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 to know."
"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 material matters.
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, curling hair.
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 at another.
"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 you?"
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 long ago."
"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 afterward."
"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 to look."
"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 and laughed.
"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 little gal."
"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 gentleman."
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 this-a-way?"
"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 pettish exclamation.
"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 him dubiously.
"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.