The old man struck a match and held
it to his pipe and then as he turned to leave the
room Maggard halted him.
“I kain’t suffer ye ter
go away without I tells ye suthin’,” he
said, “an’ I fears me sorely when ye hears
hit ye’re right like ter withhold yore blessin’
The patriarch wheeled and stood listening,
and Dorothy, too, caught her breath anxiously as the
young man confessed.
For a time old Caleb stood stonily
immovable while the story, which the girl had already
heard, had its second telling. But as the narration
progressed the gray-haired mountaineer bent interestedly
forward, and by the time it had drawn to its close
his eyes were no longer wrathful but soberly and judicially
He ran his fingers through his gray
hair, and incredulously demanded, “Who did ye
say yore grandsire was?”
“His name was Caleb Thornton he
went ter Virginny sixty ya’rs back.”
“Caleb Thornton!” Through
the mists of many years the old man was tracking back
along barefoot trails of boyhood.
“Caleb Thornton! Him an’
me hunted an’ fished tergither and worked tergither
when we wasn’t nothin’ but small shavers.
We was like twin brethren an’ folks called us
Good Caleb an’ Bad Caleb. I was ther bad
one!” The old lips parted in a smile that was
“Why boy, thet makes ye blood-kin
of mine ... hit makes yore business my business ...
an’ yore trouble my trouble. I’m ther
head of ther house now an’ ye’re
related ter me.”
“I hain’t clost kin,”
objected Cal, quickly. “Not too clost ter
wed with Dorothy.”
“Ey God, no, boy, ye hain’t
but only a distant cousin but a hundred
an’ fifty y’ars back our foreparent war
ther same man. An’ ef ye’ve got ther
same heart an’ the same blood in ye thet them
old-timers hed, mebby ye kin carry on my work better
than any Rowlett an’ stand fer
peace and law!” Here spoke the might of family
pride and mountain loyalty to blood.
“Then ye kin give us yore blessin’
atter all despite ther charge thet hangs
“My blessin’? Why,
boy, hit’s like a dead son hed done come back
ter life an’ false charges don’t
damn no man!”
The aged face had again become suffused
with such a glow as might have mantled the brow of
a prophet who had laboured long and preached fierily
for his belief, until the hoar-frost of time had whitened
his head. It was as if when the hour approached
for him to lay down his scrip and staff he had recognized
the strength and possible ardour of a young disciple
to come after him.
But after a little that emotional
wave, which had unconsciously straightened his bent
shoulders and brought his head erect, subsided into
the realization of less inspiriting facts.
“Atter all,” he said,
thoughtfully, “I’ve got ter hev speech
with old Jim Rowlett afore this matter gits published
abroad. He’s done held ther same notions
I have about Dorothy an’ Bas an’
I owes hit ter him ter make a clean breast of what’s
come ter pass.”
The wounded man in the chair was gazing
off through the window, and he was deeply disturbed.
He stood sworn to kill or be killed by the man whom
these two custodians of peace or war had elected in
advance as a clan head and a link uniting the factions.
If he himself were now required to assume the mantle
of leadership, it was hard to see how that quarrel
could be limited to a private scope.
“When I come over hyar,”
he said, steadily and deliberately, “I sought
ter live peaceable an’ quiet.
I didn’t aim, an’ I don’t seek now,
ter hold place as head of no feud-faction.”
“Nuther did I seek ter do hit.”
The old man’s voice was again the rapt and fiery
utterance of the zealot. “Thar wasn’t
nuthin’ I wouldn’t of chose fust but
when a man’s duty calls ter him, ef he’s
a true man in God’s eyes, he hain’t got
no rather in the matter which ner whether. He’s
beholden ter obey! Besides ”
the note of fanatical exaltation diminished into a
more placid evenness “besides, I’ve
done told ye I only sought ter hev ye lead toward
peace an’ quiet not ter mix in no
So a message went along the waterways
to the house where old Jim Rowlett dwelt, and old
Jim, to whose ears troubling rumours had already come
stealing, mounted his “ridin’-critter”
and responded forthwith and in person.
He came, trustful as ever of his old
partner, in the task of shepherding wild flocks, yet
resentful of the girl’s rumoured rebellion against
what was to have been, in effect, a marriage of state.
Before starting he had talked long
and earnestly with his kinsman, Bas Rowlett, and as
a result he saw in Bas a martyr nobly bearing his
chastening, and in the stranger a man unknown and tinged
with a suspicious mystery.
Jim Rowlett listened in silent politeness
to the announcement of the betrothal and presently
he rose after a brief, unbending visit.
“Caleb,” he said, “through
a long lifetime me an’ you hev been endurin’
friends. We aims ter go on bein’, an albeit
I’d done sot my hopes on things thet hain’t
destined ter come ter pass, I wishes these young folks
That interview was in the nature of
a public announcement, and on the same day at Jake
Crabbott’s store the conclave discussed it.
It was rumoured that the two old champions of peace
had differed, though not yet in open rupture, and
that the stranger, whose character was untested, was
being groomed to stand as titular leader of the Thorntons
and the Harpers. Many Rowlett and Doane faces
darkened with foreboding.
“What does Bas say?” questioned
some, and the answer was always the same: “Bas
hain’t a-talkin’ none.”
But Sim Squires, who was generally
accredited with a dislike of Bas Rowlett, was circulating
among those Harpers and Thorntons who bore a wilder
repute than did old Caleb, and as he talked with them
he was stressing the note of resentment that an unknown
man from the hated state of Virginia should presume
to occupy so responsible a position when others of
their own blood and native-born were being overlooked.
One afternoon the girl and her lover
sat together in the room where she had nursed him
as the western ridges turned to ashy lilac against
a sky where the sun was setting in a fanfare of delicate
That evening hush that early summer
knows, between the day’s full-throated orchestration
and the night song of whippoorwills, held the world
in a bated stillness, and the walnut tree stood as
unstirring as some age-crowned priest with arms outstretched
in evening prayer.
Hand in hand the two sat in the open
window. They had been talking of those little
things that are such great things to lovers, but over
them a silence had fallen through which their hearts
talked on without sound.
Slowly the sunset grew brilliant then
the foregrounds gave up their detail in a soft veiling
of purple dusk, and the tree between the house and
the road became a dark ghost-shape, etched in the unmoving
majesty of spread and stature.
“Hit hain’t jest a tree,”
whispered the girl with an awe-touched voice, “hit’s
human but hit’s bigger an’
wiser an’ stronger then a human body.”
The man nodded his head for so it
seemed to him, a woodsman to whom trees in their general
sense were common things. In this great growth
he felt a quality and a presence. Its moods were
as varied as those of life itself as it
stood triumphing over decades of vicissitude, blight,
“I wonder ef hit knows,”
said the girl, abruptly, “who hit war thet shot
The man shook his head and smiled.
“Mebby hit don’t jedgmatically
know,” he made answer, seeking as he
had often sought before to divert her thoughts from
that question and its secret answer: “But
so long es hit stands guard over us, I reckon
no enemy won’t skeercely succeed.”