"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 observed, smiling:
"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 half whisper:
"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 information luxuriously.
"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 perennial charm.
"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 of that?"
Stoddard shoved the letter from the Eastern mining man back in its pigeon-hole.
"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 treat ye?"
"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 gone wrong."
"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 courteously always.
"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 thinking intently.
"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 object to."
"Better be careful!" laughed Stoddard. "We'll make you vice-president of the company."
"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 little children.
"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.
"You-all asked me to let ye go through and find that nickel ore, and ye brung it out in a pasteboard box; but this here is what it was in on the day your Uncle Pros fetched hit here, and I thought maybe you'd take a interest in having the handkercher that your fortune come down the mountains in."
"Yes, indeed, Aunt Mavity," said Johnnie, taking the bandanna into her own hands.
"Pap, he's gone," the poor woman went on tremulously, "an' the evil what he done--or wanted to do--is a thing that I reckon you can afford to forget. You're a mighty happy woman, Johnnie Consadine; the Lord knows you deserve to be."
She stood looking after the girl as she went out into the twilit street. Johnnie was dressed as she chose now, not as she must, and her clothing showed itself to be of the best. Anything that might be had in Wautaga was within her means; and the tall, graceful figure passing so quietly down the street would never have been taken for other than a member of what we are learning to call the "leisure class." When the shadows at the end of the block swallowed her up, Mavity turned, wiping her eyes, and addressed herself to her tasks.
"I reckon Lou would 'a' been just like that if she'd 'a' lived," she said to Mandy Meacham, with the tender fatuity of mothers. "Johnnie seems like a daughter to me--an' I know in my soul no daughter could be kinder. Look at her makin' me keep every cent Pap had in the bank, when Laurelly could have claimed it all and kep' it."
"Yes, an' addin' somethin' to it," put in Mandy. "I do love 'em both--Johnnie an' Deanie. Ef I ever was so fortunate as to get a man and be wedded and have chaps o' my own, I know mighty well and good I couldn't love any one of 'em any better than I do Deanie. An' yet Johnnie's quare. I always will say that Johnnie Consadine is quare. What in the nation does she want to go chasin' off to Yurrup for, when she's got everything that heart could desire or mind think of right here in Cottonville?"
That same question was being put even more searchingly to Johnnie by somebody else at the instant when Mandy enunciated it. She had found Gray waiting for her at the gate of her home.
"Let's walk here a little while before we go in," he suggested. "I went up to the house and found you were out. The air is delightful, and I've got something I want to say to you."
He had put his arm under hers, and they strolled together down the long walk that led to the front of the lawn. The evening air was pure and keen, tingling with the breath of the wakening season.
"Sweetheart," Gray broke out suddenly, "I've been thinking day and night since we last talked together about this year abroad that you're planning. I certainly don't want to put my preferences before yours. I only want to be very sure that I know what your real preferences are," and he turned and searched her face with a pair of ardent eyes.
"I think I ought to go," the girl said in a very low voice, her head drooped, her own eyes bent toward the path at her feet.
"Why?" whispered her lover.
"I--oh, Gray--you know. If we should ever be married--well, then," in answer to a swift, impatient exclamation, "when we are married, if you should show that you were ashamed of me--I think it would kill me. No, don't say there's not any danger. You might have plenty of reason. And I--I want to be safe, Gray--safe, if I can."
Gray regarded the beautiful, anxious face long and thoughtfully. Yes, of course it was possible for her to feel that way. Assurance was so deep and perfect in his own heart, that he had not reflected what it might lack in hers.
"Dear girl," he said, pausing and making her look at him, "how little you do know of me, after all! Do I care so much for what people say? Aren't you always having to reprove me because I so persistently like what I like, without reference to the opinions of the world? Besides, you're a beauty," with tender brusqueness, "and a charmer that steals the hearts of men. If you don't know all this, it isn't from lack of telling. Moreover, I can keep on informing you. A year of European travel could not make you any more beautiful, Johnnie--or sweeter. You may not believe me, but there's little the 'European capitals' could add to your native bearing--you must have learned that simple dignity from these mountains of yours. Of course, if you wanted to go for pleasure--" His head a little on one side, he regarded her with a tender, half-quizzical smile, hoping he had sounded the note that would bring him swift surrender.
"It isn't altogether for myself--there are the others," Johnnie told him, lifting honest eyes to his in the dim moonlight. "They're all I had in the world, Gray, till you came into my life, and I must keep my own. I belong to a people who never give up anything they love."
Stoddard dropped an arm about his beloved, and turned her that she might face the windows of the house behind them, bending to set his cheek against hers and direct her gaze.
"Look there," he whispered, laughingly.
She looked and saw her mother, clad in such wear as Laurella's taste could select and Laurella's beauty make effective. The slight, dark little woman was coming in from the dining room with her children all about her, a noble group.
"Your mother is much more the fine lady than you'll ever be, Johnnie Stoddard," Gray said, giving her the name that always brought the blood to the girl's cheek and made her dumb before him. "You know your Uncle Pros and I are warmly attached to each other.
"What is it you'd be waiting for, girl? Why, Johnnie, a man has just so long to live on this earth, and the years in which he has loved are the only years that count--would you be throwing one of these away? A year--twelve months--three hundred and sixty-five days--cast to the void. You reckless creature!"
He cupped his hands about her beautiful, fair face and lifted it, studying it.
"Johnnie--Johnnie--Johnnie Stoddard; the one woman out of all the world for me," he murmured, his deep voice dropping to a wooing cadence. "I couldn't love you better--I shall never love you less. Don't let us foolishly throw away a year out of the days which will be vouchsafed us together. Don't do it, darling--it's folly."
Hard-pressed, Johnnie made only a sort of inarticulate response.
"Come, love, sit a moment with me, here," pleaded Gray, indicating a small bench hidden among the evergreens and shrubs at the end of the path. "Sit down, and let's reason this thing out."
"Reasoning with you," began Johnnie, helplessly, "isn't--it isn't reasonable!"
"It is," he told her, in that deep, masterful tone which, like a true woman, she both loved and dreaded. "It's the height of reasonableness. Why, dear, the great primal reason of all things speaks through me. And I won't let you throw away a year of our love. Johnnie, it isn't as though we'd been neighbours, and grown up side by side. I came from the ends of the earth to find you, darling--and I knew my own as soon as I saw you."
He put out his arms and gathered her into a close embrace.
For a space they rested so, murmuring question and reply, checked or answered by swift, sweet kisses.
"The first time I ever saw you, love...."
"Oh, in thoze dusty old shoes and a sunbonnet! Could you love me then, Gray?"
"The same as at this moment, sweetheart. Shoes and sunbonnets--I'm ashamed of you now, Johnnie, in earnest. What do such things matter?"
"And that morning on the mountain, when we got the moccasin flowers," the girl's voice took up the theme. "I--it was sweet to be with you--and bitter, too. I could not dream then that you were for me. And afterward--the long, black, dreadful time when you seemed so utterly lost to me--"
At the mention of those months, Gray stopped her words with a kiss.
"Mine," he whispered with his lips against hers, "Out of all the world--mine."