Part 5 out of 6
"Johnnie, come here. Sit down on the edge of the bed and listen to me,"
demanded Laurella feverishly. She laid hold of her daughter's arm, and
half pulled herself up by it, staring into Johnnie's face as she talked;
and out tumbled the whole story of Gray Stoddard's disappearance.
As full understanding of what her mother said came home to Johnnie, her
eyes dilated in her pale face. She sank to her knees beside the bed.
"Lost!" she echoed. "Lost--gone! Hasn't been seen since Friday
morning--Friday morning before sunup! Friday, Saturday, Sunday. My God,
Mother--it's three days and three nights!"
"Yes, honey, it's three days and three nights," assented Laurella
fearfully. "Gid says he's going up in the mountains with a lot of others
to search. He says some thinks the moonshiners have taken him in mistake
for a revenuer; and some believe it was robbery--for his watch and
money; and Mr. Hardwick is blaming it on the Groner crowd that raised up
such a fuss when Lura Dawson died in the hospital here. Gid says they've
searched every ridge and valley this side of Big Unaka. He--Johnnie, he
says _he_ believes Mr. Stoddard suicided."
[Illustration: "LOST--GONE! MY GOD, MOTHER--IT'S THREE DAYS AND THREE
"Where is Shade Buckheath?" whispered Johnnie.
"Shade's been out with mighty nigh every crowd that went," Laurella told
her. "Mr. Hardwick pays them wages, just the same as if they were in the
mill. Shade's going with Gid this morning, in Mr. Stoddard's
"Are they gone--oh, are they gone?" Johnnie sprang to her feet in
dismay, and stood staring a moment. Then swiftly she bent once more over
the little woman in the bed. "Mother," she said before Laurella could
speak or answer her, "Aunt Mavity can wait on you and Deanie for a
little while--with what help Lissy will give you--can't she, honey? And
Mandy was coming downstairs to her breakfast this morning--she's able to
be afoot now--and I know she'll be wanting to help tend on Deanie. You
could get along for a spell without me--don't you think you could?
Honey," she spoke desperately. "I've just got to find Shade Buckheath--I
must see him."
"Sure, we'll get along all right, Johnnie," Laurella put in eagerly. She
tugged at a corner of the pillow, fumbled thereunder with her little
brown hand, and dragging out Pap Himes's bankbook, showed it to her
daughter, opening at that front page where Pap's clumsy characters made
Laurella Himes free of all his savings. "You go right along, Johnnie,
and see cain't you help about Mr. Stoddard. Looks like I cain't bear to
think ... the pore boy ... you go on--me and Deanie'll be all right till
you get back."
Johnnie stooped and kissed the cheek with its feverish flush.
"Good-bye, Mommie," she whispered hurriedly. "Don't worry about me. I'll
be back--. Well, don't worry. Good-bye." She snatched a coat and hat,
and, going out, closed the door quietly behind her.
She stepped out into the dancing sunlight of an early spring morning.
The leafless vine on Mavity Bence's porch rattled dry stems against the
lattice work in a gay March wind. Taking counsel with herself for a
moment, she started swiftly down the street in the direction of the
mills. In the office they told her that Mr. Hardwick had gone to
Nashville to see about getting bloodhounds; MacPherson was following his
own plan of search in Watauga. She was permitted to go down into the
mechanical department and ask the head of it about Shade Buckheath.
"No, he ain't here," Mr. Ramsey told her promptly. "We're running so
short-handed that I don't know how to get along; and if I try to get an
extra man, I find he's out with the searchers. I sent up for Himes
yesterday, but him and Buckheath was to go together to-day, taking Mr.
Stoddard's car, so as to get further up into the Unakas."
Johnnie felt as though the blood receded from her face and gathered all
about a heart which beat to suffocation. For a wild moment she had an
impulse to denounce Buckheath and her stepfather. But almost instantly
she realized that she would weaken her cause and lose all chance of
assistance by doing so. Her standing in the mill was excellent, and as
she ran up the stairs she was going over in her mind the persons to whom
she might take her story. She found no one from whom she dared expect
credence and help. Out in the street again she caught sight of Charlie
Conroy, and her thoughts were turned by a natural association of ideas
to Lydia Sessions. That was it! Why had it not occurred to her before?
She hurried up the long hill to the Hardwick home and, trying first the
bell at the front, where she got no reply, skirted the house and rapped
long and loudly at the side door.
Harriet Hardwick, when things began to wear a tragic complexion, had
promptly packed her wardrobe and her children and flitted to Watauga.
This hegira was undertaken mainly to get her sister away from the scene
of Gray Stoddard's disappearance; yet when the move came to be made,
Miss Sessions refused to accompany her sister.
"I can't go," she repeated fiercely. "I'll stay here and keep house for
Jerome. Then if there comes any news, I'll be where--oh, don't look at
me that way. I wish you'd go on and let me alone. Yes--yes--yes--it is
better for you to go to Watauga and leave me here."
Ever since her brother-in-law opened the door of the sitting room and
announced to the family Gray Stoddard's disappearance, Lydia Sessions
had been, as it were, a woman at war with herself. Her first impulse was
of decorum--to jerk her skirts about her in seemly fashion and be
certain that no smirch adhered to them. Then she began to wonder if she
could find Shade Buckheath, and discover from him the truth of the
matter. Whenever she would have made a movement toward this, she winced
away from what she knew he would say to her. She flinched even from
finding out that her fears were well grounded. As matters began to wear
a more serious face, she debated now and again telling her
brother-in-law of her suspicions that Buckheath had a grudge against
Stoddard. But if she said this, how account for the knowledge? How
explain to Jerome why she had denied seeing Stoddard Friday morning?
Jerome was so terribly practical--he would ask such searching questions.
Back of it all there was truly much remorse, and terrible anxiety for
Stoddard himself; but this was continually swallowed up in her concern
for her own welfare, her own good name. Always, after she had agonized
so much, there would come with a revulsion--a gust of anger. Stoddard
had never cared for her, he had been cruel in his attitude of kindness.
Let him take what followed.
Cottonville was a town distraught, and the Hardwick servants had seized
the occasion to run out for a bit of delectable gossip in which the
least of the horrors included Gray Stoddard's murdered and mutilated
body washed down in some mountain stream to the sight of his friends.
Johnnie was too urgent to long delay. Getting no answer at the side
door, she pushed it open and ventured through silent room after room
until she came to the stairway, and so on up to Miss Sessions's bedroom
door. She had been there before, and fearing to alarm by knocking, she
finally called out in what she tried to make a normal, reassuring tone.
"It's only me--Johnnie Consadine--Miss Lydia."
The answer was a hasty, muffled outcry. Somebody who had been kneeling
by the bed on the further side of the room sprang up and came forward,
showing a face so disfigured by tears and anxiety, by loss of sleep and
lack of food, as to be scarcely recognizable. That ravaged visage told
plainly the battle-ground that Lydia Sessions's narrow soul had become
in these dreadful days. She knew now that she had set Shade Buckheath to
quarrel with Gray Stoddard--and Gray had never been seen since the hour
she sent the dangerous, unscrupulous man after him to that quarrel. With
this knowledge wrestled and fought the instinct we strive to develop in
our girl children, the fear we brand shamefully into their natures--her
name must not be connected with such an affair--she must not be
"Have they found him?" Lydia gasped. "Is he alive?"
Johnnie, generous soul, even in the intense preoccupation of her own
pain, could pity the woman who looked and spoke thus.
"No," she answered, "they haven't found him--and some that are looking
for him never will find him.
"Oh, Miss Lydia, I want you to help me make them send somebody that we
can trust up the Gap road, and on to the Unakas."
Miss Sessions flinched plainly.
"What do you know about it?" she inquired in a voice which shook.
Still staring at Johnnie, she moved back toward her bedroom door. "Why
should you mention the Gap road? What makes you think he went up in
"I--don't know that he went there," hesitated Johnnie. "But I do know
who you've got to find before you can find him. Oh, get somebody to go
with me and help me, before it's too late. I--" she hesitated--"I
thought maybe we could get your brother Hartley's car. I could run it--I
could run a car."
The bitterness that had racked Lydia Sessions's heart for more than
forty-eight hours culminated. She had been instrumental in putting Gray
Stoddard in mortal danger--and now if he was to be helped, assistance
would come through Johnnie Consadine! It was more than she could bear.
"I don't believe it!" she gasped. "You know who to find! You're just
getting up this story to be noticed. You're always doing things to
attract attention to yourself. You want to go riding around in an
automobile and--and--Mr. Stoddard has probably gone in to Watauga and
taken the midnight train for Boston. This looking around in the
mountains is folly. Who would want to harm him in the mountains?"
For a moment Johnnie stood, thwarted and non-plussed. The insults
directed toward herself made almost no impression on her, strangely as
they came from Lydia Sessions's lips. She was too intent on her own
purpose to care greatly.
"Shade Buckheath--" she began cautiously, intending only to state that
Shade had taken Stoddard's car; but Lydia Sessions drew back with
"It's a lie!" she cried. "There isn't a word of truth in what you say,
John Consadine. Oh, you're the plague of my life--you have been from the
first! You follow me about and torment me. Shade Buckheath had nothing
to do with Gray Stoddard's disappearance, I tell you. Nothing--nothing
She thrust forward her face and sent forth the words with incredible
vehemence. But her tirade kindled in Johnnie no heat of personal anger.
She stood looking intently at the frantic woman before her. Slowly a
light of comprehension dawned in her eyes.
"Shade Buckheath had everything to do with Gray Stoddard's
disappearance. You know it--that's what ails you now. You--you must have
been there when they quarrelled!"
"They didn't quarrel--they didn't!" protested Miss Lydia, with a yet
more hysteric emphasis. "They didn't even speak to each other. Mr.
Stoddard said 'Good morning' to me, and rode right past."
Johnnie leant forward and, with a sudden sweeping movement, caught the
other woman by the wrist, looking deep into her eyes.
"Lydia," she said accusingly, and neither of them noticed the freedom of
the address, "you didn't tell the truth when you said you hadn't seen
Gray since Friday night. You saw him Friday morning--_you_--_and_--
_Shade_--_Buckheath_! You have both lied about it--God knows why. Now,
Shade and my stepfather have taken poor Gray's car and gone up into the
mountains. _What do you think they went for?_"
The blazing young eyes were on Miss Sessions's tortured countenance.
"Oh, don't let those men get at Gray. They'll murder him!" sobbed the
older woman, sinking once more to her knees. "Johnnie--I've always been
good to you, haven't I? You go and tell them that--say that Shade
Buckheath--that somebody ought to--"
She broke off abruptly, and sprang up like a suddenly goaded creature.
"No, I won't!" she cried out. "You needn't ask it of me. I will not tell
about seeing Mr. Stoddard Friday morning. I promised not to, and it
can't do any good, anyhow. If you set them at me, I'll deny it and tell
them you made up the story. I will--I will--I will!"
And she ran into her room once more, and threw herself down beside the
bed. Johnnie turned contemptuously and left the woman babbling
incoherencies on her knees, evidently preparing to pray to a God whose
laws she was determined to break.
THE ATLAS VERTEBRA
Johnnie hurried downstairs, in a mental turmoil out of which there
swiftly formed itself the resolution to go herself and if possible
overtake or find Shade and her stepfather. Word must first be sent to
her mother. She was glad to remember that little bankbook under
Laurella's pillow. Mavity and Mandy would tend the invalids well, helped
by little Lissy; and with money available, she was sure they would be
allowed to lack for nothing. She crossed the hall swiftly, meaning to go
past the little grocery where they bought their supplies and telephone
Mavity that she might be away for several days. But near the side door
she noted the Hardwick telephone, and hesitated a moment. People would
hear her down at Mayfield's. Already she began to have a terror of being
watched or followed. Hesitatingly she took down the receiver and asked
for connection. At the little tinkle of the bell, there was a swift,
light rush above stairs.
"Mahala!" screamed Miss Sessions's voice over the banisters, thinking
the maid was below stairs; "answer that telephone." She heard Johnnie
move, and added, "Tell everybody that I can't be seen. If it's anything
about Mr. Stoddard, say that I'm sick--utterly prostrated--and can't be
talked to." She turned from the stairway, ran back into her own room and
shut and locked the door. And at that moment Johnnie heard Mavity
Bence's voice replying to her.
"Aunt Mavity," she began, "this is Johnnie. I'm up at Mr. Hardwick's
now. Uncle Pros is out in the mountains, and I'm going to look for him.
I'd rather not have anybody know I'm gone; do you understand that? Try
to keep it from the boarders and the children. You and Mandy are the
only ones that would have to know."
"Yes, honey, yes, Johnnie," came the eager, humble reply. "I'll do just
like you say. Shan't nobody find out from me. Johnnie--" there was a
pause--"Johnnie, Pap and Shade didn't get off as soon as they expected.
Something was the matter with the machine, I believe. They ain't been
gone to exceed a quarter of an hour. I--I thought maybe you'd like
"Thank you, Aunt Mavity," said Johnnie. "Yes, I'm glad you told me." She
understood what a struggle the kind soul had had with her weakness and
timidity ere, for loyalty's sake, she was able to make the disclosure.
"I may not be back for two or three days. Don't worry about me. I'll be
all right. Mother's got money. You buy what she and Deanie need, and
don't work too hard. Good-bye."
She hung up the receiver, went out the side door and, reaching the main
street, struck straight for the Gap, holding the big road for the
Unakas. To her left was the white highway that ran along above the
valley, and that Palace of Pleasure which had seemed a wonder and a
mystery to her one year gone. To-day she gave no thought to the sight of
river and valley and town, except to look back once at the roofs and
reflect that, among all the people housed there in sight of her, there
were surely those who knew the secret of Gray Stoddard's
disappearance--who could tell her if they would where to search for him.
Somehow, the thought made her feel very small and alone and unfriended.
With its discouragement came that dogged persistence that was
characteristic of the girl. She set her trembling lip and went over her
plans resolutely, methodically. Deanie and Laurella were safe to be well
looked after in her absence. Mavity Bence and Mandy would care for them
tenderly. And there was the bankbook. If Johnnie knew her mother, the
household back there would not lack, either for assistance or
And now the present enterprise began to shape itself in her mind. A
practical creature, she depended from the first on getting a lift from
time to time. Yet Johnnie knew better than another the vast, silent,
secret network of hate that draws about the victim in a mountain
vendetta. If the spirit of feud was aroused against the mill owners, if
the Groners and Dawsons had been able to enlist their kin and clan, she
was well aware that the man or woman who gave her smiling information as
to ways and means, might, the hour before, have looked on Gray Stoddard
lying dead, or sat in the council which planned to kill him. Thus she
walked warily, and dared ask from none directions or help. She was not
yet in her own region, these lower ridges lying between two lines of
railway, which, from the mountaineer's point of view, contaminated them
and gave them a tincture of the valley and the Settlement.
Noon came and passed. She was very weary. Factory life had told on her
physically, and the recent distress of mind added its devitalizing
influence. There was a desperate flagging of the muscles weakened by
disuse and an unhealthy indoor life.
"I wonder can I ever make it?" she questioned herself. Then swiftly,
"I've got to--I've got to."
Her eye roved toward a cabin on the slope above. There lived a man by
the name of Straley, but he was a cousin to Lura Dawson, the girl who
had died in the hospital. Johnnie knew him to be one of the bitterest
enemies of the Cottonville mill owners, and realized that he would be
the last one to whom she should apply. Mutely, doggedly, she pressed on,
and rounding a bend in a long, lonely stretch of road, saw before her
the tall, lithe form of a man, trousers tucked into boots, a tall staff
in hand, making swift progress up the road. The sound of feet evidently
arrested the attention of the wayfarer. He turned and waited for her
to come up.
The figure was so congruous with its surroundings that she saw with
surprise a face totally strange to her. The turned-down collar of the
rumpled shirt was unbuttoned at a brown throat; the face above seemed to
her eyes neither old nor young, though the light, springing gait when he
walked, the supple, easeful attitude now that he rested, one hand flung
high on the curious tall staff, were those of a youth; the eyes of a
warm, laughing hazel had the direct fearlessness of a child, and a
slouch hat carried in the hand showed a fair crop of slightly grizzled,
A stranger--at first the thought frightened, and then attracted her.
This man looked not unlike Johnnie's own people, and there was something
in his face that led her to entertain the idea of appealing to him for
help. He settled the question of whether or no she should enter into
conversation, by accosting her at once brusquely and genially.
"Mornin', sis'. You look tired," he said. "You ought to have a stick,
like me. Hold on--I'll cut you one."
Before the girl could respond beyond an answering smile and "good
morning," the new friend had put his own alpenstock into her hands and
gone to the roadside, where, with unerring judgment, he selected a long,
straight, tapering shoot of ash, and hewed it deftly with a monster
jack-knife drawn from his trousers pocket.
"There--try that," he said as he returned, trimming off the last of the
leaves and branches.
Johnnie took the staff with her sweet smile of thanks.
For a few moments the two walked on silently side by side, she
desperately absorbed in her anxieties, her companion apparently
returning to some world apart in his own mind. Suddenly:
"Can I get to the railroad down this side?" the man asked her in that
odd, incidental voice of his which suggested that what he said was
merely a small portion of what he thought.
"Why--yes, I reckon so," hesitated Johnnie. "It's a pretty far way, and
there don't many folks travel on it. It's an old Indian trail; a heap of
our roads here are that; but it'll take you right to the railroad--the
W. and A."
Her companion chuckled, seemingly with some inner satisfaction.
"Yes, that's just what I supposed. I soldiered all over this country,
and I thought it was about as pretty scenery as God ever made. I
promised myself then that if I ever came back into this part of the
world, I'd do some tramping through here. They're going to have a great
big banquet at Atlanta, and they had me caged up taking me down there to
make a speech. I gave them the slip at Watauga. I knew I'd strike the
railroad if I footed it through the mountains here."
Johnnie examined her companion with attention. Would it do to ask him if
he had seen an automobile on the road--a dark green car? Dare she make
inquiry as to whether he had heard of Gray Stoddard's disappearance, or
met any of the searchers? She decided on a conservative course.
"I wish I had time to set you in the right road," she hesitated; "but my
poor old uncle is out here somewhere among these ridges and ravines;
he's not in his right mind, and I've got to find him if I can."
"Crazy, do you mean?" asked her companion, with a quick yet easy,
smiling attention. "I'd like to see him, if he's crazy. I take a great
interest in crazy folks. Some of 'em have a lot of sense left."
"He doesn't know any of us," she said pitifully. "They've had him in the
hospital three months, trying to do something for him; but the doctors
say he'll never be well."
"That's right hopeful," observed the man, with a plainly intentional,
dry ludicrousness. "I always think there's some chance when the doctors
give 'em up--and begin to let 'em alone. How was he hurt, sis'?"
Johnnie did not pause to reflect that she had not said Uncle Pros was
hurt at all. For some reason which she would herself have been at a loss
to explain, she hastened to detail to this chance-met stranger the exact
appearance and nature of Pros Passmore's injuries, her listener nodding
his head at this or that point; making some comment or inquiry
"The doctors say that they would suppose it was a fractured skull, or
concussion of the brain, or something like that; but they've examined
him and there is nothing to see on the outside; and they trephined and
it didn't do any good; so they just let him stay about the hospital."
"No," said her new friend softly, almost absently, "it didn't do any
good to trephine--but it might have done a lot of harm. I'd like to see
the back of your uncle's neck. I ain't in any hurry to get to that
banquet at Atlanta--a man can always overeat and make himself sick,
without going so far to do it."
So, like an idle schoolboy, the unknown forsook his own course, turning
from the road when Johnnie turned, and went with her up the steep, rocky
gulch where the door of a deserted cabin flung to and fro on its
hinges. At sight of the smokeless chimney, the gaping doorway and empty,
inhospitable interior, Johnnie looked blank.
"Have you got anything to eat?" she asked her companion, hesitatingly.
"I came off in such a hurry that I forgot all about it. Some people that
I know used to live in that cabin, and I hoped to get my dinner there
and ask after my uncle; but I see they have moved."
"Sit right down here," said the stranger, indicating the broad
door-stone, around which the grass grew tall. "We'll soon make that all
right." He sought in the pockets of the coat he carried slung across his
shoulder and brought out a packet of food. "I laid in some fuel when I
thought I might get the chance to run my own engine across the
mountains," he told the girl, opening his bundle and dividing evenly. He
uttered a few musical words in an unknown tongue.
"That's Indian," he commented carelessly, without looking at her. "It
means you're to eat your dinner. I was with the Shawnees when I was a
boy. I learned a lot of their language, and I'll never forget it. They
taught me more things than talk."
Johnnie studied the man beside her as they ate their bit of lunch.
"My name is Johnnie Consadine, sir," she told him. "What shall I call
Thus directly questioned, the unknown smiled quizzically, his hazel eyes
crinkling at the corners and overflowing with good humour.
"Well, you might say 'Pap,'" he observed consideringly, "Lots of boys
and girls do call me Pap--more than a thousand of 'em, now, I guess. And
I'm eighty--mighty near old enough to have a girl of nineteen."
She looked at him in astonishment. Eighty years old, as lithe as a lad,
and with a lad's clear, laughing eye! Yet there was a look of power, of
that knowledge which is power, in his face that made her say to him:
"Do you think that Uncle Pros can ever be cured--have his right mind
back again, I mean? Of course, the cut on his head is healed up
"The cut on his head didn't make him crazy," said her companion,
murmuringly. "Of course it wasn't that, or he would have been raving
when he came down from the mountain. Something happened to him
"Yes, there did," Johnnie assented wonderingly--falteringly. "I don't
know how you came to guess it, but the woman who told me that she was
hiding in the front room when they were quarrelling and saw Uncle Pros
fall down the steps, says he landed almost square on his head. She
thought at first his neck was broken--that he was killed."
"Uh-huh," nodded the newcomer. "You see I'm a good guesser. I make my
living guessing things." He flung her a whimsical, sidelong glance, as,
having finished their lunch, they rose and moved on. "I wish I had my
hands on the processes of that atlas vertebra," he said.
"On--on what?" inquired Johnnie in a slightly startled tone.
"Never mind, sis'. If we find him, and I can handle him, I'll know where
"Nobody can touch him but me when he gets out this way," Johnnie said.
"He acts sort of scared and sort of fierce, and just runs and hides from
people. Maybe if you'll tell me what you want done, I could do it."
"Maybe you could--and then again maybe you couldn't," returned the
other, with a great show of giving her proposition serious
consideration. "A good many folks think they can do just what I can--if
I'd only tell 'em how--and sometimes they find out they can't."
Upon the word, they topped a little rise, and Johnnie laid a swift,
detaining hand upon her companion's arm. At the roadside, in a little
open, grassy space where once evidently a cabin had stood, knelt the
figure of a gaunt old man. At first he seemed to the approaching pair to
be gesticulating and pointing, but a moment's observation gave them the
gleam of a knife in his hand--he was playing mumblety-peg. As they
stood, drawn back near some roadside bushes, watching him, the long,
lean old arm went up, the knife flashing against the knuckles of the
clenched fist and, with a whirl of the wrist, reversing swiftly in air,
to bury its blade in the soil before the player.
"Hi! Hi! Hi! I th'owed it. That counts two for me," the cracked old
falsetto shrilled out.
There on that grassy plot that might have been a familiar dooryard of
his early days, he was playing alone, gone back to childhood. Johnnie
gazed and her eyes swam with unshed tears.
"You better not go up there--and him with the knife and all," she
murmured finally. The man beside her looked around into her face
"I'm not very bad scared," he said, advancing softly in line with his
proposed patient, motioning the girl not to make herself known, or
startle her uncle.
Johnnie stole after him, filled with anxiety. When the newcomer stood
directly behind the kneeling man, he bent, and his arms shot out with
surprising quickness. The fingers of one hand dropped as though
predestined upon the back of the neck, the other caught skilfully
beneath the chin. There was a sharp wrench, an odd crack, a grunt from
Uncle Pros, and then the mountaineer sprang to his full and very
considerable height with a roar. Whirling upon his adversary, he
grappled him in his long arms, hugging like a grizzly, and shouting:
"You, Gid Himes, wha'r's my specimens?"
He shook the stranger savagely.
"You an' Shade Buckheath--you p'ar o' scoundrels--give me back my silver
specimens! Give me back my silver ore that shows about the mine for my
"Uncle Pros! Uncle Pros!" screamed Johnnie, rushing in and laying hold
of the man's arm, "Don't you know me? It's Johnnie. Don't hurt this
The convulsion of rage subsided in the old man with almost comical
suddenness. His tense form relaxed; he stumbled back, dropping his hands
at his sides and staring about him, then at Johnnie.
"Why, honey," he gasped, "how did you come here? Whar's Gid? Whar's
Shade Buckheath? Lord A'mighty! Whar am I at?"
He looked around him bewildered, evidently expecting to see the porch of
Himes's boarding-house at Cottonville, the scattered bits of silver ore,
and the rifled bandanna. He put his hand to his head, and sliding it
softly down to the back of the neck demanded.
"What's been did to me?"
"You be right good and quiet now, and mind Johnnie," the girl began,
with a pathetic tremble in her voice, "and she'll take you back to the
hospital where they're so kind to you."
"The hospital?" echoed Pros. "That hospital down at Cottonville? I never
was inside o' one o' them places--what do you want me to go thar for,
Johnnie? Who is this gentleman? How came we-all up here on the road
"I can quiet him," said Johnnie aside to her new friend. "I always can
when he gets wild this way."
The unknown shook his head.
"You'll never have to quiet him any more, unless he breaks his neck
again," came the announcement. "Your uncle is as sane as anybody--he
just doesn't remember anything that happened from the time he fell down
the steps and slipped that atlas vertebra a little bit on one side."
Again Pros Passmore's fingers sought the back of his collar.
"Looks like somebody has been tryin' to wring my neck, same as a
chicken's," he said meditatively. "But hit feels all right now--all
right--Hoo-ee!" he suddenly broke off to answer to a far, faint hail
from the road below them.
"Pap! Hey--Pap!" The words came up through the clear blue air,
infinitely diminished and attenuated, like some insect cry. The tall man
seemed to guess just what the interruption would be. He turned with a
"Never could go anywhere, nor have any fun, but what some of the
children had to tag," he protested.
"Hoo-ee!" He cupped his hands and sent his voice toward where two men in
a vehicle had halted their horses and were looking anxiously up.
"Well--what is it?"
"Did you get lost? We hired a buggy and came out to find you," the man
below called up.
"Well, if I get lost, I can find myself," muttered the newcomer. He
looked regretfully at the green slopes about him; the lofty, impassive
cliffs where Peace seemed to perch, a visible presence; the great sweeps
of free forest; then at Uncle Pros and Johnnie. And they looked back at
"I expect I'll have to leave you," he said at last. "I see what it is
those boys want; they're trying to get me back to the railroad in time
for the six-forty train. I'd a heap rather stay here with you, but--" he
glanced from Johnnie and Uncle Pros down to the men in their attitude of
anxious waiting--"I reckon I'll have to go."
He had made the first descending step when Johnnie's hand on his arm
arrested him. Uncle Pros knew not the wonder of his own restoration; but
to the girl this man before her was something more than mortal. Her eyes
went from the lightly tossed hair on his brow to the mud-spattered
boots--was he only a human being? What was the strange power he had over
life and death and the wandering soul of man?
"What--what--aren't you going to tell me your name, and what you are,
before you go?" she entreated him.
He laughed over his shoulder, an enigmatic laugh.
"What was it you did to Uncle Pros?" Her voice was vibrant with the awe
and wonder of what she had seen. "Was it the laying on of hands--as they
tell of it in the Bible?"
"Say, Pap, hurry up, please," wailed up the thin, impatient reminder
from the road.
"Well, yes--I laid my hands on him pretty strong. Didn't I, old man?"
And the stranger glanced to where Uncle Pros stood, still occasionally
interrogating the back of his neck with fumbling fingers. "Don't you
worry, sis'; a girl like you will get a miracle when she has to have it.
If I happened to be the miracle you needed, why, that's good. As for my
profession--my business in life--there was a lot of folks that used to
name me the Lightning Bone-setter. For my own part, I'd just as soon
you'd call me a human engineer. I pride myself on knowing how the
structure of man ought to work, and keeping the bearings right and the
machinery properly levelled up. Never mind. Next time you have use for a
miracle, it'll be along on schedule time, without you knowing what name
you need to call it. You're that sort." With that curious, onlooker's
smile of his and with a nod of farewell, he plunged down the steep.
They stood together watching, as the tall form retreated around the
sharp curves of the red clay road, or leaped lightly and hardily down
the cut-offs. They waved back to their late companion when, climbing
into the waiting buggy below, he was finally driven away. Johnnie turned
and looked long at her uncle with swimming eyes, as he stood gazing
where the vehicle had disappeared. She finally laid a tremulous hand
on his arm.
"Oh, Uncle Pros," she said falteringly, "I can't believe it yet. But
you--you do understand me now, don't you? You know me. I'm Johnnie."
The old man wheeled sharply, and laughed.
"See here, honey," he said with a tinge of irritation in his tones. "I
reckon I've been crazy. From what you say, looks like I haven't known my
best friends for a long time. But I have got as much sense now as I ever
had, and I don't remember anything about that other business. Last thing
I know of was fussin' with Gid Himes and Shade Buckheath about my silver
ore. By Joe! I bet they got that stuff when I was took--Johnnie, was I
He seated himself on the lush, ancient, deep-rooted dooryard grass
where, a half-hour gone, he had knelt, a harmless lunatic, playing
mumblety peg. Half reluctantly Johnnie sank down beside him.
"Yes--yes--yes, Uncle Pros," the girl agreed, impatience mounting in her
once more, with the assurance of her uncle's safety and well-being.
"They did get your specimens; but we can fix all that; there's a worse
thing happened now." And swiftly, succinctly, she told him of the
disappearance of Gray Stoddard.
"An' I been out o' my head six months and better," the old man
ruminated, staring down at the ground. "Good Lord! it's funny to miss
out part o' your days like that. Hit was August--but--O-o-h, hot enough
to fry eggs on a shingle, the day I tramped down to Cottonville with
them specimens; and here it is"--he threw up his head and took a
comprehensive survey of the grove about him--"airly spring--March, I
should say--ain't it, Johnnie? Yes," as she nodded. "And who is this
here young man that you name that's missin', honey?"
The girl glanced at him apprehensively.
"You know, Uncle Pros," she said in a coaxing tone. "It's Mr. Stoddard,
that used to come to the hospital to see you so much and play checkers
with you when you got better. You--why, Uncle Pros, you liked him more
than any one. He could get you to eat when you wouldn't take a spoonful
from anybody else. You must remember him--you can't have forgot Mr.
Pros thrust out a long, lean arm, and fingered the sleeve upon it.
"Nor my own clothes, I reckon," he assented with a sort of rueful
testiness; "but to the best of my knowin' and believin', I never in my
life before saw this shirt I'm wearin'--every garment I've got on is a
plumb stranger to me, Johnnie. Ye say I played checkers with him--and--"
"Uncle Pros, you used to talk to him by the hour, when you didn't know
me at all," Johnnie told him chokingly. "I would get afraid that you
asked too much of him, but he'd leave anything to come and sit with you
when you were bad. He's got the kindest heart of anybody I ever knew."
The old man's slow, thoughtful gaze was raised a moment to her eloquent,
flushed face, and then dropped considerately to the path.
"An' ye tell me he's one of the rich mill owners? Mr. Gray Stoddard?
That's one name you've never named in your letters. What cause have you
to think that Shade wished the man ill?"
Slowly Johnnie's eyes filled with tears. "Why, what Shade said himself.
"Jealous of him, I reckon," supplied the old man.
Johnnie nodded. It was no time for evasions.
"He had no call to be," she repeated. "Mr. Stoddard had no more thought
of me in that way than he has of Deanie. He'd be just as kind to one as
the other. But Shade brought his name into it, and threatened him to me
in so many words. He said--" she shivered at the recollection--"he said
he'd fix him--he'd get even with him. So this morning when I found that
Pap Himes and Shade had taken Mr. Stoddard's car and come on up this
way, it scared me. Yet I couldn't hardly go to anybody with it. I felt
as though they would say it was just a vain, foolish girl thinking she'd
stirred up trouble and had the men quarrelling over her. I did try to
see Mr. Hardwick and Mr. MacPherson, and both of them were away. And
after that I went to Mr. Hardwick's house. The Miss Sessions I wrote you
so much about was the only person there, and she wouldn't do a thing.
Then I just walked up here on my two feet. Uncle Pros, I was desperate
enough for anything."
Passmore had listened intently to Johnnie's swift, broken, passionate
"Yes--ye-es," he said, as she made an end. "I sorter begin to see. Hold
on, honey, lemme think a minute."
He sat for some time silent, with introverted gaze, Johnnie with
difficulty restraining her impatience, forbearing to break in upon his
"Hit cl'ars up to me--sorter--as I study on it," he finally said. "Hit's
like this, honey; six months ago (Lord, Lord, six months!) when I was
walkin' down to take that silver ore to you, Rudd Dawson stopped me, and
nothing would do but I must go home with him--ye know he's got the old
Gid Himes place, in the holler back of our house--an' talk to Will
Venters, Jess Groner, and Rudd's brother Sam. I didn't want to go--my
head was plumb full of the silver-mine business, an' I jest wanted to
git down to you quick as I could. The minute I said 'Johnnie,' Rudd
'lowed he wanted to warn me about you down in the Cottonville mills. He
went over all that stuff concerning Lura, an' how she'd been killed off
in the mill folk's hospital and her body shipped to Cincinnati and sold.
I put in my word that you was a-doin' well in the mills; an' I axed him
what proof he had that the mill folks sold dead bodies. I 'lowed that
you found the people at Cottonville mighty kind, and the work good. He
came right back at me sayin' that Lura had talked the same way, and that
many another had. Well, I finally went with him to his place--the old
Gid Himes house--an' him an' me an' Sam an' Groner had considerable
talk. They told me how they'd all been down an' saw Mr. Hardwick, and
how quare he spoke to 'em. 'Them mill fellers never offered me a dollar,
not a dollar,' says Rudd. An' I says to him, 'Good Lord, Dawson! Never
offered you money? For God's sake! Did you want to be paid for Lura's
body?' And he says, 'You know damn' well I didn't want to be paid for
Lura's body, Pros Passmore,' he says. 'But do you reckon I'm a-goin' to
let them mill men strut around with money they got that-a-way in their
pockets? No, I'll not. I'll see 'em cold in hell fust,' he says--them
Dawsons is a hard nation o' folks, Johnnie. I talked to 'em for a spell,
and tried to make 'em see that the Hardwick folks hadn't never sold no
dead body to the student doctors; but they was all mad and out o'
theirselves. I seed that they wanted to get up a feud. 'Well,' says
Rudd, 'They've got one of the Dawsons, and before we're done we'll get
one o' them.'
"'Uh-huh,' I says, 'you-all air a-goin' to get one o' them, air ye? Do
you mean by that that you're ready to run your heads into a noose?'
"'We don't have to run our heads into nary noose,' says Sam Dawson.
'Shade Buckheath is a-standin' in with us. He knows all them mill
fellers, an' their ways. He aims to he'p us; an' we'll ketch one o' them
men out, and carry him off up here som'ers, and hold him till they pay
us what we ask. I reckon the live body of one o' them chaps is worth a
thousand dollars.' That's jest what he said," concluded the old man,
turning toward her; "an' from what you tell me, Johnnie, I'll bet Shade
Buckheath put the words in his mouth, if not the notion in his head."
"Yes," whispered Johnnie through white lips, "yes; but Shade Buckheath
isn't looking to make money out of it. He knows better than to think
that they could keep Mr. Stoddard prisoner a while, and then get money
for bringing him back, and never have to answer for it. He said he'd get
even--he'd fix him. Shade wants just one thing--Oh, Uncle Pros! Do you
think they've killed him?"
The old man looked carefully away from her.
"This here kidnappin' business, an tryin' to get money out of a feller's
friends, most generally does wind up in a killin'," he said. "The folks
gits to huntin' pretty hot, then them that's done the trick gets scared,
and--they wouldn't have no good place to put him, them Dawsons,
and--and," reluctantly, "a dead body's easier hid than a live man. Truth
is, hit looks mighty bad for the young feller, honey girl. To my mind
hit's really a question of time. The sooner his friends gets to him the
better, that's my belief."
Johnnie's pale, haggard face took on tragic lines as she listened to
this plain putting of her own worst fears. She sprang up desperately.
Uncle Pros rose, too.
"Now, which way?" she demanded.
The old hunter stood, staring thoughtfully at the path before his feet,
rubbing his jaw with long, supple fingers, the daze of his recent
experience yet upon him.
"Well, I had aimed to go right to our old cabin," he said finally.
"Hit's little more than a mile to where Dawson lives, in Gid's old place
in Blue Spring Holler. They all think I'm crazy, an' they won't
interfere with me--not till they find out different. Your mother; she'll
give us good help, once we git to her. There's them that thinks Laurelly
is light-minded and childish, but I could tell 'em she's got a heap of
sense in that thar pretty little head o' her'n."
"Oh, Uncle Pros! I forgot you don't know--of course you don't," broke in
Johnnie with a sudden dismay in her voice. "I ought to have told you
that mother"--she hesitated and looked at the old man--"mother isn't up
at the cabin any more. I left her in Cottonville this morning."
"Cottonville!" echoed Pros in surprise. Then he added, "O' course, she
came down to take care o' me when I was hurt. That's like Laurelly. Is
all the chaps thar? Is the cabin empty? How's the baby?"
Johnnie nodded in answer to these inquiries, forbearing to go into any
details. One thing she must tell him.
"Mother's--mother's married again," she managed finally to say.
"She's--" The old man broke off and turned Johnnie around that he might
stare into her face. Then he laughed. "Well--well! Things have been
happenin'--with the old man crazy an' all!" he said. "An' yit I don't
know it' so strange. Laurelly is a mighty handsome little woman, and she
don't look a day older than you do, Johnnie. I reckon it came through me
bein' away, an' her havin' nobody to do for her. 'Course"--with
pride--"she could have wedded 'most any time since your Pa died, if
she'd been so minded. Who is it?"
Johnnie looked away from him. "I--Uncle Pros, I never heard a word about
it till I came home one evening and there they were, bag and baggage,
and they'd been married but an hour before by Squire Gaylord. It"--her
voice sank almost to a whisper--"It's Pap Himes."
The old man thrust her back and stared again.
"Gid--Gideon Himes?" he exclaimed incredulously. "Why, the man's old
enough to be her grand-daddy, let alone her father. Gid Himes--the old--
What in the name of--? Johnnie--and you think Himes is mixed up with
this young man that's been laywaid--him and Buckheath? Lord, what _is_
all this business?"
"When Shade found I wouldn't have him," Johnnie began resolutely at the
beginning, "he got Pap Himes to take him to board so that he could
always be at me, tormenting me about it. I don't know what he and Pap
Himes had between them; but something--that I'm sure of. And after the
old man went up and married mother, it was worse. He put the children in
the mill and worked them almost to death; even--even Deanie," she choked
back a sob. "And Shade as good as told me he could make Pap Himes stop
it any time I'd promise to marry him. Something they were pulling
together over. Maybe it was the silver mine."
"The silver mine!" echoed old Pros. "That's it. Gid thought I was likely
to die, and the mine would come to your mother. Not but what he'd be
glad enough to get Laurelly--but that's what put it in his head. An' Gid
Himes is married to my little Laurelly, an' been abusin' the children!
Lord, hit don't pay for a man to go crazy. Things gits out of order
"Well, what do you think now?" Johnnie inquired impatiently. "We mustn't
stay here talking when Mr. Stoddard may be in mortal danger. Shall we go
on to our place, just the same?"
The old man looked compassionately at her.
"Hold on, honey girl," he demurred gently. "We--" he sighted at the sun,
which was declining over beyond the ridges toward Watauga. "I'm mighty
sorry to pull back on ye, but we've got to get us a place to stay for
the night. See," he directed her gaze with his own; "hit's not more'n a
hour by sun. We cain't do nothin' this evenin'."
The magnitude of the disappointment struck Johnnie silent. Pros Passmore
was an optimist, one who never used a strong word to express sorrow or
dismay, but he came out of a brown study in which he had muttered,
"Blaylock. No, Harp wouldn't do. Culp's. Sally Ann's not to be trusted.
What about the Venable boys? No good"--to say with a distressed drawing
of the brows, "My God! In a thing like this, you don't know who to
"No. That's so, Uncle Pros," whispered Johnnie; she gazed back down the
road she had come with the stranger. "I went up Slater's Lane to find
Mandy Meacham's sister Roxy that married Zack Peavey," she said. "But
they've moved from the cabin down there. They must have been gone a good
while, for there's no work done on the truck-patch. I guess they went up
to the Nooning-Spring place--Mandy said they talked of moving there. We
might go and see. Mandy"--she hesitated, and looked questioningly at her
uncle--"Mandy's been awful good to all of us, and she liked Mr.
"We'll try it," said Pros Passmore, and they set out together.
They climbed in silence, using a little-travelled woods-road, scarce
more than two deep, grass-grown ruts, full of rotting stumps. Suddenly a
couple of children playing under some wayside bushes leaped up and ran
ahead of them, screaming.
"Maw--he's comin' back, and he's got a woman with him!"
A turn in the road brought the Nooning-Spring cabin in sight, a tiny,
one-roomed log structure, ancient and ruinous; and in its door a young
woman standing, with a baby in her arms, staring with all her eyes at
them and at their approaching couriers.
She faltered a step toward the dilapidated rail fence as they came up.
"Howdy," she said in a low, half-frightened tone. Then to Uncle Pros,
"We-all was mighty uneasy when you never come back."
Involuntarily the old man's hand went to that vertebra whose eighth-inch
displacement had been so lately reduced.
"Have I been here?" he asked. "I was out of my head, and I don't
The young woman looked at him with a hopeless drawing of scant, light
eyebrows above bulging gray eyes. She chugged the fretting baby gently
up and down in her arms to hush it. Johnnie saw her resemblance to
Mandy. Apparently giving up the effort in regard to the man, Zack
Peavey's wife addressed the girl as an easier proposition.
"He was here," she said in a sort of aside. "He stayed all night
a-Saturday. Zack said he was kinder foolish, but I thought he had as
much sense as most of 'em." Her gaze rested kindly on the old man. The
children, wild and shy as young foxes, had stolen to the door of the
cabin, in which they had taken refuge, and were staring out wonderingly.
"Well, we'll have to ask you could we stay to-night," Johnnie began
doubtfully. "My uncle's been out of his head, and he got away from the
folks at the hospital. I came up to hunt for him. I've just found
him--but we aren't going right back. I met a man out there on the road
that did something to him that--that--" she despaired of putting into
words that the woman could comprehend the miracle which she had seen the
stranger work--"Well, Uncle Pros is all right now, and we'd like to stay
the night if we can."
"Come in--come in--the both of you," urged the woman, turning toward the
cabin. "'Course, ye kin stay, an' welcome. Set and rest. Zack ain't home
now. He's--" A curious, furtive look went over her round face. "Zack has
got a job on hand, ploughing for--ploughing for a neighbour, but he'll
be home to-night."
They went in and sat down. A kettle of wild greens was cooking over the
fire, and everything was spotlessly clean. Mandy had said truly that
there wasn't a thing on the farm she didn't love to do, and the gift of
housewifery ran in the family. Johnnie had barely explained who she was,
and made such effort as she could to enlist Mandy's sister, when Zack
came tramping home, and showed, she thought, some uneasiness at finding
them there. The wife ran out and met him before he reached the cabin,
and they stood talking together a long time, the lines of both figures
somehow expressing dismay; yet when they came in there was a fair
welcome in the man's demeanour. At the supper table, whose scanty fare
was well cooked, Uncle Pros and Johnnie had to tell again, and yet
again, the story of that miraculous healing which both husband and wife
could see was genuine.
Through it all, both Pros and Johnnie attempted to lead the talk around
to some information which might be of use to them. Nothing was more
natural than that they should speak of Gray Stoddard's disappearance,
since Watauga, Cottonville, and the mountains above were full of the
topic; yet husband and wife sheered from it in a sort of terror.
"Them that makes or meddles in such gits theirselves into trouble,
that's what I say," Zack told the visitors, stroking a chin whose
contours expressed the resolution and aggressiveness of a rabbit. "I
ain't never seen this here Mr. Man as far as I know. I don't never want
to see him. I ain't got no call to mix myself up in such, and I 'low
I'll sleep easier and live longer if I don't do it."
"That's right," quavered Roxy. "Burkhalter's boy, he had to go to mixin'
in when the Culps and the Venables was feudin'; and look what chanced.
Nary one o' them families lost a man; but Burkhalter's boy got hisself
killed up. Yes, that's what happened to him. Dead. I went to
"True as Scriptur'," confirmed Zack--"reach an' take off, Pros. Johnnie,
eat hearty--true as you-all set here. I he'ped make the coffin an' dig
After a time there came a sort of ruth to Johnnie for the poor
creatures, furtive, stealing glances at each other, and answering her
inquiries or Uncle Pros's with dry, evasive platitudes. She knew there
was no malice in either of them; and that only the abject terror of the
weak kept them from giving whatever bit of information it was they had
and were consciously withholding. Soon she ceased plying them with
questions, and signalled Uncle Pros that he should do the same. After
the children were asleep in their trundle-bed, the four elders sat by
the dying fire on the hearth and talked a little. Johnnie told Zack and
Roxy of the mill work at Cottonville, how well she had got on, and how
good Mr. Stoddard had been to her, choking over the treasured
remembrances. She related the many kindnesses that had been shown Pros
and his kinfolk at the Hospital, how the old man had been there for
three months, treated as a guest during the latter part of his stay
rather than a patient, and how Mr. Stoddard would leave his work in the
office to come and cheer the sick man, or quiet him if he got violent.
"He looked perfectly dreadful when I first saw him," she said to them,
"but the doctors took care of him as if he'd been a little baby. The
nurses fed him by spoonfuls and coaxed him just like you would little
Honey; and Mr. Stoddard--he never was too busy to--" the tears brimmed
her eyes in the dusky cabin interior--"to come when Uncle Pros
begged for him."
The woman sighed and stirred uneasily, her eye stealthily seeking her
In that little one-room hut there was no place for guests. Presently the
men drifted out to the chip pile, where they lingered a while in
desultory talk. Roxy and Johnnie, partly undressed, occupied the one
bed; and later the host and his guest came in and lay down, clothed just
as they were, with their feet to the fire, and slept.
In the darkness just before dawn, Johnnie wakened from heavy sleep and
raised her head to find that a clear fire was burning on the hearth and
the two men were gone. Noiselessly she arose, and replaced her outer
wear, thinking to slip away without disturbing Roxy. But when she
returned softly to the interior, after laving face and hands out at the
wash-basin, and ordering her abundant hair, she found the little woman
up and clad, slicing bacon and making coffee of generous strength from
their scanty store.
"No--why, the idea!" cried Roxy. "Of course, you wasn't a-goin' on from
no house o' mine 'thout no breakfast. Why, I say!"
Johnnie's throat swelled at the humble kindness. They ate, thanked Roxy
and her man Zack in the simple uneffusive mountain fashion, and started
away in the twilight of dawn. The big road was barely reached, when they
heard steps coming after them in the dusk, and a breathless voice
calling in a whisper, "Johnnie! Johnnie!"
The two turned and waited till Roxy came up.
"I--ye dropped this on the floor," the woman said, fumbling in her
pocket and bringing out a bit of paper. "I didn't know as it was of any
value--and then again I didn't know but what it might be. Johnnie--" she
broke off and stood peering hesitatingly into the gloom toward the
girl's shining face.
With a quick touch of the arm Johnnie signed to Pros to move on. As he
swung out of earshot, the bulging light eyes, so like Mandy's, were
suddenly dimmed by a rush of tears.
"I reckon he'd beat me ef he knowed I told," Roxy gasped. "He ain't
never struck me yit, and us married five year--but I reckon he'd beat me
Johnnie wisely forbore reply or interference of any sort. The woman
gulped, drew her breath hard, and looked about her.
"Johnnie," she whispered again, "the--that there thing they ride in--the
otty-mobile--hit broke down, and Zack was over to Pres Blevin's
blacksmith shop a-he'pin' 'em work on it all day yesterday. You know
Pres--he married Lura Dawson's aunt. Neither Himes nor Buckheath could
git it to move, but by night they had it a-runnin'--or so hit _would_
run. That's why you never saw tracks of it on the road--hit hadn't been
along thar yit. But hit's went on this morning. No--no--no! I don't know
whar it went. I don't know what they was aimin' to do. I don't know
nothin'! Don't ask me, Johnnie Consadine, I reckon I've said right now
what's put my man's neck in danger. Oh, my God--I wish the men-folks
would quit their fussin' an' feudin'!"
And she turned and ran distractedly back into the cabin while Johnnie
hurried on to join her uncle.
Johnnie caught her uncle's hand and ran with him through the little
thicket of saplings toward the main road.
"We'll get the track of the wheels, and when we find that car--and Shade
Buckheath--and Pap Himes....I ..." Johnnie panted, and did not finish
her sentence. Her heart leaped when they came upon the broad mark of the
pneumatic tires still fresh in the lonely mountain road.
"Looks like they might have passed here while we was standin' back there
talkin' to Roxy," Uncle Pros said. "They could have--we'd not have heard
a thing that distance, through this thick woods. Wonder could we catch
up with them?"
Johnnie shook her head. She remembered the car flying up the ascents,
swooping down long slopes and skimming like a bird across the levels,
that morning when she had driven it.
"They'll go almost as fast as a railroad train, Uncle Pros," she told
him, "but we must get there as soon as we can."
After that scarcely a word was spoken, while the two, still hand in
hand, made what speed they could. The morning waxed. The March sunshine
was warm and pleasant. It was even hot, toiling endlessly up that
mountain road. Now and again they met people who knew and saluted them,
and who looked back at them curiously, furtively; at least it seemed so
to the old man and the girl. Once a lean, hawk-nosed fellow ploughing a
hillside field shouted across it:
"Hey-oh, Pros Passmore! How yuh come on? I 'lowed the student doctors
would 'a' had you, long ago."
Pros ventured no reply, save a wagging of the head.
"That's Blaylock's cousin," he muttered to Johnnie. "Mighty glad we
never went near 'em last night."
Once or twice they were delayed to talk. Johnnie would have hurried on,
but her uncle warned her with a look to do nothing unusual. Everybody
spoke to them of Gray Stoddard. Nobody had seen anything of him within a
month of his disappearance, but several of them had "hearn say."
"They tell me," vouchsafed a lanky boy dawdling with his axe at a chip
pile, "that the word goes in Cottonville now, that he's took money and
lit out for Canada. Town folks is always a-doin' such."
"Like as not, bud," Pros assented gravely. "Me and Johnnie is goin' up
to look after the old house, but we allowed to sleep to-night at
Bushares's. Time enough to git to our place to-morrow."
Johnnie, who knew that her uncle hoped to reach the Consadine cabin by
noon, instantly understood that he considered the possibility of this
boy being a sort of picket posted to interview passers-by; and that the
intention was to misinform him, so that he should not carry news of
After this, they met no one, but swung on at their best pace, and for
the most part in silence, husbanding strength and breath. Twelve o'clock
saw them entering that gash of the hills where the little cabin crouched
against the great mountain wall. The ground became so rocky, that the
track of the automobile was lost. At first it would be visible now and
again on a bit of sandy loam, chain marks showing, where the tire left
no impression; but, within a mile or so of the Consadine home, it seemed
to have left the trail. When this point arrived, Johnnie differed from
her uncle in choosing to hold to the road.
"Honey, this ends the cyar-tracks. Looks like they'd turned out. I think
they took off into the bushes here, and where that cyar goes we ought to
go," Pros argued.
But Johnnie hurried on ahead, looking about her eagerly. Suddenly she
stooped with a cry and picked up from the path a small object.
"They've carried him past this way," she panted. "Oh, Uncle Pros, he was
right here not so very long ago."
She scrutinized the sparse growth, the leafless bushes about the spot,
looking for signs of a struggle, and the question in her heart was, "My
God, was he alive or dead?" The thing she held in her hand was a blossom
of the pink moccasin flower, carefully pressed, as though for the pages
of a herbarium; The bit of paper to which it was attached was crumpled
"Looks like it had laid out in the dew last night," breathed Johnnie.
"Or for a week," supplied Pros. He scanned the little brown thing, then
"All right," he said dubiously; "if that there tells you that he come
a-past here, we'll foller this road--though it 'pears to me like we
ought to stick to the cyar."
"It isn't far to our house," urged Johnnie. "Let's go there first,
For a few minutes they pressed ahead in silence; then some subtle
excitement made them break into a run. Thus they rounded the turn. The
cabin came in sight. Its door swung wide on complaining hinges. The last
of the rickety fence had fallen. The desolation and decay of a deserted
house was over all.
"There's been folks here--lately," panted Pros. "Look thar!" and he
pointed to a huddle of baskets and garments on the porch. "Mind out! Go
careful. They may be thar now."
They "went careful," stealing up the steps and entering with caution;
but they found nothing more alarming than the four bare walls, the
ash-strewn, fireless hearth, the musty smell of a long-unoccupied house.
Near the back door, at a spot where the dust was thick, Uncle Pros bent
to examine a foot-print, when an exclamation from Johnnie called him
through to the rear of the cabin.
"See the door!" she cried, running up the steep way toward the cave
"Hold on, honey. Go easy," cautioned her uncle, following as fast as he
could. He noted the whittling where the sapling bar that held the stout
oaken door in place had been recently shaped to its present purpose.
Then a soft, rhythmic sound like a giant breathing in his sleep caught
the old hunter's keen ear.
"Watch out, Johnnie," he called, catching her arm, "What's that?
Her fingers were almost on the bar. They could hear the soft lip-lip of
the water as it welled out beneath the threshold, mingled with the
tinkle and fall of the spring branch below.
Johnnie turned in her uncle's grasp and clutched him, staring down.
Something shining and dark, brave with brass and flashing lamps, stood
on the rocky way beneath, and purred like a great cat in the broad
sunlight of noon--Gray Stoddard's motor car! The two, clinging to each
other on the steep above it, gazed half incredulous, now that they had
found the thing they sought. It looked so unbelievably adequate and
modern and alive standing there, drawing its perfectly measured breath;
it was so eloquent of power and the work of men's hands that there
seemed to yawn a gap of half a thousand years between it and the raid in
which it was being made a factor. That this pet toy of the modern
millionaire should be set to work out the crude vengeance of wild men in
these primitive surroundings, crowded up on a little rocky path of these
savage mountains, at the door of a cave spring-house--such a food-cache
as a nomad Indian might have utilized, in the gray bluff against the
sky-line--it took the breath with its sinister strangeness.
They turned to the barred door. The cave was a sizable opening running
far back into the mountain; indeed, the end of it had never been
explored, but the vestibule containing the spring was fitted with rude
benches and shelves for holding pans of milk and jars of buttermilk.
As Johnnie's hand went out to the newly cut bar, her uncle once more
laid a restraining grasp upon it. A dozen men might be on the other side
of the oaken door, and there might be nobody.
"Hello!" he called, guardedly.
No answer came; but within there was a sound of clinking, and then a
shuffling movement. The panting motor spoke loud of those who had
brought it there, who must be expecting to return to it very shortly.
Johnnie's nerves gave way.
"Hello! Is there anybody inside?" she demanded fearfully.
"Who's there? Who is it?" came a muffled hail from the cave, in a voice
that sent the blood to Johnnie's heart with a sudden shock.
"Uncle Pros, we've found him!" she screamed, pushing the old man aside,
and tugging at the bar which held the door in place. As she worked,
there came a curious clinking sound, and then the dull impact of a heavy
fall; and when she dragged the bar loose, swung the door wide and peered
into the gloom, there was nothing but the silvery reach of the great
spring, and beyond it a prone figure in russet riding-clothes.
"Uncle Pros--he's hurt! Oh, help me!" she cried.
The prostrate man struggled to turn his face to them.
"Is that you, Johnnie?" Gray Stoddard's voice asked. "No, I'm not hurt.
These things tripped me up."
The two got to him simultaneously. They found him in heavy shackles.
They noted how ankle and wrist chains had been rivetted in place.
Together they helped him up.
As they did so tears ran down Johnnie's cheeks unregarded. Passmore
deeply moved, yet quiet, studied him covertly. This, then, was the man
of whom Johnnie thought so much, the rich young fellow who had left his
work or amusements to come and cheer a sick old man in the hospital;
this was the face that was a stranger's to him, but which had leaned
over his cot or sat across the checker-board from him for long hours,
while they talked or played together. That face was pale now, the brown
hair, "a little longer than other people wore it," tossed helplessly in
Stoddard's eyes, because he scarcely could raise his shackled hands to
put it right; his russet-brown clothing was torn and grimed, as though
with more than one struggle, though it may have been nothing worse than
such mishap as his recent fall. Yet the man's soul looked out of his
eyes with the same composure, the same kindness that always were his. He
was eaten by neither terror nor rage, though he was alert for every
possibility of help, or of advantage.
"You, Johnnie--you!" whispered Gray, struggling to his knees with their
assistance, and catching a fold of her dress in those manacled hands. "I
have dreamed about you here in the dark. It is you--it is
He was pale, dishevelled, with a long mark of black leaf-mould across
his cheek from his recent fall; and Johnnie bent speechlessly to wipe
the stain away and put back the troublesome lock. He looked up into the
brave beauty of her young, tear-wet face.
"Thank God for you, Johnnie," he murmured. "I might have known I
wouldn't be let to die here in the dark like a rat in a hole while
"Whar's them that brought you here? The keepers?" questioned the old man
anxiously, in a hoarse, hurried whisper.
"Dawson's gone to his dinner," returned Gray. "There were others
here--came in an auto--I heard that. They've been quarrelling for more
than an hour."
--"About what they'd do with you," broke in Pros. "Yes, part of 'em
wants to put you out of the way, of course." He stooped, eagerly
examining the shackles on Gray's ankles. "No way to git them things off
without time and a file," he muttered, shaking his head.
"No," agreed Stoddard. "And I can't run much with them on. But we must
get away from here as quick as we can. Dawson came in and told me after
the other had gone that they had a big row, and he was standing out for
me. Said he'd never give in to have me taken down and tied on the
railroad track in Stryver's Gulch."
Johnnie's fair face whitened at the sinister words.
"The car!" she cried. "It's your own, Mr. Stoddard, and it's right down
here. Uncle Pros, we can get him to it--I can run it--I know how." She
put her shoulder under Stoddard's, catching the manacled hand in hers.
Pros laid hold on the other side, and between them they half carried the
shackled captive around the spring and to the door.
"Leggo, Johnnie!" cried her uncle. "You run on down and see if that
contraption will go. I can git him thar now."
Johnnie instantly loosed the arm she held, sprang through the doorway,
and headlong down the bluffy steep, stones rattling about her. She
leaped into the car. Would her memory serve her? Would she forget some
detail that she must know? There were two levers under the
steering-wheel. She advanced her spark and partly opened the throttle.
From the steady, comfortable purr which had undertoned all sounds in the
tiny glen, the machine burst at once into a deep-toned roar. The narrow
depression vibrated with its joyous clamour.
Suddenly, above the sound, Johnnie was aware of a distant hail, which
finally resolved itself into words.
"Hi! Hoo--ee! You let that car alone, whoever you are."
She glanced over her shoulder; Passmore had got Gray to the top of the
declivity, and was attempting to help him down. Both men evidently heard
the challenge, but she screamed to them again and again.
"Hurry, oh hurry! They're coming--they're coming."
Stoddard had been stepping as best he could, hobbling along in the
hampering leg chains, that were attached to the wrists also, and
twitched on his hands with every step. His muscles responded to
Johnnie's cry almost automatically, stiffening to an effort at extra
speed, and he fell headlong, dragging Pros down with him. Despairingly
Johnnie started to climb down from the car and go to their aid, but her
uncle leaped to his feet clawing and grabbing to find a hold around
Gray's waist, panting out, "Stay thar--Johnnie--I can fetch him."
With a straining heave he hoisted Gray's helpless body into his arms.
The car trembled like a great, eager monster, growling in leash.
Johnnie's agonized eyes searched first its mechanism, and then went to
the descending figures, where her uncle plunged desperately down the
slope, fell, struggled, rolled, but rose and came gallantly on, half
dragging, half carrying Gray in his arms.
"Let that car alone!" a new voice took up the hail, a little nearer this
time; and after it came the sound of a shot. High up on the mountain's
brow, against the sky, Johnnie caught a glimpse of the heads and
shoulders of men, with the slanting bar of a gun barrel over one.
"Oh, hurry, Uncle Pros!" she sobbed. "Let me come back and help you."
But Passmore stumbled across the remaining space; mutely, with drawn
face and loud, labouring breath he lifted Gray and thrust him any
fashion into the tonneau, climbing blindly after.
The pursuit on the hill above broke into the open. Johnnie moved the
levers as Gray had shown her how to do, and with a bound of the great
machine, they were off. Stoddard, dazed, bruised, abraded, was back in
the tonneau struggling up with Uncle Pros's assistance. He could not
help her. She must know for herself and do the right thing. The track
led through the bushes, as they had found it that morning. It was fairly
good, but terribly steep. She noted that the speed lever was at neutral.
She slipped it over to the first speed; the car was already leaping down
the hill at a tremendous pace; yet those yelling voices were behind, and
her pushing fingers carried the lever through second to the third speed
Under this tremendous pressure the car jumped like a nervous horse,
lurched drunkenly down the short way, but reeled successfully around the
turn at the bottom. Johnnie knew this was going too fast. She debated
the possibility of slackening the speed a bit as they struck the
highway, such as it was. Uncle Pros, yet gasping, was trying to help
Gray into the seat; but with his hampering manacles and the jerking of
the car, the younger man was still on his knees, when the chase burst
through the bushes, scarcely more than three hundred feet behind them.
There was a hoarse baying of men's voices; there were four of them
running hard, and two carried guns. The noise of the machine, of course,
prevented its occupants from distinguishing any word, but the menace of
the open pursuit was apparent.
"Johnnie!" cried Gray. "Oh, this won't do! For God's sake, Mr. Passmore,
help me over there. They wouldn't want to hurt her--but they're going to
The old man thrust Gray down, with a hand on his shoulder.
"You keep out o' range," he shouted close to Gray's ear. "They won't aim
to hit Johnnie; but you they'll pick off as far as they can see ye. Bend
low, honey," to the girl in the driver's seat. "But freeze to it.
Johnnie ain't no niece of mine if she goes back on a friend."
The girl in front heard neither of them. There was a bellowing
detonation, and a spatter of shot fell about the flying car.
"That ain't goin' to hurt nobody," commented Pros philosophically. "It's
no more than buck-shot anyhow."
[Illustration: THE CAR WAS ALREADY LEAPING DOWN THE HILL AT A TREMENDOUS
But on the word followed a more ominous crack, and there was the whine
of a bullet above them.
"My God, I can't let her do this," Gray protested. But Johnnie turned
over her shoulder a shining face from which all weariness had suddenly
been erased, a glorified countenance that flung him the fleeting smile
she had time to spare from the machine.
"You're in worse danger right now from my driving than you are from
their guns," she panted.
As she spoke there sounded once more the ripping crack of a rifle, the
singing of a bullet past them, and with it the flatter, louder noise of
the shot-gun was repeated. Her eye in the act of turning to her task,
caught the silhouette of old Gideon Himes's uncouth figure relieved
against the noonday sky, as he sprang high, both arms flung up, the
hands empty and clutching, and pitched headlong to his face. But her
mind scarcely registered the impression, for a rifle ball struck the
shaly edge of a bluff under which the road at this point ran, and tore
loose a piece of the slate-like rock, which glanced whirling into the
tonneau and grazed Gray Stoddard's temple. He fell forward, crumpling
down into the bottom of the vehicle.
"On--go on, honey!" yelled Pros, motioning vehemently to the girl.
"Don't look back here--I'll tend to him"; and he stooped over the
Then came the roaring impression of speed, of rushing bushes that
gathered themselves and ran back past the car while, working under full
power, it stood stationary, as it seemed to Johnnie, in the middle of a
long, dusty gray ribbon that was the road. The cries of the men behind
them, all sounds of pursuit, were soon left so far in the distance that
they were unheard.
"Ain't this rather fast?" shouted Uncle Pros, who had lifted Stoddard's
bleeding head to his knee and, crouched on the bottom of the tonneau,
was shielding the younger man from further injury as the motor lurched
"Yes, it's too fast," Johnnie screamed back to him. "I'm trying to go
slower, but the foot-brake won't hold. Uncle Pros, is he hurt? Is he
"I don't think so, honey," roared the old man stoutly, guarding Gray's
inert body with his arm. Then, stretching up as he kneeled, and leaning
forward as close to her ear as he could get: "But you git him to
Cottonville quick as you can. Don't you werry about goin' slow, unlessen
you're scared yourself. Thar ain't no tellin' who might pop up from
behind these here bushes and take a chance shot at us as we go by."
Johnnie worked over her machine wildly. Gray had told her of the
foot-brake only; but her hand encountering the lever of the emergency
brake, she grasped it at a hazard and shoved it forward, as the god of
luck had ordered, just short of a zigzag in the steep mountain road
which, at the speed they had been making, would have piled them, a mass
of wreckage, beneath the cliff.
The sudden, violent check--shooting along at the speed they were, it
amounted almost to a stoppage--gave the girl a sense of power. If she
could do that, they were fairly safe. With the relief, her brain
cleared; she was able to study the machine with some calmness. Gray
could not help her--out of the side of her eye she could see where he
lay inert and senseless in Passmore's hold. The lives of all three
depended on her cool head at this moment. She remembered now all that
Stoddard had said the morning he taught her to run the car. With one
movement she threw off the switch, thus stopping the engine, entirely.
They must make it to Cottonville running by gravity wherever they could;
since she had no means of knowing that there was sufficient gasoline in
the tank, and it would not do to be overtaken or waylaid.
On and on they flew, around quick turns, along narrow ways that skirted
tall bluffs, over stretches of comparatively level road, where Johnnie
again switched on the engine and speeded up. They were skimming down
from the upper Unakas like a great bird whose powerful wings make
nothing of distance. But Johnnie's heart was as lead when she glanced
back at the motionless figure in the tonneau, the white, blood-streaked
face that lay on her uncle's arm. She turned doggedly to her
steering-wheel and levers, and took greater chances than ever with the
going, for speed's sake. The boy they had talked with two hours before
at the chip pile, met them afoot. He leaped into the bushes to let them
pass, and stared after them with dilated eyes. Johnnie never knew what
he shouted. They only saw his mouth open and working. Mercifully, so
far, they had met no vehicles. But now the higher, wilder mountains were
behind them, there was an occasional horseman. As they neared
Cottonville, and teams were numerous on the road, Johnnie, jealously
unwilling to slacken speed, kept the horn going almost continuously.
People in wagons and buggies, or on foot, drawn out along the roadside,
cupped hands to lips and yelled startled inquiries. Johnnie bent above
the steering-wheel and paid no attention. Uncle Pros tried to answer
with gesticulation or a shouted word, and sometimes those he replied to
turned and ran, calling to others. But it was black Jim, riding on Roan
Sultan, out with the searchers, who saw and understood. He looked down
across the great two-mile turn beyond the Gap, and sighted the climbing
car. Where he stood it was less than an eighth of a mile below him; he
could almost have thrown a stone into it. He bent in his saddle, shaded
his eyes, and gazed intently.
"Fo' God!" he muttered under his breath. "That's Mr. Gray hisself!
Them's the clothes he was wearin'!"
Whirling his horse and digging in the spurs, he rattled pell-mell down
the opposite steep toward Cottonville, shouting as he went.
"They've done got him--they've found him! Miss Johnnie Consadine's
a-bringin' him down in his own cyar!"
At the Hardwick place, where the front lawn sloped down with its
close-trimmed, green-velvet sward, stood two horses. Charlie Conroy had
come out as soon as the alarm was raised to help with the search. He and
Lydia had ridden together each day since. Moving slowly along a quiet
ravine yesterday, out of sight and hearing of the other searchers,
Conroy had found an intimate moment in which to urge his suit. She had
begged a little time to consider, with so encouraging an aspect that,
this morning, when he came out that they might join the party bound for
the mountains, he brought the ring in his pocket. The bulge of the big
diamond showed through her left-hand glove. She had taken him at last.
She told herself that it was the only thing to do. Harriet Hardwick, who
had returned from Watauga, since her sister would not come to her, stood
in the door of the big house regarding them with a countenance of
distinctly chastened rejoicing. Conroy's own frame of mind was evident;
deep satisfaction radiated from his commonplace countenance. He was to
be Jerome Hardwick's brother-in-law, an intimate member of the mill
crowd. He was as near being in love with Lydia Sessions at that moment
as he ever would be. As for Lydia herself, the last week had brought
that thin face of hers to look all of its thirty odd years; and the
smile which she turned upon her affianced was the product of
conscientious effort. She was safely in her saddle, and Conroy had just
swung up to his own, when Jim came pelting down the Gap road toward the
village. They could see him across the slope of the hill. Conroy
cantered hastily up the street a bit to hear what the boy was
vociferating. Lydia's nerves quivered at sight of him returning.
"Hurrah! Hurrah!" shouted Conroy, waving his cap. "Lord, Lord; Did you
hear that, Lydia? Hoo-ee, Mrs. Hardwick! Did you hear what Jim's saying?
They've got Gray! Johnnie Consadine's bringing him--in his own car."
Then turning once more to his companion: "Come on, dear; we'll ride
right down to the hospital. Jim said he was hurt. That's where she would
take him. That Johnnie Consadine of yours is the girl--isn't she a
Lydia braced herself. It had come, and it was worse than she could have
anticipated. She cringed inwardly in remembrance; she wished she had not
let Conroy make that pitying reference--unreproved, uncorrected--to
Stoddard's being a rejected man. But perhaps they were bringing Gray in
dead, after all--she tried not to hope so.
The auto became visible, a tiny dark speck, away up in the Gap. Then it
was sweeping down the Gap road; and once more Conroy swung his cap and
shouted, though it is to be questioned that any one marked him.
Below in the village the noisy clatter brought people to door and
casement. At the Himes boarding-house, a group had gathered by the gate.
At the window above, in an arm-chair, sat a thin little woman with great
dark eyes, holding a sick child in her lap. The sash was up, and both
were carefully wrapped in a big shawl that was drawn over the two
"Sis' Johnnie is comin' back; she sure is comin' back soon," Laurella
was crooning to her baby. "And we ain't goin' to work in no cotton mill,
an' we ain't goin' to live in this ol' house any more. Next thing we're
a-goin' away with Sis' Johnnie and have a fi-ine house, where Pap Himes
can't come about to be cross to Deanie."
High up on Unaka Mountain, where a cluttered mass of rock reared itself
to front the noonday sun, an old man's figure, prone, the hands clutched
full of leaf-mould, the gray face down amid the fern, Gideon Himes would
never offer denial to those plans, nor seek to follow to that
The next moment an automobile flashed into sight coming down the long
lower slope from the Gap, the horn blowing continuously, horsemen,
pedestrians, buggies and wagons fleeing to the roadside bushes as it
roared past in its cloud of dust.
"Look, honey, look--yon's Sis' Johnnie now!" cried Laurella. "She's
a-runnin' Mr. Stoddard's car. An' thar's Unc' Pros ... Is--my Lord! Is
that Mr. Stoddard hisself, with blood all over him?"
Lydia and Conroy, hurrying down the street, drew up on the fringes of
the little crowd that had gathered and was augmenting every moment, and
Johnnie's face was turned to Stoddard in piteous questioning. His eyes
were open now. He raised himself a bit on her uncle's arm, and declared
in a fairly audible voice:
"I'm all right. I'm not hurt."
"Somebody git me a glass of water," called Uncle Pros.
Mavity Bence ran out with one, but when she got close enough to see
plainly the shackled figure Passmore supported, she thrust the glass
into Mandy Meacham's hand and flung her apron over her head.
"Good Lord!" she moaned. "I reckon they've killed him. They done one of
my brothers that-a-way in feud times, and throwed him over a bluff. Oh,
my Lord; Why will men be so mean?"
Pros had taken the glass from Mandy and held it to Gray's lips. Then he
dashed part of the remaining water on Stoddard's handkerchief and with
Mandy's help, got the blood cleared away.
From every shanty, women and children came hastening--men hurried up
from every direction.
"Look at her--look at Johnnie!" cried Beulah Catlett. "Pony! Milo!"
turning back into the house, where the boys lay sleeping. "Come out here
and look at your sister!"
"Did ye run it all by yourself, Sis' Johnnie?" piped Lissy from the
The girl in the driver's seat smiled and nodded to the child.
"Are you through there, Uncle Pros?" asked Johnnie. "We must get Mr.
Stoddard on to his house."
The women and children drew back, the crowd ahead parted, and the car
got under way once more. The entire press of people followed in its
wake, surged about it, augmenting at every corner.
"I'm afraid my horse won't stand this sort of thing," Lydia objected,
desperately, reining in. Conroy glanced at her in surprise. Bay Dick was
the soberest of mounts. Then he looked wistfully after the crowd.
"Would you mind if I--" he began, and broke off to say contritely, "I'll
go back with you if you'd rather." It was evident that Lydia would make
of him a thoroughly disciplined husband.
"Never mind," she said, locking her teeth. "I'll go with you." One might
as well have it done and over with. And they hurried on to make up for
They saw the car turn in to the street which led to the Hardwick
factory. Somebody had hurried ahead and told MacPherson and Jerome
Hardwick; and just as they came in sight, the office doors burst open
and the two men came running hatless down the steps. Suddenly the
factory whistles roared out the signal that had been agreed upon, which
bellowed to the hills the tidings that Gray Stoddard was found. Three
long calls and a short one--that meant that he was found alive. As the
din of it died down, Hexter's mills across the creek took up the
message, and when they were silent, the old Victory came in on their
heels, bawling it again. Every whistle in Cottonville gave tongue,
clamouring hoarsely above the valley, and out across the ranges, to the
hundreds at their futile search, "Gray Stoddard is found. Stoddard is
found. Alive. He is brought in alive."
MacPherson ran up to one side of the car and Hardwick to the other.
"Are you hurt?" inquired the Scotchman, his hands stretched out.
"Can you get out and come in?" Hardwick demanded eagerly.
On the instant, the big gates swung wide, the factory poured out a tide
of people as though the building had been afire. At sight of Stoddard,
the car, and Johnnie, a cheer went up, spontaneous, heart-shaking.
"My God--look at that!" MacPherson's eyes had encountered the shackles
on Stoddard's wrists.
"Lift him down--lift him out," cried Jerome Hardwick. With tears on his
tanned cheeks the Scotchman complied; and Hardwick's eyes, too, were wet
as he saw it.
"We'll have those things off of him in no time," he shouted. "Here,
let's get him in to the couch in my office. Send some of the mechanics
here. Where's Shade Buckheath?"
A dozen pairs of hands were stretched up to assist MacPherson and Pros
Passmore. As many as could get to the rescued man helped. And when the
crowd saw that shackled figure raised, and heard in the tense silence
the clinking sound of the chains, a low groan went through it; more than
one woman sobbed aloud. But at this Gray raised his head a bit, and once
more declared in a fairly strong voice:
"I'm not hurt, people--only a little crack on the head. I'm all
right--thanks to her," and he motioned toward the girl in the car, who
was watching anxiously.
Then the ever thickening throng went wild; and as Gray was carried up
the steps and disappeared through the office doors, it turned toward the
automobile, surging about the car, a sea of friendly, admiring faces,
most of them touched with the tenderness of tears, and cheered its very
heart out for Johnnie Consadine.
"Gray!" it was Uncle Pros's voice, and Uncle Pros's face looked in at
the office door. "Could I bother you a minute about the sidewalk in
front of the place up yon? Mr. Hexter told me you'd know whether the
grade was right, and I could let the workmen go ahead."
Stoddard swung around from his desk and looked at the old man.
"Come right in," he said. "I'm not busy--I'm just pretending this
morning. MacPherson won't give me anything to do. He persists in
considering me still an invalid."
Uncle Pros came slowly in and laid his hat down gingerly before seating
himself. He was dressed in the garb which, with money, he would always
have selected--the village ideal of a rich gentleman's wear--and he
looked unbelievably tall and imposing in his black broadcloth. When the
matter of the patent was made known to Jerome Hardwick, a company was
hastily formed to take hold of it, which advanced the ready money for
Johnnie and her family to place themselves. Mrs. Hexter, who had been
all winter in Boston, had decided, suddenly, to go abroad; and when her
husband wired her to know if he might let the house to the
Consadine-Passmore household, she made a quick, warm response.
So they were domiciled in a ready-prepared home of elegance and beauty.
Though the place at Cottonville had been only a winter residence with
Mrs. Hexter, she was a woman of taste, and had always had large means at
her command. With all a child's plasticity, Laurella dropped into the
improved order of things. Her cleverness in selecting the proper wear
for herself and children was nothing short of marvellous; and her calm
acceptance of the new state of affairs, the acme of good breeding.
Johnnie immediately set about seeing that Mavity Bence and Mandy Meacham
were comfortably provided for in the old boarding-house, where she
assured Gray they could do more good than many Uplift clubs.
"We'll have a truck-patch there, and a couple of cows and some
chickens," she said. "That'll be good for the table, and it'll give
Mandy the work she loves to do. Aunt Mavity can have some help in the
house--there's always a girl or two breaking down in the mills, who
would be glad to have a chance at housework for a while."
Now Pros looked all about him, and seemed in no haste to begin, though
Gray knew well there was something on his mind. Finally Stoddard
"You're the very man I wanted to see, Uncle Pros. I rang up the house
just now, but Johnnie said you had started down to the mills. What do
you think I've found out about our mine?"
Certainly the old man looked very tall and dignified in his new
splendours; but now he was all boy, leaning eagerly forward to
"I don't know--what?"
Stoddard's face was scarcely less animated as he searched hastily in the
pigeon-holes of his desk. The patent might have a company to manage its
affairs, but the mine on Big Unaka was sacred to these two, in whom the
immortal urchin sufficiently survived to make mine-hunting and
exploiting delectable employment.
"Why, Uncle Pros, it isn't silver at all. It's--" Gray looked up and
caught the woeful drop of the face before him, and hastened on to add,
"It's better than silver--it's nickel. The price of silver fluctuates;
but the world supply of nickel is limited, and nickel's a sure thing."
Pros Passmore leaned back in his chair, digesting this new bit of
"Nickel," he said reflectively. And again he repeated the word to
himself. "Nickel. Well, I don't know but what that's finer. Leastways,
it's likelier. To say a silver mine, always seemed just like taking
money out of the ground; but then, nickels are money too--and enough of
'em is all a body needs."
"These people say the ore is exceptionally fine." Stoddard had got out
the letter now and was glancing over it. "They're sending down an
expert, and you and I will go up with him as soon as he gets here. There
are likely to be other valuable minerals as by-products in a nickel
mine. And we want to build an ideal mining village, as well as model
cotton mills. Oh, we've got the work cut out for us and laid right to
hand! If we don't do our little share toward solving some problems, it
will be strange."
"Cur'us how things turns out in this world," the old man ruminated.
"Ever sence I was a little chap settin' on my granddaddy's knees by the
hearth--big hickory fire a-roarin' up the chimbly, wind a-goin' 'whooh!'
overhead, an' me with my eyes like saucers a-listenin' to his tales of
the silver mine that the Injuns had--ever sence that time I've hunted
that thar mine." He laughed chucklingly, deep in his throat. "Thar
wasn't a wild-catter that could have a hideout safe from me. They just
had to trust me. I crawled into every hole. I came mighty near seein'
the end of every cave--but one. And that cave was the one whar my Mammy
kept her milk and butter--the springhouse whar they put you in prison.
Somehow, I never did think about goin' to the end of that. Looked like
it was too near home to have a silver mine in it; and thar the stuff lay
and waited for the day when I should take a notion to find a pretty rock
for Deanie, and crawl back in thar and keep a crawlin', till I just fell
over it, all croppin' out in the biggest kind of vein."
Gray had heard Uncle Pros tell the story many times, but it had a
"Then I lost six months--plumb lost 'em, you know. And time I come to
myself, Johnnie an' me was a-huntin' for you. And there we found you
shut in that thar same cave; and I was so tuck up with that matter that
I never once thought, till I got you home, to wonder did Buckheath and
the rest of 'em know that they'd penned you in the silver mine. I ain't
never asked you, but you'd have knowed if they had."
"I should have known anything that Rudd Dawson or Groner or Venters
knew," Gray said, "but I'm not sure about Buckheath or Himes. However,
Himes is dead, and Buckheath--I don't suppose anybody in Cottonville
will ever see him again."
Pros's face changed instantly. He leaned abruptly forward and laid a
hand on the other's knee.
"That's exactly what I came down here to speak with you about, Gray," he
said. "They've fetched Shade Buckheath in--now, what do you make out
Stoddard shoved the letter from the Eastern mining man back in its
"Well," he said slowly, "I didn't expect that. I thought of course Shade
was safely out of the country. I--Passmore, I'm sorry they've got him."
After a little silence he spoke again. "What do I make of it? Why, that
there are some folks up on Big Unaka who need pretty badly to appear as
very law-abiding citizens. I'll wager anything that Groner and Rudd
Dawson brought Shade in."
Uncle Pros nodded seriously. "Them's the very fellers," he said. "Reckon
they've talked pretty free to you. I never axed ye, Gray--how did they
"Dawson was the best friend I had," Stoddard returned promptly. "When I
got to the big turn on Sultan--coming home that Friday morning
--Buckheath met me, and asked me to go down to Burnt Cabin and
help him with a man that had fallen and hurt himself on the rocks.
Dawson told me afterward that he and Jesse Groner were posted at the
roadside to stop me and hem me in before I got to the bluff. I've
described to you how Buckheath tried to back Sultan over the edge, and I
got off on the side where the two were, not noticing them till they tied
me hand and foot. They almost came to a clinch with Buckheath then and
there. You ought to have heard Groner swear! It was like praying
"Uh-huh," agreed Pros, "Jess is a terrible wicked man--in speech
that-a-way--but he's good-hearted."
"That first scrimmage showed me just what the men were after," Stoddard
said. "Buckheath plainly wanted me put out of the way; but the others
had some vague idea of holding me for a ransom and getting money out of
the Hardwicks. Dawson complained always that he thought the mills owed
him money. He said they must have sold his girl's body for as much as a
hundred dollars, and he felt that he'd been cheated. Oh, it was all
crazy stuff! But he and the others had justified themselves; and they
had no notion of standing for what Buckheath was after. I was one of the
cotton-mill men to them; they had no personal malice.
"Through the long evenings when Groner or Dawson or Will Venters was
guarding me--or maybe all three of them--we used to talk; and it
surprised me to find how simple and childish those fellows were. They
were as kind to me as though I had been a brother, and treated me
"Little by little, I got at the whole thing from them. It seems that
Buckheath took advantage of the feeling there was in the mountains
against the mill men on account of the hospital and some other matters.
He went up there and interviewed anybody that he thought might join him
in a vendetta. I imagine he found plenty of them that were ready to talk
and some that were willing to do; but it chanced that Dawson and Jesse
Groner were coming down to Cottonville that morning I passed Buckheath
at the Hardwick gate, and he must have cut across the turn and followed
me, intending to pick a quarrel. Then he met Dawson and Groner and
framed up this other plan with their assistance.
"Uncle Pros, I want you to help me out. If Buckheath has to stand trial,
how are we--any of us--going to testify without making it hard on the
Dawson crowd? I expect to live here the rest of my days. Here's this
mine of ours. And right here I mean to build a big mill and work out my
plans. I think you know that I hope to marry a mountain wife, and I
can't afford to quarrel with those folks."
Uncle Pros's chin dropped to his breast, his eyes half closed as he sat
"Well," he said finally, "they won't have nothing worse than
manslaughter against Shade. It can't be proved that he intended to shoot
Pap--'cause he didn't. If he was shootin' after us--there's the thing we
don't want to bring up. You was down in the bottom of the cyar, an' I
had my back to him, and so did Johnnie, and we don't know anything about
what was done--ain't that so? As for you, you've already told Mr.
Hardwick and the others that you was taken prisoner and detained by
parties unknown. Johnnie an' me was gettin' you out of the springhouse
and away in the machine. Then Gid and Shade comes up, and thinkin' we're
the other crowd stealin' the machine--they try to catch us and turn
loose at us--that makes a pretty good story, don't it?"
"It does if Dawson and Groner and Venters agree to it," Stoddard
laughed. "But somebody will have to communicate with them before they
tell another one--or several others."
"I'll see to that, Gray," Pros said, rising and preparing to go. "Boy,"
he looked down fondly at the younger man, and set a brown right hand on
his shoulder, "you never done a wiser thing nor a kinder in your life,
than when you forgave your enemies that time, I'll bet you could ride
the Unakas from end to end, the balance o' your days, the safest man
that ever travelled their trails."
"Talking silver mine?" inquired MacPherson, putting his quizzical face
in at the door.
"No," returned Stoddard. "We were just mentioning my pestilent
cotton-mill projects. By this time next year, you and Hardwick will be
wanting to have me abated as a nuisance."
"No, no," remonstrated MacPherson, coming in and leaning with
affectionate familiarity on the younger man's chair. "There's no
pestilence in you, Gray. You couldn't be a nuisance if you tried. People
who will work out their theories stand to do good in the world; it's
only the fellows who are content with bellowing them out that I
"Better be careful!" laughed Stoddard. "We'll make you vice-president of
"Is that an offer?" countered MacPherson swiftly. "I've got a bit of
money to invest in this county; and Hardwick has ever a new
brother-in-law or such that looks longingly at my shoes."
"You'd furnish the conservative element, surely," debated Stoddard.
"I'd keep you from bankruptcy," grunted the Scotchman, as he laid a
small book on Gray's desk. "I doubt not Providence demands it of me."
Evening was closing in with a greenish-yellow sunset, and a big full
moon pushing up to whiten the sky above it. It was late March now, and
the air was full of vernal promise. Johnnie stepped out on the porch and
glanced toward the west. She was expecting Gray that evening. Would
there be time before he came, she wondered, for a little errand she
wanted to do? Turning back into the hall, she caught a jacket from the
hook where it hung and hurried down to the gate, settling her arms in
the sleeves as she ran. There would be time if she went fast. She wished
to get the little packet into which she had made Gray's letters months
ago, dreading to look even at the folded outsides of them, tucking them
away on the high shelf of her dress-closet at the Pap Himes
boarding-house, and trying to forget them. Nobody would know where to
look but herself. She got permission from Mavity to go upstairs. Once
there, the letters made their own plea; and alone in the little room
that was lately her own, she opened the packet, carrying the contents to
the fading light and glancing over sheet after sheet. She knew them all
by heart. How often she had stood at that very window devouring these
same words, not realizing then, as she did now, what deep meaning was in
each phrase, how the feeling expressed increased from the first to the
last. Across the ravine, one of the loom fixers found the evening warm
enough to sit on the porch playing his guitar. The sound of the twanging
strings, and the appealing vibration of his young voice in a plaintive
minor air, came over to her. She gathered the sheets together and
pressed them to her face as though they were flowers, or the hands of
"I've got to tell him--to-night," she whispered to herself, in the
dusky, small, dismantled room. "I've got to get him to see it as I do. I
must make myself worthy of him before I let him take me for his own."
She thrust the letters into the breast-pocket of her coat and ran
downstairs. Mavity Bence stood in the hall, plainly awaiting her.
"Honey," she began fondly, "I've been putting away Pap's things
to-day--jest like you oncet found me putting away Lou's. I came on this
here." And then Johnnie noticed a folded bandanna in her hands.