragrance of freshly hewn
timbers and sawed lumber; incense of home-making! A hundred times he
had visualized himself--the ceremony over--riding proudly with his
bride on a pillion behind him, as the mountain groom had always brought
his bride, from her father's house to his own--and her own!

Now her honor required that an unwilling husband should be brought to
her--her honor and her heart's bruised wish--and he, who had planned it
all differently, must see the matter accomplished--to-night!

                 *       *       *       *       *

Henderson and his guard had strolled with a fine assumption of
carelessness into the barn-like resort and, as the handful of loiterers
there recognized them, an abrupt silence fell and glasses, half-raised,
were held for a moment poised.

From a huge hearth-cavern at one end of the room leaped the ruddy
illumination of burning logs and fagots in the flaming proportions of a
bonfire. Wreaths of blue and brown smoke floated in foggy streamers
between the dark walls and up to the cobwebbed rafters. The lamps
guttered and flared against their tin reflectors, reeking with an oily
stench in the stagnation of the unaltered air.

Along one end of the place went the bar, backed by its shelves of
bottles and thick glassware, and in each side wall gaped a door--one
for each state. Besides a few hickory-withed chairs there were several
even ruder tables and benches, riven with axe and adze out of wide
logs, and supported by such legs as those of a butcher's block. But
these furnishings were all near the walls--and the whole center area of
the floor, with its white-painted boundary line, was as unencumbered as
a deck cleared for action.

The momentary surprise which greeted the newcomers was for the most
part fictitious--and carefully rehearsed, but of this Jerry Henderson
had no knowledge.

He walked to the bar, followed by one or two of his guardians, and
extended a general invitation. "Gentlemen, it's my treat. What will
you-all have?"

After the glasses had been filled and drained, Henderson went over and
stood for a while in the grateful warmth of the booming hearth. He was
looking on at this picture with its savor of medievalism--the ensemble
that called to mind a Hogarth prim, but soon he nodded to his guide who
slouched not far from his elbow.

"I reckon we'd better fare on, Mr. Blackwell," he suggested evenly.
"We've still got a journey ahead of us."

Blackwell seemed less impressed with the immediate urgency.

"Thar hain't no tormentin' haste," he demurred. "We're all right
stiff-j'inted from ridin'. We mout as well limber up a leetle mite
afore we starts out ergin."

Jerry's eyes clouded. He would have preferred finding a spirit of
readier obedience in his body-guard, but it was best to accept the
situation with philosophy. Accordingly he turned again to the bar,
though this time he made only a pretense of drinking. Fresh arrivals
had begun drifting in and the place now held more than a score. Among
them were already several whose voices were thickening or growing
shrill, according to their individual fashions of becoming drunk.

Jerry sought to reassure himself against the disquieting birth of
suspicion, yet when he heard one of the newcomers address Blackwell as
Sam instead of John, an ugly apprehension settled upon him and this
foreboding was not allayed as he caught the response in a low and
savage growl: "Shet up, ye fool!"

The temper of the motley outfit was rapidly growing boisterous, though
he himself seemed ignored until, in turning, he accidently jostled a
man whom he had never seen before to-night, and that individual wheeled
on him with an abusive truculence. Henderson's gorge rose, but his
realization was now fully awake to the requirement of self-control, so
with a good-natured retort he moved away.

Beckoning peremptorily to Blackwell, he started at a deliberate pace
toward the door, but before he reached it, the staggering figure of the
quarrelsome unknown overtook him and lurched drunkenly against him.
Then Henderson felt a stunning blow in the face, and under its
unexpected force he reeled back against the wall.

He was no longer in doubt. He had been beguiled here to be made the
victim of what should appear an accidental encounter, and all that
remained now was to sell his life at as punitive a rate as possible.

As he reached under his coat for the automatic pistol which was his
sole remaining dependence, he caught in a sidewise glimpse the face of
Sam Carlyle alias John Blackwell. It wore a sardonic smile and its lips
opened like a trap to shout in a staccato abandonment of disguise. "Git
him, boys! _Git_ him!"

It was palpably enough a signal for which they had been waiting, like
the pack-master's horn casting loose his hounds. Instantly the place
burst into an eruption of confused and frenzied tumult. Henderson had a
momentary sense of unshaven faces with lips drawn over wolfish fangs,
of the pungent reek of gunpowder in his nostrils and, in his ears, the
cracking of pistol reports--as yet sounding only in demonstration.

With a few steps more they would be swarming upon him, as a pack piles
upon its defenseless quarry. But his own weapon spat doggedly, too, and
for the brevity of an instant the rush wavered.

His assailants were crowding each other so hamperingly that the
fusillade from the front was wild and, at first, ineffective. Those at
the fore, cooled by a resolute reception and the sight of one of their
number going down, with a snarl of pain, pressed forcibly back.

For the space of one quick breath, they afforded their victim a
reprieve. He was groping, with his left hand outstretched, against the
wall toward the nearby door, when he felt that arm grow numb and drop
limp at his side. Through his left shoulder darted a sensation hardly
recognized as pain.

The two doors had not been closed. It was unnecessary. Before the
victim should reach either he would be riddled, and even if he gained
one he would fall before he could mount and ride away. Since they had
him at their mercy they could afford to toy with him.

No one saw the figure that had materialized on the threshold to which
all the backs of the yelping crowd were turned. It had come unannounced
from the outer darkness. It stood for a moment looking on and in that
moment understood the only thing necessary to comprehend: that the man
who must be married to-night, was being prematurely assassinated.

From his shadow of concealment at the door, this volunteer in the
conflict thrust forward his rifle. His lean jaws were set and his eyes
were full of a cold and very deadly light. It was the ringing voice of
his repeater that announced him as it launched into the place so swift
and fatal a sequence of messages that, to those inside, it appeared
that they were being raked by a squad's volley.

The sharp challenge of the clean-mouthed rifle, multiplied by its echo,
dominated the muffled belching of revolvers like thunder crashing
through the smother of winds, and upon the drunken mob of murderers,
the effect was both immediate and appalling. To a savage lust for
violence succeeded panic and an uncontrollable instinct of flight.

A very different performance had been rehearsed in advance. It had
contemplated a pretense of mêlée in which Jerry Henderson was to be
killed--and no one else was to suffer. What had been staged as a
bar-room brawl with an incidental murder had been switched without
prior notice into battle and siege, and as every head came about with
eyes starting and jaws sagging, many dropped and lay prone on the floor
to escape the scathe of flying lead. Utilizing the respite of diverted
attention, Jerry Henderson overturned a heavy table, behind which he
crouched. He was bleeding now from half a dozen wounds--and his only
thought was to die fighting.

But that moment of terror-arrested inaction would not last, and before
it was spent, Bear Cat Stacy had hurled himself with hurricane fury
into the room, his rifle clubbed and flying, flail-like, about his
head. The brief advantage of surprise must be utilized for the rush
across the floor and, if it were to succeed, it must be accomplished
before the boldest recovered their poise.

He must reach Henderson's side and the two must fight their way out
shoulder to shoulder. Henderson must not die--just yet!

Turner Stacy covered half the distance by the sheer impetuosity of his
onslaught, and reached the painted line of the state border, before a
voice from the outskirts sought to rally the dismayed and disorganized
forces with a rafter-rocking howl: "Bear Cat Stacy! _Git_ him boys! Git
'em both!"

But the new arrival was not easy to "git." He seemed an indestructible
spirit of devastation; a second Samson wielding the jaw bone of an ass
and wreaking death among his adversaries. He hurled aside his rifle
shattered against broken heads and caught up a heavy chair. He cast
away the chair, carrying a man down with it as it flew, and fought with
his hands.

The superstition of his charmed life seemed to have something more of
verity, just then, than old wives' gossip.

Then the initial spell of panic broke and those who had neither fled
nor fallen swarmed grimly upon him. The pistols broke out again in
their ragged yelping, but Bear Cat seemed everywhere at once, and
always at such close grips with one or more adversaries that lead could
not reach him save through the flesh of his assailants. And while this
deadly romp went forward, Henderson rose and ducked like a
jack-in-the-box behind his massive obstruction, sniping at such as fell
back from the core of the conflict.

But preponderating numbers must ultimately prevail and neither Stacy
nor Henderson could have outlasted the minute in that inferno, had not
Sam Carlyle undertaken to hurl himself on Bear Cat when, for a moment,
the single combatant had wrenched himself free of the struggling mass.

Carlyle dived instead of standing off and shooting, and with the
swiftness of a leopard's stroke Turner whipped out his pistol and
received the Towers henchman on its muzzle.

"Hands high!" he ordered in a voice that crackled with pleasure at this
miracle of deliverance, and Carlyle, realizing too late his blunder,
stretched his arms overhead. Then giving back step by step and holding
the would-be assassin as a shield at his front, Bear Cat edged to the
corner of the table. He was bleeding, too, not in one place but in
many.

"Git behind me, Henderson," he commanded briefly, "an' make yore way
ter ther door!"

Roused to a fictitious strength by the infection of his rescuer's
prowess, the wounded promoter sought to gain his feet, but his legs
gave way under the seeming burden of tons. "I'm not just wounded," he
mused, "I'm riddled and shredded." Sinking back, he said gaspingly,
"Save yourself, Stacy.... I reckon ... I'm done for."

But Bear Cat, crouching with his pistol thrust against the breast of
his human shield, snapped out his words with a resolve which appeared
ready to assume command over death itself.

"Do what I tells ye! Ye kain't die yit--ye've got to endure fer a
spell. I hain't done with ye!"

[Illustration: Then giving back step by step, Bear Cat edged to the
corner of the table]

Pulling himself painfully up by the table's edge with his one sound
arm, Jerry made a panting and final effort, but, as he struggled, part
of his body became exposed and that was the signal for several
desultory shots. He fell back again, bleeding at the mouth, and the
spot where he collapsed was reddened with the flow from his wounds.

Bear Cat Stacy's voice ripped out again in a furious roar.

"Quit shootin'!" he yelled. "One more shoot an' I kills Sam Carlyle in
his tracks. I warns ye!"

Carlyle turned his head, too, and bellowed across his shoulder.

"Fer God's sake boys, hold up! He means hit!"

As the racket subsided, Stacy knelt, still covering his hostage and
said briefly to Jerry, "Hook yore arm round my shoulders. I'll tote
ye."

He came laboriously to his feet again with his clinging burden of
bleeding freight,--and abruptly Kinnard Towers appeared in the other
door. His voice was raised in a semblance of rage, corroborated by an
anger so well-simulated that it made his face livid.

"What manner of hell's deviltry air all this?" he thundered. "Who
attacked these men in my place? By God, I don't 'low ter hev my house
turned into no murder den." His minions, acting on his orders, knew
their chief too well to argue, and as they fell shamefacedly silent,
Kinnard shouted to Bear Cat.

"Son, let me succor ye. He looks badly hurted."

"Succor, hell!" retorted Bear Cat grimly. "You an' me will talk later.
Now ef any feller follers me, I aims ter kill this man ye hires ter do
yore murderin'."

At the hitching-rack several horses still stood tethered. There was
need for haste, for one fugitive was perhaps bleeding to death and the
other was wounded and exhausted. Some of the scattered murderers might
be already waiting, too, in the shadows of the thickets.

Then for the first time Bear Cat spoke to Henderson of the mission that
had brought him there.

"Now ye've got ter git up an' ride ter Brother Fulkerson's house," he
said, with a bitter curtness. "Ye're a-goin' ter be married ter-night."

"Married! To-night!" Jerry was hanging limp in the arms of his rescuer.
His senses were reeling with pain and a weakness which was close to
coma, but at the tone he raised his lids and met the glittering eyes
that bent close, feeling a hot breath on his cheeks. This was the face
of the man who had recklessly walked into a death trap to save him, but
in its implacable fixity of feature there was now no vestige of
friendliness.

"Married!" echoed the plunger feebly. "No, buried. I'm mortally hurt, I
tell you.... I'm dying. Just put me down and save yourself while ...
you can."

But Bear Cat Stacy was lifting him bodily to the saddle and holding him
in place.

"Dying?" he scornfully repeated. "I hopes ter God ye air, but afore ye
dies ye're agoin' ter be married. Maybe I'm dying, too--I don't
know--but I aims ter last long enough ter stand up with ye first."



CHAPTER XV


Kinnard Towers had spent that evening in his house at the distance of a
furlong from the stockaded structure wherein the drama of his
authorship was to be staged and acted. The cast, from principals to
supernumeraries, having been adequately rehearsed in lines and
business, his own presence on the scene would be not only unnecessary
but distinctly ill advised, and like a shrinkingly modest playwright,
he remained invisible. The plot was forcible in its direct simplicity.
A chance disturbance would spring out of some slight pretext--and
Henderson, the troublesome apostle of innovation, would fall, its
accidental and single victim. When death sealed his lips the only
version of the affair to reach alien ears would be that dictated by
Towers himself: the narrative of a regrettable brawl in a rough saloon.
Against miscarriage, the arrangements seemed airtight, and there was
need that it should be so for, desirable as was the elimination of
Jerry's activities, that object would not have warranted recklessly
fanning into active eruption the dormant crater of Stacy animosities.
However, with Lone Stacy in duress and Turner Stacy in hiding beyond
the state border, the hereditary foes were left leaderless--and would
hardly rise in open warfare. Moreover, Kinnard meant to insure himself
against contingencies by hastening to such prominent Stacys as might be
in communication with the absentees and avowing, with deep show of
conviction that, of all the turbulent affairs which had ever come to
focus in his tavern, nothing had so outraged him as this particular
calamity. He would appear eager for active participation in hunting
down and punishing the malefactors.

Of course, a scape-goat might be required, perhaps more than one, but
there were men who could be well enough sacrificed to such a diplomatic
necessity.

So during the first part of that evening, Kinnard sat comfortably by
his hearth, smoking his pipe with contemplative serenity the while he
waited for the rattle of firearms, which should announce the climax of
the drama. He allowed to drop on his knees the sheaf of correspondence
which had come to his hand through the courtesy of his nephew in the
legislature. These papers bore the caption: C. and S. E. Railways
Company: "_In Re_--Cedar Mountain extension," and they contained meaty
information culled from underground and confidential sources.

Across the hearth from him, with bare feet spread to the blaze, sat the
well-trusted Tom Carmichael--sunk deep in meditation, though his eyes
were not entirely serene--nor cloudless of apprehension.

"'Pears like ther show ought ter be startin' up," complained Towers
restively. "Ye seed 'em go inter ther Quarterhouse, ye said?"

Tom nodded.

"I watched 'em from ther shadders of ther roadside. They went in all
right. They're inside now."

After a brief pause the lieutenant demanded querulously, "Ye've done
tuck inter account thet ther killin' of this feller from Looeyville's
goin' ter stir up them furriners down below, hain't ye, Kinnard? I
wouldn't be none astonished ef they sent them damn' milishy soldiers up
hyar ergin."

"Ease yore mind, Tom." Towers spoke with the confidence of the
strategist who has, in advance, balanced the odds of campaign. "Ther
railroad will kick up hit's heels--an' snort like all hell--but ther
Co'te sets _hyar_--an' I carries ther Co'te in my breeches pocket."

After a moment he added, "The only people I'm a-fear'd of air ther
Stacys--an' I've done arranged _thet_."

At last across the frosty, sound-carrying distance, came the spiteful
crack of pistols, and Kinnard Towers leaned attentively forward in his
chair.

"Them damn' fools air bunglin' hit, some fashion," he broke out
wrathfully. "Thar hain't no sort of sense in a-stringin' hit out so
long."

A momentary diminuendo of the racket was followed by the sharp,
repeated bark of a rifle, which brought the intriguer violently to his
feet.

"Hell's fiddle!" he ejaculated in sudden alarm. "They hain't finished
hit up yit! I cautioned 'em special not ter use no rifle-guns--jest
pistols, accidental like."

Hatless and coatless, he rushed out and made for the Quarterhouse,
disquieted and alarmed by the din of a howling chorus which sounded
more like uncertain battle than orderly and definite assassination.

Before his panting, galloping haste brought him to the stockade he
caught, above the confused pandemonium, a yell of: "Bear Cat Stacy!
_Git_ him! Git 'em both!"

"Good God!" he muttered between grinding teeth. "Good God, them fools
air startin' ther war ergin! I've got ter stop hit!"

If Bear Cat fell within the four walls of that house to-morrow would
dawn upon a country-side disrupted in open warfare. So Kinnard appeared
in the door, his face distorted with an ashen fury and sought, too
late, to assume again the rôle of pacifist and rescuer.

As Bear Cat had gone stumbling out, bearing his burden of wounded and
misused humanity, two men started forward keyed for pursuit.

"We kin still git 'em from ther brush," hazarded one, but with a biting
sarcasm the chieftain wheeled on the volunteer.

"Stand where ye're at, ye fool! Ye've done flung away ther chanst--an'
plunged us all inter tribulation! Hain't I got no men thet hain't
damned bunglers?"

He stood panting in a rage like hydrophobia.

"Thet Bear Cat, he hain't mortal noways!" whined a disheveled youth who
nursed a limp arm. "I seed his chest square on my pistol sights, not
two yards' distant, an' I shot two shoots thet hed a right ter be
deadeners--but ther bullets jest bounced offen him. Ye kin bleed him a
leetle, but ye kain't in no fashion _kill_ him."

Kinnard Towers stood looking about the débris of the place where
shattered bottles on the shelves and grotesque figures cluttering the
floor bore testimony to the hurricane that had swept and wrecked it.

"Them fools war mortal enough," he disdainfully commented. "I reckon
ye'd better take a tally an' see what kin be done fer 'em."

                 *       *       *       *       *

Under stars that were frostily clear, Bear Cat Stacy rode doggedly on,
gripping in his arms the limp and helpless figure of Jerry Henderson.
Beneath his shirt he was conscious of a lukewarm seeping of moisture as
if a bottle had broken in an inner pocket and he recognized the leakage
as waste from his own arteries.

Within his skull persisted a throbbing torture, so that from time to
time he closed his eyes in futile effort to ease the blinding and
confusing pain. With both arms wrapped about the insensible figure
before him, and one hand clutching his pistol, rather from instinct
than usefulness, he went with hanging reins. A trickle of blood filled
his eyes and, having no free hand, he bent and dabbed his face against
the shoulder of his human burden. Through all his joints and veins he
could feel the scalding rise of a fever wave like a swelling tide. To
his imagination this half-delirious recognition of sanity-consuming
heat became an external thing which he must combat with will-power. So
long as he could fight it down from engulfing and quenching his brain,
he told himself, he could go on. Failing in that, he would be drowned
in a steaming whirlpool of madness.

The stark and shapeless ramparts of the hills became to his disordered
senses hordes of crowding Titans, pressing in ponderously to smother
and bury him. He felt that he must fend them off; hold back from
crushing and fatal assault the very mountains and the pitchiness of
death--for a while yet--until his task was finished.

Above all he must think. No man could defeat death, but, for a
sufficient cause and with dauntless temper of resolution, a man might
postpone it. He must win Blossom's battle before he fell. He swayed
drunkenly in his saddle and gasped in his effort to breathe as a hooked
fish gasps, out of water.

It seemed that on his breast lay all the massiveness of the rock-built
ranges and at his reason licked fiery tongues of lunacy so that he had
constant need to remind himself of his mission.

There was some task that he had set out to accomplish--but it wavered
into shadowy vagueness. There were scores of mountains to be pushed
back and a heavy, sagging thing which he carried in his arms, to be
delivered somewhere--before it was too late.

His mind wandered and his lips chattered crazy, fever-born things, but
to his burden he clung, with a grim survival of instinctive purpose.
Sometimes an inarticulate and stifled sound came stertorously from the
swollen lips of the weltering body that sagged across the horse's
withers--but that was all, and it failed to recall the custodian from
the nightmare shades of delirium.

But the night was keenly edged with frost and as the plodding mount
splashed across shallow fords its hooves broke through a thin rime of
ice. That same cold touch laid its restoring influence on Turner
Stacy's pounding temples. His eyes saw and recognized the setting of
the evening star--and something lucid came back to him. To him the
evening star meant Blossom. He remembered now. He was taking a
bridegroom to the woman he loved--and the bridegroom must be delivered
alive.

Jerking himself painfully up in his saddle, he bent his head. "Air ye
alive?" he demanded fiercely, but there was no response. He shifted his
burden a little and held his ear close. The lips were still breathing,
though with broken fitfulness.

His fever would return, Bear Cat told himself, in intermittent waves,
and he must utilize to the full the available periods of reason.
Henderson would bleed to death unless his wounds were promptly
staunched. Liquor must be forced down his throat if he were to last to
Brother Fulkerson's house with life enough to say "I will."

Since the dawn when Bear Cat had given his pledge to Blossom he had
always carried a flask in his pocket. He had done so in order that his
fight should be one without any sort of evasion of issues: in order
that the thirst should be met squarely and that whenever or wherever it
attacked him he would have to face and conquer it with the knowledge
that drink was at hand.

Now he felt for that flask and found that in the mêlée it had been
shattered.

Rough and almost perpendicular leagues intervened between here and
Brother Fulkerson's and there must immediately be some administration
of first aid. The instinct of second nature came to Bear Cat's aid as
he groped for his bearings.

Over this hill, a half mile through the "roughs," unless it had been
moved of late, lay Dog Tate's blockade still. Slipping back of his
saddle, onto the flanks of his mount, Turner lowered Henderson until he
hung limp after the fashion of a meal-sack between cantle and pommel.
He himself slid experimentally to the ground, supporting himself
against the horse while he tested his legs. He could still stand--but
could he carry a man as heavy as himself?

"A man kin do whatsoever he's obleeged ter do," he grimly told himself.
"This hyar's a task I'm plumb decreed ter finish."

The fever had temporarily subsided. His brain felt preternaturally
clarified by the contrast, but the hinges of his knees seemed frail and
collapsible.

He hitched the horse, and hefting the insensible man in his arms,
staggered blindly into the timber.

Dog's place was hedged about with the discouragement of thickets as
arduous as a _cheval de frise_, but Bear Cat's feet groped along the
blind path with a surety that survived from a life of wood-craft. Once
he fell, sprawling, and it was a little while before he could conquer
the nausea of pain sufficiently to rise, gather up his weighty burden,
and stumble on again.

"I'll hev abundant time ter lay down an' die ter-morrow," he growled
between the clamped jaws that were unconsciously biting the blood out
of his tongue. "But I've got ter endure a spell yit--I hain't quite
finished my job."

At last he lifted his voice and called guardedly out of the thickets.
"This is Bear Cat Stacy--I'm bad wounded an' I seeks succor!"

There was no reply, but shortly he defined a shadow stealing cautiously
toward him and Dog Tate stood close, peering through the sooty dark
with amazement welling in his eyes.

The gorge which Dog had chosen for his nefarious enterprise was a
"master shut-in" between beetling walls of rock, fairly secure against
discovery and now both the moonshiner and his sentinel brought their
lanterns for an inquiry into this unexpected visit.

At first mute astonishment held them. These two figures were bruised,
torn and blood-stained, almost beyond semblance to humanity. In the
yellow circlet of flare that the lantern bit out of the darkness, they
seemed gory reminders of a slaughter-house. But much of the blood that
besmeared Bear Cat Stacy had come from his weltering burden.

"I hain't got overly much time fer speech, Dog," gasped Turner between
labored breaths. "We've got ter make Brother Fulkerson's afore we gives
out.... Strip this man an' bind up his hurts es well es ye kin.... Git
him licker, too!"

They staunched Henderson's graver wounds with a rough but not undeft
speed, and when they had forced white liquor between his lips the
faltering heart began to beat with less tenuous hold on the frayed
fringes of life.

"Ef he lives ter git thar hit's a God's miracle," commented Dog. He
passed the whiskey to Bear Cat, who thrust it ungraciously back as he
repeated, with dogged reiteration. "He's got ter last twell mornin'.
He's _got_ ter."

When the prostrate figure stirred with a flicker of returning
consciousness Turner's eyes became abruptly keen and his words ran
swiftly into a current of decisiveness:

"Dog, yore maw war a Stacy--an' yore paw was kilt from ther la'rel. I
reckon ye suspicions who caused his death?"

A baleful light glimmered instantly into the moonshiner's pupils; the
light of a long-fostered and bitter hate. His answer was breathed
rather than spoken.

"I reckon Kinnard Towers hired him killed.... I was a kid when he died,
but my mammy give me his handkerchief, dipped in his blood ... an' I
tuck my oath then." He paused a moment and went on more soberly: "I've
done held my hand ... because of ther truce ... but I hain't nowise
forgetful ... an' some day----"

Bear Cat leaned forward and laid an interrupting hand on the shoulder
of the speaker, to find it trembling.

"Hearken, Dog," he said. "Mebby yore time will come sooner then ye
reckoned. I wants thet afore sun-up ter-morrow word should go ter every
Stacy in these-hyar hills, thet I've done sent out my call, an' thet
they shell be ready ter answer hit--full-armed. I wants thet ye shall
summons all sich as ye hev ther power ter reach, ter meet fer counsel
at my dwellin'-house ter-morrow mornin' ... an' now I wants ter hev
private speech with this-hyar man--" he jerked his head toward
Henderson--"afore he gits past talkin'."

With a nod of comprehension the moonshiner and his helper slipped out
of sight in the shadows, and kneeling at Jerry's side, Bear Cat again
raised a cup of white whiskey to his lips.

The odor of the stuff stole seductively into his own nostrils, but he
raised his eyes and saw again the evening star, not rising but setting.

"Blossom's star!" he groaned, then added, "Ye don't delight in me none,
little gal! Thar hain't but one thing left thet I kin do fer ye--an' I
aims ter see hit through."

With insupportable impatience he bent, waiting for a steadier light of
consciousness to dawn in that other face. Every atom of his own will
was focused and concentrated in the effort to compel a response of
sensibility. Finally Henderson's eyes opened and the wounded man saw
close to him a face so fiercely fixed that slowly, under its tense
insistence, fragments of remembrance came driftingly and disjointedly
back to him.

"Kin ye hear me?" demanded Bear Cat Stacy with an implacably ringing
voice. "Does ye understand me?" And the other's head moved
faintly--almost imperceptibly.

"Then mark me clost because I reckon both of us hes got ter stand afore
many hours facin' Almighty God--an' hit don't profit us none ter mince
words."

Through the haze of a brain still fogged and reeling, Henderson became
aware of a hatred so bitter that it dwarfed into petulance that of the
murder horde at the Quarterhouse.

"Ye come hyar ... an' we tuck ye in." The tone rose from feebleness to
an iron steadiness as it continued. "When I come inter ther
Quarterhouse I 'lowed ye'd done turned traitor an' joined Kinnard
Towers ... but since they sought ter kill ye, mayhap I war
misguided.... Thet don't make no difference, now, nohow." He paused and
struggled for breath.

"Ye tuck Blossom away from me ... ye made her love ye because she
hadn't never knowed ... an eddicated man afore.... All my days an'
nights I'd dreamed of her.... Ter make her happy, I'd gladly hev laid
down my life ... but I war jest a rough mounting man ... an' then she
seed _you_."

Henderson's lips moved in a futile effort as Bear Cat halted, gasping.
His hand wavered in a weak gesture of protest--as against an unjust
charge. But Bear Cat's voice leaped suddenly. "Don't stop me! Thar
hain't much time left! You an' me needs ter go ter God's jedgment seat
with our jobs finished.... I don't censure Blossom none ... hit war es
rightful thet she should want a _real_ life ... es fer ther flowers ter
want sunshine.... But _you_! Ye stole her love--an' then abandoned
her."

Henderson's eyes were eloquent with a denial--but the darkness hid
it--and his lips refused utterance, while the other talked on,
feebleness muting the accusing voice to a lower timbre.

"She warn't good enough fer _you_--her thet war too good fer any man!
But perchance ye may be wiser dyin' then livin'." The weak utterance
mounted into inexorable command.

"Now ye're a-goin' ter make good afore ye dies.... She trusted ye ...
an--" Turner broke suddenly into a deep sob of agony. "I don't know how
fur ye taxed her trust ... but I knows she told me she had full faith
in ye, an' faith like thet don't stop ter reckon up costs. Now she's
sickenin' away--an' thet trust is broke ... an' I reckon her heart's
broke, too."

Henderson moistened his lips and with a supreme effort succeeded in
whispering almost inaudibly, "That's a lie."

"A lie is hit? She gave ye her lips," went on the burning indictment.
"An' in these hills when a woman like Blossom gives her lips ter a man,
she gives him her soul ter keep.... Ye're a mountain man yoreself ...
ye knows full well what mountain folks holds.... Ye hain't got no
excuse of ign'rance ter hide behind. Ye knows thet withouten ye weds
her, folks will tell lies an' she won't never be able ter hold up her
head--ner smile again."

"Stacy--" Henderson had rallied a little now, but he sagged back and at
first got no further than the name. With another struggle, he added,

"I ... I'm dying----"

"Mebby so. I hopes ye air ... but fust ye're a-goin' over thar with me
... an', because she'll be happier ef she thinks ye come of yore own
free will.... I hain't a-goin' ter tell her ... thet I dragged ye thar
... like a sheep-killin' dog.... Ye're a-goin' ter let her think thet
her hero has done come back ter her ... _dee_spite death hitself."

"But--but----"

The young mountaineer broke out with something half sob and half
muffled roar.

"Hell, thar hain't no but! I'm tellin' ye what ye air a-goin' ter do!
With God's aid I aims ter keep ye alive thet long ... an' atter thet--I
hain't takin' no heed what comes ter pass."

"Was ... that ... why you ... saved me?" The words were barely audible.

"What else would hit be? Did ye reckon hit war love for ther man thet
hed done stole everything I counted dear--ther traitor thet betrayed my
roof-tree? Did ye 'low thet hit war fer yore own sake I war openin' up
ther war ergin, deespite ther fact that I knows hit'll make these hills
run red with ther blood of my kith an' kin?"

Abruptly Bear Cat came to his feet and shouted into the darkness.
Henderson saw two figures detach themselves from the inky void and come
forward.

Then as they lifted him he swooned with pain.



CHAPTER XVI


Dog Tate had left his mash kettle unguarded that night, putting clan
loyalty above individual interest as he hastened off to stir into
action the dwellers of the Stacy cabins, and to dispatch other
night-riders upon the same mission. But he sent Joe Sanders, his
assistant, to convoy the wounded men along their road. They went at a
labored and snail-like pace, Sanders walking on one side of the horse,
supporting the swooning figure it bore, while Turner Stacy trudged at
the other saddle skirt. Sometimes Bear Cat plodded on with fair
erectness, setting his teeth against weariness and pain, but at other
times the intermittent waves of fever rose scaldingly until, in a blind
fog, he dragged shuffling feet, clinging grimly the while to pommel and
stirrup-leather as his head sagged forward between his shoulders.
Sometimes, too, he mumbled incomprehensible things in a voice that was
weirdly unnatural. From time to time there was a halt to make sure that
the life spark still flickered, though tenuously and gutteringly, in
the breast of the inert thing lashed to the saddle.

When they had been on the road for three hours Bear Cat and Sanders, by
a common impulse, strained their ears through what had been silence,
except for the wail of the high-riding breeze among the pine crests.

Now faint, and far away, hardly more than a hint of sound, they could
hear something else, and it lifted Turner out of his reek of nightmare
and semi-delirium so that his eyes cleared and his head came up. It was
as though a bugle had sounded a note of martial encouragement through
the mists of despair.

Joe Sanders spoke shortly, half to his companion and half to himself.

"Hit kinderly seems like Dog Tate's rousin' em up. I reckon ther war's
on now all right an' it's liable ter be unshirted hell."

                 *       *       *       *       *

Blossom had been sitting until late that evening with her hands lying
listlessly in her lap and her eyes staringly fixed on the blaze of her
hearth. Their amber pools were darkened with jaded misery and her
cheeks were pale. Their graciousness of youthful curve had been
somewhat flattened, as her whole life had been flattened. Only her
hair, awakened into halo-brightness by the blaze of the logs, spoke of
that old vividness of color that had been a sort of delicate
gorgeousness and even that nimbus had the suggestion of the glow about
the head of a saint who has achieved sanctity through suffering.

"He swore he aimed ter come back ter me right soon," she repeated to
herself. "I wouldn't have him imperil himself--but he mout have writ me
a letter." Her instinct told her what had happened with a fulness of
realization from which there was no escape. It was only because she had
pretended her Cinderella dream to be a fact, that she had not all along
recognized it for an impossible fairy tale. The Jerry Henderson who had
promised her marriage was only a temporary Jerry: a man swept off his
feet by the stress and freshet of crisis. The mountain blood in his
veins had welled up to flood tide and swept away the dams of his
superimposed cultivation. He had relapsed into her life--for a little
while--just as his ardent tongue had relapsed into her uncouth
vernacular.

Now the more permanent Jerry, awakened by his return to city
conditions, was standing aloof, regarding that experience with
self-contemptuous regret: thinking of it as a lapse into savagery. It
had been an impetuous thing of the flesh to which his mind denied
permanent sanction. The dream was over now--but she could not forget
it.

Her fingers twisted themselves tightly together and she rose and leaned
wearily against the mantel-shelf. As her eyes, clouded with misery,
traveled about the tidy room, its every note spoke of Bear Cat Stacy.
He had fashioned, for her comfort, all the furnishings that made it a
place different from the rooms of other mountain cabins.

On the Pelion of her own misery she heaped the Ossa of
self-condemnation. She saw again the stricken look in Turner's eyes as
he had set out for Virginia after hearing the news that had cut the
foundation from under all his own life-dream. She remembered, too, the
gentleness with which, placing thought of her above self, he had made
his renunciation.

"Oh, God," she murmured, "why air hit thet we kain't love best of all
ther folks thet loves us most? Turney would hev walked through ther
Valley of Death fer me--an' I've got ter break my heart fer a man thet
don't hold me good enough ter wed."

Yet even now she was making excuses for the lover who had neither come
nor written. The first bond between Turner and herself had been their
common revolt against a life of squalid ignorance and emptiness. That
revolt had carried them into the no-man's land of discontent without
bringing them to the other side: the line of real attainment upon which
Jerry stood secure.

Her father came once to the door, but did not enter it. His bearded
face was more soberly patriarchal than ever. He had long struggled
against violence in his efforts to shepherd a wild and turbulent flock.
He had pleaded for the Christ-law of forgiven sins, but in his veins
ran the unforgetting blood of warring generations. There had been times
of late when he had felt that he would need God's help and restraint
should he ever meet the man who had broken his daughter's heart.

"I reckon thar hain't sca'cely nothin' I kin say ter console her," he
mused as he turned away from the door.

At length when the fire had burned low Blossom went to bed and lay
wide-eyed for other hours.

Through the harping wind in the evergreens sometimes came the high,
wild note of southward-winging ducks and geese--refugees from winter.
Henceforth her life was all to be winter. Neither the freshly green and
tuneful things of springtime nor the gorgeousness and fragrance of
autumn could amend or temper its lethargy.

She had tossed until nearly dawn, and the house lay deadly quiet. If
sleep came near her it was only to veer away again for each sputter of
a dying ember brought her, with a start, into tenser wakefulness.

Then came another sound, and her nervous little body tightened into the
dismay of panic. Unmoving, holding her breath between pressed lips, she
strained her ears. There was no mistake--she had heard it again.

It was a wild note riding the wind, and now for the first time it
became more than a legend in her experience. From babyhood she had
heard of this night noise, long silenced by the truce, and had trembled
at its portentousness. She had from childhood heard her father thank
God that men were no more roused by it from their sleep: that it was
one accursed thing which belonged to the past. Now it had found
resurrection!

As she lay listening it sounded once more, nearer than before, a shout
suggestive of a wild-cat's wail that quavered and rose and dwindled and
rose again. That clan-signal of the Stacys along the ridges meant
war--open and unmitigated war.

It was not merely a demonstration of inimical feeling but a definite
summons. The man of that blood who heard it needed no particulars. He
had his orders. Straightway he must arm and rally.

From her father's room came a deeply anguished groan and the muttering
of a prayer. He, too, had been awakened and realized that the "war" had
broken out afresh.

It was useless to try to sleep now. Blossom rose and threw fresh fagots
on the fire. She dressed and sat with her fingers twisting and her lips
trembling.

Once she stifled a scream at the rush of hoof-beats and the scatter of
gravel along the road, but the commotion went by in hot haste and
silence closed down again.

Eventually an abrupt shout sounded imperatively from just beyond the
door--a voice which Blossom did not recognize, and as she came to her
feet she heard her father's stern challenge, "Who's out thar?"

"Hit's Joe Sanders--an' I'm in haste!"

Despite the urgency of word and tone the preacher hesitated to demand:

"What business brings ye hyar in ther dead of night-time?"

"I've got Bear Cat Stacy an' Mr. Henderson. They're both sore wounded.
Fer God's sake, hasten!"

With a swiftness of motion that outstripped her father's, Blossom flung
herself forward and with feverish fingers was sliding the bar from its
sockets.

But while the preacher stood waiting, his lips drew themselves into an
unbending line and his shaggy brows lowered. Inwardly he was praying:
"Almighty God, I beseeches Ye ter strengthen me in this hour ter
fergive mine enemies--fer Thou knowest thar's murder in my heart!"

As the girl threw the door wide, she saw what seemed to be three
figures locked in a close embrace.

The trio lurched rather than stepped into the lighted area, and,
shrinking back horrified, Blossom saw Brother Fulkerson close his
house, his face marked, as she had never before seen it, with a grim
unwelcome.

Sanders carried in his arms a figure whose limbs fell in grotesque
inertia. Its clothing was torn by briars and bullets; matted with mire
and blood. Its face was half hidden by a rough bandage made from
Jerry's own handkerchief, upon which the stains had turned from red to
dull brown, except at the spots where the crimson had been renewed by
an unstaunched trickle.

Bear Cat stumbled across the threshold unaided, but as he halted,
blinking at the light, he reeled drunkenly and propped his disheveled
body against the wall. That was for a moment only and at its end he
drew himself into something nearer uprightness and swept his hand
across his brow. He had not carried the matter this far to fail at the
finish.

"Lay thet man on a bed," he panted with fierce earnestness. "Thar
hain't no time ter waste ... he's nigh death ... an' he's come hyar ter
be wedded."

Brother Fulkerson answered in a voice of bewilderment, tinged, too,
with protest.

"Thar hain't sca'cely no life in him. Hit's too late fer marryin'."

"Not yit hit hain't ... hit will be ef ye tarries!" Turner ripped out
his words with the staccato snap of rifle fire. His own feebleness
seemed to drop away like the hat he flung to one side. His eyes burned
with tawny fire and a positive fury of haste. For hours, he felt he had
been holding death in abeyance by a sheer grapple of resolution, and
now men paused to parley and make comment. An impulse of insane wrath
besieged him. He must be obeyed--and the moments were flying--the sands
running out.

"Hasten now--an' talk afterwards," he burst out.

They laid Jerry on Blossom's bed, its coverings magically smoothed into
comfort by her flying hands, and Joe Sanders once more pressed his
pocket flask to the white lips.

The girl, buoyed up, beyond her strength, by the moment's need and the
mettle of her blood, swiftly and capably eased the posture of the
wounded man, loosened his heavy boots and rushed from the room to
prepare fresh bandages. The stunning impact of despair would come
later. Now every fighting chance must be preserved to him.

While she was still out of the room, Henderson's eyes opened in a
fluttering and precarious consciousness, to find other eyes fixed on
them with flaming intensity.

The basilisk gaze was fabulously reputed to bring death, but Turner
Stacy was reversing its hypnotism to compel life.

"Where--am I?" whispered Jerry; and the answer was as peremptory as
predestination.

"Ye're at Blossom's house--ter git married--an,' by God, ye've got ter
last thet long. She's got ter believe ye come of yore own free
will--see thet she does!"

The half-insensible eyes ranged vaguely about the place. The weak
fingers plucked absently at the coverlet, and then essayed a gesture.
The promoter seemed rallying his failing faculties for a supreme effort
though his voice was hardly audible.

"But--Stacy--you don't--under--stand."

Bear Cat brought his face close; a face with belligerently out-thrust
chin and fiercely narrowed eyes. Henderson must consent before Blossom
returned to divine with her quick intuition that her dying lover balked
in the shadow of death.

"Don't explain nothin' ter me. Save yore breath ter say 'I will.'
Thet's all ye hev need ter utter now--an' hits need enough."

In his overwrought singleness of purpose Turner forgot that this man
was beyond any force of threat or coercion. As he spoke so
dictatorially he believed himself, too, to be facing death with equal
certainty, though more slowly, and what he had sworn to do must first
be done.

Yet there was such an inescapable compulsion in the ernest fixity of
his pale face and burning eyes that the outstretched figure felt its
own declining will merged and conquered.

"Hit's ther only decent thing thet's left fer ye ter do," went on the
strained but inflexible voice. "Ye took her heart fer yore own--an'
broke hit. Ye've got ter let her have yore name an' ther consolation of
believin' thet ye came ter her ... honest, fightin' back black death
hitself!"

Sometimes between sleep and waking come fugitive thoughts that seem
crystal-clear, but that elude definite memory. Such a process enacted
itself in the mind of the dying man. Doubt and complications were
dissolved into simplicity--and acquiescence.

Faintly he nodded his head and even tried to hold out his hand to be
shaken. Perhaps Bear Cat was too excited to recognize that proffer of
amenity. Possibly his own bitterness was yet too black for
forgiveness--at all events he turned away without response to seek out
Joel Fulkerson, who had disappeared.

"Ye've got ter hasten, Brother Fulkerson," he hurriedly urged. "Jerry
Henderson's done come back ter give his name ter Blossom afore he dies
an' death hain't far off."

The old evangelist was bending over a medicine chest. It was a thing
which a visiting surgeon had once given him and in the use of which he
had developed an inborn skill that had before now saved lives and
ameliorated suffering. He straightened up dubiously and faced the
younger man.

"Turney," he said grimly, "ef they don't wed, folks hyarabouts'll
always look askance at my little gal with a suspicion thet I'm
confi_dent_ is as false as hell hitself--but God made ther state of
matrimony holy--an' I'm his servant--onlessen they both enters inter
hit free-minded hit wouldn't be nothin' but a blasphemy. _Air_ they
both of one mind?"

Turner stiffened to a ramrod straightness. His hands clenched
themselves into hard fists and his nostrils quivered.

"Brother Fulkerson, ye're a godly man," he declared with suppressed
passion, "an' I hain't never sought ter dispute ye ner defy ye afore
now--but thar hain't no time ter argyfy. Willin'ly or unwillin'ly ye're
a-goin' ter wed them two--right hyar--an' now! He plighted his troth
ter her. He's got a mighty brief chanct ter fulfill his pledge an'
leave her thinkin' she gave her love ter a true man. He's come acrost
hyar, shot like a bob-white--jest fer thet. I've fought off death my
own self ter-night--jest fer thet! Ef God has spared both of us this
long, I reckon He done hit--jest fer thet! I'll answer ter Him at ther
jedgment-seat, ef so be I'm wrong."

For an irresolute moment the father hesitated, then he said briefly,
"Come on."

Turner wheeled, bracing himself for the bitterest ordeal of all. He must
be the spokesman for a rival whom he hated beyond superlatives--and
in order that Blossom might keep her dream, which was all she could now
hope to salvage out of life, he meant to tell a lie which would for all
time enshrine that detestable traitor. None the less, when he had drawn
her aside, he spoke with great gentleness, perjuring himself with
knightly self-effacement.

He took both her hands in his own and looked with a tender
consideration into her forlorn eyes, gulping down the choke that rose
in his throat and threatened his power of speech. Though her gaze was
fixed on his face she seemed hardly to see him, so stiff and
trance-like was her posture and so tight-drawn and expressionless her
features. If he could soften that paralysis of grief it was worth a
self-sacrificing lie.

"Blossom," he began softly, "Mr. Henderson fell inter a murder trap an'
I got thar too late ... ter fotch him out unharmed. Betwixt us we _did_
come through, though, with ther breath still in our bodies ... an' he
made me pledge myself ter git him hyar in time ... ter wed with ye
afore he died."

He saw the eyes widen and soften as if the tight constriction of heart
and nerve had been a little eased. Into them came even a pale hint of
serenity and pride--pride for the splendid vindication of a hero whom
she had tried to believe true and had been compelled to doubt. Even the
bleak dreariness of widowhood could not tarnish that memory: her ideal
instead of being shattered was canonized!

"I knowed he'd prove true," she loyally declared. "Despite everything I
jest knowed hit deep down in my heart!"

A pallid thinning of the darkness was discernible over the eastern
ridges as Brother Fulkerson, who had administered his most powerful
restoratives, thrust back his medicine chest. His face became
mysteriously grave as he joined the hands of his daughter and the man
whose fingers were limp in their enfeebled clasp. Across the quilted
four-poster stood Bear Cat Stacy, as erectly motionless as bronze. His
unblinking eyes and lips, schooled into firm stoicism, might have
suggested some young Indian brave going, set of purpose, to his
torture. The lamp flared and sputtered toward the end of its night-long
service and the fire had dwindled to an ashen desolation.

At the foot of the bed, and depressed with a dull sense of awe, was Joe
Sanders, fingering his hat-brim and shifting his weight from foot to
foot.

The old preacher of the hills, ordained in no recognized school of
divinity, had for this occasion put aside the simple formula that the
mountains knew and substituted for it such fragments as he remembered
from the Church of England's more stately ritual. It was a service that
he had heard infrequently and long ago, but it had stirred him with its
solemn beauty and God would forgive any unmeant distortions since the
intent was reverent.

"Dearly Beloved, we're gathered together hyar in ther sight of God
A'mighty an' in the face of this hyar company ... to j'ine tergither
this-hyar man an' this-hyar woman." There exact memory failed him and
his voice broke in a pathetic quaver. Bear Cat Stacy bit his tongue
until he could taste the blood in his mouth as he held his gaze rigidly
fixed above the heads of the little group. God alone knew how bitter
were the broken dreams in his heart, just then.

"I require an' charge ye both, as ye will answer at ther dreadful day
of jedgment--" the holy words were still illusive and memory
tricky--"thet ef either one of ye knows any--any--cause why ye kain't
rightfully be j'ined tergither in matrimony ... ye do now confess hit."

The pause which ensued lay upon the small company with oppressive
weight. Joe Sanders coughed and nervously cleared his throat.

"Wilt thou have this-hyar woman fer thy wedded wife? Wilt thou love
her, comfort her an' keep her in sickness an' in health?"

For a moment there was dead and unresponsive silence. A cold fear smote
upon them all that death had intervened. Then Bear Cat, bringing his
eyes back from their fixity, bent abruptly; so abruptly that his
movement seemed a thing of violent threat.

"Don't ye hear?" he demanded in a strained whisper. "Speak whilst
thar's breath left. Say 'I will.' Say hit speedily!"

Recalled by that sharp challenge out of his sinking consciousness,
Jerry Henderson stirred and murmured faintly, "I will."

"Wilt thou have this-hyar man fer thy wedded husband ter serve, honor
an' obey----"

But before the interrogation came to its period Blossom Fulkerson broke
in with a prideful and willing avowal, "I will! I will!"

Turner Stacy felt icy moisture on his temples. His world seemed rocking
as he stood straight again with wooden immobility.

"I pronounces ye man an' wife."

Bear Cat turned away, walking with the stiff fashion of an automaton.
He could feel a stringent tightness like paralysis at his heart--and
his limbs seemed unresponsive and heavy. Then to his ears came, on the
morning breeze, that same call to arms that had stiffened Blossom into
a paralysis of fear. His cramped posture relaxed, and to himself he
said, "I reckon I hain't quite through yit!"



CHAPTER XVII


Blossom still knelt at the bedside with eyes of absorbed suffering and
fingers that strayed flutteringly toward the bandaged head.

Bear Cat, with his hand on the latch, lingered at the door, held there
by a spell which he seemed powerless to combat. His part here was
played out and to remain longer was an intrusion--yet he seemed unable
to go. The kneeling girl was not even conscious of his presence. For
her there was no world except that little one bounded by the sides and
the end of the bed upon which her lover lay dying. Her hands clasped
themselves at last and her face buried itself in the coverings. She was
praying.

Bear Cat saw the glimmer of the firelight on her hair and to him it was
all the lost gold of his dreams. He caught the sweet graciousness of
her lissome curves, and his own fingers clutched at the shirt which had
become stiff with dried blood. Once she had prayed for him, he
remembered--but that was before her real power of loving had burned to
its fulness. Now he stood there forgotten.

He did not blame her for that forgetfulness. It only demonstrated the
singleness of devotion of which she was capable; the dedication of
heart which he had once hoped would be lavished on himself.

He, too, was so centered on one yearning that he was beyond the
realization of lesser matters, so that the gaunt preacher came within
arm's length unnoticed and laid a hand on his shoulder. Brother
Fulkerson nodded toward the other room, and Turner followed him with
the dumb and perfunctory abstraction of a sleep-walker.

"Now, son, ef hit hain't too late ter avail, let's hev a look at yore
own hurts. Ye didn't come through totally unscathed yore own self."

Bear Cat stood apathetically and his eyes turned hungrily toward the
stout partition of logs beyond which knelt the girl. It was not until
the older man had spoken the second time that he replied with a flat
tonelessness of voice, "My worst hurts ... hain't none ... thet ye kin
aid."

"Thet's what I aims ter find out." Joel Fulkerson's manner was brisk
and authoritative. "Strip off yore coat an' shirt."

Indifferently Bear Cat obeyed. Several times his lips moved without
sound, while the other pressed investigating fingers over the
splendidly sinewed torso and bathed away the dried blood.

"Hit looks p'intedly like ye've been seekin' ter prove them fruitless
stories thet bullets kain't kill ye," observed the preacher at the end
of his inspection, speaking with a somber humor. "Ye've done been shot
right nigh yore heart, an' ther bullet jest glanced round a rib without
penetratin'. Ye've done suffered wounds enough ter kill a half-dozen
ord'nary humans--an' beyond wastin' a heap of blood ye don't seem much
injured."

"I wisht," declared the young man bitterly, "ye'd done told me thet I
was about ter lay down an' die. Thet's all I'm longin' fer now."

For some moments they were silent; then Joel Fulkerson's grave pupils
flickered and a hint of quaver stole into his voice.

"Son, I've done spent my life in God's sarvice--unworthily yet plumb
earnest, too, an' thar's been times a-plenty when hit almost looked ter
me like He'd turned aside His face in wrath fer ther unregenerate sin
of these-hyar hills. I've hed my big dreams, too, Turner ... an' I've
seed 'em fail. Oftentimes, despairin' of ther heathenism of ther
growed-ups, I've sot my hopes on ther comin' generation. If ther
children could be given a new pattern of life ther whole system mout
come ter betterment."

The young man had been putting on again his discarded shirt and coat,
but his hands moved with the fumbling and apathetic motions of a
sleep-walker. His face, turned always toward that room beyond the wall,
was set in a dull immobility, yet he heard what the elder man was
saying, and listened with the impatience of one whose thoughts are in
travail, and whose interest for abstractions is dead. The preacher
recognized this, but with a resolute effort he continued. "When _you_
war a leetle shaver I seed in yore eyes thet ye hed dreams above
sordidness.... Oft-times when I watched ye gazin' off acrost the most
distant ridges I 'lowed that God hed breathed a wonderful gift inter ye
... ther ability ter dream an' make them dreams come true. I seed thet
ye hed _power_, power thet mout do great good or make yore name a
terror ter mankind, dependin' on which way ye turned hit." An agonized
groan came brokenly from the twisted lips. Bear Cat dropped into a
chair and covered his eyes with trembling palms. He had faced his
enemies without flinching, but after the cumulative forms of torture
through which he had passed to-night, his stoicism threatened to break
under the kind intentions of a talkative friend.

Still the evangelist went on: "I had visions of a new type of mountain
folks--some day ... when boys like you an' gals like Blossom grew
up--and wedded. Folks with all the honesty an' generosity we've got
now--but with ther black hate an' suspicion gone--. Ay--an' ther cause
of hit gone, too,--ther blockade stills."

Turner's nails bit into his temples as if with an effort to hold the
fugitive reason in his bursting head, as the words assaulted his ears.

"I've set hyar afore my fire many's ther night, a-dreamin' of some day
when there'd be a grandchild on my knee ... yore child an' Blossom's
... a baby thet would be trained up right."

Suddenly Turner's silence of apathy broke and he fell to trembling,
while his eyes flared wildly. "In God's name why does ye have ter taunt
me in this hour with reminders of all thet I've lived fer an' lost?
Does ye reckon I kin ever fergit hit?" He broke off, then went on again
with panting vehemence. "I hain't never had no dream but what was jest
a part of _thet_ dream.

"Why I've stood up thar on ther ridges in ther spring when ther face of
God's earth war so beautiful thet I've wondered ef His heaven could be
much better--an' thet's ther sperit of ther hills thet Blossom stood
fer ter me." The shaking voice gathered volume and passion. "I've seed
ther bleak misery of winter strangle all but ther breath of life
hitself outen folks thet lives hyar--an' thet's what this country means
ter me without Blossom! Folks knows how ter hate up hyar, but jest now,
somehow, I feels thet no man in all these God-forsaken mountings kin
hate life an' humanity like I hates 'em!"

Joel Fulkerson responded soberly though without reproof: "Yore man
Lincoln could go right on when things was turrible black. When his own
ends failed he still went on--fer others. He didn't give way ter hate.
He could go on tell he give his life hitself--fer dreams of betterin'
things thet needed betterment, an' he come from ther same blood as us."

"Wharfore in God's name does ye stand thar preachin' at me?" The young
man's reaction from stunned torpor to passion had brought with it
something like the fever of madness.

"Ye knows I holds with ye es ter schools--an' all fashion of
betterment--but what's them things ter me now? What I wants in this
hour is ter visit on ther man thet's ruint my life ther direst
punishment thet kin be meted out--an' he's cheatin' me by a-dyin'.
Listen--" He broke off and bent his head toward the wall of Blossom's
room and his voice took on a queer, almost maniacal note. "Kain't ye
heer her--in thar--groanin' out her heart! Let me git outen hyar.... I
kain't endure hit.... I'm liable ter do even _you_ an injury ef I
stays--albeit I loves ye!"

"I hates thet man in thar, too, Turner." The preacher laid a
restraining hand on his companion's taut arm and sought to soothe the
frenzy of wrath with the cool steadiness of his tone. "I've had need
ter pray fer strength against thet hate--but I've heered ther Stacy
rallyin' cry ter-night an' we've got ter hev speech."

"Speech hain't ergoin' ter mollify me. What I wants is ter hev ther
things I've suffered this night paid fer. Hit's all _got_ ter be paid
fer!" The inheritor of feudal instincts wheeled and burst from the
room, the preacher following more slowly but still determined.

Outside Turner halted. The ordeal through which he had passed had left
him shaken in a frenzy of passion, and he stood looking about him with
the gaze of a wild beast fretting under the feral urge of blood-lust.
With a clan easily inflamed and gathering to his call, Brother
Fulkerson realized the danger of that mood. Its menace must be met and
stemmed before it ran to a flood-tide of homicidal violence.

The preacher came close and spoke quietly.

"I don't know yit what tuck place ter night--over yon," he said. "I
only knows I've heered acrost ther hills a sound I'd prayed I mout
never hear ergin--ther cry of ther Stacys rallyin' fer battle. Ye've
got power, son--power beyond ther common. What air ye goin' ter do with
hit? Air ye a-goin' ter fergit yore dreams, because ther future's black
afore ye? Or air ye goin' ter be big enough, since ye're denied
children of yore own, ter make them dreams come true fer ther benefit
of other men's children?"

Bear Cat Stacy's voice as he answered was gratingly hard and his eyes
were unyielding.

"I don't know yit," he savagely announced. "I don't know yit fer sure
whose a-goin' ter need punishment, but I've called on my kinsmen ter
gather--an' when I knows the truth we'll be ready to deal hit out full
measure."

"Ther days of feuds is past, son. Fer God's sake don't be ther
backwardest man in all this evil-ridden country--you thet should be the
forwardest."

But Bear Cat's hands, clenched into fists, were raised high above his
head.

"My paw's in jail," he ripped out. "I hed ter go over thar ter hide out
in Virginny. Ef them things hadn't come ter pass mebby I mout hev saved
Blossom from her tribulation." Suddenly he fell silent. In the dim
light the preacher saw his face alter to the ugly set of a gargoyle and
his body come to such sudden rigidity as paralysis might have brought.

"God Almighty in heaven!" Turner exclaimed, then his words come racing
in a torrent of frenzy. "I war a damn' fool not ter hev seed hit afore!
Why air my paw in jail? Why did Kinnard Towers counsel me ter go ter
Virginny an' hide out? Hit war because he war plannin' ter murder Jerry
Henderson--an' he didn't dast do hit with us hyar! I knows now who
needs killin' an' so holp me God, I hain't a goin' ter lay down ner
sleep, ever again, until I kills him!" The eyes burned madly; the
figure shook and he would have rushed off at the moment had not the
preacher caught his arms and held them doggedly even though the
infuriated young giant tossed him about in his efforts to free himself.
Yet for all his thinness and age, Joel Fulkerson had power in his
frame--and an unshakeable determination in his heart.

"Listen ter me," he pleaded. "I won't keep ye hyar long--an' ef ye
don't listen now, ye won't never forgive yoreself hereafter.... Ye
hain't got no cause ter misdoubt my loyalty.... I hain't never asked a
favor of ye afore."

At any other time Turner would have acquiesced without debate and in a
spirit of fairness, but now he was driven by all the furies of his
blood. He had been through the icy chill of dull despair and then
plunged into the blast furnace of red wrath. Upon some guilty agency
reprisal must be wreaked--and as if with a revelation, he thought he
saw the origin of the conspiracy which his father had long ago
suspected.

He saw it so late because until now his mind had been too focused on
effects to hark back to causes, and now that he did see it, unless he
could be curbed, he would run amuck with the recklessness of a Mad
Mullah.

"Let me go, damn ye," the young man almost shrieked as he tore himself
loose from the restraining grasp, and flung the old preacher spinning
to the side so that he fell to his knees, shaken. He clambered up
slowly with a thin trickle of blood on his lips, where his teeth had
cut them in the fall.

"Thet war a pity, Bear Cat," he said in a queer voice, though still
unangered, wiping his mouth with his bony hand. "I'd thought thet we
two--with a common sorrow between us----" There he broke off, and the
boy stood for a breathing space, panting and smoldering. He could not
come back to cold sanity at one step because he had been too far shaken
from his balance--but as he watched the gray-haired man, to whom he had
always looked up with veneration and love, standing there, hurt to the
quick, and realized that upon that man he had laid violent hands, the
crazy fire in his arteries began to cool into an unutterable
mortification.

Since the cattle trader's story had been told back in the Virginia
cabin, until this moment, his mind had been successively scorched with
wrath, chilled in despair and buffeted by hurricane violence, but never
had it for a tranquil instant been stilled to normality. Over at the
Quarterhouse, when in Berserker rage he had been lashing out through a
red mist of battle, he had suffered less than since, because in action
he was spending the hoarded accumulation of wrath--but since then he
had been in the pits of an unbearable hell.

Now at the sight of that unresenting figure, wiping the blood from its
lip, a new emotion swept him with a flood of chagrin and self-contempt.
He had struck down a friend, defenseless and old, who had sought only
to give true counsel. The stubborn spirit that had upheld him as he
fought his fever-scalded way over the hills, and remained with him as
he watched the wedding ceremony, broke; and with face hidden behind
spread palms and a body racked by a spasm of collapse, he shook with
dry sobs that come in wrenching incoherence from deep in his chest.

He reeled and rocked on his feet under the tempest of tearless
weeping--and like a blind man staggered back and forth, until the
preacher, with a hand on each shoulder, had soothed him, as a child is
soothed. At last he found the power of speech.

"Fer God's sake, Brother Fulkerson, fergive me ... ef ye kin.... I
don't know what I'm doin'.... I'm seein' red." Again his voice vaulted
into choleric transports. "Ye says I mustn't call ther Stacys ter
bloodshed. Ye're right. Hit's my own private job--an' I'm goin' back
thar ter kill him--now! But es fer _you_, I wouldn't hev treated ye
with sich disrespect fer no cause in ther world--ef I hadn't been
well-nigh crazed."

"Son, I forgives ye full free ... but ye jest suspicions these other
matters. Ye hain't dead sure--and ye hain't ther man ter go out killin'
without ye _air_ plumb sartain.... Now will ye set down an' give me
leave ter talk a spell?"

The boy dropped upon the edge of the porch and jerked with a palsy of
wretchedness, and as he sat the old preacher pleaded.

For a while Bear Cat's attention was perfunctory. He listened because
he had promised to listen, but as the evangelist swept on with an
earnestness that gave a fire of eloquence to his uncouth words, his
congregation of one was heeding him because of the compulsion of
interest. He saw a bigger enemy and one more worthy of his warfare
behind the malign individual who was, after all, only its figure-head
and coefficient.

"Ef them ye loves hed been struck ter death by a rattlesnake--and hit
war feasible fer ye, 'stid of jest killin' ther snake, ter put an end
ter ther pizen hitself--fer all time--would ye waste strength on a
single sarpent?" The eyes of the speaker were glowing with ardor. "Men
like Kinnard air snakes thet couldn't do no harm save fer ther pizen of
ther copper worms. Hit's because they pertects them worms thet ther
lawless stands behind sich men--an' ther law-abidin' fears 'em. Wipe
out ther curse itself--an' ye wipes out ther whole system of meanness
an' murder." He paused, and for the first time since his outburst Bear
Cat spoke soberly.

"Over thar--at ther Quarterhouse--whar they sought ter git
Henderson--they warn't nothin' but a yelpin' pack of mad dogs--all
fired ter murder with white licker."

Brother Fulkerson nodded.

"I said ye hed power, an' I don't want ter see ye misuse hit.

"Ye asked me a spell back why I pestered ye with talk about betterment
in this hour of yore affliction. Hit's because I wants ye ter go on
fightin' fer thet dream--even ef hit's denied ye ter profit by hit. I
wants thet jest now with ther Stacys gatherin' in from back of beyond,
ye starts out leadin' 'em rightfully 'stid of wrongfully--fer whichever
way ye leads, ye'll go far."

Bear Cat Stacy rose from his seat. His chest still heaved, but his eyes
were aflame with a fire no longer baleful. In them was the thrilling
blaze of far-reaching vision. For a time he stood silent, then he
thrust out his hand.

"Brother Fulkerson, I've done been right close ter hell's edge
ter-night--but ye've brought me out. I hevn't put by my resolve ter
punish murder--if I can prove hit--but I've put by punishin' hit with
more murder. I aims ter make an end of blockadin'."

"Praise God," murmured Brother Fulkerson with the glowing face of an
old and wearied prophet who sees a younger and mightier rise before
him. Yet because his own long labors had taken heavy toll of weariness,
he knew the ashes of despair as well as the flame of ardor. Now he
found himself arguing the insurmountable difficulties. "But how does ye
aim ter persuade men ter forego blockadin'? Yore own kinfolks air
amongst 'em."

Bear Cat's excitement of resolve brought a tremor to his voice.

"By God, I don't aim ter persuade 'em over-much. I aims ter force 'em.
I aims ter rip out every still this side of Cedar Mounting--Stacys' and
Towers' alike, an' I don't aim ter sneak up on 'em, but ter march open
about ther business!"

It was to a campaign of persuasion, rather than abrupt coercion, that
the preacher had sought to guide his convert, and at this announcement
of audacious purpose he shook his head, and the hopefulness faded from
his pupils.

"The system hes hits roots set deep in ancient toleration, an' hooked
under ther rocks themselves. Afore ye alters hit by fo'ce, ye've got
ter shake, ter the bottom-most ledges, hills thet hain't never been
shuck afore."

But Bear Cat Stacy had within the hour become the crusader in spirit,
hot with a new-born purpose, and it would have been as possible to send
molten lava traveling uphill to go tamely back again into its bursted
crater, as to shake his purpose. He was in eruption.

"I knows thet, but I aims ter blast out the bed-rock hitself an' build
hit up anew.

"Hit seems ter me right now es ef I kin see ther picture of this land
in y'ars ter come. I kin see men walkin' with thar heads high an' thar
gaze cl'ar--'stid of reelin' in thar saddles an' scowlin' hate outen
drunken eyes. I kin see sich schools es Jerry Henderson named ter me in
other valleys an' coves.

"Ye says hit hain't a-goin' ter be easy, but I tells ye more then
thet--hit's goin' ter be jest one mite short of impossible--an'
none-the-less I'm a-goin' ter do hit. I'm a-goin' ter lay ther
foundations fer a peace thet kin endure. I reckon folks'll laugh at 'em
fust, an' then mark me down fer death, but I means ter prevail afore I
quits--an' I'm beholden ter ye fer p'intin' me ther way."

The preacher clasped his hands in a nervous uncertainty. The transition
from night to the twilight of the day's beginning had passed through
its most ghostly vagueness to a fog-wrapped morning. A dour veil of
gray and sodden mists trailed along the slopes with that chill that
strikes at the heart and quenches the spirit in depression.

Joel Fulkerson stood, gray, too, and colorless.

"I don't hardly know how ter counsel ye, son," he said, and his voice
was that of a man whose burden of weariness was crushing him.

"Ye aims ter do a thing thet hain't nuver been successfully undertook
afore. Ef ye seeks ter fo'ce men 'stid of persuadin' 'em--ye're mighty
liable ter fail--and cause ther valleys ter run red."

Bear Cat's lips twisted themselves into a smile ironically mirthless.

"Brother Fulkerson," he said, "in thar--ye kin almost hear her moanin'
now--is ther gal thet I've always loved. Ter me ther ground she walks
on is holy--ther air she breathes is ther only air I kin breathe
without tormint ... ter-night I fotched hyar ther man thet my heart was
clamorin' ter kill: fotched him hyar ter wed with her." As he paused
Turner's face twitched painfully.

"Ye says I mustn't undertake this job in no spirit of vengeance. Thar
hain't no other fashion I _kin_ undertake hit. I must needs throw
myself inter this warfare with all ther hate--an' all ther love thet's
in my blood. I hain't a-goin' ter try ter gentle iniquity--I'm goin'
ter strive ter tromp hit underfoot."

When Bear Cat was joined by Joe Sanders a few minutes later, the ridges
were still grim and unrelieved heaps of ragged gray. The sky was
lowering and vague, and the face of the sun pale and sullen.

Joe, too, in that depressing dimness looked like a churlish ghost, and
as the pair stood silently in the road they saw a trio of horsemen
approaching and recognized at their head Dog Tate, mud-splashed and
astride a horse that limped stiffly with weariness.

Dog slid from his saddle, and reported briefly.

"Ther boys air a-comin' in from ther branch waters an' ther furthermost
coves. I've done started a tide of men flowin' ter-night."

"I'm beholden ter ye. I reckon we'd all better fare over ter my house
and make ready ter meet 'em thar."

Tate leaned forward and gripped Bear Cat's arm.

"I've done warned everybody thet our folks must come in quiet. I 'lowed
ye'd want ter hold counsel afore any man fired a shot--but--" He paused
and looked furtively about him, then lowered his voice. "But thar's a
thing comin' ter pass thet don't pleasure me none. Kinnard Towers air
a-ridin' over hyar ter hev speech with ye--an' ef ye jest says ther
word--thar hain't no need of his ever gittin' hyar."

"Kinnard Towers!" For an instant an astonished and renewed anger flared
in Bear Cat's pupils, and the face of the other man blackened with the
malevolence of a grudge long nursed and long festering in repression.

"Kinnard Towers," repeated Dog Tate, vindictively mouthing the name.
"He's hired more men killed then he's got teeth in his jaws. He's raked
hell itself, stirrin' tribulation fer yore people an' mine--an' I've
done took my oath. Jest es soon es things start poppin' he's my man ter
kill!"

Abruptly Tate fell to trembling. His face became a thing of ash and
flint. From his pocket he drew a small package folded in newspaper,
which he unwrapped and held out, displaying an old and very soiled
handkerchief, spotted with dark discolorations. A shrill note sharpened
his voice as he spoke in vehement haste.

"Thar hit air! Thet's my daddy's 'kerchief--an' thet spot air ther
blood thet was spilled outen his heart--by a bullet Kinnard Towers
caused ter be fired! Seems like I kin see him a-lyin' thar now, sort of
gaspin' an' tryin' ter say somethin' ter me, thet he didn't never
succeed in utterin' afore he died! I wasn't hardly more'n a baby them
days an' when I come ter manhood they'd done made a truce an' yore paw
'lowed thet hit bound me. But now!" The man's excited tones cracked
like a mule-whip. "Now ef ther truce air ended, hit's my right ter hev
ther fust chance."

Slowly, with a comprehending sympathy but a firm resolution, Stacy
shook his head.

"Ye've got ter be as heedful an' patient es ye bade ther others be.
I've got a right-sensible hankerin' atter vengeance myself to-day,
Dog--but I've got ter hold my hand for a spell yit, an' ye've got ter
give me yore solemn pledge ter hold your'n, too. Hit mustn't be said
thet ef any man--even Kinnard--trusts us enough ter ride inter our
midst when we're gathered, he kain't be heered in safety."

The messenger stood looking down at the grewsome souvenir of the
tragedy which he believed left him a debtor with an unpaid score. Clan
obedience and individual lust for reprisal shook him in profound
dilemma, but finally, with a strong effort, he nodded his head--though
grudgingly.

"I gives ye my hand," he said in a dull voice, and up to them at that
moment rode a spattered horseman who, because of Towers' relationship
and marriage with a Stacy wife, was qualified as a neutral.

"I brings tidin's from Kinnard Towers," he announced. "He seeks ter
hold a parley with ye. He comes in peace, an' he wants yore pledge thet
he kin fare hither without harm."

Turner's jaw came out with a belligerent set, but he answered slowly.
"I was over at his place last night an' he didn't hardly hold _me_
harmless. None-the-less, tell him ter come on. I'll send back a few of
my kinfolks with ye ter safeguard him along ther way."



CHAPTER XVIII


Luke Towers, the father of Kinnard, had been one of those fierce and
humorless old feudists of primal animosities and exploits as engagingly
bold as the feats of moss-trooping barons. The "Stacy-Towers" war had
broken into eruption in his day. No man remembered to just what origin
it was traceable--but it had, from its forgotten cause, flared,
guttered, smoldered and flared again until its toll of lives had
reached a scattering summary enumerated in scores and its record had
included some sanguinary highlights of pitched battle. The state
government had sought to regulate its bloodier phases with the
impressive lesson of troops and Gatling guns, but that had been very
much like scourging tempestuous seas with rods.

Courts sat and charged panels, with a fine ironic mask of solemnity.
Grand juries were sworn and listened with an equal mockery of owlish
dignity. Deputies rode forth and returned with unserved subpoenas.
Prosecutions collapsed, since no law unbacked by public sanction in its
own jurisdiction can prevail. Stacys and Towers, alike fierce in
private quarrel and jealous of their right of personal settlement,
became blankly ignorant in the witness chair; welded by their very
animosities into a common cause against judge and jury.

There had been, among that generation of Stacys, no such outstanding
figure as old Mark Towers, the indomitable lion of the hills. Kinnard
had followed Mark, bringing to the succession no such picturesque
savagery--but still a bold spirit, tempered by craft. In lieu of the
sledge blow he favored the smiling face with the dirk unsheathed behind
his back. Times were altering and to him mere leadership meant less
than enough. He was also covetous of wealth, in a land of meagerness.
To clan loyalty as an abstract principle he must have added such
obedience as comes only from fear--and men must know that to thwart him
was dangerous. Upon that principle, he had built his dominance until
men shaped even their court testimony to the pattern of his
requirements. At first the Stacy clan had challenged his autocracy, but
twenty years before, the truce had been made and, since no Stacy leader
had arisen of sufficient caliber to wrest from him the ascendency of
his guile and bold wits, he had triumphed and fattened in material
wealth.

The farm that he had "heired" from his father, with its few fallow
acres of river bottom, had spread gradually but graciously into
something like a domain.

He might now have moved his household to a smoother land and basked in
the security of fair affluence--but an invisible bond chains the
mountain-born to mountain environment. Highland nostrils shut
themselves against lowland air. Highland lips spit out as flat and
stale that water which does not gush from the source of living brooks.

There were enemies here who hungered for his life--a contingency which
he faced with open-eyed realization--enemies actuated by grievances
apart from feud cleavage. Three attempts upon his life, he had already
survived. Some day he would not escape. But that eventuality was more
welcome, despite its endless threat, than an ease that carried with it
surrender of his rude ascendency and the strong intoxication of petty
might.

For several years now he had been hearing tales of a Stacy youth who
bore the ear-marks of leadership, and from whom, some day, he might
expect a challenge of power. If such a test came, he must combat a
younger and fierier adversary when his own prime had passed.

Elsewhere in the hills waves of transition were encroaching on the old
order of lethargic ignorance. The hermit blindfold was being loosened
from eager eyes--and men like himself were being recognized and
overthrown. So far the rock-built ridges of Cedar Mountain had been a
reef, protecting his own locality--but the advent of Jerry Henderson
had bespoken the imminence of a mounting tide--and whispered the
warning of deluge.

The elimination of Jerry had seemed imperative, but the result promised
disaster--since the wounding of Bear Cat had threatened the
wrath-glutting of the Stacys.

There was only one method of discounting that danger. Bear Cat had come
single-handed to his stronghold--he must now go single-handed, or
escorted only by his customary body-guard, into the heart of Stacy
territory, disavowing responsibility for the attack. He must, by that
convincingly reckless device, appear to demonstrate that he trusted
himself among them and expected in turn to be trusted by them.

He hoped with a fair degree of confidence that Jerry Henderson had not
reached the minister's alive--or that at all events he had not been
able to talk with a revealing fluency.

So the guileful old wolf had set out to ride boldly through an aroused
and hostile country, facing a score of parlous contingencies.

As he rode, he heard the rallying cry and its full portent in no wise
escaped his just appraisal. It caused him to spur on faster, however,
for the ugliness of the situation made it the more imperative that he
should reach Lone Stacy's house in time to present himself as an ally
before he was sought out as an enemy.

But when he had sent his message ahead by a neutral bearer, Kinnard
Towers slowed down and watched the stream of horsemen that flowed past
him: all men with scowling eyes responding to the cry which meant war:
all men who passed without attack, only because, as yet, the summons
had not been explained.

"By ther godlings!" muttered the Towers chieftain, with a bitter humor,
"I didn't know thar was sich a passel o' Stacys in ther world. They'll
stand a heap of thinnin' out!"

"An' as shore es hell's hot," growled Black Tom Carmichael with a dark
pessimism brooding in his eyes, "they'll _do_ right-smart thinnin' out
their own selves--once they gits stirred up."

                 *       *       *       *       *

By the time the sun had fully dissipated the early mists, the door yard
of Lone Stacy's house was dotted with little groups of men, and from
the wide doors of the barn more faces looked expectantly out. Along the
sandy creek-bed of the road, where a flock of geese waddled and hissed,
other arrivals stamped their feet against the cold of the
frost-stiffened mud, and rammed chapped hands into trouser pockets.

They talked little, but waited with an enduring patience. They were
determined men, raggedly clothed and bearded; incurious of gaze and
uncommunicative of speech--but armed and purposeful. They were men who
had left their beds to respond to the call of their clan.

Slowly Bear Cat circulated among the motley crowd, exchanging
greetings, but holding his counsel until the tide of arrivals should
end. It was a tatterdemalion array that he had conjured into conclave
with his skittering whoop along the hill-tops. There were lads in jeans
and veterans in long-tailed coats, green of seam and fringed of cuff.
They carried rifles of all descriptions from modern repeaters to
antiquated squirrel guns, but, in the bond of unshrinking stalwartness,
they were uniform.

To hold such a headstrong army--mightily leaning toward violence--in
leash needed a firm hand, and an unbending will. Old fires were
kindling in them, ignited by the cry that had been a match set to
tinder and gunpowder.

It was, all in all, a parlous time, but no one caught any riffle of
doubt in Turner Stacy's self-confident authority as he passed from
group to group, explaining the vital need of forbearant control until
Kinnard Towers had come, spoken and departed. The Stacy honor was at
stake and must be upheld. His morning hurricane of passion had left him
alertly cool and self-possessed--but there was battle-light in his
eyes.

In grim expectancy they waited, while nerves tightened under the heavy
burden of suspense. Turner had sternly commanded cold sobriety, and the
elders had sought to enforce it, but here and there in hidden places
the more light-headed passed flasks from hand to hand and from mouth to
mouth.

Such was the crowd into which Kinnard Towers eventually rode, with his
double body-guard, and even his tough-fibred spirit must have
acknowledged an inward qualm of trepidation, though he nodded with a
suave ease of bearing as he swung himself from his saddle at the gate.

The urbane blue eyes under the straw-yellow brows were not unseeing,
nor were they lacking in a just power of estimate. They noted the
thunder-cloud quiet--and did not like it, but, after all, they had not
expected to like it.

As Bear Cat came forward the Towers chieftain began unctuously. "How
air Mr. Henderson? Air he still alive?"

"He war last time I heered," was the curt reply.

Towers nodded with the air of one whose grave anxiety has been allayed,
but under the meditative quality of his Sabbath calm he was wishing
that he could learn, without asking, whether Jerry had been able to
talk. A great deal depended on that--but making the best of affairs as
he found them, he broached his mission.

"This hyar trouble came up in my place--an' hit's made me mighty
sore-hearted," he avowed. "But I've got ther names of every man thet
war thar when I come in--an' I rid over hyar ter proffer ye my aid in
runnin' down ther matter and punishin' them thet's guilty." He paused,
and feeling the unmasked distrust with which his assurance was greeted,
added:

"I reckon yore father's son wouldn't hardly want no _illegal_
punishment."

Bear Cat declined to meet diplomacy in kind.

"Ye reckons thet my father's son aims ter stand out fer a truce thet's
kept on one side an' broke on ther t'other. Air thet what ye means?"

Kinnard Towers felt his cheek-bones grow red and hot with anger at the
taunt, but he blunted the edge of acerbity and parried in sober
dignity.

"Ef I'd aimed ter bust ther truce I wouldn't hardly hev interfered ter
save ye, fust in Marlin Town and then ergin last night. I rid over hyar
with ther roads full of Stacys ter hold counsel with ye. I aimed ter
tell ye all I knowed and find out what _you_ knowed, so thet betwixt us
we could sift this matter ter ther bottom."

"Whatever ye've got ter say ter me, ye kin say ter these men, too," was
the tartly unconciliating reply. "I've pledged ye safety twell ye rides
back home. I aims ter say some things myself--an' I reckon most of 'em
won't pleasure ye none." The speaker's eyes flared as he added, "But
from this day forwards either you or me air goin' ter run things in
these hills an' ther t'other one of us won't hardly hev standin' room
left."

"I reckon," said Kinnard Towers,--and now the ingratiating quality that
had sugar-coated his address dissolved into frank enmity,--"I reckon ef
thet's ther road ye elects ter travel, thar hain't scarcely any avail
in my tarryin' hyar. I mout es well say farewell an' tell hell with ye!
Yore paw wouldn't hardly be so malicious an' stiff-necked. Ye don't
need ter be told thet I've got numerous enemies hyar in these
mountings, too--an' thet more'n once they've marked me down fer death."

The younger man's attitude was that of unmasked distrust, yet of
patience to listen to the end. Kinnard Towers, hirer of assassins
though he was, spoke with a certain dignity that savored of sound
logic. "Moreover, ye knows right well thet when I rid over hyar with
yore war-whoop skitterin' from hill-top ter hill-top, an' yore men
trapesin' along highways an' through ther timber trails, I traveled, in
a manner of speakin', with my neck in a halter. I was willin' ter risk
ther shot from the la'rel because, in a fashion, you an' me holds ther
lives an' ther welfare of our people in ther hollers of our hands. I
fared hither seekin' peace; aimin' ter stand side by side with ye in
huntin' down ther men thet sought ter murder you an' yore friend from
down below."

A crimson flush mantled on the full jowl and bull-like neck. The voice
shook with antagonism. "But I didn't come over hyar ter _sue_ fer
peace--an' the day hain't dawned yit when any man kin order me ter
leave ther mountings whar I belongs."

"By God in heaven!" Bear Cat Stacy leaned forward and his words cracked
like flame in green wood. "Ye says ye stands fer law--an' ye' makes
slaves of ther men thet runs ther co'tes of law! Ye says ye stands fer
ther people an' ye fosters thar ign'rance and denies 'em roads an'
schools. Ye sacrifices everything fer yore own gain--an' ther profit of
yore boot-lickers thet seeks ter run blockade stills. Wa'al ef thet's
law, I'm goin' ter start ter-day makin' war on ther law. I'm goin' ter
see what an outlaw kin do! I aims ter give thet message to them thet's
gathered hyar this afternoon--an' as soon as I'm done talkin' I'm goin'
ter commence actin'. Atter ter-day thar'll be decent Towerses alongside
of me and worthless Stacys 'longside of _you_!" His voice fell--then
leaped again to passion. "I reckon ther time's ripe. Let's go now an'
talk with 'em. I've jest been a-waitin' fer ye ter get hyar."

Deeply perplexed and depressed with the foreboding of one who fights
enemies shadowy and ill-defined, yet forced, since he had come so far,
to go forward, Kinnard Towers followed, as Bear Cat led the way to a
huge rock which afforded a natural rostrum.

"Men," cried Turner Stacy when a semi-circle of lowering faces had
pressed close and attentive about the shallow eminence, "last night Mr.
Henderson an' me come sore wounded from ther Quarterhouse, whar a
murder hed done been hatched: a murder thet partly failed. I sent out
messengers ter call ye tergether fer counsel as ter whether ther truce
hed been busted. I hain't found out yit fer sartain whether hit has er
not--an' until we knows fer sure we're still held in our bonds of
peace. Meanwhile I've done give my hand ter Kinnard Towers hyar, in my
name an' yourn, thet he kin ride home, safe. If he speaks ther truth
he's entitled ter respect. If he lies thar'll be time a plenty an' men
a plenty ter deal with him hereafter. Kinnard aims ter talk ter ye, an'
I wants thet ye hearken till he gits through."

The hereditary foeman, who knew that he was being pilloried in bitter
disbelief, stood with an erect calmness as he was introduced. His face
held an almost ministerial tranquillity, though his sense apprised him
of the hush that goes ahead of the storm. He saw the green patches of
the pines against the unaltered blue of the sky and the dull sparkle
awakened by the sunlight on the barrels and locks of fiercely-caressed
firearms.

As he moved a pace forward a chorused growl of truculent hatred was his
reception, but that was a demonstration for which he was prepared--and
against which he had steeled himself. He was less accustomed to making
public pleas than to giving orders in cloistered privacy--but he was a
lord of lies, and deeply versed in the prejudices upon which he hoped
to play.

"I come over hyar this day," he declared by way of preface, "of my own
free will--an' unsolicited by any man. I come open-eyed an' chancin'
death, because I knowed I'd done kept ther compact of ther peace--an' I
trusted myself ter ther upstandin' honesty of ther Stacys ter do
likewise. Ef harm overtakes me hit'll be because I trusted thet honesty
over-much."



CHAPTER XIX


As the snarling restiveness moderated to curiosity under Kinnard's
uncouth forcefulness and seemingly candid words, he repeated the
mendacious story of his outraged righteousness, when he had learned
that in his tavern the murder of a gentleman from the lowlands had been
attempted. His place, he pointed out, was open to all comers--the law
required that he extend its entertainment to every man who paid the
price. He himself had not been present in time to prevent the outbreak.
Had he entertained a prior and guilty knowledge of the plot, he would
scarcely have interfered last night. He would not have come to-day with
his assurance of sympathy and his proffer of aid into a nest of
swarming hornets.

Mr. Henderson's life had been attempted by some unknown foe once
before, he reminded them. Apparently it had been his misfortune to make
enemies as well as friends. The speaker paused and shook his head
regretfully.

"He come hyar a stranger amongst us an' war tuck in by Lone Stacy, a
man we all trusts--a man we all loves. Why should ther hand of anybody
hev been lifted erginst him? Ther stranger thet sojourns hyarabouts,
mindin' his own business, gin'rally walks safe. Hit's a question I
kain't answer.... Mebby hit war because Mr. Henderson fell inter ther
error of preachin' too strong a doctrine of change.... I only knows
this much myself: thet on ther night he got hyar I heered him talk thet
a-way--an' outen sheer friendliness I warned him thet amongst us simple
folks thar'd be some thet wouldn't take kindly ter sich notions. He
aimed ter show us how wrong our idees war; notions of life thet our
grand-sires hes fostered fer two hundred y'ars an' upwards. He aimed
ter undo in a twinklin' all thet's growed into our bones an' blood an'
free life endurin' ginerations--an' ter _civilize_ us. It war
considerable undertakin'."

Again a low growl ran through his audience, but this time its
indignation was not aimed at the speaker.

"I've even heered men claim thet Mr. Henderson come up hyar seekin' ter
rob us in ther interest of ther railroad, though I don't sceercely like
ter believe hit--ner even ter repeat hit."

Once more the blond head was shaken in sad regretfulness.

"We've done dwelt hyar, cut off from ther rest of ther world fer
ginerations. We hain't got much eddication, but we're honest an'
independent an' all we asks is ter be left alone ter work out our own
salvation. In other times ther feud split us up into enemies, but since
ther truce war made we've consorted peaceable." For a space he paused
to gaze meditatively at the spear-like timber fringe against the
fleckless blue.

"Ef Mr. Henderson unthoughtedly meddled an' somebody acted rash," went
on Towers easily, "sorry es we all feels fer hit, an' det'armined es we
all air ter punish thet person in full accordance with ther law--still
hit warn't no Stacy thet was attacked. Mr. Henderson lays thar a-dyin'
an' fer him I hain't got no feelin' but charity--but he warn't no
Stacy! Ther folks down below, whar he hails from, will take plentiful
pains ter avenge his death. Ter them, we hain't nothin' but benighted
barbarians of ther bloody hills--an' he war an eddicated gentleman!
Hit'll be a turrible pity ef we neighborly men goes ter war ergin over
any false suspicion."

Kinnard swept his hands outward in a gesture like a benediction and
stepped back. Where slurring growls had greeted him he left a silence
which testified to the telling effect of his words. Their anger now was
readier to burn into indignation against the invader who had sought to
alter their life.

Though the young Stacy had interrupted by no word or sound, there was
something in his stillness of deportment that presaged storm ready to
burst. As he came to the edge of the bowlder his movements had the
smooth elasticity of a panther--and when he stood silent for a moment
his eyes rained lightning bolts of intensity.

"I've done stood here without interruptin' an' listened at Kinnard
Towers' talk," he said, and the contempt of his tone was as stinging as
a rawhide lash. "'Most all of what he has told ye, I believes ter be
lies an' if they be, I aims ter have a full reckonin', but afore I
begins I wants ter charge ye all in full solemnity thet we've pledged
him a safe journey home--an' ef harm comes ter him afore he gits thar
our name stands disgraced ter ther end of time. He's a hirer of
murderers an' he's fattened offen poverty an' ther gallows air too good
fer him--but a pledge is a bond!"

Bear Cat wheeled for a moment to face Kinnard Towers himself as he made
this assertion, then he proceeded with the crescendo of a gathering
tempest.

"He says thet ther murder of Jerry Henderson hain't no consarn of
your'n, and he tells ye thet Henderson's under suspicion of seekin' ter
cheat ye outen yore birthright. Ef he believed thet on good reason an'
held his counsel thus far he aided an' abetted ther robbery. But I
believes thet's a lie, too, because ef Jerry Henderson sought ter rob
ye an' plunder ye successfully all he needed ter do war to _make a
deal_ with Kinnard Towers, fust.

"This man thet rules thet country from a boozin' ken, whar' ther stench
of infamy pizens ther air, tells ye he stands fer law--an' I tells ye
thet his kind of law makes all decent men want ter be outlaws. Judges
an' juries hyarabouts does his biddin' ter ther damage of every honest
man, because they walks in terror of him--an' debauches themselves ter
hold his favor! He flies high an' his wings are strong--he passes fer
an eagle--but he feeds on carrion."

Bear Cat swept into a stinging arraignment of the chicanery with which
he charged Towers, piling invective upon anathema with the passionate
sweep of a tornado. As faces that had listened to Towers with attention
hardened again, Kinnard braced himself and forced a satirical smile.

"This man aimed ter git Jerry Henderson from ther fust day he come
hyar--not because ther stranger sought ter feel ther way fer ther
railroad, but because he dared ter talk fer enlightenment: for schools
whar yore children could grow inter straight manhood, an' roads thet
could take yore crops and timber ter market. Sich open speech didn't
suit Kinnard, hyar, because when folks has knowledge they ceases ter be
victims ter his greed and cunnin'.

"Jerry Henderson spoke out his belief an' he was marked down by Kinnard
Towers fer death. He's a-dyin' now."

A low and dangerous murmur ran over the crowd, but Bear Cat Stacy
stilled it with his raised hands.

"I believes thet Kinnard connived with ther Judas revenuer to jail my
paw expressly ter cl'ar ther road fer this murder. Ef thet's true he
didn't jest attack a furriner, but he affronted every Stacy an' busted
ther truce ter boot! Till I kin prove what I suspicions, I aims ter
hold my hand; but I stud in Brother Fulkerson's house last night amids
ther ashes of sorrow an' I've done dedicated what's left of my life ter
one aim.

"I don't know whether I'll hev holp or go single-handed, but as
Almighty God hears me, I aims ter clean up these hills! I aims thet
'stid of grumblin' like old grannies because our fields air littered
with rock an' our roads air all dirt, we shell take ther rock outen
ther fields an' put hit on ther roads. I aims thet every child thet
hankers fer enough larnin' ter raise himself above ther level of beasts
shell hev a school whar he kin git hit. I aims thet when yore baby
falls sick or thar's a bornin' at yore house, ther doctor kin git
thar--in time!"

He paused, and his audience, swept by the abandon of his extemporaneous
fervor, fell into an excited approval. The magic of inherent strength
and sheer personality was at work upon them.

"Before sich things es them kin be brought ter pass," began the speaker
again in a voice dropping suddenly to stern calm, "ther wrath of
numerous folks will flare up ter murder-hate--because thar's a
stumblin' block in ther path thet's ancient an' thet hes got ter be
man-powered loose. Betwixt us an' betterment stands ther thing thet all
our troubles springs from--an' though hit don't profit but one man in
every score, yit thar be some amongst ye thet'll die fer hit!"

He stopped and looked down into faces puzzled and uncomprehending. Eyes
turned up to the speaker out of lean and serious visages, waiting for
his next sentence, and he himself stood there for a moment or two in a
silence which was as much an emphasis as a blank margin which stresses
the conspicuousness of print.

His own face, still drawn with the travail of last night's gamut of
emotion, and his figure motionless with the pent-up dynamics of a
tight-wound coil, carried the impression of action presently to burst
with a force beyond governing. They had always thought of him as a man
bred for action but short of speech; a man bound like themselves by the
constrictions which generations of taciturn ancestors had laid upon
fluency, damming it into difficulty. But now self-consciousness was as
absent from his attitude as though the torrential quality of his
thoughts and words came from an external force sweeping through him and
speaking through him.

Abruptly he thrust a hand into the breast pocket of his coat--a coat
torn recently by bullets meant for his heart--and drew out a thing
familiar to every man in that assemblage: a flat flask of colorless
glass, filled with a fluid as white as itself. He held the thing high
above his head, and ripped out his words with a crackling force.

"Thar's ther enemy thet's laid hits curse on the men an' women of
these-hyar mountings! Thar's ther thing thet's hatched from ther worm
of their still--ther pizen thet breeds in ther la'rel! _That's_ what
turns kindly men inter brutes an' wives inter widders an' children
inter orphans! Thar's ther thing thet hes made ther purest blood in all
America bear ther repute afore ther rest of ther world of a people of
bloody outlaws!

"Hit's bottles like thet thet hes shut ther doors of our country
against progress an' prosperity--an' barred out ther future from ther
hills. Hit's bottles like thet thet hes chained us ter ther dead past
when our kinsmen down below war a-marchin' on ter advancement. Hit's
ther false idee thet a man hes a license ter break ther law in
blockadin', even ter ther hurt of them thet don't blockade, thet's
carried along with hit a contempt fer all other law--an' raised up a
spirit of murder an' lay-wayin'."

As he paused again for a breathing space, still holding high the flask
above his head, he might have read a warning in the clouding of pupils
and the tightening of lips; in the out-thrusting of jaws and the
stiffening of shoulders. But these indications of hostile sentiment
seemed only to bring a more fiery hotness to his words and his voice.

"I made this licker myself," he declared. "I made hit up thar in ther
thickets. My paw lies in jail now fer doin' ther same thing. Many's
ther night--an' ther day, too--thet I've laid up thar drunk with ther
pizen thet I've brewed--but no man will ever see me drunk ergin!

"I've carried this flask in my pocket whar I could feel hit a-layin'
against my heart--ever since ther day I quit. I've carried hit thar so
thet thar wouldn't never be a time, day or night, when hit couldn't hev
ther chance ter lick me, ef so be hit proved bigger an' stronger then
me. I wasn't askin' no favors of ther worm of ther still--an' now I
hain't a-goin' ter give hit none! Thar's been times when my throat
scalded me an' my belly tormented me--when I felt like as ef I'd burn
an' shrivel ef I didn't uncork hit an' drink. But I hain't never teched
hit since then--an' now I kin laugh at hit. Now I know that Satan
helped me ter make hit--an' I'm a-goin' ter make war on hit till I
stomps hit out or hit kills me!"

Bear Cat Stacy, with that quick gesture so often seen in the hills,
raised the flask to his mouth and jerked out the cork with his
teeth--then he spat the stopper out of his mouth, and with hand again
raised high, inverted the flask so that the contents gurgled out in a
thin stream and, in the dead silence, the blubbering sound of the
emptying was as if the thing itself was giving up its life with a sob
of protest.

Then dashing down the bottle and shattering it on the rocks, the young
man broke out with a crescendo of vehemence.

"What you men hev seed me do with thet-thar flask of blockade licker
thet I made myself, ye're a-goin' ter see me do in like fashion with
all the rest this side of Cedar Mounting. Ye're a-goin' ter see me lift
ther curse thet's been on us like a lunacy an' a pestilence. Ye're
goin' ter see me smash every flask an' every bottle. Ye're goin' ter
see me empty out every jug an' knock in ther head of every kag an'
barrel, twell ther spleen of meanness an' murder runs out with ther
licker--an' a peace comes thet kin hope ter endure."

Then with abrupt and climacteric effect he wheeled and shouted to
someone who stood unseen behind the angular shoulder of the rock
itself. The next moment he lifted up and set down at his feet a spiral
thing of copper tubing which caught on its burnished coils the
brightness of the sun and gave back a red glitter.

"Ther day of hills enslaved by a copper sarpint hes done come to an
end!" he declared in a passion-shaken voice. "I aims ter do ter every
cursed one of 'em this side of Cedar Mountain what I'm goin' ter do ter
this one, hyar an' now!"

He seized up an axe which had been lying at his feet and swung it above
his head. Poised in that posture of arrested action, his final words
were defiantly thundered out.

"I've done took my oath ter hang these things like dead snakes along
ther highway fer all men ter see. They stands accountable fer poverty
an' squalor an' bloodshed. Because of ther pestilence they've brought
an' ther prosperity they've turned away--they've got ter go."

The ax crashed down in stroke after stroke upon the coiled thing at his
feet, gashing it into destruction as the crowd broke into a restive
shuffling of feet and looked on in dismay--as yet too dumfounded for
open protest.

"My God, Bear Cat's done gone crazed," whispered a man on the outskirts
of the crowd. "He's plumb fittified."

Slowly the spell of astonishment began to give way to a fuller
realization of the heresy that had been preached and which had appalled
them by its audacity. Comparatively few of them were actual moonshiners
but at other times many of them had been--and their spirit was defense
of their institutions. Yet the face of this young man, bred to their
own traditions, was fired with an ardor amazingly convincing and
dauntless. In many of the elder heads had glimmered a germ of the same
thought that Bear Cat had put into hot words; glimmered in transient
consideration, to be thrust back because the daring needed for its
expression was lacking. Here was Bear Cat Stacy boldly proclaiming his
revolutionary purpose in advance because he wished to be fair;
announcing that if need arose he would wage war on his enemies and his
friends alike in its fulfilment. It would take a bold spirit to
volunteer aid--and yet there were those whose only objection to the
crusade was its mad impracticability. There were others, too, who, as
Bear Cat had prophesied, would fight such vandal menace to the death.

So, after the first spell-bound pause, a threatening growl ran through
the crowd and then like a magpie chorus broke and swelled the babel of
discussion. Out of it came a dominating note of disappointment--almost
disgust--for the leader to whom they had loyally rallied. Kinnard
Towers stood for a while appraising their temper, then his lips parted
in a smile that savored of satisfaction.

"So Bear Cat Stacy goes dry!" he exclaimed with a contemptuous tone
intended to be generally overheard. Then in a lower voice he added for
Turner's ear alone:

"Son, ye've done made a damn' fool of yoreself, but hit hain't hardly
fer me ter censure ye. Hit suits me right well. Afore this day I feared
ye mout be troublesome ter me, but ye've done broke yore own wings.
From this time forward ye hain't nothin' but an eaglet thet kain't rise
offen ther ground. I was sensibly indignant whilst ye blackguarded me a
while ago--but now I kin look over hit. I reckon yore own people will
handle ye all right, without any interference from me."

The chief of the Towers clan turned insolently on his heel and walked
away and the crowd fell back to let him pass.



CHAPTER XX


When the Jews heard of a Messiah coming as a king they made ready to
acclaim him, but when they found him a moralist commanding the
sacrifice of their favorite sins, they surrendered him to Pilate and
cried out to have Barrabas freed to them.

That afternoon Turner Stacy, the apostate leader, saw his kinsmen
breaking into troubled groups of seething debate. The yeast of surprise
and palpable disappointment was fermenting in their thoughts. They had
come prepared to follow blindly the command of a warrior--and had
encountered what seemed to them a noisy parson.

Those who saw in the young man a bigger and broader leadership than
they had expected were those who just now said little. So some regarded
him with silent and pitying reproach while others scowled openly and
spat in disgust--but all dropped away and the crowd melted from
formidable numbers to lingering and unenthusiastic squads. They had not
even attached serious importance to his threat upon blockading--it was
mere bumptiousness indicating his mercurial folly.

In every indication he read utter repudiation by his clan. His eager
but limited reading had taught him that every true leader, if he is far
enough in advance of those he leads, must bear this bitter brunt of
misunderstanding, but he was young and a freshly inspired fanatic, and
that meant that he was in this respect, humorless--but he was not
beaten.

Standing somewhat apart with a satirical smite drawing his lips, Bear
Cat watched them ride away, and when most of them had gone his uncle,
Joe Stacy, came over and stood by his side.

"Ontil ter-day, Turner," he said with a note of deep sorrow in his
voice, "I 'lowed ye hed ahead of ye a right hopeful future. I 'lowed
ye'd be a leader--but ye kain't lead men contrarywise ter doctrines
thet they fed on at thar mothers' breasts. I've always kind of hed ther
notion thet someday ye'd go down thar ter Frankfort an' set in ther
legislature ... but ter-day ye've done flung away ther loyalty of men
that bragged about ye an' war ready ter die, follerin' ye."

"I reckon they kin find plenty of men ter lead 'em _thet_ way,--round
an' round in circles thet don't git nowhars," came the defiant
response. "Thet hain't ther sort of leadership I craves."

"Hit hain't thet I holds no love fer blockade 'stillin'," explained the
older man seriously. "I got my belly full a long time back--an' quit.
Ef ye could stomp hit out, I'd say do hit--but ye kain't. Ye hain't
jest seekin' ter t'ar out stills--ye're splittin' up yore own blood
inter factions an' warfare. Thar hain't nothin' kin come outen hit all,
save fer ye ter be diskivered some day a-layin' stretched out in a
creek-bed road, with a bullet bored through yore body."

Bear Cat only shook his head with stubborn insistence. "Ye don't raise
no crop," he declared, "twell ye've done cl'ared ther ground, an' ef
ther snags goes deep hit takes dynamite."

"Then I kain't dissuade ye? Ye aims ter go ahead with hit?"

"I aims ter go ahead with hit twell I finishes my job or gets kilt
tryin'."

"Then thar hain't nuthin' left ter do but bid ye farewell. Ye've done
made yoreself a hard bed. In a fashion I honors ye fer hit, but I
pities ye, too. Ye've done signed yore own doom."

"I thanks ye," said Bear Cat gravely. "But I hain't askin' pity yit."

In the yard where so many feet had been tramping there was now total
emptiness. The flock of geese still waddled and squawked down by the
creek, but by the gate Bear Cat stood alone--a man who had forfeited
his heritage.

The sun was setting and the ache of recent wounds and fatigue was
accentuated by the rawness of approaching twilight. Beyond the trickle
of prattling water, went up the frowning and unchanging hills, bleak
and sinister with their ancient contempt for change. Bear Cat Stacy
threw back his head.

"They don't see nothin' in me but brag an' foolishness," he bitterly
admitted, "but afore God I aims ter show 'em thet thar's more in me
then thet!"

Already a plan for the first chapter of his undertaking had fully
evolved itself and it was a thing which must be launched to-night--but
first he meant to make a sad pilgrimage. He would not go in, but he
would stand outside Blossom's window--perhaps for the last time.
Something drew him there--a compelling force and he remained an hour.
When he turned away cold beads of nervous sweat stood on his temples.

Suddenly he saw two figures cross the road and plunge furtively into
the laurel, and they moved as men move who have a nefarious intent.
They were Dog Tate and Joe Sanders; the men to whom, last night, he had
fled for succor, and at once he divined their purpose.

Bear Cat, too, turned into the timber and, by hurrying over the broken
face of the slopes, intercepted their more cautious course. But when he
stood out in the path and confronted them, it was no longer into
friendly faces that he looked.

"Dog, I wants ter hev speech with ye," he said quietly, and the
moonshiner, who had instinctively thrust forward his rifle, stood with
a finger that trembled in impatience while it nursed the trigger.

"Don't hinder me, Bear Cat," he barked warningly, "I'm in dire
haste--an' I've got severe work ahead of me."

"I knows right well what thet work air, Dog." The young man spoke
calmly. "I reckon hit's a thing ye gave me yore pledge not many hours
back ye'd put by twell another day an' I hain't freed ye from thet
bond."

"Who air _you_ ter talk of pledges?" The friend of last night savagely
snarled his question with a scorn that shook his voice. "You thet this
day broke yore faith with yore blood ter line up with raiders an'
revenuers!"

Bear Cat's face whitened with an anger which he rigidly repressed.

"Ye succored me last night when I needed ye sore," came the steady
response, "an' I'm willin' ter look over these hardships of speech, but
a pledge given is a pledge thet's got ter stand till hit's done been
given back."

Tate's eyes were blazing with a dangerous passion and his rage made his
words come pantingly:

"Hit's too late fer preachin' texts, Bear Cat. We believed in ye
yestiddy. Ter-day we spits ye outen our mouths. Ye kain't call us ter
war one day an' send us back home, unsatisfied, ther next. My pappy's
kerchief's right hyar in my pocket now--an' ther blood thet's on hit
calls out ter me louder then yore fine palaverin's!"

Bear Cat Stacy's rifle had been swinging in his hand. He made no effort
to raise it.

"When ye calls me a traitor ter my blood, ye lies, Dog," he said with a
hard evenness of tone. "I reckon ye knows what hit means ter hold a
bitter hate--I've done read thet much in yore face, but I holds a
deeper an' blacker hate then ye ever dreamt of--an' I've done put hit
aside--fer a reason thet meant more ter me then _hit_ did."

Through the excitement that made the other's chest heave Turner
recognized a bewildered curiosity and he went on.

"I hain't never stood by afore an' suffered no man ter give me names
like you've jest called me. I reckon I won't hardly never do hit
ergin--but I owes ye gratitude fer last night an' I'm goin' ter owe ye
more. Ye hain't a-goin' ter lay-way Kinnard Towers this night, Dog.
Ye're a-goin' along with me ter do what I bids ye."

"Like hell I am!" snarled Tate, though in the next breath, without
realizing the anti-climax of his question, he added, "Why am I?"

"Because I've got a bigger aim then sneakin' murders an' I aims ter hev
men like you holp me. Because when we finishes our job yore children
air goin' ter dwell in safety." He talked on fervently and despite
himself the man with his finger on the trigger listened.

It all seemed very fantastic and radical to Dog Tate, yet there was
such a hypnotic power in the voice and manner that he lowered his
cocked rifle.

"Bear Cat," he said with a sort of bewilderment, "thet talk sounds
powerful flighty ter me, but if ye air outen yer right mind I reckon I
kain't kill ye--an' ef thar's a solitary grain of sense in what ye says
God knows I'd like ter hev ye show hit ter me."

The shadows lengthened across the valleys and the peaks grew cloudily
somber as Bear Cat Stacy talked. He was trying for his first convert
and his soul went into his persuasiveness. He had himself done first
what he asked of others. His still was destroyed for a bigger aim. It
was a new and more effective warfare which required certain sacrifices.

A slow grin of sardonic amusement spread eventually over the face of
Dog Tate. He put down his rifle.

"Then ye means thet hit hain't a-goin' ter be jest preachin'? Kinnard
hain't goin' ter escape scot-free? Because I've always figgered he
belonged ter me."

"So many men figgers thet," retorted Stacy dryly, "thet in ther time of
final reckonin' thar won't be enough of him ter go round. I aims ter
hang him in Marlin Town, with his own jedge passin' sentence on him."

Dog Tate drew a clay pipe from his pocket and kindled it. His eyes
glowed with a pleasurable anticipation.

"Wa'al, now, es ter thet blockade still of mine," he drawled
reflectively. "My old woman's been faultin' me erbout hit fer a long
spell, an' seekin' ter prevail on me ter quit. She 'lows hit'll cost
more'n hit comes ter afore we gits through an' I misdoubts she hain't
fur wrong." He chewed on the pipe-stem yet a while longer, then
suddenly he announced: "I reckon thet still don't owe me nothin' much.
Hit's about wore out anyhow. Let's go over thar an' bust her up--an'
straightway start hell a-poppin'."

Bear Cat Stacy glanced keenly at Joe Sanders who had remained a pace or
two apart, holding his counsel with a face that bore no index to his
sentiments. "Air you with us, too, Joe?" he demanded. "This-hyar
business hain't a-goin' ter be no frolic. We don't want no men thet
don't aim ter go through with hit."

Joe scratched his head, speaking cautiously. "I works fer wages myself.
Dog hires me--albeit I'd ruther do any other fashion of labor.
Howsoever, I don't aim ter make common cause with no revenuers. I
hain't no Judas priest."

"Revenuers--hell!" exploded Bear Cat Stacy. "I don't make no common
cause with 'em nuther. I'm willin' ter let ther govern_ment_ skin hits
own skunks."

For so portentous a decision, Joe Sanders gave a disproportionately
laconic reply. "All right then. Ye kin count me in es fur es ye goes."

It was a night of fitful moonlight, breaking through a scud of windy
clouds, only to be swallowed again, when by the flare of a lantern the
three men stood over the ruins of what had been a crude distillery--its
erstwhile proprietor grinning sardonically as he surveyed the
completeness of his vandalism.

"I reckon thet finishes ye up, old whiskey-snake," he commented in grim
obituary. "I boughten thet piece of copper offen a feller thet murdered
a revenuer ter save hit--so hit's due fer punishment."

"Thet's all right so far es hit goes," Bear Cat reminded him crisply,
"but hit don't go far enough. We've got more work ter do yit. When men
wakes up ter-morrer, they've got ter hev proof thet I've started out in
earnest." Around the fire the three squatted on their heels, and talked
in low voices.

"I knows of three more stills sca'cely more'n a whoop an' a holler
distant from hyar es ye mout say," volunteered Joe Sanders. "I hain't
settin' hit out fer gospel fact, but I've heered hit norated round
about, thet Mark Tapper don't even try ter molest these stills on
account of a deal he's made with Kinnard."

"Wa'al, Kinnard hain't got no bit in _my_ mouth," growled Dog. "Whar
air these places at, Joe?"

Sanders was now innoculated with the spirit of crusade--not so much as
a reform as a new and impudent adventure--and his lips parted in a
contented grin that showed his uneven teeth.

"A couple on 'em air closed down fer ther time-bein'," he enlightened,
"but ther worms air thar. By ter-morrer Kinnard'll jest about hev
passed on a warnin' an' they'll be watched, but ter-night hit's cl'ar
sleddin'. A man kin bust 'em up single handed an' nuver be suspicioned.
Hit'll tek all three of us tergether ter manage ther third one though,
because _thet_ still b'longs ter little Jake Kinnard an' Jake or his
law-kin Mat Branham'll be on watch--mebby both of 'em."

Bear Cat's eyes brightened at this prospect of immediate action.
"Little" Jake, so dubbed after mountain custom because his father still
lived and bore the same given name, was a nephew of Kinnard Towers, and
despite his diminutive title prided himself on his evil and murderous
repute. He was a "notched-gun" man and high in his uncle's favor.

"Air they runnin' thet kittle in ther same place es they used to a year
back?" demanded Turner, and Joe nodded as he replied. "Ther same
identical spot. Hit's, as a man mout say, right in ther shadder of ther
Quarterhouse hitself."

Bear Cat Stacy was on his feet and his words came with the animation of
a daring plan already formulated.

"Now hearken.... You two boys look atter them idle stills.... I aims
ter manage this t'other one--by myself."

Dog Tate raised a hand in remonstrance, but Turner beat down argument
with a contemptuous laugh. "I'm in haste because I'm a-wearied," he
explained, "an' thet's ther speediest way ter git through an' lay down.
I'll be at yore house afore sun-up, an' I reckon ye kin hide me out
thar fer a few hours while I sleeps, kain't ye?"

"I kin take keer of ye--ef ye gits thar alive," affirmed the first
recruit. "But hit looks severely dubious ter me."

Turner tightened his belt, but as he was leaving he wheeled to direct:
"This worm of your'n an' ther t'other two hes got ter be hangin' in
ther highway by daylight. I aims ter hang Jake Kinnard's right up
erginst ther stockade of ther Quarterhouse."

As he scuttled through the dark timber the moon broke out at intervals,
making of the road a patch-work of shadow and light. Last night he was
hiding out only from the revenue agent and his informers. To-night he
had flung his challenge to the vested rights of tradition and forfeited
clan sponsorship. Every hand was against him.

His way carried him past the Quarterhouse itself and near the
hitching-rack he halted, crouched low against the naked briars and dead
brush-wood. Among the several beasts fastened there was a gray horse
more visible than its darker companions, which he recognized as
belonging to Black Tom Carmichael. Yet Black Tom had been otherwise
mounted to-day when he had ridden away from Little Slippery with
Kinnard Towers.

Obviously the fresh animal stood saddled for a new journey--probably a
mission of general warning. Bear Cat drew back into the invisibility of
the steep hillside to watch, and it was only a short time before the
door of Kinnard's own house, on the opposite slope, opened. Towers
himself he only glimpsed, for the chieftain did not make a practice of
offering himself as a target by night, framed in lighted doorways.

But Black Tom came down the path to mount and ride away, and Bear Cat
struck off at right angles through the woods. The horseman must follow
the road he had taken to the next crossing, and the pedestrian could
reach the place more quickly by the footpath. Having arrived, he lay
belly-down on a titanic bowlder in time to hear the cuppy thud of
unshod hooves on the soft road and, a little later, to see Black Tom
dismount and hitch.

Carmichael turned into the woodland trail without suspicion. He was on
territory which should be safe, and he walked with a noisy carelessness
that swallowed up what little sound Turner Stacy could not avoid as he
followed.

By the simple device of playing shadow to the man in front Bear Cat
drew so near to the still that he could both see and hear, though the
last stage of the journey through the interlocked thickets he
accomplished with such minute caution that Black Tom sat by the fire
with a tin cup of white liquor in his hand before his follower lay
ensconced a stone's throw away. It was a nest of secrecy, buried from
even a near view by the tops of felled hemlock which would hold their
screen of foliage throughout the winter.

Edging the narrow circle of firelight, walls of rock and naked trees
were sketched flat and grotesque against the inky void beyond them. Two
figures in muddied overcoats huddled close to the blaze, and Black Tom
was reciting the events of the day over on Little Slippery.

"They didn't p'intedly aim ter harm Bear Cat Stacy last night--he jest
run inter ther ruction. Hit war ther furriner thet Kinnard wanted
kilt."

"Drink all ye craves an' tell me ther whole story," amicably invited
"Little" Jake Kinnard.

"I aimed ter warn ye erbout this Bear Cat's threat ter rip out
stills--albeit we deems hit ter be mostly brash talk," Carmichael
explained. "We didn't invite no trouble with ther Stacys. Kinnard fixed
hit with Mark Tapper ter hev old Lone jailed so thet ther thing could
he done easy like--an' peaceable--but Bear Cat come a-beltin' back an'
hit went awry."

The simmering fury of his blood boiled over in Turner's veins while he
listened. All the duplicity of to-day now stood revealed and positive.
All his suspicions were proven. With two quick shots from his rifle he
could put an end to both these assassins, but he remained rigid. "No,
by God," he mused. "I aims ter do hit on ther gallows-tree--not from
ambush."

After a period Black Tom rose, making ready to leave, and now Turner
Stacy had need to hasten. The point at which he wished to await
Kinnard's second in command was the outer end of a narrow defile which
served as a sort of gateway to the place. Centuries of trickling
water-tongues had licked it out of the rock walls and it was so narrow
that two men could not pass through it abreast.

But Carmichael paused for further converse on the edge of his
departure, and Turner wailed for some minutes, shivering because he had
taken off his coat, before his ears told him of the approach of a
single pair of heavy feet.

The scudding raggedness of the clouds had been swept into wider tatters
now and the moon was steadier though still not brightly clear. Bear Cat
stooped, like a crouching panther, just outside the elbow of the rock
wall, holding his coat as a _matador_ holds the flag in the course of a
charging bull. Then a bulky figure emerged and there followed a sweep
of heavy cloth; an attempted outcry which ended in a stifled gurgle,
and Carmichael went down, borne under the impact of an unexpected
onslaught, with his breath smothered in an enmeshing tangle.

For a moment Bear Cat knelt on the prostrate figure which had been
stunned by its heavy fall, twisting the coat about the face and throat;
then, experimentally, he eased the suffocation--and there was no hint
of attempted outcry.

A few minutes later Black Tom opened his eyes and peered through the
darkness. To his dizzy eyes matters seemed confused. His mouth was
securely gagged and, at his back, his wrists were so stiffly pinioned
that when he struggled to free them he felt the nasty bite of
metal--evidently a buckle.

Above him he made out a pair of eyes that glittered down on him with an
unpleasant truculence.

"Git up an' come on," ordered a voice. "Ye'll hev ter excuse me fer
takin' yore rifle-gun an' pistol."

Slowly Tom rose and went, prodded into amenability by the muzzle of a
rifle in the small of his back. When he had been thus goaded to the
point where his horse was hitched his captor stripped saddle, bridle
and halter of their straps and ropes, and set the beast free. Some of
the commandeered tethers he employed to truss his prisoner up in a
manner that left him as helplessly immovable as a mummy.

"Now I reckon ye'll hev ter wait fer me a leetle," said Bear Cat with
brutal shortness. "Thar's still one more back thar ter attend ter."

Carrying with him bridle-reins and stirrup-straps, he disappeared again
into the defile. Creeping for the second time with the best of his
Indian-like stealth to the edge of the fire-lighted clearing, he saw
Jake Kinnard standing, with his eyes on the embers, ten feet away from
the rifle that was propped against a tree.

With a leap that sounded crashingly in the dead bushes Turner
catapulted himself into the lighted area, and as the moonshiner
wheeled, his hand going instinctively out toward his weapon, he found
himself covered from a distance of two yards.

"Hands overhead!--an' no noise," came the sharp warning, and had he
been inclined to disobey the words there was an avid glitter in the
eyes of the sudden visitor discouraging to argument.

"Lay down betwixt them two saplin's thar," was the next order, and
foaming with futile rage, Jake glanced about wildly--and discreetly did
as he was told.

Ten minutes later Turner rose from his knees, leaving behind him a man
gagged and staked out, Indian fashion, with feet harnessed to one
tree-trunk and hands to another.

Lying mute and harrowed with chagrin, he saw his copper coil battered
into shapelessness and his mash vat emptied upon the ground. Then he
saw Bear Cat Stacy disappear into the shadows, trophy-laden.

Dawn was near once more before Turner reached the Quarterhouse, and
from the hitching-rack the last mount had been ridden away. Before him,
still muffled against outcry, plodded Black Carmichael, seething with a
fury which would ride him like a mania until he had avenged his
indignities--but for the moment he was inoffensive.

At the place where the gray horse had been tethered, Turner lashed the
rider. Above his head to an over-arching sycamore branch, he swung a
maltreated coil of copper tubing. Then he turned, somewhat wearied and
aching of muscle, into the timber again.

"I reckon now," he said to himself, "I kin go over thar an' lay down."



CHAPTER XXI


Three times along the way, as the new crusader trudged on to Dog Tate's
cabin, the late-setting moon glinted on queerly twisted things
suspended from road-side trees--things unlike the fruit of either
hickory or poplar.

A grim satisfaction enlivened his tired eyes, but it lingered only for
a moment. Before them rose the picture of a girl sitting stricken by a
bedside, and his brows contracted painfully with the memory.

From the window of Tate's cabin came a faint gleam of light, and, as he
drew cautiously near, a figure rose wearily from the dark doorstep.

"I've been settin' up fer ye," announced Dog. "I mistrusted ye'd done
met with mishap."

Inside the cabin crowded with sleeping and snoring figures, the host
pointed to a loft under the shingles. "Ye'll hev ter bed in up thar,"
he said. "Don't come down ter-morrer twell I gives ye ther word. Right
likely thar'll be folks abroad sarchin' fer ye. Me an' Joe aims ter
blackguard ye no end fer bustin' up our still."

"Thet's what I 'lowed ter caution ye ter do," acquiesced Turner. "All
I'm askin' now air a few hours of slumber."

He climbed the ladder with heavy limbs, and, falling on the floor among
its litter of household effects, was instantly asleep.

                 *       *       *       *       *

It was the habit of Kinnard Towers to rise early, even for a people of
early risers, and on this morning he followed his customary routine.
Last night he had slept restlessly because the events of the day had
been stressful and uncertain, even if, in their summary, there had been
an element of satisfaction.

So Kinnard pulled on his trousers and boots, still thinking of
yesterday, and crossed the hall to the room where Black Tom Carmichael
slept.

Black Tom's bed had not been disturbed, and his door swung open. Towers
roused two other members of his household and the three went out into
the first mists of dawn to investigate. At the hitching-rack they
halted in dismay and their jaws sagged.

The light was yet dim and ghostly, and at first the body that hung
unconscious with hours of chilling and cramp had every appearance of
lifelessness. A bitter anger broke out in Kinnard's face and for a time
none of them spoke. Then from the chief's lips escaped an oath so
fierce and profane that his men paused in their attempt at
resuscitating the corpse-like figure, and following his eyes they saw
the fresh insult which he had just discovered--a still-worm demolished
and hanging high.

"Hell's clinkers!" stormed the leader. "What manner of deviltry air
this?"

Restored, an hour later, by hot coffee and whiskey, Black Tom told his
story, colorfully embellished with profane metaphor, and a squad went
riding "hell-fer-leather" to the still of "Little" Jake Kinnard.

When the sun was fully revealed they were back again, with another man,
feeble and half-frozen of body, but molten-hot of spirit to vouchsafe
indignant evidence.

The cup of Towers' fury was brimming over, but before its first
bitterness had been quaffed yet other heralds of tribulation arrived to
pour in fresh wormwood. "Thar's still-house quiles hangin' all up an'
down ther high-road," they lamented.

Kinnard looked at his henchman out of eyes somberly furious and his
florid face turned a choleric purple.

"Thar hain't but one way ter treat sech a damn' pest es thet," he said
slowly with the implacable manner of one passing final sentence. "He's
got ter be kilt--an' kilt quick." But a sudden reflection obtruded
itself, snarling the simple edict with complication. "Hold on!" he
added with a less assured finality. "Hev any stills been tampered with
among his own folks--or air hit jest over hyar?"

"We hain't heered much from ther yon side yit," admitted the
news-bearers. "Thar's one thet Dog Tate used ter run, though, thet's
hangin' high as Haaman. Dog's a kinsman of his'n but he dwells nigh ter
hyar."

"Hev some fellers ride over thar an' talk with him," commanded Towers
with prompt efficiency. "Ef I war sure they wouldn't all stand behind
him, I'd take a crowd of men over thar an' hang him in front of his own
house. Yestiddy they didn't seem ter hev much use fer him."

Of one thing, however, he failed to take adequate cognizance. That
turning away of the clan, yesterday, in cool or angry repudiation had
been less unanimous than it seemed. There were elders among them who
had for years deplored the locked-in life of their kind and to whom
this boy's effrontery secretly appealed. None of their own heritage and
breed had ever before dared to raise his voice against forcible
scourging out of a tolerated practice--but that did not mean that all
men sanctioned it in their hearts.

So as the Stacys had scattered they had discussed the matter, guardedly
save where the speaker was sure of his auditor, and Kinnard would have
been astonished to know how many of them said, "I reckon mebby ther boy
is fittified--but ef he could do what he seeks ter, hit would sartain
sure be a God's blessin' ter these hills."

"I don't see no diff'rence atween what he aims at, an' what them damn'
revenuers seeks ter do," suggested a young man who had fallen in with
Joe Stacy after the gathering and rode knee to knee with him. "Myself I
don't foller nuther makin' hit ner drinkin' hit. Hit kilt my daddy an'
my maw raised me up ter hate ther stuff--but I'm jest tellin' how hit
looks ter me."

"Sim," said Joe Stacy gravely, "I counseled Turner ter put aside this
notion--because I misdoubted hit would mean his death, but ef ye don't
see no difference atween him an' a revenuer ye're jest a plain
idjit--an' I don't mean no offense neither. Ther revenuer works fer
blood money. Bear Cat hain't seekin' no gain but ter bring profit ter
his people. Ther revenuer slips up with knowledge thet he gains by
busted faith an' spies. Bear Cat's done spoke out open an' deeclared
hisself."

The young man reined in his horse abruptly.

"I'm obleeged ter ye fer enlightenen' me," he said with blunt
directness. "I'll ask ye ter hold yore counsel about this matter. I
aims ter go back thar an' work with him."

A slow smile spread over the ragged lips of Bear Cat's uncle. He made
no criticism, but one might have gathered that he was not displeased.

Back at Lone Stacy's house on the morning that Kinnard Towers was
awakening to conditions, were gathered a handful of men. They lounged
shiftlessly as though responding to no object save casual curiosity.
They were cautious to express neither approbation nor disapproval, but
intangibly the threads of sympathy and hostility were unraveling. Those
who were the steadier of gaze, clearer of pupil and fitter of brawn,
inclined toward Bear Cat and his crusade, and, conversely, those who
wore the stamp of reddened eye and puffed socket gave back sneering
scowls to the mention of his name.

But all alike crowded around, when a traveler, who had elected to cross
the mountain from Marlin Town by night, paused, puffed with the
importance of one bearing news.

"Hev ye folks done heered ther tidin's?" he demanded, shifting to a
sidewise position in his saddle. "Bear Cat Stacy's been raidin' stills.
Thar's a copper worm hangin' right at ther Quarterhouse door--an' trees
air bloomin' with others all along ther high road."

The murmur was half a growl--for the group was not without its
blockader or two--and half pure tribute to prompt achievement.

"Nor thet hain't all by half," went on the traveler, relating with the
gusto of a true climax how Black Tom had been bound to a hitching-rack
and Jake Kinnard staked out by his demolished mash kettle. This was
pure exploit--and whatever its motive the mountain man loves exploit.

Moreover, these sufferers from Bear Cat's wrath were men close to the
hated Kinnard Towers. Faces that had brooded yesterday grinned to-day.

                 *       *       *       *       *

Kinnard's squad reached the house of Dog Tate while the morning was yet
young, searching each cabin along the way, in the hope that last
night's raider might be still hiding in their own terrain.

They found Joe Sanders sitting on the doorstep, with the morose aspect
of a man deprived of his avocation in life. The wintry hillsides were
no moodier than his eyes, and the sullen skies no more darkly lowering.

But Dog Tate himself was loquacious to a fault. He raved with a fury so
unbridled that it suggested lunacy. Bear Cat had come to his place
wounded and had been succored. Twenty-four hours later he had come
there again treasonably to repay that service by ripping out an
unguarded still. Henceforth the Stacy call might remain eternally
unanswered, and be relegated to perdition for all of him.

"Dog," suggested the leader of the squad, "we've done been askin' leave
ter kinderly hev a look inter dwellin' houses--in case Bear Cat's still
layin' concealed over hyar. I reckon ye hain't hardly got no objection,
hev ye?"

"Does ye 'low thet I'd be hidin' out ther man thet raided me?" The host
put his question with a fine irony, and the reply was apologetic.

"Not sca'cely. Hit's jest so thet we kin tell Kinnard, we didn't pass
no house by, thet's all."

The speaker and the ex-moonshiner were standing at the threshold of the
log shack. It was a place of a single, windowless room with a lean-to
kitchen--and above was the loft reached by a trap and ladder.

"Come right in then," acceded Dog Tate with disarming readiness. "I
hain't got no _ex_cess of love fer Kinnard--but I've got yit less fer
still-busters."

Far back where the shingle roof dropped steeply from ridge pole to edge
was a murky recess hidden behind a litter of old bedding, piled up
potatoes and onions. Silently listening and mercifully blotted into
shadow there, Bear Cat Stacy crouched with rifle-barrel thrust forward
and his finger caressing the trigger.

The squad-leader looked about the place with perfunctory eye and then,
seeing the ladder, set his foot upon its lowest rung.

Dog Tate felt a sudden commotion of hammering pulses, but his lids did
not flicker nor his mouth alter its line. Quite unostentatiously,
however, his wife moved toward the front door and stood there blankly
expressionless. Also, Dog laid his hand idly on the ladder as the
visitor climbed upward. If the search proved embarrassing he meant to
kick the support from under the Towers minion, and his wife meant to
bar the door for siege.

But the intruder went only high enough to thrust his head into the
overhead darkness while a match flared and went out. He had seen
nothing, and as he stumped down again the poised finger relaxed on the
rifle trigger, and the Tates breathed free.

"I'm obleeged ter ye," said the searching lieutenant. "Ef ye wants ter
start up yore still ergin, I reckon ye'll be safe. He won't be runnin'
wild fer long nohow."

                 *       *       *       *       *

The Quarterhouse emissaries were raking the hills with an admirable
thoroughness, running like a pack in full cry on the man trail, but
they did not again come so near the fringes of success as when they
missed the opportunity at Dog Tate's house.

In spite of a watchfulness that gave eyes to the hills and ears to the
timber, their quarry left that house and went to his own.

He had no intention of making the mad effort to remain there. The wild
tangle of cliff and forest was his safest refuge now--but there were
two things to be done at home. He wished to have for companionship in
exile his "Lincoln, Master of Men," and he wished to learn if out of
the wholesale desertion of yesterday there had not come back to him
even one or two followers.

So that afternoon he slipped, undetected by his trailers, into and out
of his father's house; and there followed him, though each went singly
and casually to escape detection, some eight or ten men, who henceforth
were to be his secret followers and, he hoped, the nucleus of a larger
force.

The next morning in both Stacy and Towers territory, hickories and
walnuts and sycamores burst into copper fruitage. The hills were alive
with armed search-parties, liquor-incited and vowing vengeance, yet
through their cordons he moved like some invisible and soundless
creature, striking and escaping while they raged.

At ever-changing points of rendezvous he met and instructed his
mysterious handful of faithful supporters, struck telling blows--made
fresh raids and seemingly evaporated.

From all that Towers could learn, it appeared that Bear Cat Stacy was
operating as a lone bandit. Yet the ground he seemed to cover
single-handed was so wide of boundary and his success so phenomenal
that already he was being hallowed, in country-side gossip, with
legendary and heroic qualities. In that Towers read a serious menace to
his own prestige; until he ground his teeth and swore sulphurously. He
organized a larger force of human hounds and fired them more hotly with
the incentive of liquor and greed for promised reward. The doors of Old
Lone Stacy's house, tenanted now only by the wife of the prisoner and
the mother of the refugee, were endlessly watched by unseen eyes.
Around the cabin where Jerry Henderson lay lingering with a tenuous
hold on life, lounged the men posted there by Joe Stacy, and back in
the timbered slopes that frowned down upon its roof crouched yet other
shapes of butter-nut brown; shapes stationed there at the behest of the
Quarterhouse.

Going in and out among these would-be avengers and learning all their
plans, by dint of a pretendedly bitter hatred of Bear Cat Stacy, were
such men as Dog Tate and Joe Sanders, spying upon the spies.

Old Bud Jason at his little tub-mill and Uncle Israel at his general
store secretly nodded their wise old heads and chuckled. They knew
that, hushed and undeclared, a strong sentiment was being born for the
boy who was outwitting scores of time-seasoned murder hirelings. But
they shook their heads, too--realizing the deadly odds of the game and
its tragic chances.

One afternoon after a day sheeted in cold rain that sometimes merged
into snow, Bear Cat crept cautiously toward the sagging door of the
abandoned cabin which had, on another night, housed Ratler Webb. It had
been a perilously difficult day for the man upon whose head Towers had
set the price of a river-bottom farm. Like a hard-run fox he had
doubled back and forth under relentless pursuit and gone often to
earth. The only things they needed with which to harry him further were
bloodhounds.

Now in the later afternoon he came to the cabin and sought a few
minutes' shelter there against the penetrating misery of rain and
sloppy snow that thawed as it fell. He dared not light a fire, and must
not relax the vigilance of his outlook.

Just before sunset Bear Cat saw a man edging cautiously through the
timber, moving with a shadowy furtiveness--and recognized Joe Sanders.

The newcomer slipped through the rotting lintels, bringing a face
stamped with foreboding.

"Ye kain't stay hyar," announced the excited voice. "I don't hardly
know whar ye _kin_ go to nuther, onlessen' ye kin make hit back ter Dog
Tate's dwellin'-house by ther hill-trail."

"Tell me all ye knows, Joe," directed Stacy with a steadying calmness,
and the other went on hurriedly:

"They've done picked up yore trail--an' lost hit ergin--a couple of
miles back. They 'lows ye hain't fur off, an' thar's two score of 'em
out huntin'--all licker-crazed but yit not disabled none. Some of 'em
'lows ter come by hyar. I'm with a bunch thet's travelin' a diff'rent
route. They're spreadin' out like a turkey gobbler's tail feathers an'
combin' this territory plumb close. Above all don't go to'rds home.
Hit's thet way thet they's most numerous of all. I surmised I'd find ye
hyar an' I slipped by ter warn ye."

"I'm obleeged ter ye, Joe. What's thet ye've got thar?" The last
question was prompted by the gesture with which Saunders, as if in
afterthought, thrust his hand into his coat pocket.

"Hit hain't nuthin' but a letter Brother Fulkerson bid me give ter
ye--but thar hain't no time ter read hand-write now. Every minute's
wuth countless letters."

But Turner Stacy was ripping the envelope. Already he had recognized
the clear, precise hand which had been the fruit of Blossom's arduous
efforts at self-education.

"Don't tarry, man! I cautions ye they're already makin' ready ter
celebrate yore murder," expostulated the messenger, but Bear Cat did
not seem to hear him. In the fading light he was reading and rereading,
forgetful of all else. Joe Sanders, fixing him with a keen and
impatient scrutiny, noticed how gaunt were his cheeks and how
hollow-socketed his eyes. Yet as he began the letter there was a sudden
and eager hopefulness in his face which faded into misery as he
finished.

"A famed doctor came up from Louisville," wrote Blossom. "He's done all
that could be done. He says now that only Jerry's great courage keeps
life in him and that can't avail for long. He hasn't been able to
talk--except for a few words. The longest speech was this: 'Send word
to Bear Cat--that I'm honester than he thinks.... I want to die with
his friendship ... or I can't rest afterwards....' He looked like he
wanted to tell something else and he named your father and your Uncle
Joe Stacy, but he couldn't finish. He keeps saying 'Stacy, you don't
understand.' What is it, that you don't understand, Turney? Can't you
slip over just long enough to shake hands with him? He wants you to do
it--and he's dying--and I love him. For my sake can't you come? Your
mother says you came once just to get a book--won't you do that much
for me? Blossom Henderson."

Joe Sanders shuffled his feet in poignant disgust for the perilous
procrastination. Here was a man whose life hung on instant flight, yet
he stood with eyes wide and staring, holding before them a silly sheet
of paper. His lips whispered, "Blossom Henderson--_Henderson_--not
Fulkerson no more!"

Then a wave of black resentment swept Bear Cat's face and he licked his
dry lips. "Joe," he said absently, "I hates him! I kain't shake his
hand. I tells ye I kain't do hit."

"Whose hand?--don't shake hit, then," retorted Sanders irritably, and,
with a sudden start as though he had been rudely awakened while
prattling in his sleep, Bear Cat laughed bitterly.

"Hit don't make no difference," he added shortly. "I war kinderly
talking ter myself. I reckon I'd better be leavin'."

Hurrying through the timber, toward Dog Tate's house, Turner's mind was
in a vexed quandary and after a little he irresolutely halted. His
forehead was drawn and his lips were tight. "Blossom Henderson!" he
muttered. "God knows I took plentiful risks thet ye mout w'ar thet
name--an' yit--yit when I reads hit, seems like hit drives me plumb
ravin' mad!"

From the tangle of dead briars the cold rain dripped desolately. A
single smear of lurid red was splashed across the west beyond the
silhouetted ridges.

"They're aimin' ter head me off ef I goes to'rds home," he reflected in
a bitter spirit. "An' he wants thet I should fight my way through all
them enemies ter shake his hand--so thet he kin die easy. I reckon hit
don't make no manner of diff'rence how hard I dies myself."

He covered his face with his hands and when he took them away he
altered his course, setting his steps in the direction of his own
house.

"She said--fer _her_ sake," he repeated in a dazed voice, touched with
tenderness. "I reckon I've got ter undertake hit."

Never before had the woods been so efficiently picketed. Never had the
net of relentless pursuit been so tight-drawn and close of mesh. For a
long distance he eluded its entanglement though at times, as it grew
dark, he saw the glimmer of lanterns whose portent he understood.

But finally the clouds broke and a cold moon shone out to aid the pack
and cut to a forlorn hope the chances of the quarry.

As Bear Cat went creeping from shadow to shadow he could hear faint
sounds of pursuit closing in upon him. He came at length upon a narrow
road that must be crossed and for a while he bent low, listening, then
stole forward, reassured.

But as he reached the farther side, the black solidity of a hill-side
broke not in one but in several tongues of flame and the bark of three
rifles shattered the quiet.

Bear Cat doubled back and cut again into the timber which he had left,
running now to put a margin of distance between himself and the greater
numbers. That fusillade and its echoes would bring other rifles and
reinforcements.

After a few pantingly stressful minutes he found himself standing at
the lip of a steep bluff, and a roar of water beneath warned him that
the creek, some twenty feet below, had been swollen from a trickling
thread to a seething caldron.

He gazed questioningly about, gauging his chances with swift
calculation, since there was no time for indecision.

"I aimed ter come, Blossom," he breathed between his teeth, "but I've
done failed!" He stepped out to look over the ledge and for a moment
his figure was silhouetted in the open light. Then again the curtain of
blue-black shadow was shot through with fiery threads and a rifle
barked sharply, trailing a broken wake of echoes.

Bear Cat Stacy's two hands went high above his head, his right still
clutching his rifle. He swayed for the duration of a breath, rocking on
his feet, then plunged forward and outward.

The next morning, no worms were found hanging in the highway, but, back
at the Quarterhouse, Kinnard Towers turned in his hand a battered hat
that had been retrieved from floating drift.

"Yes, I reckon thet's his hat," he commented after a close scrutiny. "I
reecollect seein' thet raw-hide thong laced round hit, endurin' his
speech over thar. Wa'al, he elected ter go chargin' amuck--an' he's
done reaped his harvest."



CHAPTER XXII


The story of Turner's death at unknown hands spread in the next few
days like wild fire.

Whatever may have been the lack of sympathy for the young man's
undertakings of reform, it was now only remembered that he was a Stacy
who had been "dogged to his death" by Towers' minions, and ugly
rumblings of threat awoke along the water courses where his kinsmen
dwelt.

It was voiced abroad that Jerry Henderson could not outlive that week:
that when he died, the body of Bear Cat Stacy would be buried with him,
and that, from those two graves, the Stacys would turn away to wreak a
sanguinary vengeance.

Yet all this was the sheerest sort of rumor. No man had proof that a
Towers rifle had killed Turner--the man to whom his clan had looked for
leadership. No man had seen the body which his family was said to be
holding for that dramatic consignment to the earth.

But in part the report found fulfilment. On Sunday afternoon Blossom
leaned over the quilt-covered figure of her dying husband to realize
that he was no longer dying but dead.

"Speak ter me, Jerry," she cried as she dug her nails into her palms.
"Speak ter me--jest one time more."

She sought to call out to her father, but her lips refused the service,
and as she came to her feet she stretched out her hands and crumpled,
insensible, to the floor.

Brother Fulkerson went that afternoon to the saw-mill at the back of
Uncle Israel's store and stood by as the storekeeper himself sawed
planks and knocked together the crude box which must serve Jerry
Henderson as a casket. Later across the counter he bought some yards of
coarse cloth cut from a bolt of black calico, which was to be his
daughter's pathetic attempt at mourning dress.

The afternoon of the funeral was unspeakably sullen and dismal. Clouds
of leaden dreariness hung to the bristling mountains, themselves as
gray as slate. Cold skies promised snow and through the bleak nakedness
of the forest whined the dirge-like complaint of a gusty wind.

To the unkempt place of briar-choked and sunken graves, crawled a dingy
procession.

Blossom would have preferred going with her dead unattended save by her
father, but that mountain usage forebade. A wedding or a funeral could
not be so monopolized in a land where there is frugally little to break
daily monotony. This funeral above all others, belonged in part to the
public, made pregnant with interest by the story that two bodies
instead of one would be laid to rest. The question of how Bear Cat
Stacy had come to his death would be answered over his open grave, and
men would know at the falling of the last clod whether they should
return quietly to their homes or prepare for the sterner task of
reprisal.

Kinnard Towers must know, too, what happened there, and must know it
speedily, though to go himself or to send one of his recognized
lieutenants was beyond the question. Yet his plans were carefully laid.
Those few nondescripts who bore the repute of being Stacy sympathizers,
while in fact they were Towers informers, were to be present; and along
the miles of "slavish roughs" between Quarterhouse and burial-ground,
like runners in a relay race, were other heralds. When the news began
to come from the place it would travel fast. Sitting grimly behind the
closed stockade of the Quarterhouse and surrounded now not only by a
body-guard but by some scores of fighting men, the old intriguer
anxiously awaited the outcome.

Long before the hour for the services had arrived men, as drab and
neutral in color as the sodden skies, and women wrapped in shawls of
red and blue, began to gather from hither and yon over roads mired to
the prohibition even of "jolt-wagons." They came on foot or on muddied
mules and horses with briar-tangled manes and tails--and having
arrived, they waited, shuffling their weary feet against frost-bite and
eddying in restless currents.

Two men were still at work with shovels and they had spread out their
excavation so wide, in removing slabs of unbreakable rock, that the
place might have been a single, double or even a triple grave.

The wind moaned as murky clouds began to spit snow, and then on the
gulch-washed road which climbed steeply, a little procession was
glimpsed in the distance.

The men fondled their guns, but the cortège was lost again to view
behind a screen of cedars and until it turned finally on the level of
the graveyard itself, its details remained invested with the suspense
of expectancy.

At the fore, when it arrived, was Brother Fulkerson astride his old
mare, and on a pillion behind him rode the "Widder Henderson," the
whiteness of her thin face startlingly accentuated by the unrelieved
lines of her black calico gown. Under her erstwhile vivid eyes lay dark
rings of suffering, but she held her head rigid and gazed straight
before her.

The cortège came without the proper hush of due solemnity, for the
rough coffin that held Jerry Henderson's body was borne on a fodder
sledge and the stolid team of oxen that drew it required constant and
vociferous shouts and goading as they strained unwillingly against
their yokes. After the sledge trailed a dozen neighbors, afoot and
mounted; all plastered with mud--but the crowd caught its breath and
broke into a low murmur. There was only one casket!

As the evangelist dismounted and lifted his daughter down, the men who
were there as observers for Kinnard Towers sought places near enough to
hear every syllable.

Yet when the elderly preacher began to speak, while his daughter stood
with the dull apathy of one only half realizing, the faces of the crowd
mirrored a sort of sullen disappointment. For them the burial of the
man who was, after all, well-nigh a stranger, was secondary in
interest. It was in every material respect touching their lives and
deeper interests, Bear Cat's funeral they had come to attend. But on
that topic the bearded shepherd meant to give them no satisfaction. So
far he had made no mention of Bear Cat, and now he was concluding with
the injunction: "Let us pray."

But as he bent his head, a woman standing near the foot of the grave
raised a hand that trembled with all the violence of superstitious
fear. From her thin lips broke a half-smothered shriek, not loud but
eerie and disconcerting, and she shrilled in terrorized notes, "Air
thet a specter I sees thar?"

Many eyes followed the pointed finger and again a dismayed chorus of
inarticulate sound broke from the crowd. Just behind Blossom--herself
ghostlike in her white rigidness--had materialized a figure that had
not been there before. It was a gaunt figure whose face these people
had seen before only bronzed and aggressive. Now the cheek-bones stood
out in exaggerated prominence and the flesh was bloodlessly gray.
Though Bear Cat Stacy was present in the flesh his sudden
materialization there might well have startled a superstitious mind
into the thought that he had come not only from a bed of illness but
from one of death. Ignoring the sensation he had created, he spoke in a
whisper to the minister, and Brother Fulkerson made a quiet
announcement.

"Hit hain't no ghost, sister. Turner Stacy hes been sore sick an' nigh
ter death, but hit's pleased ther Almighty ter spare him. Let us pray."

A man near the grave began quietly working his way to the outer fringes
of the gathering, and when he had escaped immediate observation, he
went with hot haste. Kinnard must know of this.

He had detected an undernote in that general murmur of astonishment,
which was clearly one of satisfaction. The Stacys had derived pleasure
in this ocular proof that Bear Cat was not dead.

As the preacher said "Amen" Bear Cat bent tensely forward and caught
both of Blossom's hands in his own. "I kain't tarry," he said, "even
fer a leetle spell, but I wanted ye ter know thet I done my best ter
get hyar afore."

She looked at him with dazed eyes which under the intensity of his gaze
slowly began to awaken into understanding.

Turner went on eagerly, "I started over hyar as soon as I got yore
letter, but I was set upon an' wounded. I've been insensible well nigh
ever sence then."

"Oh, Turney!" she whispered, as the grief which had held her in its
thrall of unrelieved apathy suddenly broke into an overflow of tears.
"Oh, Turney, I'm glad ye _tried_. He kept callin' fer ye. 'Peared like
he wanted to tell ye somethin'." The clods were falling dully on the
grave.

The crowd held back, fretting against the edict of decorum, as the
voices rose in the miserable treble of song, to which two hounds added
their anguished howls. At the last words of the verse, an instant
clamor of question and discussion broke in eager storm--but Bear Cat
had melted into the thicket at his back. With the same mystifying
suddenness that had characterized his appearance, he had now
disappeared.

Excited men rushed hither and thither, calling his name. They beat the
woods and tramped the roads, but with as little result as though he
had, in fact, appeared out of his grave and returned again to its
hiding.

The story of that funeral was going with the pervasive swiftness of
wind throughout the country-side. It was being mouthed over in dark
cabins where toothless grannies and white-shocked grandsires wagged
their heads and recalled the manner of Bear Cat's birth.

                 *       *       *       *       *

When Joe Sanders had left Bear Cat that afternoon at the abandoned
cabin, it had been with the impression that Stacy meant to take the
path which he had advised; the only path that was not certainly closed
to his escape, and seek refuge at Dog Tate's house. He had found an
immediate opportunity to report that program to Dog himself, and Dog
sought to make use of it in Bear Cat's service.

Tate, in recognition of his grievance as an outraged distiller, had
been given the leadership of one of the largest of the search parties,
which it was his secret purpose to lead far afield on a blind trail.
Inasmuch as Bear Cat had been specifically cautioned against going in
the direction of his own dwelling place, and yet since that would seem
a logical goal, Dog had maneuvered his hunters into territory between
the abandoned cabin and Little Slippery.

He himself had been in the woods across the waters of the suddenly
swollen creek, when an outburst of rifle fire told him that something
had gone wrong and brought him running back to the guidance of that
musketry.

He arrived at the edge of the swirling, drift-encumbered water in time
to see the silhouetted figure on the opposite bluff totter and plunge
head first into the moonlit whirlpool. Dog knew that he was the only
man on that side of the stream, but any effort to plunge in and try for
a rescue would mean death to himself without hope of saving the man who
had fallen. As he watched he made out what seemed to be the lifeless
body come to the surface, to be swept in a rushing circle and, as
chance would have it, to catch and hang lodged in a mass of floating
dead-wood. The creek at ordinary times ran shallow and though it was
gushing now beyond its normal borders it was still not wide. The
deadwood swirled, raced forward, and fouled the out-jutting root of a
giant sycamore.

Dog Tate crawled out along the precarious support of the slimy rootage
and slowly drew the mass of drift into shallow water. It was tedious
work since any violent tugging might loosen the lightly held tangle and
send the body floating away unbuoyed.

The night was all a thing of blue and silver moonlight and sooty
shadows, but under the muddy bulwark at the base of the overhanging
sycamore the velvet denseness of impenetrable black prevailed.

Once Dog saw figures outlined on the bluff from which Bear Cat had
fallen, and had to lie still for the seeming of hours, trusting to the
favor of the shadow.

Eventually he succeeded in drawing the mass of flotsam shoreward until
he could wade in to the shallows, chancing the quicksands that were
tricky there. Then he stumbled up the bank with his burden and
deposited it between two bowlders where without daylight it would
hardly be found. Dog was thinking fast, now.

He did not yet know whether he had saved a living man or retrieved a
dead body, but his eagerness for investigation on that score must wait.
Now he must rejoin the chase and turn it away from such dangerous
nearness to its quarry.

So Tate ran down the bank and shouted. Voices replied and figures
became visible on the farther shore.

"I seed him fall in," came the mendacious assurance of the man who was
playing two parts. "I waded in atter him--but he went floatin' on down
stream."

"Did he look like he mout be alive?" was the anxious query and the
reply came as promptly. "He had every seemin' of bein' stone dead."

For a while they searched the banks, until, having discovered the hat,
they decided to go back and let the final hunt for the body wait until
morning.

But Dog had gone home and roused Joe Sanders, who had come in about
midnight from another group of searchers, and the two of them had
slipped back and recovered the limp burden--to find it still alive.
Between midnight and dawn they carried Bear Cat to the house of Bud
Jason. The wound this time had glanced the skull, bringing
unconsciousness but no fracture. The shock and the hours of lying wet
in the freezing air had resulted in something like pneumonia, and for
days Bear Cat had lain there in fever and delirium.

But the old miller had held grimly on despite the danger of discovery,
and his woman had nursed with her rude knowledge of herbs, until the
splendid reserve of strength, that had already been so prodigally
taxed, proved itself still adequate. He had raved, they told him later,
of shaking hands with someone whom he hated.

"Hev ye raided any more stills?" demanded Bear Cat when at last he had
been able to talk, and Dog, who had been in every day, grinned:

"We 'lowed thet could wait a spell," he assured the crusader. "We had
our hands right full es hit war."

But the morning following Jerry Henderson's funeral, two more coils of
copper were discovered aloft, and one of the men who had composed
Kinnard's relay of messengers was liberated at daybreak after spending
several tedious and unsatisfactory hours lashed to a dog-wood sapling.

                 *       *       *       *       *

If Kinnard Towers had raged before, now he fumed. Heretofore, it had
been a condition of open war or one of acknowledged, even if
precarious, peace. This was a mongrel situation which was neither the
one nor the other, and every course was a dangerous one. The Stacys
held their counsel, neither sanctioning the incorrigible black sheep of
their flock in open declaration, nor yet totally relinquishing their
right to avenge him, if an outside hand fell upon him. Meanwhile, the
fiction of this young trouble-maker's charmed life was arousing the
superstitious to its acceptance as a sort of powerful fetish.

The very name Bear Cat was beginning to fall from the lips of
tow-headed children, with open-mouthed awe, like a term of witchcraft,
and this candid terror of children was, of course, only a reflection of
the unconfessed, yet profound impression, stamped upon the minds of
their elders.

"What ails everybody hyarabouts?" rumbled Kinnard over his evening
pipe. "Heretofore when a man needed killin' he's been kilt--an' thet's
all thar was ter hit. This young hellion walks inter sure death traps
an' walks out ergin. He falls over a clift inter a ragin' torrent--an'
slips through an army of men. In Satan's name, what air hit?"

Black Tom's rejoinder was not cheering: "Ef ye asks me, I think all
these stories of witchcraft, backed up by his luck, hes cast a spell on
folks. They thinks Bear Cat's in league with grave-yard spooks."

Kinnard knocked the ashes out of his pipe. His lips curled
contemptuously. "An' es fer yoreself--does you take stock in thet damn'
foolery, too?"

"I hain't talkin' erbout myself," retorted Tom sullenly. "Ye asked
erbout what folks was cogitatin' an' I'm a-tellin' ye. If ye don't
believe thar's a notion thet graves opens an' ther dead fights with
him, jest go out an' talk ter these benighted hill-billies yoreself. If
evidence air what ye wants, ye'll git a lavish of hit."

Those who were in Bear Cat's confidence constituted a close
corporation, and they were not all, like Dog and Joe, men who mixed
also with the enemy, gaining information while they railed against
their own leader. There was talk of secret and mysterious meetings held
at midnight by oath-bound men--to whom flowed a tide of recruits.

Kinnard believed these meetings to be a part of the general myth. His
crude but effective secret service could gather no tangible evidence in
support of their storied sessions.

One evening report drifted in to the Quarterhouse that some one had
seen Bear Cat Stacy at a point not far distant, and that he had been
boldly walking the open road--unaccompanied. Within the hour a party
was out, supplied with jugs and bottles enough to keep the vengeful
fires well fueled throughout the night. It was an evil-looking squad,
and its appearance was in no wise deceptive. Its members, all save one,
had begun their evening at the Quarterhouse bar. The one exception was
George Kelly, a young man recently married, who had gone there to talk
other business with Towers. George had an instinctive tendency toward
straightforwardness, but he had also an infirmity of character which
caused him to follow where a more aggressive nature led--and he had
fallen under Kinnard's domination. His small tract of tillable land was
mortgaged, and Kinnard held over him the lash of financial supremacy.
He could fight, but he could not argue, and when the unofficial posse
was sent out that night, being in the place, he lacked the courage to
refuse participation.

They had found the footprints of the fugitive and had met two men who
claimed to have seen him in the flesh, but Bear Cat himself had eluded
them and near midnight they halted to rest. They threw themselves down
in a small rock-walled basin which was broken at one point by a narrow
gorge, through which they had come. It was a good place to revel in
after labor because it was so shut-in that the bonfire they kindled
could not be far seen. The jugs were opened and passed around. It had
set in to rain, and though they could endure that bodily discomfort
while they had white liquor, their provident souls took thought against
the rusting of their firearms. The guns were accordingly placed under a
ledge of rock a few feet distant, all save one. Kelly lacking the
buoyant courage of drunkenness, preferred to keep his weapon close at
hand. He listened moodily and unresponsively to the obscene stories and
ribald songs, which elicited thick peals of laughter from his
companions. They had hunted hard, and now they were wassailing hard.
The long march home would sober them so they need not restrain their
appetites.

Some impulse led Kelly to raise his eyes from the sordid picture in the
red waver of the fire and glance toward the doorlike opening of the
gorge. The eyes remained fixed--and somehow the rifle on his knees did
not come up, as it should have done. A figure stood there silently,
contemptuously looking on, and it was as gaunt and gray as that of a
foraging wolf. It was as lean and sinewy, too, and out of the face
glowed a pair of eyes dangerously narrow and glittering.

Then with a scornful laugh the figure stepped forward, bending lithely
from the waist, with two steel-steady hands gripping two automatic
pistols at its front.

"War you boys a-sarchin' fer me?" demanded Bear Cat and the trailing
voices, that had been drunkenly essaying close harmony, broke off
mid-verse. "Stay right whar ye're at, every mother's son of ye!" came
the sharp injunction. "The man thet stirs air a dead man. This hain't
no play-party thet I've done come ter."

They sat suddenly silent, abruptly surly and helpless; all save one.
George Kelly was still armed, and sitting somewhat apart. Beseechingly
his companions sought by covert glance to signal him that he should
avail himself of his armed advantage while they continued to distract
the newcomer's attention.

Bear Cat's pistols broke out and two treasured jugs were shattered.

"Jim Towers," came the raspingly dictatorial order, "when ye goes back
ter ther Quarterhouse ye kin tell Kinnard Towers thet Bear Cat Stacy
hain't ter be captured by no litter of drunkards. Tell him he mout es
well hire sober murderers or else quit."

As Towers sat glowering and silent, Stacy's voice continued in its
stinging contempt.

"You damned murder hirelings, does ye think thet I'm ter be tuck
prisoner by sneakin' weasels like you?"

George Kelly had sat silent. Now he rose to his feet, and Stacy ordered
curtly, "Lay down thet gun, George. Ye're ther only man I'm astonished
ter see hyar. I 'lowed ye war better then a hired assassin."

From someone came thick-tongued exhortation, "Git him, Kelly, you've
got a gun. Git ther damn' parson."

In the momentary centering of Bear Cat's attention upon George, some
one slipped with a cat-like furtiveness of motion back into the thicker
darkness--toward the cached rifles.

Then a strange thing happened.

George Kelly wheeled, ignoring the order to drop his weapon, but
instead of pointing it at the lone invader he leveled it across the
fire-lit circle.

"Stop thet!" he yelled. "Leave them rifle-guns be or I aims ter shoot."

Surprise was following on surprise, and the half-befuddled faces of the
drinkers went blank with perplexity and incredulity.

"What ther hell does ye mean? What did ye come out with us fer?"
demanded a shrill voice, and Kelly's response spat back at him
viciously. "I means thet what Bear Cat says are true es text. I mean
thet 'stid of seekin' ter kill him, I'm a-goin' along with him. I've
done been a slave ter Kinnard Towers long enough--an' right now I aims
ter quit."

"Shell we tell Kinnard thet?" demanded Jim Towers dryly.

"Tell him any damn' thing ye likes. I'm through with him," and turning
toward the astonished Stacy, he added, "I reckon we've done all we
needs ter do hyar. We've busted thar bottles--an' thet's ter say we've
busted thar hearts. Let's leave."

But Bear Cat's face was still grim and his words came with a
clear-clipped sharpness. "Not yit.... They've still got some guns over
thar.... I'll hold 'em where they're huddled, steady es a bird-dog. You
git them guns."

George Kelly went circumspectly around the circumference of the fire
and started back again, bearing an armful of rifles. At one point he
had to pass so close to the dejectedly hulking shoulders of a seated
figure that his knee brushed the coat--and at that instant the man
swept out his hand and jerked violently at the passing ankle.

Kelly did not go down, but he lunged stumblingly, and scattered weapons
broke from his grasp. Even then he had the quickness of thought to
throw them outward toward Bear Cat's feet and leaped side-wise himself,
still clinging to one that had not fallen.

Taking advantage of the excitement Jim Towers sought to recover his
feet--and almost succeeded. But with a readier agility Bear Cat leaped
and his right hand, still gripping the pistol, swept outward in an arc.
Under a blow that dropped him unconscious and bleeding from a face laid
open as if by a shod hoof, Towers collapsed, scattering red embers as
he fell.

Two others were on their feet now, but, facing Stacy's twin pistols and
the rifle in the hands of their deserter, they gauged the chances and
without a word stretched their hands high above their heads.

"Now well tek up a collection--of guns--once more," directed Stacy,
"an' leave hyar."

As two men backed through the gorge into darkness, out of which only
one had come, a murder party, disarmed and mortified, shambled to its
respective feet and busied itself with a figure that lay insensible
with its head among the scattered embers.

"George," said Turner a half hour later, "ye come ter me when I needed
ye right bad--but hit's mighty unfortunate thet ye hed ter do hit jest
thet way. Ye're ther only man I've got whose name is beknownst ter
Kinnard Towers--an' next ter me, thar won't be a man in ther hills
harder dogged. Ye hain't been married long--an' ye dastn't go home
now."

George Kelly shook his head. "I'm in hit now up ter my neck--an' thar
hain't no goin' back. Afore they hes ther chanst ter stop me though,
I'm goin' by home ter see my woman, an' bid her fare over ter her folks
in Virginny."



CHAPTER XXIII


Bear Cat Stacy had gone with George Kelly to the house where his wife
was awaiting him that night, and though he had remained outside while
the husband went in, it was not hard to guess something of what took
place. The wife of only a few months came out a little later with eyes
that were still wet with tears, and with what things she was going to
take away with her, wrapped in a shawl. She stood by as George Kelly
nailed slats across the door. Already she had put out the fire on the
hearth, and about her ankles a lean cat stropped its arched back.

Bear Cat had averted his face, but he heard the spasmodic sob of her
farewell and the strange unmanning rattle in the husband's throat.

It was a new house, of four-squared logs, recently raised by the kindly
hands of neighbors, amid much merry-making and well-wishing and it had
been their first home together.

Now it was no longer a place where they could live. For the man it
would henceforth be a trap of death, and the wife could not remain
there alone. It stood on ground bought from Kinnard Towers--and not yet
paid for.

Kelly and his wife paused by the log foot-bridge which spanned the
creek at their yard fence. In the gray cheerlessness, before dawn, the
house with its stark chimney was only a patch of heavier shadow against
ghostly darkness. They looked back on it, with wordless regret, and
then a mile further on the path forked, and the woman clutched wildly
at her husband's shoulders before she took one way and he the other.

"Be heedful of yoreself, George," was all she said, and the man
answered with a miserable nod.

So Kelly became Turner's companion in hiding, denied the comfort of a
definite roof, and depending upon that power of concealment which could
only exist in a forest-masked land, heaped into a gigantic clutter of
cliffs and honey-combed with natural retreats.

But two days after his wife's departure, he was drawn to the place that
had been his home by an impulse that outweighed danger, and looked down
as furtively as some skulking fox from the tangled elevation at its
back.

Then in the wintry woods he rose and clenched his hands and the muscles
about his strong jaw-bones tightened like leather.

The chimney still stood and a few uprights licked into charred
blackness by flame. His nostrils could taste the pungent reek of a
recent fire upon whose débris rain had fallen. For the rest there was a
pile of ashes, and that surprising sense of smallness which one
receives from the skeleton of a burned house, seemingly at variance
with the dignity of its inhabited size.

"Hit didn't take 'em long ter set hit," was his only comment, but
afterward he slipped down and studied upon the frozen ground certain
marks that had been made before it hardened. He found an empty kerosene
can--and some characteristics, marking the tracks of feet, that seemed
to have a meaning for him. So Kelly wrote down on the index of his
memory two names for future reference.

It had occurred to Mark Tapper, the revenue agent, that the activities
of Bear Cat Stacy constituted a great wastage, bringing no material
profit to anyone. He himself was left in the disconcerting attitude of
a professional who sees his efforts fail while an amateur collects
trophies. Before long the fame of recent events would cease to be
local. The talk would be borne on wayfaring tongues to the towns at the
ends of the rails and some local newspaper correspondent, starving on
space rates, would discover in it a bonanza. Here ready-made was the
story of an outlaw waging a successful war on outlawry. It afforded an
intensity of drama which would require little embellishment.

If such a story went to press there would be news editors quick to
dispatch staff correspondents to the scene and from somewhere on the
fringes of things these scribes would spill out columns of saffron
melodrama. All these matters worked through the thoughts of Mark Tapper
as preliminary and incidental. His part in such publicity would be
unpleasant. His superiors would ask questions, difficult to answer, as
to why he, backed--in theory--with the power of the government had
failed where this local prodigy had made the waysides bloom with
copper.

Decidedly he must effect a secret coalition with Bear Cat Stacy. If he
could make some such arrangement as he already had with Towers, it
might work out to mutual satisfaction. It might be embarrassing for
Bear Cat to raid his kinsmen. It was equally so for Tapper to raid
Towers' favorites. But by exchanging information they could both obtain
results as harmonious as the arrangement of Jack Spratt and his wife.
It was all a very pretty scheme for double-and-triple-crossing--but the
first difficulty was in seeing Bear Cat himself.

Finally Mark decided to mail a letter to his man. For all his hiding
out it was quite likely that there was a secret line of communication
open between his shifting sanctuary and his home. He wrote tactfully
inviting Turner to meet him across the Virginia line where he would be
safe from local enemies. He gave assurance that he had no intention of
serving any kind of summons and that he would come to the meeting place
unaccompanied. He held out the bait of using his influence toward a
dismissal of the prosecution against Bear Cat's father. Then he waited.

In due time he received a reply in Bear Cat's own hand.

"Men that want to see me must come to me. I don't go to them," was the
curt reply. "I warn you that it will be a waste of time, but if you
will come to the door of the school-house at the forks of Skinflint and
Little Slippery at nine o'clock Tuesday night there will be somebody to
meet you, and bring you to me. If you are not alone or have spies
following you, your trouble will be for naught. You won't see anybody.
Bear Cat Stacy."

At the appointed time and in strict compliance with the designated
conditions Mark Tapper stood at the indicated point.

At length a shadow, unrecognizable in the night, gradually detached
itself from the surrounding shadows and a low voice commanded, "Come
on."

Mark Tapper followed the guide whose up-turned collar and down-drawn
hat would have shielded his features even had the darker cloak of the
night not done so. After fifteen minutes spent in tortuous twisting
through wire-like snarls of thorn, the voice said: "Stand quiet--an'
wait."

Left alone, the revenuer realized that his guide had gone back to
assure himself that no spies were following at a distance. Tapper knew
this country reasonably well, but at the end of an hour he confessed
himself lost. Finally he came out on a narrow plateau-like level and
heard the roar of water far below him. He saw, too, what looked like a
window cut in the solid night curtain itself. Then the shadow-shape
halted. "Go on in thar," it directed, and with something more like
trepidation than he cared to admit, Tapper groped forward, felt for the
doorstep with his toe and rapped.

"Come in," said a steady voice, and again he obeyed.

He stood in an empty cabin and one which had obviously been long
tenantless. A musty reek hung between the walls, but on the hearth
blazed a hot fire. The wind sent great volumes of choking smoke eddying
back into the room from the wide chimney and gusts buffeted in, too,
through the seams of the rotting floor.

Bear Cat Stacy stood before the hearth alone and seemingly unarmed. He
had thrown aside his coat and his arms were folded across a chest still
strongly arched. His eyes were boring into the visitor with a
gimlet-like and disconcerting penetration.

"Wa'al," came his crisp interrogation, "what does ye want of me?"

"I wanted to talk things over with you, Stacy," began the revenuer, and
the younger man cut him short with an incisive interruption.

"Don't call me Stacy. Call me Bear Cat. Folks round hyar gave me thet
name in derision, but I aims ter make hit ther best knowed an' ther
wust feared name in ther hills. I aims ter be knowed by hit
henceforth."

"All right, Bear Cat. You and I are doing the same thing--from
different angles." The visitor paused and drew closer to the fire. He
talked with a difficult assumption of ease, pointing out that since
Bear Cat had recognized and declared war on the curse of illicit
distilling, he should feel a new sympathy for the man upon whom the
government imposed a kindred duty. He had hoped that Bear Cat would
make matters easier by joining in the talk, but as he went on, he
became uncomfortably aware that the conversation was a monologue--and a
strained one.

Stacy stood gazing at him with eyes that seemed to punch holes in his
sham of attitude. When the revenuer paused silence lay upon the place
until he himself broke it.

Finally Tapper reached a lame conclusion, but he had not yet dared to
suggest the thing he had come to broach, the arrangement whereby the
two of them were to divide territory, and swap betrayals of confidence.

"Air ye done talkin' now?" The question came with the restrained
iciness of dammed-up anger.

"Well--I guess so. Until you answer what I've already said."

"Then I'll answer ye right speedily. I'm bustin' stills like a man
blasts up rock thet bars a road: ter make way fer highways an' schools.
_You_ raid stills like Kinnard Towers' men commit murder--fer hire. I
reckon thar hain't no common ground thet we two kin stand on. Ye lives
by treachery an' blood money. Yore saint air Judas Iscariot an' yore
God air Gain. I hunts open, an'--though ye won't skeercely comprehend
my meanin'--thar's a dream back of what I'm doin'--a big dream."

Mark Tapper flushed brick red, and rose.

"Bear Cat," he said slowly. "Your father lies in jail waiting trial. I
can do a heap to help him--and a heap to hurt him. You'd better think
twice before you turn me away with insults."

Turner's voice hardened and his eyes became menacing slits.

"Yes--he lays in jail because Kinnard Towers bartered with ye ter jail
him, but I hain't a-goin' ter barter with ye ter free him. Ye talks of
turnin' ye away with insult--but I tells ye now hit's all I kin do ter
turn ye away without killin' ye."

Stacy was unarmed and Mark's own automatic pistol was in his coat
pocket. He should have known better, but the discovery that somehow
Bear Cat Stacy had learned his complicity in a murder plot blinded him
with an insane fury of fear and the hand leaped, armed, from its
pocket.

"Ef I war you," suggested Bear Cat, who had not moved the folded arms
on his chest, "I wouldn't undertake no vi'lence--leastways tell I'd
looked well about me. Hev a glance at that trap overhead--an' them two
doors."

Already the officer, with deep chagrin, recognized his folly. The open
trap of the loft bristled with rifle mouths. The two doors which had a
moment before been closed were now open and showed other muzzles
peeping through, but who the men behind the guns might be, there was no
indication--and there had been no sound.

"I didn't need ter show them guns--jest fer you," said Bear Cat slowly.
"A man don't hardly need ter call his folks tergether ter fight a
skunk--but I knowed thet ye'd go back ter Kinnard Towers, an' I'd jest
as lief hev ye name hit ter him, thet ye didn't find me hyar all by
myself." He paused and then the cold contempt of his manner gave way to
a more explosive anger.

"I aims ter furnish ye with a lantern an' one of my men will start ye
on yore road.... I wants ter see thet lantern goin' over ther hill-top
plumb outen sight--an' I don't want ter see hit hesitate whilst hit
goes. Ef hit does pause--or ef ye ever comes back ter me ergin with any
proffer of partnership, so holp me God Almighty, I'll send yore scalp
ter Washin'ton with my regards ter ther government." He pointed a
peremptory finger to the front door. "Now, damn ye, begone an' go
swiftly!"

Outside Tapper saw a lantern moving, but revealing no face. He knew
that it was attached to a long pole and that one side was masked--the
hill device of men who need light for their footsteps yet seek to avoid
becoming conspicuous--and he followed its glimmer until a voice said,
"I reckon ye kin go yore own route from hyar--yon way lies ther high
road. Ye kin tek ther lantern with ye."

                 *       *       *       *       *

Blossom who, until a few weeks ago, had been thought of as a lovely
child, was now the "Widder Henderson" to all who spoke her name. The
people she met accosted her with a lugubrious sympathy which was hard
to bear, so that she hastened by with a furtive shyness and an anxiety
to be left alone. Every day she made her pilgrimage to the graveyard to
lay freshly cut evergreens on the grave there, and the rabbit that had
its nest deep under the thorns sat on its haunches regarding her with a
frank curiosity devoid of fear. He seemed to recognize a kinship of shy
aloofness between them which need not set even his most timorous of
hearts into a flutter.

Yet although she was the "Widder Henderson," who had experienced the
bitter fate of so many mountain wives, she was after all, in years and
in experience, a child.

Until a little while ago--a very little while--she had sung with the
birds and her spirits had sparkled with the sunshine that flashed back
from woodland greenery. Life had seemed a simple thing with the rainbow
promise of romance lying somewhere ahead. Then Turner had awakened her
to a conception of adult love--a conception which might have satisfied
all her dreams had not Jerry Henderson come to dazzle her and alter her
standards of comparison. Henderson had, as even his critic at the club
admitted, that "damned charm" that is seductively indefinable yet
potent, and what had been "damned charm" to the clubman's
sophistication was a marvelous and prodigal wonder to the mountain
girl. He had wooed her passionately in the shadow of death. He had come
back to her through the shadow of death, and left her to go, not only
into its shadow, but its grimly mysterious reality. Now he was not only
her hero but also her martyr.

Mountain children know little of Christmas, except that it is often a
period of tragedy, since then men ride wildly with pistol and jug, and
hilarity turns too often to homicide. But one Christmas legend the
children do know: that on the night and at the hour of the Saviour's
birth the cattle kneel in homage and the sere elder bushes, for a brief
matter of miraculous minutes, break into a foam of bloom.

Blossom clung to that beautiful parable, even now finding comfort in
its sentiment, as she stood among the untended graves.

"I wonder now," she speculated, nodding her head wistfully toward the
inquisitive cotton-tail that sat wriggling its diminutive nose, "I
wonder now ef it would be _wrong_ to put some elder branches here
Christmas eve so thet--that--if they does bloom--I mean _do_
bloom--they'd be nigh him?"

"Howdy, Blossom," accosted a voice and the girl looked up startled.
Lone Stacy's wife stood at the thicketed edge of the burial-ground,
gazing at her, with eyes less friendly than their former wont.

The girl-widow came slowly forward, trying to smile, but under that
unblinking stare she felt unhappy, and the older woman went on with a
candid bluntness.

"La! Ye've done broke turrible, hain't ye? An' ye used ter be ther
purtiest gal hyarabouts, too."

"It's been--hard times fer me," Blossom answered faintly.

"Hit's done been right hard times fer all of us, I reckon," came the
uncompromising rejoinder, "but thet hain't no proper cause ter ketch
yore death of grave-yard damp," and with that admonition, Mrs. Stacy
went on her way.

Blossom stood silently looking after her, wondering vaguely why that
almost resentful note of hardness had rasped in her voice.

"I haven't done nothin'--anything, I mean," she murmured in distress.
"Why did she look at me that way, I wonder." Then suddenly she
understood. That was just it. She had not done anything. The old woman
was alone; her husband in prison and her son hunted from hiding place
to hiding place like some beast dogged to death, and she, the girl who
had always been like a daughter in that house, had been too stunned by
her own sorrow to take account of her neighbor's distress.

Mrs. Stacy had always expected that Blossom's children would be her
grandchildren. Turner had been wounded in defense of Jerry Henderson.
Into the girl's memory flashed a picture with a vivid completeness
which had failed to impress her in its just proportions at the time of
its reality. Then her eyes had been engrossed with one figure in the
group to the exclusion of all others. Now in retrospect she could
visualize the trio that had stumbled through the door of her house,
when they brought Jerry Henderson in. She could see again the way Bear
Cat had reeled and braced himself against the wall, and the stricken
wretchedness of his face.

Slowly the tremendous self-effacement of his generosity began to dawn
upon her, and to sting her with self-reproach.

So long as she lived she felt that her heart was dead to any love save
that for the man in the grave, but to the old comradeship--to the
gratitude for such a friendship as few women had ever had--she would no
longer be recreant. No wonder that Turner's mother looked at her with
tightly pressed lips and hostile eyes. She would go over there and do
what she could to make amends and alleviate the loneliness of a house
emptied of its men; a house over which hung the unlifting veil of
terror, which saw in the approach of every passer-by a possible herald
of tragedy.

                 *       *       *       *       *

Uncle Israel Calvert sat alone by the small red-hot stove of his
way-side store late in the afternoon. He was half dozing in his
hickory-withed chair, and it was improbable that any customer would
arouse him. A wild day of bellowing wind was spending itself in gusty
puffs and the promise of blizzard, while a tarnished sun sank into
lurid banks of cloud-threat.

Uncle Israel's pipe had gone out, though it still hung precariously
between his clean-shaven jaws and his white poll fell drowsily forward
from time to time. He listened between cat-naps to the voice of the
storm and mumbled to himself. "I reckon nobody won't come in
ter-night--leastways nobody thet hain't hurtin' powerful bad fer some
plumb needcessity."

Then he fell again to dozing.

The rush of wind through a door suddenly opened, and closed, roused
him, and seeing the figure of a man on the threshold, Uncle Israel came
to his feet with a springy quickness of amazement.

"Bear Cat!" he exclaimed. "Hell's blazes, man, whar did ye drap from?"
But at the same moment he went discreetly to the window and, since the
shutters hinged from outside, hastily hung two empty jute sacks across
the smeared panes.

"Uncle Israel," Bear Cat spoke with the brevity of one in haste, as he
tossed a wet rubber poncho and black hat to the counter, "hev ye got
any black cloth on them shelves?"

The storekeeper went ploddingly around the counter and began inspecting
his wares, rubbing his chin as he peered through the dim lamp-light.

"Wa'al now," he pondered, "let's see. I've got jest what ye mout call a
scant remainder of this hyar black domestic. I don't keep no great
quantity because thar hain't no severe call fer hit--save fer them
women-folks thet affects mournin'. Ther Widder Henderson bought most of
what I had a few days back."

Bear Cat Stacy flinched a little, but the old man had his face to his
shelves and did not see that.

"Ye'd better lay in a stock then," said Turner curtly. "Henceforth
thar's liable ter be _more_ demand."

Something in the tone made Uncle Israel turn sharply. "Does ye mean fer
mournin'?" he demanded, and the reply was enigmatical.

"Mebby so--but fer another kind of mournin' then what ye hev in mind, I
reckon. These hills has a plenty ter mourn about. I reckon ye'll heer
tell of this black cloth again."

                 *       *       *       *       *

It was a night when cabin doors were tight-barred and when families
huddled indoors, drawing close to the fires that roasted their faces
while their backs were cold from wind hissing through the chinks in
wall and puncheon flooring.

Even the drag net of Kinnard Towers' search lay idle to-night in the
icy grip of the storm.

Through the wildness of shrieking winds, lashing the tree-tops, some
men said that they heard ghostly incantations like the chant of a great
company of restless spirits.

Jim Towers, who had been knocked sprawling into his own bonfire before
the eyes of his myrmidons, was feeling somewhat appeased in spirit
to-night. He dwelt in a two-story house so weatherproof that, for him,
the tempest remained an external matter. To-night he had with him some
half-dozen friends who had come for counsel earlier in the day and whom
the storm had interned there for the night. They were all men who had
been with him on the expedition that had gone awry when George Kelly
had deserted. Now, as then, the company was defeating tedium with
wassail. The drab woman who was Jim's wife, and his slave, had fed them
all to repletion with "side-meat" and corn pone and gravy, and had
withdrawn to a chair apart, where she sat forgotten.

They had been cursing Bear Cat Stacy and George Kelly until their
invectives had been exhausted and the liquor had warmed them into a
cheerier mood in which they planned spectacular and complete reprisal.

"Es fer Kelly, I reckon he's got his belly full an' bustin' already,"
boasted Jim Towers with an unpleasant chuckle. "Charlie Reverdy, hyar,
an' me hes seen ter thet right fully. In ther place whar his
dwellin'-house stood thar hain't nothin' left but jest a pile of ashes.
He dastn't show his face in ther open--an' in due time Kinnard aims ter
fo'close on ther ground hitself."

"George Kelly hain't ther only man thet's aidin' an' abettin' him,
though," demurred a saturnine guest, whose hair grew down close to his
eyebrows. "No man knows how many low-down sons of hussies he's got with
him."

Jim Towers laughed and poured from jug to tin-cup. "A single fox kin
hide out whar a pack of wolves would hev ter shew themselves," he said.
"I estimate thet he's got mebby a half dozen--an' afore long now we'll
hev ther hides of ther outfit nailed up an' dryin' out."

At length the host arose and stretched his arms sleepily. "I reckon
hit's mighty nigh time ter lay down," he suggested, and as yawning lips
assented he added, "Be quiet a minute--I want ter listen. 'Pears like
ther storm's done plumb spent hitself an' abated."

A silence fell upon them, and then as an uncanny and inexplicable sound
came to their ears, they stood transfixed, and into their bewilderment
crept an unconfessed hint of panic. Their eyes dilated as though they
had been confronted by an apparition, and yet none of them was
accounted timorous.

"Hell an' tormint, what _air_ thet?" whispered Jim Towers in a hissing
undertone.

They all fell into attitudes of concentrated attention--bent forward
and listening. Out in the night where there had been only the lashing
of wind, rose a swell of song, bursting confidently and ominously from
human throats. It sounded like a mighty chorus carried on the lips of a
marching host, and with its martial assurance it brought a terrifying
menace.

"I've heered thet song afore," quavered the woman, whose lips were
ashen as she rose out of her obscurity. "Hit's called ther Battle
Hymn--my daddy l'arned hit in ther war over slavery ... hit says
su'thin 'bout 'My eyes hes seed ther Glory of ther comin' of ther
Lord!'"

"Shet up, woman," commanded her husband, roughly. "I'm a-listenin'."

Towers braced himself against a nameless foreboding and went cautiously
to the door, picking up his rifle on the way. The other men,
instinctively drifted toward their weapons, too, though they felt it to
be as futile a defense as arming against ghosts.

Soon the master of the house was back, with a face of greenish pallor.
He licked his lips and stammered in his effort at speech.

"I kain't ... in no fashion ... make hit out--" he admitted. "Thar's a
host of torches comin' hither.... They're flamin' like es ef hell
hitself war a-marchin' in on us!"

The woman threw herself down on her knees and fell into hysterical and
incoherent prayer.

For a little space the men stood irresolute, divided between a wild
impulse to seek hiding in the timber and a sentiment in favor of
pinning their trust to the strength of solid walls and barred doors.

But upon their jarred nerves the great volume of sound, crashing nearer
and nearer, beat like a gathering flood.

Turning out the lamp and half-smothering the fire, Jim Towers stole
noiselessly to the back door and opened it to a narrow slit. He thrust
forth his head and drew it back again as precipitately as though it had
been struck by a fist.

"What did ye see?" came the whispered interrogation from stiff lips,
and the man hoarsely gasped out his response.

"Thar was--a black ghost standin' thar--black as sin from head ter
foot. He held a torch, an' each side of him stood another one jest like
him--Good God! I reckon hit's jedgment day an' nothin' less!"

The woman had slipped out of sight, but now she came lurching back in
wild terror.

"I peeked outen a winder," she whimpered. "Thar's score on' score of
men--or sperrits out thar--all black as midnight. They've got torches
flamin'--but they hain't got no faces--jest black skulls! Oh--Lord,
fergive my sins!"

Then upon front and back doors simultaneously came a loud rapping, and
the men inside fell into a rude circle, as quail hover at night with
eyes out-turned against danger.

"I'm Bear Cat Stacy," came a voice of stentorian command. "Open the
doors--and drop yore guns. We don't seek ter harm no women ner
children."

Still there was dead silence inside, as eye turned to eye for counsel.
Then against the panels they heard the solid blow of heavy timbers.



CHAPTER XXIV


When the door fell in, Bear Cat Stacy stepped across the splintered
woodwork, unarmed save for the holstered pistol in his belt. He made a
clear target for at his back was the red and yellow glare of blazing
flambeaux. Yet no finger pressed its trigger because the mad
uselessness of resistance proclaimed itself. Like flood-water running
through a broken dyke, a black and steady stream flowed around him into
the house, lining the walls with a mourning border of unidentified
human figures.

Their funereal like had never before been seen in the hills, and they
seemed to come endlessly with an uncanny silence and precision.

They were not ghosts but men; men draped in rubber ponchos or slickers
that fell, glinting with the sheen of melted snow, to their knees.
Their black felt hats were pointed into cones and under the brims their
eyes looked out through masks of black cloth that betrayed no feature.
Except for Bear Cat Stacy himself and George Kelly, who were both
unmasked, no man was recognized--and no voice sounded to distinguish
its possessor.

The mauling of the battering ram on the rear door ceased and a
pulseless quiet followed save for the tramp-tramp of feet as yet other
spectral and monotonously similar figures slipped through the door and
fell into enveloping ranks along the walls, and for the woman's
half-smothered hysteria of fright.

Angered by her disconcerting sobs, Jim Towers seized his wife's
shoulder and shook her brutally. "Damn ye, shet up afore I hurts ye,"
he snarled, and, as he finished, Bear Cat Stacy's open hand smote him
across the lips and brought a trickle of blood. Into the eyes of the
trapped man came an evil glitter of ineffectual rage, and from an upper
room rose the wail of awakened children.

"Go up sta'rs, ma'am, an' comfort ther youngsters," Turner quietly
directed the woman. "No harm hain't a-goin' ter come ter you--ner
them." Then, wheeling, he ripped out a command to the huddled
prisoners.

"Drap them guns!"

When the surrendered arms had been gathered in, Stacy drew his captives
into line and nodded to George Kelly, who stepped forward, his face
working with a strong emotion. One could see that only the effect of
acknowledged discipline stifled his longing to leap at the throat of
Jim Towers.

"Kin ye identify any one man or more hyar, es them thet burned down
yore dwellin' house? If ye kin, point him out."

Walking to a position from which he directly confronted Towers, Kelly
raised a finger unsteady with rage and thrust it almost into the face
itself. Then the hand grew steady and remained accusingly poised.

There was a moment of silence, tensely charged, which Bear Cat's voice
broke with a steady precision of judicial inquiry.

"What proof hev ye got ter offer us?"

"Make him lift up his right foot an' show ther patch thet he's got on
ther sole an' ther nails on ther heel," demanded Kelly eagerly, but at
that Stacy shook his head.

"No. Fust ye tell us what manner of shoe hit war--then we'll see ef
ye're right."

George Kelly described a print made by a shoe, home-mended with a
triangular patch, and with a heel from whose circle of hobs, two were
missing. "Now," snapped Bear Cat. "Let's see thet shoe. Tek hit off."

Reluctantly the man whose house had been invaded stooped and unlaced
his brogan.

Stacy wheeled abruptly to face one of the lines against the wall. "You
men thet seen them foot-prints, atter thet fire, step ter ther fore."

A quartette of figures detached themselves and formed a squad facing
the captives and when the shoe had been passed from hand to hand along
their line Turner went forward with his inquisition. From no other
throat came a syllable of sound.

"I wants every man thet's willin' ter take oath thet he recognizes thet
sole--as ther same one thet made them prints--ter raise his right hand
above his head. Ef he hain't p'intedly sure, let him keep his arms
down, an' ef he misdoubts hit's ther same identical shoe, let him hold
up his left hand."

In prompt unison four right hands came up, and, having testified, the
mute witnesses fell back again to their places against the walls.

"Does ye _ree_cognize anybody else, thet war thar?" Kelly was
questioned and without a falter of doubt he again thrust an index
finger forward close to the blanching face of Charlie Reverdy.

Jim Towers stood bracing himself with a stiff-necked effort at
defiance. He was caught by an overwhelming force of his enemies--and no
help was at hand. No rescue was possible and he expected death, as in
similar circumstances, he would have inflicted it. But the sneer which
he forced to his lips could not out-testify the sickly green of his
pallor as he awaited his sentence.

When the identification of Reverdy had been also corroborated by
similar procedure, Bear Cat turned once more to confront Towers.

"Hev ye any denial ter make? Hev ye anything ter say?"

"All I've got ter say," was the insolent retort, "air thet ye kin go
ter hell. Finish up yore murder ... ye kain't affright me none."

"Burnin' down dwellin' houses air a grave matter," pursued Stacy with a
grim calm. "Hangin' hain't none too severe fer any man thet would
foller hit. So we hyarby sentences ye ter death--but we suspends ther
sentence. We don't aim ter hang ye--leastways not yit." After a pause
freighted with deep anxiety for the accused he added, "All we aims ter
do with ye air ter tie ye on bare-backed mules thet's right bony an'
slavish ter ride, an' ter tek ye acrost ther line inter Virginny." The
tone in which the edict was pronounced bore inexorable and sincere
finality.

"But from thar on, both of ye air ter leave ther mountings an' never
come back ter this community ergin. An' ef ye _does_ undertake ter come
back, we swears afore Almighty God ter kill ye both--an' onless ye both
gives yore solemn oath ter faithfully obey this command--we'll kill ye
now an' hyar."

There was no choice. Grudgingly the pair accepted exile, which after
all was a more lenient punishment than they had expected or deserved.
Towers was permitted to take leave of his family, but it is doubtful if
the woman regarded that parting as an unmixed affliction.

Slowly the culprits were escorted out to see in the darkness of the
forests other black shapes that wavered fantastically and dreadfully
under the flare and sputter of pine torches. At the middle of a long
column, twisting like a huge snake along deserted roads, they were
escorted into banishment.

The other men in the house were held prisoners until dawn. Then each,
blindfolded and in custody of a separate squad, was taken to a point
distant from his home--and liberated.

The morning came with a crystal clarity and hills locked in a grip of
ice, but the army whose marching song had startled sleeping cabins into
wakefulness had dissolved as though its ghostly existence could not
survive the light of day. Yet behind that appearance and disappearance
had been left an impression so profound that the life of the community
would never again be precisely what it had been before.

A new power had arisen, inexplicable and mysterious--but one that could
no longer be ignored.

With bated breath, around their hearth fires, the timorous and ignorant
gossiped of witchcraft, and sparking swains were already singing to the
accompaniment of banjo and "dulcimore" ballads of home-made minstrelsy,
celebrating the unparalleled achievements of the young avenger of
wrong-doings and his summary punishment of miscreants. They sang of the
man who:

    "Riz outen ther night with black specters at his back,
      Ter ther numbers of scores upon scores,
    An' rid straightway ter ther dwellin' house of Bad Jim Towers,
      Who treemored es they battered down ther doors."

More than one mountain girl bent forward listening with heightened
pulses as the lad who had come "sweet-heartin'" her shrilled out his
chorus.

    "So his debt fer thet evil Jim Towers hed ter pay,
      Fer they driv him outen old Kaintuck, afore ther break of day.
    All sich es follers burnin' down a pore man's happy home,
      Will hev ter reck ther Bear Cat's wrath an' no more free ter roam."

And perhaps as the lass listened, she wondered if her own home-spun
cavalier might not be going straight from her door to one of those
mysterious meetings where oath-bound men gathered in awful and spectral
conclave.

Sometimes, too, it was not only a song but an actual sight as well,
which made the flesh creep along the scalp. Sometimes out of the
distances came, first low and faint, then swelling into fulness that
chorus of male voices along the breeze, and after it came the sight of
a long serpent of light crawling the highways.

Through doors opened only to slits wondering eyes peered out into the
blackness while that mysterious procession passed, seemingly an endless
line of torches shining on black horsemen riding in single file.

When the singing ended and the night-riders went in silence they were
even more awe-inspiring and ghost-like than before--and, except by
remembering that the man of the house was absent, no woman could guess
who any member of the train might be, for they passed with hat brims
bent low and black masks coming down to their black slickers, and even
their horses were swathed in flowing coverings of the same inky
disguise. They were torch-lit silhouettes riding the night, but when
they passed, those who saw them knew that some task was being
accomplished in which the law had failed and that somewhere black dread
would deservedly strike.

Kinnard Towers himself, racking his brain, took a less romantic view,
but one of equal concern.

"Hit's done got beyond a hurtful pest now," he grumbled to Black Tom as
the two of them sat over their pipes. "Ther longer he goes on unchecked
ther more an' more fools will flock ter him. He's gittin' ther _people_
behind him an' hit's a-spreadin' like hawg cholera amongst young
shoats."

"Does ye 'low they're all Stacys--or air thar some of our own kin mixed
in with 'em?" queried Tom anxiously, and because he, too, had been
pondering that vexing question, the Towers leader shook his head
moodily.

"Thar hain't no possible way of tellin'. They seems ter possess a means
of smellin' a man thet hain't genu-_wine_ly fer 'em an' sich-like
kain't git inter no meetin's ter find out nothin'."

He puffed out a cloud of smoke and sought to comfort himself with
specious optimism. "I reckon folks is misled as ter numbers, though. A
few folks ridin' in ther night-time with noise an' torches looks like a
whole passel."

"They acts like a whole passel, too," supplemented Black Tom, who had a
blunt and unrelieved fashion of speaking his mind. "What does ye aim
ter do erbout hit all?"

The florid man brought his great fist down on the table and his
bull-like neck swelled with anger.

"I aims ter keep right on twell I gits this damned young night-rider
hisself. Ther minute he dies ther rest of hit'll fall in like a roof
without no ridge-pole."

He paused, then went on musingly: "I wouldn't be amazed none if
Fulkerson's gal knows whar he's at right frequent. I've done _dee_vised
a means ter hev her lead somebody ter him some time when he's by
hisself. Ratler Webb seed him walkin' alone in ther woods only
yistiddy."

"Why didn't Ratler git him then?"

Kinnard ground his teeth. "Why don't none of 'em ever git him? He
claims he hed a bad ca'tridge in his rifle-gun an' hit snapped on him.
Folks calls him Bear Cat an' hit 'pears like he's got nine lives in
common with other cats. We've got ter keep right on till we puts an end
ter all of em."

Black Tom was so inconsiderate as to burst in a raucous laugh of
ridicule. "Hit usen't ter be so damn' hard ter kill one man," was his
unfeeling comment.

About that time Kinnard's man-pack developed a strong disinclination to
take bold chances of falling in with the black army of torches. They
moved about their tasks with such constraint that their quarry had a
correspondingly greater freedom and latitude. And moonshiners no longer
boasted defiance, but dug in and became infinitely secretive. In spite
of all these precautions, however, day after day saw new trophies
hanging along way-side branches until there were few left to hunt out.

One afternoon, walking alone through the woods, Bear Cat Stacy stooped
at the edge of a "spring branch" to quench his thirst, and as he knelt
he saw floating past him yellow and broken grains of corn. Cautiously
and invisibly he followed the stream upward, worming himself along
until he lay looking in upon the tiny plant of a typical illicit still.
Its fire was burning under the mash kettle and back far enough to
escape the revealing light was a bark roofed, browse-thatched retreat
in which sat an old man, reflectively smoking.

As Bear Cat looked on, a startled surprise came into his expression and
his face worked spasmodically as if in pain. He wished he might not
have seen the floating evidence which had brought him here and
confronted him with the hardest tug-of-war between sincerity and
blood-loyalty that he had yet encountered.

The man huddled there in his rabbit-warren retreat was old Turner
Stacy, brother of Bear Cat's father and the uncle for whom he had
himself been named. Bear Cat had not even suspected that this kinsman
was operating such a plant. The elder Turner Stacy was a fierce and
close-mouthed fellow whose affairs were confided to no one.

Bracing himself for an ordeal, Bear Cat emerged from his concealment
and walked forward.

At sight of an unannounced visitor the old man's hand went quickly out
toward the rifle lying at his side, but as he recognized the face, he
rose without it and stood silently glowering.

"Uncle Turner," began the nephew seriously, "I hain't hardly willin'
ter use fo'ce erginst ye--but ye knows what hit would sound like fer
folks ter fling hit up erginst me thet I'm favorin' my own blood. I
wants thet ye give me yore hand ter quit."

For a moment the aged face worked with passion, its white beard
bristling and its eyes flaming.

"Who do ye think ye air--God Almighty?" came the angry question. "Who
give ye license ter come brow-beatin' yore elders? Yore own paw's in
jail now because somebody betrayed him.... I wonder war hit _you_!"

The young man recoiled as though an unexpected blow in the face had
stunned him.

"My God," he exclaimed in a low voice, "I didn't never expect ter hear
a kinsman charge me with sich infamy. I reckon I've got ter look over
hit though. Ye're my father's brother an' ye're right aged." He paused
and then his voice changed to one crisp and peremptory.

"I reckon ye knows I've got ther power ter compel ye as I've compelled
others. Does ye aim ter destroy thet thing yoreself,--now,--or does ye
want thet I brings fo'ce?"

There ensued a half hour of storm, but at its end the older Stacy bowed
to necessity. He, too, knew of the black army, and though he swore like
a baffled pirate into his beard he capitulated. Bear Cat left a
demolished place, carrying with him a fresh trophy, but he went with a
heavy heart.

It would have surprised him had he known that, left alone, his uncle's
wrath had turned suddenly to amusement for some private joke of his
own.

As the old man watched the retreating figure he chuckled and mumbled to
himself.

"Hit's right good fortune thet he came this week 'stid of next," he
soliloquized as he refilled his pipe's bowl, still smiling. "I'm glad
he didn't know I'd done ordered me a brand-new worm--an' thet hit's due
ter get hyar right soon."

As he puffed at the home grown tobacco, the elder Turner Stacy added:
"I reckon, though, I'd better pick out a fresh spot afore I sets ther
new one up."

                 *       *       *       *       *

Since Blossom had realized her neglect of Turner's mother that day in
the grave yard she had sought to make amends by many small attentions
and frequent visits.

One afternoon as she came into the house, she found Mrs. Stacy, who had
been bed-ridden with a deep cold, dressing herself with weak and
trembling hands. The girl's face became instantly stern.

"I told ye not ter rise from yore bed ter-day," she began and the other
woman dropped into a chair in pure feebleness.

"I don't seem ter hev no stren'th lef' in me," she complained. "Seems
like I've got a thousand bones inside me--an' all on 'em achin'."

"You must go back to bed, straightway. I'll brew ye somethin' hot an'
kiver ye up, an' read ter ye twell ye goes ter sleep."

But Mrs. Stacy responded with a short laugh that rasped bitterly.

"Turney air a hidin' out ter-night in thet small cavern whar ye tuck
Mr. Henderson oncet. I've done carried him victuals over thar twict
since he's been livin' like a varmint in the woods. I war jest makin'
ready ter sot out ergin. Ther riders hain't a-meetin' ter-night an'
he's thar all by hisself."

"Whar's George Kelly?" demanded Blossom quickly, for she was to some
degree initiated in the operating methods of Turner and his followers.

"He's done fared over inter Virginny ter visit his wife. She's ailin'."

"But I don't understand. What does Turner need?"

The mother trembled with a sudden access of the terror she had been
fighting back. Her voice rose shrilly and broke: "He needs ter be
fore-warned. His enemies hev diskivered whar he's at--an' they aims ter
trap him thar ter-night."

The color went out of the girl's face as she questioned tensely.
"How--how did ye hear tell of this?"

"A leetle while back I heered a shout outside, an I riz' up an' went
ter ther door. Thar wasn't nobody in sight, but I found this hyar
letter stuck thar with a pin. Whosoever hit war thet left hit, hed done
went away." She held out a clenched, talon-like hand and opened it, and
on a small sheet of ruled paper, printed out unevenly, Blossom read the
anonymous message: "I can't be seen giving you this letter because I'm
accounted to be Kinnard's man. They knows where Bear Cat is hiding
to-night and are planning according. Git him warned straightway.--A
Friend."

"Thet's all I knows," moaned the mother, "but thar hain't nobody with
him--an' he don't suspicion nothin'."

The girl was already throwing her discarded shawl about her shoulders.

"You go right back ter bed. I reckon ye kin trust me ter warn him." Her
eyes were full of warlike fire. "I kin go quicker then you, an' I won't
pause till I've got thar an' told him."

"Ye'll fare right back again, won't ye?" quavered the sick woman. "An'
fotch me tidin's--thet he got away safe."

Blossom had been a little stoop-shouldered of late with that
carelessness of carriage that comes from grief, but now again she was
lance-like in her straightness and vibrant with the determination of a
Valkyr.

"I'll come back ter ye," she vowed and then she burst out: "I reckon
this day I kin pay back some leetle part of ther debt I owes to Turney.
God knows he's done enough fer me!"

She went over the steep path with the light fleetness of some wild
thing--and of course she did not know that after her, unseen and silent
as a shadow, followed a slouching figure, using her as a guide. She did
not know either that, as she left the more traveled ways and turned
abruptly into the thicketed forest, that figure was joined by two
others, or that one of them, after a few whispered words, struck off to
communicate with more distant members of the hidden pack.

A wild haste drove her for she knew that Turner trusted the secrecy of
that cave, known, as he thought, only to his friends. Every moment she
could gain for him would mean a distance put between him and his peril.

Several times she paused just long enough to look about and assure
herself that she was not being followed--and then went forward again,
falsely reassured by the silence and seeming emptiness of the wintry
woods.

Pantingly she came to the mouth of the cave. Before it lay a small
plateau, gashed across by a gulch that went down a sheer hundred feet
and littered with piles of broken and gigantic rock. The opening to the
grotto itself was tucked back between these great bowlders, and for
that reason had remained so nearly undiscovered. Just outside the
fissure, she halted and gave the old signal of the owl's call. Thrice
she repeated it, and then as she stood with her hands pressed to her
heart, she saw a face appear, and a moment later Bear Cat had thrust
himself lengthwise out of the bottle neck, and stood at her side, his
face glowing with surprised delight for her coming.

"Blossom!" he cried. "What brought ye?" and in his voice throbbed the
rebirth of wild hope for the miracle which, he had told himself, would
never come back into his life.

But Blossom laid a sobering hand on his arm and talked rapidly.

"Thar's dire need of haste an' little time fer speech. Yore enemies
know you're here an' ter-night they're comin' ter hem ye in--an slay
ye. Fer God's sake go--swiftly!"

The man's face, which had softened into tenderness, stiffened. He
gulped down his disappointment and said simply, "I'm obleeged ter ye,
Blossom," then went into the black cranny. The girl could see the dim
glow of his electric torch flashing there, but as she waited she heard
something from the other direction which made her heart miss its beat;
the sound of furtively guarded voices somewhere in the litter of
bowlders. Instantly she, too, disappeared into the fissure.

"They're hyar a'ready," she panted. "I've done come too late. Thar
hain't but ther one way out, neither, is thar?"

For an instant Turner Stacy stood immovable, listening as his thumb
slid back the hammer of his rifle.

"Thar hain't but one way _you_ kin go out," he told her--"ther same way
ye come in."

His face was grim and hurriedly he went on: "But hyar of late I
diskivered a leetle hole jest big enough ter crawl through--way back at
ther end of a small gulch. Thar's a tree-top nigh by--but ye hes ter
dive fer hit offen ther edge of ther clift--and trust God ter aid ye
when ye seeks ter ketch hold of a limb. I reckon mebby I mout go out
thet way--ef I war by myself."

But Blossom's eyes had lighted with a sudden hope.

"Ye've got ter try hit, then, Turney," she declared staunchly. "Take
yore pistol an' leave me yore rifle. I'll make 'em think ye're still
hyar fer a spell anyhow."

"Does ye reckon I'd go away an' leave ye hyar ter them wolves?"
questioned the man scornfully, and with palms against his chest, as if
she would push him bodily back to the one chance of escape, she spoke
urgently:

"In thet leetle hole thar, one gun kin hold back a whole mob an' ef ye
gits away I reckon ye kin git some friends an' come back, kain't ye?"

"Ef I kin make Pinnacle Rock an' light a fire thar--I kin hev a score
of men hyar in two hours' time--but two hours----" He broke off with a
groan.

"Then do hit. I kin hold 'em back longer then thet. Ef they does git
in, I'll pretend ye jest left by ther backway. They won't harm me
nowhow."

He doubted that, but he knew that his staying meant ultimate death for
both of them, and that once outside he had a chance to rally his forces
for her rescue. For a little longer his reluctance to abandon her even
temporarily held him in quandary, then realizing that it offered the
only hope, he seized her fingers in a tight grasp and whispered:

"Farewell--then. God be with ye twell I gits back."

He worked his way along a twisting passage hitherto known only to
spiders and bats until at length he could see a yellow shred of
westering sky through a narrow rent in the blackness. As he edged his
body through the rift he heard a rifle shot reverberating brokenly
through the twisting tunnels, followed by a dogged spatter of
response--or was it only echo? He ground his teeth and poised himself
precariously on a foothold, inches wide, and treacherously insecure. He
measured the distance to a hickory branch that the wind rocked and
between its support and himself was emptiness. The scaly bark of the
limb for which he must leap was near the top of a tree whose roots were
planted fifty feet lower.

Turner gathered his muscles into elastic readiness--and plunged
outward. There was an instant of terrific uncertainty, then he swung
pendulum-like, upon a support that sagged and gave under his weight as
he hooked his knees about the branch and drank in a deep breath of
thanksgiving.

Blossom, kneeling unseen and partly protected by a sandstone barricade,
had been peering out at the broken gulches which were already filling
with a dusky gray. She must keep those alley ways clear and there were
two of them. A twilight depression gnawed at her heart.

Finally she saw a furtive and leering face thrust slowly and cautiously
around the angle of stone. Her pulses pounded, but her rifle was
trained, and her hands unshaking. For the first time since Henderson's
murder, something like a thrill warmed her veins. Now she could hit
back and avenge and take a man's chance of death in doing it. Then the
man, bent on reconnaissance, ventured a forward step. He had not come
quite far enough to see the opening itself though he knew that it must
be hidden somewhere among those bowlders. He peered with lynx-like
eagerness--ready to leap back if need be--and Blossom pressed her
trigger. Without a groan the figure wilted down and lay in grotesque
shapelessness between the rocks.

The fusillade which came in response was random and ineffective, and
the girl, nerved to battle, found the long and anxious silence which
ensued a purgatory of suspense. At the end she knew they would attempt
to overwhelm defense in a charge and the passing minutes ate like decay
into the tissue of her courage. Then what she dreaded came. They were
making a rush through both alleys at once. If they succeeded in
crossing the twenty feet of open danger, they could spread out on each
side of the cave's mouth, themselves safe by reason of the angle, and
seal the place up like a tomb.

Yet the first assault broke into demoralized flight under her fierce
welcome of fire and two other assailants fell wounded. Once more
soundless minutes dragged by in interminable suspense--then as the
second charge was launched, Blossom's rifle jammed its mechanism and
became dead in her hands. She threw it down and ran toward the passage
at the back. As it narrowed until she had to go on hands and knees, she
heard voices inside the cave--and then for the first time her nerves
snapped and she fainted.



CHAPTER XXV


When the curtain of unconsciousness rolled up again Blossom was no
longer in the cave, but was lying on the ground between the rocks
outside. It was dark now, but a lantern was lighted near at hand, and
her wrists and ankles ached with the bite of knotted ropes.

Although she could see no one, she had the distinct sense of eyes
gazing at her from somewhere beyond the narrow circle of light and as
she stirred uneasily, she heard a voice that seemed to come from behind
the sandstone at her right. "She's done come ter herself. Now we've
need ter hasten." Then from her left a sugar-loaf bowlder appeared to
question her.

"Whar did he go to? You knows an' we knows ye know--an' we don't aim
ter be trifled with neither. Ef ye speaks out honest an' ready, we'll
go an' git him fust an' then come back an' sot ye free afterwards."

Blossom writhed with a realization that she was in the hands of
creatures as savagely merciless as wolves, but she set her teeth.

"I hain't never a-goin' ter tell ye," she declared staunchly, "not ef
ye kills me!" A satirical laugh drifted from the shadows.

"All right, then, we've done made provision fer thet, too. Ef ye won't
tell us whar he's at we'll find out fer ourselves, but we aims ter
leave one man hyar with ye when we goes. He's done been drinkin'
right-smart licker--an' he natch'rally won't want ye ter go away an'
tell his name ter nobody."

The unseen speaker paused significantly, then added with a deliberate
brutality: "I reckon ye'll have ter be mighty sweet ter thet man ef ye
hopes ter go away from hyar alive."

The girl lay blanched but unyielding. She did not dare to hope that the
threat was empty and her single chance lay in parrying for time. Bear
Cat had said he would come back with reinforcements in two hours--if he
won through--but he, too, was facing desperate odds and already they
might have overwhelmed him: he might have failed in his dive from
precipice to tree-top.

Her heart sank into a nausea of terror. No outrage was beyond these
human jackals, but she was bred to iron courage and the warlike blood
in her veins welled up in defiance.

"I've done already give ye my answer," she retorted, forgetting her
ideals of diction. "I don't aim ter alter hit none--damn ye!"

"We aims ter be plumb fa'r an' reasonable," wheedled the voice of the
spokesman with an evil sneer. "Deespite yore contrary muleishness,
we're goin' ter tarry hyar jest precisely five minutes by ther watch
ter afford ye a chanst ter study ther matter over, but don't make no
mistake. We means, in sum an' substance, jest what we says ... most
anythin's liable ter happen ter ye when we goes away."

Blossom's pulses pounded so furiously that her sanity reeled through a
thousand nightmare tortures before she heard the detestable voice once
more drawling, "Wa'al, time's up. Ef ye fo'ces us now, hit's jest plain
suicide--thet's all."

After that, for a while, she remembered nothing save the delusion that
she was drowning--sinking down and still more deeply down through
eternities. Her next definite impression came when she found herself
inside the cave, with her head resting against the muddied knees of a
man who sat cross-legged on the ground. At the mouth of the grotto was
a lantern with its dimming shield turned outward so that, inside, its
light fell in a grotesque effect of ragged formlessness.

As she stirred into returning consciousness, the creature who was
cradling her aching head on his marrow-bones, took down the tin cup
which just then obscured his face.

Blossom recognized Ratler Webb and the breath stopped in her tightened
throat.

The degenerate face was unshaven and bristling. Its blood-shot eyes
smirked at her with the brutalized leer of a satyr. The man bent over a
little and with grimy fingers fondled the hair on her neck and temples.

"Jest tek yore time, sweetheart," he said. "Don't hasten ter rouse
yoreself up. We've got ther night afore us."

As the girl flinched and struggled away from the beast-light of those
predatory eyes, her captor only clasped her the closer so that his
alcoholic breath came sickeningly close to her face. He chuckled
thickly as he added, "I reckon I kin allow ye a leetle time--because
we're beholden ter ye. We didn't hev no notion whar yore beau war
a-hidin' at twell we left thet note over thar. Then ye led us straight
ter ther place."

                 *       *       *       *       *

Turner Stacy had clambered and slid precariously down the hickory tree
without greater mishap than raw and bleeding hands. Once more on the
ground, he ran like a madman, bending low in the timber.

The signal fire which he meant to build on the bald crest of Pinnacle
Rock, would send out a flare visible to three states. Already he was
twenty-five hundred feet above sea-level, but there remained a climb of
almost a thousand more, and he was taking the direct and well-nigh
perpendicular route.

Breathless, panting, vaulting from rock to rock; gripping, on faith,
root and sapling, he climbed the steep stairway--where sometimes the
earth shelved away underfoot--and he clutched wildly out for fresh
support. Once there, with a fire blazing, he would have twenty or more
of his nearest adherents riding to the rescue. They would rally on the
highway just below the signal fire itself and there seek
instructions--or signs. Fortunately for the present need, the
night-riders had developed a mysterious but thorough system of
communication. Their code of signals embraced a series of crude
emblems, which to the initiated designated the zone into which they
were called for action.

With frenzied haste Bear Cat laid and lighted his fire on the bald
summit--pausing only long enough to see its red glare leaping upward.
Then he plunged downward again.

Along the highroad, which, for a little way, he followed boldly, he
placed peeled twigs bent into circles at various conspicuous places,
knowing that those who were to come would read from them the course to
follow.

After that he disappeared into the thickets again and traveled swiftly.
Twice, as he hurried, soft-footed, through the woods he halted and
threw himself flat while members of the pursuing party well-nigh ran
over him. But eventually he reached a litter of giant rocks that stood
like undisciplined sentinels guarding the cave's entrance. Then he
stopped and listened, and when he heard no sound he crept forward
obsessed with apprehension. He could not escape the feeling that this
seeming of calm was dangerously deceptive.

Finally as he lay flattened and listening with all his faculties
razor-edged, he heard something that electrified him--a woman's scream.

Clawing out his pistol, he threw all caution to the winds and raced for
the entrance of the cave, and as he went he heard it again, now sharp
and terrified, and he recognized Blossom's voice.

In his haste it did not even occur to him to feel surprised that no
rifles greeted him. An exaltation of wrath intoxicated him with
superlative confidence. He could meet and overcome a host of enemies!
His voice rose in Berserker frenzy. "I'm a-comin', Blossom! I'm
a-comin'!"

                 *       *       *       *       *

For perhaps three-quarters of an hour after Blossom had recovered
consciousness the second time, it had pleased her captor to sit across
the narrow way from her, gloating with a bestial satisfaction over her
helplessness, while he poured white stuff from bottle to tin cup.

Despite the advantages of his position, Ratler had thoughts which were
disconcerting. At his hands lay the final opportunity to glut his
long-starved hunger for revenge: to glut it fully and in a fashion of
beastly brutality, and for that he had waited with a singleness of
thought and purpose.

But behind him to-night he must leave no witness, and as he approached
his task, he found that his nerves needed the steadying of strong
drink--and yet more strong drink. Out of the flask he was not only
drawing appeasement of thirst, but fuel for determination.

For a while he had even dozed while the girl, bound hand and foot, had
shudderingly watched his dissolute and depraved face.

Then at the end he had risen, stretched his long arms and sauntered
insolently over, looking down while he phrased repulsive compliments to
her beauty.

Tiring eventually of his cat-and-mouse deliberateness, Ratler leaned
down and, putting his arm about her waist, drew her up to him. Then it
was that with all the revulsion that was in her she had screamed not
once but until his hand had choked off her breath--and at that instant
she had heard the shout from beyond the cave's entrance.

Webb heard it, too, and hurled the woman away from him, suddenly
brought back to something nearer sobriety by the shock. He wheeled and
trained his pistol on the entrance. He had laid aside his rifle and
there was no time now to hunt for it. Bear Cat would have to stoop and
edge his way into the place and in the process he could be easily
dispatched.

But while he waited Ratler's knees shook and when, instead of crawling,
he saw a shape dive almost horizontally through the aperture his
courage evaporated. The lantern was badly placed and it confused the
man inside because it darkened the opening while it left him in plain
sight. Ratler's revolver was spitting venomously but ineffectually. His
hand was unsteady and his eye confused. The drunkard was reeling as he
fought and after a dazed moment he felt himself caught in a
bone-breaking embrace while the butt of a pistol hammered the
consciousness out of his skull.

Turner Stacy was a wild man now. He stumbled blindly out of the cave
dragging a limp figure behind him, and when he straightened up again
and wiped his sweat-streaming face he had hurled the thing bodily
outward, where the ravine dropped down a hundred feet.

He came back, palsied and shaken, and as he bent over the girl and cut
away her bonds, his voice struggled through dry sobs.

"Blossom," he pleaded brokenly, "Blossom, tell me ye're only
affrighted. Tell me thet ye didn't come ter no harm--fer my sake."

"I hain't hurt--Turney," she managed to whisper. "Ye came back--in
time--jest barely in time."

She stood leaning weakly against the rock wall with her hands pressed
tightly to her face.

The man stood, panting with excitement and exertion, but into his
pupils came a sudden light of hope.

"Blossom," he whispered huskily, "Blossom--ye didn't ... come over ...
hyar ... because ye ... because ye keered fer me, did ye?"

She took her hands away from her temples and looked at him with a white
face, and in the unhappy honesty of her eyes the man read his answer.
It was as if she had said, "My heart lies over there in _his_ grave,"
and slowly, gravely Turner nodded his head. His face had gone gray, but
through its misery it held a stamp of gentleness.

"I understands ye," he said simply. "I won't never pester ye no more."
Then as some note of alarm came to his ears he wheeled, all alertness
again and his hand was once more gripping his pistol.

"I've only got three ca'tridges left," he said to himself. "Hit's nip
an' tuck now which git hyar fust."

As he reached the mouth of the cave a shout came out of the darkness.
"Ratler, air ye in thar?" and out into the night went the defiant
response. "No, Ratler hain't hyar, but Bear Cat Stacy's hyar. Come on
an' git me ef ye wants me."

There was a silence after that, which he knew meant a parley. As he
knelt waiting he felt a hand on his shoulder and with eyes still
searching the ominous darkness he spoke low, in a trained effort at
self-control:

"Blossom, hit looks like we're trapped. Ye came inter this peril in an
effort ter save me--an' I fears hit's goin' ter be hopeless. I hain't
got but three ca'tridges left."

"Save one of 'em, Turney," she said without a tremor in her voice.
"Shoot twice ef ye wants ter do hit--an' then give ther pistol ter me.
I kain't bear ter fall inter their hands again."

Then as they counted the seconds they heard another sound. From across
the nearer crests lusty voices, raised in unison, were chanting. Turner
even fancied he could distinguish the familiar words, "Mine eyes have
seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." There was a clatter of
gravel under dispersing footsteps and a low wake of frightened
oaths--and the night had taken the attacking party to itself.

                 *       *       *       *       *

The Stacys had pressing topics to discuss. The activities of their
young kinsman were no longer a matter of theory but a condition, and
their clan attitude toward him must be determined. Was he to be
regarded as a renegade or as one still entitled to recognition?

At the house of Joe Stacy on a cold winter day a dozen of the elders
gathered to discuss this matter.

"Bear Cat's done cast off all regards fer fam'ly loyalty," cried out a
turbulent spirit whose eyes and voice bespoke fellowship with the jug.
"He's makin' war on everything we've ever stood fer. Thet damned
furriner bewitched him, I reckon. He's jest rampagin' round with a
passel of wuthless Stacys and Towerses alike, destroyin' propitty. He's
stirrin' up ther cast-offs an' woods-colts of both factions an' he
hain't nuthin' more ner less then a damn' traitor."

But Joe Stacy, steadier of balance, thrust himself into the discussion.

"Thet hain't no fa'r ner rightful statement," he said slowly with the
weight of thoughtful force. "Thar's some amongst us thet don't hold
with Bear Cat an' some thet does--but he hain't no traitor. He told us
out-spoken what he aimed ter do afore he commenced doin' hit, an' thet
needed courage. Myself, I thinks he's a man with a vision, an' afore we
casts him out I aims ter be heered."

There was a hum of discussion and while it was at its height, the elder
Turner Stacy burst tempestuously into the midst of the gathering. The
old man shook with rage and his voice quavered.

"By God," he roared, "thet boy's plumb crazed. He's got ter be
handled--an' checked. I suffered him ter bust up my old still 'cause I
knowed ther new one was a-comin', but now he's busted up ther new one,
too. Hit war a beautiful piece of copper--an' right hard ter smuggle
in."

The group of elders regarded the old blockader with varying emotions,
as he stood glaring with an ember-like ferocity which he genuinely
believed to be righteous indignation. But Joe Stacy, his own brother,
permitted his shrewd eyes to twinkle as he laid a calming hand on the
anger-palsied shoulder of the new arrival.

"Wa'al now, Turner," he suggested dryly, "by yore own showin' ye lied
ter ther boy an' consented ter quit stillin'. Hit's right sensibly like
these-hyar other outrages thet's done been reported. He hain't nuver
interfered with no man's _lawful_ business yit--an' albeit I don't know
who ther fellers air thet rides with him by night, I kin discarn right
well by thar way they does things thet thar hain't no licker-befuddled
folks amongst 'em." Suddenly the speaker's voice rose. "An', by God, I
knows another thing besides thet! I knows thet some fellers roundabout,
thet used ter be red-eyed an' sullen-visaged, kin look a man straight
in ther face ter-day, clear-sighted an' high-headed. I've got a notion
thet ye kin jest erbout identify these-hyar outlaws by ther way they
carries thar chins high."

"What law air thar fer a man ter sot out compellin' other men ter adopt
his notions, I wants ter know?" came the fierce demand, and Joe Stacy
smiled.

"Thet's a fa'r question," he admitted, "an' I'll meet hit with an
answer ther minit' ye tells me what law thar air fer blockadin'."

                 *       *       *       *       *

One morning Bear Cat was coming along the road when he heard voices
beyond the bend, and turned into the brush. Looking out, he saw such a
strange procession that he emerged again.

A man whose back was stooped, and whose face wore a dull stamp of
hopelessness, trudged along, carrying a bundle over his shoulder and a
dilapidated carpet-bag in one hand. Behind him trailed three small
children, the largest two also staggering under rough bundles.

"Whar be ye a-goin', Matthew Blakey?" hailed Stacy, and the man halted.
He opened a mouth well-nigh toothless, though he was yet young, and
replied in a tone of deep depression. "I'm farin' over ter thet new
school, with fotched-on teachers in Fletcher County. I aims ter ask 'em
ter take in these-hyar chil'len."

"Hain't ye goin' ter house 'em an' tend 'em no longer yore own self?"
was the somewhat stern interrogation, and the man's pale blue eyes
filled suddenly with a suspicion of tears.

"Since thar mother died three y'ars back, I've done sewed an' washed
all thar clothes my own self--an' gone out inter ther field an' wucked
for 'em," he said humbly. "I've done raised 'em es right es I knows,
but I kain't do what I ought fer 'em. When I has ter leave 'em I kain't
holp but study, s'pose ther house war ter ketch fire? They're all
sleepy-headed leetle shavers."

"Why don't ye git married again?"

The voice shook a little. "Young 'uns oughtn't ter hev but just one
mammy--an' I couldn't nuver be content with no other woman." He paused.
"Hit's forty mile ter thet school, an' mebby they're full up--but I've
done been over thar an' seed hit." The weary eyes lighted. "God knows I
nuver 'lowed thet thar _war_ sich fine places ter raise chil'len to'rds
humanity an' l'arn 'em all manner of wisdom!"

"All right, go on over thar, Matthew," said Bear Cat in a
matter-of-fact voice, but in his own pupils gleamed a soft light, "an'
when ye come back jine with me. I'm seekin' ter bring hit erbout thet
we kin hev a school like thet over hyar--whar yore children wouldn't be
so far away."

The father stood twisting his broganed toe in the mud. "I heers thet ye
don't tolerate licker, Bear Cat," he said sheepishly. "Hit hain't nuver
made me mean ner nuthin' like thet--but since my woman died I've done
tuck ter drinkin' hit--I misdoubts ef I could plumb stop."

Bear Cat Stacy smiled. "Ter-morrer drink half what ye've been usin' an'
next day cut thet down a leetle. Anyhow come an' hev speech with me."

Matthew nodded and Turner watched the little procession trail out of
sight behind the gray screen of the timber-line. "All sore-eyed, an'
all sickly," he commented under his breath. "Not one of 'em gittin' a
chanst ter grow straight! Mebby over thar, they will, though."



CHAPTER XXVI


"Take a cheer an' sit down, an' light a pipe--unless ye've got a
cigar." The invitation came from the Honorable William Renshaw, circuit
judge, seated in the same small chamber adjoining the court-room in
Marlin Town, from which Kinnard Towers had issued orders on that
afternoon of Big-meetin' time.

"Co'te don't meet till two o'clock--an' I'm always glad to have the
chance to chat with distinguished counsel from down below--I don't get
down thar oftentimes myself."

The man to whom Judge Renshaw spoke seemed conspicuously out of his own
environment in this musty place of unwashed windows, cob-webbed walls
and cracking plaster.

His dress bespoke the skill of a good tailor and his fingers were
manicured. He drew out a cigar case and proffered a perfecto to his
honor, then deliberately snipped the end from his own. Evidently he had
something embarrassing to say.

"Judge," he began briefly, "I've been here now for upwards of a week,
trying to get this business under way. You know what the results have
been--or rather have not been. I've encountered total failure."

"Hasn't the prosecutin' attorney afforded you every facility, Mr.
Sidney?" The inquiry was put in a tone of the utmost solicitude.

"That's not the difficulty," objected the visiting lawyer. "Mr.
Hurlburt has shown me every courtesy--in precisely the way you have.
Your instructions to the grand jurors were admirable. The prosecutor
consented at once that I should participate in getting the evidence
before them, and in assisting him to punish the guilty when indicted.
It is now February. Jerry Henderson was murdered before the first snow
flew. Those subpoenas which we have sent out have for the most part
come back--unserved. What witnesses we have secured might as well be
mutes. The thing is inexplicable. Surely the judge can do something to
energize the machinery of his court out of utter lethargy. I appeal to
you, sir. We all know that Henderson was murdered ... we all suspect
who had it done, yet we make no progress."

Judge Renshaw nodded his head affirmatively.

"It looks right considerably that way." Then seeing the impatient
expression on the other face, he spoke again--in a different voice,
leaning forward. "Mr. Sidney, I reckon I know what's in your mind.
You're thinkin' that both me and the prosecutin' attorney ain't much
better than tools of Kinnard Towers.... Maybe there's a grain of truth
in it. I'm judge of a district that takes in several county seats and I
ride the circuit. Before I was elected to the bench I was a backwoods
lawyer that sometimes knew the pinch of hunger. You say Kinnard Towers
is dishonest--and worse. If I said it, I _might_ hold office till the
next election--but more likely I wouldn't live that long."

As the notable attorney from the city sought to disarm his smile of its
satirical barb, the other proceeded: "That strikes you as a thing
that's exaggerated--and a thing that a man ought to be ashamed to admit
even if it was true. All right. Do you know that when you took the
Henderson matter to the grand jury, nine men on the panel sought to be
excused from service in fear of their lives? Do you know that on every
day they did serve all twelve got anonymous letters threatenin' them
with death? They know it anyhow--and you see they haven't brought in
any true bills an' I predict that no matter what evidence you put
before them--they won't."

"Why were those letters not presented to the Court? You have power to
protect your panels with every company of militia in the state if need
be."

"So I told 'em." The reply was laconic, and it was supplemented in a
slow drawl. "But you see they've known militia protection before--and
that guarantee didn't satisfy them. They figure that the soldiers go
away after awhile--but there's other forces that stay on all the
time--and those other forces can wait months or years without
forgetting or forgiving."

"And this terrorization paralyzes your courts of justice?"

"Well, no. It lets 'em run along in a fashion--as you've seen."

Mr. Sidney strove to repress his choler, but his manner was icy as he
remarked: "That's a strange utterance for a judge on the bench."

"Is it?" Renshaw's quiet eyes showed just a glint of repressed anger.
"Doesn't it work the same way in your district--or materially the same?
Are your judges free from the coercion of strong interests? Are your
jurors all willing to die for their duty?" After a brief silence he
added: "Why, Mr. Sidney, you came here yourself ostensibly in the
interest of friends and relatives who were unwilling to let this murder
go 'unwhipped of justice'--them were your words. Yet we all know that
you're the chief lawyer for a railroad that hasn't ever been famed for
altruism."

The visitor flushed.

"While you were working up this evidence," inquired his honor, "did you
go out and try to talk to Bear Cat Stacy?"

"Certainly not. He's an outlaw--whom your deputies failed to bring in
when I had a subpoena issued. My life wouldn't be worth tuppence if I
tried to get to him."

Judge Renshaw smiled somewhat grimly.

"Yes, they call him an outlaw--but he swings a power right now that
this high court doesn't pretend to have. He's the one man that Kinnard
fears--and maybe he'd help you if the two of you could get together."

"A lawyer should not have to be his own process-server," was the retort
of offended dignity.

"No--neither ought a judge." Renshaw took the cigar from his mouth and
studied it. Then he spoke slowly:

"Mr. Sidney, there's nothing further I can do, but--put it on whatever
ground you like--I'll make a suggestion. I'm beginning to doubt if
Kinnard Towers is going to remain supreme here much longer. I think his
power is on the wane. If you will make a motion to swear me off the
bench for the duration of these proceedin's--and can persuade the
governor to send a special judge and prosecutor here--I'll gladly
vacate. Then you can bring your soldier boys and see what that will
effect. That's the best satisfaction I can give you--but if I were you,
since you have no patience with men that consider personal risks--I'd
talk with this Stacy first. Of course, Kinnard Towers won't like that."

Mr. Sidney rose, piqued at the suggestion of timidity, into a sudden
announcement. "Very well," he said, "I'll ride over there to Little
Slippery to-night--to hell with this bugaboo Towers!"

"If I lived as far away as you do," suggested the judge, "I might allow
myself to say, Amen to that sentiment."

Mr. Sidney did not, in point of fact, go that night, but he did a few
days later. Had he known it, he was safe enough. Kinnard Towers had no
wish just then to hurl a challenge into the teeth of the whole state by
harming a distinguished member of the metropolitan bar, but before
George Sidney started out, the Quarterhouse leader had knowledge of his
mission, and surmised that he would be sheltered at the house of Joel
Fulkerson.

When the lawyer arrived the old preacher was standing by the gate of
his yard with a letter in his hand, that had arrived a little while
before. It was from an anonymous writer and its message was this: "If
you aid the lawyer from Louisville, in any fashion whatsoever, or take
him into your house, it will cost you your life."

Brother Fulkerson had been wondering whether to confide to any one the
receipt of that threat. Heretofore factional bitterness had always
passed him by. Now he decided to dismiss the matter without alarming
his friends with its mention.

As he strode forward to welcome the stranger, he absently tore the
crumpled sheet of paper to bits and consigned it to the winds.

"I am George Sidney," announced the man who was sliding from his
saddle, stiff-limbed from a long ride. "I'm trying to effect the
punishment of your son-in-law's murder, and I've come to your house."

"Ye're welcome," said the evangelist simply, and there was no riffle of
visible misgiving in his eyes. "Come right in an' set ye a cheer."

Two days later Mr. Sidney rode away again, but in an altered frame of
mind. He had met Bear Cat Stacy and was disposed to talk less
slightingly of outlaws. He had even seen a thing that had made the
flesh creep on his scalp and given to his pulses such a wild thrill as
they had not known since boyhood. He had watched a long line of black
horsemen, masked and riding single-file with flambeaux along a narrow
road between encompassing shadows. He had heard the next day of a
"blind tiger" raided, and of an undesirable citizen who had been
sentenced to exile--though related by blood ties to the leader of the
vigilance committee.

It was sitting in the lounging-room of his Louisville Club a week later
that he unfolded his morning paper and read the following item--and the
paper dropped from his hand which had become suddenly nerveless.

"Joel Fulkerson," he read, after the first shock of the head-lines, "a
mountain evangelist, whose work had brought him into prominence even
beyond the hills of Marlin County, was shot to death yesterday while
riding on a mission of mercy through a thickly wooded territory. Since,
even in the bitterest feud days, Fulkerson was regarded as the friend
of all men and all factions, it is presumed that the unknown assassin
mistook him for some one other than himself."

George Sidney took an early train to Frankfort, and that same day sat
in conference with the governor.

"It's a strange story," said the chief executive at length, "and the
remedy you suggest is even stranger--but this far I will go. If you
swear Renshaw off the bench, I will name a temporary judge and set a
special term of court, to convene at once. The rest comes later, and we
will take it up as we reach it."

                 *       *       *       *       *

Once more, just after that, Bear Cat Stacy stood again with Blossom by
a new-made grave, but this time he came openly. Those kinsmen who saw
him there were of one mind, and had he spoken the word, they would have
followed him through blood to vengeance. But Stacy, with the hardest
effort of his life, held them in check. It would mar the peaceful sleep
of that gentle soul whom they were laying to rest, he thought, to
punish bloody violence with other bloody violence--and in his mind a
more effective plan was incubating.

All that he would tell the grim men who met in conclave that night,
ready to don their masks and fare forth, was that this was, above all
others, an occasion for biding their time. "But I pledges ye faithful,"
he declared in a voice that shook with solemn feeling, "ye won't hev
need ter grow wearied with waitin'...."

No Towers watchmen came in these days to Turner's house. They contented
themselves with keeping a vindictive vigil along the creeks and
tributaries where they were numerically stronger. Each day Turner came
to watch over Blossom with the quiet fidelity of a great dog. There was
little enough that he could do, but he came and looked at her with
hungry eyes out of a hungry heart, speaking no word of his own love,
but listening as she talked of her father. He sought in a hundred small
ways to divert her thoughts from the grim thing that had twice scarred
her life and taken the light out of her eyes. As he trudged back to his
house, where he had again taken up his residence, after these visits,
he walked with a set jaw and registered oaths of reprisal to take a
form new to the hills.

As the days passed it was reported that on the motion of the
commonwealth, alleging bias and prejudice, Judge Renshaw had vacated
the bench, and that the governor had named a pro-tem. successor from
another district--and called a special term of court, to sit at Marlin
Town.

Kinnard Towers heard that news with a smile of derision. "Let 'em bring
on thar jedges an' soldiers," he said complacently. "Ther law still
fo'ces 'em ter put native names in ther jury wheel an' I reckon no
grand jury thet dwells hyar-abouts won't hardly indict me ner no petty
jury convict me."

So it was something of a shock to his confidence when he heard that he,
Black Tom Carmichael and Sam Carlyle had been indicted for conspiracy
to commit murder. Even that he regarded as merely an annoyance, for as
one of the grand jurors had hastened to assure him: "Hit war jest a
sort of a formality, Kinnard. We knowed ther little jury would cl'ar
you-all an' hit looked more legal-like ter let hit come up fer trial."

But the bringing of those indictments was really a tribute to the
dawning power of Kinnard's enemies. The thing was intended as a
compromise by which the grand jury should satisfy the Stacys and the
petit jury should mollify Towers by acquitting him later.

Kinnard knew that Sam Carlyle had gone to Oklahoma, and that without
him any prosecution must fail--but he did not know that the prosecution
had already located him there and taken steps to extradite him.

Then one day, Bear Cat received a summons by mail to meet George Sidney
in Frankfort, and since secrecy was the essence of the plan they had
already discussed in embryo, he went in a roundabout way through
Virginia and came back into Kentucky at Hagen. He was absent for a week
and toward its end he found himself, under the escort of the Louisville
lawyer, standing in the private office of the chief executive himself.
Turner had never seen a city before. He had never met a man of such
consequence, but the governor himself brought to the interview a
dignity no more unabashed.

"This is the young man of whom I spoke, governor," said Sidney. "He has
given his community the nearest approach it has known to placing
sobriety and humanity above lawlessness. There are two men down there
who run things. Towers owns the courts and--maintains feudalism. This
young man heads an organization of night-riders--and challenges Towers.
It's the young against the old: the modern spirit against the ancient
habit."

The governor subjected Bear Cat Stacy to an inquisitorial
scrutiny--which was met with a glance as undeviating.

"I am told that it has been impossible in your country," he began, "to
enforce the attendance of witnesses and even of defendants at court. I
am also told that you believe you can alter this."

Turner nodded gravely. "I kin fetch 'em in--dead or alive," he said
with bold directness. "All I needs air ter be told who ter git."

"Dead witnesses," remarked the chief executive, "are very little use to
any tribunal. If these men are your avowed enemies and in your power,
why have you held your hand?"

Bear Cat flushed and though he spoke quietly there was the bell-like
ring of ardor in his voice. "My power hain't ther law," he said. "I
aims fer sich betterment as kain't come save by law: a betterment that
kin last when I'm dead an' gone."

"This is the case, governor," interposed the lawyer. "The courts there
are a bitter jest. Kinnard Towers operates a stronghold which is a
pest-spot and breeding-nest of crime and debauchery. There is one
agency only that can drag him out of it. That agency this man
represents--and heads."

"Then if you are sent out, during this session of court," inquired the
executive, "you agree to bring in whatever men are called to
attendance?"

"Dead or alive--yes," reiterated Stacy with inflexible persistency.

"Unfortunately," smiled the great man, "the legislature, in its wisdom,
has vested in me no power to instruct any citizen to deprive other
citizens, however undesirable, of their lives. Whoever undertakes such
an enterprise must do so on his own responsibility--and, despite the
worthiness of his motive, he faces a strong chance of the death
penalty."

There was a brief pause, as the lawyer and his protegé rose to depart,
and the governor shook Bear Cat's hand. "You are a picturesque person,
Mr. Stacy. I hope to hear more of you." Then as a quizzical twinkle
wrinkled the corner of his eyes he added: "I almost think it is a pity
that I have no power to authorize your wading in free-handed--but it's
not within my official scope."

Bear Cat was standing straight and looking with searching gravity into
the face of the governor. There seemed an odd variance between the
words and the spirit back of the words, and then he saw the tall man
with the distinguished face engage his glance with something intangibly
subtle--and he saw one dignified eye deliberately close leaving its
mate open. The governor of the commonwealth had winked at him--and he
understood the perplexing variance between words and spirit.

Outside, in a corridor of the state building, Bear Cat laid a hand on
Sidney's arm.

"When ther time comes," he said shortly, "I'll be ready. I wants thet
ye should hev hit give out in Marlin Town, thet ye sought ter persuade
me, but that I wouldn't hev nuthin' more ter do with aidin' state
co'tes then I would with revenuers." And that was the message that
percolated through the hills.

When Turner returned home he went first to Blossom's cabin, his heart
full of thoughts of her and sympathy for her loneliness. Old days there
swarmed into memory, and just to see her, even now that he counted for
so little, meant a great deal to him. But in the road, at first sight
of the house, he halted in astonishment--for the chimney was
smokeless--and when he hurried forward his dismay grew into something
like panic as he found the windows blankly shuttered and the door
nailed up.

Hastening to his own house, he demanded in a strained voice of fright.
"Whar air she, maw? Whar's Blossom at?"

The old woman rose and took from the mantel-shelf a folded sheet of
paper which she handed him without a word of explanation, and with
shaking fingers he opened and read it.

"Dear Turney," she said, and her round chirography had run wild as
weeds with the disturbed mood of that composition, "I can't bear it
here any longer. I'm going away--for always. Jerry left a little money
and the lawyers have paid it to me. It's not much, but it's enough.
These mountains are beautiful--but they are full of misery--and
memories that haunt me day and night. You have been more than good to
me and I'll always pray for you. I don't know yet where I'll go. With
love, Blossom."

Turner sagged into a chair by the hearth-stone and the paper dropped
from his inert fingers. His face became very drawn and he silently
licked lips which burned with a dry feverishness.

                 *       *       *       *       *

The special session of court convened in Marlin Town with a quiet that
lacked any tang of genuine interest. These fiascos had come before and
passed without result. Since Bear Cat Stacy had permitted it to be
understood that he would hold aloof, no strength would challenge the
sway of Kinnard Towers, save a "fotched on" judge and a few white-faced
lawyers who wore stiff collars. They had not even brought tin soldiers
this time nor dignified the occasion with a Gatling gun.

Towers himself remained comfortably at the Quarterhouse, and if he had
about him a small army of men its protection of rifle-muzzles pointed
toward Little Slippery rather than Marlin Town. A posse would come, of
course, since even his own courts must follow the forms and pretenses
of the statutes made and provided, but their coming, too, would be a
formality.

Outside a late winter storm had turned into a blizzard and though he
did not often spend his evenings at the bar, Kinnard was to-night
leaning with his elbow on its high counter. His blond face was suave
and his manner full of friendliness, because men who were anxious to
display their solicitude were coming in to denounce the farce of the
trial inagurated by "furriners" and to proclaim their sympathy. It was
all incense to his undiminished dominance, thought Towers, and it
pleased him to meet such amenities with graciousness.

"Any time now--any time at all," he laughed, "them turrible deputy
sheriffs air liable ter come bustin' through thet door, and drag me off
ter ther jail-house." As he uttered this pleasantry, the assembled
cohorts shouted their laughter. It was as diverting as to hear a
battle-scarred tom-cat express panic over a mouse. "Howsoever, I hain't
a shettin' no doors. They all stands open," added Kinnard.

Then, even as he spoke, the telephone jangled. It was a neighborhood
wire which connected only a few houses in a narrow radius, but the
voice that sounded through the receiver was excited. The proprietor of
the lawless stronghold listened and made some unruffled reply, then
turned to his audience a smiling face on which was written amusement.

"Well, boys," he genially inquired, "what did I tell ye? Thar's a scant
handful of deputy sheriffs a-ridin' over hyar right now. They're within
a measured mile of this place at ther present minute."

A low hum of voices rose in apprehensive notes, but Kinnard lifted his
hand.

"You men needn't feel no oneasiness, I don't reckon," he assured them.
"They hain't got nothin' erginst ther balance of ye. Hit's jest me they
aims ter drag off ter ther calaboose--an' es I said afore, I'm leavin'
my doors wide open."

As an indication of his confidence he ordered his bartender to fill all
glasses, and beamed benignly on the recipients of his hospitality,
while he awaited the minions of the law.

"They hed ought ter be hyar by now, them turrible fellers," he
suggested at length, and as if in answer to his speech a sound of heavy
steps sounded just outside the door.

A small posse stamped into the room, and the excellent jest of the
entire situation became more pointed as men noted with what a
shamefaced bearing they presented themselves.

"Kinnard," began the chief-deputy in an embarrassment which almost
choked him, "I've got ter put ye under arrest. You an' Tom Carmichael
thar, both. Ye're charged with murder."

The crowd wanted to laugh again, but because of their curiosity they
desisted. Towers himself stepped back two paces.

"Gentlemen," he said blandly, "ye'll hev ter git papers fust from ther
governor of Virginny." He swept his hand toward the white line on the
floor. "Ye hain't hardly got no license ter foller me outen old
Kaintuck. Thar's ther leetle matter of a state line lyin' atween us."

They had all known that Towers would handle the situation with a
triumph of resource, and a subdued murmur of applause and adulation
rose from many bewhiskered lips, as the posse withdrew slowly to the
threshold over which it had entered.

Then they became deadly quiet, for a voice had spoken from the Virginia
door. "Hold on!"

They wheeled and saw a single figure there, unarmed, and hands began
going to holsters.

"Virginny and Kaintuck looks right-smart alike ter me," said Bear Cat
Stacy with the level voice of one who has long waited his moment and
finds it at hand. "Will ye all lay down yore arms, and surrender ther
men we wants--or will ye stand siege an' have this pest-house burnt
down over yore heads? I'll wait outside for an answer."

The amazement of the moment had held them gripped in tableau as he
spoke, but when he stepped swiftly back, a dozen pistols spat and
barked at him, and then, louder than the firing, they heard a circle of
song--compassing the stockaded building on all sides--a giant chorus
that swelled in the frosty air: "Mine Eyes have seen the Glory of the
Coming of the Lord."

Kinnard Towers' self-assurance fell away from him. His hand was
unsteady as he raised it and said huskily; "Boys, we needs must fight."



CHAPTER XXVII


The volume of the singing out there and the flare of the ruddy torches,
left no doubt as to the substantial strength of the force which had
swept aside such legal technicalities as state jurisdiction.

When Bear Cat had trusted himself so recklessly on the threshold while
the opposite door still stood open, the spectral figures with masked
faces could have streamed in, wave on wave, to smother out any
up-flaming spirit of resistance, but in doing that there would have
been hand-to-hand conflict, in which the innocent must pay as heavy and
ultimate a penalty as the guilty.

So Turner had withdrawn, and permitted the barring of the doors--though
he knew that the structure had the solid strength of square-sawed oak
and that the besieged scores were fully armed. Now from the outside he
hammered on the massive panels with a rifle butt.

"Ef ye wants ter send a man out hyar ter parley with me," he shouted
through the heavy barrier, "I gives ye my pledge that he kin go back
safe. Ef ye don't see fit ter do thet, we've got ter believe thet ye're
all one stripe, resistin' arrest, and we aims ter set this hell-house
ter ther torch."

"Let me have five minutes ter study erbout hit," Towers gave answer,
then he turned to the men inside. "Go upsta'rs, Tom," he directed
swiftly, "an' look out. Let me know how many thar seems ter be of 'em."

Carmichael, peering out of dark windows above, saw against the snow,
innumerable sable figures bulking formidably in the red flare of
blazing pine fagots. Other torches burned with a menacing assurance of
power beyond them along the road, and far up the distant slopes
glittered reinforcements of scattered tongues of flame.

The figures nearest at hand stood steady with an ominous and spectral
stillness, and their ghostliness was enhanced by the fitful torch-light
in which the whole picture leaped and subsided with a phantom
uncertainty of line and mass.

Black Tom came back and shook his head. "Hit hain't no manner of use,"
he announced. "We mout es well give up. I reckon we kin still come
cl'ar in co'te."

But the old lion, whose jaws and fangs had always proved strong enough
to crush, was of no mind to be caged now.

"Come cl'ar! Hell's blazes!" he roared with a livid face. "Don't ye see
what's done come ter pass? He'll take these damn' outlaws over thar an'
no jury won't dast ter cl'ar us. If we quits now we're done."

Towers leaped, with an astonishing agility to the counter of the bar
and raised his clenched fists high above his head.

"Men!" he thundered, "hearken ter me! Don't make no mistake in thinkin'
thet ef ye goes out thar, ye'll hev any mercy showed ye. This is ther
finish fight betwixt all ther customs of yore blood--an' this damn'
outlaw's new-fangled tyranny! He don't aim jest ter jail me an' Tom--he
aims ter wipe out every mother's son thet's ever been a friend ter me.

"We've got solid walls around us now--but any man thet goes out thar,
goes straight ter murder. Es fer me I don't aim ter be took alive--air
ye of ther same mind? Will ye fight?"

His flaming utterance found credence in their befuddled minds. They
could not conceive of merciful treatment from the man they had hounded
and sought for months to murder from ambush. Inside at least they could
die fighting, and nods of grim assent gave their answer.

"Ther stockade hain't no good now," Towers reminded them. "They're
already inside hit, but from them upsta'r winders we kin still rake 'em
severe an' plentiful whilst they're waitin' fer our answer. Let them
winders be filled with men, but don't let no man shoot till he heers my
pistol--then all tergether--an' give 'em unshirted hell."

So, answering the reprieve with deceit, the block house, which had, for
a generation, been an infamous seat of power, remained silent until a
pistol snapped out and then from every window leaped spiteful jets of
powder lightning and the solid roar of a united volley. That was the
answer and as a light clatter of sliding breech bolts followed the
crescendo, its defenders went on shooting, more raggedly now, as fast
as each man could work his repeater. A chorused bellow of defiance was
hurled outward as they fired.

Yet from out there came no response of musketry and, after all, the
deceitful effort to convert the period of parley into a paralyzing blow
had failed. Few flambeaux had been blazing in the space between the
stockade and the house itself, and the ponderous eight-foot wall of
logs built to make the place a fortress had become a protection for the
besiegers so that only a few scattered figures fell. Then, with amazing
unanimity of action, the torches were thrust down and quenched in the
snow.

But Bear Cat Stacy himself had remained flattened against the door, too
close to be seen from any window, and at his feet was a can of
kerosene.

The glow from a match-end became first a slender filament of flame
which widened to a greedy blanket as it lapped at the oil and spread
crackling up the woodwork of the door's frame. Then, gathering a swift
and mighty force, it laid a frenzied and roaring mantle of destruction
upon the integrity of the walls themselves.

From inside came a chorused howl of bitter wrath and despair, and as
Bear Cat turned and ran for it, crossing the space between door and
stockade, he went through a hail of lead--and went with the old charm
still holding him safe.

The Quarterhouse was strong enough to laugh at rifles, but to flame it
was tinder-like food. The roar and crackle of its glutting soon drowned
the howls of its imprisoned victims. Maddened with the thought that,
having refused parley, their lives were forfeit unless they could cut
their way out, they raved like dying maniacs. The glare reddened and
inflamed the skies and sent out a rain of soaring sparks that was seen
from many miles away.

The Virginia door was obliterated in a blanket of flame, but abruptly
the Kentucky door vomited a stream of desperate men, running and
shooting as they came. Then, for the first time, the cordon of rifles
that held them in its grip gave voice.

Between the house-door and the stockade, figures fell, grotesque in the
glare, and those that did not fall wheeled and rushed back within the
blazing walls. But in there was an unendurable furnace. They shouted
and raved, choking with the suffocation of foul smoke waves like the
demoralized shapes of madmen in some lurid inferno.

Then standing at the one door which still afforded a chance of exit,
Kinnard Towers for the last time raised his arms.

"Throw down yore guns, men, an' go out with yore hands up," he yelled,
seeking to be heard above the din of conflagration. "Myself, I aims ter
stay hyar!"

A few caught the words and plunged precipitately out, unarmed, with
hands high in surrender; and others, seeing that they did not fall,
followed with a sheep-like imitation--but some, already struggling with
the asphyxiation that clawed at their throats, writhed uneasily on the
floor--and then lay motionless.

Kinnard Towers, with a bitter despair in his eyes, and yet with the
leonine glare of defiance unquenched, stood watching that final
retreat. He saw that at the stockade gate, they were being passed out
and put under guard. It was in his own mind, when he had been left
quite alone to walk deliberately out, fighting until he fell.

About him the skies were red and angry. His death would come with a
full and pyrotechnic illumination, seen of all men, and it would at
least be said of him that he had never yielded.

So picking up a rifle from the floor, he deliberately examined its
magazine and efficiency. After that he stepped out, paused on the
doorstep, and fired defiantly at the open gate of the stockade.

There was a spatter of bullets against the walls at his back, but he
stood uninjured and defiantly laughing. Without haste he walked
forward. Then a tall figure, with masked face came running toward him
and he leveled the rifle at its breast. But he was close to the gate
now, and the man plunged in, in time to strike his barrel up and bear
him to the ground.

Outside the stockade stood, herded, the prisoners, and at their front,
the posse of deputies brooded over Kinnard Towers and Tom Carmichael,
both shamefully hand-cuffed.

Bear Cat Stacy looked over his captives who, taking their cue from
Towers himself, remained doggedly silent.

"You men," he said crisply, "all save these two kin go home now--but
when ther co'te needs ye ye've got ter answer--an ye've got ter speak
ther truth."

As they listened in surprised silence Turner's voice became sterner:
"Ef ye lies ter ther High co'te thar's another co'te thet ye kain't lie
ter. Now begone."

Then Bear Cat turned to the tall figure that had defeated Kinnard's
determination to die uncaptured.

"We've done seed ther manner of yore fightin'," he said in the voice of
one who would confer the accolade. "Now let's see what manner of face
ye w'ars. I reckon we don't need ter go masked no longer, anyhow."

The mountaineer ripped off his hat and the black cloth which had
covered his face--and Turner Stacy stood looking into the eyes of Lone
Stacy, his father. For an instant he leaned forward incredulously, and
his voice was strangely unsteady.

"How did ye git hyar," he demanded.

"They kept puttin' off my trial--ontil I reckon they wearied of hit,"
was the grave response. "Day before yistiddy ther jedge dismissed my
case."

"But no man hain't nuver been with us afore without he was
oath-bound--how did ye contrive hit?"

The old man smiled. "Dog Tate 'lowed I could take ther oath an' all
ther rest of ther formalities in due time. He fixed me up an' brought
me along. This hyar war a matter thet I was right interested in."

"I 'lowed," Turner's voice fell to a more confidential note, "I 'lowed
ye mout be right wrathful at all I've been doin' since ye went away. Ye
used ter berate me fer not lovin' blockadin'."

There was a momentary silence. The bearded man, somewhat thinner and
more bent than when he had gone away to prison, and the son with a face
more matured by these weeks and months, stood gazing into each other's
eyes. To the reserve of each, outspoken sentiment came hard and even
now both felt an intangible barrier of diffidence.

Then Lone Stacy answered gruffly, but there was an unsteadiness of
feeling under his laconic reply.

"I've done showed ye how wrathful I air. I'm tolable old--but I reckon
I kin still l'arn."

                 *       *       *       *       *

Even when Kinnard Towers sat a prisoner in the courtroom which he had
dominated, and heard Sam Carlyle, seeking to save his own neck by
turning traitor, tell the lurid story of all his iniquities, an
unbending doggedness characterized his attitude. As his eyes dwelt on
the henchman who was swearing away his life, they burned so scornfully
that the witness twisted and fidgeted and glanced sidewise with hangdog
shame.

When the jury trooped in and stood lined solemnly before the bench, he
gazed out of the window where the hills were beginning to soften their
slaty monotone with a hint of tender green. He did not need to hear
them respond to the droning inquiries of the clerk, because he had read
the verdict in their faces long before.

But when they had, for greater security, removed him to the Louisville
jail and had put him in that row of cells reserved for those whose
lives are forfeit to the law, it is doubtful whether that masklike
inexpressiveness truly mirrored an inward phlegm.

There was an electric lamp fixed against the iron bars of the death
corridor, turned inward like a spot-light of shame which was never
dimmed either day or night--and there was a warden who paced the place,
never leaving him unwatched--and Kinnard Towers had lived in places
where eagles breed and where the air is wild and bites the lungs with
its tang of freedom.

                 *       *       *       *       *

It was June again--June full-bosomed and tuneful with the over-spilling
melody of birds. Over the tall peaks arched a sky of such a pure and
colorful blue that it, too, seemed to sing--and the little clouds that
drifted placidly along were like the lazy sails of pleasure craft,
floating in high currents. Along the dimmest and most distant ridges
lay a violet mist that was all ash-of-dreams--but near at hand, whether
on the upper levels of high hills or down in the shadowed recesses,
where the small waters trickled, everything was color--color, bloom and
song.

The rhododendron, which the mountaineer calls laurel, was abloom. The
laurel, which is known in hill parlance as ivy, was gay with
pink-hearted blossom. The mountain magnolia flaunted its great petals
of waxen while and the wild rose nodded its frail face everywhere.

But these were details. Over the silver tinkle of happy little brooks
was the low but infinite harping of the breeze, and over the glint of
golden flecks on mossy rock, was the sweep of sunlight and shadow
across the majesty of towering peaks and the league-wide spread of
valleys.

The hills were all singing of summer and rebirth, but as Bear Cat Stacy
went riding across them his eyes were brooding with the thought of
dreams that had not come true.

Many of them had come true, he told himself, in their larger
aspects--even though he found himself miserably unsatisfied. There was
a large reward in the manner of men and women who paused in their tasks
of "drappin' an' kiverin'" along the sloping cornfields to wave their
hats or their hands at him and to shout cheery words.

Those simple folk looked upon him as one who had led them out of
bondage to a wider freedom, instilling into them a spirit of
enterprise.

One farmer halted his plow and came to the fence as Bear Cat was riding
by.

"I heers tell," he began, "thet ther whole world, pretty nigh, air at
war an' thet corn's goin' ter be wuth money enough, this crop, ter pay
fer haulin' hit."

Stacy nodded. "I reckon that's right," he said.

"An' I heers thet, deespite all contrary accounts, ther railroad aims
ter come in hyar--an' pay fa'r prices."

Turner smiled. "They had ter come round to it," he answered. "There are
more tons of coal in Marlin county than there are dollars in Jefferson
county, and Jefferson county is the richest in the state."

The farmer rested his fore-arms on the top rail of the fence and gazed
at the young man on horseback.

"I reckon us folks are right-smart beholden ter ye, Bear Cat," he
suggested diffidently. "With a chief like you, we'll see prosperity
yit."

"We don't have no chiefs here," declared the young man with a
determined setting of his jaw. "We're all free and equal. The last
chief was Kinnard Towers--and he's passed on."

"None-the-less, hit wouldn't amaze me none ter see ye git ter be the
president of this hull world," declared the other with simple
hero-worship. "Whar are ye ridin' ter?"

"I'm going over into Fletcher county to see that school there. I'm
hopin' that we can have one like it over here."

The farmer nodded. "I reckon we kin manage hit," he affirmed.

Turner had heard much of that school to which Matthew Blakey had taken
his three children--so much that all of it could hardly be true. Now he
was going to see for himself.

But his thoughts, as he rode, were beyond his control and memories of
Blossom crowded out the more impersonal things.

At last he came to a high backbone of ridge. From there he ought to be
able to catch his first glimpse of the tract which the school had
redeemed from overgrown raggedness into a model farm, but as yet the
dense leafage along the way cut off the view of the valley.

Then he came to a more open space and reined in his horse, and as he
looked out his eyes widened in astonishment.

Spreading below him, he saw such even and gracious spaces of
cultivation as were elsewhere unknown to the hills.

Down there the fences were even and the fields smooth, but what
astonished him most were the buildings. Clustered over a generous
expanse of hill and valley, of field and garden all laid out as though
some landscape gardener had made it a labor of love, were houses such
as he had dreamed of--houses with dignity of line and proportion, with
architectural beauty of design.

Everything, even at that distance, could be seen to be substantially
designed for usefulness, and yet everything combined with that prime
object of service the quality of art.

He was looking down on a tiny village, uncrowded and nestling on the
varied levels of an undulating valley, and he counted out a dozen
houses, recognizing some of them--the tiny hospital on its hill--the
model dairies at one edge--the saw-mill sending out its fragrance--the
dormitories with sleeping porches and the school-buildings themselves.
This was what he had visioned--and yet he realized how cramped had been
his dream as he urged his tired horse forward and listened to the
whistle of a bob-white in the stubble.

"Ef Blossom could know that we're goin' ter have a school like this
over there!" he breathed to himself. Then as he rode along the twisting
descent of road, between park-like forest trees and masses of
rhododendron, and dismounted before a large house he saw a broad porch
with a concrete foundation, and easy chairs and tables littered with
magazines and books. From the door came a lady, smiling to greet him.
It was Miss Pendleton, the woman who from small beginnings had built
here in the wilderness such an achievement, and as she came to the
stairs she held out her hand.

"I've been greatly interested in your letters, Mr. Stacy," she said,
"and I don't see why we can't repeat over there what we have done here.
We have grown from very small beginnings--and now I want to show you
around our premises--unless you are too tired."

With wonderment that grew, he followed her, and a swarm of happy-faced
children went with them; children keen of eye and rosy of cheek, and
when they had inspected together the buildings where the pupils were
taught from books, and the dairies and gardens where they were taught
by practice, the lady showed him into a log house as artistic and
charming as a swiss chalet and said: "This will be your abiding place
while you're here. I'll send one of the boys to see that you have
everything you need--and later on I'll introduce you to a lady who is
much interested in your plans for a school on Little Slippery and who
can discuss the details."

Left alone on the porch of his "pole-house," Bear Cat sat gazing upward
to the American flag that floated from a tall staff before his door,
and as he did so a small boy with clear and intelligent eyes came and
said: "I've done been named ter look atter ye."

In the young face was none of that somber shyness which shadows the
faces of many mountain children. Turner put his hand on the boy's head.
"Thank you, son," he said slowly. "Haven't I seen you before somewhar?"

The boy laughed. "I remembers _you_" he asserted. "I seed ye when my
paw was fotchin' me an' my brother an' sister over hyar. I'm Matthew
Blakey's boy."

"You had right-sore eyes then, didn't you?"

The child laughed. "I did then--but I hain't now." After a moment's
pause he added with a note of pride: "See thet flag? Hit's ther
American flag an' hit's my job ter put hit up every day at sun-up an'
take hit down at sun-set. I aims ter show ye right now how I does hit."

Bear Cat met young women from Eastern colleges who had come here to aid
in the work. In their presence he felt very uncouth and ignorant, but
they did not suspect that inner admission. They saw a young man who
reminded them of a bronze athlete, with clear and fearless eyes,
touched with a dreamer's zeal, and in his manner they recognized a
simple dignity and an inherent chivalry.



CHAPTER XXVIII


On the porch of Miss Pendleton's house that night, guitars were
tinkling. From inside came the glow of shaded lamps softly amber--and
outside along the hillsides where the whippoorwills called plaintively,
slept a silver wash of moonlight.

The stars were large and low-hanging and a pale mist tempered the
slopes that rose in a nocturne of majesty and peace.

Bear Cat Stacy sat there immersed in reverie. He was seeing such a
school grow up on the spot where he had hoped to build a house for
Blossom and himself--then that vision faded and his face grew set
because the other and more personal picture had intervened--the picture
of the dwelling-house to which he had looked forward.

He did not notice that the guitars and the singing voices had come to
silence, and that the white patches of the women's dresses had vanished
from the shaded porch--he was looking out into the summer mists--and
thinking his own thoughts.

Then he heard Miss Pendleton's voice, and came out of his abstraction
with a start, looking about to realize for the first time that the two
of them stood alone out there.

"Now you must talk business," smiled the lady. "I haven't introduced
you yet to the person who is best of all fitted to discuss the details.
She knows just what we seek to do here and how we do it. She knows the
needs of mountain children, too--because she is a mountain girl
herself. She came here really as a pupil--but she's much more than that
now. She teaches the younger children while she studies herself--and
she has developed a positive genius for this work."

Miss Pendleton paused and then added: "I'm going to let the two of you
talk together first--and then I'll join you."

Bear Cat rose and stood courteously acquiescent, then his hostess left
him and he saw another figure appear to stand framed in the door. His
heart rose out of his breast into the throat and choked him, for he
believed that his dreaming had unsettled his mind.

There stood Blossom with the amber light kindling her soft hair into a
nimbus of radiance, and in her cheeks was the old color like the heart
of the laurel's flower.

She stood slim and straight, no longer pallid or thin, and in her eyes
danced a light of welcome.

"Blossom," he stammered--and she left her frame and its amber
background to come forward--with her hands extended.

"Turney," was all she said.

"How came you here?" he demanded, forgetting to release her slim hands.
"How did this come to pass?"

She looked out over the blue and silver leagues of the June night, and
said simply. "There's lots to tell you--let's go out there and talk."

They were standing on a great bowlder where the moss and ferns grew,
and about them twinkled myriads of fireflies. They had been silent for
a long time and Turner's voice had a strained note as he said slowly.
"I promised ye ... thet I wouldn't ever pester ye again with ...
love-making ... but to-night it's right hard ter keep thet pledge."

The breeze was stirring her hair and her own eyes were deep as she
gazed away, but suddenly she turned and her long lashes were raised as
she met his gaze.

"I don't want ... that you should keep it," she whispered. "I give you
back your pledge."

As in those old days the hills seemed to rock about him and the arms
that came forward and paused were unsteady.

"Ye means ... thet...."

"I means thet I loved ye first, Turney." The words came tremulously,
almost whispered, and in them was something of self-accusation. "Maybe
I ought to be ashamed--but somehow I can't. All of what happened seems
to me like a dream that doesn't really belong in my life. It seems to
me that I was dazzled and couldn't tell the true from the seeming....
It seems as I look back that a little piece of my life was torn loose
from the rest--but that the real me has always been yours."

She laid her hands on his shoulders, and as he caught her in his arms,
the light breath of the night breeze brought the fragrance of
honeysuckle to them both. She rested for a moment in his embrace with
the serene feeling that she was at home.

Between them fell a silence but in the bath of silvery light through
the fragrant stillness of dove gray night-tones and cobalt shadows the
girl's eyes were brightly eloquent. Yet after a moment a shade of
troubling thought came into them and the lips moved into the
tremulousness of a self-searching and somewhat self-accusing whisper.

"Turney," she said, "there's one thing that I've got to say--and I
guess it had better be now."

"If it's any fault you're finding with yourself--don't say it," he
protested as his hands closed over her slender fingers. "There ain't
anything that I need to have explained. I reckon I understand what
happiness means and that's enough."

But Blossom shook her head.

"If I'd been straight loyal--like you've been, Turney, I reckon I
couldn't ever have made any mistake. There wouldn't ever have been room
for anybody but you." She paused and then went falteringly ahead. "From
now on there won't ever be. You've known me always and yet even you
can't realize how young and foolish and _plumb_ ignorant I was a year
ago. If I'd been just a _little_ more experienced, it couldn't have
happened. If things hadn't come with such a rush after they began, that
I was just swept along like a log in a spring-tide--it couldn't have
happened." It seemed difficult for her to force the words, but she
obeyed the mandate of her conscience with the candor of the
confessional. "I never had the chance to think--until I came over here
and began looking back. A person like I was doesn't think very clear in
the midst of cyclones and confusions, and I didn't see that the real
bigness was in you--more than in--him. I didn't see it until later. I'd
grown up with you, and I took you too much for granted, I reckon, and
everything he said or did seemed like a scrap out of a fairy story to
my foolish mind."

There was one thing she did not tell him, even now; that she had
learned at last through the lawyers what her husband's connection with
the railroad plans had been. Back of all his fascination there had been
a tarnished honesty, but that secret she still kept to herself.

But she lifted eyes to Turner that were wide open for his reading, and
gravely she said: "I lost my way once--but I've found it again and if
you can forget what a little fool I was at sixteen, you won't ever have
need to doubt me any more."

"All thet's happened was worth goin' through--if it led to this," he
declared in a husky whisper, and as she raised her lips to his her eyes
were sparkling, and her words fell whimsically into dialect.

"Thet piece of bottom land down thar, Turney--I reckon we kin raise a
dwellin'-house on hit now--a dwellin'-house an' a school-house, too."


THE END.





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