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 took sudden?"
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. Stoddard."
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. He was--"
"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 sentences.
"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 meditation.
"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 without him."
"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 look 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. Stoddard."
"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 remember it."
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 the funeral."
"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 the grave."
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 husband's.
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 for that."
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.