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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Call Of The Cumberlands - Chapter III
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The Call Of The Cumberlands - Chapter III Post by :Roger Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Neville Buck Date :March 2011 Read :890

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The Call Of The Cumberlands - Chapter III

Sally clambered lightly over the fence, and started on the last stage
of her journey, the climb across the young corn rows. It was a field
stood on end, and the hoed ground was uneven; but with no seeming of
weariness her red dress flashed steadfastly across the green spears,
and her voice was raised to shout: "Hello, Samson!"

The young man looked up and waved a languid greeting. He did not
remove his hat or descend from his place of rest, and Sally, who
expected no such attention, came smilingly on. Samson was her hero. It
seemed quite appropriate that one should have to climb steep
acclivities to reach him. Her enamored eyes saw in the top rail of the
fence a throne, which she was content to address from the ground level.
That he was fond of her and meant some day to marry her she knew, and
counted herself the most favored of women. The young men of the
neighboring coves, too, knew it, and respected his proprietary rights.
If he treated her with indulgent tolerance instead of chivalry, he was
merely adopting the accepted attitude of the mountain man for the
mountain woman, not unlike that of the red warrior for his squaw.
Besides, Sally was still almost a child, and Samson, with his twenty
years, looked down from a rank of seniority. He was the legitimate head
of the Souths, and some day, when the present truce ended, would be
their war-leader with certain blood debts to pay. Since his father had
been killed by a rifle shot from ambush, he had never been permitted to
forget that, and, had he been left alone, he would still have needed no
other mentor than the rankle in his heart.

But, if Samson sternly smothered the glint of tenderness which, at
sight of her, rose to his eyes, and recognized her greeting only in
casual fashion, it was because such was the requirement of his stoic
code. And to the girl who had been so slow of utterance and diffident
with the stranger, words now came fast and fluently as she told her
story of the man who lay hurt at the foot of the rock.

"Hit hain't long now tell sundown," she urged. "Hurry, Samson, an' git
yore mule. I've done give him my promise ter fotch ye right straight
back."

Samson took off his hat, and tossed the heavy lock upward from his
forehead. His brow wrinkled with doubts.

"What sort of lookin' feller air he?"

While Sally sketched a description, the young man's doubt grew graver.

"This hain't no fit time ter be takin' in folks what we hain't
acquainted with," he objected. In the mountains, any time is the time
to take in strangers unless there are secrets to be guarded from
outside eyes.

"Why hain't it?" demanded the girl. "He's hurt. We kain't leave him
layin' thar, kin we?"

Suddenly, her eyes caught sight of the rifle leaning near-by, and
straightway they filled with apprehension. Her militant love would have
turned to hate for Samson, should he have proved recreant to the
mission of reprisal in which he was biding his time, yet the coming of
the day when the truce must end haunted her thoughts. Heretofore, that
day had always been to her remotely vague--a thing belonging to the
future. Now, with a sudden and appalling menace, it seemed to loom
across the present. She came close, and her voice sank with her sinking
heart.

"What air hit?" she tensely demanded. "What air hit, Samson? What fer
hev ye fetched yer gun ter the field?"

The boy laughed. "Oh, hit ain't nothin' pertic'ler," he reassured.
"Hit hain't nothin' fer a gal ter fret herself erbout, only I kinder
suspicions strangers jest now."

"Air the truce busted?" She put the question in a tense, deep-breathed
whisper, and the boy replied casually, almost indifferently.

"No, Sally, hit hain't jest ter say busted, but 'pears like hit's
right smart cracked. I reckon, though," he added in half-disgust,
"nothin' won't come of hit."

Somewhat reassured, she bethought herself again of her mission.

"This here furriner hain't got no harm in him, Samson," she pleaded.
"He 'pears ter be more like a gal than a man. He's real puny. He's got
white skin and a bow of ribbon on his neck--an' he paints pictchers."

The boy's face had been hardening with contempt as the description
advanced, but at the last words a glow came to his eyes, and he
demanded almost breathlessly:

"Paints pictchers? How do ye know that?"

"I seen 'em. He was paintin' one when he fell offen the rock and
busted his arm. It's shore es beautiful es--" she broke off, then added
with a sudden peal of laughter--"es er pictcher."

The young man slipped down from the fence, and reached for the rifle.
The hoe he left where it stood.

"I'll git the nag," he announced briefly, and swung off without
further parley toward the curling spiral of smoke that marked a cabin a
quarter of a mile below. Ten minutes later, his bare feet swung against
the ribs of a gray mule, and his rifle lay balanced across the
unsaddled withers. Sally sat mountain fashion behind him, facing
straight to the side.

So they came along the creek bed and into the sight of the man who
still sat propped against the mossy rock. As Lescott looked up, he
closed the case of his watch, and put it back into his pocket with a
smile.

"Snappy work, that!" he called out. "Just thirty-three minutes. I
didn't believe it could be done."

Samson's face was mask-like, but, as he surveyed the foreigner, only
the ingrained dictates of the country's hospitable code kept out of his
eyes a gleam of scorn for this frail member of a sex which should be
stalwart.

"Howdy?" he said. Then he added suspiciously: "What mout yer business
be in these parts, stranger?"

Lescott gave the odyssey of his wanderings, since he had rented a mule
at Hixon and ridden through the country, sketching where the mood
prompted and sleeping wherever he found a hospitable roof at the coming
of the evening.

"Ye come from over on Crippleshin?" The boy flashed the question with
a sudden hardening of the voice, and, when he was affirmatively
answered, his eyes contracted and bored searchingly into the stranger's
face.

"Where'd ye put up last night?"

"Red Bill Hollman's house, at the mouth of Meeting House Fork; do you
know the place?"

Samson's reply was curt.

"I knows hit all right."

There was a moment's pause--rather an awkward pause. Lescott's mind
began piecing together fragments of conversation he had heard, until he
had assembled a sort of mental jig-saw puzzle.

The South-Hollman feud had been mentioned by the more talkative of his
informers, and carefully tabooed by others--notable among them his host
of last night. It now dawned on him that he was crossing the boundary
and coming as the late guest of a Hollman to ask the hospitality of a
South.

"I didn't know whose house it was," he hastened to explain, "until I
was benighted, and asked for lodging. They were very kind to me. I'd
never seen them before. I'm a stranger hereabouts."

Samson only nodded. If the explanation failed to satisfy him, it at
least seemed to do so.

"I reckon ye'd better let me holp ye up on thet old mule," he said;
"hit's a-comin' on ter be night."

With the mountaineer's aid, Lescott clambered astride the mount, then
he turned dubiously.

"I'm sorry to trouble you," he ventured, "but I have a paint box and
some materials up there. If you'll bring them down here, I'll show you
how to pack the easel, and, by the way," he anxiously added, "please
handle that fresh canvas carefully--by the edge--it's not dry yet."

He had anticipated impatient contempt for his artist's impedimenta,
but to his surprise the mountain boy climbed the rock, and halted
before the sketch with a face that slowly softened to an expression of
amazed admiration. Finally, he took up the square of academy board with
a tender care of which his rough hands would have seemed incapable, and
stood stock still, presenting an anomalous figure in his rough clothes
as his eyes grew almost idolatrous. Then, he brought the landscape over
to its creator, and, though no word was spoken, there flashed between
the eyes of the artist, whose signature gave to a canvas the value of a
precious stone and the jeans-clad boy whose destiny was that of the
vendetta, a subtle, wordless message. It was the countersign of
brothers-in-blood who recognize in each other the bond of a mutual
passion.

The boy and the girl, under Lescott's direction, packed the outfit,
and stored the canvas in the protecting top of the box. Then, while
Sally turned and strode down creek in search of Lescott's lost mount,
the two men rode up stream in silence. Finally. Samson spoke slowly and
diffidently.

"Stranger," he ventured, "ef hit hain't askin' too much, will ye let
me see ye paint one of them things?"

"Gladly," was the prompt reply.

Then, the boy added covertly:

"Don't say nothin' erbout hit ter none of these folks. They'd devil me."

The dusk was falling now, and the hollows choking with murk. Over the
ridge, the evening star showed in a lonely point of pallor. The peaks,
which in a broader light had held their majestic distances, seemed with
the falling of night to draw in and huddle close in crowding herds of
black masses. The distant tinkling of a cow-bell came drifting down the
breeze with a weird and fanciful softness.

"We're nigh home now," said Samson at the end of some minutes' silent
plodding. "Hit's right beyond thet thar bend."

Then, they rounded a point of timber, and came upon a small party of
men whose attitudes even in the dimming light conveyed a subtle
suggestion of portent. Some sat their horses, with one leg thrown
across the pommel. Others stood in the road, and a bottle of white
liquor was passing in and out among them. At the distance they
recognized the gray mule, though even the fact that it carried a double
burden was not yet manifest.

"Thet you, Samson?" called an old man's voice, which was still very
deep and powerful.

"Hello, Unc' Spicer!" replied the boy.

Then, followed a silence unbroken until the mule reached the group,
revealing that besides the boy another man--and a strange man--had
joined their number.

"Evenin', stranger," they greeted him, gravely; then again they fell
silent, and in their silence was evident constraint.

"This hyar man's a furriner," announced Samson, briefly. "He fell
offen a rock, an' got hurt. I 'lowed I'd fotch him home ter stay all
night."

The elderly man who had hailed the boy nodded, but with an evident
annoyance. It seemed that to him the others deferred as to a commanding
officer. The cortege remounted and rode slowly toward the house. At
last, the elderly man came alongside the mule, and inquired:

"Samson, where was ye last night?"

"Thet's my business."

"Mebbe hit hain't." The old mountaineer spoke with no resentment, but
deep gravity. "We've been powerful oneasy erbout ye. Hev ye heered the
news?"

"What news?" The boy put the question non-committally.

"Jesse Purvy was shot soon this morning."

The boy vouchsafed no reply.

"The mail-rider done told hit.... Somebody shot five shoots from the
laurel.... Purvy hain't died yit.... Some says as how his folks has
sent ter Lexington fer bloodhounds."

The boy's eyes began to smolder hatefully.

"I reckon," he spoke slowly, "he didn't git shot none too soon."

"Samson!" The old man's voice had the ring of determined authority.
"When I dies, ye'll be the head of the Souths, but so long es I'm
a-runnin' this hyar fam'ly, I keeps my word ter friend an' foe alike.
I reckon Jesse Purvy knows who got yore pap, but up till now no South
hain't never busted no truce."

The boy's voice dropped its softness, and took on a shrill crescendo
of excitement as he flashed out his retort.

"Who said a South has done busted the truce this time?"

Old Spencer South gazed searchingly at his nephew.

"I hain't a-wantin' ter suspicion ye, Samson, but I know how ye feels
about yore pap. I heered thet Bud Spicer come by hyar yistiddy plumb
full of liquor, an' 'lowed he'd seed Jesse an' Jim Asberry a-talkin'
tergether jest afore yore pap was kilt." He broke off abruptly, then
added: "Ye went away from hyar last night, an' didn't git in twell
atter sun-up--I just heered the news, an' come ter look fer ye."

"Air you-all 'lowin' thet I shot them shoots from the laurel?"
inquired Samson, quietly.

"Ef we-all hain't 'lowin' hit, Samson, we're plumb shore thet Jesse
Purvy's folks will 'low hit. They're jest a-holdin' yore life like a
hostage fer Purvy's, anyhow. Ef he dies, they'll try ter git ye."

The boy flashed a challenge about the group, which was now drawing
rein at Spicer South's yard fence. His eyes were sullen, but he made no
answer.

One of the men who had listened in silence now spoke:

"In the fust place, Samson, we hain't a-sayin' ye done hit. In the
nex' place, ef ye did do hit, we hain't a-blamin' ye--much. But I
reckon them dawgs don't lie, an', ef they trails in hyar, ye'll need
us. Thet's why we've done come."

The boy slipped down from his mule, and helped Lescott to dismount. He
deliberately unloaded the saddlebags and kit, and laid them on the top
step of the stile, and, while he held his peace, neither denying nor
affirming, his kinsmen sat their horses and waited.

Even to Lescott, it was palpable that some of them believed the young
heir to clan leadership responsible for the shooting of Jesse Purvy,
and that others believed him innocent, yet none the less in danger of
the enemy's vengeance. But, regardless of divided opinion, all were
alike ready to stand at his back, and all alike awaited his final
utterance.

Then, in the thickening gloom, Samson turned at the foot of the stile,
and faced the gathering. He stood rigid, and his eyes flashed with deep
passion. His hands, hanging at the seams of his jeans breeches,
clenched, and his voice came in a slow utterance through which throbbed
the tensity of a soul-absorbing bitterness.

"I knowed all 'bout Jesse Purvy's bein' shot.... When my pap lay a-dyin'
over thar at his house, I was a little shaver ten years old ... Jesse
Purvy hired somebody ter kill him ... an' I promised my pap that I'd
find out who thet man was, an' thet I'd git 'em both--some day. So help
me, God Almighty, I'm a-goin' ter git 'em both--some day!" The boy
paused and lifted one hand as though taking an oath.

"I'm a-tellin' you-all the truth.... But I didn't shoot them shoots
this mornin'. I hain't no truce-buster. I gives ye my hand on hit....
Ef them dawgs comes hyar, they'll find me hyar, an' ef they hain't
liars, they'll go right on by hyar. I don't 'low ter run away, an' I
don't 'low ter hide out. I'm agoin' ter stay right hyar. Thet's all
I've got ter say ter ye."

For a moment, there was no reply. Then, the older man nodded with a
gesture of relieved anxiety.

"Thet's all we wants ter know, Samson," he said, slowly. "Light, men,
an' come in."

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