The fruitless search was vigorously prosecuted. On Saturday the Hardwick mill ran short-handed while nearly half its male employees made some effort to solve the mystery. Parties combed again and again the nearer mountains. Sunday all the mill operatives were free; and then groups of women and children added themselves to the men; dinners were taken along, lending a grotesque suggestion of picnicking to the work, a suggestion contradicted by the anxious faces, the strained timbre of the voices that called from group to group. But night brought the amateur searchers straggling home with nothing to tell. It should have been significant to any one who knew the mountain people, that information concerning Gray Stoddard within a week of his disappearance, was noticeably lacking. Nobody would admit that his had been a familiar figure on those roads. At the utmost they had "seed him a good deal a while ago, but he'd sorter quit riding up this-a-way of late." But on no road could there be found man, woman, or child who had seen Gray Stoddard riding Friday morning on his roan horse. The whole outlying district seemed to be in a conspiracy of silence.
In Watauga and in Cottonville itself, clues were found by the police, followed up and proved worthless. All Gray's Eastern connections were immediately communicated with by telegraph, in the forlorn hope of finding some internal clue. The business men in charge of his large Eastern interests answered promptly that nothing from recent correspondence with him pointed to any intention on his part of making a journey or otherwise changing his ordinary way of living. They added urgent admonitions to Mr. MacPherson to have locked up in the Company's safe various important papers which they had sent, at Stoddard's request, for signature, and which they supposed from the date, must be lying with his other mail. A boyhood friend telegraphed his intention of coming down from Massachusetts and joining the searchers. Stoddard had no near relatives. A grand-aunt, living in Boston, telegraphed to Mr. Hardwick to see that money be spent freely.
Meantime there was reason for Johnnie Consadine, shut in the little sister's sick room day and night, to hear nothing of these matters. Lissy had been allowed to help wait upon the injured child only on promise that nothing exciting should be mentioned. Both boys had instantly begged to join a searching party, Milo insisting that he could work all night and search all day, and that nobody should complain that he neglected his job. Pony, being refused, had run away; Milo the rulable followed to get him to return; and by Sunday night Mavity was feeding both boys from the back door and keeping them out of sight of Pap's vengeance. Considering that Johnnie had trouble enough, she cautioned everybody on the place to say nothing of these matters to the girl. Mandy, a feeble, unsound creature at best, was more severely injured than had been thought. She was confined to her bed for days. Pap went about somewhat like a whipped dog, spoke little on any subject, and tolerated no mention of the topic of the day in Cottonville; his face kept the boarders quiet at table and in the house, anyhow. Shade Buckheath never entered the place after Deanie was carried in from the hastily summoned carriage Thursday night.
The doctors told them that if Deanie survived the shock and its violent reaction, she had a fair chance of recovery. They found at once that she was not internally injured; the blood that had been seen came only from a cut lip. But the child's left arm was broken, the small body was dreadfully bruised, and the terror had left a profound mental disturbance. Nothing but quiet and careful nursing offered any good hope; while there was the menace that she would never be strong again, and might not live to womanhood.
At first she lay with half-closed, glazed eyes, barely breathing, a ghastly sight. Then, when she roused a bit, she wanted, not Lissy, not even Johnnie; she called for her mother.
When her child was brought home to her, dying as they all thought, Laurella had rallied her forces and got up from the pallet on which she lay to tend on the little thing; but she broke down in the course of a few hours, and seemed about to add another patient to Johnnie's cares.
Yet when the paroxysms of terror shook the emaciated frame, and the others attempted to reassure Deanie by words, it was her mother who called for a bit of gay calico, for scissors and needle and thread, and began dressing a doll in the little sufferer's sight. Laurella had carried unspoiled the faculty for play, up with her through the years.
"Let her be," the doctor counselled Johnnie, in reply to anxious inquiries. "Don't you see she's getting the child's attention? The baby notices. An ounce of happiness is worth a pound of any medicine I could bring."
And so, when Laurella could no longer sit up, they brought another cot for her, and she lay all day babbling childish nonsense, and playing dolls within hand-reach of the sick-bed; while Johnnie with Lissy's help, tended on them both.
"You've got two babies now, you big, old, solemn Johnnie," Laurella said, with a ghost of her sparkling smile. "Deanie and me is just of one age, and that's a fact."
If Pap wanted to see his young wife--and thirst for a sight of her was a continual craving with him; she was the light of the old sinner's eyes--he had to go in and look on the child he had injured. This kept him away pretty effectually after that first fiery scene, when Laurella had flown at him like a fierce little vixen and told him that she never wanted to see his face again, that she rued the day she married him, and intended to leave him as soon as she could put foot to the ground.
In the gray dawn of Monday morning, when Johnnie was downstairs eating her bit of early breakfast, Pap shambled in to make Laurella's fire. Having got the hickory wood to blazing, he sat humped and shame-faced by the bedside a while, whispering to his wife and holding her hand, a sight for the student of man to marvel at. He had brought a paper of coarse, cheap candy for Deanie, but the child was asleep. The offering was quite as acceptable to Laurella, and she nibbled a stick as she listened to him.
The bald head with its little fringe of grizzled curls, bent close to the dark, slant-browed, lustrous-eyed, mutinous countenance; Pap whispered hoarsely for some time, Laurella replying at first in a sort of languid tolerance, but presently with little ejaculations of wonder and dismay. A step on the stair which he took to be Johnnie's put Himes to instant flight.
"I've got to go honey," he breathed huskily. "Cain't you say you forgive me before I leave? I know I ain't fitten fer the likes of you; but when I come back from this here raid I'm a-goin' to take some money out of the bank and git you whatever you want. Look-a-here; see what I've done," and he showed a little book in his hand, and what he had written in it.
"Oh--I forgive you, if that's any account to you," returned Laurella with kindly contempt. "I never noticed that forgiving things undid the harm any; but--yes--oh, of course I forgive you. Go along; I'm tired now. Don't bother me any more, Gid; I want to sleep."
The old man thrust the treasured bankbook under Laurella's pillow, and hurried away. Downstairs in the dining room Johnnie was eating her breakfast.
"Johnnie," said Mavity Bence, keeping behind the girl's chair as she served the meal to her at the end of the long table, "I ain't never done you a meanness yet, have I? And you know I've got all the good will in the world toward you--now don't you?"
"Why, of course, Aunt Mavity," returned Johnnie wonderingly, trying to get sight of the older woman's face.
Mrs. Bence took a plate and hurried out for more biscuits. She came back with some resolution plainly renewed in her mind.
"Johnnie," she began once more, "there's something I've got to tell you. Your Uncle Pros has got away from 'em up at the hospital, and to the hills, and--and--I have obliged to tell you."
"Yes, I know," returned Johnnie passively. "They sent me word last night. I'm sorry, but I can't do anything about it. Maybe he won't come to any harm out that way. I can't imagine Uncle Pros hurting anybody. Perhaps it will do him good."
"Hit wasn't about your Uncle Pros that I was meaning. At least not about his gettin' away from the hospital," amended Mavity. "It was about the day he got hurt here. I--I always aimed to tell you. I know I ort to have done it. I was always a-goin' to, and then--Pap--he--"
She broke off and stood silent so long that Johnnie turned and looked at her.
"Surely you aren't afraid of me, Aunt Mavity," she said finally.
"No," said Mavity Bence in a low voice, "but I'm scared of--the others."
The girl stared at her curiously.
"Johnnie," burst out the woman for the third time, "yo' Uncle Pros found his silver mine! Oh, yes, he did; and Pap's got his pieces of ore upstairs in a bandanner; and him and Shade Buckheath aims to git it away from you-all and--oh, I don't know what!"
There fell a long silence. At last Johnnie's voice broke it, asking very low:
"Did they--how was Uncle Pros hurt?"
"Neither of 'em touched him," Mavity hastened to assure her. "He heard 'em name it how they'd get the mine from him--or thought he did--and he come out and talked loud, and grabbed for the bandanner, and he missed it and fell down the steps. He wasn't crazy when he come to the house. He was jest plumb wore out, and his head was hurt. He called it yo' silver mine. He said he had to put the bandanner in yo' lap and tell you hit was for you."
Johnny got suddenly to her feet.
"Thank you, Aunt Mavity," she said kindly. "This is what's been troubling you, is it? Don't worry any more, I'll see about this, somehow. I must go back to Mother now."
Laurella had said to Pap Himes that she wanted to sleep, and indeed her eyes, were closed when Johnnie entered the room; but beneath the shadow of the sweeping lashes burned such spots of crimson that her nurse was alarmed.
"What was Pap Himes saying to you to get you so excited?" she asked anxiously.
"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."
"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 automobile."
"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 "talked about."
"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 the Unakas?"
"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 a scream.
"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 --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.